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Jefferson County, Texas
Its Geological, Historical and Agricultural Background

By W. T. Block

Part A: The Geological and Physical Description

Jefferson County, Texas is about as far to the southeast as one can travel in Texas without utilizing a boat. While the Neches River is one of its eastern boundaries, so is Lake Sabine and the six-mile-long Sabine Pass, about fourteen miles of shoreline of which separates Texas from Southwest Louisiana. At the Texas Consultation of San Felipe in November, 1835, the Municipality of Jefferson was created, which strangely enough, bore the exact geographic confines of what later became Orange County. In 1837, the original Jefferson County was created, which at its beginning contained about 1,700 square miles. With the separation of Orange County in 1852 and the southern half of Hardin County (everything between Pine Island Bayou and Village Creek) in 1858, the county's square mileage was reduced to about 945 square miles. About thirty miles of its southern boundary are the beaches of the Gulf of Mexico.

Geologically, the county is composed of alluvium, a part of the Houston Group, deposited during the Pliocene and early Pleistocene epochs. With no outcroppings of rock because of its relative "youth," Jefferson is one of 116 counties comprising the Gulf Prairie. More explicitly, perhaps a third of the county's acreage comprises the Beaumont Clay, a geologic formation extending from Orange to Corpus Christi, And its black clay "gumbo" soils is sometimes noted for trapping surface water and has proven to be excellent rice acreage. To the best of the writer's knowledge, no more than 100 or 150 square miles of the county have ever been heavily-forested. One such forest is the Gilbert Woods at Fannett, which may encompass an area about five by twelve miles in size, and the second is/was along the south bank of Pine Island Bayou which once was about the same size. Cypress trees and marsh mesquites once predominated along the shores of Lake Sabine and the coastal marshes. Except for the Gilbert Woods, the middle sector generally contained some sparse hardwoods, red and white oak, beech, ash and some nut-bearing varieties of timber in the Beaumont Clay. In the coniferous sectors, long and short leaf pines were predominant in the heavily-forested northern region.1

Jefferson County is also divided into three soil structures. The coastal rim contains marsh, salt grass terrain, often underlaid with black mud and sometimes overlaid with two feet of ocean sediments. The two long marsh ridges at Sabine Pass were by far the richest agricultural zone in the county before chemical fertilizers came into use. The middle sector, lying principally in the Beaumont Clay was excellently adapted to agriculture, yet was utilized almost solely for cattle-grazing prior to 1900. The northern or wooded Pine Island Bayou sector usually contains brown to gray sandy loams in abundance. Some areas, such as the sea coast, the Taylor-Hillebrandt, and Pine Island Bayou complexes have sometimes been subject to tidal overflow and river flooding, again with river and ocean sediments left on the land. A tidal wave from the hurricane of 1837 drove a three-masted ship inland and left it stranded seven miles from the beach. For three decades, it was scavaged for firewood and building materials by the residents of Sabine Pas. Sometimes the ocean sediments left by tidal waves have filled up coastal streams such as the former Greens and Redfish bayous.2

Part B: The Pre-Texas Revolutionary Periods.

The history of Jefferson County prior to 1836 can be quickly divided into two groups -- the pre-history or aboriginal period and the Spanish-Mexican period. The predominant, local Indian tribe was actually a loose confederation of about six tribes, known as the Attakapas. Before 1840, a corruption or Creole jargon for the word called it "Tuckepaw," which meant anywhere in Southeast Texas between the San Jacinto and Sabine Rivers, roughly equal to the old Atascosita District. The tribes included the Cocos and Apelusas on the Calcasieu and Mermentau Rivers of Southwest Louisiana; the Nacazils on the Sabine and Neches (mostly at Port Neches); and the Orcoquisa, Deadose and Bidais tribes on the Trinity River. For decades, it was thought that the tribes were of different linguistic stocks. However, following the compilation of the Attakapas vocabularies on the Calcasieu and Trinity Rivers more than a century ago by Dr. Albert Gatchet and Capt. Jean Berenger, it was discovered that the languages of the Orcoquisa and Deadose tribes "...differed but slightly from the dialect of Lake Charles,...(La.)." For a very detailed description and the accompanying footnotes, the interested reader should consult Ch. II, "The Aboriginal Inhabitants," of the author's published M. A. Thesis, A History of Jefferson County, Texas, From Wilderness to Recontruction (Nederland: 1976).

It is the writer's and others' opinions that the Attakapas tribes invaded Southeast Texas from Central Louisiana about 1600, displacing the much taller Karankawa warriors, who retreated farther westward. For the author, that opinion originated from the Galveston Daily News of December 27, 1896. Once source noted that the Karankawas were "tall, well-built,and muscular," whereas the Attakapans were described as possessing "bodies stout, stature short, and heads of large size between the shoulders..."3 In 1841, the first mention of the six huge Attakapas Indian burial mounds, each 60 feet wide, 15 or 20 feet tall, and 450 feet long, at "Grigsby's Plantation" (Port Neches) appeared in print for the first time. In 1896, Capt. Jack Caswell of Beaumont told of shoveling skeletons out of those mounds, "and the people that lived in them must have been seven feet tall," meaning, of course, the Karakawas.4

In all, three Spanish expeditions visited in extreme Southeast Texas, but only two ever reached Jefferson County's boundaries. In 1745, Capt. Joaquin de Orobio's soldiers visited the Orcoquisa village, near present-day Wallisville, where they observed French trinkets and firearms and discovered a French fur trader lived on the Neches River. In July, 1777, Capt. Antonio Gil y Barbo brought Spanish troops to the Indian town in Port Neches and discovered English incursions at Sabine Pass. In 1785, Don Jose de Evia came to Jefferson County while on a river surveying and mapping expedition, but he made no mention in his journal of the Indians of Port Neches. The writer believes they had already been wiped out during the giant hurricane of 1780.5

From 1824 on, no further mention of Indians in Jefferson County was ever made; nor did the early courthouse minutes beginning in 1837 mention them. Gilbert Stephenson walked across Jefferson County in 1824 without seeing another person. Another Spanish activity, however, was certainly to affect early agricultural settlement in Jefferson County. It was the abandonment by the Spanish of 40,000 heads of cattle at Goliad Presidio and 4,000 more at Mission San Juan de Ahumada near Wallisville on the Trinity River in 1773. By 1830, whenever the earliest "Tuckepaw"' settlers arrived, the increase of those herds were wandering all over Jefferson County, and into Louisiana, Hence, the first Anglo-American settlers quickly learned that all that was needed to begin a cattle ranch was to round up and brand the unclaimed Spanish cattle.6

Part C: Early Agriculture, 1830-1900

Farmers who crossed the Sabine River in 1840 were much more inclined to settle in a heavily-wooded county or march 200 miles farther into Stephen F. Austin's colony along the Brazos and Colorado rivers. The early writers about Texas around 1840 (namely, George W. Bonnell, Orceneth Fisher, Arthur Ikin, and Viktor Bracht) generally underated and criticized the "low quality" of Jefferson County's farm lands. Even William Kennedy, the British consul at Galveston, wrote that Jefferson County's soil was "....comparatively poor, and better adapted to grazing than tillage..."7 Hence, the new immigrant knew before arriving that he needed to cross Jefferson County and search farther westward for the fertile soils he needed for cotton production.

Hence, some settlers believed the county's soil structure was too poor for successful agriculture, and others found it easier to become cattlemen. The writer believes their was also a third reason - that Jefferson County attracted a class of "subsistence farmer," that lacked both slaves and industrious effort, and was content to live on the outer fringe of civilization, kill wild meat only for the table, and grow only modest amounts of sweet potatoes and corn, sufficient to get him through the year.

Despite 600 or more square miles of open rich prairie lands, Jefferson County grew only two bales of cotton in 1850; 84 bales in 1860; 78 bales in 1870, and 77 bales in 1880. In 1860, when only 84 bales were grown, a single Beaumonter, J. Biddle Langham, grew and ginned 49 of those bales with the help of only four slaves. By contrast, several heavily-wooded counties to the north had many large cotton plantations, Jasper County growing 3,792 bales in 1860; Sabine County, 2,127 bales; San Augustine County, 3,901 bales; Shelby County, 3,389 bales; and Harrison County, 20,006 bales.8

The four agricultural schedules of the decennial censuses beteen 1850 and 1880 proved that all crops could be grown successfully in Jefferson County, even if the county did not grow enough to feed itself. Having had a grandfather and a great grandfather who began farming in Port Neches in 1846, and having grown up there on his father's farm during the 1920's, the writer is no rank outsider with a yen to criticize. Others in the county knew as well that there was a general lack of industry and effort on the part of the area's 'farmers.' Judge C. S. Buckley, upon dismissing a grand jury at Beaumont in July, 1847, stated: "...Gentlemen of the Jury...believe me...there are other products of industry as important as raising sweet potatoes and other vocations as profitable as herding cattle....I respectfully advise you then, in the words of Sam Houston, to 'go home and plant corn.'"9

In 1882 Col. Ashley Spaight, former Confederate commander of Spaight's 21st Texas Regiment and Texas Commissioner of Insurance and Statistics, wrote that Jefferson County's farm industry, "as a regular business, is pursued by a very small percent of the population. It is carried on sufficiently to show...all garden crops can be grown profitably..." In June, 1892, a Beaumont article noted that "...there is very little truck farming in this county....Not enough corn is raised to supply home consumption..."11 By 1880, Beaumont had only a couple of immigrant produce farners nearby and purchased most of its garden produce from the Houston market. After the huge hurricane of September 8, 1900, when asked by a reporter concerning the havoc created in the Jefferson County cotton fields, a spokesman for the farmers responded: "...Why! Blessed if I know! We raise no cotton -- and mighty little corn! Too expensive -- too hard work! No Negroes in the rice fields. We raise a crop on which we make horses and mules do all the heavy work!"12

Part D: Jefferson County Agriculture After 1900

There was one cotton gin in Beaumont briefly during the 1850's, but no other one was built until 1906. There were three cotton gins briefly at Sabine Pass in 1870, but they processed only the 78 bales that were grown there during that year before going out of business. Even apple trees could be and were grown successfully at both Beaumont and Sabine Pass during Civil War days, and even as the writer writes this story in July, 1994, there is an apple orchard of a half-acre or more in size on Highway 365 (where it intersects Highway 69), loaded down with large fruit and less than a quarter mile from Central Mall.

Agriculture really arrived in Jefferson County in a big way for the first time when 1,500 acres of rice were grown in 1892. Rice farmers poured across the border to buy up the unused prairie lands for $3 an acre, that a year earlier were a drug on the market at $1 an acre. In late 1892, 29,000 acres were sold to those potential rice growers for the next year's crop. From 100 acres grown in the county in 1890, Jefferson County's rice acreage skyrocketed to 78,000 acres by 1908. Around 1900, people could readily see that a potential profit of $10,000 could be realized from only an 80 acre crop, and that without any outlay of hard labor except that performed by the mules. Often, a single year's profits paid for the land, bought seed, mules and machinery for next year's crop, and still left over a tidy sum to live on.

By 1900, four of Texas eight rice mills were built in Jefferson County, and in 1904 a fifth mill was built at Nederland. Between 1898 and 1906, four rice canal companies built 200 miles of main canals in the county, excluding the laterals. Port Arthur Rice and Irrigation Company, with its huge pumping plant near Nederland, built 25 miles of canals that flooded 13,000 acres. The McFaddin-Wiess-Kyle Canal Company, with its pumping plant near Dupont, built another 25 miles of canals that flooded 16,500 acres. The Beaumont Irrigation Company built 100 miles of main canals that flooded 32,000 acres. And the Treadaway or Neches Canal Company and the Taylors-Hillebrand complex supplied the remainder. The present-day Lower Neches Valley Authority's system of fresh water canals is built entirely on those old canal rights-of-way of 1900.

The rice market soon "went bust" from overproduction in 1906, and the Neches River south of Beaumont went salty after deep dredging, forcing the Port Arthur and McFaddin canal systems into bankruptcy. The other canal systems held their ground until the market returned. But a different breed of farmer had arrived in the county, and that farmer quickly experimented with other crops when one failed. For instance, the writer's father and uncle, Will and Martin Block of Port Neches, were forced out ot the rice business by the arrival of salt water in 1905. Having already learned the art of syrup making, each of them built sugar mills and began growing sugar cane. During the harvest season, their cooking vats were soon turning out 200 gallons daily of cane syrup, worth a dollar a gallon. At one time there were five sugar mills in Port Neches and Nederland, and Martin Block did not shut down his sugar mill until 1931.13

One might suppose that both sides of Highway 90 between Amelia and China would be filled with swaying rice stalks during the late 1920's. Instead, the writer recalls quite well when the north (railroad) side of the road for mile after mile was white with ripening cotton bolls, and the south side for mile after mile was covered with fig trees. Fig production and canning plants became an area farm panacea around 1920, with perhaps 5,000 acres of trees in the vicinities of Amelia, Cheek, Hamshire, and Winnie, and many of those growers went bankrupt from overproduction and arrival of the Great Depression. Cotton production in north and west Jefferson County also ended when the effects of that depression trickled on down in 1931-1933, and all the cotton gins moved away once more.

Since 1909, the rice experimental station at China had provided expert leadership and proved its worth to the area rice growers, utilizing its research toward blight and disease control and developing better varieties. For almost a century now, chemical fertilizers have greatly increased farm production, although the rice lands need to lie fallow every second year to rebuild soil fertility. As a result, Jefferson County rice growers have learned to intermix the planting of soy beans and the breeding and growing of beef cattle in their constant struggle to remain afloat amid agriculture's economic flood tides.

Endnotes

1Texas Almanac and State industrial Guide, 1972-1973 (Dallas: Belo, 1971), pp. 158, 293: Webb et al, The Handbook of Texas (Austin: 1952), II, 262-267, 393-394, 524-525; J L Clark, The Texas Gulf Coast: Its History and Development (New York: 1965), p. 67; Sellards, Adkins and Plummer, The University of Texas Bulletin No. 3232: The Geology of Texas, Stratigraphy (Austin: 1947), I, 780;

2Sellards et al, The Geology of Texas: Stratigraphy, I, 269-270.

3W. W. Newcomb, The Indians of Texas (Austin: 1961), p.317.

4"Indian Burial Mounds," (Houston) Telegraph and Texas Register, June 2, 1841; "Old Indian Burial Mounds," (Galveston) Daily News, Dec. 27, 1896; W. Kennedy, "The Geology of Jefferson County," American Geologist, XIII (April, 1894), p. 268; see also W. T. Block, "The Aboriginal Inhabitants," The History of Jefferson County, Texas from Wilderness to Reconstruction (Nederland: 1976), pp. 4-9; also W. T. Block, Sapphire City of The Neches: The History of Port Neches, Texas From Wilderness to Industrialization (Austin: 1987), pp. 1-7.

5H. E. Bolton, "Spanish Activities on The Lower Trinity River, 1746-1771," Southwestern Historical Quarterly, XVI (April, 1913), pp. 340-341; Fray J. A. Morfi, The History of Texas, 1673-1779 (2 vols.: Albuquerque, 1935), II, 427-428; Hackett (ed.), Pichardo's Treatise (4 vols: Austin, 1931), I, 386.

6Bolton, "The Spanish Abandonment and Reoccupation of East Texas, 1773-1779," Southwestern Historical Quarterly, IX (Oct. 1905), pp. 120-121.

7Wm. Kennedy, Texas: The Rise, Progress, and Prospects of The Republic of Texas (Fort Worth: 1925), 137.

8Manuscript Census Returns of 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880, Jefferson County, Texas, Scheds. IV, Products of Agriculture, Microfilm, Lamar Library; also Microfilm Reels #9, 29 for 1870, 1880, Texas State Library; also "Early Agriculture in Jefferson County," in W. T. Block, A History of Jefferson County, Texas, From Wilderness to Reconstruction (Nederland: 1976), pp. 66-75; W. T. Block, Cotton Bales, Keelboats, and Sternwheelers: A History of The Sabine River and Trinity River Cotton Trades (Nederland: 1978), p. 39.

9"Among The Cowboys of Jefferson County," (Houston) Telegraph and Texas Register, July 27, 1847.

10A. W. Spaight, The Resources, Soil, Climate of Texas (Galveston: 1882), p. 163; W. T. Block, "The Growth of The Jefferson County Rice Industry, 1849-1910," in Texas Gulf Historical and Biographical Record, XXXI (November, 1987), pp. 41-73.

11(Galveston) Daily News, June 25, 1892.

12"The Rice Crop," (Galveston) Daily News, New Century Edition, Jan. 1, 1901.

Copyright 1998-2018 by W. T. Block. All rights reserved.
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