CHRISTIAN HILLEBRANDT, CATTLE BARON:
JEFFERSON COUNTY'S PIONEER RANCHER
By W. T. Block
Reprinted from TEXAS GULF HISTORICAL AND BIOGRAPHICAL RECORD, VII
(November, 1971), 38-41;
Beaumont ENTERPRISE, Feb. 5, 1984.
Sources: Principally the primary archival Hillebrandt documents in the Jefferson County
Archives, as follows: Mexican land grant in Deed Records; Petition, L. Hillebrandt vs.
Espar Hillebrandt, Dec 4, 1858, District Court Minutes; Settlement, C. and U. Hillebrandt
heirs, June 21, 1860, recorded Book 50, pp. 254-259, Personal Property Records; and
Inventory and Will, July 3, 1859, District Court Minutes and Probate Records.
The historians of the Texas cattle baronies or the popular writers of
pulp Western fiction have most often turned to the Jesse Chisholm trail to Kansas or the
Charlie Goodnight trail to Wyoming in search of source material to kindle their reader's
imaginations. Somehow, it has most often been the mesquite tree counties of the
trans-Pecos region which have most often triggered the writings about the range wars and
Texas cattle brands, the chuck wagon and the dogies, or similar scenes that have been
captured on a thousand cowboy films of Western Americana. The tales of old Chris
Hillebrandt are surely not as intriguing as those of the gun fighters, but they do
disclose a story of cattle empire built out of raw wilderness.
And also much less famed were the longhorn realms of the Upper Texas
Coast, where cattle names such as James Taylor White, C. T. Cade, William McFaddin, and
Christian Hillebrandt were household words more than a century ago. Long before Chisholm
first rode over the famed cattle trail which still bears his name, the pioneer cattlemen
of the Texas coast, including 'Shanghai' Pierce, swam the increase of their herds across
the Neches River at Beaumont while traveling the unsung "Opelousas Trail" to the
New Orleans market.
When J. T. White, the first Anglo-American to make the trek, settled at
Turtle Bayou in 1818, the trail had already been in use for forty years. In 1779, only one
year after a trade ban between Spanish Texas and Spanish Louisiana was lifted, Francisco
Garcia drove the first herd of 2,000 Spanish longhorns from San Antonio to New Orleans.
Even earlier, there had been some illicit trading in cattle stolen by the Indians from
Spain's East Texas missions and driven overland to the Acadian French regions of
The story of Christian Hillibrandt is another version of the legendary
Horatio Alger folk hero who, starved by the economic strangulation and bondage of the
landless peasants of Europe, came to America and forged an empire out of wilderness in his
quest for personal gain.
A native of Denmark, Hillebrandt was born in 1793, but was already
living in the vicinity of Abbeville, La., by 1820. His beginnings in Louisiana was
evidently quite modest, but soon received quite a boost when he met and married Eurasie
Blanchette, a French Acadian, at St. Martinsville, La., in 1821. Mrs. Hillebrandt's father
had left her a $5,000 legacy, mostly in a small cattle herd. Of the six children who were
born of that marriage and reached adulthood, the first, Levi, was born in Abbeville in
1822, whereas the last child, Robert, was born on the Hillebrandt Ranch at present-day
LaBelle (between Port Arthur and Fannett) in 1838.
After a decade in Louisiana, Hillebrandt used the remainder of his
wife's inheritance to buy cattle, and in 1830, he drove them into Mexican Texas,
"squatting" on the long, navigable bayou in Jefferson County which still bears
his name. He soon learned that land grants of up to "one league and one labor"
(4,428 acres) were available in Nacogdoches for a modest fee.
Even before filing his claim, Hillebrandt lived alone while
constructing a liveable log cabin between 1830-1832, the year that his second son
Christian Espar, Jr. was born in Abbeville. Of three other children not previously
mentioned, Caroline, the oldest daughter, was also born in Abbeville, and the youngest
daughter, Alzinette, and another son, Lastie, were both born in Texas.
In 1832, Hillebrandt moved his family and furnishings, barging them
over a water route that subsequently would be used by many other Louisiana immigrants to
Texas who were settling in the Taylor's Bayou region of Jefferson County. From Sulphur,
La., Hillebrandt "poled" his barge down Black Bayou to its mouth near Sabine
Lake. Then they skirted the lake shore to the mouth of Taylor's Bayou, and then navigated
the latter to its juncture with Hillebrandt Bayou.
After the drudgery of dragging measurement chains along the boundaries
of the 7-square-mile land grant, Hillebrandt then filed a Spanish-language petition in the
Mexican land office in Nacogdoches, Texas, on August 3, 1835. Two days later, he was
awarded the land patent of one league in Lorenzo de Zavala's colony, "located on the
banks of the rivers Den, Taylor's, and Hillebrandt and including the house of the said
It is quickly discernible that the rancher's gun sights were leveled
far above the territorial confines of his league of land. By 1839, he was well on his way
to acquiring the first large cattle fortune in Jefferson County, that is, by the standards
of that day. In that year, he was taxed for 21,000 acres of land (almost a quintupling of
his real estate holdings in only four years' time), one slave, 36 horses, and 775 heads of
cattle, making him the largest rancher and land owner on the county's tax rolls. Only four
other county residents had herds numbering between 500 and 600 cattle as of that year.
It is doubtful if any rancher of that period would have admitted to the
tax assessor the full extent of his herd because he would have to pay taxes on the basis
of that admission. Often a cattleman could only estimate the extent of his herd since
occasionally he withstood substantial losses to weather; to disease, particularly, charbon
or anthrax; animal predators, and rustlers. Also, the wild Spanish cattle (which covered
all of south Jefferson County in early days) on his ranch would not be counted. These
cattle intermingled with domestic herds, and belonged to the first rancher who could put a
brand on them. An early writer observed that pioneer families killed only the wild cattle
for domestic consumption, leaving the domestic herds for breeding, upgrading of stock, and
for sale to buyers.
By 1850, the old rancher's holdings had increased to eleven slaves, 70
horses, 100 milk cows and 2,000 range cattle. The writer believes that the cattleman had
greatly under-reported his livestock, because in the estate inventory of eight years
later, the heirs admitted to owning 9,000 cattle and 1,000 horses. Nevertheless, assuming
that the 1850 agricultural census is reasonably accurate, then two other cattlemen, Aaron
Ashworth and David Burrell, had acquired larger herds than Hillebrandt, their herds
numbering, respectively, 2,570 and 2,400 heads.
During the twenty years following 1838, Hillebrandt pooled his
marketable herd annually with those of J. T. White, Burrell, John McGaffey, and the
Ashworth brothers, the resulting trail herd sometimes numbering 5,000 heads as it snaked
its way along 300 miles of marshes, meadows, and wilderness and across some 30 bayous,
creeks, and rivers between East Texas and New Orleans. The round trip sometimes lasted two
or three months, and was fraught with danger for man and beast along every inch where
bandits, alligators, bears and panthers waited in ambush.
In 1856, a traveler, Frederick Olmsted, watched at Beaumont as
Hillebrandt swam his cattle across the Neches River and entered the wet lands beyond,
where some animals became stranded "hip deep" and had to be abandoned to die in
the soft mud. Olmsted described "old Dutch Chris," who was well over six feet in
height and 200 pounds in weight, as being a most impressive sight to behold, towering as
he did in the saddle and verbally lashing out his commands to his herdsmen.
During the 1850s, at an age when most men would be shortening their
footsteps, the old rancher was still purchasing land and cattle at a madman's pace. In
1857, at age 64, he bought 3,000 cattle and 100 horses, together worth $26,000; two
slaves, worth $1,000; and 1,500 acres on the north side of Beaumont, worth $3,000. He also
bought up a large number of vacant lots and other property in the townsite of Beaumont.
In 1857, Eurasie Hillebrandt died, leaving no will, and because of
inheritance and other family quarrels with his two older children over her estate, the old
rancher disinherited his oldest son Levi and his daughter, Caroline Brewer. In 1857, at
the time of their mother's death, Levi had moved to West Texas, perhaps as a result of a
quarrel with his father, and Caroline Brewer had eloped and moved to Sabine Pass. Whatever
the quarrels were, Hillebrandt cut them off without a cent, even though legally, he could
not cut them out of one-half of his wife's community estate, and left his second son,
Christian Espar, as the sole executor and major beneficiary of his will.
A year later, the father died as well, and a series of suits and
countersuits in the district court in Beaumont left the Hillebrandt estate in limbo for
two years. In their suit, Levi and Caroline alleged in their petition that their father
"was mentally incapable of making a will." Finally, all of the children reached
a family agreement out of court in June, 1860, which broke the will and settled the estate
share and share alike.
As of his death in 1858, the estate inventory verifies that
Hillebrandt's herds were the largest in Southeast Texas and ranged over Liberty,
Jefferson, and Orange Counties. Hillebrandt herds roamed both sides of the Neches River at
Port Neches. His 9,000 range cattle were worth $60,000, in addition to the 1,000 heads of
"horses, mares, and colts to a value of $20,000." The estate was probated in
excess of $85,000, but with the 30,000 acres of land and twenty slaves, it is obvious that
its real value far exceeded $100,000. Had Hillebrandt lived to 1860, it would have been
interesting to see how Hillebrandt might have ranked among Texas' wealthiest men.
In addition to such allegations as Hillebrandt's "such unsoundness
of mind to make a will," the inter-sibling animosity also charged the executor,
Christian Espar, Jr., with misappropriation of estate property. Eventually, all the
children inherited considerable real property, slaves and animal herds, which made them
among the wealthiest citizens of antebellum Jefferson County and for decades to come.
In 1848, Levi married Cassandra Patterson and moved to West Texas. In
1860 they and five children were living at Port Neches. However, they deserted Jefferson
County soon after and probably returned to their ranch in West Texas. Caroline married
William Brewer in 1850 and lived at Sabine Pass several years before moving to Port
Neches. This family also disappeared from Jefferson County after the Civil War. A son,
Elisha Brewer, occupied a "one-grave," fenced-in cemetery on Stanolind property,
north of Nederland, and many write-ups about him have appeared in newspapers.
Lastie Hillebrandt lost his first wife, Mary Ann Moseley, in childbirth
in Port Neches in 1860, and soon after, he was remarried to Sarah Taylor of Taylor's
Bayou. This family returned to Louisiana after the Civil War, where a grandson and
namesake, Lastie Hillebrandt, is still Calcasieu Parish clerk at Lake Charles. Espar
Hillebrand ranched and farmed on the old place until 1895 when he sold out his 5,000 acres
to rice farmers. He died there in 1905. Robert Hillebrandt married before the Civil War,
and he and his wife, along with his sister Alzinette, still unmarried, died during the
yellow fever epidemic at Beaumont in October, 1862. Today, almost no descendants of the
once powerful Hillebrandt clan are left in Jefferson County.
Today, whenever automobile drivers cross the bayou bridge west of Port
Acres, few persons realize who Chris Hillebrandt was or that they are crossing the vast
domain where his countless herds once grazed. Only the silent, weed-studded family
cemetery nearby remains today, perpetuating in cold stone the heritage that "old
Dutch Chris" Hillebrandt left. His labors helped carve for the current generations a
civilization, whereas he knew it only as raw and unfriendly wilderness. His was that
special brand of foresight, stamina, industry, and individual willpower from which empires
are fashioned, and which has enabled the state of Texas to remain always at the apex of
our nation's cattle production statistics.