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East Texas

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The East Texas region can be more precisely defined and is less heterogeneous than any other region of the state. The region is bounded to the east by the Sabine River and the states of Louisiana and Arkansas, on the north by the Red River and Oklahoma, and on the west by the Trinity River and I-45 from Houston to Dallas.

Geographically, the entire East Texas region is included within the Gulf Coastal Plain. Its topography is flat in the south and gently rolling in central and northern areas, but its distinguishing natural feature is its forest. The southern part of the region is known as the “Big Thicket,” a diverse ecology of pine forest, with sluggish bayous, swampy land, and few trails. Undergrowth was so dense that early travelers could only proceed on their hands and knees. Even the Indians entered the area only for hunting and fishing. After aggressive timbering in the nineteenth century, little remains of this distinctive ecology, just twelve scattered small pockets of the Big Thicket National Preserve, established in 1974.

The “Piney Woods” of the central zone of East Texas supports longleaf, shortleaf, and loblolly pines, along with hardwoods of oak, elm, hickory, and magnolia. Small pockets of natural grasslands within the forests attracted native and later immigrant farmers. The relatively narrow zone of the region’s northwest and northern edges features post oak, blackjack oak, and elm along streams and grasslands. The northwest corner around Dallas, part of the broad Blackland Prairie of Central Texas, is the prime farmland of Texas, historically supporting large cotton, wheat, and corn production.

From before 1600 to 1840, East Texas was occupied by tribes of the Caddo Confederacy, including the Hasinai, Nazoni, Nacogdoche, Anadarko, Neches, Ais, and Adaes. The Caddo were settled agriculturalists who built ceremonial and funerary mounds (LC14) and semi-permanent beehive-shaped houses. In the early nineteenth century, tribes from eastern and midwestern states migrated into East Texas as American expansion drove them from their hereditary lands. Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Shawnee, Delaware, and Kickapoo peoples settled among the Caddo until the expulsion-or-extermination policies of the Republic of Texas under second president Mirabeau B. Lamar forced them into Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). No Indians remained in the East Texas region after the mid-1840s.

Spanish exploration in the region from the early sixteenth century had no lasting impact until they established a mission (LC13) in 1690. Support of the distant outposts proved difficult, and the Spanish returned to Mexico in 1693. The route charted by De León into East Texas and back to Mexico, which also relied on Indian trails, became the course of El Camino Real (King’s Highway), today’s TX 21, the most important land route into Texas for centuries. The boundary between Texas and Louisiana was long disputed and became a haven for the lawless until settled by the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819.

After Mexican independence in 1821, the Texas region combined into Coahuila y Texas in 1824. Mexico continued the Spanish program of empresario land grants, with parts of southern East Texas going to empresarios David G. Burnet, Joseph Vehlein, and Lorenzo de Zavala. Yet many unofficial immigrants filtered into the areas along El Camino Real, especially around Nacogdoches, which the Spanish had designated as a pueblo in 1779. The northernmost part of East Texas was not organized under the empresario system. Anglo-American settlers began filtering over the Red River in the early 1800s, another border zone of ambiguous control. The area only connected with settlements farther south after the removal of the Indians of East Texas in the 1840s.

Although remote from the center of revolutionary activity, settlers in the east supported the Texas Revolution, and from 1836 immigration to Texas increased exponentially. The population expanded from about 35,000 in 1836 to 70,000 in 1840 and to 604,000 (one-third of whom were slaves) by 1860. Most of these newcomers settled in East Texas and came from Upper South states. With the Mexican restriction against slavery lifted by independence in 1836, slave-owning Lower South natives spread into the river valleys and fertile Blackland Prairie.

Of the thirty-three counties in the region, five (Angelina, Collin, Grayson, Fannin, Lamar) voted against secession on February 23, 1861, but East Texas contributed heavily to the Confederate cause, and nearly 70,000 Texas soldiers were sent (with about 20,000 casualties). No military engagements took place within this part of the state. Reconstruction in Texas was a period of intense social, economic, and political change and turmoil. Freedom for the former slaves altered the labor market, and while some stayed and became tenant farmers, others moved to the towns and cities or left the state. Economic production, stifled by war shortages and the coastal blockade, was slow to recover, gradually improving with the cattle drives of the late 1860s and early 1870s and the rapid expansion of the rail network. Lawlessness and violence were so extreme in East Texas that a provision was considered at the 1868 Constitutional Convention to declare the region unreconstructed. Loss of their former economic and political status drove many of the former elite into secret societies against freed slaves and carpetbaggers, with members of the Ku Klux Klan arriving in 1868 from Tennessee to spread terror.

Along with measures to curb lawlessness, offer homestead land grants, and promote public education, the new Texas legislature provided stimulus for railroad growth. The Houston and Texas Central (H&TC) Railroad was the first line to build through East Texas, from Houston through Corsicana and Dallas (1872) to the Red River, to make the first national connection. Dallas businessmen offered 142 acres and cash to entice the H&TC to route through town instead of bypassing it. The Houston and Great Northern Railroad reached Palestine in 1872, joining the International Railroad there to connect eastward to Longview. The Texas and Pacific Railway extended from Texarkana and Shreveport to Marshall, and then to Dallas in 1873. It completed the southern transcontinental route in 1881 at Sierra Blanca by meeting the Southern Pacific, building from San Diego. From the north came the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railway (MKT, or “Katy”), branching out of Dallas into northern East Texas.

The railroads played a different role in the growth of East Texas than they did in western parts of the state. Many towns in the east existed before the lines were built, which then served to connect them to wider markets. Some towns, such as Palestine, expanded greatly with railroad company headquarters, service yards, and warehouses (division points). Others, such as Jefferson, stagnated as the railroad bypassed them. In western regions of the state, the railroad was the primary generator of settlement.

Lumbering was an early industry in East Texas. Logs were formed into rafts and floated down the Neches, Trinity, and Sabine rivers to sawmills on the Gulf Coast. Small mills provided lumber for local needs. As railroads penetrated the region after the Civil War, portable lumber mills and company towns emerged at railheads. Many operators practiced “cut-out-and-get-out.” When an area was logged out, tracks and towns moved to the next cutting zone. By the end of the nineteenth century, when over one billion board feet were being cut and milled each year, the great forests were clear-cut, and the region was left a stubble of stumps. Some of the early lumbermen began replanting, primarily shortleaf and loblolly pines because of their faster growth than the high-quality longleaf.

Today, many older houses stand due to their longleaf construction, including rough framing and fine trim. Conservation and reclamation programs of the Texas Forestry Association, formed in 1914, and the National Recovery Administration of the 1930s, along with reforestation work by the Civilian Conservation Corps, further rebuilt what remained the cash crop of the region. What is experienced today in a drive through the woods, even the national forests, is not virgin timber, but third- or fourth-generation forest that bears little resemblance to the original ecology. Today annual growth exceeds harvesting. Four national forests and seventeen state parks are found in the region.

After months of unsuccessful drilling and questionable deals to finance operations, independent wildcatter Columbus M. “Dad” Joiner struck oil in Rusk County on October 6, 1930, revealing a field that covered parts of five counties. The East Texas Oil Field, mostly exploited by independent operators rather than large companies, was an instant boom: 12 wells per day were being drilled by late 1931 with over 100 million barrels (55 gallons per barrel) produced that year alone and twice as much in 1932. The uncontrolled production caused a slump in oil prices, and Governor Ross S. Sterling ordered the operators to stop drilling, sending the Texas Rangers and the Texas National Guard to enforce his command. Further regulations stabilized the field and established the regulatory authority of the Texas Railroad Commission over the industry. With a historic production of over 9 billion barrels of oil, the East Texas Oil Field is the largest in the continental United States.

The Caddoan culture left the earliest permanent structures, earthen mounds built for religious and ceremonial use. While their timber houses were substantial, all vanished as groups resettled from time to time. Anglo-American high-style architecture appeared in East Texas in 1838, when Augustus Phelps arrived in San Augustine to build several exquisite Greek Revival houses (LC51, LC54). Little was built during the Civil War and Reconstruction, but the advance of railroads into East Texas in the mid-1870s stimulated rapid growth. Commercial buildings and houses designed in popular national styles of the day were constructed with materials and ideas newly available by the rail network. Dozens of houses from the mail-order catalogs of Knoxville architect George F. Barber (LC12) are found throughout East Texas, illustrating the availability of money, materials, and skilled craftsmen needed for such elaborate work.

Federally funded projects for county courthouses and federal buildings, along with New Deal work and social programs, eased the region through the Great Depression, but East Texas received fewer of the military training facilities that supported local economies in other parts of the state.

But like other areas of the state and nation, towns and cities of East Texas experienced suburban sprawl and inner-city decay in the 1950s and 1960s, along with suburbs, retail strip centers, and highway construction that disfigured much of the landscape. Starting in the 1980s, the historic preservation movement gained traction, bringing attention to the wealth of historic structures in these towns and focusing resources on their preservation.

While this introduction describes the background for many of the small-to-medium-sized towns of East Texas, the metropolis of Dallas has a story of its own, partially linked to its hinterland but strongly separate as it expanded to national prominence.

Writing Credits

Gerald Moorhead et al.

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