Early Texas Cities in Art

During the nineteenth century, artists, writers, travelers, and sketchers produced hundreds of pictures of Texas cities. Among the first images were the imaginary views of the short-lived French colony at Champ d’Asile on the Trinity River in 1819 (Feature 1), followed by early eyewitness drawings and pictorial documents intended to encourage would-be immigrants to settle in what would become known as the Lone Star State.

Most of these drawings were published as illustrations in books and newspapers, but dozens were issued as separate prints by artists such as Hermann Lungkwitz, Augustus Koch, and Thaddeus Fowler. This mostly promotional material consisted primarily of what are called “bird’s-eye views,” large city portraits that appear as something between a panoramic view and a map. The creation of bird’s-eye views reached a peak during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Between 1871 and 1892, nine different artists produced dozens of separately issued bird’s-eye views depicting more than fifty Texas cities from an imaginary viewpoint in the air.

Bird’s-eye views are based on European models dating from the sixteenth century (Feature 2). (To learn more about how bird’s-eye views were made, read the essay on Bird’s-Eye Views: A Brief History.) The works became extraordinarily popular in the United States following the Civil War, when dozens of artists crisscrossed the country producing literally thousands of views of American cities.[1] Nineteenth-century Americans proved to be insatiable consumers of images of their country, from portraits of leaders to depictions of railroads, sailing ships, flowers, birds, and animals. But views of cities were arguably the most popular genre.

This is true of Texas to a lesser extent, because it was removed from the main commercial arteries for most of the century. However, artists had been documenting the state ever since the arrival of the Anglo-American settlers in the 1820s, and the state fully participated in the bird’s-eye-view phenomenon. It all began in Texas when the editor of the Galveston Daily News announced in his March 10, 1871, edition that “Mr. C. Drie exhibited to us some drawings that he is making for a map of Galveston, which will exhibit the buildings on every lot within the city. It…promises to be a fine picture of the Island City, and will be invaluable to all property holders.”[2]

By comparison with the East Coast, Texas had no cities when it entered the Union in 1845, only a few towns and villages. The almost ten years of the Republic (1836–45) had an enormous impact on the region, as immigration greatly increased and the population jumped from 52,970 (including approximately 14,500 Indians) to 158,356 (again counting 14,500 Indians). These numbers reflect an astounding 299 percent increase. But the population was spread primarily over an area of East Texas stretching as far west as San Antonio and from the Red River to the Gulf of Mexico. Galveston was the largest city in the state in 1850 with a population of 4,117. The only other towns with populations of more than 1,000 were San Antonio, Houston, Gonzales, Marshall, New Braunfels, Palestine, Paris, Tyler, and Victoria. In fact, Texas cities looked more like the Huntsville of 1844 (Feature 3) than they did New Orleans or Charleston, much less Philadelphia or New York. Even in the late 1850s, Galveston still appeared to be a small town (Feature 13).

The major towns of Texas were located on the borders—Galveston and Houston on the Gulf Coast and San Antonio on the western frontier (Feature 4). Smaller cities were spread along the coastal plain and up the major rivers into East and Central Texas. North Texas was a periphery where farmers focused on subsistence crops. The nature of these towns began to change in the years following the Civil War when many Texans returned home and thousands of immigrants, mostly from the devastated South, headed west to claim inexpensive land.

During this period, too, railroad builders constructed 8,000 miles of track, connecting to every Texas city of more than 4,000 people, with the single exception of Brownsville. The intent was to bring the bounty of the hinterlands to Houston and Galveston, but the circumstances changed significantly in 1872 when the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Railway lengthened its tracks into the new town of Denison and, from there, to other parts of the state. Suddenly, the peripheral cities such as Denison, Paris, and Texarkana found themselves gateway cities, and by 1890 half of the North Texas cotton crop was shipped east by rail rather than south through the ports of Galveston and Houston.

Probably the most dramatic evolution, however, occurred in Dallas, which found itself the rail center of North Texas, with lines running north, south, east, and west. The population grew accordingly: from 3,000 in 1870 to 10,000 in 1880 and 42,000 in 1900. Predicting that Dallas would grow to become another Kansas City, railroad magnate Jay Gould observed “an air of business life and bustle about it that reminds one of a Northern city.”[3] John M. McCoy, a newly arrived attorney from Indiana, was even more enthusiastic: “Today I see a bright new omnibus upon the streets, the first that has come to town. Dallas is to be grinned at no longer as a one horse town. It has put away its petticoats and donned yesterday a new pair of ’britches’ with pockets and a cigar in its mouth and is no longer a boy—a full man in feeling, strides and gas.”[4]

This dramatic growth and spread of population westward was captured by itinerant bands of artists and travelers, some of whom sketched for pleasure, others of whom worked as professional artists. The bird’s-eye-view artists were, of course, among this latter group. But the earliest images of Texas were not bird’s-eye views. In many cases, they were not even published but remained in family papers and archival collections only to be discovered in the twentieth century. Such is the case with what is probably the first eye-witness drawing of a Texas town, Goliad, done in 1834 by Jean Louis Berlandier, a naturalist with the Manuel de Mier y Terán’s Boundary Commission, and redrawn in 1834 by Mexican artist Lino Sánchez y Tapia (Feature 5). Mary Austin Holley, who wrote two books about Texas during the 1830s, never published her small drawing of Houston and its capitol building (Feature 6). The first published image of a Texas city may be Edward Hall’s tiny panorama of the new capital city of Austin (Feature 7), which was included as the frontispiece to the Rev. A.B. Lawrence’s Texas in 1840, or The Emigrant’s Guide to the New Republic…(1840). Contemporary with it is William Bissett’s view of San Antonio (Feature 8), included in Francis Moore’s Map and Description of Texas, Containing Sketches of Its History, Geology, Geography and Statistics…(1840).

The railroads helped settlement spread westward and made it easier for artists to document the burgeoning areas of the state, particularly the bird’s-eye-view artists, whose profession dictated that they travel from town to town to take full advantage of the market. Augustus Koch, for example, depicted the small cities along the Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio Railway—Schulenburg, Flatonia, and Luling—as it built westward from Houston toward San Antonio; Thaddeus Fowler pictured new towns in the wake of the Texas and Pacific as it built across West Texas, creating towns such as Alvord, Sunset, Quanah, and Childress; and Henry Wellge documented cities from Texarkana to Laredo and in between.

The collective body of work these artist-entrepreneurs produced is today a wonderful resource of nineteenth-century popular art. Though not without misrepresentations, the views are remarkably reliable and can be enjoyed in many ways, from the architectural details they offer to the geography to the study of Texas history and urban development.

[Back to top]