La Bahia, OSR and the Runaway Scrape

Posted 2/11/20

Madisonville’s own Brigadier General (Retired) Cecil Nowlin Neely (1933-2018) took great interest in local history. He completed his Master’s thesis, entitled “An Early History of Madison County, Texas”, in 1971. He was a member of our local historical History Book Committee that compiled “Madison County Texas Volume II”. At that time, he edited his thesis somewhat and allowed portions of it to appear at the beginning of that book when it was published in 1997.

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La Bahia, OSR and the Runaway Scrape

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Madisonville’s own Brigadier General (Retired) Cecil Nowlin Neely (1933-2018) took great interest in local history. He completed his Master’s thesis, entitled “An Early History of Madison County, Texas”, in 1971. He was a member of our local historical History Book Committee that compiled “Madison County Texas Volume II”. At that time, he edited his thesis somewhat and allowed portions of it to appear at the beginning of that book when it was published in 1997.

Madison County Library has a copy of Neely’s thesis. Since I cannot commandeer the entire Meteor but think folks will enjoy his work, I’m sharing some of my favorite parts. He deserves the credit.

A.W. Spaight, Texas Commissioner of Statistics in 1882, was credited with statistics and facts regarding early Madison County. In pioneer times, this land was divided into timber and prairie, with timber comprising two-thirds of it. Early settlers recalled running horses unimpeded by brush through tall grasses that reached their stirrups. When they began plowing up that grass, brush soon moved in to take its place, becoming a problem. Early water wells could be dug at depths of 15 to 100 feet. Early settlers enjoyed an abundance of wild game. Even after Madison County was created in 1853 and organized the following year, buffalo still ranged here. As late as 1882, deer, turkey, squirrel, and waterfowl were still found in large numbers.

Advanced native people, called Indians by some of us now, established themselves along the Gulf Coast as early as 500 A.D. They were productive agriculturally and became known as the Caddo Confederacies. Of those, the Cenis (Hasinais) stretched from East Texas into present-day Madison County and were known as hospitable with gentle dispositions. The Atakapan tribes pushed upwards to our area from the south and included the Bidai, the principal residents here. Warlike and nomadic Comanches from the northern and northwestern part of Texas often wandered into this area and raided the weaker tribes already mentioned.

The main Bidai village was located at the confluence of the Trinity River and Bedias Creek. Though other Atakapans were known to be cannibals, the Bidai were never reported to be human flesh eaters. Disease and Spanish intervention caused the Bidai to dwindle. In 1830, they numbered only 100 men. They were reputed to be peaceful and honest and skilled at growing corn and hunting deer. In 1854, the Bidai and the Caddo survivors were moved to the Brazos Reservation (northwest of Fort Worth), and later to the Oklahoma reservation.

Neely quoted W.W. Newcomb’s book The Indians of Texas, saying that Bidai often had deformed heads and that no one knew if they caused such on purpose or unknowingly. When a

Bidai mother had a new baby, she strapped it to a piece of bark that had been bent to fit his/her body. Consequently, the bark’s pressure caused the baby’s head to become elongated and deformed. Early Spanish explorers were the first Caucasians to observe the Bidai deformity.

Routes of early explorers have proved difficult to locate, except for the fact that some kept travel journals. One of those, Spaniard Luis de Moscosa, started out with Hernando de Soto until the latter died in 1542. Examination of Moscosa’s writings convinced historians that he crossed the Trinity near where Robbins Ferry was later constructed, just above the mouth of Bedias Creek.

Another famous traveler, Frenchman Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle, landed on the coast Feb. 20, 1685. He explored much of East Texas before he was killed March 19, 1687. For years historians believed he was killed on the Navasota River near present-day Navasota. Debate stemmed from the fact that his path was difficult to pinpoint. In recent years, a map that was published in 1773 was acquired from the Spanish archives. On it was a handwritten note saying in Spanish “Here is where Monsieur de la Salle was killed in 1687.” That note was positioned just below the site of what is now Madisonville. One historian, E. W. Cole, studied the official diary of the La Salle expedition historian, Henri Joutel, and personally traced the journey across Walker County from its southwest edge to its northwest corner. That northwest corner of Walker County became part of Madison County in 1853, when the latter was created. Because of those findings, Madison County has gotten some fame in recent years as quite possibly where La Salle died.

A big piece of Texas history marks our county’s northern boundary. Running east to west, it has been known by three names – El Camino Real, The King’s Highway, and Old San Antonio Road. It began as an early buffalo and Indian trail and is labeled the oldest regularly-traveled roadway of Texas civilization. It was first traced in 1691 by the provisional governor of Texas, Domingo Teran de las Rios, between Monclova, the capitol of the province, and a Spanish mission in East Texas. French Trader Louis Juchereau de St. Denis in 1714 and Moses Austin in 1820 were two of its early well-known travelers. Now Old San Antonio is a modern and much-traveled roadway.

In early times, a lower roadway broke away from the Old San Antonio Road somewhere between the Trinity River and what is now Midway. It continued in a southwesterly direction and was known by various names, including La Bahia Road, the Opeleousas or Lower Road, and Labadee Road. It started as an east-west Indian trail near the Sabine River and continued west, crossing the Robbins Ferry site on the Trinity and running on through Washington on the Brazos and Goliad. One early Spanish map indicates Alfonso de Leon laid out the westernmost portion of the trail in 1689 while searching for survivors or signs of La Salle’s expedition. Today old maps show the La Bahia but no trace of it physically exists in Madison County.

One legend tells of Spanish traveling Old San Antonio Road, way back when this land was part of Spain. A caravan of pack mules loaded with silver stopped to camp for the night, and after dark, Indians attacked the sleeping men. Fearing for their lives, the men dumped the silver in a nearby lake and escaped. Only three survived. Years later, one of them returned to search for the treasure with no success. It had also been told that Spanish sovereigns have been found along the road, one dated 1775, predating the American Declaration of Independence.

La Bahia and the Old San Antonio Road were among the roadways favored by frantic settlers in early 1836, when Santa Anna was marching troops across Texas. Texian families’ escape attempts became known as the “Runaway Scrape.” They fled their homes, and many wound up on Old San Antonio Road where they were bottlenecked at Robbins Ferry. With only one ferry boat available to cross the Trinity River there, an estimated 200 refugees scattered across the Trinity bottom from Young’s Creek (now Midway) to the ferry. Conveyances, including wagons, carts, hacks, and slides drawn by oxen, mules, and horses, dotted the countryside. Only a few people had crossed when word arrived that Santa Anna had been defeated at San Jacinto. Surely, they were joyous when they turned around and returned to their homes.

The above is only part of what fascinated me from Neely’s first two of seven chapters in above-referenced history book. God willing, I’ll be sharing more from the others at a later date.

Madison County Museum, at 201 N. Madison St., Madisonville, TX 77864, is open to the public Wednesday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The Museum’s Facebook page is active again after long being dormant, so you can keep up with Museum activities there. Our curators, Karen Foster and Sharon Foster, will welcome your visits.

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