barton springs 1882

Who was the ‘Barton’ of the springs?

Above, “Barton Springs,” A.M. Ramsey, 1882 oil painting, Austin History Center, Portal to Texas History

…”waters are as transparent as glass. Small objects can be seen at the bottom, 15 or 20 feet below the surface. The flow never changes. Prolonged rains, over a wide extent of the country, do not increase their volume, nor do the severest drouths diminish it.”

Frank Brown writing in Annals of Travis County and the City of Austin, (From the Earliest Times to the Close of 1875), Collection of Travis County Historical Commission, Portal to Texas History

New zipcode for this blogger. Jumped from 78204 to 78704, which means a whole batch of historical tidbits to master in order to understand home in South Austin. With an address on Barton Springs Road, finding out about Barton seems a good place to start.

Born in Greenville, South Carolina, William Barton (1782-1840) migrated to Kentucky. After losing his wife during childbirth, he moved to Alabama in the midst of the Creek Wars that resulted in the defeat of the British-backed Creeks by an alliance of American with Choctaw and Cherokee warriors. Heeding the call of abundant opportunities to amass land in Texas, Billy and two of his brothers packed things up and headed to Texas, joining Stephen F. Austin’s Second Colony in 1828. He received a league of land on the west side of the Colorado.

Texas General Land Office

One neighbor gained was one too many for Barton though, so he and his second wife Stacy and their children moved to a more isolated spot 45 miles away and settled on a bluff above the springs. He named the closest three springs for his daughters: Parthenia, Eliza and Zenobia. A pair of buffalo were among the “domesticated” livestock Barton kept on this stunning piece of property.

While Barton held a valid deed from the Republic of Texas, there was one major problem: Native Americans held these springs as sacred. Brown recorded a version of the springs’ origins a Major Ransom wrote: “The Indians had a tradition that a rainbow was driven with so much force against a rock to shiver it asunder; whereupon Barton’s celebrated spring near Austin, gushed forth from the mountain side, and a portion of the brilliant bow having, mingled with the waters of the fountain, caused the beautiful prismatic colors reflected from the depths of its waters.” A piece of paper would change nothing in the Indians’ conviction of their rights to the land.

In 1832, Barton wrote Stephen F. Austin to ask him to call off collection officers for a note he owed Austin: “My luck has been Vary Bad. The Indians has Robed me of upwards of Six Hundred Dollars worth of property. I have mad Bad Crops on account of the Drought…. Spare us poor folk till we Git a little Better off Sir.” (Moses and Stephen F. Austin Papers, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, Portal to Texas History).

Brown wrote about one of Billy Barton’s narrow escapes made possible by his quick thinking: “The old gentleman took his gun and walked up the hill to look in the direction from which his son was to return (from Bastrop). As he passed a thicket Indians rose up and shot at him, one bullet grazing the rim of his hat. Mr. Barton raised his rifle, fired, and wounded an Indian. The balance charged upon him, whooping and yelling. The old gentleman started at a full run towards the house, the Indians after him. Being old, his strength began to fail, and he called to his several deer dogs to come to his assistance. They came to the call. Unfortunately, just before they reached him a deer ran across the path in front of the dogs and they put out after it. The Indians were fast gaining on him and something must be done quickly. He reached the brow of the hill. From the summit he could see down in the valley, while the Indians, who were pursing could not. He suddenly stopped, hallooed in a loud voice, “here they are boys, come quick,” at the same time beckoning with one hand and pointing with the other towards the Indians.” His pursuers beat a hasty retreat.

His idyllic isolation soon was shattered by another development nearby. A committee appointed and guided by President Mirabeau B. Lamar (1798-1859) (Disclosure: the Mister’s fourth great uncle) determined the site of a town called Waterloo, population about one, was the ideal location for the capital of the Republic of Texas. The spot was across the river from Barton Springs, which the committee, according to Gregg Eckhardt on, judged “the greatest and most convenient flow of water to be found in the Republic.”

1910 postcard from Edwards Aquifer

Lamar’s commission purchased 7,735 acres of land, identifying 640 acres fronting the Colorado River between Waller and Shoal Creeks for the capital. By the summer of 1839, construction was underway, and, by fall, the seat of government had been moved from Houston. Barton Springs supplied water for the new city of Austin, and in December according to Eckhardt, Barton “agreed to ‘give possession of a stream of water from my Big Spring’ to furnish power for a sawmill.”

According to David Bowles in The Western Sagas, Barton complained that “keeping the Indians away from his remote location was much easier than keeping Austin’s young men away from his daughters.” Their safety was ensured somewhat by the first sheriff of the capital, Barton’s son Wayne.

Perhaps the influx of newcomers and diversion of his springs proved too much for Billy Barton. He died in the early spring of 1840.

The way urban Austinites of today live piled high atop one another definitely was not Billy’s vision for Texas, but they sure do appreciate his springs.

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