The Several Worlds of Matagorda Bay

The Matagorda Peninsula was the birthplace of one of the most famous terms associated with open-air ranching—Maverick, named for a prominent Texas pioneering family. By the late 1850s Maverick had also become a common term in south Texas for stray unbranded cattle, of which there were hundreds of thousands, if not millions who wandered on the open range of the coastal and prairie plains of Texas.

Samuel Maverick, born in 1803, was the son of an aristocratic South Carolina family who, in addition to being successful planters with dozens of slaves, were also merchants and land speculators. Young Sam attended both Yale College and the University of Virginia Law School, but instead of choosing the legal profession for his career, he was attracted by land speculation and especially the promise of making a fortune in Texas lands. The famous—now almost legendary—story of Austin's colony at San Felipe de Austin on the Brazos, the subsequent Texas Revolution, and the rise of successful cotton and sugarcane plantations in Texas must have impressed every Southern landowner, and especially in South Carolina where farm lands were beginning to wear out.

A year before the Texas Revolution, young Sam Maverick went to San Antonio to speculate in land. After the Texas Revolution of 1836, when Texas became an independent republic, Sam Maverick returned east in 1837 to handle family business, but he went by the way of Alabama to visit relatives. There he met and soon married Mary Adams, the impressive, charming, able daughter of a successful planter in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Already obsessed with dreams of a fortune in Texas lands, Sam persuaded Mary Adams to move to Texas in the late fall of 1837. Their party of four whites and ten black slaves, after many misadventures with bad weather, arrived in Texas on New Year's Days, 1838.

The newlyweds settled first in San Antonio, but Maverick had already invested in land at Cox's Point (Tres Palacios) on Matagorda Bay opposite La Vaca "with a view to possibly locating there." Besides boasting good land, it had promise as a port on Matagorda Bay, close to the Cavallo Pass, the only gulf entrance to the bay. For the time being, however, Maverick made San Antonio the base for his extensive land acquisition business. Soon he and his family did locate in La Grange, Texas, on the Colorado River, but the winter dampness and the oppressive heat of summer, with its mosquitoes, left Mary and the others in the family lonely and dispirited and in poor health. In her memoirs Mary wrote: "We concluded it would not do to live here any longer; the Colorado bottoms were too unhealthy. Mr. Maverick decided to take us to the Gulf coast where we could enjoy sea bathing."

In December 1844, the Mavericks traveled by carriage, followed by two hired wagons filled with household furnishings and supplies, plus saddle horses and several cows, to Matagorda Peninsula, crossing at the mouth of the Colorado. From there they went down the beautiful hard beach—passing the site of future Dutch Settlement—to De Crow's Point at the western end of the peninsula. There the Mavericks lived until October 1847 when they returned to San Antonio.

In one of his many real estate transactions between 1844 and 1847, Sam Maverick appears to have loaned money to a farmer, Charles Nathan Tilton, a New Hampshire-born immigrant who had spent some time at sea, whose property, called Tiltona, was twenty-five miles up the peninsula between De Crow's Point and Dutch Settlement. As collateral Maverick had taken a mortgage on the Tilton farm. It was an ideal piece of real estate for it boasted a large herd of cattle, vegetable gardens, orchards, dairy cattle, chickens, turkeys, and a small bay full of oyster beds. For some reason Tilton failed to pay off his loan, so that in March 1847 Maverick acquired Tilton's farm along with four hundred head of cattle at three dollars a head.

Ironically, Sam Maverick's great interest was in land acquisition, not ranching or farming. And so he turned the property over to Jack, a trusted black slave, and his family along with a few other slaves to run the farm. Although Jack appears to have managed the farm successfully, given his limited authority as a slave, and Maverick's disinterest, Jack found that he could not control the cattle at Tiltona. Not only did they roam freely, so many remained unbranded that the unmarked cattle of the peninsula came to be identified as "Mr. Maverick's," and eventually just "Maverick's." Letters of complaint about the Maverick cattle came to both Sam and Mary. Indeed, at Jack's own urging, Mr. Graham, a white neighbor, wrote to say that without assistance Jack found it "impossible to pen and brand your cattle on the Peninsula and the stock is becoming more wild and unmanageable."

Finally in 1854 Maverick went to Tiltona to move both slaves and cattle to a ranch forty-five miles below San Antonio called Conquista Ranch. But there again, lack of supervision allowed the Maverick herd to roam freely, mixing with wild free-range longhorn cattle and those from the herds of other ranchers. In time the name Maverick had come to mean any unbranded cattle and the term spread in south Texas, but did not become part of the lingo of the ranching world until after the Civil War. Eventually it also spawned the verb mavericking, which was applied to the already common practice of cowboys and ranchers putting their own brands on unmarked cattle at roundup or on the open plains.

Howard R. Lamar. Charlie Siringo's West: An Interpretive Biography

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