Opinions vary as to the parameters of the Big Thicket in Southeast Texas. Early Spanish explorers believed this vast wilderness of yellow pine trees five and six feet in diameter towering over dense growth of ferns, cactus, orchids, and carnivorous plants spread from the Old San Antonio Road all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
For generations before the arrival of the Spanish, mound-building Caddo Indians from the north and the cannibalistic Atakapas from the Gulf Coast roamed the thicket hunting for deer, bear, panthers, and wolves. Alabama and Coushatta Indians at the end of the eighteenth century claimed the thicket as their own until the arrival in the 1830s of white settlers who scattered through the forest using yellow pine to build log cabins and living off the land as hunters and subsistence farmers.
The Big Thicket always offered hiding places for fugitives. It confounded newcomers with its miles of canebrakes growing beside twisting creek and river banks, thick fern undergrowth, towering pines shading six-foot palmetto trees, beech trees, and cypress swamps—a perfect hideout for many of the early settlers who came to Texas to escape bankruptcy, criminal charges, and a myriad of other problems.
When the Confederate government began conscription in 1862, men in the area who did not want to get in the fight hid in the thicket and became known as Jayhawkers. Although they were southern in origin, the Jayhawkers did not own slaves. They were followers of Governor Sam Houston who adamantly opposed secession and even resigned his governorship rather than “pull out of the Union.”
Believing the war was a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight,” the Jayhawkers also believed if slavery continued, businessmen would eventually buy slaves to perform their labor, leaving poor whites without jobs.
Instead of becoming guerrilla fighters like the Jayhawkers in Kansas, the Big Thicket Jayhawkers hid in the almost impenetrable thicket, the wilderness they knew so intimately.
The Jayhawkers found plenty of game and fish. They moved their camps regularly, stationed guards to watch for Confederate soldiers on the prowl, and collected honey from many hives in an area that became known as Honey Island. They arranged a table between two big pear trees where they placed wild game and honey for family members to pick up
for sale in Beaumont. The families returned with items the Jayhawkers lacked such as tobacco and coffee.
At another camp near a pond, family members left in the fork of a tree ground corn wrapped in doeskin to keep it dry. The pond still bears the name on county maps of Doeskin Pond.
The Confederate government did not ignore the Jayhawkers. Believing their presence in the thicket caused unrest among the soldiers, troops regularly searched for the draft dodgers, but without much luck until in the spring of 1865. Confederate Captain Charlie Bullock captured several Jayhawkers and jailed them in a wooden shack near Woodville. According to an old tale, a local sympathizer supplied whiskey for the guards and the fiddle music began. With the guards completely drunk, the prisoners quickly pried a plank from the floor of the shack and walked away.
Another story claims shortly after the escape Confederate Captain James Kaiser received a large sum of money to get the Jayhawkers out of the thicket. He set fire to the canebrake, burned over 3,000 acres of the Big Thicket forest, and caught very few of the men. Some of the tales claim the canebrake never grew back.
Until the 1880s, area residents hunted small game and bear and raised enough hogs and cattle for their survival. The arrival of the lumber industry meant cutting virgin pine forests and floating logs down the Sabine and Neches rivers to
shingle mills in Orange and Beaumont. When the railroads came, lumbering increased dramatically, stripping the forests bare and reducing the thicket from 3.5 million to 300,000 acres. Replantings were cut too soon, the wildlife disappeared, and by the late 1930s during the Great Depression it looked as if the lumber business had seen its day.
In an effort to save the timber industry, the federal government bought parcels of land from the companies. At the end of the Depression, the government still owned pieces of land scattered about the thicket.
Conservation measures began such as careful replantings and utilizing what had been considered waste material—tops and branches of trees converted to newsprint. After years of untiring effort of individuals and a few elected officials, the lumbering business became a responsible industry working alongside conservationists.
In 1974 Congress established on its land scattered about Southeast Texas the 85,000-acre Big Thicket National Preserve divided into twelve protected units. Today, the Big Thicket remains one of the most biologically diverse regions in the world. Here you will find over 100 species of trees and shrubs, over 1,000 species of flowering plants and ferns, twenty wild orchids, 300 species of migratory and nesting birds, all four groups of North American venomous snakes, and four types of carnivorous plants.
For today’s visitors the Bragg Road, better known as the Ghost Road of Hardin County offers a scary car trip on a dark night. Nature trails of all lengths abound. Canoe trips, birding trails, bicycling routes and horseback rides offer a wide variety of ways to enjoy the wonderland known as Texas’ Big Thicket.