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Mexican-American Sharecropping in the Early Twentieth Century

Osborn tenant house
New road construction in Bastrop triggered archeological inquiry into the Osborn tenant house, which stood squarely in the planned roadway. During their research, archeologists found not only artifacts but a rich trove of memories of life on a cotton farm, shared by former residents.
map of Bastrop
Map of Bastrop showing site of Osborn tenant house, which was torn down to make way for construction of Lovers Lane. (Click to enlarge map.)

Click images to enlarge  

 

 

 

Colorado River
The Colorado River winds to the west of the Osborn farm site. Concrete bridges today make for easier crossing than the skiffs and ferries of earlier times.

 

 

 

 

 

cotton boll
A cotton boll, ripe for picking. Cotton has been grown in Texas since the 1740s, brought to the region by Spanish missionaries. Photo by Mary G. Ramos, courtesy Texas Almanac.

 

 

 

 

 

log cabin
This single pen log cabin housed African-American slaves during the 1850s and 1860s and was later used by Mexican-American tenant farmers after the Osborn family purchased the property. Over the years, the cabin and other early farm structures deteriorated and were ultimately demolished in 1989. Photograph, circa 1936, by Fannie Ratchford, Hornaday Collection, Texas State Archives.

 

 

 

 

archeologists excavating
Archeologists from the Texas Department of Transportation screen dirt excavated from the farmhouse and yard area.

 

 

 

 

isometric view of Osborn tenant farm
Using field records, photos, and the recollections of family members, researchers reconstructed this isometric view of the board-and-batten Osborn tenant house as it might have appeared when first constructed in the early 1900s. Board-and-batten construction was a popular technique of the mid-nineteenth to early twentieth centuries (Click to enlarge.)

At first sight, the small farm near Bastrop seemed insignificant. Based on what remained of the dilapidated structures, they hardly merited a second look. But as the site was investigated, it became clear that the story of this seemingly unimportant farm was worth telling. This exhibit looks at the farm as representative of a critical juncture in the state's economic history, as it was gradually transformed from a property worked by African-American slaves to a venture supported through tenant farming by Mexican-American families.

Originally part of a league granted to empresario Stephen F. Austin, the T. C. Osborn farm lies near the site of the Old San Antonio Road, pathway of explorers, traders, and travelers. Texas Lieutenant Governor and U.S. Congressman George Washington Jones lived there in a stately two-story frame house from the 1850s to the turn of the century. Bastrop historians note that the acclaimed orator periodically delivered speeches from the upper balcony.

But this story does not concern the more-celebrated players in Texas history but instead focuses on a lesser known segment of the populace—the laborers who worked the cotton fields and farmed the fertile Colorado River bottomland.

Here we look at the farm as it was gradually transformed from a property worked by African-American slaves to a venture supported through tenant farming by Mexican-American families. Specifically, we focus on a small board-and-batten house that in 1987 sat squarely in the middle of a planned roadway on the south end of the town of Bastrop. In advance of the construction, archeologist John Clark of the Texas Department of Transportation investigated the house site and gathered information on the farm.

Although the house itself was near collapse and, by most standards, a relatively recent archeological site, Clark believed it important to recover as much archeological information as possible. Based on his preliminary research, he realized that this could be the first study of a Mexican-American tenant farm. Clark and his team documented the structure and excavated 32 five-by-five foot units within the yard area. After the excavations were finished, the remains of the old farmhouse were torn down and a new road was laid.

In most cases, an archeological report is produced soon after the field investigations are complete. In this case, because of lack of time and money, the recovered data was set aside for 13 years. In 2000, TxDOT contracted the Center for Archaeological Research (CAR) at The University of Texas at San Antonio to close-out the project. Their work involved revisiting the site, interviewing former residents, analyzing the artifacts, and interpreting the recovered data, including that recovered by archeologist and historians from the Texas Archeological Research Laboratory. The TARL team had previously documented the earliest farm structures. Using all of these findings, Dr. Mary S. Black developed a five-day bilingual curriculum, "Living on a Cotton Farm," for grade school and middle school students.

As researchers learned, the farm's history spanned more than 100 years and involved six families: Castleman, Jones, Osborn, González, Martínez, and García. The early development of the farm was owed in large part to a number of African-American slaves who worked for Castleman and Jones. Unfortunately, the names of the slave families were not recorded in U.S. census records or other available documents. The third owner, T. C. Osborn, farmed the property with sharecroppers, including the González, Martínez, and García families.

The farm was established between 1840 and 1855 by Andrew Ewing Castleman, who bought land from the estate of Stephen F. Austin. A Tennessee native, Castleman operated the farm with the help of eight slaves who lived in log cabins behind his expansive two-story house. Between 1855 and 1906, the next owner, attorney George W. Jones and his family, worked the property with six slaves. Politics and public life continually called Jones, however. In addition to serving as Bastrop District Attorney, Jones unsuccessfully ran for the Texas House of Representatives and Senate, and served a brief stint as Lieutenant Governor under James Throckmorton. He was elected to two terms in the United States Congress in 1878 and 1880.

Thomas C. Osborn acquired the Jones farm in 1906 after a career as cowboy and rancher. Inclined toward business rather than farming, Osborn directed his attention to the town of Bastrop, where he and his family lived and where he owned a butcher shop and later a saloon. To run the farm, he brought in tenant sharecroppers.

Over time, the various tenant families lived in the structures dating to the Castleman/Jones era as well as in the small board-and-batten house (shown in the top picture) built by Osborn in the northwest corner of the farm. One of the first to occupy it was Livorio González, who with his wife, Rosario Dominguez González, and three children, lived in the small frame house until 1922.

In 1932, the board-and-batten house was occupied by David García, who left work as a miner in the nearby town of Phelan to return to his long-held dream of farming. The family worked at the farm for ten years, raising four children there. Mrs. García's grandfather, Macedonio Ríos, was also a farmer who played a significant advocacy role in community affairs. In 1911, Ríos and others, acting as "trustees of the Mexican community, west of the Colorado River," purchased a parcel of land to be used as a graveyard, church, and school. García's oldest daughter, Emma García Rockwell, offered researchers a poignant recollection of her childhood at the Osborn Farm, where she and her siblings grew up (see section following).

The Pete Martínez family worked for T.C. Osborn for nearly 40 years, living first in one of the small log houses formerly occupied by slaves and ultimately in the two-story G. W. Jones house in the northeast section of the farm. Interviews with Pete Martínez, Jr., who was born and raised on the farm, provide a compelling look into the economics of tenant farming.

Between 1906 and 1954, the Osborn tenants annually cultivated approximately 100 acres of the 327-acre farm in cotton, using the remainder for grazing and homesteads. During that time there was no electricity on the farm and no running water. The land remained in the Osborn family until 1985 when it was sold to Terry Bray. Prior to removing the remaining historic structures, which had seriously deteriorated by then, Bray contracted with TARL to document them and explore their history.

The following section takes a look at the world of the tenant farmer, as reflected in the small board-and-batten tenant farmer's house and in the memories of the families who lived there.

 

 

 

workers picking cotton
Workers stooped over cotton plants in the fields were a familiar Fall site across much of Texas, before machines took over the task in the mid-twentieth century. Photo of Bexar County workers courtesy of the Insititute for Texan Cultures, University of Texas at San Antonio. (Click to enlarge photograph.)

 

 

 

map of southern end of Bastrop
Map of southern end of Bastrop circa 1920 showing Osborn farm and locations of structures. (1) Osborn tenant house (built ca. 1906; (2) George W. Jones house, log buildings, and frame tenant house; (4) barn and corral. Tracks for the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Railway were laid through the Osborn property in the late 1800s. The farm encompassed 327 acres of fertile bottomland south of the town of Bastrop, just east of the juncture of Gills Branch Creek and the Colorado River. (Click to enlarge.)
George Washington Jones house
The George Washington Jones house, built sometime prior to 1850, later was home to the Martínez family who sharecropped the Osborn farm. The structure was documented by TARL researchers in 1989 before it was removed from the property. Photograph, circa 1936, by Fannie Ratchford, Hornaday Collection, Texas State Archives.
project area
Project area and excavation units dug by Texas Highway Department archeologists at the Osborn tenant house site. (Click to enlarge.)

 

 

 

house corner
House corner, exposed during excavation, provided information on construction techniques.