The Journal of the Life and Culture of San Antonio

William Dewees: Descriptions of Texas Pioneer Life before 1850

by Frank W. Jennings

Seeing Texas history in the 1820s to 1850s through the eyes of someone who was there is about as near as any of us will get to actually living the experience.

If you could read letters written in the first half of the 1800s by a man who traveled in parts of Texas where the action was -- a man gifted with keen observation and clear communication talents -- you should find them fascinating.

William B. Dewees, who lived in Arkansas in 1821, decided to come to Texas, possibly to join Moses Austin's planned colony in the Mexican territory. He lived in various places in the region from that time until he died in the Columbus area of Colorado County in 1878. For three years he lived in San Antonio.

His collected letters, not always totally accurate historically, were published first in 1852 under the title, Letters From an Early Settler of Texas.

Over the years, he often wrote to persuade his correspondent, a woman in Louisville, Kentucky, to move to Texas. He ended a letter in September 1838, two years after Texas had won its independence from Mexico: "I still advise you to come to Texas." His glowing reports from his new home help us understand today why so many thousands were drawn to Mexican Texas, and later to the new republic, from the United States and Europe -- especially in the 1830s to 1850s.

He wrote in 1838: "To all who would carve out for themselves fortunes at the expense of a temporary sacrifice of the luxuries of life, in preference to fretting away their lives in earning a subsistence in a country filled with hungry competitors, I would say come to Texas; buy you farms, or in some way use your talents industriously, and be independent. Should the savages attack your homes, or even should our former enemies the Mexicans, again invade our peaceful delightful land, we have the satisfaction of knowing that those homes are richly worth defending."

Some 10 years later, Dewees, was still trying to persuade his friend to come to Texas. "You inquired of me to what part of the country I would advise settlers to come," he wrote. "Before I answer that question I must ask what occupation the settler intends following."

He then discussed which part of Texas was the best place to grow sugar cane, and why -- and the best place for wheat, potatoes, turnips, beets, radishes, tobacco, and cotton. "Perhaps there is no place in the world where vines grow as luxuriously as here. You would hardly credit me were I to tell you to what size pumpkins and melons grow in the country."

He told about raising sheep, hogs, horses, and poultry and selling dairy products. And he told of promising careers for merchants, mechanics, doctors, lawyers, and ministers of the gospel.

"Pork," he said, "is worth on an average, two dollars and half a hundred." He said that you could raise them in the woods, buying just enough feed to keep them from going wild. In the woods they could fatten themselves on a variety of "mast," which meant "post-oak acorn, the black-jack, the pin oak, the live-oak, the over-cup, the burr-oak, the Spanish oak, the water-oak, and the white-jack acorns." He added that "besides that, we have the pecan and the hickory nuts, the wild peach, the hackberry and grapes; all these the hogs feed upon."

But he said that "the most profitable business which a person can follow in this country is stock raising; especially if he has but a small force. A poor man can probably make a living here more easily than in any other country; but still if he would turn his attention to stock raising he would find it far more profitable."

He explained that land was cheap -- costing from five to ten dollars an acre, and in some places from 50 cents to one dollar an acre.

He said that "a hundred head of stock can be purchased for $300; all the labor that is necessary is to get them up in the spring, mark and brand the calves, and keep them gentle." He said that beeves at 18 months or two years could be sold for $10.

According to Dewees, if he pursues stock-raising, "a man can start with a very small capital and make a fortune by sitting still and letting it grow upon him."

Interestingly, Dewees spent most of his life as a blacksmith and gunsmith.

Dewees touted Texas as a land with plenty of game to hunt in the rolling grasslands and brush, and fish to take from the streams and rivers. "On the coast we find beds of oysters, fishes of various kinds, and all manner of fowls."

He told how they "frequently" they made up parties "of men, women and children" who went on hunting and fishing expeditions. "These excursions were very pleasant, as we are able to find plenty of honey, kill game, catch fish and amuse ourselves in looking at our beautiful country..."

Surely, William B. Dewees was a man who saw his cup of life in Texas as always at least half full -- never half empty.

(Editor’s note: the San Antonio Public Library and most San Antonio university libraries hold a copy of Letters From an Early Settler of Texas.)


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