By John Ronan Broderick
EARLY NON-ANGLO INHABITANTS OF ROCKWALL
There is apparently much ongoing controversy about the rock formation from which the City of Rockwall derives its name–whether it is a geological phenomenon from primordial times or a primitive, man-made wall. There is evidence to support both points of view, so arguments can be made for and against. Geologists and archaeologists have often differed in their views over the last 168 years since its discovery. Based on carbon dating, the site is estimated to be anywhere from 32,000 to 40,000 years old. According to one video I watched about Rockwall (there were many), archaeologists found bones from an ancient sloth at the site dating back to the last ice age, which occurred during the Pleistocene Epoch. This era began about 2.6 million years ago and lasted until 11,700 years ago.
According to Wikipedia, “The association of Paleo-Indian artifacts with extinct Pleistocene mammal [sloth] remains in various archeological [sic] sites within . . . the Texas Prairie-Savannah Region of eastern North Central Texas . . . demonstrates that [the] Rockwall region was occupied by prehistoric Native American cultures at least as far back as 13,500 to 13,000 years ago. More recently, the Rockwall region was occupied by Caddo Indians. Creek Indians moved to the area in the early 19th century.” Additionally, the Spanish explored the region as early as the 1500s and Mexicans did likewise as early as the 18th century.
In 1832, under U.S. President Andrew Jackson’s racist, draconian, and genocidal program that later became known as the “Trail of Tears,” 21,792 Creek Indians were forcibly removed from their ancestral homes in Alabama and Georgia. In the process they and related tribes lost a far larger percentage of their people to death from starvation and exposure to the elements than any other tribe, including the Cherokees in their own, later, “Trail of Tears.” It was some of these Creeks who settled in the Rockwall region during the early 1830s. As they grew in numbers, they became bitter enemies of the Caddo Indian tribe, who apparently felt the Creeks’ presence to be an encroachment upon their land. Soon, though, they would have a common enemy—the white man and his concept of “Manifest Destiny,” a term coined in 1845, coincidentally the year that Texas became a U.S. state.
Further archaeological evidence uncovered in 1886 consisted of a gigantic human skull larger than a basketball. Scientists estimate that for a human to support a skull that large, the body would have to stand from 10 to 12 feet tall and would have weighed more than 1,000 pounds. This has led to speculation among some religious groups that this was a so-called “Nephilim,” a giant that was part human and part fallen angel. I will not attempt further speculation on that thesis, it being far above my pay grade in theology. The skull was eventually claimed by the Smithsonian Institute, where it remains to this day.
Needless to say, the site of the disputed wall is quite ancient, whether man-made or a geological formation. It is often referred to as the “Antediluvian Wall of Texas.” Indeed, Rockwall County’s greatest claim to fame could be the possibility that it is the site of a long-lost civilization that once inhabited the region–the oldest civilized community in Texas. This of course is something that archaeologists and geologists have been cussing and discussing since the wall’s discovery in 1852.
ARRIVAL OF ANGLO-AMERICANS
Prior to the actual founding of the city of Rockwall proper in 1854, early records indicate that approximately 240 settlers began to colonize the area by the East Fork of the Trinity River and the Bluff Fork of the Sabine River. By 1840, residents of Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Missouri began migrating to the rich Blackland Prairie of the region. According to Mercer’s (an empresario) Colony documents, in 1846, Sterling Rex Barnes became the first Anglo-American to settle in Rockwall County. He built a ferry on the East Fork of the Trinity River and in 1848, he constructed a bridge across the river. In the mid-1840s, the Central National Road of the Republic of Texas, aka the Military Road, had been surveyed and built through the region that would eventually become Rockwall County.
The settlement eventually adopted its name from the extensive 30-foot-high (in some places 80-feet-deep into the ground), jointed, natural sandstone dike or wall that ran 150 yards before turning 33 degrees. It was discovered in 1852 by Terry Utley Wade when he happened upon it while digging a well just outside the present downtown square of Rockwall.
By some subsequent (though still early) estimates, the rock wall was rectangular in nature, running approximately 3.5 miles wide by 5.6 miles long, encompassing nearly 20 square miles. I am unsure if those dimensions still hold up under modern methods of evaluation. Remember, most of the wall is well underground, so precise measurements were then, and are now, difficult to ascertain. Yet I am assured by one knowledgeable individual in a position of responsibility for the city’s history that there is little reason to challenge those measurements, even today.
Since that time, several other, similar outcroppings have been discovered in the vicinity. They have a man-made appearance because of their uniform, layered, almost masonry, aspect. Moreover, they were in some places concealed by a heavy slate, roof-like covering, which would have been virtually impossible for primitive man to negotiate the placement of–that is, of course, unless there were giants in the land. Much folklore has sprung up around such conjectures, particularly after the discovery of that gigantic skull in 1886.
The evolution of Rockwall County, per se, is not all that unusual for counties in the early days of the Republic of Texas. Initially established as part of Nacogdoches County in 1836, when Texas counties were much larger in land area than they typically are now, it then became part of Henderson County in 1845, when Texas was annexed by the United States. Next came more gerrymandering of boundaries and Kaufman County was formed in 1847. Eventually, however, the local citizenry pushed for a county seat closer to home than the city of Kaufman, and the Texas State Legislature obliged them with the creation of Rockwall County in 1873, naming the city of Rockwall its county seat. And thus it has remained ever since. The City of Rockwall was incorporated the following year.
Rockwall holds the dubious distinction of being the smallest county in Texas, with only 147 square miles. To give you some sense of proportion, the city of Houston, the largest city in Texas, covers 669 square miles all by itself, more than four times the area of Rockwall County. And to give you a real sense of contrast, Brewster County, the largest county in Texas, is 6,192 square miles. It encompasses Big Bend National Park and is on the border with Mexico. Incredibly, one could fit 42 Rockwall Counties inside Brewster County. Here is one last interesting comparison: the population of tiny Rockwall County is about nine times larger than that of the behemoth Brewster County. Go figure. Texas is truly a land of contrasts.
In the wake of Terry Wade’s astounding discovery in this area of rich blackland soil, the village of Rockwall was founded on April 17, 1854, on 40 acres of land donated by another early settler, Elijah Elgin. Initially known as Rock Wall, the name was eventually combined into one word. The first area post office, known as Black Hill, was transferred to Rockwall the following year, and for some time the little village consisted of little more than the post office, a blacksmith, a grist mill, the First Christian Church (founded in 1848), and a general store. It was not until the formation of Rockwall County and the naming of Rockwall as its county seat in 1873, that the little settlement began to flourish somewhat as it became the center of commerce for the fledgling county.
The Missouri, Kansas, & Texas (MKT) Railroad, headquartered in Dallas, realized the town’s potential and built a line through Rockwall in 1886, causing the local agricultural business to expand as a result of new markets becoming available to it. The railroad became a shipping point for locally produced cotton, wheat, and corn. To put the term, “growth,” into a proper context, one only need examine Rockwall’s U.S. Census records for this period: 1880—215; 1890—843; 1900—1,245. The actual number of inhabitants may not have been in the stratosphere, but the percentages of growth were significant, as they are today, though for very different reasons.
HISTORIC BUILDINGS PRESERVATION
Though Rockwall presently has only one building listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP), the 1913 First Methodist Church, it also has seven Texas Historical Markers designating sites where a structure of an historic nature once stood or, in some cases, still occupies the spot. I will list them here for you in no particular order: 1844 Central National Road of the Republic of Texas; 1871 Chisholm Cemetery; 1854 East Trinity [Masonic] Lodge No. 57, A.F. & A.M., which is still standing on the downtown square; 1852 First Baptist Church, though a newer sanctuary, built in 1970, now occupies the site; 1854 First Presbyterian Church, which has also been replaced by one constructed in 1980; 1856 First United Methodist Church, likewise replaced by the 1981 building on the same site; and the 1853 Church of Christ, which is apparently a marker only. It is interesting to note that, except for the 1844 Road, all the other State Historical Markers identify a spot that is in some way linked to a religious affiliation, even the cemetery and the Masonic Lodge.
There are, however, other structures that would likely qualify for inclusion on the NRHP or the Recorded Texas Historic Landmarks (RTHL), but for one reason or another have not been so honored. Oftentimes this is usually due to one of two causes: either the owner of the property has simply not applied to the Texas Historical Commission (THC), or the property itself has been modified to an extent that it no longer qualifies for inclusion according to the strict guidelines of the NRHP or the RTHL.
In my research of Rockwall I naturally became aware of the Rockwall County Historical Foundation Museum, which is housed in the oldest still extant building in Rockwall, the 1850 Manson-LaMoreaux-Hartman House, which also happens to be the first permanent structure in Rockwall. The name of this house, located in Harry Meyers County Park, reflects three different owners of the home over the years. The second owner, Dr. Jessie Castle LaMoreaux holds the distinction of becoming, in 1898, the first female dentist in Texas. She was also one of the unsung heroines of the early 20th century women’s movement. Hats off to Dr. Jessie!
I had the extreme pleasure of talking at length with the Assistant Curator of the Museum, Marci Hall, who was extremely knowledgeable and took all the time necessary to clarify areas where my research was deficient. The only thing I willingly take credit for are any mistakes in my reporting. I owe Ms. Hall a huge debt of gratitude. You can bet your boots (as we native Texans say here in the Lone Star State) that this museum will be at the top of my list of places to visit the next time I get anywhere close to Rockwall. For not only is the 1850 House preserved there, so are the circa 1900 Bailey House as well as a section of the actual ancient rock wall itself, which was painstakingly excavated, relocated, and meticulously and precisely reconstructed on the Museum’s grounds.
And any tour of Rockwall’s historic structures will naturally include Old Town Rockwall, the array of older commercial buildings surrounding the downtown old courthouse square, which contains structures dating from the late 19th century up through the 1920s, among them the beautiful Hall Building. Some of the older residences can also be found in its environs. I hasten to add that downtown Rockwall holds the twin titles of: a “Main Street U.S.A.”; and a “Texas Main Street.” It is a lively, lovely throwback to a time when folks parked diagonally in front of their favorite merchant’s place of business, prior to the advent of parallel parking. Old Town Rockwall offers all the dining, shopping, antiquing alternatives of individually owned and operated businesses one could wish for. Don’t fail to take a stroll around this courthouse square!
The Rockwall County Courthouses—all four of them—deserve a word or two at this juncture. The first one, built in 1875, just two years after Rockwall had been designated the county seat, was a two-story frame construction that burnt down. It was replaced on the same site in 1892 by a beautiful native sandstone structure that was an architectural showpiece of its era. Unfortunately, by the late 1930s, the mortar had begun to deteriorate, and it was deemed unsafe, condemned, and razed.
The third county courthouse, erected on the same site in 1941, was of the Art Deco style so prevalent in that era. It was described elsewhere as built in the “Moderne” style, which was a term I had not encountered before. The definition of this word is: “pretentiously modern; striving to appear modern but lacking style or conviction.” Not exactly a compliment to the architect. But one must keep in mind that it was constructed as one of F.D.R.’s WPA (Works Progress Administration) projects during the Great Depression, so its style was, I suppose, in some way attributable to that period’s national frugality. It stood three stories tall, with a basement; the top floor was where the jail was housed.
Nevertheless, it is still in use today, 80 years later, so there is something to be said for the soundness of its construction if not its stylishness. It has outlasted both of its predecessors, added together. The only reason it was replaced by the fourth county courthouse was simply because the needs of the county had outgrown its limited space. After all, the population of Rockwall, according to the U.S. Census reports, had grown from 1,318 in 1940 to 37,490 in 2010, necessitating the construction of a much larger facility. This time, however, county officials elected to relocate the 2011 courthouse, and it was built, I might add, in a style that should find far fewer critics than its 1941 predecessor. It is constructed of brick with stone details.
ROCKWALL’S VITAL STATISTICS
According to recently released census statistics, Rockwall County is the wealthiest county in the state of Texas. Keep in mind, it is also the smallest county of the 254 counties encompassed by the Lone Star State. Much of this wealth is undoubtedly derived from the influx of new young professionals who comprise the commuters to the Dallas business arena, who now call this suburban bedroom community home. Rockwall is also on Money’s “Best Places to Live” list.
As stated on the World Population Review website, Rockwall is, based on the 2020 U.S. Census estimates, now comprised of 29.3 square miles; has a population density of 1,597.6 people per square mile; has grown 25.04% since the 2010 Census; and is ranked the 75th largest city in Texas. The average household income is $107,228, with a poverty rate of 5.94%. The median rental costs is $1,311 per month, and the median house value is $245,300. The median age is 37.6 years, and for every 100 females there are 96.3 males.
From an educational perspective, Rockwall breaks down thusly: high school graduates, 16.92%; some college, 24.63%; Associates Degree, 8.71%; Bachelor’s Degree, 27.15%; and Graduate Degree, 15.01%. In terms of languages spoken, 83% of Rockwallians speak only English; Spanish-speakers comprise 12.24%; and other languages are spoken by 4.76%. The overall marriage rate is 60.4%.
Based on the U.S. Census ACS (American Community Survey) 5-tear Survey, there were 2,154 American military veterans living in Rockwall, of whom 1,950 were males and 204 were females. The breakdown by war was as follows:
Vietnam 710 35.1%
First Gulf War 650 32.1%
Second Gulf War 408 20.2%
Korea 160 7.9%
World War II 95 4.4%
THE TWENTIETH CENTURY AND BEYOND
In any evaluation of the growth and prosperity of Rockwall, one must pay particular attention to the invaluable role played by the East Fork of the Trinity River. The stream was known by the Caddo Indians as “Arkikosa” in Central Texas and “Daycoa” in the southeastern part of the state. The renowned French explorer, Rene Robert Cavalier, Sieur de La Salle, called it “River of the Canoes,” when he traversed the region in 1687, but the name didn’t stick.
There is a religious significance attached to the naming of this river by the Spanish explorer and governor, Alonso de Leon (“El Mozo”), when he happened upon it on May 19, 1690, two days prior to the Catholic “Feast of the Most Holy Trinity” (“La Santisima Trinidad”) on his last expedition into Texas. For it was customary in that era to name prominent landmarks, such as rivers, mountains, geological formations, and other bodies of water, for religious-oriented themes or personages.
The 710-mile-long Trinity River is the longest river with a watershed entirely within the state of Texas. Its headwaters rise just a few miles south of the Red River in extreme northern Texas, and it drains into Trinity Bay, just west of Anahuac, in faraway southeast Texas, about 50 miles east of Houston. This is a mighty significant body of water in the state of Texas, for fully 20% of the state’s population live in the vicinity of the Trinity River.
It became even more significant to Rockwall in 1969, when its East Fork was dammed by the City of Dallas to form Lake Ray Hubbard. In the ensuing half-century since its creation, the lake has played a major role in the economic development of Rockwall. The population numbers tell the whole story. According to World Population Review’s (WPR) website, the population of Rockwall in 1970, one year after the Lake Ray Hubbard Dam, aka the Rockwall-Forney Dam, was constructed, was a mere 3,121, based on the official U.S. Census report. WPR’s current estimate, based on the 2020 U.S. Census, is 46,878, an explosive increase by anyone’s reckoning–more than 15 times the population of the 1970 Census.
Formerly known as Forney Lake, Lake Ray Hubbard is a fresh-water reservoir located in Dallas in the counties of Dallas, Kaufman, Collin, and Rockwall. At its deepest point it is 40 feet deep; it occupies a total of 35.5 square miles, 22 of those miles being within Rockwall County’s 147 square miles. It is 21,000 acres of water suitable for swimming, fishing, boating, water-skiing, jet-skiing, and most other aquatic activities. Several bridges traverse the lake, the largest, most heavily traveled of these being Interstate Highway 30, which bisects the lake.
THE DFW METROPLEX AND THE HARBOR IN ROCKWALL: THE GAME-CHANGERS
The proximity of Dallas to Rockwall, a scant 25 miles and 30 minutes away, has made the former rural community a highly desirable place to live for commuters to the third-largest city in Texas. And with the advent of Lake Ray Hubbard, Rockwall’s entire style of life has undergone a metamorphosis, the likes of which is seldom seen these days. It is comparable in many ways, in my humble opinion, to that of the highly touted reputation of The Woodlands, the ultimate master-planned community just north of Houston.
The Harbor Rockwall, on the eastern shore of the lake, is a unique, upscale retail, dining, and entertainment development. It offers a marina with covered boat slips available and a boat ramp that is open seven days a week, a main harbor with a working lighthouse, decorative fountains, and the Hilton Dallas Rockwall Lakefront Hotel, voted the official “Best Waterfront Hotel in Texas” (2016).
As a result of these vast improvements and amenities since Lake Ray Hubbard was created, Rockwall is one of the fastest growing counties in America, the city boasting one of the finest school districts in the state, with two high schools. The housing market is a major part of this growth, with luxurious lakefront properties, historic homes in the older section of town, and plenty of new construction to accommodate the many new commuters who work in the Dallas area but prefer to live in the semi-rural locale of nearby Rockwall.
Let me make one thing perfectly clear: Rockwall is not, by any stretch of the imagination, some product of urban sprawl. Perish the thought! City planners have a well-thought-out, long-term game plan for the city’s future expansion–rather like a brand new master-planned community that just happens to have an historic—dare we use the term “ancient”?—past, a rare combination of past, present, and future. Were I a betting man—and once upon a time in my younger days I was—I’d bet all my chips on Rockwall, not just to “place” or to “show,” but to “WIN!”