Explore the ranch’s timeline & history

From the ranch’s history with the Carib Indians and Karankawa Indians in the late 1400s, up to the implementation of modern farm and ranch facilities and technologies, explore the timeline of Spread Oaks Ranch.

Late 1400s

Karankawas

Carib Indians migrate north from South America, likely giving rise to what become the Karankawa Indians. Their Gulf Coast range includes Matagorda County.

Late 1400s

1528

First Europeans

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.

1528

1530

Spanish Texas

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.

1530

1685

French Texas

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.

1685

Jan. 1821

“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.

Jan. 1821

1822

First Americans at Spread Oaks Ranch

The first Americans to lay foot on the land that would become Spread Oaks Ranch establish a village of mostly crude lean-tos on the southeast shore of Jennings Lake. They call it Jennings Camp, and build a wagon road and a ferry to cross the Colorado River.

1822

1823

Mexican Texas

Mexico signs a settlement plan to populate the Indian frontier between the settled parts of Mexico and the United States, called the Imperial Colonization Law of Mexico. 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” – along the Brazos and Colorado river corridor during the next seven years.

1823

1824

Fort Matagorda

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.

1824

1826

First Spread Oaks Landowner

The southern portion of Spread Oaks, including 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 helps to establish the port town of Matagorda and becomes its president. 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.

1826

1827

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 and remains delinquent a decade later. He is forced to sell most of the land before he is killed by Comanches in Fayette County.

1827

1833

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.”

1833

1836

An Independent Texas

Texas signs the Declaration of Independence. The Alamo falls to Mexican General Santa Anna, leading to the “Runaway Scrape” as colonists flee the countryside. Commander-in-chief Sam Houston negotiates an independent Texas – the Republic of Texas – after winning the Battle of San Jacinto.

1836

1837

First Hurricane

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.

1837

1837

Jennings Ferry Closes

Thomas Cayce purchases the original H.H. League grant and moves the Jennings Ferry about a mile to the south. The crossing is renamed Cayce’s Ferry, and later becomes a Republic of Texas army post called First Colorado Station.

1837

1840

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.

1840

1842

Water and Wood

So many trees are felled along the Colorado River that keelboats and steamers can no longer navigate the river because of driftwood accumulations. 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.

1842

1845

Texas Flies the American Flag

The Republic of Texas is admitted into the Union as its 28th state.

1845

1849

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.

1849

1851

A Canal Through Spread Oaks

Colorado River log jams now block some seven continuous miles of river channel, including all of present-day Spread Oaks Ranch river frontage. The US Corps of Army Engineers enlists the Kate Ward to by-pass the log jam by dredging a 5½-mile canal parallel to the river. Steamboat traffic resumes, the big paddle-wheelers traversing what is now the middle of Spread Oaks Ranch.

1851

1853

The Rooster Comes to Texas

A confident but broke 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.

1853

1854

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.

1854

1860

King Cotton

Slave labor produces a record volume of cotton for Matagorda County’s plantation owners, reaching a pre-war high of 8,454 bales.

1860

1861

Southern Sentiment

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.

1861

1862

Yellow Fever

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.

1862

1862

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

1862

1865

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

1865

1867

Chisolm Trail

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.

1867

1868

Last Buffalo

Although herds of American bison remain in North Texas, the last of the wild coastal bison are exterminated below Corpus Christi.

1868

1870

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.

1870

1875

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.

1875

1870s to 1880s

New Landowners

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 farmers Sam and Evan Watkins, and Shanghai Pierce.

1870s to 1880s

1884

Last of the Cattle Drives

The end of the northern cattle drives in Matagorda County comes as Shanghai Pierce and nearly every other cattleman ship their herds exclusively by rail and in refrigerated boxcars.

1884

1894

Bay City is Founded

Denver mining magnate Colonel David Swickhimer founds the town of Bay City on 640 acres of cattle pasture east of the Colorado River.

1894

1899

First Rice

Logs continue to dam the Colorado River, creating a nearly permanent shallow sea covering thousands of acres across adjacent pasture lands. 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.

1899

1900

Killing Cotton

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.

1900

1900

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.

1900

1901

Black Gold

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.

1901

1901

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.

1901

1902

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.

1902

1902

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.

1902

1903

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.

1903

1904

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.

1904

1906

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.

1906

1908

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.

1908

1908

First Automobiles

The first automobile, a Ford Model-T, is registered in Matagorda County. In just two years later the number will grow to 200.

1908

1909

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.

1909

1910

More Matagordians

Matagorda County’s population doubles from 6,097 to 13,597 in just ten years.

1910

1913

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.

1913

1918

A World War

The First World War claims the sons of 20 Matagorda mothers.

1918

1918

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.

1918

1923

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.

1923

1926

Water Wars

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.

1926

1928

Saving Rice

The removal of the Colorado River log jam is devastating to rice interests. Water pours from the river channel and adjacent canals, 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.

1928

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, creating East and West Matagorda Bay from what was once a single estuary.

1929

1929

The Beginning of the Great Depression

The largely agrarian and maritime Matagorda County population is not impacted by the Depression much as others in the US, although outside investors in its oil, gas, banking, and irrigation ventures suffer devastating financial losses.

1929

1931

Ross Sterling Comes to Spread Oaks

Humble Oil founder Ross Sterling is elected governor of Texas. Sterling has been quietly purchasing Matagorda County lands throughout the 1920s, including part of the Crier tract where Spread Oaks lodge is situated. His term as governor lasts only two years, defeated by Miriam “Ma” Ferguson in his bid for reelection.

1931

1932

Silver Dollar Jim Comes to Spread Oaks

West Securities calls in $800,000 worth of Ross Sterling’s loans, who is forced to liquidate most of his business holdings for pennies on the dollar. 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.

1932

1932

Tommy LeTulle Comes to Spread Oaks

Tommy Beach LeTulle takes title to the southern 1,476 acres of Spread Oaks that includes Jennings Lake.

1932

1934

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.

1934

1941

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.

1941

1942

Another Hurricane

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.

1942

1956

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.

1956

1961

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.

1961

1986

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.

1986

2011

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.

2011

2012

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.

2012

2015

Building Duck Ponds

Spread Oaks hires Tim Soderquist as conservation manager, and he immediately turns his attention to building and managing 40 waterfowl habitat impoundments.

2015

2017

Building a Lodge

The Spread Oaks main lodge is completed after a little under two years of construction.

2017

2019

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.

2019

2019

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.

2019

2019

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.”

2019

2020

Smokehouse, tree fort, “Old Three Hundred” facility

A smokehouse and tree fort are completed, and the  “The Old Three Hundred” is ready.

2020