You have reached your limit of free articles this month.

Enjoy unlimited access to myStatesman.com

Starting at just 99¢ for 8 weeks.

GREAT REASONS TO SUBSCRIBE TODAY!

  • IN-DEPTH REPORTING
  • INTERACTIVE STORYTELLING
  • NEW TOPICS & COVERAGE
  • ePAPER
X

You have read of premium articles.

Get unlimited access to all of our breaking news, in-depth coverage and bonus content- exclusively for subscribers. Starting at just 99¢ for 8 weeks

X

Welcome to myStatesman.com

This subscriber-only site gives you exclusive access to breaking news, in-depth coverage, exclusive interactives and bonus content.

You can read free articles of your choice a month that are only available on myStatesman.com.

Rancheria Grande was the big city back in the 1700s

El Camino Real de los Tejas passed through the ‘giant village’ now in Milam County.


“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!”


Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Lifestyle

Stone sink naturally brings up questions
Stone sink naturally brings up questions

Q: Dear Ed: We’re planning to remodel our powder room and missed your column on natural stone vessel-type sinks. Can you please revisit your thoughts on stone sinks? Also, what other types of natural vessel sinks have you seen? — Vanessa, North Carolina A: My articles on bathroom sinks generate a lot of questions. So, here’s some...
10 tips for decorating with white
10 tips for decorating with white

White is one of the easiest colors to work with, and for some, one of the most difficult. Many are surprised when they browse the paint aisles and discover literally hundreds of shades of white. One of the many design tips relating to the use of white is that white often takes on a neighboring shade. Ever wonder why some whites appear more green, blue...
Pillow pairings to perk up a space
Pillow pairings to perk up a space

I love the changing of the seasons. One of my favorite rituals is to switch out the accent pillows on my sofa, chairs and bedding. I unzip my heavy weight plaids and replace them with lightweight florals and stripes. And just like that, my living spaces will feel new for spring. This spring, you can give your sofa, chairs and bed a quick pick-me-up...
Couple’s art collection finds the perfect match in this family home
Couple’s art collection finds the perfect match in this family home

SEATTLE — This particular match made in heaven owes Cupid nothing. There were no flapping wings, no flaming arrows — just one divine convergence that created a truly picture-perfect pairing. Steve and Carol Schulte, founders of Schulte Fine Art, are private art dealers from the East Coast. One of their three children, a daughter in Medina...
Grow your own paleo grains
Grow your own paleo grains

It may be the oldest cultivated grain in the Western Hemisphere. It predates maize by centuries. When the first corn was still weedy grass called teosinte in southern Mexico, the people of the region were growing an earlier grain. It’s the sophisticated ancestor of our garden pig weed, which has carried many settlers through rough times with...
More Stories