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Trammel’s Trace: The First Road to Texas from the North

By: Guest Contributor Gary Pinkerton

Modern Map of Historical Route of Trammel’s Trace (www.trammelstrace.com/the-map)

Legends can be an impediment to historical knowledge. Stories and folklore about historical events, places, or characters which are told again and again will easily be substituted for historical actuality. Particularly when legends are told about things that happened hundreds of years ago, the ease of accepting them as fact is both convenient and, consequently, the only aspect of the subject that receives any broad consideration.

An early road across East Texas named Trammel’s Trace has been subject to that effect and can be found throughout the records of the Texas General Land Office Archives.

When Trammel’s Trace is mentioned in Texas, legends are what most people have heard. If they know of it at all most will say it was a smuggler’s road named after a murderous land pirate. However, the historicity of the old trail, its authentic history, is far more interesting and complex.

When Spanish Texas became Mexican Texas, colonization laws were liberalized, and a series of events led to the opening of Austin’s Colony. Trammel’s Trace became the primary route into Texas for thousands of Anglo immigrants coming from Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee after 1821.

A Historic Corridor

Harrison County GLO map showing Trammel’s Trace with purple ink (from Portal to Texas History). Morriss, G. C. & Giles, J. Bascom. Harrison County, map, 1920; [Austin, Texas]. (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth493665/: accessed April 2, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Hardin-Simmons University Library. The GLO’s copy of this item, Map #1850, lacks the purple embellishment for Trammel’s Trace.

Trammel’s Trace originated in Fulton, Arkansas, and crossed Bowie, Cass, Marion, Harrison, Rusk, Panola, and Nacogdoches counties on the way to a junction with El Camino Real de los Tejas.[1] A separate branch crossed Red River County. This ancient route across eight Texas counties had its origins as a trail used by Caddo Indians, joining early villages.[2] In 1542, Spanish explorers of the Moscoso expedition, part of DeSoto’s entrada, encountered and traveled it in their search for a New Spain.[3]

An 1841 survey shows the intersection of Trammel’s Trace and a road to Shreveport. Field notes of the Joseph Fields grant, 12 May 1841, Harrison 2–000012, Texas Land Grant Records, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

Some of the earliest maps of Spanish Texas demonstrated knowledge of entry points from the north at the Great Bend of the Red River, near present-day Fulton, and farther upstream at the early settlements of Pecan Point and Jonesborough.

An 1801 map of The Provincia de Texas and Luisiana by a Spanish priest shows a route from the Red River to Nacogdoches which is visually similar to the later route.[4] Even though it was not yet known as Trammel’s Trace, Stephen F. Austin’s pivotal Mapa Geographico de la Provincia de Tejas from 1822 shows the road from the Sulphur Factory at the confluence of the Red River and the Sulphur Fork tracking southward to Nacogdoches.[5]

Trammel’s Trace is shown near Martin’s Creek in Rusk County. [detail] B.A. Vansickle, Rusk County Sketch File 10, 5 November 1849, Map #35507, Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

Trammel’s Trace and the Original Texas Land Surveys

At least twenty-nine county maps in the Texas General Land Office collection reference Trammel’s Trace, and dozens more of the maps, sketch files, rolled sketches, and other digitized data provide information about the historical route.[6] In the earliest surveys for the Republic of Texas, surveyor calls noting the precise point where Trammel’s Trace crossed the boundary of the headright grants are mentioned almost fifty times.[7] These survey notes provide the ability to locate points on the ground where the trail may be found even today.

Even when Trammel’s Trace did not cross a survey, it was frequently mentioned in the survey notes on the same level as rivers and early towns as key points of reference. A survey might be described as “3 miles NE of Trammel’s Trace.” The road was such a well-defined part of the landscape that when Rusk County was formed in 1843, Trammel’s Trace was used to define about two-thirds of the boundary with Panola County to the east.[8]

Left: Trammel’s Trace is labeled in southwestern Panola County. Right: The double-dashed line represents Trammel’s Trace and the border between Rusk and Panola counties. [details] Theo. F. Pinckney, Map of Panola County, Austin: Texas General Land Office, 1882, Map #4504, Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

Using this kind of information from the Original Texas Land Surveys (OTLS) at the Texas General Land Office, geographic information available online, and mapping software, a group of independent researchers who call ourselves “rut nuts” have been able to create a modern map showing the likely route of Trammel’s Trace.[9]

Nicholas Trammell — Smuggler, Gambler, Opportunist

While most old roads were named for where they went or where they originated, Trammel’s Trace is named after a person known for using the route well before the Republic of Texas was founded.

Frontiersman with Pipe, by David Wright. Used with Permission. www.davidwrightart.com

Nicholas Trammell (1780–1856) was a Tennessean who immigrated to Texas along with other Anglos even before such immigration was permitted by Spanish authorities. Accused by a group of Cherokees in Missouri Territory in 1813 of stealing and smuggling horses, he made his way to Pecan Point around 1819 after relocating from what is now Batesville in northeastern Arkansas.

In 1822, after word of the opening of Austin’s Colony was received at the Red River, Trammell was credited with widening the rough trail from Pecan Point to Nacogdoches enough for wagons to pass.

The reputation of Pecan Pointers, in general, was not good. They were called “bad men” and criminals by many in authority. In fact, Trammell’s reputation was so bad that Stephen F. Austin himself rejected his entry into the colony, calling Trammell and another man ones “which all the world proclaims as criminals and bad men.”[10]

After being rejected by Austin, Trammell remained in East Texas and became established at a Trinity River ferry crossing on El Camino Real ninety miles west of Nacogdoches. His placement there was the result of a favor by Haden Edwards, a failed empresario. Trammell was involved in several legal disputes documented in the Nacogdoches Archives. Conflict between the old settlers and Anglo land-grabbers led to the Fredonian Rebellion, ignited by an event in which Nicholas Trammell and his family were chased off the ferry crossing by armed militia in 1826.[11]

He retreated back to the United States, to southwestern Arkansas. From there he ran taverns, gambling operations, and engaged in high stakes horse races. It was during those years in Arkansas when Trammell’s legend grew, more from his shadowy nature and sometimes secluded residence than from any criminal activity. A description of Nicholas Trammell late in life seemed to sum up his character best. A U.S. soldier passing through Washington, Arkansas, in 1846 met Trammell and said that he “would perform with fidelity and honor, whatever he undertook, but that it was prudent to watch him after he had completed his engagement.”[12]

In the early 1850s, Trammell and his entire family moved from southwest Arkansas back to Texas to settle near LaGrange, continuing their gambling and racing enterprises. Nicholas Trammell died in Gonzales County in 1856.

The Role of Landowners in Preserving History

Trammel’s Trace landowners in Hughes Springs. Photo by Gary Pinkerton.

Unlike the Natchez Trace or El Camino Real de los Tejas, Trammel’s Trace will never become a National Historic Trail. Though many swales and ruts are evident along the 180-mile route, there are few signs of a continuous roadway that remain. The heaviest use of Trammel’s Trace was during the waves of Anglo migration to Texas, and once people settled along its route other roads from point-to-point quickly grew up around it. Two hundred years of settlement, cultivation, and timber harvesting, as well as sandy or loamy soils, have reduced the remaining signs of this road. Though the evidence of the trail may be diminishing, its importance and role in Texas history do not.

Trammel’s Trace Crossing of the Sulphur River at Epperson’s Ferry. Photo by Gary Pinkerton.

With virtually every mile of the route on private lands, any efforts at preserving physical evidence of the old road is up to landowners with a sense of history. All along the route, landowners have shown a tangible interest in learning more about the history and the route of Trammel’s Trace and are doing their part to preserve any remaining swales. When landowners learn that Crockett, Bowie, and Houston traveled across land for which they are now caretakers, their sense of personal investment in preserving that story grows.

[1] El Camino Real de los Tejas is a National Historic Trail. https://www.nps.gov/elte/index.htm. See also El Camino Real de los Tejas National Historic Trail Association at https://www.elcaminorealdelostejas.org.

[2] Additional information on the Caddo can be found at https://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/pine/index.html. For an example of a survey showing Trammel’s Trace in close proximity to an old Caddo village, see pg. 11 of the Josiah Prewitt survey, file Shelby 1–108.

[3] Handbook of Texas Online, James E. Bruseth, “Moscoso Expedition,” accessed March 30, 2018, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/upm02. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

[4] Puelles map. https://www.texasbeyondhistory.net/tejas/ancestors/images/map-1801.html.

[5] Original map can be found in the Stephen F. Austin Map Collection, di_09151, The Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin. http://www.glo.texas.gov/history/archives/map-store/index.cfm#item/94457.

[6] Searching the Map Store at the Texas General Land Office website will display index terms associated with map holdings.

[7] For examples of these see Rusk County Sketch File 10, showing surveys along Martin’s Creek and Trammel’s Trace, or Harrison County Abstract #249 for the Joseph Fields survey just south of Interstate 20 near Marshall.

[8] Gammel, Hans Peter Mareus Neilsen. The Laws of Texas, 1822–1897 Volume 2, book, 1898; Austin, Texas, p 859. (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth6726/: accessed April 2, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History.

[9] A Trammel’s Trace overlay on Google Maps was developed by Logan Hope, a student at Stephen F. Austin State University. https://tinyurl.com/trammelstracemap. His poster entry, with Jamison Brandenburg, in the Texas GIS Forum in 2017 was awarded first place. https://tnris.org/news/2018-01-10/poster-gallery-winners-207-texas-gis-forum/.

[10] Gary Pinkerton. Trammel’s Trace: The First Road to Texas from the North. Texas A&M Press. 2016, p 119.

[11] Handbook of Texas Online, Archie P. McDonald, “Fredonian Rebellion,” accessed April 09, 2018, https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/jcf01. Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Modified on May 10, 2016. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

[12] Pinkerton, p 194.

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