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Woman Hollering Creek and Other Histories of Texas Women and the Land

By Guest Contributor: Dr. Jessica Brannon-Wranosky, Distinguished Professor of Digital Humanities and History at Texas A&M University-Commerce and Project Director of the Handbook of Texas Women

The Texas General Land Office contains a wealth of information chronicling women’s history among its various collections. Starting in the Spanish Colonial period and moving forward into the twenty-first century, these records and the vast knowledge of the GLO’s personnel provide enormous insights into how women interacted with land, migration, and community. The Texas State Historical Association is proud that the Texas General Land Office became one of the earliest partners to sign on to support one of the association’s recent projects, the Handbook of Texas Women (https://texaswomen.tshaonline.org/).

The Handbook of Texas Women is a multiyear, multiplatform content development and public education project of the Handbook of Texas Online and the Texas State Historical Association at large. Numerous sponsors and partners, an extensive Executive Advisory Committee, and hundreds of authors and researchers have signed on to support the project’s goal for the production and public availability of more Texas women’s history than ever before. The GLO’s partnership with the Handbook of Texas Women has assisted in making available Texas women’s history by providing research support and information through a number of the project’s initiatives.[1]

Page from the land grant to María Calvillo in which Juan Seguín issued the title in her name. Click here to learn more about María Calvillo. María Calvillo Land Grant, 23 March 1834, Box 120, Folder 4, p. 5, Records of the Spanish Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

One of these collaborations with the GLO, for example, aims at identifying a number of women land grant recipients and having authors write a series of short biographical articles about those women land grantees for publication in the Handbook of Texas Women, and thus also in the Handbook of Texas Online.

Because of the continuance of certain Spanish legal traditions, including property ownership laws, women were able to receive land grants from the governments of Spain, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, and then the state of Texas.[2] Land grants in Texas provided a means for women to gain and own land in a manner that was unusual in other states in the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Thousands of women received land grants of various sizes under different laws starting in the early nineteenth century and continuing through some of the last Texas public land grants in the early twentieth century.

The authors of these specific Handbook articles are instructed to rely on the land grant records at the GLO as their starting point and maintain the discussion of the women’s relationship with those grants as an important part of each woman’s story. Then the information in the GLO files is supplemented with additional sources about these women and their families to round out the biographical information.

Many women land grant owners were widows. Although, the status of widow was not a requirement for many of the land grant designations, and some women came to Texas with family members, received their own land grant, and never married. In other cases, daughters filed for land grants based on their father’s military service. Overall, the stories coming out of these pieces for the Handbook are excellent biographical snapshots of the various ways that women’s land ownership worked into the fabric of economic, marital, cultural, legal, ethnic, racial, and gendered histories of Texas.

The GLO and the Handbook of Texas Women have also joined forces with others across the state to take a closer look at a place where women’s history connects land and legend — an area known as “Woman Hollering Creek” or “Womans Hollow Creek” in eastern Bexar County.

Texas Department of Transportation signs mark road crossings intersecting with Woman Hollering Creek at various places in eastern Bexar County. This one sits at the creek’s crossing with Interstate 10. (Image source: Google Maps)

What is currently marked on numerous highway and road signs as “Woman Hollering Creek” runs from the sand flats at the south end of Randolph Air Force Base’s golf course, crosses Interstate 10 near Schertz, and ends approximately 18 miles from downtown San Antonio at Martinez Creek near the town of St. Hedwig.[3] Some stories connect the name of the creek to the sound of wildcats, panthers, or cougars whose screeching call sounds like a woman screaming, and thus “hollering.”[4] The prevalence of such wild cats makes this version of the story especially believable to many who know the environmental and ranching history of the area. In his 1857 book, Journey Through Texas, Frederick Law Olmsted reported stories of panthers up to nine feet long from nose to the tip of the tail in Central Texas.[5] My grandfather continued to talk about panthers on and near his ranch in northern Texas well past the mid-twentieth century.

Sources dating to the late twentieth century claim a different reason for the creek’s name. In these traditions, the creek is named in relation to different versions of a La Llorona story, in these cases which a woman whose children or other loved ones were drowned or killed somehow near the creek — whether at her hand or by someone else.[6] La Llorona is an enormously famous folklore of a woman who has either lost her children, whose children have died, who she herself has died, or who is wandering (usually areas of water or in some cases along cliffs) to drag anyone who comes near her to their death. The legend dates at least to the mid-1500s, if not significantly before European contact in central Mexico.[7] “La Llorona” literally translates from Spanish to English as “the weeping woman.” These stories usually continue to describe how the woman walks up and down the banks crying or wailing, and how many claim that her spirit still returns to the area mourning or looking for the souls of her lost loved ones. Some of these versions go into detail about who actually is attacked or dies, and in different adaptations, the woman is Spanish, American Indian, or a member of a local European or American settler community.[8] It is important to point out, though, that the woman’s name or the name of her family never seems to be part of the story. The details of the violence may be clear, but her identity is always vague and obscured.

The continued public curiosity over the years led researchers working with the Handbook of Texas Women to decide that the historical and cultural references associated with Woman Hollering Creek were worth exploring further.[9] First, Jimena Perry, a member of the 2019 Handbook of Texas Women UT Summer Research Fellows group, tracked down and wrote portions of the article discussing the modern versions of the story referenced in media outlets and literary references. A number of the twenty-first-century sources stated that mid-to-late nineteenth-century maps marked the area as “Woman Hollering Creek.”

United States Board on Geographic Names official ruling regarding the name of “Woman’s Hollow Creek” from the 1993 volume of Decisions on Geographic Names in the United States.
On this 1940 Texas Highway Department General Highway Map, the creek is shown but not labeled with a name of any kind. Courtesy of Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection, University of Texas at Austin.

The next step was to survey maps and other historical documents in an effort to trace the stories and the creek back in time. Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) road signs, online and media reports of oral traditions, and United States government official geographical survey information in the last few decades have used different versions of the name — especially Woman Hollering Creek and Woman’s Hollow Creek.[10] Thus, the members of the research team who worked on this article for the Handbook made it a point to look for versions of both names.

Bexar County maps at the GLO (1839, left; 1879, right) show an unnamed tributary running through the land grant of Maria Josefa Rodrigues to Martinez Creek. This marking lines up almost perfectly with 2020 satellite images of “Woman Hollering Creek.” [left] H.L. Upshur, Map representing the surveys made in Bexar County, Austin: Texas General Land Office, 1839, Map #1947, [right] Map of Bexar County Texas, St. Louis: August Gast and Company, 1879, Map #530, Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

Jan Root, the GLO’s Map Archivist, manually went through all GLO maps of the area and any from other collections to which the GLO has access. Katherine Kuehler Walters, Assistant Editor of the Handbook of Texas Online and member of the Handbook of Texas Women Executive Advisory Committee and I sifted through numerous land grants, deeds, maps, government reports, and newspapers. We also did a satellite overlay of current images with historical maps.

In this clipping from the 1958 Army Corps of Engineers Map of Saint Hedwig, Texas, “Woman Hollering Creek” is shown in the center of the image. Courtesy of Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection, University of Texas at Austin.

In the end, when all our work was compiled, it turned out that there were no mentions of the name of “Woman Hollering Creek” on any known nineteenth-century or early twentieth-century map in English or Spanish. No references to “Arroyo de la Llorona” were found in any historical documents pertaining to the creek.

In this clipping from the 1967 Army Corps of Engineers Map of Schertz, Texas, “Women Hollow Creek” is shown in the center of the image. Courtesy of Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection, University of Texas at Austin.

On a few, there is an unnamed tributary running off or running to Martinez Creek. For example, in the Maria Josefa Rodriguez land grant on an 1839 map of Bexar County published by the GLO, there is an unmarked creek shown that is also included on another map of the county drawn in 1879.[11] The first maps that seem to list the creek with a name were printed in the latter half of the twentieth century.[12] It is likely that the reason for this inconsistent representation on maps comes from surveyors doing their work on the area when there was not any water in the creek, meaning that it was dry on a regular basis throughout the nineteenth century.

In this clipping from the 1995 Texas Highways Map, “Woman Hollering Creek” is shown in the center of the image. Courtesy of Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection, University of Texas at Austin.

That the creek or area was unnamed or not even represented on so many of the maps available from the nineteenth and early twentieth century, made us begin to question all sources from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries that claimed that its name and the associated legend came from the nineteenth century. Most of the legends of a wailing woman associated with the creek require there to be deep enough water for her or someone she loves to drown, either by accident or by force. Since the maps show a lack of consistent water supply, we started to wonder when the earliest mention of the creek occurred in historical documents and what version of the name was the oldest. We quickly turned to newspapers from the area to begin our search for any names that would have been publicly associated with this particular geographic body. Late nineteenth-century newspaper sources in English and German refer to this as “Old Woman’s Hollow Creek,” “Woman’s Hollow Creek,” or “Old Woman’s Hollow.”[13]

German and English newspapers referring to the “hollow” in land advertisements and news pieces meant that it was locally a recognizable landmass. Therefore, after surveying available local newspapers, the research team turned back to the GLO for historical land grant files and to the Bexar County Historical Archives for deeds of sale. By overlapping land grant maps and late-nineteenth-century ownership maps with twenty-first-century satellite images, we were able to determine who had owned property over the years associated with what was called by the late twentieth century “Woman Hollering Creek.” We accessed the land grant files and the deeds of sale and began to read through these records, which depending on the years were in either Spanish or English.

Two deeds stood out among the large group surveyed of land grant files and sale documents, and both were from the early 1880s. The earliest record found from a survey of all the available land grant records and deeds of sale for the land through which the creek runs was an October 1880 land deed filed the following year with Bexar County.

This portion of the second page of the Charles Kopplin land deed in 1880 shows the reference to the name of the geographic area as Old Womans Hollow. Courtesy of the Bexar County Archives.

The deed stated that Charles Kopplin was purchasing the land. As part of the land’s description, which was located on the “west side of the Cibolo,” there was a series of formal survey indicators including “…N: 66 at 1530 to Old Womans Hollow runs S. E. at 3636…”[14] By 1897, that same land Kopplin bought in 1880 had been distributed to his children, their relatives by marriage, his grandchildren, and to neighboring landowners through a variety of land sales and inheritance.[15] On an 1897 Bexar County land map that shows the names of landowners at the time, the area where the Creek runs alongside what in the twenty-first century is named “Woman Hollering Creek Road,” runs exactly across the land — from edge to edge — the piece that in 1897 was owned by Charles’s son, William Kopplin.[16]

This portion of the 1897 map of Bexar County shows William Kopplin’s land (traced and labeled in purple). The map was overlaid with a 2020 satellite image to show the area lining up with what was by 2020 Woman Hollering Road (traced and labeled in red) and Woman Hollering Creek (traced and labeled in turquoise). John D. Rullmann, Map of Bexar County Showing Subdivisions of Original Surveys and Names of Present Owners, San Antonio, 1897, G4033.B46 1897 .R8, Library of Congress Geography and Map Division, Washington, D.C. Reproductions of this map (GLO Map #88908) are available courtesy of the Library of Congress. Satellite image and related information courtesy of Google Earth Pro.

The question still remained, though, where did the name come from?

In 1881, Edmond Pfeil purchased a block of land from Agnes and Peter Wallerath that included the description of the creek. It was this deed of sale that provided the only known record of the Spanish name for the creek, and it also provided a translation in English. The description read, “Cañada de la Vieja (old womans hollow Creek).” Further down in the land description, it referred to “old womans hollow Creek” again, suggesting that this was the more accepted name at that time.[17]

Finding the Spanish version of the name along with an English translation made the rest of the story and different documents representing the area communities line up and make sense. Cañada often translates to mean “glen,” but in older uses of Spanish, it means “ravine.” Vieja translated into English means “old.” Therefore, the direct translation could mean the “old ravine.” A ravine is “a small narrow steep-sided valley that is larger than a gully and smaller than a canyon and that is usually worn by running water.”[18] Since the Spanish language genders nouns and associated adjectives, the word cañada is considered a feminine noun (because it ends with the letter “a”), and it is paired with a feminine adjective (vieja — also ending in the letter “a”). Thus, the translation of Cañada de la Vieja can also translate to the words “Ravine of the Old Woman” because of the feminine nature of the language.

This portion of the second page of the Edmond Pfeil land deed in 1881 shows the reference to the name of the geographic area as Cañada de la Vieja (Old Womans Hollow Creek) and again later to Old Womans Hollow Creek. Courtesy of the Bexar County Archives.

Not a single nineteenth- or early twentieth-century source was found that used the word “hollering,” which is very important in tracing this story. Every single source found in this extensive survey of available records until the latter twentieth century used the term “hollow,” if a term was used at all. It is most likely that a name in Spanish was translated into English with possibly even German and Polish language influences. Then, at some point, either different local accents, likely including those from the American South, pronounced the word “hollow” as “holler.” In an April 23, 1974, letter to the editor in the San Antonio Light newspaper, someone signing their letter with the initials O. E. H. stated, “Many years ago, my grandfather speaking of this creek called it Woman Holler Creek. My grandfather was born in this area of Bexar County some 137 years ago.” There is no proof that this is accurate, but the letter does suggest that some in the area remember the word used as “holler.”[19]

Old Woman’s Hollow Creek changed over time to Woman Hollering Creek. Once the linguistic alteration happened, people probably started to wonder who the woman was. A series of local legends began to form around the new name, including the attachment of the existing Latin American folklore of La Llorona. As generation to generation passed down the various explanations, the process changed the collective memory and recollection of where the unusual name came from. The 1991 publication of award-winning writer, who grew up in San Antonio, Sandra Cisneros’s book of fiction, Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, has further solidified the link.

There are places with similar names all over the world. In the Spanish province of Granada near Caniles and near El Castillo de los Baños de Cristo, a medieval fortress, there is an area named Cañada de la Vieja. Who knows? Maybe Spanish colonists from that region brought the name with them and applied it to the land near modern San Antonio.[20] In the Scottish Highlands south of the town of Aviemore, there is a land formation referred to as Lag-na-Calliach or Lag na Caillich, meaning “hollow of the old woman.”[21] In Año Nuevo State Park in California, there is an Old Woman’s Creek Road.[22] In the province of San Juan in the Dominican Republic, there is a Cañada Vieja, and in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, an Estancia Cañada Vieja.[23] These and many other examples show that it is not unusual globally for land to be associated with women.

As for what is now known as Woman Hollering Creek east of San Antonio, the most recent version of its name is likely here to stay for a while. In the end, the convergence of communities, history, memory, and legend over the course of generations has already created emotional ties to these stories for twentieth and twenty-first century Texans. The historical records now reveal that it was highly unlikely that there ever was a person or violent event for which the creek was named, but she is ingrained in our identity. She has become part of who we are. Future generations will continue to believe that there once was a woman who had experienced such sorrow, such loss, that it etched itself on the landscape through acts of storytelling, and as some will still swear — ghostly hauntings.

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[1] The collaboration that often goes on in some of the best historical detective work happens behind the scenes, and it is important to pause and appreciate the level of community that often goes into every piece for publication in the Handbook. It took a number of researchers, including myself, to go through different sources in various ways to try and locate information to shed light on the name of Woman Hollering Creek, and even more so to line up the information and work produced for the Handbook of Texas Women regarding women land grant recipients — Jan Root and James Harkins at the GLO, Katherine Kuehler Walters and Jimena Perry for their research and writing, and all those who have served as land grant article authors — thank you. An enormous thanks to Jacqueline Jones, the UT at Austin Department of History Chair, for making the resources available for the 2019 Handbook of Texas Women UT Summer Research Fellows, and to Ellen Temple for her long and continued support of Texas women’s history and whose endowment at UT provided much of the fellow 2019 research fellows funding. Finally, a particularly special acknowledgment for Brett Derbes, Laurie Jasinski, and Katherine Kuehler Walters for all the work they do daily managing and editing the Handbook of Texas.

[2] For examples of Handbook of Texas biographical articles about woman land grant recipients, see “Margarita Gonzáles” by Anne Poulos https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fgonz, “Margaret Conner” by Kelly Clayton https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fcoma, “Hannah English Payne Anderson” by Jacob Hanley https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fande, “Delilah Bennett Manning Barlough” by Kalen Lewis https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fbarl, “Mary Polly Madden Hamilton Moore” by Penny Dodd https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fmore, “Vashti Gibbs Narramore” by Natalie R. Bonner https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fnarr, “Simona Smith Fisk” by John R. Lundberg and Elaina Friar Moyer https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/ffi66, “Elizabeth McCullough Straily Sachse” by Allan L. Folsom https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fsach, “Sophia File Higgins” by Amanda Watkins https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fhigg, and “Margaret Hall Little Lavender” by Linda K. H. Ross https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/flave.

[3] John Troesser, Hollering Creek” Texas Escapes.Com. Available via http://www.texasescapes.com/TexasFolklore/WomanHolleringCreek/WomanHolleringCreek.htm.

The San Antonio Light (April 20, 1974) page 12 published a letter to the editor with an editorial reply that stated the official name of Woman Hollering Creek listed in the official map of the Department of Public Works for Bexar County.

[4] Paula Allen, “Woman Hollering Creek’s Name Evokes Chilling Explanations,” San Antonio Express-News (February 22, 2004) republished October 25, 2012. Available via https://www.mysanantonio.com/life/life_columnists/paula_allen/article/Woman-Hollering-Creek-s-name-evokes-chilling-3979750.php. San Antonio Light (April 24, 1974) page 20.

[5] Frederick Law Olmsted, A Journey Through Texas: Or, A Saddle-trip on the Southwestern Frontier (New York: Dix, Edwards, and Co., 1857), 198.

[6] Paula Allen, “Woman Hollering Creek’s…” San Antonio Express-News (February 22, 2004).

[7] Domino Renee Perez, There Was a Woman: La Llorona from Folklore to Popular Culture (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008).

[8] San Antonio Light (April 24, 2974) page 20; San Antonio Light (May 9, 1985) page 54; San Antonio Light (May 28, 1989) page 35; San Antonio Light (May 28, 1989) page 91.

[9] Paula Allen, “Woman Hollering Creek’s…” San Antonio Express-News (February 22, 2004).

[10] Texas Department of Transportation “Woman Hollering Creek” Sign, located on Interstate Hwy 10 at Latitude 29.493087 and Longitude -98.207497.

San Antonio Express (April 26, 2964) referred to it as “Woman Hollow Creek.” San Antonio Light (April 24, 2974) stated that the Bexar County Department of Public Works had it in their records as “Woman Hollering Creek.”

“Feature Detail Report for: Womans Hollow Creek.” Available via https://geonames.usgs.gov/apex/f?p=138:3:0::NO::P3_FID,P3_TITLE:1384164,Womans%20Hollow%20Creek. United States Board on Geographic Names, “Woman’s Hollow Creek,” Decisions on Geographic Names in the United States (Washington, D.C.: Dept. of the Interior, 1993), 11.

According to the Springs of Texas, “Woman Hollering Springs (8) are the source of the creek of the same name. How they got their name is unknown. On some maps, the creek is called Women Hollow Creek. The springs flow from terrace sands and gravels on the golf course on the southeast side of Randolph Air Force Base. Their discharge was 17 lps.” Gunnar Brune, Springs of Texas, Vol. 1 (Forth Worth: Branch-Smith, Inc., 1981), 76.

[11] H.L. Upshur, Map representing the surveys made in Bexar County, Austin: Texas General Land Office, 1839, Map #1947, Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

Map of Bexar County Texas, St. Louis: August Gast and Company, 1879, Map #530, Map Collection, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

[12] For an example of a map in the latter half of the twentieth century that marks the creek as “Woman Hollering Creek,” see U.S. Department of the Army Corps of Engineers, “Saint Hedwig, Map” (United States Geological Survey, 1958), Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection, University of Texas at Austin. Available via http://legacy.lib.utexas.edu/maps/topo/texas/txu-pclmaps-topo-tx-saint_hedwig-1958.jpg.

[13] Freie Presse für Texas (August 9, 1884) page 2 called it “Old Woman Hollow Creek.” Freie Presse für Texas (April 14, 1896) page 5 stated “Woman’s Hollow Creek.” San Antonio Daily Express (December 16, 1899) page 7 stated “Old Woman’s Hollow.” An advertisement for land “on west side of Trainer-Haile road in Old Woman’s Hollow” appeared in the San Antonio Gazette on November 23, 1907.

[14] Charles Kopplin (grantee). Contract. Recorded Date November 8, 1880. Document number 99991717796. Bexar County Deeds Book. Volume 15. Page 429. Available via https://bexar.tx.publicsearch.us/.

In different documents, Charles Kopplin was often referred to as Carl Kopplin. The two names (Carl and Charles) mean the same and often were used interchangeably during that period by European Americans.

[15] Deeds in the Bexar County Archives can be followed to trace the land from Charles/Carl Kopplin through to those who owned the land in 1897.

[16] Library of Congress. “Map of Bexar County Showing Subdivisions of Original Surveys and Names of Present Owners,” (San Antonio: John D. Rullman, 1897) available via Texas General Land Office, Map Store. Available via https://s3.glo.texas.gov/glo/history/archives/map-store/index.cfm#item/88908.

[17] Edmond Pfeil (grantee). Deed. Recorded Date July 5, 1881. Document number 99992094834. Bexar County Deeds Book. Volume 20. Page 133. Available via https://bexar.tx.publicsearch.us/.

[18] “Ravine” definition according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary.

[19] San Antonio Light (April 24, 1974) page 20.

[20] “Cañada de la Vieja,” Toponimia de Las Islas Canarias. Available via https://toponimiacanarias.ulpgc.es/items/show/231396.

[21] Gaelic Society of Inverness, Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, Vol. 55 (1989), 98; Scottish Regional Group, Council for British Archaeology, Discovery and Excavation, Scotland (1976), 17.

[22] Lonely Hiker “Old Woman’s Creek Road at Año Nuevo State Park.” Available via https://lonelyhiker.weebly.com/trails/old-womans-creek-road-at-ano-nuevo-state-park.

[23] Hudson Institute of Mineralogy, “Cañada Vieja, Provincia de San Juan, Dominican Republic.” Available via https://www.mindat.org/feature-3510469.html; Hudson Institute of Mineralogy, “Estancia Cañada Vieja, Departamento de Santa Cruz, Bolivia.” Available via https://www.mindat.org/feature-3917627.html.

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