The Big Thicket

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The Big Thicket is an ecological wonder. This dense forest, sprawling between the Sabine and Trinity rivers in east Texas, constitutes a natural crossroads for plant and animal species from almost every part of the country. No less remarkable is the pioneer way of life that still flourishes where the dwindling generation of settlers’ descendants live in the Thicket’s leafy shadow, just fifty miles from downtown Houston.

When the first pioneers pushed toward Texas in the 1820’s and ’30’s, the Big Thicket was a formidable green barrier, sixty miles thick and one hundred miles long. Most were content to go around. Those who hacked their way through it never forgot the experience. “This day passed through the thickest woods I ever saw,” wrote one exhausted settler in 1835. “It perhaps surpasses any country for brush.”

Indeed it did—and does. “Big Thicket” is actually a misnomer, for its green fastness once harbored all sorts of wilderness terrain: tall groves of virgin pine and cypress; thickly shaded hardwood forests; flower-filled meadows; impenetrable black-water swamps festooned with vines and Spanish moss. Even the Alabama and Coushatta Indians who hunted the Thicket’s deer and bear shunned its deepest reaches, and, except for isolated bands of outlaws and runaway slaves, the settlers who stayed here built their cabins around the tiny towns that sprang up along the fringes of the forest.

The society they spawned was close-knit: perhaps half of the Thicket’s surviving residents are related by blood. Their accents and ways of doing things were those of the southern Appalachians from which they came. Left behind by the westward wave of emigration, the people of the Big Thicket were independent, wary of strangers, and generally law abiding—though law in the formal sense took a long time in coming. Above all, they were self-sufficient. Even the Civil War passed them by: when the call went out for soldiers for the Confederate Army, many took to the woods for the duration.

Over the years the Thicket has changed more than have its people. Lumbermen began to float mammoth pine and cypress logs down its rivers during the 1850’s, and later built sawmills to turn out millions of railroad ties and barrel staves. They felled thousands of acres of ancient trees, and poisoned thousands more so that today only regimented rows of fast-growing commercial pine can survive where hardwood forests had stood since the Ice Age.

And while the Thicket retreated steadily before the logger’s axe, other outsiders made inroads. The turn-of-the-century oil strikes transformed small settlements into boom towns; rice farmers flooded portions of the forest; developers eager to house suburbanites bulldozed still more.

By the early 1970’s, the great forest seemed doomed. Then, through the doggedness of private citizens and conservation groups, some eighty-five thousand acres were set aside as perpetual wilderness.

But saving a fragment of wilderness is easy compared to saving a vanishing way of life. Change is coming fast to the people of the Big Thicket: television beams in jarring images of the outside world; the impatient young drift away to the big towns. More and more it is the old men and women who remain, clinging to their memories and to what is left of their tangled forest home.

Over the last nine years, naturalists Campbell and Lynn Loughmiller have roamed the region, seeking to record the essence of the world of the BigThicket pioneers before it vanishes. From thousands of hours of taped reminiscences they have skillfully assembled a book, Big Thicket Legacy, just published by the University of Texas Press. On the following pages we hear the voices of people whose daily lives are still filled with the sounds and color of the American frontier.

G.C.W.

 
 

A lot of the Indians came into the Thicket after their meat. They lived at the Indian Village, east of Livingston, and they’d come about twice a year when I was small. They’d generally come in the spring, along in April, and in late September. The main game they wanted was deer, and they knew where all the springs ,and water holes was. There was only one in the bunch that could talk. The men would ride the little ponies and the squaws would walk. If they had babies they’d carry them on their backs in a sack. And quite a lot of poor little dogs came along, so poor you could count the joints in their tails.

Hog grease was what they wanted. And they’d come and line up crossways in our front yard and go to humming, no tune to it, sort of a chant. This was their way of announcing their presence. This was when they’d be on their way to hunt. If we had a dirty potato patch or cotton patch or something, they’d grab the hoes and hoe it out, and they’d do it good. Then my father, we had a smokehouse about twelve by fifty hanging full of cured meat, and my father would give them two or three of the shoulders, and we had lard put up in buckets. He’d give them some of that and a sack of salt, and they’d pull out. This old Indian would say, “You come.” He wanted us to come to his camp, and the only way you would ever find his camp, about every fifty yards he’d hack a bush and just let it fall over, but as a general thing they went pretty straight.