Heritage, Volume 04, Number 02, Fall 1986

As

Others

See

Us:

Travelers to Houston,

1836-198
by John B. Boles
Only two months after General Sam
Houston's victory at San Jacinto in April
1836, Augustus C. Allen and his brother
John K. Allen founded a town named
after the victorious commander. On August
30, 1836, the Telegraph and Texas
Register, a newspaper published in Columbia,
Texas, printed a long advertisement
for the infant city. "The Town of
Houston," the ad proclaimed, "situated at
the head of navigation, on the West bank
of Buffalo Bayou, is now for the first time
brought to public notice. ..." The expansive
developers, the first of a Houston
breed, described the once and future city
in glowing terms. "The town of Houston
. . .must ever command the trade of the
largest and richest portion of Texas."
"There is no place in Texas more healthy,
having an abundance of excellent spring
water, and enjoying the sea breeze in all
its freshness. No place in Texas possesses
so many advantages for building. ..."
"Nature appears to have designated this
place for the future seat of government. It
is handsome and beautifully elevated, salubrious
and well watered, and now in the
very heart or center of population. ..."
Yet for some years to come reality failed
to match this press release, if we are to
believe the witness of travelers to Houston.
Mrs. Dilue Harris' brothers, having
heard of the new town and having seen
circulars and drawings that "represented a
large city," set out in June 1836 to visit
the new metropolis. "After being absent
some time," she wrote, "they said that it
was hard work to find the city in the pine
woods; and that, when they did, it con

sisted of one dugout canoe, a bottle gourd
of whiskey and a surveyor's chain and
compass, and was inhabited by four men
with an ordinary camping outfit. The
mosquitoes were as large as grasshoppers,
and .. . to get away from them they went
bathing. The bayou water was clear and
cool, and they thought they would have a
nice bath, but in a few minutes the water
was alive with alligators." They were rescued
in the nick of time by a man in a
canoe, who said that "a large panther had
been nearby, but that it ran off as the canoe
approached."
The first steam boat struggled up the
tree-canopied Buffalo Bayou in early
1837, and Francis R. Lubbock was aboard
the Laura on that maiden voyage. The
trip from Galveston to Harrisburg was uneventful,
but the next twelve miles by
bayou (six by the dirt road) took three
whole days. "The slow time," Lubbock
explained, "was in consequence of the
obstructions we were compelled to remove
as we progressed. We had to rig
what were called Spanish windlasses on
the shore to heave the logs and snags out
of our way, the passengers all working

Main Street 1866, courtesy Houston
Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public
Library.
faithfully.... Just before reaching our
destination, a party of us, becoming
weary of the steamer, took a yawl and
concluded we would hunt for the city. So
little evidence could we see of a landing
that we passed by the site and ran into
White Oak Bayou, only realizing that we
must have passed the city when we struck
the brush. We then backed down the
bayou, and by close observation discovered
a road or street laid off from the
water's edge. Upon landing we found
stakes and footprints, indicating that we
were in the town tract."
Many of the travelers' accounts describing
the first few years in Houston
bear a striking resemblance to descriptions
and complaints of today. It was common
recently, before the current depression
in Houston construction, to describe
Houston as an unfinished city, with
cranes and covered sidewalks, a hallmark
of the town. That image of unfinished
bustle, with the rough edges of urban
growth showing, appears to have oc15

Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 04, Number 02, Fall 1986. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45442/. Accessed October 1, 2014.