Friday, December 30, 2016

George Washington Davis: Early Settler on Shoal Creek

[ Article originally written for the Northwest Austin Civic Association or NWACA ]

In 1841 George Washington Davis received a land grant of 3,154 acres from the Republic of Texas for service in the Texas War for Independence at the Battle of San Jacinto. His grant straddled today’s MoPac, and a good chunk of our Northwest Hills neighborhood lies in this old Republic of Texas land grant.

Familiar spots today for residents of Northwest Hills – HEB, Doss, Murchison, Dell Jewish Community Center – are located within that old grant. So too, Austin Oaks. In another post (Death of Jane Simpson at Spicewood Springs) I described the abduction of the Simpson children in 1844 and Jane Simpson’s death at Spicewood Springs. When her remains were found in 1845, there’s reason to believe they were found on Davis’ property. Austin Oaks (the intersection of Woodhollow & Executive Center Drive) fits the bill of a location close to the springs where she was said to have been killed, and still on Davis’ property. More on this shortly. Perhaps not coincidentally, archeologists tell us of a prehistoric campsite at Austin Oaks. Perhaps a long-favored campsite known to Indians, including those that abducted the Simpson children.

G.W. Davis land grant in terms of modern roads

The map in the sidebar outlines the old grant in terms of today’s roads [1]. In our neighborhood, it ran west to Mesa Drive, and south to North Hills Drive. From the northern boundary that includes Austin Oaks, Davis’ grant extends east across MoPac along today’s Foster Lane, formerly a continuation of Spicewood Springs Road. This is where Spicewood Springs Creek emerges from under MoPac flowing into Shoal Creek.

Old Quarry Site historical marker
Further south on Shoal Creek is Northwest Park, the site of an old limestone quarry, part of Davis’ grant. A historical marker there reads: “Old Quarry Site. Limestone quarried at this site was hauled to Congress Avenue by oxen and used in constructing the 1853 Texas Capitol Building…”. [3]

1853 Capitol Building. Photo from Portal to Texas History

Davis' log house. Photo from Davis Cemetery, Austin History Center
Near here Davis built his home. A book at the Austin History Center, Davis Cemetery, by descendant Douglas R. Davis, says "In the period between 1841 and 1844 a log house was built at the location of the present day intersection of Pegram and Vine Streets ... on a small hill overlooking Shoal Creek. Stories have it that [at that time] Shoal Creek was full of fish and there were swimming holes as well." If you’ve ever driven this area, you know it is even today a beautiful location. The house was lived in continuously until about 1944 when it burned.

The Davis Cemetery: burial place of Jane Simpson?

Historical marker for Davis Cemetery
Further south on Vine you’ll find the Davis Cemetery, a Texas Historic Cemetery. Here too is a history marker; it says the earliest dated grave is from 1851, “but the burial ground may have been in use as early as 1845.” In a conversation with the author of the book, Davis Cemetery, he said family history has it that about 100 people from the community are thought to be buried there, but the identity of only about 40 are known. He confirmed family history places the first burial at 1845, but who that was has been lost to memory.

In another post (The Death of Jane Simpson at Spicewood Springs) I wrote that despite the many times the story of Jane Simpson’s death has been told, there is a mystery that remains: what happened to her remains; where was she buried? Oakwood, Austin’s oldest cemetery, was begun at Austin’s founding in 1839, but due no doubt to Austin’s partial evacuation (including seat of government) from 1842 – 1845, the cemetery wasn’t heavily utilized until later. And there seems to be no record of her burial there.

There is the possibility Jane Simpson lies in an unmarked grave in Oakwood, but I have a theory, and it’s just my own personal theory. Recall her remains may have been found on Davis’ property. The year was 1845. The very year that Davis family history recalls the first burial at the Davis Cemetery. Could that first burial have that of Jane Simpson, killed at nearby Spicewood Springs on Davis' property?


1880 Map of Travis County, Texas

Below is a snippet of the 1880 Map of Travis County showing land owners, which includes the G.W. Davis grant. I've highlighted the location of Spicewood Springs, and its creek flowing into Shoal Creek.

Notice also Fiskville on the right hand side of the map. There is an interesting story documented in the book Davis Cemetery, passed on by Roy W. Davis, a great grandson of G.W. Davis. The first time Davis saw his land he was on horseback near what would later be the community of Fiskville; he spotted a band of Indians and they gave chase. He made his escape to the fort at Webberville. A date is not given but I find it interesting that he headed for safety in Webberville, not Austin. Why? Does this speak to the state of Austin at the time? Was travel time from his land grant to Austin actually longer than to Webberville which lay on the "Path of the Pioneers", the old entry to Austin from Bastrop?

The 1880 map of Travis County


1940 Aerial: Spotting the George W. Davis House

An article in the Austin American-Statesman, 5 Nov 1994, p.23, re-states that the house burned in 1944, but says it was located on Twin Oaks Drive. To get a better idea of where the house was located a comparison of houses standing in 1940, before the fire, versus 1956, after the fire was made.

Based on comparison of 1940 vs. 1956 aerials, plus an additional note that "The burial place [Davis Cemetery] was about a quarter mile south of the home, that burned in 1944" [2, p.3] George W. Davis' house is likely the one shown in the 1940 aerial photo below in red. This location is indeed near today's intersection of Pegram and Vine, and approximately a quarter mile north of the cemetery.

1940 aerial photo of Davis property with modern streets. Red polygon shows probable house.

References, Notes

[1] Map generated using Travis County Appraisal District’s map search tool.
[2] Douglas R. Davis, Davis Cemetery, Austin History Center.
[3] For an interesting story related to the the old 1853 Capitol, see my post The Wichita Iron (meteorite)

See also Handbook of Texas

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