Heritage, Volume 04, Number 02, Fall 1986

curred to many early visitors too. Frederic
Leclerc, passing through in 1838, remembered
"The Principle thoroughfare, Main
Street, is as straight as an arrow, rather
lovely for the country, and goes right
down to the stream. . . . The sidewalks
are only marked out, and the finished
buildings have considerable gaps between
them. ... A rather charming confusion
reigns, a chaos for which there is no parallel
in Europe. Thus we found the dock
still obstructed by enormous tree-trunks
and stumps of great Southern pines that
had been standing in the streets; the bank
leading from the river to the city is very
steep and you stumble with every step.
. . .Next door to houses of a rather beautiful
appearance, but which are nonetheless
built entirely of wood, you run into
that miserable type of house called the
log cabin in the United States." (No zoning
then either!) "All, however," as an
anonymous Ohio visitor said in 1838,
"was bustle and animation. Hammers and
axes were sounding in all directions; . . .
I might say that here was concentrated all
the energy and enterprise of Texas. . .."
The Allen brothers in their advertisement
may have said Houston was "handsome
and beautifully elevated," but we, of
course, know otherwise. It didn't take antebellum
travelers long, either, to learn
how slowly a tropical downpour drains
from a flat terrain. In May 1837 the great
naturalist John Jacob Audubon arrived in
Houston "drenched to the skin," floating
in on Buffalo Bayou at flood stage, and
found "the neighboring prairies ...
partly covered in water: there was a wild
and desolate look cast on the surrounding
scene." Wanting to visit President Sam
Houston, Audubon had to wade "through
water above [his] knees . . ." and found
"the floors, benches, and tables of both
houses of Congress . . . as well saturated
with water as [his] clothes had been in the
morning."
Perhaps nothing impresses newcomers
to Houston today more than our Texassize
roaches. For some reason, antebellum
sojourners never mentioned roaches, perhaps
because other pests were so much
worse. Gustav Dresel was intrigued by the
rats. "Thousands of these troublesome
guests made sport by night, and nothing
could be brought to safety from them. All
the provisions soon begnawed by them,

Unidentified Street in Houston, circa 1894,
courtesy Houston Metropolitan Research Center,
Houston Public Library.

and the best rat dog became tired of destroying
them because their number never
decreased. . .. Rats often dashed across
me by the half-dozens at night. In the beginning
this proves annoying, of course;
later one gets accustomed to it." Even
more irritating to a French Catholic traveler,
the Abbe Domenech, were the ants.
Houston, he wrote, "is infested with
Methodists and ants. These ants crawl
along the streets, and through every
room, in endless processions; and the
ceiling, the walls, the floor are traversed
in every direction by dark and evermoving
columns of their battalions. The
inhabitants, with a view of removing
something or other from their untiring
search, place small vessels filled with
water under the bed-posts, tables, and
cupboards." The very next morning this
finicky traveler shook out his clothes and
"made my escape from this ant-hill." (He
never explained how the Methodists
bothered him.)

Then, as now, Houston was a boom
town attracting all sorts of people from
the far comers of the earth, opportunists
as well as cranks, upstanding citizens and
downright crooks. Gostav Dresel was
bemused by the pell mell nature of the
population. "Crimes," he wrote, "the desire
for adventure, unfortunate circumstances
of all sorts, love of freedom, and
the fair prospects of gain had formed this
quaint gathering." A description of the
Houston populace, by the way, that still
rings true. Such an unstable mixture led
to prodigious drinking and shocking violence.
A stunned young Irish-Anglo diplomat
reported back to the British government,
"The use of the bowie knife is
in general practice among high and low,
though I believe more at Houston than
anywhere else. They are mostly worn either
in the sleeve, or within the back part
of the coat collar. As to going about unarmed
either with pistols or bowie knife
or daggar stick, it is a piece of neglect unheard
of. ... I have [one of these knives]
before me now . . . , on the blade of
which is beautifully worked the words
'Arkansas Genuine tooth-pick.' From
such accounts we understand why Eras

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 March 2, 2015.