McKinney Falls

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McKinney Falls State Park, which lies across the Colorado River from Austin, is the 672-acre center of a 40,000 acre tract where Texas pioneer Thomas Freeman McKinney established his ranch. This carefully researched and well-written history relates the fascinating life story of the influential frontiersman and entrepreneur who lived and ranched at McKinney Falls.

Born in Kentucky in 1801, McKinney led an adventuresome life on the early Texas frontier. In 1823, he and his cousin Phil Sublett left Missouri with a Santa Fe caravan. Finding the market there glutted, they took their goods on south to Chihuahua, Mexico. Returning through Saltillo and San Antonio, they stopped long enough in Stephen F. Austin's fledgling Texas colony for McKinney to claim a league of land. En route home, the men stopped in Nacogdoches where both young men settled and married.

McKinney became a successful trader, eventually moving to the Brazos River valley, a jumping off point for his pack trains of cotton to Saltillo. Handy with a Kentucky rifle and fluent in Spanish, he traveled in Texas and Mexico as a businessman and made valuable contacts for the commission business he founded at the mouth of the Brazos in 1834. His firm of McKinney and Williams prospered and helped supply the Texas revolution in 1835–36.

In 1837, McKinney and others founded the Galveston City Company. When he moved the McKinney & Williams commission house there, he became one of the wealthiest leaders of the new Republic. He was a power behind the political scenes, supporting Sam Houston, among others. After statehood, he served in the Texas House of Representatives. A Unionist like Houston in 1860, McKinney opposed secession, but when Texas left the Union, he reluctantly helped the struggling Confederacy. Eventually Confederate mismanagement and corruption ruined McKinney and he lost his fortune. When he died at McKinney Falls in 1871, after years of ranching and raising thoroughbred horses, Thomas F. McKinney had lived an eventful and influential life that spanned the entire early history of Texas.

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1. The Park Land Before 1850

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THE PARK LAND BEFORE 1850

THE SOLID-ROCK FORD on Onion Creek in McKinney Falls State Park north of the landmark Pilot Knob attracted nomadic hunter-gatherers five thousand years ago, perhaps even earlier. Archeological evidence indicates the presence of ancient campsites in the rock shelters along the stream. A recent study of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century travel routes between San Antonio and Nacogdoches reveals that the Spanish followed the ancient Indian trails along the south side of Onion Creek to its mouth and a crossing on the Colorado River. Nineteenth-century Texas natives continued to use this path until the Anglo Texans dominated the area in the 1840s.1

The haunting ruins of Thomas Freeman McKinney’s 1850s stone house overlook this ford and the scenic lower waterfall on Onion Creek. If the water in the creek is low, visitors can cross this volcanic outflow from the Pilot Knob and climb the hill to view the foundation and remaining walls of what was once a comfortable home. In 1974 before developing the park and opening it to the public, Texas Parks and Wildlife archeologists and members of the Texas Archaeological Society carefully excavated the homesite and other sites of interest. A few of the artifacts they found are displayed in the park’s Smith Interpretive Center along with photgraphs of the McKinneys and exhibits explaining the unique geologic formations, the flora and fauna, and other material.

 

2. Thomas F. McKinney Before Moving to Onion Creek, 1801–1850

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THOMAS F. MCKINNEY BEFORE MOVING TO ONION CREEK, 1801–1850

THOMAS FREEMAN MCKINNEY was born November 1, 1801, the eldest son of Abraham and Eleanor “Nelly” Prather McKinney. He had four sisters and three brothers. Neighbors recognized McKinney’s father as a great hunter who took minimal interest in farming or raising horses like his father, Charles. Charles McKinney, an immigrant, arrived in Virginia in the 1750s and raised horses on the Virginia-North Carolina border in an area where neighbors raced thoroughbreds and quarter horses. In 1784 Charles moved his family and the horses through the Cumberland Gap into the Kentucky bluegrass region. Young “Freeman,” as his mother called him in honor of her step-grandfather, adopted the skills of both his father and grandfather; he appreciated good horses and was an excellent marksman. Abraham moved his family west to Christian County, Kentucky, by 1811 and onward to Howard County, Missouri Territory, in 1819.1

In 1823 at age twenty-two, and now known as “Mac” to his friends, McKinney took his horse and rifle to follow the Santa Fe trail with his distant cousin Philip Allen Sublett, kin to the mountain men of that name. The cousins joined Stephen Cooper’s second expedition to Santa Fe that left Franklin, Missouri, in May 1823, with pack horses loaded with trading goods. The party suffered a serious Indian attack southwest of Fort Osage and some members suffered terrible thirst when the group lost its way between water holes taking the Cimarron Cutoff in southwestern Kansas. They finally reached Santa Fe in November, where they discovered that the townspeople had already spent their money on the goods of a group of Missouri traders that had arrived earlier. The two adventurers joined an armed group heading south through El Paso to Chihuahua, which was a major trading outpost. Its residents were eager for United States-made goods, and unlike Santa Fe residents dependent on the arrival of annual payrolls, had a ready silver supply with a mint and a thriving economy. The cousins may have even travelled south to Durango.2 During this journey, the pair learned sufficient Spanish for trading purposes.

 

3. McKinney Falls Ranch, 1847–1859: A Growing Family Compound

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MCKINNEY FALLS RANCH, 1847–1859: A GROWING FAMILY COMPOUND

THE RANCH BEGAN IN 1847 when Mac’s brother, James Prather McKinney, moved his family from Galveston to Onion Creek. James was eighteen years younger than Mac, the next to youngest of the nine living children of Abraham and Nelly. In 1837 at age eighteen James had joined McKinney and Williams at Quintana as a junior clerk and the following year married his cousin Elvira, the daughter of Stephen Prather. Elvira was the same age as James and the young couple remained in Quintana to close the business through mid-1839, when their first child was born. They then moved to Galveston, where James continued to work for firm until it was sold to Henry Williams. Between 1842 and 1847, James helped tend to his brother’s scattered property, collecting rents, payments, and running off squatters or timber thieves. The couple had three children when they settled in their home along Williamson Creek, a lesser stream that emptied into Onion Creek near the upper falls.1

 

4. The McKinneys: Wartime and the Aftermath, 1860–1896

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THE MCKINNEYS: WARTIME AND THE AFTERMATH, 1860–1896

THE 1860 CENSUS reveals how much the McKinney brothers had improved their property on Onion Creek during the preceding decade. Mac had 1,500 improved acres with fences and structures valued at $48,000 and estimated his farm machinery, including the mill, to be worth an additional $10,500. He owned about 100 horses, 120 mules, 70 milch cows, 20 oxen, 250 range cattle, 15 hogs, and 900 sheep, for a total value of $36,000. During the past year Mac had harvested about 500 bushels of corn and 180 bushels of oats while the sheared sheep furnished 3,100 pounds of wool. From the cows’ milk, he processed an estimated 500 pounds of butter. By these figures, the McKinney ranch was worth $95,000.

Mac did not raise cotton but James McKinney ginned eleven bales from a portion of his cultivated 130 acres. He also grew corn, Irish and sweet potatoes, and other vegetables in his “market garden.” James had fewer animals with only fourteen horses, three mules, and fifty milk cows, but about the same number of oxen, range cattle, and hogs as his brother. James’s property was a self-supporting farm rather than a breeding ranch like Mac’s. The younger brother valued his land at $11,000, farm tools at $1,000, and his livestock at $4,500. Neither man owned many slaves: Mac had twenty-one including one couple both age seventy and a number of children housed in five dwellings while James had fifteen including one woman age fifty and youngsters under age ten living in a like number of structures. These blacks, while not free, were more like “family,” who helped with housekeeping, child raising, planting, harvesting, and animal care, not gang labor under an overseer. There was a “slave” cemetery on the high bank on the north side of Onion Creek in a pecan grove just west of the McKinney house according to Reynolds Lowry, who grew up in the McKinney house in the 1870s. A descendant of one of these black families recalled oral history that his great-grandfather had come to Travis County as “slave companion of” James P. McKinney and after emancipation had bought seventy-three acres near the Pilot Knob. Although some of the details are in error, such as “John” for “James” and coming from Kentucky instead of Missouri, the story is convincing, especially when hints of close personal relationships are found in correspondence. For example, James wrote to Walker Austin from Quintana in 1838 and enclosed five cents for James’s slave George who was with the Austins in Missouri; George was to spend the money on “anything he likes.”1

 

5. The Onion Creek Community: A Brief Look

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THE ONION CREEK COMMUNITY: A BRIEF LOOK

THE MCKINNEY RANCH became a community during the 1850s when kinsmen, friends, and employees bought or were given parcels of land. Besides the white horse trainer, Mac and James had a sufficient number of blacks who worked the land and animals. But McKinney most likely recruited Hispanic hands, probably in South Texas or around San Antonio, to care for the sheep and goats. The stacked stone fences also suggest Hispanic workmanship. After the Civil War at least one Mexican family and one black man acquired small tracts along Onion Creek within the area of the park. Lazaro Garza and his family lived on twenty-five acres on the south side of Williamson Creek near the jennet pasture while black Bob Holman had a cabin and field nearby though no deed indicates ownership. Garza was listed in the area in the 1870 census but not Bob.1 Who these men were and what they did for McKinney remains unknown.

Tracing the McKinney blacks and their descendants is challenging and frustrating. One black family that descended from Daniel Alexander settled at Pilot Knob and had an oral tradition that Daniel had come to Texas with James P. McKinney. A deed record shows that Mac deeded a young slave named Daniel and his mother Ceny to James. While some former slaves adopted the last name of their former masters after 1865, others chose different surnames. Anna and Mac had a slave named Charley; this may the “colored” Charles McKinney who married “colored” Mary Jane McKinney in Travis County in 1866.2 The date of the marriage so soon after emancipation and with the same last names suggests that perhaps they were a couple before 1865 and wanted to legally establish their relationship under the new order.

 

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