Water is essential to maintaining life, and, throughout time, people have thrived wherever there is an abundant source of clean water. One of those sources is natural springs, and springs fed by underground reservoirs once played a major role in Texas. Since at least 30,000 years ago, in the geographical area now called a state, indigenous peoples made use of natural springs, their location connected by a circuit of paths. “When European explorers entered the picture,” wrote geologist Gunnar Brune in 1975, “Indians guided them over well-worn trails from one spring to another.”
That introduction would signal an eventual demise of almost all of the 281 major and historical springs recorded by Brune. It wasn’t due to the most recent inhabitants’ lack of understanding of the importance of springs. As Brune wrote: “Many springs afforded important stops on stagecoach routes, power for mills, water for medicinal treatment, municipal water supplies, and recreational parks.” Rather, decline is attributable to land-use practices that over time reduced the pressure that drives natural springs upward — practices such as clearcutting, pasturing livestock, well drilling, and overpumping. In other words, the settlers compromised the land surrounding the water table that feeds a given spring.
Groundwater from those sources could still be pumped to the surface by various means. In Dallas, this was with case with Browder Springs, which initially produced about 300,000 gallons a day. Located in the vicinity of Old City Park, the springs were central to the city’s early waterworks and provided clean drinking water until underground reserves ran low, with no additional recharge. The springs disappeared altogether in 1930s when nearby Mill Creek became a sewer. Before becoming a municipal resource, Browder Springs had been a buffalo trace and was used as a campsite by the Cherokee, but indigenous peoples ceased using the springs (and other springs in the area) when settlement began in the 1840s. Buffalo, a traditional staple of the Amerindians, still freely roamed the prairie east and west of Dallas.
Buffalo caused stress among early settlers, as did the lingering presence of Indians, wrote W.S. Adair in a historical article for the Dallas Morning News in 1921. Early Dallasites were troubled by “the vagabonds of the tribes,” who made themselves a nuisance by going around to the settlers’ cabins “begging for food and clothing.” The buffalo, on the other hand, went around to cultivated fields and helped themselves. According to Adair, when Al Hewlett, a slave of John Hewlett, “planted a patch of corn for his master near where Carrollton stands,” buffalo ate it all up “just before the corn reached the roasting-ear stage.”
Clearly times were complicated, and each successive year held political challenge in the Republic of Texas — Indian policy, annexation to the United States, secession, joining the Confederacy, reentry to the Union. The Republic’s first and third president, Sam Houston, contested many of the prevailing views, but certain policies, such as Indian expulsion and buffalo extermination, were overwhelmingly favored by new inhabitants, as was a policy of prolonged slavery by those who owned prosperous cotton operations. There’s a third economy that also benefited: the freighting business. In 1873 Dallas was the freighting hub for both cotton and buffalo hides. (Not just the hub, according to a city website of itemized accomplishments, but “the world center.”)
“The Great Slaughter” of the southern buffalo herd began in the early 1870s, and by 1878, hunters like J. Wright Mooar, who operated in the Panhandle, had almost wiped out the species. It’s reported that he killed 20,000 buffalo in his lifetime, including a rare white one; he is also credited with starting the buffalo-hide industry when he sent skins to his brother in New York City. Railroads played a role in the expedited killing. Not only did rail offer a more efficient means of shipping skins greater distances, it also meant more buffalo could be shot at a time. Railroads offered passengers the opportunity to shoot buffalo from the open windows of slow-moving trains, leaving the bodies to rot in the landscape. The latter activity also kept buffalo off the tracks.
A few remaining buffalo in Texas were held in city zoos, and small herds were cared for by a couple of dedicated ranchers. In 1997, Caprock Canyons State Park, northeast of Lubbock, began a program to help preserve a herd of 100 buffalo that in current day has grown to 150 head. The goal is to return the park to a time when buffalo thrived and roamed freely.
Extermination of the buffalo served multiple economic purposes. Park interpreter Le’Ann Pigg says, “Ranchers wanted the land for more grazing room for cattle, and hunters discovered buffalo hides made good machinery belts, which were in high demand during the Industrial Revolution.” It was a fateful alignment with other implications, too. “It wasn’t explicitly stated,” she says, “but there was an attitude of ‘to get rid of the bison, is to get rid of the Indians.’ ”
In the 1870s, a thriving trade in buffalo hides in Dallas was made possible by the establishment of the Texas and Pacific Railroad. The history of how T&P Railroad arrived in the city involves Browder Springs and a political sleight of hand by John W. Lane, a former mayor and printer for the Dallas Herald. In 1871, the State Legislature was debating a bill granting the right of way to the T&P Railroad. Lane, then a representative, slipped in a rider that stipulated that the railroad must cross another rail line, the Houston and Texas Central, “within 1 mile of Browder’s Springs.”
The bill passed before anyone caught on that “Browder’s Springs” was located only a mile from the Dallas County Courthouse. When it was discovered, there was outrage, but the city prevailed by sluicing the deal with bond money. The T&P Railroad was established in 1873, and the city soon became the shipping “world center” for cotton and buffalo hides.
There’s another natural spring in Dallas that sits at the crossroads of native culture, resource management, and state politics: Big Spring. Its history, it could be said, exemplifies the better angels of our nature. The water source, unlike the other springs that settlers were aware of and used to depletion, still flows. Big Spring (also known as Pemberton Spring and White Rock Spring) is located in close proximity to the Texas Horse Park, where the 3,105 artifacts were found during a recent cultural resources survey.
According to archaeologist Tim Dalbey, who has studied the Big Spring area for years, the site played a significant role in the life of indigenous peoples. For one, he says, the spring would have provided a non-riverine site that could supply water year round, unlike the river, which could dry up in summer. Other bonuses include fewer insects than the lower-elevation river bottoms, and it’s possible they lived “among a Post oak forest that would have been somewhat more open, and on the edge of several different plant communities.” Unfortunately, says Dalbey, “90 percent of the site was destroyed, so we may never know much about why they were there.”
The Big Spring site also played a role in brokering a peace treaty with Indian tribes in 1843, one of only a handful to be ratified by the Republic of Texas Senate. The treaty was signed near the Trinity River during Sam Houston’s second term, and his party bivouacked at Big Spring before heading to a nearby spring to wait for the arrival of representatives of the Delaware, Chickasaw, Waco, Tawakani, Keechi, Caddo, Anadahkah, Ionie, Biloxi, and Cherokee tribes.
The Republic of Texas Treaty with Indigenous Nations, also called the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, reads in part: “[F]or sometime past, hostilities have existed and war been carried on between the white and red men of Texas, to the great injury of both parties; and whereas, a longer continuance of the same would lead to no beneficial result, but increase the evils which have so long unhappily rested upon both races; … Both parties agree and declare, that they will forever live in peace and always meet as friends and brothers. Also, that the war which may have heretofore existed between them, shall cease and never be renewed.”
Houston’s eternal optimism in regard to race relations — he had lived with the Cherokee off and on since the age of 16 — would not win out. It would be his predecessor’s path — one that called for the total extinction of “the wild cannibals of the woods” — that would exert the greater and more enduring effect. Hostilities during this time were unquestionably about different peoples vying for territory, but underlying it all were profound differences in cultural ideas on how open space is occupied and resources should be shared.
Big Spring, one of the last artesian springs in Dallas, is, in the very least, a monument for meeting around clear water, as people have done at this spot for thousands of years, in the spirit of friendship. But to keep that premise intact means keeping the water of the spring flowing. Few believe the city — the official steward of the site — is up to the task.
[Editor’s note: for an explanation of the Trinity Project, go here.]