TAKE A VICARIOUS TEXAS SAFARI
Old Time Word Pictures
collected by Del Weniger,
former Chairman of the Biology Department,Our Lady of the Lake University and author of the classic field guide"Cacti of Texas"
and The Explorers' Texas: Vols 1 and 2
"Texas, as discovered, had huge expanses called prairies.
Such expanses are called savannas in other parts of the world, and are famous for teeming with millions of animals. Think, for instance, of the droves of wildebeest and zebras and antelope, interspersed with clans of giraffes and elephants, all these shadowed by families of lions, tiger, wild dogs and hyenas on the savannas of Africa.
So didn't the analogous prairies of Texas once have huge parallel populations of animals? Our explorers give us the answer. It is ours for merely the reading.
The wildebeest of Texas was the buffalo.
It even taxed the proverbial Texian braggadocio for our explorers to state the huge numbers of buffalo once here. When exploring in the Llano and San Saba Rivers' watersheds of central Texas in 1684, Mendoza wrote "…the number of buffalo is so great that only the divine Majesty, as owner of all, is able to count them." An indication that he was probably right comes from his statement that his party had killed four thousand and forty buffalo in one place in that region. As late as 1822, and as far southeast as near present Hearne, Texas.
W. B. Deweese wrote: "I have frequently seen a thousand buffalo in between this place and the mouth of Little River."
But the northwest plains, now incorporated into Texas and Oklahoma, provided the space where these animals could congregate. There their main herds surely equaled and may have surpassed the masses of wildebeest you've seen on TV.
Thomas Farnham, when on the Santa Fe Trail, spent three whole days passing through an uninterrupted herd of buffalo which he estimated covered 1350 square miles of country. This made it a mass of buffaloes larger than the state of Rhode Island.
Deer were not originally the silent shadows of the forests, but formed gregarious herds in the open.
in 1722, when in southern Median county, Pena reported, "During the remainder of the day…we saw around us almost at the same time, as many as three or four hundred of these animals."
About Matagorda Island in1845, Lieutenant John James Peck wrote, "It is common.. on…any part of the island to see from one hundred to two hundred deer grazing."
Concerning the State in general, Arthur Ikin wrote in 1841, "Deer… in herds of from ten to a thousand are common in every part of the country."
And Francis Moore, Jr. Wrote in 1840, "The deer are so numerous that they are often found in herds of several thousands."
Antelopes were never far behind in numbers, nor were they originally limited to the plains.
Brach wrote in 1848, concerning the area which has become the northern suburbs of San Antonio: "There are flocks of antelopes on the upper Cibolo and Salado…"
And Bollaert, in describing the country extending west of San Antonio to Uvalde, wrote "SAN ANTONIO TO HEAD WATERS OF THE LEONA RIVER - Passing the Leon and Medio Creeks, the country seen is prairie, covered with flowers and rich pastures, alive with deer and antelope."
John Russell Bartlett, when traveling on the first day of 1853, way down in what was to become southwest Nueces County and part of Kleberg County, wrote: "…the prairie was now a dead level…Not a bush or a tree was to be seen, yet there was no lack of prominent objects; for thousands of deer and antelope were scattered over it."
These millions of herbivores were balanced by predators paralleling those of other savannas.
The explorers found lions in the form of our pumas, cougars, panthers or mountain lions in almost every part of Texas - and these in numbers.
In the 1840's a "Judge English, of Bonham" reported that his father had in one season killed sixty of them. They were so numerous pioneers didn't have to go looking for them. The Abbe Domenech experienced that and apparently kept his composure, describing how in 1848, in the new settlement of D'Hanis, Texas.
"On one occasion during mass… the dogs commenced barking in a most terrible manner. My Alsacian seized his rifle, left the cabin, and went out to see the cause of the noise. It was an enormous panther which chased by the dogs, had taken refuge in a tree near the cabin which served us as a chapel. To see the beast and shoot it dead, was for my friend the work of an instant."
Wild dog of Africa were replaced in Texas by wolves, and these may have exceeded the African canines in numbers.
Carl Hilmar Guenther drew a word-picture of the lower coastal area of Texas in 1851, including this: "For thirty or forty miles (from Indianola we saw nothing but the prairie… Deer were so wild no one could get nearer than 100 paces - but, so many wolves!…Any hour of the day you would meet a pack of from 200 to 300 and when night came they howled so no one could sleep."
John T. Hughes wrote in 1846, a description of soldiers killing wolves with their sabers in "the suburbs of El Paso." When cataloging the animals he encountered in 1806 in extreme northeast Texas, Peter Custis wrote of wolves (these were hardly coyotes because he specifically called them "Canis Mexicanus") seen large herds."
Not laughing, but yodeling to fill the place of the hyenas in Texas nights were the coyotes.
Sister Mary Patrick and Sister Mary Joseph give us some idea of the both the numbers and the effects of these. It was February, 1853, and the good sisters were not out in the wilderness, but safely in their dormitory in the Ursaline Convent in the very heart of San Antonio, when they wrote: "Now, we enjoy the company of some hundreds of wolves, who came from the interior to try if they can get anything good to eat, and such a funny noise as they make: one commencing and all the others taking up the tone."
The Savanna/ prairies of Texas once rivaled those anywhere in the world in animal life, great and small. You wouldn't have had to go on an African safari or visit an exotic game ranch to experience spectacular wildlife, if we had maintained our fauna like we think Africans should theirs today. But it's too late for that. "
However you can experience wilderness Texas vicariously by reading Del Weniger's new book in which our explorers accounts of early Texas are gathered and presented clearly. Professor Weniger researched every surviving eyewitness account, and has produced a book of word pictures which once read, are unforgettable.
The Explorers' Texas: the Animals They Found -
- Presents the first complete picture of native Texas animals as our forefathers discovered them.
- Eyewitness accounts of what it was like to be in the untamed Texas of the past.
- The pioneer's own exciting, suspenseful, and sometimes humorous descriptions of their brushes with the animals of the wilderness.
- Explorers' reports of Texas lions and tigers. Descriptions of wolves in the streets of San Antonio and even accounts of manatees and seals of the Texas coast.
Copies of the book can be obtained from EAKIN PRESS, P.O. Drawer 90158, Austin Texas 78709. You can call them toll free at 1-800-880-8642