Natural Things: Notes from a Natural History Museum | News

Streams of running water have been important to people as far back as we can tell. The ancient Greeks named diverse Naiads who presided over the supernatural aspects of streams. Closer to home, the Spanish colonial recognized the importance of streams. Many of the Mexican land grants that were issued to colonists before 1836 referred to creeks as arroyos. The Arroyo Arenosa of Mexican land grants is labeled on maps today as Sandy Creek. That’s just a literal translation. Before the Spanish entered Tejas, the Caddos had special reverence for certain streams. Their names come down to us in places like Naconiche Creek, Navasota, Nacogdoches.

Texas Archaeologist, Bob Skiles translated the East Texas name, Naconiche to me once. In the Caddo language “na” was a prefix meaning the place of something. Naconiche was the “place of tears”. Some think that the “place of tears” describes a spring of clear water where the Caddos claim that people entered the world. And if you have ever walked up a creek to find a spring cloaked in ferns and giant trees then you will understand why those places are considered special. The tradition continues. Barton Springs and Balmorhea are iconic and sacred to many Texans. The Spanish who settled Texas had poetic names for springs. They called them “nacimiento de agua” … the birthplace of the water, or “ojos de agua” … eyes of the water. That’s not too different from Caddo’s “place of tears”.

I really like “the eyes of the water” best. Springs and streams of clear cool water are like eyes because they are used by diverse people to see things about the land. I know because we have various tribes of creekologists passing through the museum all the time. What exactly is a creekologist? About 1880 it was a slightly derisive epithet applied to geologists. But this attitude quickly changed among the local populace when gushers of crude oil and royalty checks ensued. In the early geological surveys Texas paid teams of geologists to roam the state working out the distribution of many economically valuable commodities. The easiest way to start figuring out the layers was to follow stream beds. Local farmers probably wondered at the sanity of grown men wading up creeks picking up rocks. Here in the museum archives we have a handwritten manuscript on salt domes from early Texas Geologist LC Chapman. His notes are written in an exact cursive style that follow perfect lines. “Stream courses may be very indicative of the subsurface structure. Drainage from a domed area will head on a watershed … flow around the area and unite in a trunk. ” It appears that Chapman was a devoted creekologist.

Botanists also roam creeks looking for rare plants. Creeks tend to flood, so development is held at bay and wildness tends to persist a little more. Museum associate Joe Liggio is the author of “The Wild Orchids of Texas”. I met Liggio when he was leading a field trip up the bed of Rush Creek, about an hour east of Huntsville in Tyler County. That day he discovered a new location for the shadow witch orchid; a rarity known from only three or four places in Texas. Closer to home we have recent discoveries about the westernmost grove of beech trees in the state growing right here in Huntsville on the banks of a shady creek. Those trees should not be growing west of Livingston.

Creeks are also home to freshwater mussels. Local expert, Don Barclay houses his extensive collection in the Sam Houston State Natural History Collection. He collects mussels from all over the world. You can show him a mussel from the bed of a river and he can often tell you just which part of the river you were on. Barclay can see where you have been by looking at the mussels.

Creeks and streams are also traversed by hunters of artifacts. Huntsville is home to Bruce Moore. It seems like Moore has waded up every creek and branch in the county. By walking the creek bed he can see many layers into the past. He is expert in identifying old bottles, flint artifacts that are thousands of years old and fossils that date to millions of years. Moore can tell you about the Pleistocene era in Huntsville by the teeth of mastodons, horses and bison. He can speculate on the activities of Huntsville citizens by the trash that was dumped in the creeks long ago. Bottles of sperm whale oil for sewing machines and quinine tonic for malarial chills bring those lives back to light.

Petrified Wood is another special kind of fossil that tends to absorb the entire attention of its devotees. You do not have to be a detective to identify petrified wood collectors. Their yards are usually full of it. There are houses and walls and monuments built of it all over town. There is even a recent book on the petrified wood houses of Texas. Until the 1930’s it was gathered in fields, but today the most comes from laborious work in creek beds and gravel bars. Texas’ top expert Scott Singleton lives in Houston and is a moving force behind the Houston Gem and Mineral Show. But he visits Huntsville periodically to work with local landowners. He can slice the petrified wood on a diamond saw into thin sections and use the cellular structure to identify the species of tree. Singleton can see back into time by doing this and tell you about the strange tropical trees like palms or snakewood that once grew here in Huntsville. Here at the museum we are working with Singleton and local landowners to build a reference collection of local varieties.

In Walker County the historians are also creekologists. Mention any local creeks to James Patton and the conversation wanders off into the names of different creek branches. In 2021 the Walker County Historical Commission recognized the “seven hills of Huntsville” with the dedication of a new historical marker. Corollary to those seven hills are the seven (or more) streams. Patton will tell you how the early settlers often referred to their “city of seven hills and seven streams”. The geologist Chapman explained how the creeks tend to run around the hills.

Those streams mostly had names ending in “branch” because a creek connected to a river and a branch connected to a creek. The proliferation of branch names in Huntsville was a natural result of this complicated network of hills and valleys. The USGS topographic map of Huntsville lists Black Branch, Town Branch, Horse Branch, Spring Branch, Tan Yard Branch, Alligator Branch and Prairie Branch. But there are more. John W. Thomason Jr. writes about hunting along White House Branch four miles east of Huntsville in the Walker County Bicentennial History. In his 1918 book on geology of East Texas, Geologist, Edwin Dumble describes local rocks on Penitentiary Branch, a fork of Harmon Creek.

If you delve deeper into local creekology, there are probably many more branches. Those branches are easy to get lost in. Most conversations that I have been party to about branches grow byzantine and then die of confusion. Is Mr. Hamburger located on Horse Branch or Penitentiary Branch? There’s no telling without some dedicated scholarship. In the past there have been some movements to get all these branches sorted out. Bruce Moore says that several Huntsville citizens have attempted to address the problem with no conclusion.

So, in the interests of promoting local creekology, I am willing to offer the facilities of the museum to host any discussions of the local creeks and branches. A unified account of the many names of creeks and branches in our area would certainly be in the interests of all. A natural history museum is the logical hub to connect the diverse fields of study related to the local flowing waters. The Walker County Creekologists will be open to any ichthyologists, petrified wood specialists, geologists, historians, malacologists, entomologists, historians and others who express an interest in viewing the local environment through creek beds. In past columns we have omitted to include a way to communicate with the author. In future all columns will include my SHSU email address, WBG004@SHSU.edu. Anyone interested in contributing to the study of local stream nomenclature is encouraged to join in communication.

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