THE BIG THICKET OF TEXAS

A Texas historical marker on FM 770, a few miles east of Saratoga in deep East Texas, credits Lancelot “Lance” Rosier with being one of the individuals responsible for the creation of the Big Thicket National Preserve, a sprawling wonderland of biodiversity so unique that UNESCO designated the region a Biosphere Reserve in 1981.

A self-taught naturalist, Lance Rosier was born and grew up in the heart of the Big Thicket. As a child he roamed the forest, grew familiar with every trail; he knew every baygall (shallow, stagnant water), and the name of every plant. An avid reader of botanical publications, he became the foremost authority on the flora of the Big Thicket.  Rosier served as a guide for Hal B. Parks and Victor L. Cory, botanists in the 1930s who authored the Biological Survey of the East Texas Big Thicket, the “Bible” of those wishing to preserve the area.

Lance Rosier, “Mr. Big Thicket”

Original Big Thicket covering much of Southeast Texas

The Big Thicket has always presented a challenge to those who wanted to exploit its riches and to men like Rosier who worked to preserve its unique character. As early as the 17th Century, when Texas was part of the Spanish Colonial Empire, the forest of ninety-eight-foot longleaf pine trees measuring up to six feet in diameter towered over dense growths of six-foot palmetto trees, beech trees, fern, cacti, orchids, and carnivorous plants. The padres who established Spanish missions in East Texas traveled a route that circled north of the 3.5 million-acre swath of Southeast Texas that sprawled from near Nacogdoches to near present Beaumont.

Long before the Spanish arrived, mound-building Caddo Indians and other tribes from along the Gulf coast used the thicket for hunting deer, bear, panthers, and wolves.  At the end of the 18th Century, Alabama and Coushatta Indians migrated into the region and settled in the thicket in the 1830s.

Called “the thicket” because of the dense plant growth and cypress swamps, the region offered ideal hiding places for emigrants coming to Texas to escape legal problems such as bankruptcy and criminal charges in the United States. During the Civil War, when the Confederate government began conscription in 1862, men who did not want to join the army, men who did not own slaves and saw no reason to fight for big plantation owners, hid out in the thicket. They survived on the abundance of fish, small game, and wild berries. They set up secret locales where their families brought them coffee and tobacco in exchange for honey, wild game, and fish the families sold in nearby Beaumont.

Lance Rosier grew up listening to the stories about the thicket and the timber barons who began clear-cutting the forests in the mid-1800s and turned the region into a lumber bonanza after the railroad arrived in the 1880s. By the time Spindletop blew in south of Beaumont in 1901, the thicket had been reduced to about 300,000 acres and the oil industry brought more frantic development into the area.

After serving in the army in World War I, Rosier returned to his homeland and worked as a timber cruiser (someone who measures a plot of forest to estimate the quality and quantity of timber in that stand) and he led Big Thicket tours for anyone seeking his expertise including scientists, photographers, students, scholars, and conservationists. Rosier also led politicians such as Texas Governor Price Daniel and Speaker of the U.S. House Sam Rayburn as they explored possibilities of making the Big Thicket a Texas state park.

A shy and retiring little man, Rosier is said to have lent a sense of spiritual zeal to his quest to save the thicket. He cataloged hundreds of species of new plants and discovered plants that had been considered extinct. Rosier worked with the original East Texas Big Thicket Association that began in 1927 hoping to save the land and waterways. When that project met political headwinds, he led a new movement that became the Big Thicket Association in the early 1960s.

Remaining units of the Big Thicket National Preserve

Lance Rosier died in 1970, four years before his dream came true. Congress passed a bill in 1974 to establish the first national preserves in this country––the 84,550-acre Big Thicket National Preserve and the Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida. The Big Thicket is a string of nine separate land units and several creek corridors. Today, the Lance Rosier Unit at 25,024 acres is the largest and most diversified preserve in the thicket. It encompasses the land where Rosier was born and roamed as a child.

Cypress Swamp, Rosier Preserve
Greg Lasley, Nature Photographer

Advertisements

Ladies Fought the Second Battle of the Alamo

The second battle of the Alamo began in the early 20th century as a disagreement between two powerful women over the proper way to preserve the Alamo, which had been allowed after the famous battle in 1836 and the slaughter of the men who fought there, to fall into an embarrassing state of neglect and disrepair.  Adina Emilia De Zavala,

Adina De Zavala

Adina De Zavala

granddaughter of Lorenzo de Zavala, the first Vice President of the Republic of Texas, was a schoolteacher, a prolific writer of Texas history, and an early advocate of restoration of the missions in San Antonio and other historic structures.  About 1889 she organized the “De Zavala Daughters,” dedicated to preserving Texas history, which soon became a chapter of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT).

Although the state of Texas purchased the main entrance known as the Alamo chapel from the Catholic Church in 1883, the state did nothing to preserve the structure.  The building north of the chapel, which De Zavala and her friends believed had served as the convent when the complex was a Spanish mission and was the long barracks where most of the fighting occurred during the battle, had been sold to a wholesale grocer who added a two-story building and altered the façade.  Adina De Zavala and her group secured an agreement from the grocer to have first option to purchase the long barracks, which they dreamed of restoring to its former appearance as a museum.

Hugo and Schmeltzer Grocery

Hugo and Schmeltzer Grocery

In 1903, when the De Zavala group heard that the long barracks might be sold to a hotel syndicate, Adina De Zavala sought the help of Clara Driscoll a nineteen-year-old heiress who had returned to San Antonio after several years studying in Europe.  She was so appalled at the condition of the Alamo that she wrote an article for the Daily Express calling the Alamo complex an “old ruin…. hemmed in on one side by a hideous barracks-like looking building, and on the other by two saloons.”  Clara Driscoll joined the De Zavala chapter of the DRT and went with Adina De Zavala to see the grocer who was asking $75,000 for the structure.  Clara Driscoll personally gave the owner $500 for a thirty-day option and the ladies set about raising the purchase price.  Despite a nationwide campaign and a legislative appropriation, which was vetoed by Governor S.W.T. Lanham as “not a justifiable expenditure of the taxpayers’ money,” Clara Driscoll eventually paid $65,000 to complete the purchase.  Over the governor’s objection, the state reimbursed Clara Driscoll and gave custody of the property to the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.

Clara Driscoll

Clara Driscoll

Then, cracks began to show in the bulwark of the organization as members divided over what should be done with the grocer’s building.  Adina De Zavala and her cohorts believed “a large part” of the original convent/long barracks played a significant role in the Battle of the Alamo and remained hidden under the grocer’s building, while Clara Driscoll and her camp believed the walls of the convent/long barracks overshadowed the Alamo chapel and should be replaced with a dignified park.

Painted in 1844 shows chapel and long barracks

Painted in 1844 shows chapel and long barracks

Members of the statewide DRT and citizens in San Antonio and Texas divided into De Zavalans and Driscollites, each faction determined to have its way.  The two groups within the DRT separated from each other and when Clara Driscoll was given custody of the vacant grocery in 1908, Adina De Zavala locked herself in the building for three days as newspaper reporters from around the country gathered to watch the spectacle.  By 1910 the Driscollites seemed to have won the war, but one more battle remained: Governor Oscar Colquitt, deciding that walls under the modern grocery building pre-dated the Battle at the Alamo, ordered restoration of the convent/barracks.  In January 1912 as the modern additions were removed, the governor personally watched the process that revealed arches and Spanish stone work, which confirmed the De Zavalans’ claim.  However, the following year, while the governor was out of state, the lieutenant governor permitted the roof and walls of the upper story to be removed.  Fifty-five years later, just in time for the 1968 opening of HemisFair, San Antonio’s world’s fair, the old building finally received a roof and opened as a museum.

Adina De Zavala continued for the rest of her life organizing groups that restored, marked and preserved historic sites.  When she died in 1955 at the age of ninety-three, her casket draped with the Texas flag was driven past the Alamo one last time.  She willed her estate to the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word for a girl’s vocational school and a boys town.

Clara Driscoll spent the remainder of her life devoted to historic preservation, state and national politics, civic and philanthropic endeavors. When she died in 1945 at the age of sixty-four, her body laid in state at the Alamo chapel.  She bequeathed the bulk of her estate to the Driscoll Foundation Children’s Hospital in Corpus Christi.

BIG THICKET–FOREST WONDERLAND AND CIVIL WAR HIDEOUT

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.

Pitcher plant

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.

Sundew

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

Bladderwort

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

Butterwort

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.