Buffalo Bayou
An Echo of Houston's Wilderness Beginnings
by
   Louis F. Aulbach   
The Frost Family Legacy

In the euphoria of this victory, the assembled militia disbanded, and the soldiers went back to their farms. The leaders of Texas, however, knew that Santa Anna would bring his forces back in the spring. The provisional government of the Texans, the Consultation, appointed Sam Houston as the Commander in Chief of the army, and on December 12, 1835, Sam Houston issued a Proclamation of the Army of Texas detailing the bounty payment of land for service in the army.

The terms of enlistment were fairly attractive -- 800 acres for a two year enlistment, 640 acres for an auxiliary volunteer for two years and 320 acres for a one year volunteer -- and the prospect of land appealed to many men in the southern states. This offer was particularly appealing to the Frost brothers of Tennessee. They came to Texas to serve in the army and, subsequently, became an important part of the history of Houston.
 
John M. Frost was born to Jonathan Frost and Mary Benson Frost on January 27, 1775 in South Carolina. His father, unfortunately, served on the Loyalist side during the American Revolution and after the war, his property was confiscated. The loss of his property caused the family to struggle in near poverty as John grew up. In 1802, John M. Frost, at age 27, married Rhoda Miles in South Carolina, and then, he moved his family to Tennessee, to an area known as Brentwood.

Brentwood, located ten miles south of Nashville, had been settled in the late 1700's by veterans of the Revolutionary War, and Frost established his home, known as Cottonport, on the Old Smyrna Road. The Frost homestead became the original site of business activity in the community, and the general store, the grist mill and the post office were located there.

In 1812, John M. Frost served as a captain in the War of 1812 under Andrew Jackson. Frost later served as a captain in the Tennessee militia. The military career of their father certainly inspired the adult Frost sons, as perhaps, did the wave of patriotism that the call from Texas inspired in many men in Kentucky and Tennessee. The reward of land, especially the large quantity of land offered for service in the Texas army, clinched the deal. Three of John M. Frost's sons, Jonathan, Samuel and James, set out for Texas.

Jonathan Benson Frost, the eldest son, left Fayette County, Tennessee on March 22, 1836 for Texas and joined the cavalry company of Captain James Smith, the Nacogdoches Mounted Volunteers, on April 11, 1836. The Nacogdoches Mounted Volunteers were organized on that day and the unit probably joined the army at the camp west of the Brazos opposite Groce's Plantation. During the twelve day stay at this camp, the army received reinforcements and supplies, including the famed Twin Sisters cannon, prior a crossing the Brazos on April 13 and making the week long march to San Jacinto and destiny.

Jonathan Frost served in the Texas army for three months until he was given an honorable discharge on July 12, 1836. Samuel Miles Frost also served three months in the Texas cavalry in 1836. But, it is unclear whether James Copeland Frost served. Although no record of his service or of a claim for a pension is available, it is believed that James C. Frost did come with his brothers. As the youngest of the brothers, James may have still been a minor when he came to Texas, and he may not been permitted to enlist in the regular army. While the Frost brothers were still in Texas, their father John M. Frost passed away on June 21, 1836 in Williamson County, Tennessee.                                                                      

After his discharge, Jonathan Frost returned to Tennessee to bring his family back to Texas. Samuel and James appear to have returned as well. With the death of the family patriarch, Jonathan Frost organized the move of his whole household and his extended family to Texas. He brought his slaves, his household, and his blacksmithing equipment to an area on Buffalo Bayou, about eight miles upstream of Harrisburg and about eight hundred yards east of the junction with White Oak Bayou. Within a couple of months, he was joined by his brothers Samuel Miles Frost and James Copeland Frost, his mother Rhoda Miles Frost, his sister and her husband, Mary Elizabeth and John B. Dunn, two minor children of his father, Rebecca S. Frost and Eislising B. Frost, and his father's slaves.
 
Frost Town Location MapMany of the stories about the place where Frost chose to settle speak of a small community that dates from the earliest days of the Austin Colony. Attracted by Stephen F. Austin's promotions, settlers began arriving in this area by 1822. One of the most notable of these early settlers was Jane Mason Wilkins and her family.

Jane Wilkins, a widow, came to Texas with her daughters Jane and Mary in July or August, 1822 with a group of thirty persons from Florence, Alabama led by her father Robert Mason. Mason and his wife were elderly and they died from the hardships of the journey soon after reaching Texas. From this point, the story of Mrs. Wilkins is one of amazing events and extraordinary courage.

After Austin's advertisements for the Texas colony in 1821, the first Anglo-Americans began to come to Texas by boat from Louisiana. In early 1822, settlers chose home sites along the San Jacinto River estuary to take advantage of convenient waterways that drained prairies and forests of upper Galveston Bay. In May, 1822, a surveying party included Henry Smith Rider and Johns Iams James entered the area west of Galveston Bay that would become Harris County. The land was wild and devoid of any communities. John R. Harris would not arrive until 1823, the following year. The Mason party, traveling in a 120 foot keelboat, anchored near what is now Vince's Bayou. With the death of their leader and organizer, many in the group were uncertain about whether to proceed to the colony or abandon the venture.

The dispute ended when half of the group decided to return to Alabama. The dissident members sawed the keelboat in half and went back from whence they came. That the group came across the Gulf in a keelboat is remarkable. A keelboat is a river boat with a shallow draught and a keel but no sails. It was used to carry freight and was propelled by rowing, punting or towing. Navigation on the open Gulf must have been a challenge. Moreover, that they cut the boat in half seems to defy belief. However, many keelboats were designed for 'one way' use. Often, after the cargo was delivered, the keelboat was broken up for scrap. It is not unreasonable that the boat could be partially dismantled and rebuilt as two boats.

Nevertheless, the prospect of the untamed wilderness lay before those who would choose to remain. Mrs. Wilkins and her family stayed.

Fortunately, Mrs. Wilkins found that they were not alone. She and her family eventually joined with Dr. James A. E. Phelps and others who had come to Texas on the ship Lively. They made their way up the south side of Buffalo Bayou to a place about ten miles upstream from the modern Vince's Bayou where the fateful decision to remain had been made. The prairie in the vicinity of the modern Minute Maid Park and the George R. Brown Convention Center was settled by the Wilkins family, Dr. James A. E. Phelps and his wife Rosetta (sometimes listed as Rosalie) Abeline Yerby, Stephen Holston, John Austin and others as a small community grew up around the farmstead of Jane Wilkins. Although they could not claim legal ownership of the land, they erected tents and built cabins to provide shelter, and they made temporary accommodations for themselves in the new land.

The application for a grant of land in Spanish Texas was a bureaucratic process that could take a while. These first settlers on the land south of Buffalo Bayou did the best they could to survive until their time came. Eventually, though, the awards were made and the settlers could move on to their own land.
 
Dr. James A. E. Phelps had been recruited by Stephen F. Austin for his colony. In 1822, Phelps cultivated a farm in partnership with Stephen Holston until he received his grant of one sitio (4,428 acres) and two labors (177 acres each) in the modern Brazoria County on August 16, 1824.

On July 21, 1824, John Austin received a two league (4,428 acres each) survey on Buffalo Bayou. Austin purchased a cotton gin to be located on Buffalo Bayou in March, 1825, but by the summer, he had entered into a mercantile partnership with J. E. B. Austin, Stephen F. Austin's younger brother, in Brazoria and moved there.

The 1826 census of the Austin Colony listed twenty inhabitants in the area, including Jane Wilkins, most of whom listed their occupations as either farmers or stock raisers. Within a short time, however, Wilkins and her daughters had resettled in San Felipe de Austin and acquired town lots 117 and 82, where they operated a seamstress business and, at times, a boarding house. On May 26, 1827, Jane Wilkins, as one of Austin's Old Three Hundred, received a league of land located in what is now Fort Bend County, near US Highway 90A, the High Meadow and the New Territory Austin Ridge Subdivisions.

A number of twentieth century historians have claimed, or repeated the assertion, that in the ten years prior to the Battle of San Jacinto, German-speaking people began to arrive in the area along Buffalo Bayou, and the small settlement came to be called Germantown. Unfortunately, no documents exist to support this claim. At the time of the Battle of San Jacinto, settlers had been pouring into Texas and many of them were scattered all over this section of the state. The population of this little community in 1836 has been estimated as between fifty and one hundred persons. Some of them probably were German. No contemporaneous records of the people or the community, however, have survived to give credence to these stories.
 
Stories also persist that prior to and after the battle of San Jacinto, the Allen brothers established their headquarters in the tiny hamlet upstream of Harrisburg. More likely, though, John K. Allen operated the business from their home in Nacogdoches, while Augustus C. Allen traveled to secure their business interests. In April, 1836, A. C. Allen was in New Orleans acquiring vessels to register under the flag of the cause of the Texian revolt. The Allens owned vessels that were operating as privateers in the Gulf of Mexico and were providing supplies for the Texas army. They had a warehouse on Buffalo Bayou which they used as a staging area for materials and goods were awaiting shipment, perhaps in partnership with William Tennant Austin, John Austin's brother. The existence of the Allen warehouse has been confirmed in the memoirs of George Bernard Erath. Two weeks after the battle of San Jacinto, Erath, leading his troops through the future location of Houston, noted "a single warehouse" near Buffalo Bayou belonging to the Allen brothers. The location of the Allen warehouse is generally thought to have been near the junction with White Oak Bayou, however, there is some evidence that suggests that the location may have been downstream, near the settlement on the bayou.

Although A. C. Allen is known to have been in Columbia and in the area of the burned town of Harrisburg, there are no documents to indicate that he stayed in the village along Buffalo Bayou during the negotiations with Mrs. T. F. L. Parrott and William T. Austin in Brazoria for the purchase of the John Austin leagues or for the location of the site of the future town of Houston.

By the end of August, 1836, the Allen brothers had secured the purchase of one and one half leagues of John Austin's two leagues. They lobbied the Congress of the new Republic, and successfully established their new town of Houston as the new capital city. Builders, politicians, speculators and all sorts of others persons flocked to Houston to create a town out of the wilderness. Construction began in January in anticipation of the opening of the Congress on May 1, 1837. It was into this environment that Jonathan Frost brought his family and settled in the horseshoe bend of Buffalo Bayou, eight miles from Harrisburg, and about a half mile below the proposed town site of Houston.
 
Jonathan Frost built his home on land adjacent to William F. Hodge, who, like Frost, chose to establish a homestead near the new town. Lot sales and construction operations in the town occupied the Allen brothers in early 1837, but eventually, they came around to the settlers like Frost and Hodge to formalize the sale of the land on which they had constructed their homes. James S. Holman, a partner in the Houston Town Company, surveyed a fifteen acres tract bordering Buffalo Bayou on the north and lying adjacent to a ten acre tract on the west belonging to William Hodge. On the same day, April 13, 1837, in separate transactions, Augustus C. Allen and John K. Allen completed the sale of the fifteen acre tract to Frost and the ten acre tract to Hodge. Each tract sold for a price of $100 per acre. Thirteen days later, in a transaction that followed a similar pattern, the Allens sold a fifteen acre tract adjoining Frost's land on both the south and the east to John W. Moody, the Auditor of Public Accounts for the Republic.
                         
Few, if any considerations, were given by the Allen brothers to the civic infrastructure of their new town. Provisions for public drinking water and general sanitation were not made to any real extent. Those poor conditions promoted the outbreak of disease, and, in combination with the annual threat of yellow fever, the citizens of Houston were vulnerable to catastrophic epidemics and widespread death. Just as he was settling in and establishing his blacksmith shop, Jonathan B. Frost died at his home on September 16, 1837, at age 32, of cholera. Frost was buried in the area that was later designated as the Frost Town cemetery.
 
Samuel M. Frost was appointed the administrator of the estate of Jonathan B. Frost on October 30, 1837 by Judge Andrew Briscoe. A security bond of $7,000 was placed with William F. Hodge, the neighboring farmer. There was some need to expedite the disposition of the estate since a number of debts existed, including the note for the purchase of the fifteen acres of land of the homestead. Samuel Frost asked the probate court, on March 26, 1838, to permit the sale of Jonathan Frost's land as sixteen lots of about one acre each. The plan was "to make each lot front the bayou and a street."  The probate court ordered Samuel Frost to sell the personal property of Jonathan Frost before the court would approve the sale of the fifteen acres.

The inventory of the estate of Jonathan B. Frost filed by Samuel Frost in April, 1838 revealed the way the homestead was organized. Of the fifteen acres, only two lots of approximately one acre each had improvements. One of these lots contained a house and a blacksmith shop. Presumably, this was the home of Jonathan Frost. A second one acre lot also had a house which, possibly, was the residence of Samuel Frost since the deed of the subsequent sale of the property specifically mentioned that Samuel's residence was on the property. 
 
In an attempt to reconcile the various interests of the five Frost heirs, a complex arrangement for the sale of the property was worked out between Samuel Frost and his brother James Frost. On April 28, 1838, Samuel M. Frost, as administrator of the estate, sold the fifteen acre tract to James C. Frost for $2000 after the land had been appraised by James S. Holman at $1950. Then, on the same day, James C. Frost deeded the fifteen acres to Samuel M. Frost for $2000 to finalize the deal.                  
 
After Samuel Frost obtained title to the fifteen acre tract, his plan for subdividing the land into lots changed. In June, 1838, Samuel M. Frost laid out a subdivision of eight blocks, lettered blocks A through H. The subdivision was two blocks wide and four blocks long. Each block had twelve lots in a pattern similar to that of the town of Houston. Each block had ten lots that were 50 feet by 100 feet in size and two larger lots 50 feet by 125 feet. The main street of the subdivision was Spruce Street, a thirty foot wide lane running north-south between the two rows of blocks. The east-west cross streets were narrower than Spruce Street. Arch Street was eighteen feet wide, Race Street was twenty feet wide and Vine Street was eighteen feet wide. Two lots in Block H, numbers 7 and 8, were set aside for a cemetery since it is believed that Jonathan Frost was buried there.

On July 4, 1838, Samuel Frost sold Block A, lots 1, 2 and 4 to Henry Trott. This first transaction initiated the sales of lots, usually for $25 or $30 each, that would end up with sixty-six of the ninety-six lots sold by April, 1839.
ELysian Viaduct
Lots 7 through 12 in Block G were not sold in this first year of sales. That fact lends credence to historian L. W. Kemp's claim that the lots on Race Street at Pine Street were referred to as the Frost property as early as 1839, and it could have been the location of Jonathan Frost's home and his blacksmith shop. The Wood map of 1869 shows those lots to be vacant with the exception of a large house and one out building on lots 10 and 11. By that time, the property was owned by John W. Schrimpf.

County records indicate that the subdivision was platted as "Frost Town" and has always been spelled as two words on all manuscript documents. Auguste Girard, a retired Texas army officer, published a map of Houston in January, 1839 on which he included the Frost Town subdivision. However, he does no specifically name it. The first written reference to Frost Town was made in the September 11, 1839 edition of the Telegraph & Texas Register when four lots in "Frost town" were advertised for sale. The name referred specifically to the eight blocks of Frost's subdivision, but within a decade, the name Frost Town was associated with the neighborhood that developed around and near the Frost blocks. O. F. Allen, nephew of the city founders, writing in 1936, states that Frost Town referred to a large area of the Second Ward, commencing near Jackson Street and running parallel with Buffalo Bayou for about ten or twelve blocks along Runnels Street and Canal Street (formerly German Avenue) to about North Delano Street.

Samuel M. Frost had received a second class headright of 640 acres on June 6, 1838 as part of the land program in which second class headrights of 640 acres were awarded to single men who immigrated to Texas after the Declaration of Independence and prior to October 1, 1837. Yet, even though he had acquired the rural land, Frost was still in Houston in 1840. According to the tax rolls, in addition to his headright land, Frost owned other taxable property of three town lots in Houston, thirteen slaves and one watch. However, with the estate of his brother settled, Samuel Frost's concerns about the healthfulness of conditions in Houston convinced him to consider moving to the countryside.

On March 2, 1843, Samuel Miles Frost married Mrs. Harriet Harbert Hunter Head, a widow and the daughter of the pioneer settler Dr. Johnson C. Hunter of Fort Bend County. During the same year, Frost received a bounty land grant of 320 acres in Fort Bend County for his service of three months in the Texas army. He established a plantation on Oyster Creek and he expanded his operations by purchasing land up and down the Brazos River for cotton. With cattle ranches that his wife brought to the marriage, the Frosts became prominent landholders in the area around Hodge's Bend. Having sold his interests in the subdivision in Houston that bore the family name, Samuel Frost turned his attention to Fort Bend County and concentrated his efforts on farming and ranching along the Brazos River.

Frost Town soon became home to German and Irish immigrants, followed by Italian immigrants, and finally Mexican immigrants. In the mid-1950's, the neighborhood was demolished to make room for the Elysian Viaduct which bisects the original tract. Other parts of the former subdivision make up Harris County's James Bute Park, and the remaining land is owned by the non-profit Art and Environmental Architecture, Inc. which plans to establish the Frost Town Historic District on the site.

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Copyright by Louis F. Aulbach, 2005


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