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How Land Shapes Societies

Nothing has been more important to the advancement of civilizations than the environment and the land supporting those societies. To understand how land shapes societies and the role humans play in changing the land around them, “Doing so requires a history, not only of human actors, conflicts, and economies, but of ecosystems as well.”[1]. During early Spanish, Mexican, and later, American rule, this region was important to the counties’ first known Native American inhabitants and early Anglo-American settlers and their slaves.

Bedias Creek, which outlines the northwestern boundary of Walker County, TX, converges with the Trinity River.[2] Neighboring counties consist of hills, prairies, vegetation, and forests of short and long leaf pines. Fertile with vegetation, the land was also abundant with turkey, deer, and buffalo, which provided sustenance for native tribes during the early seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuries. General Manuel de Mier y Terán of Mexico traveled the lands in Southeast Texas in the early nineteenth-century. He made note in his diary of his 1828 encounter with a group of 120 Bidai Indians, encamped on the banks of the Trinity River. Terán described the area’s thick forest of black cottonwoods, willows, and sycamores, as well as the sandstone and clay. [3]

Some of the first known inhabitants of the area were the Cenis and Bidai Indians. Land was important to many Indian tribes, including the Bidai, who alternated between the seasons, among the salt marshes and upland prairies to hunt large and small animals, as well as gather fruits, nuts, and green vegetation. (Barr, 2007, 117). As Anglo-American colonists began to settle the area in the 1830’s, the Trinity River became crucial to commerce and trade as steamboats navigated its waters. [4] Land played a significant role in farming and cattle raising. Cotton production boosted the plantation economy. By 1849, the first prison opened. [5]. The land was also used for tenant farming and sharecropping. Railroads and steamships allowed the local communities in the area to shift from the plantation economy to lumber and timber extraction. Prison facilities became more numerous, and oil and gas production emerged.

Between the 1930’s and 1960’s, shifts from cattle raising and farming to timber and lumber production occurred in the area to meet the needs of industrialization and mechanization. Land often shapes societies and extensive use, or overuse of land, frequently leads to the depopulation of an area. While the land remained, the people did not. The depopulation of this area is evident of the change over time in the history of the land.

Images

Early Texas by Farhen Fields
Early Texas by Farhen Fields An original painting by my grandson, grade 12.
Bedias, TX - Welcome Sign
Bedias, TX - Welcome Sign
Map of Texas and Adjacent Regions in the Eighteenth Century
Map of Texas and Adjacent Regions in the Eighteenth Century Source: Herbert Eugene Bolton, “Map of Texas and Adjacent Regions in the Eighteenth Century 1700-1800,” Texas State Archives Collection (Oakland: University of California Press, 1915). Accessed April 28, 2024, https://www.tsl.texas.gov/apps/arc/maps/maplookup/01440.
Walker County Lumber Company Commissary 1910
Walker County Lumber Company Commissary 1910 Source:

Howard L. Oliphant, “Elmina: A Ghost Town in Walker County,” Texas Transportation Archive, https://ttarchive.com/Library/Articles/Elmina-Ghost-Town-Walker-County_Oliphint.html.

Historical Marker: Huntsville Branch Railway ("Tilley's Tap")
Historical Marker: Huntsville Branch Railway ("Tilley's Tap") Source: YoSam, “Huntsville Branch Railway (“Tilley’s Tap”),” Texas Historical Markers on Waymarking.com, https://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/wm10XAR_Huntsville_Branch_Railway_Tilleys_Tap
Walker County Lumber Company with mill
Walker County Lumber Company with mill Source: Walker County Genealogical Society and Walker County Historical Commission, “Elmina, A Sawmill Town,” in Walker County, Texas: A History, (Dallas: Curtis Media Corporation, 1986), 75.
Malone's Construction Company (Walker County, TX) 1960.
Malone's Construction Company (Walker County, TX) 1960. Baker Grover Cox, K. H. Malone, William C. Johnston, Felder Jones, looking over plans for Malone Construction Company, Richards Road, 1960. Source: African American Collection, The Huntsville Arts Commission, https://www.huntsvilletx.gov/1062/African-American-Heritage-Collection.
Landscape view in Bedias, TX.
Landscape view in Bedias, TX. Trees are still in abundance on the land today.
East Gate View - Walls Unit - Huntsville Penitentiary 1890
East Gate View - Walls Unit - Huntsville Penitentiary 1890 East gate view of penitentiary with Prison Manager's home towards the front left of photo. Source: Walker County Genealogical Society and Walker County Historical Commission, “Texas Department of Corrections,” in Walker County, Texas: A History, (Dallas: Curtis Media Corporation, 1986), 20.
Narrow Gauge Steam Engine
Narrow Gauge Steam Engine "Shay" type of steam engine. Used to haul logs to the sawmill via "trams" or tracks. This steam engine was used from Elmina, in SE Walker County to nearby Phelps. Source: Walker County Genealogical Society and Walker County Historical Commission, “Barado to Pine Valley – Ghost Communities,” in Walker County, Texas: A History, (Dallas: Curtis Media Corporation, 1986), 65.

Location

Metadata

Stephanie E. Love, “How Land Shapes Societies,” East Texas History, accessed July 18, 2024, https://easttexashistory.org/items/show/397.