The East Texas Natural History Collection
The East Texas Natural History Collection

All This Land . . .

Wednesday, February 20, 2013


I. All this Land, It Used to be a Pond


Joe Adams grew-up on King Street in Nacogdoches. He still owns that house. Joe would have been about ten in the mid-1950’s. He remembers a visit about that time with very old man named Mr. Satterwhite. The old man came down King Street one day and stopped to speak to the boy. Sixty years later Joe remembers that Mr. Satterwhite was a barber. He was from Cushing, about 20 miles North of Nacogdoches. The old man told Joe a story. It began; “All this land here where your house is, it used to be a pond”.

Satterwhite told the boy how he would stop right here on his way to Nacogdoches and shoot ducks; right here where the boy was now living and playing in his yard. Most of the houses in the immediate neighborhood were built in the 1920’s, some as late as the 1940’s. In Nacogdoches we have to use the “19” because we have houses built in the 1830’s too.

Ferguson St. intersects King St. (MAP) very close to Joe's house. Ferguson was put through in the 1920's about the same time that the state was building a new college called SFA. The street was probably named after Governor Miriam A. (Ma) Ferguson. City storm sewers made of three-foot clay tile from Texarkana run under the area now to drain it. But they don't do it completely. Behind all of the houses on Ferguson Street the ground is unusually swampy and rich with palmettoes and Louisiana iris.


By very rough calculations and assumptions, if Mr. Satterwhite was in his eighties in 1956, then he would have been born sometime around 1876. This means he would have been a young man capable of duck hunting sometime around 1900.


A little genealogical research on the Satterwhite family reveals that Jesse Albertus Satterwhite was born on February 2, 1893 at Clayton, Panola County, Texas. The 1920 census lists him at Precinct 7, Nacogdoches County, age 26, single, and working as a barber in a public barber shop (Genealogy).

A little genealogical research on the Satterwhite family reveals that Jesse Albertus Satterwhite was born on February 2, 1893 at Clayton, Panola County, Texas. The 1920 census lists him at Precinct 7, Nacogdoches County, age 26, single, and working as a barber in a public barber shop (Genealogy).


Sorry Joe, you are now older than that "very old" man whom you thought to be in his eighties. But the story still fits. In 1910 or 1913 Satterwhite was old enough to be hunting ducks. In fact Satterwhite had ten good years to shoot a duck there before Ferguson St. was cut through.

This story would be just another old man's tale except for some unusual features of the neighborhood that stand here 100 years later. They pre-date Joe and the oldest houses in the neighborhood, and old man Satterwhite too. Enormous overcup oaks stand there (Quercus lyrata).


A nearly identical pair stand together, barely visible from the road, behind my house. When we bought this house in 2007 I was impressed and puzzled by those big trees. I knew that overcups are bottomland trees that like to grow with their feet in the swamp. I also knew that they do not like to grow in constant wetness. They need to have a few months of dry soil or they will suffer and die. I began to notice other equally large overcups scattered around the neighborhood. One stands in a dry vacant house lot to the north. One was recently cut behind a house on Hughes St. Another stands behind a house on Houston St. They are all suspiciously similar in size and age.


Old man Satterwhite's story was passed down over a gap of 40 years and then again after a gap of 50 years. Then it made the whole picture come into focus. Overcup acorns have a large cupule that very nearly encloses the whole seed (IMAGE). This life-preserver will float the seed over the winter floods to a new beach-head. Windrows of acorns are a common sight in the bottoms in winter. Yes the whole neighborhood was a pond.


And anybody who knows anything about the cult of the duck knows that flooded overcup timber is the preferred habitat of mallards and hunters. Just ask the duck hunter where is Mecca? It is Stuttgart, Arkansas. A good site with flatwoods, black water less than a foot deep and canopy of overcup oaks is about as good as it gets. So with this knowledge we have a better understanding of Satterwhite's comments to young Joe. He was probably a little disappointed to see new white houses where his favorite mallard roost once stood.

But the story goes even deeper. Nacogdoches is built on the ridge of high ground between Lanana Creek on the East and Banita Creek on the West. It was built there for the oldest and most venerated of southern reasons...because that's where it has always been. Over a thousand years ago the mound builders picked it for good soil and abundant water. Spaniards built a mission and presidio because the Caddo town was there. Empressarios from places like Missouri and Tennessee came there because the Alcalde was there to sign their papers. New Orleans Greys passed through because it was on the way to the Alamo. The main export of the "oldest town in Texas" was history until the state built a college there in the Jazz Age. It is still there but not for any purposeful reason like Dallas or Houston. It is there just because it always was.


What about the mound builders. Many people go down Mound Street and see the pimple mound in the front yard of a Victorian house with a historical marker and think they have seen the mound. They are mistaken. The whole neighborhood is the mound. They go up a hill passing the First Christian Church and go at least a thousand feet before a slight dip takes them off the mound. It is gigantic and it comprises the entire square upon which the Thomas J. Rusk elementary school sits.


Why are these swampy regions with their ancient overcups located North of that mound? Why is there a saddle with swampy ground on top of the interstream divide. Pay closer attention to the East-West Streets like Hughes and King net time you drive them. There is a dip or swale or flatwoods running from the college toward downtown. This was interrupted by the mound builders.

It has been dammed by multitudes of baskets of dirt. Mr. Satterwhite'sduck roost was an ancient formation, but perhaps not so natural. Those giant overcup oaks are not just unusual trees in strange places. They are the living brothers to the dead mound with its greasy bones and pottery shards. They may be the only living evidence of those events long ago.


Dr. Will Godwin
February 2013

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