By: Michael Barnes, Austin American-Statesman
FORT PRAIRIE — During our day hike, the birders looked up, while the history buffs looked down.
That morning, part of our tiny expeditionary force that launched into Blair Woods, located at the former freedom colony of Fort Prairie, scanned the ground for historical artifacts. Others trained their eyes closer to the tree lines in order to detect bird life.
Count me in both subgroups.
The expedition to the nature preserve in eastern Travis County proved a perfect blend of shared interests and skills.
The wooded, rolling prairie was donated to Travis Audubon, a conservation and birding advocacy group, by the highly respected late zoologist Frank Blair and his birder wife, Fran Fern.
It covers 10 acres off FM 969 — aka Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard — and drips with Texas history. Native Americans camped here. The Spanish passed nearby on the Camino Real de los Tejas.
An 1836 Republic of Texas fort, first called Fort Coleman, then Fort Colorado, rose a short stroll to the north across MLK; it was revived briefly during the Civil War.
The post-Emancipation freedom colony dubbed Fort Prairie — ethnically integrated like many Texas communities of former slaves — spread out to the southeast. Just down the road toward Bastrop lie two of the most important pioneer cemeteries in Central Texas. Interred there are members of the Rogers, Hornsby and Burleson families, among the first Anglo-Americans to settle in what is now Travis County.
Our gang of seven friends, some old and some new, spent time poking around the preserve, which is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. — but only if the gates at 5401 E. MLK are unlocked, which means that someone is working at the Austin Wildlife Rescue intake center located in an old farmhouse on the site.
Along with our Intrepid Seven, we also ran into former surveyor Tim Ryan during his regular morning hike through Blair Woods. He shared special insights into Native American activity at Coleman Springs there. More on that later.
Among our ego-free group were Bob Ward and Richard Denney, members of the Travis County Historical Commission. With fellow history buff Lanny Ottosen, Denney has written up historical findings about Blair Woods. With their usual extraordinary thoroughness and modesty, they produced a 39-page unpublished paper on the subject, based originally on a 2017 field trip there.
Among the birders were Dana Kuykendall, Angie Ward, Mark Wilson and Nicole Netherton, director of Travis Audubon.
We started at the farmhouse and its outer buildings, but not before a magnificent red-tailed hawk soared overhead. Parts of the structures may date back to the 19th century, but photographic evidence shows that the core of the farmhouse was built in the 1930s, probably by the Moehr family.
One of the outer structures had been modified to house the Texas spiny lizards collected and studied by zoologist Blair, who titled his book on the creatures “The Rusty Lizard.” Another structure clearly was used as a dairy barn.
Denney and Ward pointed out artifacts such as chopped nails, hewn limestone, marked bricks and a mysterious chain, which, after research, was identified as a “trace chain,” “neck yoke chain,” or “breast chain,” used as part of a harness for horses or other draft animals.
We strolled downhill to Coleman Springs along a path lined with cedar elm, cherry laurel and bois d’arc, evidence, according to Ryan, of American Indian presence, since they would have planted the strong, flexible trees, also known as horse apples or Osage oranges, in order to make bows of the wood. Instead of burying the unwieldy and hard-to-break-down fruit, the American Indians transported cuttings from spring to spring.
By way of a conversation starter, Ryan’s walking stick was made of bois d’arc, so strong it took him two years to work it into a cane.
Wilson showed us the mechanics of the springhouse — a revelation! — a tiny roofed structure that opens up to a 12-foot-deep spring of clear water. No wonder so many generations of Texans stopped or stayed here.
We paused along the western edge of the property to view the wholesale destruction visited on the land to the west, which will likely be developed, before stopping at a pond that attracts waterfowl year-round.
As we headed back toward the entrance of the property, the history buffs found more artifacts that awaited interpretation.
So what prehistory or history transpired here?
Steven Gonzales, director of the El Camino Real de los Tejas National Trail Association, has confirmed the proximity of Spanish passage over this land. The Spanish road often followed old American Indian trails, which helps explain the location here of a Republic of Texas fort. It was variously called Coleman’s Fort after Frank Coleman, American Indian fighter, soldier during the Battle of San Jacinto and signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence, as well as Fort Colorado, which would have protected access to Austin from the east.
“Colonel Coleman was instructed to proceed up on Walnut Creek, six miles below Austin,” writes Noah Smithwick in his spellbinding memoir, first published in 1900, “The Evolution of a State: Recollections of Old Texas Days,” “and to build the Coleman fort, consisting of a cluster of log cabins enclosed with a heavy stockade.”
Smithwick, one of the most trustworthy witnesses to early Texas history, was stationed for a while of Fort Coleman and describes life there and military action nearby.
Coleman Springs in Blair Woods provided water for the fort.
FM 969, for years a relatively forgotten rural stretch of asphalt, was once the main road into Austin from the east. It was called the old “Comanche Trail,” “Old Indian Trail,” “Path of the Pioneers” and “Old Stagecoach Road,” according to Denney and Ottosen. Several American Indian skirmishes took place at or near the fort.
According to several accounts, timber from the fort was later used by Jessie Tannehill, who had acquired the property to the south in 1832, for his homestead nearby.
Just as with Fort McGruder, located on South Austin near South Congress Avenue and Ben White Boulevard, trenches and bulwarks were built here during the Civil War to protect against an expected Union advance from the Rio Grande. A third fort from that period supposedly rose on College Hill, where the University of Texas Tower now stands.
Yet unlike Forts Colorado and McGruder, we haven’t found records of archaeological excavations on campus.
For a long while in the late 19th century, much of this land — more prairie than woods — was controlled by the Thielpape family, of which one member worked for the Texas General Land Office.
The Moehr family, who immigrated from Switzerland in 1908 and purchased the land in 1911, held the property for more than 40 years. Susanna Moehr told historian Mary Starr Barkley that materials from Fort Colorado were definitely used for the farm’s structures.
Also nearby was Fort Prairie, a rural community with a post office, bars and other amenities that remained on maps until the 1940s. First references to it show up in 1871. Some of the structures in Blair Woods are likely the last survivors of that community.
The Blairs took over in 1951. A professor of zoology at UT, Frank Blair and his wife deeded the land to Travis Audubon in the early 1980s. It has been improved with neatly tended trails, observation decks and interpretive signage.
History holds its own with nature here.
“Given Austin’s rapid rate of development,” Denney and Ottosen write, “the Audubon property may well hold some of the last remaining bits of old Fort Colorado.”
How to organize your own history expedition
Find your people. All it takes is a few people with related interests — who also get along well — to plan your own expedition. It helps if somebody in your group is good with maps, or can identify the natural and manufactured wonders you will discover along the way.
Pick your subject. Did Spanish explorers come through your area? Did indigenous people live at a spring or stream nearby? Is there an abandoned farmstead in the wooded fields in the next county over?
Ask for help. Almost every county in Texas is home to volunteers — some of them attached to schools, museums or commissions — who are the leading local experts in geology, botany, zoology, paleontology, archaeology, anthropology or other subjects related to Texas history. Give them a call or shoot them an email. Ask questions. They can save you a lot of time and sweat.
Gain permission. Once you have identified the sites you want to explore, find out who owns the land. Do not trespass. According to Texas law, however, landowners must give access to cemeteries. Also, beds of waterways are fair game, so it’s OK to hike along creek or river beds, for instance.
Respect the history. Take pictures. Take notes. Don’t, however, disturb a site that might come with crucial historical significance. If you find something really exciting, report it to local officials and scholars. Part of its meaning is its physical context. Remember: History belongs to everyone.
Have fun. Check the weather in advance. Dress comfortably and, in particular, choose sturdy footwear and sun protection. Take along water, compasses, binoculars, insect repellent and small electronic devices. Stay aware of your surroundings. Beware snakes, quicksand, wildlife, poison ivy and large livestock. Stick together as a group and you should be fine.