Buffalo Bayou
An Echo of Houston's Wilderness Beginnings
Louis F. Aulbach

Houston's Earliest Settlers...and They Were British!

It was with some relief that the preservation community learned that the Houston Archeological and Historical Commission recommended in early 2002 that the Jeff Davis Hospital building on Elder Street get special historical landmark status.

For many years the old hospital has been empty and neglected, even though it is a noteworthy historical landmark for Houston in its own right and the building sits on a parcel of land that resonates with the history of this dynamic city from its earliest times. Yet, the succession of governing bodies of this City have wished the Jefferson Davis Hospital and its controversies would simply go away.

The Avenue Community Development Corporation hopes to restore the old building and allow it to take its place among Houston's historic structures.

The Jeff Davis Hospital was built on a parcel of land that is northwest of the Sesquicentennial Park on Buffalo Bayou. It is located behind the Post Office, across the railroad tracks and beyond the elevated I-45 on Elder St near the Fire Department headquarters on Dart St. Built as Houston's first public charity hospital in 1925, it was soon overcrowded and was replaced by the new Jefferson Davis Hospital on Allen Parkway in 1937.

The hospital was named in honor of Jefferson Davis as a result of the controversy generated when the City decertified the old City Cemetery site upon which they wanted to build the hospital. Veterans groups representing relatives of Civil War veterans buried in the City Cemetery protested the abandonment of the sacred ground. A compromise settlement determined that the hospital would be build above ground without disturbing the graves that still exist there, and the hospital would be named in honor of the President of the Confederacy.

But, yet again, the hospital site came to controversy in the mid-1980's. Dilapidated and abandoned by Harris County who controlled the property, the old building was an eyesore. The Houston Fire Department wanted to expand a maintenance building near the property and construction began in 1986. A construction worker noticed that graves were being uncovered and work on the project was stopped until excavations could be done. Ken Brown, professor of Archeology at the University of Houston led a team of researchers who investigated the site.

Not only did they determine the extent of the old City Cemetery site which had been encroached upon by City buildings and roads, but an even more astonishing find was made.

The graves which had been placed on the site in the late 1800's intruded on earlier graves that were of a nature that showed them to be from a much earlier time period. About 40 of these earlier graves were excavated in a small portion of the Jeff Davis site. The common characteristics of these graves were the orientation of graves east to west (the head), and body was wrapped in a shroud and buried without a coffin. Because the graves were filled with fresh soil of high organic nature they are called 'black earth graves'.

Ceramic pieces found in the black earth graves date from the 1600's and they are a type of ceramics used by English colonists of that period. The black earth graves were mandated by a law of the City of London in 1563 (rescinded in 1685) for persons who died of disease. The nature of the burial was designed to accelerate decomposition and retard spread of disease.

Further excavations found that the graves were aligned within an area bound by a moat ten feet wide and ten feet deep that is similar to a colonial pattern found in Charleston, South Carolina, and dating from the same period of English colonization.

Was there an English colony here on Buffalo Bayou in the 1600's? If so, it is unknown to history at this time.

We can only wait until the City decides that it needs to further improve on the Fire Department facilities in the area. The opportunity to excavate the land during an archeological assessment of the property around the old Jeff Davis Hospital may provide clues to a history of the City that has patiently lain hidden for over 300 years.

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Copyright by Louis F. Aulbach, 2002

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