Before European Settlement
I live, but I will not live forever.
Mysterious moon, you only remain.
Powerful sun, you alone remain.
Wonderful earth, you remain forever.
Death song of Sitting Bear, 1871
In Denton County, archaeologists have found only a few scattered relics of the earliest periods into which experts have divided the history of American Indians.1 Of the oldest period, the Paleo-American, researchers have found only a few scattered stone points. It appeared once that Denton might have one of the oldest sites in the New World. In 1949-1951, when builders were excavating earth for a dam at Lake Lewisville, they discovered a number of hearths -- remains of old camp fires. Between 1951 and 1957, amateur archaeologists R.K. Harris and Wilson W. Crook, Jr., investigated those finds. Radio-carbon dating and analysis of plant remains gave those hearths a tentative age of 37,000 years.2 At the time when they published that estimate, it was much the earliest date ever given human activities in the New World, and scholars generally dismissed the claims of these amateurs who had presented such patently wrong data.
20 Since the time when professional archaeologists dismissed the claimed age of the Lewisville hearths as preposterous, the history of humankind in the New World has been pushed steadily backward, and today that estimate of 37,000 years would not cause great unrest. It does seem, though, that the age of the Lewisville hearths was exaggerated. The Corps of Engineers in 1979 initiated new research, and although the site never got the rigorous scientific analysis that was promised, indications are that the hearths are about 12,000 years old.
In this area, except for those hearths, remains which archaeologists can prove came from the Paleo-American period are scanty. The reason for that lies in the type of life that people led then. They had no pottery, probably no agriculture, erected no buildings or stone walls, and today their hearths and shaped stones lie beneath many layers of soil and sediment. Those Lewisville hearths were a lucky find discovered under twenty feet of earth.
Remains from the next period -- the one that scholars call the Archaic -- have been found near Carrollton in the southeastern corner of the county. There, archaeologists have found material like spear points, sinkers for fish nets, and stone axes. In other parts of Texas, archaeologists have discovered evidence of agriculture and pottery-making from the Archaic period, but they have found none in Denton County.
21 For the Neo-American period -- the years from 500 A.D. to the beginning of Spanish influence in the 1500s -- there are enough remains to make some informed guesses about Indian life in the vicinity of the area that would become Denton County. In the Neo-American period, the bow and arrow supplemented the spear and axe in the hunt. That greatly increased the likelihood of success in providing food. The bow and arrow are a step toward greater mastery over the environment, which is equivalent to saying that the bow and arrow move a culture closer to civilization.
The earliest Indians, like Dawn Age peoples everywhere, were slaves to their surroundings. They could do only those things that their natural environment let them do. They lived and died scarcely more advanced than the animals with which they shared the fields and forests. Tools broke that unforgiving system, and then better tools gave even greater mastery over the environment. The bow and arrow were a great leap beyond what spears and axes could give.
During the Neo-American period, the thousand years before the Spanish conquistadores landed in the New World, the Indians who lived in the vicinity of Denton County -- archaeologists to this time have found no traces of an permanent Neo-American settlement in the specific area that would later become the county -- came to depend more and more on agriculture to provide a significant fraction of their diet. With agriculture, permanent settlements became possible. Agriculture gave the Indians a more 22 secure food supply and allowed greater variety in diet. With pottery vessels, too, Indians could store food safe from the climate and scavengers. To vary or to supplement their agricultural diet, Indians took extensive hunting trips, ranging outwards from their permanent settlements. That was characteristic of early Anglo settlers, too.
In the Neo-American period, there was extensive trade between the Indians who lived in the area of Denton County and their neighbors to the north and to the south. The Indians seem to have travelled in family groups and to have established temporary camps, which they used again and again over the years. In the area that would become Denton County, there was abundant food either to hunt or to gather. In the creeks were fish, fresh-water mussels, and aquatic animals. Just to the east, the Blackland Prairie and to the west, the Grand Prairie offered grazing to buffaloes. A number of those temporary camps, showing evidence of both male and female activities, have been located in Denton County. Around those temporary camps, archaeologists have found the remains of cooking fires, stone points, and piles of debris which show layers established by frequent but intermittent use.
So, during the Neo-American period, the Indians of North Central Texas were gradually developing the basis of civilization. They were becoming more and more the masters over their environment through simple technology. Agriculture let them stay 23 in a permanent location and amass food, tools, and other possessions. Regular trade brought exchange of goods as well as the cross-fertilization of ideas. The level of civilization was roughly that of Mesopotamia in 6000 B.C.
The advanced Indians of Mexico affected North Central Texas only indirectly. The reason for the lack of contact was geographical: between Mexico and North Central Texas stretch a thousand miles of forbidding deserts, and that desolation blocked trade and hindered migration. Advanced techniques did travel up the Sierra Madre Occidental to the area of present Arizona and New Mexico, and from there, they spread eastward into the Texas Panhandle. At the same time, another advanced Indian culture, the Caddo, was moving westward from the Mississippi. From either of those two centers, one spreading east from New Mexico and one spreading west from the Mississippi, Denton was equally remote.
The coming of the Spanish after Columbus's voyages changed the course of Indian development. As far north as Denton County is, there was little or no direct contact with the Spanish, although it is possible that Spanish explorers and traders passed through the county. Because the county has no distinctive geographical features, there is no way to establish whether a given account describes Denton. For example, whether Luis de Moscoso de Alvarado, De Soto's successor, touched the county in 1542 in the search for the cities of gold is uncertain, but possible. Spanish artifacts have been found in the vicinity of Denton, but the Spanish never established a true presence in Texas north of the Brazos River, and no specifically described Spanish land grants include any Denton County area. The Spanish influenced the Indians who lived in the vicinity of Denton County, but did not dominate them through a physical occupation.
In the Historic Period -- the years after 1541 -- it was the introduction of the horse that changed Plains Indian life forever. The horse caused a revolutionary transformation of Indian culture, and not for the better. Entering Indian life at the end of the 1500s, probably through Spanish settlement in New Mexico, the use of the horse spread slowly across the Great Plains. The horse gave its owner such obvious advantages in hunting and warfare that it shattered the old patterns of life.
The Indian mounted on a small shaggy pony could follow buffaloes, not just wait for one to appear. Because buffaloes trace no predictable course in their wanderings, Indians without horses could never depend on finding one when they were hungry. That had pushed the Indians toward agriculture and the permanent settlement that agriculture demands. The horse caused a backward leap because a mounted hunter could rely on finding meat. Yet in their dependence on buffaloes, the mounted Plains Indians made inevitable their own destruction when white men nearly exterminated the animals in the 1800s.
But even before then, Indian culture was declining. Horses had let Indians become mounted nomads, and the mounted nomad is 25 the enemy of civilization. The early agricultural settlements were easy targets for bands of nomads. The mounted nomad, who created nothing, came to dominate the plains of Texas and became a predator not only on buffaloes, but also on his fellows and later on Anglo settlers. It was easier to raid and to steal food than to hunt. The horse solved the logistical problems that Indian war parties marching on foot could never deal with. The horse made it possible for military expeditions to travel great distances and to strike without warning because it allowed the raiding Indians to carry the supplies necessary for an extended campaign.
The horse, therefore, eased immediate problems of survival because it made hunting easier, but its long range effect was disastrous. It led the Indians into a state of endemic warfare with other Indians and with Anglos, and in either case the Indian was always the loser. The horse discouraged permanent settlement, and when buffaloes disappeared in the 1800s, the Indians were left almost without cultural resources.
The mounted nomad is, of course, only a stage on the path to civilization, if what happened in the Near East and elsewhere is a reliable guide to what might have happened in North America. Babylon, for example, developed defensive systems against raiding nomads, the walled city first and foremost. The technology necessary to create the walled city, and the division of labor necessary to maintain and guard it, started people back up the path to civilization. There is no reason to suppose that such a 26 development might not have taken place on the Great Plains, or at least at its edges. Indeed, one fortified village grew close to Denton County early in the 1700s. Unfortunately for the Indians and for the development of whatever indigenous civilization might have come from a strictly American environment, the experience in the New World differed from Babylon in having highly developed civilizations -- Spanish and Anglo -- in conflict with the Indians for the Great Plains. Therefore, the Indians had no autonomous future.
In the Historic Period, the region of Denton County seems to have been a sort of buffer between various Indian tribes. In North Central Texas sometime after 1700, Comanches and Kiowas appeared from the north. During the 1700s, Wichitas pressed down from across the Red River. The Wichitas had much in common, linguistically and culturally, with the more eastern Caddos, who were the most advanced group near Texas. It was the Wichita, or one of their sub-groups, the Kichais, who were around Denton County at the time of the first Anglo settlement.
After they moved south, the Wichitas adopted the horse culture and became true Plains Indians, although unlike Comanches, they maintained some agriculture. They created a large permanent settlement in present Montague County immediately northwest of Denton County at a site the early settlers mistakenly called Spanish Fort.
27 As early as 1719, the fortified Indian village of "Spanish Fort" served as a supply point for French fur trappers. In 1759, it withstood a full Spanish punitive exhibition, armed with artillery, but early in the 1800s, smallpox slaughtered the inhabitants. The diseases of the Spanish and Anglos butchered more Indians than guns and famine combined. By the time the first permanent Anglo settlers came to the area, the settlement lay abandoned, which is when the legend grew that the fortified village had been Spanish.
The early settlers in Denton County claimed that the Indians then present were Kichais. The Kichais, a near relative of the Wichita, have left little imprint on history as a separate tribe. The authority on Texas Indians, W.W. Newcomb, Jr., wrote in 1961 that the Kichai ". . . are a poorly known tribe, speaking a separate Caddoan language and originally supporting a somewhat different, though unknown, culture."3 Today, the last few Kichais share a reservation in Oklahoma with the last remnants of the Wichitas.
Though the Indians, especially the fierce Comanches, were a menace to early settlers and a moving barrier to Anglo expansion, the issue was never really in doubt. As Walter Prescott Webb has pointed out, the number of Anglo settlers in Texas even as early as 1830 -- that is, before the Texas Revolution -- was greater than the number of Hispanics and Indians combined.4 And the 28 numbers of Anglos continued to grow, while Indian population declined.
Fearful tales of Indian massacres and tortures haunted the early settlers of Denton County. The truth is that Indians killed very few Anglos in and around Denton County, relative to the numbers of the total population. Denton County, all told, lost fewer than a score of people to Indians between 1842 and 1868, the date of the last major Indian raid in the county.
There are few tales of peaceful contact between Indians and settlers in Denton. The few Indians in the area, Kichais or Wichitas as the case may have been, seem to have moved away simultaneously with the first Anglo settlements. At least, the early settlers are silent about any resident Indians. Because most of the earlier settlers in Denton County came from outside the state, they were unfamiliar with the resources available and the techniques most suitable to survival. They might have benefitted from contact with the Indians. In neighboring Collin County, for example, the early settlers apparently learned about gourd culture from Indians, but no similar transfer of knowledge seems to have taken place in Denton County.
When Texas declared its independence from Mexico in 1836, there was no permanent settlement in the area of Denton County -- neither Indian, nor Hispanic, nor English-speaking. Other areas along the borders were almost empty as well. The legislators of the new Republic of Texas viewed these empty acres with concern, 29 and they evolved a scheme to attract settlers to the vacant borderlands. Those new settlers, the members of the Texas Congress hoped, would hold the Indians in check as well as discourage encroachment from the Republic's neighbors. That scheme, as it affected Denton County, was the Peters Colony.
30 ENDNOTES CHAPTER THREE BEFORE EUROPEAN SETTLEMENT 1. Like "Anglos" referred to in Chapter Two, "Indians" is a poor word. Many writers today prefer "Amerind," but that is a cumbersome neologism. 2. Wilson W. Crook, Jr., and R.K. Harris, "Hearths and Artifacts of Early Man near Lewisville, Texas, and Associated Faunal Material," Journal of the Texas Archaeological Society (1957): 7-97; idem, "A Pleistocene Campsite Near Lewisville, Texas," American Antiquity, 23 (1958): 233-246. 3. The Indians of Texas: From Prehistoric to Modern Times (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1961), 250. 4. The Texas Ranger: A Century of Frontier Defense (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1965), 10.