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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

How 19th Century Geographers
Saw Texas

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Thanks to the seemingly endless syndication of “Dallas” episodes, just about everyone around the world has heard of the Lone Star State (not to mention J.R. Ewing) -- but to most Americans in the years immediately after the Civil War, Texas was merely one of the nation’s then 37 states.

For instance, while school children in the Midwest probably got as good or better an education in the early 1870s than many youngsters of that era, their geography textbook devoted only 97 words to distant Texas.

At least the authors of “Number One, Eclectic Series, Primary Geography,” an 86-page grade school text published by Van Antwerp, Bragg and Co. in Cincinnati only five years after the end of the Civil War, understood the importance of studying geography. As the authors noted in their preface, “Its practical value, as well as disciplinary force, when intelligently and systematically pursued, cannot be questioned.”

Indeed, geography is humankind’s map, literally and figuratively. The urge to discover what a map does not depict, or see for one’s self what it does purport to show, arguably began with the first crude dirt or animal hide-drawings of landmarks and continues to this day.

In the 1870 geography primer, Texas is covered only briefly beginning on page 53 in the section devoted to the South Central states. Other than noting that it was the largest state in the union, the authors had little to say about Texas except pointing out that agriculture “is the chief occupation of the inhabitants.” Rather than wasting a few additional lines of lead, the authors noted that “The products [of Texas] are the same as those of Louisiana.” (Checking under the entry for that state, students found those commodities to be sugar, cotton and rice.)

The word “cattle” is not mentioned in the short Texas entry, but the book does have an engraving showing cowboys “branding cattle in Texas.” The wild-looking cattle shown are longhorns, and though Texas had hundreds of thousands of those critters back then, what the authors focused on was that the state abounded “in panthers, bears, antelopes, and other wild animals. Large herds of wild horses roam over the prairies, and alligators infest the rivers.”

The map of Texas accompanying the text is notable for what it doesn’t include. Most striking, the western half of the state is empty. Prepared by co-author A. von Steinwehr, the drawing shows nothing of the western half of Texas other than the region’s significant rivers, a high tableland in the Panhandle called “The Great Plains” and a distant mountain range ominously labeled the “Apache Mts.” inside a reddish-orange outline of its borders with Indian Territory (Oklahoma), New Mexico and Mexico.

The western-most town indicated on the map is Fredericksburg, the German community that today is considered part of Central Texas, not West Texas. On Steinwehr’s rendering, absolutely nothing lies beyond Fredericksburg but vast, open land represented by white space. Not even El Paso.

The authors evidently believed the best way for children to learn about their nation was to study a map. Clearly intending to impart knowledge in the style of Socrates, the authors posed a series of questions along with each map. To find the answers, a pupil had to consult the map, incomplete as it was.

“What three states border on the Gulf of Mexico?” the book asks. “Which is the largest of these states? What country is southwest of Texas?...What river separates Texas from Mexico?...What is the capital of Texas?...What city lies on an island near Galveston Bay?” In all, the authors pose 33 questions.

Left unmentioned in the book was that Comanche Indians held sway over the vacant western half of Texas.

But one Indian tribe – the Mescalero Apaches -- did figure in the only geologic feature shown west of the Pecos, the Apache Mountains. The mountains the map labels as the Apaches are still technically known by that name, but most folks refer to them by their separate sub-ranges.

Consisting of three free-standing remnants of a great fossil reef dating back around 250 million years, the Apaches also include the Glass Mountains in Brewster County and the Guadalupe Mountains in northern Culberson County.

As little as Steinwehr’s cartography revealed of Texas at the time, it could be that it had an impact not provable today. Maybe some Ohio school boy studied the Texas map in that long-ago textbook, correctly answered the map questions posed by the authors, let his imagination wander as he took in the engraving showing cowboys branding longhorns and made up his mind to head westward and see for himself what lay in that far away white space. Perhaps he further decided to take his chances with the Comanches and Apaches, acquired land somewhere far west of Fredericksburg, acquired cattle, raised a family and added a place name still found on modern Texas maps.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" - September 3, 2015 Column

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