Carib Indians migrate north from South America, likely giving rise to what become the Karankawa Indians. Their Gulf Coast range includes Matagorda County.
After suffering a series of storms, Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and some of his crew wash ashore on the Gulf Coast. Their inland expedition – lasting some eight years and covering 2,400 miles – provides the first written account of the Lone Star State’s aboriginal inhabitants, geomorphology, botany, and biology. They are the first Europeans to explore future Matagorda County.
Guido de Lavazares sails up the coast from Spanish Mexico to Matagorda Bay and takes possession of early Texas for the Spanish king. He is the first European to make a formal claim to Texas soil.
Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle also lays claim to early Texas, but for France, after landing three ships near Matagorda Peninsula. La Salle’s ship, the Belle, is wrecked in Matagorda Bay and his party constructs a fort on Matagorda Island before moving inland to Garcitas Creek. The Frenchmen are whittled away by disease, hunger, murders within the party, and incessant attacks by the Karankawas. Some make their way to French Canada while others remain among the native population.
“Old 300” Lands Designated
In January of 1821 Moses Austin had received a permit from Spain to settle 300 families in Texas. Moses died in June 1821 and his son, Stephen Fuller Austin, persuaded Antonio María Martínez—who would be the last governor of Spanish Texas (as Mexico became a sovereign nation in September of 1821)—to allow him to assume his father’s role as empresario. An empresario received just over 23,000 acres of land for every 100 families he could recruit, so Austin’s “Old Three Hundred” meant more than 70,000 acres to his name. By the summer of 1824, he had most of his colonists in place. Two of those freshly minted Texas landowners, 36-year-old Tennessean Hosea H. League and 24-year-old Arkansan John Crier would stake their claims on lands that are now part of Spread Oaks Ranch.
First Americans at Spread Oaks Ranch
Austin’s first colonists arrive in Texas aboard the schooner Lively. Captain Jacob Jennings and future Goliad commander Phillip Dimmitt construct the first cabin in Anglo Texans on the Colorado River adjacent to a creek that would bear the name Jennings after his death the same year. Called Jennings Camp, it was important to the early settlement of Austin’s Colony.
Mexico signs a settlement plan to populate the Indian frontier between the settled parts of Mexico and the United States. Authority for promoting the opportunity to Americans living east of the Mississippi River is given to empresarios, or land agents. Empresario Stephen F. Austin grants deeds to 300 Americans – “the Old Three Hundred” of Austin’s Colony – along the Brazos and Colorado river corridor during the next seven years.
The town of Matagorda is founded as a fort to protect colonists from the Karankawa Indians. Over the next 25 years, the town builds a thriving economy in agriculture, merchandise, and shipping – mainly on cotton, sugar, hides, and a one-way trade in slaves.
First Spread Oaks Landowner
The southern portion of Spread Oaks that included Jennings Camp, is granted to Hosea H. League. League is 36 years old, married, and brings five slaves with him from his native Tennessee. He was a founder of the port town of Matagorda, opened a law practice with future interim Republic of Texas president David G. Burnett, and was named empresario of the Texas Association’s Leftwich Colony. Before he dies in 1837, League is forced to sell his land on the west bank of the Colorado River to settle debts brought against him during his incarceration as an accessory to murder.
The Second Spread Oaks Landowner
The northern part of Spread Oaks Ranch, where the present-day lodge is situated, is deeded to John Crier, another of Austin’s original 300 colonists. Crier owes back taxes on his Colorado River land as early as 1830. He sells some of his land before he is supposedly killed by Comanches in Fayette County, although he conveniently managed to sign various deeds of sale for the next decade.
Thomas Cayce purchases the original H.H. League grant and operates the ferry. The crossing is renamed Cayce’s Ferry and is an integral link to Texians and the Mexican army crossing the river during the Texas Revolution. Later the ferry is relocated to the south and becomes a Republic of Texas army post called First Colorado Station.
The Coming of Cholera
A cholera epidemic strikes Mexican Texas in 1833, killing 18,000. It is not known how many die in the town of Matagorda, only that the outbreak “swept off numbers of the settlers.”
Jenning’s War Camp
Friction between the increasingly dictatorial Mexican government and the stubbornly independent Texians comes to head. Stephen F. Austin author’s a circular that called for every man to take up arms and “take to the field at once.” They rendezvous on League’s former sitio of land, now owned by Thomas Cayce. The volunteer militia encampment that marked the beginning of the Texas Revolution was located either on, or adjacent to, modern Spread Oaks Ranch.
An Independent Texas
Texas pens its Declaration of Independence. The Alamo and Goliad La Bahía presidio falls to the Mexican advance, leading to the “Runaway Scrape” as colonists fled the countryside. Commander-in-chief Sam Houston is the architect of an independent Texas – the Republic of Texas – after winning the Battle of San Jacinto. Had the order been given by General Santa Anna for the 1,300 troops that had recently crossed Spread Oaks Ranch and Cayce’s Ferry not to retreat, the outcome of the Revolution would likely have been entirely different.
Dubbed Racers Storm, the first documented hurricane to make landfall in the Republic of Texas destroys wharves and buildings in Matagorda. Twenty-six sailing ships loaded with families that leave port in New England to build a new life in Texas are lost in the storm. There are no survivors.
Last of the Karankawas
After a series of skirmishes with Austin’s settlers, the Karankawas are largely driven from Matagorda County. A small number remain south of the San Antonio River.
First of the Comanches
A Comanche war party raids the port town of Linnville, deep into coastal Texas. It is the furthest south they have ever attacked. Irish immigrant Julia C. Fretwell is taken prisoner then arrowed by her captors as they retreat. She survives, but her husband is killed. Six years later she came to own a piece of Spreads Ranch near the present lodge.
Crier sells various tracts of land while others are sold at auction for pennies to the dollar. One new landowner is lawyer James H. Denison, who later becomes an Associate Justice of the Texas Supreme Court.
Water and Wood
So many trees collect in the Colorado River that keelboats and steamers can no longer navigate the river because of rafts of driftwood. Funds are raised to build a 115-foot steamboat to clear the log jams. Christened the Kate Ward, the dredge boat is captained by William J. Ward.
Texas Flies the American Flag
The Republic of Texas is admitted into the Union as its 28th state.
First Cattle Drive
The first cattle drive occurs in Matagorda County, the beeves destined for New Orleans markets. Initially these long-horned Iberian cattle, brought by the Spanish, roamed freely on the Texas prairie. They quickly carry the brand of cattlemen, and by 1850 there are 35,000 head in Matagorda County.
A Steamboat Passes by Spread Oaks
Colorado River log jams now block several miles of river channel. The US Corps of Army Engineers enlists the Kate Ward to by-pass the log jam by dredging a new canal and clearing snags, the latter including present-day Spread Oaks Ranch river frontage. Steamboat traffic resumes, the big paddle-wheelers traversing the river at Spread Oaks Ranch until, in the 1860s, the river is closed again by log jams.
The Rooster Comes to Texas
A confident but insolvent young man arrives in Port Lavaca as a stowaway on a schooner that originates in Rhode Island. With plenty of bluster but no experience to match, he appears at a ranch in search of work as a cowboy. His name is Abel H. “Shanghai” Pierce. Thirty years later he owns much of Matagorda County, one of the largest cattle herds in Texas, banks, and a railroad.
Return of the Tempests
The hurricane of 1854 comes ashore at Matagorda Peninsula. Towns are leveled, schooners blown to sea, and nearly all the buildings in the town of Matagorda are demolished. Among the casualties is the Kate Ward that founders at the river mouth. Eleven of its 14 crew, including Captain Ward, perish in the tempest. The three survivors are found clinging to wreckage four days later.
Still More Landowners
Galveston businessman Jacob L. Briggs purchases portions of the Crier tract. Fighting for the Confederacy during the Civil War, he was later given an executive pardon by President Andrew Johnson. Briggs was on of some 48 people who drowned, their bodies never recovered, when the SS Varuna steamship wrecked off Florida’s Jupiter inlet in 1870.
Slave labor produces a record volume of cotton for Matagorda County’s plantation owners, reaching a pre-war high of 8,454 bales.
The Texas delegates of the Secession Convention vote 166 to eight to join the Confederate States of America. The conflict will come to Matagorda’s coast with a series of skirmishes at forts constructed at the mouth of Caney Creek, Pass Cavallo, and Matagorda Peninsula.
Of the 150 “white inhabitants” of Matagorda, 88 are stricken with yellow fever, and 45 die. Of the 50 slaves in the town, “some were very sick, but none of them died.” There weren’t enough healthy residents of any race to bury the town’s dead.
People as Property
Matagorda County counts 2,365 slaves, their value estimated at $1,130,300 – nearly $500 per person. The Civil War brings an end to human beings as a commodity and financially cripples plantation owners
A No Man’s Land
Texas formally surrendered on June 2, 1865, almost three months after General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox. For the next five years, the Lone Star State is not a state in any nation – instead, it is a territory occupied by the Federal Government, the period euphemistically called Reconstruction
Jesse Chisholm stakes the overland route from Texas to the Kansas railroads. Shanghai Pierce is one of the first to drive his herds over it.
Although herds of American bison remain in North Texas, the last of the wild coastal bison are exterminated below Corpus Christi.
The New Southern Order
Texas is readmitted to the Union, but for the next 20 years Matagorda County is governed by the despised Unionist Republican party.
Another West Indian Cyclone
The hurricane of 1875 crosses the Matagorda coast. Dozens of schooners are wrecked, and several are lost at sea. Lighthouses at Pass Cavallo are blown apart, drowning four lightkeepers. No building is left at Decrow’s Point, and only one house is spared at Saluria. One hundred and fifty people are killed in Indianola, on the west side of Matagorda Bay, their bodies littering the bay shore for 20 miles. Saluria and Decrow’s Point are not rebuilt. Indianola is resurrected but abandoned 11 years later after the 1886 hurricane.
All of the original Spread Oaks lands change ownership after the Civil War. New owners are to include Daniel Erasmus E. Braman and his son, Victoria lawyer William Cheever Braman, California pioneer Andrew Olcese, the Texas Land and Cattle Company, Matagorda farmer and stockman Samuel Watkins, and Shanghai Pierce.
Last of the Cattle Drives
The end of the northern cattle drives in Matagorda County comes as Shanghai Pierce and nearly every other cattleman transports their herds exclusively by rail and in refrigerated boxcars.
Bay City is Founded
Denver mining magnate Colonel David Swickhimer, who has spent several winters hunting ducks around Jennings Creek, founds the town of Bay City on 640 acres of cattle pasture east of the Colorado River.
Logs continue to dam the Colorado River, blocking its natural flow and inundating thousands of acres across adjacent prairie. Shanghai Pierce’s nephew A.P. Borden gambles that the water can be used to irrigate a new crop – rice. He establishes the Matagorda County Rice and Irrigation Company and breaks sod below Jennings Lake, planting 250 experimental acres the next spring.
Matagorda County produces only a hundred bales of cotton compared to a pre-Civil War peak of 8,454, the decline caused by the arrival of the boll weevil.
End of an Era
On Christmas night Shanghai Pierce eats his holiday turkey and oysters, goes to bed and dies. It is the end of an era.
Spindletop Hill, drilled on McFaddin Ranch near Beaumont, comes in as a “gusher,” blowing oil, gas, and hundreds of feet into the air. The discovery creates a tidal wave of oil exploration in Texas.
The Iron Horse
Hundreds of convicts from the state prison farm descend on Matagorda to lay tracks for the first railroad line in Matagorda County. Called the Cane Belt, it reaches Bay City in 1901 from Eagle Lake and Sealy. A year later rail connects Bay City to the town of Matagorda. The New York, Texas & Mexican Railway, later the Southern Pacific Railroad, completes a second line in 1903 between Bay City and Palacios.
A Bridge Over the Colorado
An iron bridge is built over the Colorado River south of future Spread Oaks, replacing Cayce’s and Elliot’s Ferry.
The Canal Builders
Rice production explodes along the Colorado River. Eleven irrigation companies are formed, their teams of mule-drawn carts and steam dredges constructing canals and reservoirs. The future Spread Oaks Ranch becomes the heart of Texas’ early rice industry.
Markham is Founded
The new townsite of Markham is platted with a hog-proof fence and advertised by a sign that hung on the side of a boxcar. The town’s first residents live in tents. The town grows rapidly, boasting a hotel, boarding houses, a bank, and ten saloons.
The Big Hill
Three years after Spindletop, Matagorda’s first discovery of commercial oil is brought in at Big Hill, on the edge of Matagorda Bay. The field produces for only three years. Later Big Hill is mined for sulfur to such an extent that the former topographic high and sacred Karankawa site becomes a lake.
The Iron Beeve
A.P. Borden completes shipment of 33 Brahman cattle to Wharton County from their native India. Highly resistant to ticks and parasites, the arrival of the Brahmans ends the reign of the Texas longhorn.
The River Rises
Bay City is inundated by flood waters caused by the Colorado River log raft. It will be the first of four major floods over the next 14 years.
The first automobile, a Ford Model-T, is registered in Matagorda County. In just two years later the number will grow to 200.
Another Big Blow
During the hurricane of 1909 some 75 houses are blown to pieces between Bay City and Wharton. Engineers report their trains come to a standstill, unable to pull against the wind. Chickens are plucked of their feathers and corn is husked in the field. Boxcars in the railyard are blown over.
Matagorda County’s population doubles from 6,097 to 13,597 in just ten years.
The River Rises – Again
The Colorado and Brazos river levels rise so high in 1913 that a 36-mile long inland sea forms south of Bay City. The town is under three feet of water and leaves thousands homeless.
A World War
The First World War claims the sons of 20 Matagorda mothers.
A New Spread Oaks Landowner
Rice farmer and pumping plant engineer A.J. Harty purchases approximately 400 acres of Spread Oaks land near the present-day lodge. A year later the Olcese Estate sell their Jennings Lake holdings to Harty for $22,140, and in a first for the area, separate the sale from the subsurface mineral rights. The Olcese Estate wisely keep the latter.
Fixing the Flooding
Bay City tires of flooding and hires J.P. Markham and the Howard Kenyon Dredging Company to remove the log jam. Five years later the entire mass of logs, debris, and sediment sweep into Matagorda Bay. While viewing the raging torrent engineer Markham suffers a heart attack and dies.
After intermittent droughts over a 16-year period, the issue of water rights pit farmers against irrigation companies. Victor “V.L.” LeTulle, with partners A.J. Hardy and other LeTulle family members, purchase all of Matagorda’s financially strapped irrigation companies for pennies on the dollar and creates the Gulf Coast Irrigation Company.
The removal of the Colorado River log jam is devastating to rice interests. Water pours from the prairie back into the river channel, leaving rice fields high and dry. Bay City irrigation magnate V.L. LeTulle resorts to desperate efforts to save the 1928 crop, building his own dam north of Blue Creek. The Texas Rangers are called in to dynamite the obstruction. There is no rice crop in 1928, or again in 1929.
Two New Bays
Sediment from the Colorado River, free from a hundred years of blockage, infill nearly 2,000 acres of the bay at the mouth of the river. By 1936 the delta extends all the way to Matagorda Peninsula, dividing was once a single estuary into East and West Matagorda Bay.
The Beginning of the Great Depression
The largely agrarian and maritime Matagorda County population is more resistant to the effects of the Depression than other US regions, although outside investors in its oil, gas, banking, and irrigation ventures suffer devastating financial losses.
Ross Sterling Comes to Spread Oaks
Humble Oil founder Ross Sterling is elected governor of Texas. Sterling has been quietly purchasing Matagorda County lands and water rights for his Matagorda Irrigation Company throughout the 1920s, including parts of both the League and Crier tracts. His term as governor lasts only two years, defeated by Miriam “Ma” Ferguson in his bid for reelection.
Silver Dollar Jim
West Securities calls in $800,000 worth of Ross Sterling’s loans, forcing him to liquidate most of his business holdings for a fraction of their value. The colorful “Silver Dollar” Jim West becomes the new owner of Sterling’s Matagorda investments, including his Spread Oaks property. It is doubtful West ever set foot on the property.
Tommy LeTulle Comes to Spread Oaks
The colorful Tommy Beach LeTulle takes title to the southern 1,476 acres of Spread Oaks that includes Jennings Creek, now enlarged as a rice reservoir and more commonly known as Jennings Lake.
Putting Their Trust in the LCRA
Rice growers in Matagorda enthusiastically back organization of the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), the agency authorized to mandate water allotments between competing interests that included cities, hydroelectric companies, ranchers, and farmers.
World War II
Japan bombs the Pacific Fleet and brings the United States into World War II. Matagorda County’s sons participate in the Pacific and European theaters, but 120 of them do not return. It is a large sacrifice from a small community.
Matagorda takes its eye off the war as the hurricane of 1942 storms ashore with 100-mph winds. Palacios received the brunt of the storm damage, but rural residents go days to weeks without electricity or water.
Mary Elizabeth Crouch Comes to Spread Oaks
2,100 acres of the original Crier estate, part of the Braham Estate for some 75 years, is conveyed to Mary Elizabeth Crouch.
Another Hurricane, Again
Coastal Texans hold their breath as Carla, a Category 4 hurricane with winds of 145 mph, makes landfall at Matagorda Island on September 11. The towns of Matagorda and Palacios suffer a storm surge 16 feet above mean sea level. Bay City is inundated with over 17 inches of rain. The storm inflicts almost half a billion dollars in damage across the state.
Tommy Builds A Monument
Tommy LeTulle commissions a life-sized bronze monument to himself, complete with a mule and two hunting dogs, and situates it near the entrance of present-day Spreads Oak Ranch. He is buried there after he dies in 1988 and his wife Alta is later interned.
The Coming of Modern Spread Oaks
Forrest and Audrey Wylie purchase their first Spread Oaks land, the 1,200-acre Morrow tract. Over the next several years they add the McDonald, Crouch/Cuenca (about 2,700 acres) and LeTulle Foundation (1,476 acres) tracts, bringing their total holdings to about 5,500 acres.
Building a Cattle Herd
Manuel Briones is managing a herd of 120 head of Morrow cattle. Within a few years he builds the Spread Oaks herd to over 500 registered Brangus.
Building Duck Ponds
Spread Oaks hires its first conservation manager, who begins the first of the ranch’s more than 500 acres of waterfowl impoundments.
Building a Lodge
The Spread Oaks main lodge is completed after a little under two years of construction.
Building a Sheep Herd
The ranch acquires a herd of Katahdin sheep, a mix of St. Croix and Dorper lines from the Caribbean that are well suited to Texas heat. The herd grows from the first 30 head to 50 within six months.
Ric Rosser Takes Over the Kitchen
Executive chef Ric Rosser takes over the ranch’s culinary responsibilities. One of his first menu items is plucked from the new Katahdin sheep herd. Within months he completes a charcuterie room, hoop garden, and purchase of a century-old chuck wagon for outdoor dining.
Open for Business
Spread Oaks Ranch officially opens its doors before the 2019 hunting season. Construction begins on new accommodations, dubbed “The Old Three Hundred.”
Smokehouse, tree fort, “Old Three Hundred” facility
A smokehouse and tree fort are completed, and the “The Old Three Hundred” is ready.
Spreads Oaks launches concert series
Spread Oaks launches the “Cozy Concerts” series with a performance by Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis. By spring of 2022, the series expands to offer three different concert weekends, with different musical acts on Friday and Saturday evening. Performers include Hayes Carll, The Band of Heathens, The Secret Sisters, Slaid Cleaves, and Bob Schneider.