INTRODUCTION TO NAVASOTA, TEXAS
By John Ronan Broderick
CHRONOLOGY OF EVENTS: 1687 to 1858
On March 19, 1687, the famous French explorer, Rene-Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle, was allegedly ambushed and murdered by Pierre Duhaut, a disgruntled member of his expedition. This presumably occurred near a Hasinai (Tejas) Indian village in the vicinity of Navasota, Texas, where it is believed his bones lay buried. There are, however, at least seven other communities that lay claim to being the site of this heinous deed, among them Cherokee County and Rusk County, Texas, even a site in eastern Oklahoma. Where La Salle’s final resting place is will only be made known on Resurrection Day. It is one of many mysteries in this 333-year-old murder case.
Thus far, Navasota is the only one of these suggested sites that has put its money where its mouth is, so to speak. For in 1936, the citizens of Navasota and the Texas Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution erected a bronze statue to the memory of the Frenchman, thereby staking a proper claim to being the scene of this grisly affair. Moreover, in 1976, the French government donated a stone bust of La Salle to the city, which now has its home in August Horst Park. Navasota’s statues will have to serve in place of a gravestone until the Rapture of the saints, when all will be made abundantly clear.
The next major occurrence of some significance was the naming of the Navasota River in 1727 by a brigadier general of the Spanish Army, Pedro de Rivera y Villalon. It was this river for which the town was eventually named. The origin of the word Navasota likewise has more than one explanation. It may be a derivation of the Native American word, “nabatoto” which translates into “muddy water.”
Or, as Mr. Russell Cushman opines in his article entitled “The History of Navasota—From Brazos Bottom Refuge to Butterfly,” the source of the name may signify something entirely different, though also from a Native American source. Cushman states: “In the Yoeme dialect, a southwestern culture that once traveled and traded all over Texas, the words ‘nava’ and ‘sota’ easily translate into prickly pear and pot. To a Native American, a storage pot of prickly pears was the symbol of prosperity. The prickly pear was a major source of food for most of the nomadic tribes who especially sought and enjoyed the prickly pear fruit known as tunas. Navasota is a good location to establish the easternmost native range of this anciently important natural resource.”
Yoeme is, according to the freedictionary.com website, closely related to the more commonly known term Yaqui, which is the name of a Native American people of northwestern Mexico and southern Arizona. Due to ongoing conflict with the Mexican government, many of this tribe sought asylum in the early 1800s in an area that was later to become part of the United States. Thus, for appropriations of their language to have spread to Texas by the Spanish, i.e., General Villalon by the early 18th century, would be no stretch. Nonetheless, the name Navasota has a beautiful, poetic ring to it, regardless of its origin.
According to John Leffler’s undated article, “NAVASOTA, TX,” published on the Texas State Historical Association’s (TSHA) website, the original name of the site of Navasota was Hollandale, so named for Francis Holland, one of empresario Stephen F. Austin’s “Old 300”, the first Anglo-American colonists Austin enticed to settle in Texas. Holland bought land in the area in 1822 from Andrew Millican and settled on Ten Mile Creek, later named Holland Creek, a tributary of the Navasota River. Holland received title to his league of land in Grimes County on August 10, 1824. A “league” was the Spanish nomenclature and equivalent for 4,428.4 acres, or approximately 6.9 square miles, the standard land grant issued by the Spanish and, later, the Mexican governments of that era.
The next major character that was to become a player on the evolving Navasota stage was the self-proclaimed “Judge” James Nolan, who is known as the “Father of Navasota.” What follows is a brief summary from my own independent research from disparate sources as well as Mr. Cushman’s above referenced article, and some details lifted from the Grimes County Historical Commission’s newsletter published January 2017. Though the author is uncredited, it was presumably written by Ms. Vanessa Burzynski, the commission’s Newsletter & Publicity committee head.
Nolan (1807-1879) arrived on the scene, circa 1848, and the unnamed settlement founded by European Americans in 1831 quickly became known as Nolansville, later shortened to Nolanville. Little more than a stagecoach stop on what was then known as the LaBahia Trail, Nolan was a law unto himself, serving in the capacities of the dispenser of all aspects of criminal justice.
He wore many other hats as well– a real entrepreneur, this on: innkeeper, blacksmith, saloon owner, possibly a brothel master (a genteel way of phrasing a different term used in 21st century parlance), farmer, general store proprietor, whiskey peddler, slave trader, land speculator. He had his fingers in every pie baked in his town, including eventually the railroads that were to become such an integral part of Navasota’s economy in years to come.
Nolanville was apparently a typical frontier wild west town during the 1850s, a condition that persisted up until the early 20th century. Ruffians, drunks, prostitutes, gamblers, ne’er-do-wells of all sorts made the slowly growing downtown area unfit and unsafe for women and children even in broad daylight.
The legend persists that at one point some enraged citizens prevailed upon Nolan to serve as judge (even though he held no law degree or mandate from the citizenry at large) in the trial of some miscreant the crowd wanted to swing from a rope for some grievous offense. Predictably, the accused was found guilty and promptly lynched. Ever after Nolan carried the sobriquet of “Judge.” Or so the story goes. With Nolan it is often difficult to separate fact from fiction.
What does appear to be a fact is that in 1858, for whatever reason, Nolanville’s name was changed to Navasota. Perhaps this change was an attempt by the citizens to lay to rest Nolanville’s reputation for lawlessness with the prospect of the Houston and Texas Central Railway (H & TC) considering the town for a railhead. To sweeten the deal, Judge Nolan contributed 80 acres of land to the railroad to be used as a right-of-way.
The advent of the railroad in Navasota was a game-changer, not only for the town but for Grimes County and the entire region. For along with the railroad came increased building in the downtown area, which the railroad passed through. Warehouses were necessary to store the local produce going out and for the items imported that could not be produced locally, until they could be distributed to local merchants or sent on to other destinations.
With the arrival of the very first railroad, the Houston and Texas Central Railway (H & TC) in 1859, Navasota began its rapid ascent to becoming one of the more significant railroad towns in Texas. Laying track from Houston, which was about 72 miles away, the H & TC expanded in a northwesterly direction, becoming the first major north/south railroad in Texas. This gave Navasota about a two-year head start over Brenham’s railroad aspirations, 25 miles to the southwest.
It also eliminated Washington-on-the-Brazos, about eight miles southwest of Navasota, as a contender for the railroad, which bypassed it in favor of Navasota, and later, Brenham. This was a death knoll for “Old Washington,” as it was referred to by the locals. The town that had served as the site for the historic signing of the Texas Declaration of Independence from Mexico on March 2,1836, and as the first capital of the Republic of Texas is now relegated to the status of a State Historic Site. Sitting on 293 acres, it features a replica of the cabin where the historic document was signed.
Though the Civil War interrupted further expansion of the H & TC, by 1873, the railroad had extended its reach into Oklahoma Territory. Today, after a series of mergers, the H & TC is now owned and operated by the Union Pacific (UP).
But the H & TC Railway also spelled disaster for Navasota in 1865, at the conclusion of the Civil War. For its warehouses were bulging with supplies that had been much needed by the Confederate Army to fight the war, the war they had just lost, in part, for lack of these very supplies. I am reminded of that old parable: “For want of a nail a horseshoe was lost; for want of a horseshoe a horse was lost; for want of a horse a rider was lost; for want of a rider a battle was lost; for want of a battle a war was lost; for want of the war a kingdom was lost.”
Perhaps the recently released, out of work, homeless, hungry returning Rebel soldiers were in some way reminded of this ages-old story when they saw Navasota’s railway warehouses bursting at the seams with the very war materiels they’d needed to wage the war in which they’d just been defeated. Navasota was the end of the line for the railroad at that time, thus an out-sized number of veterans were there gathered in profusion and confusion–at the end of their proverbial rope, as it were.
Weapons, including now impotent firearms, swords, and bayonets, as well as gunpowder and ammunition, shoes, Confederate uniforms manufactured there in Navasota, countless bales of cotton—all produced in nearby towns and cities like Galveston and Anderson—stored for what? Some future hopeless, “the South will rise again” fantasy? Or for the victorious Yankees to eventually plunder and appropriate for their own uses?
Whatever their motivation, it is almost a dead certainty that one or more of these disgruntled veterans, undoubtedly bitterly recalling their dead comrades they’d had to bury in some already forgotten mudhole beside a nameless battlefield that would also soon be little remembered, set the warehouses ablaze. This ignited an ear-shattering explosion of the stored gunpowder that engulfed all the warehouses and half the downtown commercial district in a conflagration unlike any seen before or since in this small Central Texas town.
But, like the mythical phoenix being reborn from its own ashes, Navasota demonstrated its resiliency and rebuilt, this time bigger and better. Little could its citizens have imagined that more disastrous fires would later ensue, testing their mettle time and again. But there were other, more life-threatening, imminent crises on the horizon that would challenge these already hard-pressed Navasotans beyond anything they could have envisioned in 1865. We will get to that presently.
In 1878, the town’s second railroad, the Central & Montgomery (C & M) Railway laid 27 miles of track from Montgomery to Navasota, parallel to and east of the H & TC. It is now owned by the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway (BNSF), which was purchased in 2009 by Berkshire Hathaway. This entity is controlled by Warren Buffett, who is ranked, as of July 2020, the fourth-wealthiest person in the world. Thus does Warren Buffet profit from the economy of Navasota, Texas in the 21st century.
Finally, the International-Great Northern (I-GN) Railroad constructed a main line from Houston to Fort Worth in 1902, passing through Navasota and paralleling the other two railroads to their east, placing the BNSF in the middle. Today this third railroad operates south of town as the Union Pacific.
POST-CIVIL WAR PESTILENCES, CONFLAGRATIONS, RECOVERY, AND RECONSTRUCTION
Right on the heels of the disastrous fire of 1865, a cholera epidemic swept through Navasota in which many perished. In 1866, however, the undeterred town incorporated, as if to say, “Here, take that, you can’t keep us down. We’re not licked yet!” But no one could have foreseen the 1867 yellow fever epidemic that made the cholera episode look like child’s play. The town’s population, approximately 2,700 in 1865, decreased by half, either due to the citizens fleeing for other parts of the state unaffected by the deadly disease or simply because they died from it.
It is estimated that casualties from yellow fever numbered some 20 percent of the population, or more than 500. Those that remained behind were either struck with the fever or had stayed behind to minister to those thus stricken. The epidemic produced numerous local heroes and heroines who put the needs of their family members, friends, and neighbors above their own safety. Their names may have been forgotten for the most part with the passage of 153 years, but they are undoubtedly recorded in the Lamb’s Book of Life.
The Reconstruction years (1865-1874) also gave rise to a man-made disease—racial hatred–as evidenced by the rise of the infamous Ku Klux Klan, which fanned the flames of racial tension between the (mostly) black Union soldiers stationed in the area and many white supremacists resentful of the Federal troops’ overseer status and attitudes. Consequently, a showdown between the two groups was inevitable, though I could find no record of loss of life or property as a result of this encounter.
The Ku Klux Klan had been organized in 1865, In Pulaski, Tennessee, in adversarial response to the Reconstruction policies of the Federal government. The organization’s first elected leader, or “grand wizard,” was former Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest. As can be imagined, the majority of the initial membership was comprised of disgruntled Confederate veterans, many of those from Texas undoubtedly from Navasota. By 1870, the Klan’s tentacles reached into nearly every former southern slave state. But white supremacy was the KKK’s end game, and they were tenacious in stirring up trouble at every opportunity, on any pretext.
A year earlier, under similar circumstances, neighboring Brenham had not been so fortunate as Navasota in avoiding trouble. A racial incident there had provoked the Union troops stationed on the outskirts of that town to retaliate by torching an entire block of the downtown central business district. Though the white commanding officer of the Federal troops was indicted for the incident, the charges were later dismissed by a Union general. Not so much as a slap on the wrist was administered to any Union soldiers who actually started the fire.
As a footnote to this history of racial tension in these neighboring towns, it should be noted that the Union General assigned to command the occupying forces was none other than George Armstrong Custer, of Little Big Horn fame and foolishness a decade later. Custer, though courageous in battle, was also foolhardy in his quest for glory on that fateful day of June 25, 1876, where he fought his last stand on a small knoll in Montana. 260 men, or roughly the equivalent of two and a half cavalry troops of the legendary 7th Cavalry, died that day under demoted, vainglorious Lieutenant Colonel Custer’s command. The bodies of all the soldiers killed in the battle that day, with the sole exception of Custer’s, whom the Indians respected as a great warrior, were mutilated in obscene ways by the Native American victors.
But back in 1865 and ’66, Custer was headquartered in Hempstead, about 22 miles from either Navasota or Brenham, and each city was connected to Hempstead by railroads, thus easily accessible by him to the sites of these confrontations, had he cared to involve himself. Indeed, Custer may have been the unidentified Union general who dismissed the charges against the white officer in the Brenham incident.
With one stroke of U.S. President Andrew Johnson’s pen, the southern white man’s world was turned topsy-turvy by his draconian Reconstruction policies that were anything but reconstructive. What construction and reconstruction that did take place in Navasota during that nine-year period occurred as a result of the Navasotans’ own initiative and hard work and had little if anything to do with impeached and disgraced, one-termer Johnson’s unelected presidency.
There were eventually four more fires that ravaged, to one degree or another, the downtown central business district—one in 1868, two in 1869, and one of more sweeping destruction, the “Great Fire” of July 13, 1874. Each time Navasotans rose to the occasion, rolled up their sleeves, and went to work under the umbrella of their own reconstruction policies, not Washington D.C.’s, and rebuilt their town. George Armstrong Custer and Nathan Bedford Forrest be damned, Navasotans were weary of all this outside interference in their local affairs. It could easily have been they who coined the phrase, “Yankee, go home!”
According to Jeff Leffler’s article, “NAVASOTA, TX,” published on the THSA website, “By 1884 about 2,500 people were living in Navasota and in addition to the [cottonseed] oil mill the town had five churches, two flour mills, several steam-powered cotton gins, a bank, an opera house that could seat 1,000, and a newspaper.”
Progress continued throughout the 1880s, with the addition of telephone service, a water system, and electricity. According to the National Register of Historic Places, dated October 25, 1982, by 1885 there were over 50 stone and brick commercial establishments in Navasota—five hotels; four groceries; four saloons; three drug stores; ten general merchandise stores; and two printing shops. By the mid-1890s, there were four newspapers for a population of 3,500.
Despite all this progress, however, lawlessness continued unabated into the 20th century. Wikipedia describes Navasota during this period: “shootouts on the main street were so frequent that in two years at least a hundred men died.” In 1900, an organization known as the White Man’s Union, which was a secret, oath-bound organization made up of white Democrats opposed to black populists efforts to form alliances with Republicans, violently took over elections that year after they’d been defeated in the 1896 and ’98 elections. Several black Populist leaders were killed in the confrontations that ensued.
It was at this juncture that Navasota’s city fathers prevailed upon 24-year-old Texas Ranger Frank Hamer to come to work for Navasota in the position of City Marshal. In three short years, between 1908 and 1911, Hamer’s no-nonsense, two-fisted style of fighting crime tamed the lawless town, making it safe for law-abiding citizens to walk down the streets in broad daylight again. Preferring not to use his Colt .45 thumb-buster unless called for in a deadly force scenario, Hamer was more likely to kick his prisoners to the jailhouse rather than force them there at gunpoint.
Hamer’s biography is eloquently recounted by Russell Cushman in a blog he posted as a result of research he did on the man for a sculpture he created of the 6’3” lawman. It is a marvelous work of art that now stands in front of the Navasota City Hall. The episode for which Hamer is of course best remembered is his hunting down and killing the notorious Depression-era outlaws, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, in 1934.
Hamer’s role in this manhunt is most accurately portrayed in the 2019 Netflix film, The Highwaymen, which starred Kevin Costner as Hamer. Warren Beatty’s 1967 film, Bonnie and Clyde, by contrast,was pure Hollywood, depicting this legendary lawman as some sort of buffoon. According to Cushman, Hamer had been involved in over 20 life-or-death shootouts in his career as a lawman and carried the bullet wound scars to prove it. Reading Mr. Cushman’s short biography of Hamer gave me a new-found appreciation for this Alpha-male lawman. Myself a former police officer, I would have been proud to have had Frank Hamer for my partner.
Based on the stated rules for a building to be eligible for consideration for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP), the first qualification is that it be at least 50 years old. By that criteria, any building constructed prior to 1970 would be eligible for consideration. Therefore, I am operating at something of a disadvantage, because the most recent NRHP I have available is dated October 25, 1982, thus itself nearly 38 years old.
This particular document delineates the 88 buildings in the Navasota Commercial Historic District into three distinct categories: “Contributing” (45), which denotes those over 50 years old that retain a significant amount of their historical and architectural integrity and are representative of late 19th– and early 20th-century commercial architecture; “Compatible” (33), those fitting the age requirement whose architectural integrity has been adversely affected by moderate alterations but could be reclassified as “Contributing” if certifiable work is performed; and “Intrusive” (10), meaning those that either do not qualify via the age criteria or are so far altered that their architectural integrity is unrecoverable.
Mind you, these 88 buildings are all lumped together as one entry on the NRHP and are also listed together on the Recorded Texas Historical Landmarks (RTHL) roster. And on the NRHP for Navasota, there are only three other buildings shown: the 1900, Foster House; the c. 1896, Steele House; and the 1874-1875, P.A. Smith Hotel, the town’s finest architectural example of the combined use of vernacular limestone rubble with cast iron detailing, perhaps the most ambitious and handsome commercial structure in Navasota.
Since it is not within the scope of this article to detail every building in the Navasota Commercial Historic District, I have chosen out a few of those that seemed to grab my attention as I read through the list of 88 descriptions. I hope no one will be offended if I omitted their favorite building from among those that did make my, admittedly subjective, cut. They are listed in no particular order, so neither should any prejudice be attached to their sequence.
c. 1890 J. Youens & Company: late 19th century wood and metal commercial structure that represents the oldest continuous business in Navasota, a lumber company established in the late 1860s
1860 Giesel House: three-story structure: represents the oldest extant commercial building in Navasota
1871 Lewis J. Wilson Building: first brick commercial structure erected in Navasota
1884 Blumenthal’s Fruit Palace: turn-of-the-century owner perished in 1912 on the Titanic
1873 Schumacher’s Cottonseed Oil Mill
c. 1875 Navasota Opera House, located on the second floor of the First National Bank Building
c. 1885 Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad Depot
c. 1880 S & S Farm Store
c. 1881 Casino Inn
c. 1891 European Restaurant and Hotel
1920 U.S. Post Office
1888 Old Ruby Bar
1870 Holsum Foods
c. 1879 American Legion Building
1873 Old Schumacher Home
c. 1899 Old Citizens National Bank Building
According to World Population Review, Navasota’s current population is 8,101 based on 2020 U.S. Census estimates. It is the 273rd largest city in Texas, with a population density of 991.4 people per square mile within its 8.2 square mile land area. Since the 2010 census it has grown 14.92%.
The average household income in the city is $61,878, with a poverty rate of 21.4%. The median rental costs in recent years is $744 per month, and the median house value is $110,400. Rate of home ownership is 59.9%. Median age is 35.5 years–28.7 for males, and 38.6 for females. For every 100 females there are 88.1 males. Average family size is 3.81.
According to the latest ACS (American Community Survey):
High School Graduate 1,502 33.68%
Associates Degree 172 3.86%
Bachelors Degree 341 7.65%
Graduate Degree 325 7.29%
Note: In all the above categories, females outnumber males. The highest rate of earnings were those with graduate degrees: average overall, $84,926; males, $95,313; females, $84,779.
Languages: 71.08% speak English only; Spanish speakers accounted for 28.47%; and only .45% speak other languages.
Marriage Rates: overall, 45.9%; males, 44.3%; females, 47.4%.
Veterans: total of 247; 196 males; 51 females. The number of veterans by war is as follows:
Second Gulf War 20
World War II 16
First Gulf War 8
Place of Birth
U.S. (other than Texas) 10.17%
Foreign Born 14.02%
The main part of Navasota lies in southwestern Grimes County, east of and on a bend of the Navasota River, which is a tributary of the Brazos River. The town is located at the confluence of State Highway 105 and Farm Roads 3090 and 1227. In 2005 the Texas State Legislature designated the city as the “Blues Capital of Texas,” in honor of Navasota native son Mance (short for Emancipation) Lipscomb (1895-1976), a prominent blues singer and guitarist of his era. Coincidentally, as a youngster Lipscomb used to regularly serve as driver for Marshal Frank Hamer’s horse and buggy.
And lest one perceive Navasota as a place where nothing good happened during its “lawless” years, prior to Frank Hamer’s arrival in 1908, it should be noted that Dr. Hal Palmer’s Sanitarium opened there in 1907. Palmer, a Civil War-trained physician, performed treatments for cancer without surgery. He had several clinics in the region but always seemed to prefer the Navasota site. This was long before the advent of M.D. Anderson Hospital in Houston. Dr. Palmer was ahead of his time and was much beloved for his dedication to the treatment of this much misunderstood disease in that era.
According to the TSHA website, Navasota is considered the “Gateway to Washington-on-the-Brazos State Park,” which is only seven miles from the city. Besides the replica of the cabin where the 59 delegates gathered to sign the Texas Declaration of Independence on this historical site, visitors to “Old Washington” can tour the Star of the Republic Museum, which is dedicated to the decade, 1836-1846, when Texas was an independent nation prior to its voluntary annexation to the U.S. Also in the area is Barrington Living History Farm, where tourists can observe reenactors dressed in period attire going about their daily lives, as if from that period. It is here that Dr. Anson Jones’s plantation home, Barrington, is preserved as well. Jones was the fourth and last president of the Republic of Texas.
Other interesting sights to see in Navasota include: the museum, Navasota Blues Alley; Horlock History Center, an art gallery and museum; Bluebonnet Vintage Collectibles, specializing in antiques; Navasota Theater Alliance, for concerts and shows; Bee Weaver Honey Farm; and Stonecraft Marketplace, for a great shopping experience.
BARS AND RESTAURANTS
For a small town, Navasota seems to offer an array of watering holes to choose from: The Western Club Bar and Grill; Whiskey Tango Bar & Grill; Dizzy Llama, which purports to have been voted the “Best Bar in Grimes County” the last four years in a row; Threshold Vineyards, a winery; Outback theclub; Wings Locas, a sports bar; and the Asian Cajun Bar & Grill (in Washington).
There are no less than a dozen homegrown eateries to choose from, as well as several of the national fast-food chains. I prefer to emphasize the unique, locally owned and operated restaurants since most everyone already knows which of the franchises they prefer. Among the former are: Wooden Spoke; Café M Bloomers, rated one of the top ten tearooms in Texas; Mallett Brothers Barbeque; La Casita Mexican Restaurant; El Paisano (Tex-Mex); Las Fuentes Steak and Grill; China Inn; Cow Talk Steak House; Hi-Ho Store & Café; and 4141 Coffeehouse.
CHURCHES, HOTELS & INNS, AND MEDICAL FACILITIES
Of the 32 places of worship I found in Navasota, 13 were of the Baptist denomination, four were United Methodists, five were Nondenominational, and there was one each of these other Christian denominations, plus one Hindu: Presbyterian; Episcopal; Church of God and Christ; Church of Christ; Catholic; Lutheran; Seventh-Day Adventists; Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints; Jehovah’s Witnesses; and Christian.
Though I found but five hotels and inns in Navasota proper, there are a multitude to choose from in nearby College Station, less than 20 miles away. But since this article’s focus is on Navasota, I’ll list only those there: Navasota Inn; 7D Ranch Texas; Red Velvet Inn; Best Western Inn Navasota; and Comfort Inn & Suites Navasota.
Navasota’s medical facilities number three: CHI St. Joseph Health Grimes Hospital; Navasota Medical Center; and Baylor Scott & White Clinic. Naturally, there are any number of physicians in private practice from which to choose for your medical needs.
THE BOTTOM LINE 21st century Navasota is a far cry from its wild and wooly early days as a lawless town, where death was dealt in deadly lead and the undertaker went around every Sunday morning to retrieve the victims of the Saturday night shootouts. No longer is there a need for the questionable tactics of a Frank Hamer to maintain law and order in this wonderful, tranquil community with the colorful past. The racism that was, admittedly, a part of its history is now over a century past in its rearview mirror. Navasota is a wonderful milieu for anyone seeking to get away from the hustle and bustle of big city life, whether for a weekend getaway or permanently, as a retiree. Here, the present and the future far outweigh the past. Count your blessings that there is a Navasota where anyone can begin anew.