THE HISTORY OF ELLIS COUNTY: PECAN SPRINGS IN HISTORICAL CONTEXT
History is formed from the stories of the endeavors, successes, and failures of everyday people. Often these people and their circumstances connect in unexpected ways. The challenge and satisfaction of finding these connections energize the historian to dig into past characters and events. The efforts of hardy pioneers who came to Texas seeking a better life, financial gain, and fame formed the history of Ellis County. Their contributions to the community elevated ordinary people to the status of local legend. One example is the Rogers family, whose house became the first county courthouse. Today, the Rogers Hotel stands at the location of their original home. Captain W. H. Getzendaner is remembered for donating a large amount of land to the city of Waxahachie for a park. When he arrived in Waxahachie in 1859 he had $5.00 in his pocket and was $40.00 in debt, yet he became a successful politician and businessman, a well-known figure in Waxahachie history. i Ellis County history is filled with these kinds of stories that encourage and motivate future generations.
At the time of the signing of the Texas Declaration of Independence, Ellis County was a land inhabited only by Native Americans and wildlife. In fact, Ellis County did not yet exist. Robertson County encompassed a large land area that would eventually be broken up into some fourteen counties, including Ellis. William Howe, the first white settler to come to the area that would become Ellis County, arrived sometime in July 1843. Other settlers followed, drawn by the promise of cheap land and opportunity until finally the area had enough men that it could petition to be formed into a new county.
In 1849, Hans Smith and Benjamin Hawkins undertook the task to ride throughout the area collecting signatures from eligible voters on the petition to create a new county. By that time, the state of Texas had divided Robertson County into several other counties, and the Ellis County region was a part of a larger Navarro County. The area was sparsely populated, and settlers were so spread out that Hawkins had to ride out a second time to gather the few remaining required signatures. Due to their efforts, the necessary one hundred men signed the petition for a new county to be formed. The founders named this brand new county Ellis County after Richard Ellis, who served as President of the Constitutional Convention in 1836 when Texas declared its independence. ii
Thomas Jefferson Chambers, an early settler, received one of the first land grants in Ellis County in 1834. The Mexican government granted him eight leagues of land, or 35,500 acres, for his services rendered as a “superior judge” of Texas for several years. Later residents named Chambers Creek in his honor.iii
By all accounts, Ellis County teemed with wildlife before settlers began arriving by the score. Game was abundant. A hunter could easily find deer, buffalo, turkeys, antelope, wild hogs, or black bear in the woods. The streams and creeks were filled with fish and freshwater oysters. Wild bees produced honey. The land was rich with wild berries, fruit, and nuts, especially pecans, available for the taking.iv However, by 1850 white hunters had slaughtered the buffalo, nearly eradicating the herds. Settlers arrived with farm implements, and turned the wild prairie into a domesticated, agricultural society.v
American Indian Relations
Though there is little evidence of permanent Indian settlements in Ellis County, many Indian tribes traveled the area, camping along creeks and springs. The most frequent visitors were known as the Tonkawa Indian tribe. Their name was derived from the Waco word tonkawya meaning “they all stay together.” However, the Tonkawa had a different name for themselves, tichkan-watich which means “the most human of peoples.”vi The Tonkawa were a nomadic people who followed the traditions of the Plains Indian culture, hunting buffalo and other game. They also fished and gathered wild fruit, roots, berries, and nuts to subsidize their diet. When Anglos moved into the area, they used pecans as a barter item.vii
Although their presence often startled white settlers, the Tonkawa was a peaceful tribe. The pioneers most likely found it difficult to become accustomed to scantily clad and tattooed men and women, and their naked children. Whites especially deplored the Tonkawa practice of binding boards to their babies’ heads to give them a flat forehead. In spite of these differences, the Tonkawa were friendly toward whites. There are no records of any massacres or Indian wars in the Ellis County area. In 1846, the Tonkawa and whites signed a peace treaty, and the Tonkawa allied themselves with the whites and helped them fight the Comanche and Apaches. Many of their braves served as scouts for the Texas Rangers and the army throughout the 1840’s and 1850’s.
By the middle of the 1800’s the Tonkawa faced starvation because of the decimation of the buffalo and dwindling number of wild game. Therefore, in 1855 government agents persuaded them to leave the area and move to a reservation on the Brazos River. The tribe was eventually pushed out again to a reservation in Oklahoma where they found themselves surrounded by their enemies. While many of their braves were fighting in the Confederate army during the Civil War, a surprise attack by several allied tribes killed 133 Tonkawa. The remnants of the tribe returned to Texas, but, faced with starvation, they began to steal in order to survive. The 146 remaining Tonkawa finally returned to Oklahoma in 1870, where they continued to decline.viii By 1937, only fifty-one documented members of the Tonkawa tribe still existed.ix
During the time between Reconstruction and the Great Depression, cotton emerged as a primary cash crop in the Ellis County area. For years, Ellis County was the top producer of cotton in the world, and Waxahachie earned the title “Queen City of the Cotton Belt.”x Farmers needed a way to transport their cotton and other goods to various markets. Therefore, railroads became a necessity for transporting produce – especially King Cotton – to market.
The first railroad line reached Ellis County in 1872. Its route traveled from Corsicana through Ellis County into Dallas. Other railroads followed in quick succession in 1881, 1882, and 1886. The Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Railroad (MK&T) built its line through the area during 1888-1890. The seventh railroad to be built in Ellis County was the International & Great Northern Railway (I&GN) in 1902. It extended through the southern part of the county. This line served as part of the Fort Worth division that extended from Spring in Harris County, Texas, to Fort Worth.
In all, eight railroads traversed through Ellis County, in addition to two electric railway lines built for passengers. Ellis County contains almost 600,000 acres of fertile land, yet in the heyday of cotton production not one acre was located more than eight miles from a railroad. Over the years the county produced more cotton and other crops than any other southern county in the United States; however it was the availability of transportation that made its farms so profitable.xi
i1 The Sims Public Library, Formal Opening and Dedication Program, Courtesy of the Sims Public Library, 1905.
ii2 Kelly McMichael Stott, Waxahachie: Where Cotton Reigned King (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2002), 20-21.
iii3 A.R. Stout, “Pioneer Country: Its Origin, Early Land Grants,” History of Ellis County, Texas (Waco: Texian Press, 1972), 11.
iv4 Ibid., 8-9.
v5 Stott, 16.
vi6 Ibid., 12.
vii7 Jeffrey D. Carlisle, "Tonkawa Indians," Handbook of Texas Online http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/bmt68 (accessed March 21, 2015). Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
viii8 Ibid., 13.
ix9 Carlisle, “Tonkawa Indians.”
x10 Stott, 154.
xi11 Ruth Stone, “Railroads,” The History of Ellis County (Waco: Texian Press, 1972), 51-52.