Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A tale of cottonwoods and chinaberries

Frontier towns of the 19th century came and went, often with little more than some old tree to mark their passing. Such is the case of Teepee City and a gnarled old cottonwood tree.

No one today knows when the stand of cottonwoods first set roots beside a little creek in what would become Motley County, Texas. In the 1870s when much of the country was on the move, however, the high spreading crowns of cottonwoods often signaled a source of fresh water for trail weary travelers and their animals. Sometime in the mid 1870s, cottonwood branches spread over the creek bank invited a band of settlers, some 100 wagons strong, out of Dodge City to camp and refresh themselves and their stock.

The water from the creek was sweet and clear, the grass plentiful, and buffalo numerous. When time came for the wagon train to continue south, about a dozen or so families left the train to found a new settlement near the creek and its cottonwoods.

In typical prairie fashion, some of these Motley County pioneers initially constructed crude dugouts into the creek banks. No doubt the first flash floods of spring gave them pause to reconsider their housing options!

Other settlers opted for above ground picket-style cabins. Chinaberry poles-- which the resident Comanche used as lodge poles for their teepees--were set into the ground vertically. Spaces between the poles were chinked with red clay mud from the creek.

Given the nature of these first homes, it might be logically assumed the settlers would name their fledgling town Chinaberry. Rather, they called it Teepee City.

American bison yet roamed the plains in great numbers in the 1870s, but the markets for hides and bones were growing back East. Teepee City became a headquarters for buffalo hunters on the Texas plains. The first timber-framed structure to be built in town was something of a frontier multiplex, a combination hotel-saloon-gambling house.

In fact, as the bison herds began to thin, the main commerce of Teepee City shifted from separating buffalo hunters from their money to separating cowhands from their money. The lure of that old house beneath the cottonwood tree became a long-standing thorn in the flesh of range bosses serving the XIT, Four Sixes, and other spreads.

Teepee City held out until around 1891. The railroad bypassed the little town to go through Childress, and a local rancher at long last bought the saloon so he could have it torn down. A county government was organized, and the town of Matador was named County Seat. Tumbleweeds blowing with the west Texas sand soon erased the last footprints of Teepee City.

But the old cottonwood that once threw its shade over a hotel-saloon-gambling hall stood fast, if gnarled and broken by weathering, well into the 1980s. One hundred years is uncommon for a cottonwood. While neither tree nor town stands today, there is a state historical marker at the roadside park on Highway 62/70 ten miles east of Matador.

SOURCE: Famous Trees of Texas, Texas Forest Service, Second Edition

Post a Comment