Week 6: The Long Line
Some of you may know that Henry C. Jaeger Jr. (“Popo” to those of us in a certain generation) was a genealogy and history enthusiast. In addition to collecting and cataloging photographs and obituaries, he published two books which are available on this website as well as the Clayton Genealogy Library in Houston, TX.
Henry’s two books, The History of Early Pioneer Families of Winedale was published in two volumes in the early 1990’s and offers a biographical sketch of 46 families who settled the Winedale area. The two volumes also contain 12 essays, reflections, and mini-histories. Henry’s mini history titled “The Old Ox Wagon Freight Line” appears in Volume 1. In it, he describes the ox freight line that ran between Houston and Austin prior to the railroad. It also tells the story of Peter Jaeger’s adopted son McNeil.
Throughout the essay, you will note the use of certain terms and descriptions that are no longer considered appropriate. Language is fluid and constantly changing. Words acquire new meaning as societal norms change and new ideas are formed. The past should never be censored or explained away, so with the exception of minor edits for clarity, I have chosen to present Henry’s work in its original form.
The Old Ox Wagon Freight Line
by Henry C. Jaeger, Jr.
The freight line between Houston toward Austin was organized by a group of gallant and courageous men who faced great difficulties and dangers. Extreme weather conditions such as heat, ice, rain, and sleet and encounters with savage Indians from uncivilized tribes who were ferocious and brutal to the immigrants were problems faced by these men. Sometimes they were stopped and robbed and even murdered. However their families and other families were totally dependent upon the products, merchandise, and medical supplies that the freight lines carried to them in order to survive.
The ox wagon freight line worked as a sort of chain, in which each group of men traveled a certain length. Upon arriving at their destination, they rested, exchanged loads, then went either north or south.One of these stops was at the Jaeger farm, where the freight line had a log house with a porch and windows that opened like small wooden doors. The men could lie down to rest in beds with corn shuck mattresses while waiting on the next load, when they would have to go to their next destination. Not too far from this house they had a corral and a hand dug water well with a long cypress wood water trough for the oxen.
My grandfather, Peter Jaeger, was foreman of the freight line from the Winedale community to Houston. In wet seasons as many as three teams of oxen were used to pull the heavy wagon load of freight through axle deep mud. There were as many as three covered wagons in one caravan.
My grandfather spoke of many of his early adventures he had during the freight line years. He told stories of gruesome, horrifying, grisly sights that made you shudder in fear and stories of the terrifying danger and brutality of the Indians, who left scalped women and men with arrows still in their chests lying along the roadway. At times the freight men would stop long enough to bury the corpses and place a rock on them for a headstone.
Grandfather Peter said the immigrants that traveled by ox carts or ox wagons had no communications with the folks that they were to see or meet, for there were no telegraph offices, telephones, or mail systems. Once travelers left Houston on the westward trail they were cut off entirely from the word behind them unless they might overtake or meet other caravans of passing immigrants. However, going through the open prairie land where hardly anything could be seen for miles, a man needed some kind of system to know of their whereabouts. Writing maps on a wooden board could not survive the sun and storms. So grandpa said they used “bone writing.” The smooth surface of a large animal’s jawbone or skull was always a good place to write messages, directions, and warning of Indians. These bones were placed on a pile of rocks or on a post along the roadway. This way they could be easily seen and read. In the woods, these bone messages were hung on the branches of trees. The bones would direct travelers to low river or creek embankments so the wagons could cross safely. As the steady stream of westbound travelers grew, bone writing became an important form of communication in helping immigrants arrive at the Winedale-Roundtop, which was home to many German immigrants.
Another story of the freight line that my grandfather told me began with a load of freight he and two other men were taking to Houston. After crossing the Brazos river they camped out to eat and rest for awhile before continuing their way to Houston. While they were resting my grandfather walked down to the river which was a short way from camp when he heard the cry of a small child. He thought it was a trick of the Indians to use the cry of a child to lure him away from camp and his backup men. He went back to the camp and got his shotgun and went in search of the child. He heard the child’s cry again, so followed it with great precaution. He found a small negro boy who was left along the river by other travelers. It was common in those days of slavery that large plantation owners would abandon their slaves’ children so that all of the slave’s time would be devoted to work. Grandpa said he took the small boy into the river and undressed and bathed him. He took his own shirt off and wrapped the child with it so he could wash the child’s clothing. He took him back to camp to warm up by the campfire. He took the child with him to Houston, unloaded the freight, and headed back home. He brought the child home with him, gave him a name–McNeil, as well as a home, and a place to eat and sleep. He reared him to become a well respected man. After McNeil became of age he decided to get married. Grandpa wanted to pay him for helping him on the farm so he offered him 100 acres of land or a team of oxen with a plow. McNeil chose the team of oxen and plow for there was plenty of land to get but nothing to plow with or raise a crop. McNeil and his wife were happily married and had three children. The two boys were named Henry and Lee McNeil and the daughter was Ella. She married Cephus Ray.
Oscar Heins’ mother said she remembered the Peter Jaeger freight line with its three pair of oxen pulling the wagon. In winter when it was raining and sleeting and the roads were muddy, her mother would cook a pot of hot coffee for them to drink and warm up. Then they would continue onto their destination.
The ox wagon freight line was very important to the pioneer farmers in the community for they provided them with certain food, clothing, and medical supplies from Houston. It was their only source of getting any supplies for there were no railroads or trucks. The freight line was a provider and a lifesaver to them. In addition to food, clothing, and household supplies, the freight line also brought fruit trees and grape cuttings from Europe. One variety was the Muscatel grape which made a rich, sweet juice for jelly and wine. This grape flourished throughout the entire community. Every family grew grapes, which grew vigorously and spread rapidly. The community, once called Truebsal, changed their name to Winedale in honor of the Muscatel grape. Some of these vines are still found in the area. The ox wagon freight line was in operation until the railroads were built between Houston and Austin. Then all the freight was shipped by rail and the ox wagon line was discontinued.