Texas History: Stop! Leave that Texas artifact exactly where you found it
Snugly attired to fend off the sharp winter weather, we met at an elbow in Nuckols Crossing Road, not far from the official entrance to largely undeveloped Onion Creek Metropolitan Park.
We history buffs were looking for evidence of the past among these gently sloping woodlands above Onion Creek in Southeast Austin.
Brian Beattie, who discovered the nascent park decades ago while mountain biking, had already explored these trails more thoroughly than the rest of us. He has proved an excellent steward of the land’s history as well as a crackerjack guide.
Among the others, Steven Gonzales, director of the Camino Real de Los Tejas National Historic Trail Association, had visited the park before to see if a stray strand of that Spanish trail passed here hundreds of years ago, as it had in nearby McKinney Falls State Park. If that precise route can be documented, interpretive signs would let hikers know where the Spanish passed through, on their ways toward East Texas or the Rio Grande.
For their parts, Sergio Iruegas and Melinda Tate Iruegas of GTI Environmental are trained archaeologists who had worked with Gonzales on established parts of the old Spanish highway, especially Ranchería Grande, a large Native American village in Milam County.
Previous modern explorers of this area have included Kim McKnight and Sarah Marshall from Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department, Travis County Historical Commissioners Barry Hutcheson and Bob Ward, and that intrepid chronicler of Southeast Travis County, Lanny Ottosen. I will return to Ottosen’s detailed and trustworthy discoveries about the area in a future column.
This particular morning, we followed a trail along a fence line that had been adapted for utility lines. Among our first findings were square-headed nails in cedar fence posts, which indicated that they were hand-forged in the late 19th century. Also along the fence line were voluminous and aged grapevines, which Sergio explained were likely planted along this trail by Native Americans, just as they typically supplied their regular routes with planted pecan trees for future food and bois d’arcs for future weapons.
Not long after that, Beattie pointed out the spot where he had found a flint projectile point, which my archaeologist cousin, Victor Gibbs, later suggested might be identified as the Meserve type that goes back at least 8,000 years. During the hike, Melinda gave a more detailed account of the flint’s manufacture, but as a layman, I didn’t get it all. Brian had marked the spot so he could return it there.
The most charismatic evidence of the past examined during the early part of the hike, however, were some rather dramatic “swales.” These can be evidence of Native American foot trails as well the wagon wheels of Spanish, Anglo-American and African American travelers. Those who follow the evidence of swales call themselves “rut nuts.”
The ones I’d seen before were little more than linear indentations in the stone or soil surface of the ground. These “cuts” going down to Onion Creek — that, according to Beattie, are matched on the other side of the long, winding, fast-moving creek — looked more like sunken roads. Which, of course, makes sense, for if one is to get a heavy, ox-drawn wagon down a steep embankment to the flat limestone beds of a creek ford, you’d better have a deep, gentle path.
The next find was depressing. Upland, Beattie pointed out some Indian mounds that clearly had been vandalized. Seeing them for the first time, Sergio and Melinda examined them carefully and with professional calm. For my part, I could not choke back the outrage and disappointment that someone would do this.
“They knew just enough to know what they had found,” Sergio said, “but not enough to do the right thing.”
After following another planted Native American tree line, we gathered around the remains of a stone wall that was laid out in two manners. Could it have been part of a mill on a tributary creek? Whatever its original use, it clearly had been repaired somewhat recently with modern mortar. (That conclusion was the extent of my personal contributions to the expeditionary force.)
The real centerpiece of the Onion Creek Metropolitan Park historical remains is a woodland homestead that was occupied as late as the 1970s. To the untrained eye, the compound looks like ruined walls leading to more piles of rocks. There’s a deep cistern, which the city of Austin has tried to fence off and board up for safety reasons. Nevertheless, it had recently been torn open by people who probably thought they were being adventurous.
It was here that we followed stone lines that probably led to “spring kitchens,” pools in the cool creek where settlers stored their perishables.
Also, a tremendous find that Brian had photographed and shared with Sergio earlier: split nails that might date to the 1820s.
Now, I should say right away that’s a preliminary finding. There’s very little evidence of settlement here that early, a subject that I will cover when I revisit Ottosen’s meticulous discoveries about the area.
As for me, whenever I’m invited to these meanderings, I feel like a kid in a historical candy store. I’m usually the least informed of the party, but that’s the way I like it.
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