A few weeks ago I wrote about some of the descriptions of the Mason area that were published by John Bartlett noting the landscape he passed through in 1850 before the Calvary arrived to found Fort Mason. As I was writing that article I got to thinking of some of the other traveler’s journals that might shed some light on how the early visitors saw this part of Texas. When I went to my library to look for references and descriptions that might pertain to the Mason area, I started looking into a book titled Spanish Expeditions into Texas 1689 - 1768 and found some interesting things. In the section on the Marques de Rubi’s inspection tour of the Spanish forts around Texas, he visited the Presidio San Saba that was abandoned just a few years before his 1767 visit. On July 23, 1767 the soldiers marched upriver along the Llano to a campsite near the present Mason-Kimble County line and the next morning they moved northwest and followed the Arroyo Abuela (Las Moras Creek) to the San Saba River near the Presidio, and saw their first buffalo and killed two for much-needed food.
The Marques and his party stayed in the area for nine days and while they did not see any Indians, they felt “in constant danger from the Comanche, who sent smoke signals to their Indian friends informing them of Rubi’s arrival.” After completing their inspections, “the party departed San Saba on August 4 and traveled 13 leagues that day, south-southeast through mesquite and live oak to the Llano river”. According to the reports they saw a good deal of local wildlife and four bison were killed from several herds and a bear was roped and taken alive, as well as three wild turkeys were killed for food. Most of the journal entries from this brief visit to our part of the Hill Country were about distances and the remains of the fortifications that had been abandoned, and we could only wish that they had spent more time and space describing the landscape that we love as they passed through on their way to the population center of the area, the Presidio San Antonio de Bejar, which was manned by a company of 22 men, including the captain and an engineer. Because the Spanish presence was so brief in this area, not a lot was recorded about the landscape we call home, but a bit more was reported from the short history of the Presidio San Saba and I will talk about that in another article.
Another very talented visitor to the Mason area left much more than just the word pictures of our landscape. Mrs. Eliza Johnston, the wife of the first commander of Fort Mason Albert Sidney Johnston, arrived with the first troopers who came to occupy the fort and made a wonderful selection of water color renderings of our beautiful wildflowers. There are some copies from her flower paintings at each of the museums, and they show her remarkable talent, but her written descriptions give a fuller picture to the landscape she saw and enjoyed as she lived in Texas for several years. On the way to Fort Mason, they camped on the San Saba River and though it was mid-January and the temperature reached a low of nine degrees above zero she enjoyed the fine scenery. She wrote that they “today passed through one of the most beautiful portions of Texas, we could see over a vast extent of Country covered with live-oaks & other growth dotted over the Prairie seemingly as ornaments to the landscape, the green trees & brown grass &bright sunshine gave the scene all the effect of a midsummer harvest it was like a dream of August, but only a dream, for while we gazed admiringly we were shivering from cold.” After settling in Fort Mason, a couple of months later Col. Robert E. Lee visited the fort and wrote of her that “Mrs. Johnston is a pretty and sweet woman, intelligent and well adapted .... and occupies herself in painting birds and flowers of the country.”
This part of the Texas Hill Country has provided an interesting and much appreciated landscape for travelers and visitors for over 250 years. Most painted just word pictures of some of what they saw, and others did a commendable job of recording their observations in paints, but all were pleased with all of the beauty that surrounded them. If you would like to “see” a little of what our part of the world looked to the eyes that saw it generations ago, stop in at the Red Door Antiques and together we will enjoy the wildflowers of Eliza Johnston or the word pictures of the earlier Spanish travelers as we try to imagine ... the way it was.