Pecos River Art

Rock Art Foundation White Shaman Preserve of the Witte Museum.

About 10,000 years ago, ancient peoples occupied rock shelters and deeply recessed caves tucked into canyons along the Pecos and Devils rivers. They left behind some of the most complex and diverse rock art sites in the world. Over 300 paintings, created between 3,000 and

Pecos River

4,000 years ago, sprawl across the limestone walls of these hidden rock shelters. Some of the multi-colored scenes spread more than 100 feet and depict characters twenty feet tall. The oldest images, known as Pecos River style, are the most common and often feature shaman rituals representing journeys to the spirit world. Some of the shamans are painted to look like they are ascending; others appear to be hovering with protective out-stretched arms. Panthers with great long tails leap across the limestone canvass and splay fierce claws among rabbit, snake, and crab-like shamans. In later work beginning about 500 B.C., fertility rituals, copulation, and birthing scenes are depicted.

Curly Tail Panther
Rock Art Foundation

Hundreds of petroglyphs (images carved, pecked, or cut into stone) have been discovered on gently sloping bedrock on private property in this area and are mostly geometric and abstract designs created about A.D. 1000. Work continues to remove sediment revealing older, more graceful techniques, including motifs of atlatls (spear throwers that pre-date the bow-and-arrow) as well as animal tracks and human footprints.

The artistic styles evolved slowly over time among these isolated people living in a small region near the Rio Grande. From 1600 to 1800 Spanish explorers and Plains Indians began to make forays into the region, bringing disease and warfare. Researchers know of the intrusion because of changes in the art, which depicts the novelty of domestic livestock and the impressions of a people who wore little clothing upon seeing hats, boots, weapons, and the armored horse. Although no missions were established in the Lower Pecos, structures appear similar to missions topped with a Christian cross. Then the destructive consequences of disease, warfare, and starvation brought by the outside invasion appear in scenes of soldiers, horsemen, and destroyed churches.

The introduction of the horse culture seems to explain the appearance of more recent art in lower canyon levels near water supplies and access to grazing areas away from the steep cliffs of earlier pictographs. The scenes depict hand-to-hand combat, horse theft, thunderbirds and sun symbols.

Since the 1920s researchers ranging across all the disciplines have been studying the art and the lifestyle of the ancient canyon-dwellers who for thousands of years did not cultivate crops, but sustained their livelihood by hunting and gathering. Although more than 250 sites in Texas are known for prehistoric pictographs, only the Lower Pecos Canyonlands exhibit a rock-art tradition of a single group of people over an extended period of time.

For centuries, the arid environment preserved the wall art as well as the grass beds, baskets, mats, string bags, and sandals made from fibers of native plants such as lechuguilla, sotol, and agave—priceless evidence of the culture of the prehistoric era. Modern treasure hunters began destroying and defacing the art, and it was not until the 1930s that archeological expeditions began collecting the materials primarily for display in museums. Serious research and efforts to protect the sites began in the late 1950s when Mexico and the United States made plans to construct the huge Amistad Dam at the confluence of the Devils River and the Rio Grande in the core of the Lower Pecos Canyonlands. When the dam was completed in 1969, its reservoir spread over 69,000 acres, covering much of the prehistoric treasures.

Witte Museum Exhibit

Study and preservation have continued, and today visitors enjoy guided tours to the Fate Bell Shelter conducted by the Seminole Canyon State Park & Historic Site. Every Saturday through May, San Antonio’s Witte Museum Rock Art Foundation leads White Shaman Tours. Or visit the Witte Museum’s second floor to see life-size exhibits of the Pecos River culture and more than 20,000 artifacts from the ancient sites.

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Breadline Banker

Part of the fun of writing a weekly Texas history blog is discovering a story that jumps up unexpectedly. While researching Panna Maria, the oldest permanent Polish settlement in the United States, I read an account claiming that an Irishman named John Twohig (love that name) in 1854 sold the original 238 acres for the town site to the Polish colonists “at an inflated price,” only the first of many unfortunate experiences to befall the struggling immigrants. I had to find out who the Irishman was that gouged the Poles.

In addition to an article on the Texas State Historical Association site, I found a story published by the University of Incarnate Word, and a piece printed in 1913 in the Invincible, A Magazine of History that disclosed a very different character from the fellow who gouged a bunch of impoverished Polish immigrants. John Twohig ran away from his Cork County Ireland home at fifteen and apprenticed on a British merchant ship sailing between New Orleans and Boston. Lured by the financial prospects of Texas, Twohig carried a stock of goods to San Antonio in 1830 and opened a mercantile business. He took part in the Siege of Bexar, the two-month-long fight in the fall of 1835 that resulted in Texans driving the Mexicans out of San Antonio. There is no record of him joining the forces in the Alamo before it fell in March 1836. However, in September 1842 when Twohig heard that the Mexican army was on its way to occupy the city for a second time that year, he invited the poor to take what they wanted from his store. Then he blew up the building to keep the Mexicans from getting the gunpowder and other supplies. Apparently in retaliation for the act, Twohig was captured with about fifty other San Antonians and marched to Perote Castle, the dreaded prison near Vera Cruz. In July 1843, Twohig and about a dozen prisoners dug a tunnel and escaped. One account says he walked through Vera Cruz to the docks disguised as a peddler and boarded a ship for New Orleans.

When Twohig returned to San Antonio in 1844, he reopened his mercantile business and began operating an extensive trade with Mexico. He purchased land on a crossing of the Rio Grande, which lay only142 miles from San Antonio. In 1850 he surveyed the land, laid out a new town, and named it Eagle Pass. Twohig was forty-seven in 1853 when he married Bettie

1841 Twohig House

1841 Twohig House

Calvert of Seguin and began enlarging his home on the San Antonio River. The couple built several guesthouses along the river and held lavish dinners for such notables as Sam Houston, Ulysses S. Grant, and their good friend Robert E. Lee. On February 18, 1861, as Texas prepared to secede from the Union, Lee had dinner with the Twohigs and wrote the following day thanking them for their hospitality and expressing regret that he had to leave under such sad circumstances.

A devout Catholic, Twohig was known for giving money to anyone in need, especially the Brothers of the Society of Mary who came from France to start a school. In addition to financial help, Twohig advised the Brothers to build their St. Mary’s Institute on the San Antonio River. The school developed into St. Mary’s University. He served as godfather for two or three generations of children, several of whom recalled receiving a gold piece every time they saw him. Pensioners knew that they could go to his bank at closing time every Saturday afternoon, and Twohig would always draw from his own pocket a gift of money. The Sisters of Charity built an orphanage in San Antonio and relied on Twohig for support. An eccentric jokester, he often “fined” his wealthy friends who would later receive a note from the orphanage thanking them for their gift. He became known as the “Breadline Banker” because on Saturdays the poor women of San Antonio gathered at his house to receive loaves of bread, which arrived by the barrel. Twohig’s sister Miss Kate had moved from a convent in New York to live with the couple. Bettie Twohig and Miss Kate passed out the loaves of bread, keeping track of how much bread they distributed by dropping beans or matches into a tumbler. After Bettie Twohig died, Miss Kate stayed with her brother, maintained his house, and continued distributing the bread.

By 1870 when Twohig had moved exclusively into banking, with connections all over the United States and London, he was ranked as one of the 100 wealthiest men in Texas. His real property was estimated at $90,000 and personal property estimated at an additional $50,000. At the time of his death in 1891, his estate was valued at half a million. He left his house to his sister Kate until her death and the remainder to the Catholic Church. Miss Kate continued after her brother’s death to give away the bread.

The Twohig house, which sat across the San Antonio River from his bank, deteriorated over the years. In 1941, the Witte Museum moved each stone of the Twohig house to its campus and carefully reconstructed it for use as staff offices and for special events.

Reconstructed Twohig House on Witte Museum Campus

Reconstructed Twohig House on Witte Museum Campus

Chasing down the story of John Twohig has proved to be an interesting rabbit trail. It’s time to get back to checking on those Polish immigrants.