Houston and East Texas
Like the mountains more than 800 miles to the west, the pine forests of East Texas are another natural wonder not typically associated with the Lone Star State. Not surprisingly, the cultural gap between the two regions is as wide as their distance apart.
East Texas has a distinct Southern bayou influence, reflected in the region’s food, heritage, and even the accent. Locals are much more likely to regale visitors with long stories in their laiiid-baaack, draaaawn-out speaking style than their twangy tight-lipped West Texan counterparts. Standing apart from this rural Southern character is the megalopolis of Houston, the fourth-largest city in the country and home to NASA, oil-related industries, and some of the preeminent museums (and humidity) in the country.
East Texas has long been the gateway to the Lone Star State because its earliest inhabitants—Native Americans, European explorers, Anglo settlers, and African Americans—arrived primarily from Eastern locales. One of the first things they encountered was the dense acreage now known as the Piney Woods, which includes several national forests and the Big Thicket Preserve.
One of the first groups to inhabit the area was the Caddo Indians, an advanced tribe with sophisticated trade networks throughout the region. The Caddos are credited with inspiring the name Texas, since they welcomed the Spanish explorers by referring to them as “tejas,” meaning friends or allies. By the 1700s, Spain attempted to fortify its presence in the area by establishing a series of missions to protect their political interests (especially against meddlesome France) and to “civilize” the native population by converting them to Catholicism.
Neither of these ventures was very successful, so the land remained relatively unoccupied until Anglo homesteaders began arriving in large numbers in the early 1800s. In the southern portion of this region just west of modern-day Houston, a group of settlers known as the Old Three Hundred established Stephen F. Austin’s initial colony. After the fall of the Alamo in March 1836, droves of frightened frontier families fled to East Texas in an event known as the Runaway Scrape.
By the late 1800s, the region became associated with industry. Railroad expansion and European immigration brought an increased population and entrepreneurs, and the new railroad lines provided access to the Piney Woods’ interiors, allowing the lumber industry to flourish.
A few decades later, Texas’s identity was forever changed when the 100-foot-high oil spout known as the Lucas Gusher blew in (the industry term for arriving) near Beaumont. As soon as word spread about the gusher’s subterranean Spindletop oil field, tens of thousands of people flocked to the area to make (or lose) their fortunes. The colorfully named roughnecks and wildcatters worked the fields, while the entrepreneurial-minded investors made the money.
In 1901, the first year of the boom, three major oil companies—Gulf, Humble (later Exxon), and Texas (later Texaco)—formed in Beaumont, and by the following year there were 500 corporations in town. The impact of Spindletop and other oil fields discovered near Tyler is immeasurable, as it brought billions of dollars to Texas through oil company profits and related industry endeavors. Houston perhaps benefited the most, since the oil business ultimately shifted most of its headquarters and shipping operations to the city, which grew at phenomenal rates throughout the mid-1900s.
As a result of this intriguing history, East Texas has a remarkable number of heritage tourism and cultural destinations for visitors to explore. From Caddoan Indian burial mounds to historic logging towns to Southern plantation homes, oil boomtowns, and five national forests, this enormous region is an ideal place to experience the legacy of the Lone Star State.
© Andy Rhodes from Moon Texas, 6th Edition