“Nobody will be out there,” Steven Gonzales predicted. “Still, because we don’t have specific permission from the property owner today, we won’t trespass on Sugarloaf Mountain. We’ll just drive by and then view it from the river.”
So promised the director of El Camino Real de los Tejas National Trail Association during a day trip to Milam County, 80 miles northeast of Austin, earlier this year.
Yet as we headed down narrow County Road 264 toward the rain-swollen Little River, we found cars, pickup trucks and SUVs lining the gravel base of this improbable mountain, capped with red sandstone rock, that was once part of a large Native American community known to the Spanish as Rancheria Grande de los Ervipiame.
“Someone has found the place,” Gonzales whispers as we near the spot. “A lot of people.”
We pull over to quiz some college-age kids preparing to ascend the small mountain, part of which has been razed because previous owners believed Indian treasure was buried there.
“Is there some sort of class expedition?” Gonzales asks. “Who organized this?”
The youths smile, shrug and continue on.
We don’t join them. Instead, we push down to the historic Sugarloaf Bridge, a 234-foot-long truss structure that originally spanned the Brazos River on the Bryan-Caldwell Road in 1896, and then was moved to this Milam County site on the Little River in 1940.
From this pedestrian-only span — a modern concrete bridge serves infrequent vehicles nearby — we can spot more kids atop the mountain. Clearly, Sugarloaf had turned into a forbidden attraction, probably for students from nearby Texas A&M University, as bumper stickers on the parked vehicles attested.
A few days later, a woman posted on the Camino’s Facebook page that on a recent visit to Sugarloaf, game wardens came and ran everyone off.
“I assume she was out there with the horde we saw,” Gonzales says. “Because I have never seen anyone out there before. I assured her that we respect private property rights and only encourage visitors to view the site from the footbridge over the river.”
A vanished Indian metropolis
It is tempting for Austinites to think that their city is the most natural location for a metropolis in this area, given the handy springs and creeks — as well as a major river — that drop down from attractive, cooler hills onto fertile plains lined with riparian forests.
What’s not to like?
While signs of human activity in this area go back more than 10,000 years, by the time the Spanish were planting missions in this part of Texas, the biggest Indian settlement was at Rancheria Grande, near the current town of Gause, in mostly rural Milam County.
So what was the attraction for the remnants of the 22 Native American nations that chose to gather at Rancheria Grande — described as a giant village — during the 18th century?
For starters, the rich Brazos River bottomlands, easier to farm than the rocky upland soils around Austin. Also, hardwood forests thick with game. And a handy location on old Indian trails that the Spanish redubbed El Camino Real.
According a report made to the Texas Preservation Trust, Spanish Colonial records say that the Ervipiame lived between the San Gabriel River and the Trinity River. Early 18th-century Spanish explorers, too, wrote that the western Brazos River region was the Ervipiame customary settlement area.
But they moved around quite a bit over the course of their encounters with the Spanish.
In 1716, during a tour of La Provincia de los Tejas, Captain Domingo Ramón, commander of Mission San Juan Bautista, and Fray Isidro Félix de Espinosa encountered an Indian from Rancheria Grande, who became their guide.
Ramón’s diary records his arrival at the settlement: “Forty Indians of various nations came out to receive us. Among them were four captains. One of them, the leader from the Ervipiame tribe, knew me.”
In San Antonio in 1720, Fray Juan Antonio de la Peña, the missionary with Governor Marqués de San Miguel de Aguayo’s expedition to Texas, met an Ervipiame leader from Rancheria Grande named Juan Rodríguez.
Rodríguez requested that Franciscan send a mission for his people back at Rancheria Grande. They traveled to the site but couldn’t find his tribe, so he guided the expedition back to the Brazos River.
The Spanish did attempt to settle around Sugarloaf, and from 1746 to 1755 established three missions in the area. They lasted much longer than the yearlong terms of the three missions planted in the Austin area — nobody knows exactly where — in 1730.
Later, the dwindling Ervipiame tribe blended in with the Tonkawas and other groups. In 1866, Gov. J.W. Throckmorton requested that the Department of Indian Affairs grant the Tonkawas a league of land around Sugarloaf Mountain. But having been already relocated to Oklahoma, they never received the land.
“The Tonkawas still consider Sugarloaf a sacred spot, the place where their tribe began,” Gonzales says. “They return from Oklahoma for ceremonies.”
A feather in Milam County’s cap
In 2012, Gonzales’ group, in tandem with the Milam County Historical Commission and an area business group, planted khaki-colored federal Camino Real markers in the area, among the first planned for the braided road’s stretch between eastern Louisiana and the Mexican border.
One is at Apache Pass on the San Gabriel River, near private land along FM 908 that includes an event center, campgrounds, a steakhouse, an icehouse and an RV park. A well-preserved 1912 iron bridge looms above the gravel shoal that has been used for crossing the San Gabriel for centuries.
“And yes, Apaches lived here,” Gonzales says. “We generally associate them with West Texas, but they were among the Native tribes that flourished in this region.”
One side note from our day trip: Gonzales believed that Sugarloaf Mountain overlooked the Brazos River and that Sugarloaf Bridge spanned that larger waterway. By coincidence, however, this reporter had approached and photographed the same bridge — and had forgotten the incident — 1o years ago from the other direction while tracing the Little River, a tributary of the Brazos that funnels the flow from the San Gabriel, Lampasas and Leon rivers across Rancheria Grande.
In true historical spirit, Gonzales responded to the new information with equanimity: “That is exciting to know!”