The History of the Kissing Tree Land

STRINGTOWN (A GARDEN OF EDEN?)

To those escaping the divisiveness and growing economic hardships of the old South, an eight-mile strip of land

[1] along the Old San Antonio Highway seemed a veritable utopia. For a few ephemeral decades, Stringtown was just that.

It all began in 1847 when Edward Burleson brought his friend, John Drayton Pitts, to visit one of the most idyllic spots in Texas. They marveled at the San Marcos River fountaining from the base of a sheer limestone cliff. These springs had long been a gathering place for the native peoples, especially the peace-loving Tonkawas.  Burleson was about to buy the land that included the celebrated springs.  He already had a land grant six miles to the southwest of the springs, “for having bravely fought” [2] in the decisive Battle of San Jacinto. Bisecting it was the stage-coach road from San Antonio to Austin which joined the Camino Real, forged by Spanish explorers from Mexico City to Louisiana. Pitts bought these 640 acres from Burleson. [3] And so the reverse flow along the old Spanish trails would bring an entirely different culture to the area.

This was the first organized colony in Hays County, consisting of family and friends of John D. Pitts. Their farm houses, strung out at half-mile intervals along the Austin-San Antonio road led to the name, Stringtown. The new settlers were blessed with cheap cropping land, grass for stock rearing, ample rainfall, shelter from winter winds by the Balcones Escarpment, and they enjoyed a built-in sense of security and camaraderie from knowing their neighbors.

These Southern cotton planters intended to continue their accustomed way of life in this new location. To do so, they had brought their slaves, on whom they depended to build their log cabins, till their fields, and tend their livestock.  It would appear, in the context of the era, that there was a good rapport between the slaves and their masters. However, as one former slave [4] recounted, his mother constantly prayed, “Oh, Lawd, set us free!”

Despite several years of natural disasters in the late 1850s — a plague of grasshoppers, a very wet winter, then more than a year of extreme drought, life was good for the people of Stringtown. Until the Civil War intervened.

While the men fought for the Confederacy, their womenfolk and young sons, assisted by their slaves, kept the home fires burning.  Once they returned and freed their slaves, life would never be the same. Share-cropping arrangements went into place. Many of the Stringtown farmers gave land to their former slaves, some receiving very generous amounts. With their labor force gone, many moved into San Marcos, becoming businessmen who built impressive homes mainly in what is now Belvin Street Historical Area, thus shifting the social focus into town and changing the demographics of Stringtown.

Another wave of settlers came in from southern states such as Mississippi where cotton was no longer king, thanks to emancipation and exhausted soils. As the former slaves began to move to the cities, the existing Stringtown farmers looked to another source of labor. Their new tenants came mostly from Mexico where political unrest was being felt. They kept the cotton culture alive in the first few decades of the 20th century.

OVERVIEW

John Drayton Pitts, according to family lore, was born somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean.  His father, John Sr, an American sea captain, had met and married Jane Ingram in London in 1797. The following year, they sailed for Charleston, South Carolina.  It was onboard ship that the first of their family of 11, John, first saw the light of day. By 1815 the family was in Washington County, Georgia. It was here that John Drayton Pitts took a bride in April 1819.  She was Eliza Permelia Daves, born in 1802 in Savannah, Georgia.

John D. Pitts, a civil engineer by profession, became involved in politics in Georgia. In 1841 he was a member of the Georgia House of Representatives from Stewart County. The next year, John D. and his brother-in-law, James Vickers, took a trip to Texas. In a letter to his wife, John D. exhorted her to encourage their friends and family to come to this “Garden of Eden.”  And so, what became known as the Pitts Caravan lumbered west. Eleven families, including John D.’s brothers, William [5] and Edward, [6] settled in Grimes County, Texas.

Once in Grimes County, John Drayton Pitts dived into Texas politics.  He was engrossing clerk in the lower house of the first Texas legislature in 1846. Colonel Pitts, as he was known at the time, was appointed adjutant general [7] under Democratic Texas Governor, George Tyler Wood, from 1848 to 1850. During his years in office, the Pitts lived in Austin a block off Congress Avenue [8].  John D. struck a dashing pose, driving around town in his buggy drawn by fine horses decked out in silver-trimmed harness. He became good friends with General Edward Burleson who was interested in moving to what would soon to become Hays County. Just after Wood’s inauguration, Burleson took Pitts to see the area round the San Marcos River where he would soon lay out the town of San Marcos. [9]

This visit prompted John D. Pitts to settle there with his wife, Eliza, and his lively youngest daughter, Eliza Pope, known as “Popie”.  He bought land [10] and built a log cabin a short distance to the northwest of the present-day courthouse square which he would help lay out.   The little settlement of San Marcos, based round Captain Henry McCulloch’s Ranger Company’s log hut and barroom tent, consisted of about six buildings, including a smithy and a tavern.

With his new appointment as adjutant general, John D. Pitts took his family back to Austin where his youngest daughter, Popie, found herself a husband. She married James Lafayette Malone on 14 March 1850. Soon thereafter John D. and wife Eliza moved a few miles southwest of San Marcos to land purchased from General Burleson.[11] That same year, Popie and her husband, James L. Malone, and John D.’s brother, William and his wife Ann built their homes along the San Antonio highway.  Over the next six years, several other members of the original Pitts Caravan, including older daughters of John D. Pittas and their husbands would join them. Each daughter received 200 acres from her father.  Most bought additional land. And so, Stringtown was born.

Approaching Stringtown from San Marcos meant going through Purgatory — not literally, fording the Purgatory Creek. Once out of its deep gully and across a flat stretch referred to as the Race Track, [12] one came upon a beautiful grove of plum trees, watered by the springs of the eponymous Plum Branch.

The farmhouses were spaced about half a mile apart, facing the highway.  For the first four-and-a-half miles, they were on the east side of the road, facing northwest, sheltered from the cold winter winds by the Balcones Escarpment.  For the next three-and-a-half miles, the houses were on the other side, facing southeast, cooled by the prevailing winds from the Gulf of Mexico in the summer.  They were built of notched cedar logs and chinked with adobe. The rooms were on either side of a hallway, with rock chimneys.  Four-to-five-foot rock fences, fronted by sharpened cedar pickets, guarded the livestock from theft.

The Stringtown farms were often referred to as model farms. They survived the hardships of their early years, including the 1857 drought when water was brought from the San Marcos River and Geronimo Creek. Food was shipped from New Orleans to Port Lavaca and hauled in by oxcart.  Prickly pears were the main source of food for the cattle. Nevertheless, in 1860, crops were reported to be “much better than the most brilliant imagination could have depicted under such circumstances.”  The wheat crops were abundant; corn quite good; and cotton producing good-sized bolls. Singled out for mention were the farms of Byrd Owen [13] and James L. Malone, the latter an example of “what good management, industry and a good fellow can do….” [14]   John D. Pitts is also given credit for being one of the best farmers and stock rearers in the area, second only in the latter to his friend, Thomas F. McKinney,[15] who farmed in Travis County, near Manchaca.  John D. bred racehorses and mules. [16]

Although not a town, Stringtown soon rivaled San Marcos in population. It had more school children, most of whom were John D.’s grandchildren and taught on the Pitts farm by G. W. Connell.  General Pitts had donated two acres in front of his house for a one-room schoolhouse which doubled as a church.  Circuit-riding Methodist preachers such as the Reverends Yell, Whipple, and Thrall conducted the services. The Sunday-school teacher, Thomas Lancaster, was known as the “golden voice of Stringtown.”

Sadly it was not long before a pall of grief descended on the settlement with the death of James and Popie Malone’s first baby, John. Popie’s mother, Eliza Permelia (Daves) Pitts,[17] aged only 49, soon followed, succumbing to pneumonia on 12 May 1851. And so the Pitts Cemetery had its beginnings.

Popie and James Malone would go on to have 15 more children [18], necessitating the building of a large house [19] which looked like a school.  Popie, a woman of boundless energy, made her home the social hub of Stringtown. She was the first to have a real cook stove which was put to good use canning fruit, not just from her five-acre orchard, but from the neighborhood as well. Women would stay for several days canning and preserving. Popie also had a Wheeler & Wilson [20] hand-cranked, chain-stitch sewing machine with which she stitched for women from miles around. The Malones would be the last of the original Stringtown settlers to move into San Marcos in the early 1890s.[21]

As the 1860s dawned, dark clouds of a different nature were gathering, and winds of war began to blow. Secession was the big question. One could say the first casualty of the war that rent the nation apart was the venerable General John Drayton Pitts. He took ill while attending the secession conference in Austin. [22] He is said to have written his will while in Austin, “not dreaming for a moment how soon it would be used.”  On the way home, John D. spent the night with his good friend, Thomas McKinney, on Onion Creek  where he was “struck with paralysis”  and died on February 5, 1861.[23] He rests in the Pitts Cemetery beside his first wife, Eliza.

The Civil War was to have a huge impact on Stringtown where the crops grown depended on slave labor. It appears that most of the slaves remained loyal during the conflict. Along with the womenfolk and younger boys, they helped Stringtown survive the hardships of war and the blockade. The women kept them fed and and clothed, as well as furnishing clothing for the soldiers.

Most of the men fought with General Ben McCulloch or in the local regiment led by San Marcos doctor, Colonel Peter Woods who had his farewell party at the Malones’ house.  James L. Malone was appointed as war-tax collector and supervisor of the farms and slaves for the families of the men at the front.  Others served with Terry’s Texas Rangers and along the coast with Colonel “RIP” Ford. The year the war ended, crops were divided 50/50 with former slaves who stayed on as hired hands.  Many were given land by their former owners. Very little is written about the black families of Stringtown, but luckily an account exists about the Rev. Dr. David Dailey’s slaves.

The Reverend Dailey, a medical doctor and a Methodist preacher, and his wife, Mary Evans Lamar, a cousin of Mirabeau B. Lamar, arrived from Georgia in 1854 with about 25 slaves. They grew cotton and corn, and raised cattle in Stringtown. They also had a ranch on the Blanco River and land in Guadalupe County near New Berlin.  Six  of Rev. Dailey’s sons served with the Confederacy, three under Colonel Woods.

Two of the Dailey slaves were John and Lucy Phillips. [24] John was an innovative, self-trained engineer who built a cotton gin and designed a screw press for the Rev. Dailey. Their son, Daniel, born in 1854, was described as big framed and good natured. [25] In an interview recorded in his 90s, he describes how the family lived in a one-room log house on the side of a hill on the plantation. His family always had plenty to eat — corn bread; beef and milk from the Daileys’ cows;  peas, cabbage, beans, and beets from the gardens. A spinning wheel and loom, made by Dan’s father, supplied material to clothe the large family. Dan said his uncle was the plantation overseer so they were treated right. During the Civil War, as a young boy, he was sent to the ranch on the Blanco, to help manage and exercise wild horses. It was there that he learned from Rev. Dailey’s son, Thomas, that the war was over and he was free. Rev. Dailey gave each of his former slaves 30 acres, except for Lucy Phillips. She got a larger acreage [26] because she had been so long with the family. Lucy’s children finally amassed 1000 acres in Guadalupe County which became known as Phillips Colony.  There they grew cotton – and struck oil.[27]

On their farm, two Dailey brothers, Thomas and Lucius, continued to operate a small store in the corner of which, in 1870, Thomas started a post office [28] with brother Basil as assistant postmaster. Their father used another corner for his office. [29] After their father’s death in 1872, sons David and Christopher bought the farm and the store which was enlarged. David operated the post office until 1883 when it moved to Hunter in Comal County.[30]

With emancipation, a profound change came to Stringtown. The economic backbone of the settlement, slave labor, was no more. Not only that — but, according to Judge Ed Kone, [31]  “The social environments of the neighborhood “ completely changed and,”the remaining whites’ social, school and religious relations were cast entirely with San Marcos.”  Many leased their land to migrants from the ravaged Old South.  Judge Kohn did concede that these southerners were “excellent people, many of whom were relations of the pioneers of this country.” Among these newcomers were some very interesting characters. One in particular stands out, Major Israel B. Donalson (1797- 1895) who paid for land belonging to John D. Pitts’s brother-in-law, Dr. James Vickers, in gold coins. After a very colorful career [32] and several years in retirement,  the major moved to San Marcos at the end of the Civil War. He helped organize the First Christian Church in 1869.  His children were to marry into prominent Stringtown and San Marcos families.

Other Stringtown pioneers turned to a completely different ethnic group.  Once again Mexicans were moving into the area, due to political turmoil across the international border. As the violence of the Mexican Revolution increased, many more sought haven around the turn of the century. They provided a cheap source of labor and were known to be hard working and reliable.  They became either tenant farmers or were employed as farm laborers.  [33]

A boost for the area was the arrival of the International and Great Northern Railroad in 1881, although it is said to have led to the area being flooded with tramps. Twenty years later, the Missouri Pacific tracks were laid. These allowed the easy transportation of cattle and cotton which was king until the arrival of mechanization and the scourge of the boll weevil. [34]

As the 20th century progressed, less and less remained of the original Stringtown. With the arrival of the automobile, stage coaches became a thing of the past. San Marcos began to extend outwards as the road was upgraded in the 1930s. At the opposite end was the busy little rail-depot town of Hunter. Old farmhouses were replaced by more modern structures, and businesses began to appear. Farms were replaced by subdivisions.

The latest of these subdivisions is Kissing Tree, [35] a planned community for adults, 55 and over, designed by Brookfield Residential Properties, Inc., based in Calgary, Canada.   The development’s name was inspired by the legend of General Sam Houston causing a sensation kissing several young ladies under an oak tree during his gubernatorial campaign in 1857. This was by way of thanking them for making a flag draping the platform from which he spoke.  But do not expect to see the legendary oak here. It is actually several miles away in San Marcos at the intersection of University Drive and C.M. Allen Parkway, close to the San Marcos River. Kissing Tree is aware of the historical importance of their property, hence their desire to obtain a historical marker. Buildings and hiking and biking trails in the new development will reflect the names of the original settlers.

Once approved, a historical marker for Stringtown, will be placed close to the entrance to Kissing Tree on the west side of Hunter Road, about one third of a mile east of the intersection of Hunter and Centerpoint roads. This is in the heart of Stringtown where John D. Pitts settled. Close by is the Pitts Cemetery where several of the early pioneers rest, and which is perhaps the last vestige of the once-thriving community.

SIGNIFICANCE

Stringtown, the brainchild of John Drayton Pitts, was Hays County’s first residential development. Its energetic settlers built a self-sufficient community, based on their former Southern lifestyle. Their houses, strung along the stage-coach route from Austin to San Antonio, led to its distinctive name.

Over the years, from their homes fronting the road, Stringtown inhabitants viewed a constant cavalcade of travelers on foot, driving wagons, riding horses or mules, and in the stage coaches on their regular daily schedules. Traveling the dusty road, the passersby were assured of a welcome — a refreshing pause as horses were changed at the James Matthew Purdy’s stage stop or an overnight stay in a private home for individual wayfarers.  It is said that the James brothers, Jesse and Frank, overnighted with the Kone family. The diminutive curiosity, Tom Thumb, his wife, and his liveried driver supposedly drove through in a little gold victoria,[36] drawn by two shiny black Shetland ponies.

In the 1850s, Stringtown, although lacking urban amenities, was a viable community long before San Marcos emerged as an important town.  Stringtown had more inhabitants and a superior school. It took  the Civil War and the arrival of Isaac Julian in 1873 to turn things around. Julian used his newspaper, San Marcos Free Press, and its contacts with the wider U.S. media, to promote the city of San Marcos to good effect.

The pioneers could weather any storm, it seems, except the effects of the Civil War. Their economy depended on their slaves. Emancipation was the beginning of the end for Stringtown. Many of the early settlers moved into San Marcos, becoming important figures in all walks of life, building elegant new houses, especially in the Belvin Street Historical District.

After the war, a new influx of cotton planters from the south moved in, leading to large-scale cotton enterprises. The labor vacuum was filled by an increasing number of Mexican families, fleeing political unrest and violence in the latter half of the 19th and the first two decades of the 20th century. These descendants of these families have led to the very vibrant Hispanic culture San Marcos now enjoys.

The demise of cotton by the mid-1920s, the great depression of the 1930s, and World War II took a toll on the farm economy of old Stringtown.  It was not long before almost any trace of it disappeared. Virtually no descendants of the original pioneers remain in the area.  Their names are not even perpetuated in the names of the new streets. And, underlining it all, the road along which the farmhouses were strung out takes its name from Hunter in Comal County.

© 2016 J. Marie Bassett

 

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Hays County Deeds –  landmark.co.hays.tx.us

FamilySearch.com

findagrave.com

hayscotxgenweb.com

Kissing Tree – Tabitha Walsh (Marketing Manager)

Library of Congress –  loc.gov

Portal to Texas History – texashistory.unt.edu

findmypast.com

Stovall, Frances; Storm, Maxine; Simon, Louise; Johnson, Gene; Schwartz, Dorothy; Kerbow, Dorothy Wimberley. Clear Springs and Limestone Ledges, A History of San Marcos and Hays County For the Texas Sesquicentennial.  Nortex Press ( A Division of Eakin Publications, Inc., Austin, Texas, 1986.)   Book One – Chapter 15. “San Marcos and Stringtown.”

Talbot, Zora Malone.  Stringtown (University of Corpus Christi Press, 1961)

Texas General Land Office – glo.texas.gov

The Handbook of Texas — tshaonline.org

[1] There are various estimates of how far Stringtown stretched from its beginning about two miles from the courthouse in San Marcos.  Some take it over the Comal County line.

[2] Texas General Land Office – Hays County – Abstract 63 – Travis Donation – Edward Burleson

[3] Hays County Records Book A Page 293

[4] Library of Congress – Federal Writers’ Project (1936-1938): Slave Narrative Project, Vol. 16 – Stories of Ex-Slaves (Texas),   Part 3 Lewis-Ryles, Page 183— Daniel Phillips Sr., former slave of  Dr. Dailey, Stringtown.

[5] William Pitts became a Texas Ranger.  In 1849 his brother, John D, then Texas Adjutant General, authorized Col. John Salmon “RIP” Ford to raise a company to patrol the frontier.  Ed Burleson, son of General Ed Burleson, was designated captain and William Pitts lieutenant.  The company was mustered out in 1858.

[6] A survivor of the Mier Expedition.

[7] This office was dropped soon after this date.

[8] “Clear Springs and Limestone Ledges” by Frances Stovall, Dorothy Wimberley Kerbow, Maxine Storm, Louise Simon, Dorothy Woods Schwartz and Gene Johnson, Page 94.

[9] General Burleson, Dr. Eli Merriman, and William Lindsey set up a partnership to lay out the town of San Marcos on March 1, 1848.  That was the day that Hays County was formed, with San Marcos designated as the county seat.

[10] The Texas  Democrat  Vol.1 No.25, Saturday July 14 1849, quoting De Cordova’s Herald, notes  that John D. Pitts had placed 122 sheep on his farm at San Marcos on April 9, 1847.  A year later, after selling 17 and slaughtering 35, the flock had made a natural increase of 107.  Their fleeces were producing an average of five and a half pounds each.   Three months after their purchase, the sheep do not appear on the bill of fare for San Marcos’s first barbecue on July 4, 1847 when Popie Pitts and her cousin Sarah sewed a huge flag, the first Texas flag to fly over San Marcos.  The flag was determined to remain aloft, despite several attempts to lower it, because the wheel stuck.  Family legend has it that John D. Pitts fired the shot that saved the day!

[11] General Burleson’s 640-acre San Jacinto grant.  In addition to this, John D.Pitts appears to have been a land speculator, buying and selling land in the San Marcos area.  He was a charter member of the Pittsburg Land Company which laid out Pittsburg across the Blanco R.  from present-day Blanco.

[12] John L. Connally brought two racehorses from his father’s stable in Kentucky, hoping to start a stud farm, but was lured by gold to California, so sold his horses, one to John D. Pitts.  Once back he set up a stable and laid out a racetrack, but his Methodist wife did not approve, so that was the end of that.  “Stringtown” by Zora Malone Talbot.

[13] Owen ran the only blacksmith shop in Stringtown.  His son was the only boy born in Stringtown who would live all his life in the original homestead which later burned down.  Descendants still owned the property in 1961.

14 State Gazette, Saturday June 30 1860

[15] Thomas Freeman McKinney (1801-1873) led a full life.  Born in Kentucky, he was a Santa Fe trader before coming to south Texas as a merchant.  He helped finance the Texas Revolution, serving as a captain in the Texian navy and capturing a Mexican ship.  He was one of the founders of Galveston and senator and representative from there.  He is said to have been involved in the founding of Austin. He settled on a ranch on Onion Creek, southwest of Austin, now the McKinney Falls State Park.

[16] One mule made the national press because it ears were very curious, not resembling either its sire or its dam.  When sold, it fetched a good price.

[17] John D. Pitts soon took a second wife, Ann Durham, who was noted as a dairywoman, successful gardener, and raiser of poultry.

[18] When their children married, the Malones gave each 100 acres, or the equivalent in cash, and a bedroom suite.

[19] Photograph of the Malones’ Stringtown house and their large family accompanys this text, courtesy of descendant, Dorothy (Malone) Gumbert.

[20] A neighbor, Hamilton Frazier, had an agency for Wheeler & Wilson sewing machines.

[21] The Malones’ house at 1236 Belvin Street received a historical marker in 1996.

[22] Unlike most of his neighbors, he was not for secession.  He wanted to find a way for the states to maintain their rights without breaking up the Union.

[23] Galveston Weekly News, Vol. 17 No. 46, February 19,1861

[24] There are different accounts concerning the Dailey slaves. One says that some slaves were sold when they arrived. Another says several were freed at that time, including John and Lucy Phillips.  The 1860 census lists 27 of varying ages.

[25] Library of Congress – Federal Writers’ Project (1936-1938): Slave Narrative Project, Vol. 16 – Stories of Ex-Slaves (Texas), Part 3 Lewis-Ryles, Page 183— Daniel Phillips Sr., former slave of  Dr. Dailey, Stringtown.

[26] “Clear Springs and Limestone Ledges” – Page 98 gives the figure of 600 acres on Cibola Creek whereas other sources give 60 acres.

[27] Ibid.  Pages 98-99

[28] Prior to this,Thomas Jefferson McCarty who raised sheep and cattle on the escarpment, travelled through Stringtown, collecting mail from the Malone place to San Marcos and dropping it off on the way back.  A colorful character who had arrived in 1851, McCarty, whose shoulder-length white hair was topped with a black hat, rode a white pony.   He had two saddle bags, one for mail the other for supplies.   McCarty Lane was named for him.

[29] Rev. Dailey practiced medicine and dentistry. He is said to have had four degrees – medicine, dentistry, law and divinity.

[30] Major Andrew Jackson Hunter came to Stringtown in 1867.  It was the arrival of the International and Great Northern Railroad in 1881 that ensured his name would be remembered.  He donated land on York Creek for a railroad stop which is known as Hunter.   The road through old Stringtown is now known as Hunter Road.

[31] Kyle News, Friday 20 July 1928. Edward R. Kone was the son of Samuel R. Kone and John D. Pitts’ daughter, Sylvirah Rebecca.  Edward became Hays County Judge in 1878 and served for 30 years.  Two of his brothers, John P. and Samuel R. Kone Jr. continued farming in Stringtown.  Samuel Kone Jr. later opened a livery stables in San Marcos.

[32] Donalson, a Kentucky farmer, transported his hay, on keel boats he made and piloted himself, to New Orleans for sale. He served as a member of Kentucky legislature before moving to Illinois.  There, during Mexican War, he raised a company and served in frontier defense in Santa Fe and Las Vegas .  After marching 800 miles back home, he and son Frank headed back west again and made a fortune supplying lumber to the mining camps during the California gold rush.  They sailed home via Cuba and up the Mississippi. In 1854 Donalson was appointed first US Marshall for Kansas.  After his resignation, en route to the nation’s capital, he happened to be in Charleston, Virginia, at the time of John Brown’s execution.  It was he who escorted Brown to the scaffold.  Brown thanked him for his kindnesses to his sons while Donalson’s prisoners in Kansas.

[33] Unfortunately many of the names of the Mexican inhabitants of Stringtown were not correctly noted in the censuses.  However names such as Cruz, Flores, Martinez, and Reyes are decipherable.

[34] The boll weevil, Anthonomous grandis, thought to have originated in central Mexico, crossed the Rio Grande circa 1893 to become one of the worst pests to afflict American agriculture.

[35] Kissing Tree was orginally branded as Paso Robles.

[36] A type of elegant carriage popular in the second half of the 19th century.

Photo credit: San Marcos-Hays County Collection, San Marcos Public Library, 33390002679518

 

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