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 Texas : Features : Columns : All Things Historical

The Neches River

by Bob Bowman
Bob Bowman
While environmentalists and water developers duel over the merits of preserving the Neches River, the debate has largely overlooked the river’s history.

Sometimes called East Texas’ last wild river, the Neches has been flowing though eastern Texas longer than any of the remnants of mankind, even the earliest Indians.
Neches River, Beaumont, Texas
The Neches River in Beaumont

Postcard courtesy Cruse Aviation
Rising near Colfax in eastern Van Zandt County and winding 416 circuitous miles to the mouth of Sabine Lake on the Gulf Coast, the river and its basin was the home of the 12,000-year-old Clovis culture.

Indian culture reached its peak with the arrival of the Caddos about 780 A.D.

The Caddos developed Mound Prairie in Cherokee County, the southwesternmost example of the Mississippian mound-building culture. Artifacts from this era can be seen at the Caddoan Mounds State Historic Site, a few miles west of Alto.

When the first Europeans came to East Texas in the sixteenth century, they found various tribes of Hasinai Indians of the Caddo confederacy living along the stream, which they called the Snow River--presumably for its white sand bars.

The river was supposedly given its currebt name by Spanish explorer Alonso De Leon, who named it for the Neches Indians, one of the Caddoan tribes he encountered.

On a later mission, De Leon was accompanied by Fray Damian Massanet, who founded San Francisco de los Tejas, the first Spanish mission in East Texas, near present-day Weches in Houston County.

Despite the efforts of the Spanish to colonize the river basin, white settlers did not enter the region until the l820s, When Mexican official General de Mier y Teran was sent to the region in 1828, he found numerous Anglo-American settlers, who used hand-driven ferries to cross the Neches and open the region to settlement.

General Teran built a fort on a bluff of the Neches near present-day Rockland in Tyler County to serve as a Mexican outpost in the region. The Mexicans supposedly operated a lead mine on the bluff until the fort was abandoned. The exact site of the fort remains unclear.

On his first trip to Texas, Stephen F. Austin wrote in 1821 that the Neches “affords tolerable keel boat navigation.” Barges were used to float cotton and other farm produce to Sabine Bay in the l830s and 1840s and steamboats began to travel up and down the waterway in the late l840s. Some of the earliest steamers include the Angelina, Florida, Frankie, Katy, Laura, Neches Belle, Pearl River and Star.

Scattered up and down the length of the river are remnants of history, including old river ports, logging camps, sawmill ghost towns, ferries, and Republic of Texas landmarks.
Beaumont, Texas air view of downtown and  Neches River
Aerial view of the Neches River and downtown Beaumont

Postcard courtesy Cruse Aviation
One of the basin’s most significant historical sites is old Bevilport, which lies north of Steinhagen Reservoir. The town, only a shell of its former self, was the seat of government for the Bevil District and the county seat of Jasper County.

The two also had some ties with Sam Houston. The general was given the town’s first lot when it was incorporated by the Republic of Texas in 1837.

An entry in an old store ledger also shows the hero of San Jacinto also bought a gallon of kerosene on credit there in the l830s -- and never paid for it.
All Things Historical
September 28, 2005 Column
Published with permission
(Distributed by the East Texas Historical Association. Bob Bowman is a former president of the Association and the author of more than 30 books about East Texas.)


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