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Tracing a Pioneer Community in the Texas Hill Country

Ruins of an early settler's cabin, prior to restoration by current landowners. Photo by Susan Dial.
Ruins of an early settler's cabin, prior to restoration by current landowners. Photo by Susan Dial.

The ruggedness and isolation of the countryside west of Austin did not deter settlers from establishing small farmsteads and communities in the hills during the 1860s and 1870s. Photo by Susan Dial.
The ruggedness and isolation of the countryside west of Austin did not deter settlers from establishing small farmsteads and communities in the hills during the 1860s and 1870s. Photo by Susan Dial.
An enterprising clerk and merchant, Ernst Hallman moved to the hills to raise sheep in the 1880s, despite multiple physical disabilities. Photo circa 1875, courtesy of the Travis County Bar Association and Senator Ralph Yarborough.
An enterprising clerk and merchant, Ernst Hallman moved to the hills to raise sheep in the 1880s, despite multiple physical disabilities. Photo circa 1875, courtesy of the Travis County Bar Association and Senator Ralph Yarborough.
"In small things forgotten…." An array of objects and mementos left behind in a turn of the century farmstead range from the mundane—an orange plastic ice token from a company operating in Austin in the 1880s—to the more poignant, a brass bicentennial badge marked with the dates 1776 and 1876.
"In small things forgotten…." An array of objects and mementos left behind in a turn of the century farmstead range from the mundane—an orange plastic ice token from a company operating in Austin in the 1880s—to the more poignant, a brass bicentennial badge marked with the dates 1776 and 1876.
Fertile terraces along creeks provided deep soil for growing crops on a small scale. The narrow valleys, bound by limestone bluffs and low hills, provided a measure of confinement for domestic animals such as hogs.
Fertile terraces along creeks provided deep soil for growing crops on a small scale. The narrow valleys, bound by limestone bluffs and low hills, provided a measure of confinement for domestic animals such as hogs.
 

The old log house had been well lived in by more than four generations of families, some of the first settlers to venture into the hills west of Austin. But after roughly 100 years of standing up to hard use and the elements, it had fallen into ruin, its roof caved in, walls sagging, and floor rotted out. It was a fairly common sight in the Texas Hill Country, where traces of our pioneer past—fences, stone walls, houses, and farmsteads—now go largely unnoticed and, eventually, fall to ruin, the victims of natural processes or, more commonly now, bulldozers and development.

But this particular house was to be spared, the landowners intrigued by local stories about its history and moved by a feeling of responsibility to preserve the heritage of their land. When they set out to restore it, they did not merely hire a carpenter but rather a team of specialists to uncover its history and rebuild it accordingly: archeologists from the University of Texas at Austin, an architect specializing in historic structures, even a landscape restorationist. It was through the efforts of this group that the Doeppenschmidt-Haas house was brought back to life, the story of a young boy raised in the house at the turn of the twentieth century was heard, and the traces of a small pioneer community in the hills west of Austin were drawn together.

The stories embodied in the now-abandoned farmsteads and structures are of a people whose everyday lives, by modern standards, are heroic. The study of these families and the loosely connected settlement along Barton Creek provides a record of a little-appreciated time in Texas history. At the turn of the twentieth century, sweeping changes occurred in Texas cities with the advent of electricity, communications systems, and better transportation. In many of the rural areas, however, time was frozen. Families grew and canned much of their own food, cooked in fireplaces and wood-burning stoves, and hauled water for drinking and laundry. Homes were lit by kerosene and Aladdin lamps. Children attended school periodically, depending on crop planting and harvest times, and went to poorly funded institutions referred to as the "mountain schools."

As a rule, life continued to revolve around the seasons and the land and the vagaries of nature. Modernization came relatively late to the hill country, and even then, changes were gradual. Well into the 1930s and 1940s, some families continued living what was, in essence, a pioneer existence.

Pieces of the Puzzle

Archeologists from UT Austin survey rocky hillslopes surrounding a historic site to determine its perimeters and to recover any artifacts that might help establish its age.
Archeologists from UT Austin survey rocky hillslopes surrounding a historic site to determine its perimeters and to recover any artifacts that might help establish its age.

When archeologists from TARL at UT Austin began to survey the area, the landowners had already identified several historic sites. There was the log house that once belonged to the Haas family and, several miles away, a picturesque stone building thought by some to have been a country store. Still more remote was a small cemetery, its few remaining markers toppled, the walls around the graves reduced, in some cases, to piles of rubble. There were other historic-era sites scattered across the property: remnants of stone foundations, a log crib, a hand-dug well, scatters of purpled glass and rusted metal. The task at hand was to gather and analyze evidence from each site, interview neighbors and other informants, and investigate early records to try to learn more about the families who once had lived there and who, for the most part, had vanished.

Bringing the pieces of the puzzle together depended heavily on deed and court records and recollections of area residents: When was the area first settled? Who were the settlers and why did they take on what must have been, at best, a hard-scrabble existence on the land? Were the families that lived on the sites related—or were the sites even in use at the same time? Other information was derived from the physical evidence itself—the building remains and artifacts left behind by the former occupants.

Settlement West of Austin

On a larger scale, the hilly area west of Austin appears to have been settled predominately in the latter quarter of the nineteenth century, when threats of Indian incursions had abated. Deed records indicated that although tracts of land were patented as early as the 1850s, most were left in a natural state and used as reliable sources of fence posts and firewood. Within the upper Barton Creek region, archeologists found that the earliest sites were situated close to a permanent water supply and fertile valley land. By the turn of the century, as machine-drilled wells and wire fencing became available, additional farmsteads were established in upland areas. This movement also indicated a change in livelihood from small-scale subsistence farming to larger stock-raising operations requiring upland grazing areas and more acreage for crops.

One way of understanding a cultural landscape is through its architectural elements: remnants of physical structures and fences retain the imprint of the builders and sometimes can reveal aspects of their origins. In the area west of Austin, early European American settlers left distinctive marks on the land. Their diverse cultural backgrounds are signaled in the fine examples of folk architecture, the varied complex of stone and log fences, the remains of upland farmsteads, and the mortuary traditions reflected in the small cemeteries. In the sections below, we look at several of the more interesting examples.



A winding wagon road once connected family farms in this small Barton Creek community in the hills west of Austin, circa 1870. Painting by Charles Shaw.
A winding wagon road once connected family farms in this small Barton Creek community in the hills west of Austin, circa 1870. Painting by Charles Shaw.

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Ruins of an early settler's cabin, prior to restoration by current landowners. Photo by Susan Dial.
Hillside cemetery—the final resting place for many of the early settlers.
Clear water gushes through the hollows and creek beds in the limestone hills, fed by underground springs and periodic rains.
Clear water gushes through the hollows and creek beds in the limestone hills, fed by underground springs and periodic rains.
TARL archeologists survey along a road in the project area. Left, Dr. Tom Hester, right, Paul Maslyck.
TARL archeologists survey along a road in the project area. Left, Dr. Tom Hester, right, Paul Maslyck.
A deep, hand-dug well, lined with cut limestone, provided water at an upland farmstead during the early 1900s. It is now the only surviving structure of that farm. Photo by Susan Dial.
A deep, hand-dug well, lined with cut limestone, provided water at an upland farmstead during the early 1900s. It is now the only surviving structure on that farm. Photo by Susan Dial.