Val Verde County Historical Commission

Val Verde County Historical Commission

Seminole Cave and Seminole Canyon

 

Doug Braudaway
Southwest Texas Junior College, 207 Wildcat, Del Rio, Texas 78840
(830) 703-1554 dbraudaway@swtjc.edu

Southwest Texas is a dry and desolate place to many Americans living at the start of the twenty-first century. The soil is thin, the plants prickly, and the animals unsociable. In the 1800s Americans traveling west through Texas veered northward to bypass the Pecos River canyon country that makes up so much of the area, and as a result, they missed one of the natural wonders of Texas: Seminole Canyon.

Seminole Canyon is a mostly dry canyon cut into the Edwards Plateau limestone a few miles east of the Pecos River in Val Verde County. The river once flowed into the Rio Grande, which was not a dividing line as it is now, but the center of a cultural region with archeological sites remaining in both the United States and Mexico. "Within Seminole Canyon, there are several rock shelters of varying size, cut out of the Georgetown limestone by water action. Seven of these shelters contain outstanding examples of pre-historic pictographs remarkable for their scale, high artistic quality, iconographic richness, and antiquity. However, Seminole Canyon also contains an eighteenth century pictograph (41 VV 77) of possible Apache authorship and a late nineteenth century pictograph painted by an 'Anglo' employee of the Southern Pacific Railroad (41 VV 226)."1

"As an ensemble, the rock art of Seminole Canyon comprise almost 2000 years of artistic contact with the landscape by at least three different cultures. The importance of these pictographs has been recognized since the 1930's, when many were first recorded by Forrest Kirkland. Since Kirkland's time, its listing on the National Register of Historic Places has designated Seminole Canyon as a cultural resource of national importance."2

Seminole Canyon received its name from its association with a much more recent group of people, though one with its own history: the Seminole Scouts.

Several books tell the history of the Scouts, but a short summary is in order. After discrimination in the United States and a exodus to Mexico, some of the Black Seminole returned to the United States in 1870. A group of Black Seminole moved from Nacimiento in Northern Mexico to Fort Duncan, a now decommissioned frontier fort surrounded by the town of Eagle Pass in Maverick County. The able-bodied men signed on with the U.S. Army as the "Seminole Negro Indian Scouts" on August 16. During the next five years, other settlements left Mexico, joining those at Fort Duncan.3

Very quickly the Scouts proved their tracking and fighting skills. "The Seminole maroons possessed qualities that made them extremely useful to the frontier army, and they were recruited heavily as scouts. They understood and spoke both English and Spanish and could converse in 'Mexican,' the lingua franca of the region. In addition, they had lived in the border country for more than twenty years and knew the terrain and the Indians bands that inhabited or frequented the area. The maroons were hardened and proven warriors, also, and experts in frontier combat."4

In 1872 a detachment was relocated to Fort Clark in Kinney County. There the Scouts and their families established their homes and farm fields along the banks of Las Moras Creek.5 From Fort Clark, the Scouts patrolled the future Val Verde County and much more of West Texas beyond. During the mid 1870s, the Scouts often rode with the Buffalo Soldiers, composed of four regiments of African-American soldiers. By contrast, the Scouts never numbered more than a few dozen; nevertheless, they were cited for many acts of valor and four of them were awarded the Medal of Honor by the U.S. Congress.

While most Scout history took place in Southwest Texas, the Scouts also helped chart the Staked Plains in northwest Texas, proved water resources existed, and opened the area to American settlement before they were disbanded in 1914. "As explorers, fort and road builders, escorts, and guides, the Seminole Negro Indian Scouts played a vital role in the development of West Texas and helped spur the movement of white settlers into the area."6

The Seminole Scouts traversed much of Western Texas and Northern Mexico, and in doing so, they habitually camped in certain locations-including a rock shelter inside a canyon with a nearby spring.

Some maps record this place as "Painted Cave." However, the shelter eventually took on the name "Seminole Cave" and the two names were used interchangeably. Confirmation that Painted Cave and Seminole Cave are the same is found in a March 30, 1882 San Antonio Weekly News, "From the Wild West; Camp Experiences-The Interest in a New Congressional District-Railroad Work and Settlement of the Country." The "Special Correspondence" from "Seminole Cave" includes "The large water hold, known as Painted Cave and supposed to yield abundant supply for all demands, is fast diminishing" as a result of hundreds of railroad construction workers from ten camps drawing water from it.

Seminole Cave and "Seminole Creek" were an important and well-known location in the rugged and dry canyon country. For the Seminole Scouts, it also lay near the border, serving as a jumping off point for forays into Mexico. For the railroad construction crews, it was know for its reliable water source and shelter for supplies. Seminole Cave was used for blasting powder storage during the construction of the transcontinental railroad (1881-1883). The twenty-five pound kegs were stored there until needed for construction in the Seminole Canyon area and Tunnel No. 2 area on the Rio Grande.7

The name "Seminole Cave" has nearly been forgotten. The site is closed to the public. The Seminole Scouts no longer camp there. The 1880s railroad construction crews are long gone. Archeologists know the site, but they refer to it with an archeological nomenclature, specifically "41VV72." The 41 means Texas, while VV is Val Verde County. The 72 refers to the particular site. The old place name is not used by the scientists because the same place names are often used for more than one site across the state and nation. One of the few sources linking the historic name to the archeology is buried in Solveig Turpin's "Seminole Canyon: The Art and the Archeology, Val Verde County, Texas," and its only mentioned in passing. "Two of the most damaging factors are a direct function of the location of 41VV72 on the first bend of Seminole Canyon, 400 [meters] south of U.S. 90 and behind a permanent water source known locally as Seminole Watering Hole."8

The Seminole name has not been forgotten. A state park sporting the Seminole name is now open of the public. "The formation of Seminole Canyon State Historical Park is the culmination of over forty years of recognition of the rock art of the Lower Pecos River region as a valued and endangered public resource.... In 1973, acting upon the recommendation of the Texas Historical Committee, archeologists, art historians, and interested citizens, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) acquired 1,430 acres of the Fate Bell Ranch along the western bank of Seminole Canyon in Val Verde County. In 1976, an additional 670 acres along the east bank of Seminole Canyon, and including the lower reaches of Pressa Canyon, were acquired."9

Seminole Canyon State Historical Park is one of Texas' most important pre-historic preservation and education efforts. The Park includes the Seminole and Pressa Canyons between U.S. Highway 90 and the Rio Grande. Dedication of the park, a big event for Val Verde County, was held on October 19, 1980. Lt. Governor Bill Hobby was the featured speaker at the dedication ceremony. A volunteer cavalry company, the Fourth U.S. Memorial Cavalry-K Company, appeared as honor guard. The park's boundaries contain 2,173 acres with dozens of archeological sites. The establishment of the park was needed to protect the sites from vandals and souvenir hunters. The two sites open to the public are the Fate Bell Rock Shelter and the Fate Bell Annex. This sites "are possibly the most representative example of the Paleo-Indian Culture." The interpretive center, perched on the cliff above the Fate Bell shelters, depicts the lives of the area's prehistoric inhabitants, as well as exhibits on historic era themes such as ranching and the railroad.10

Twenty-five years later, the Park continues to protect pictographs one-hundred times as old and educate visitors from around the world about the Prehistoric Texans who lived and died in Ancient Southwest Texas.

The importance of Seminole Canyon in and to Texas history has already been recognized by the State of Texas and the U.S. government. The Canyon is home to two State Archeological Landmarks: 41VV620 in Seminole Canyon State Park, and Seminole Canyon State Historical Park Archeological Sites-composed of 41VV72-77 and sixty-four other listed sites. The Seminole Canyon Archeological District was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1971 (along with a subsequent increase in the size of the District in 1985). And, of course, the State has purchased the property to preserve the sites. In a sense, the Val Verde County Historical Commission and Seminole Canyon State Historical Park are wanting nothing more than a marker to tell the public a little about the already recognized history of the Canyon and all of the work that has been done to preserve it.

Bibliography--

Briggs, Alton King. "The Archeology of 1882 Labor Camps on the Southern Pacific Railroad,
    Val Verde County, Texas," University of Texas Master's Thesis, January 1974.

Del Rio News-Herald [various articles.]

Mulroy, Kevin. Freedom on the Border: The Seminole Maroons in Florida, the Indian
    Territory, Coahuila, and Texas
. Texas Tech University Press, Lubbock, 1993.

San Antonio Weekly News. [various issues.]

Silver, Constance S. The Rock Art of Seminole Canyon State Historical Park: Deterioration
    and Prospects for Conservation
. This is a condensed form of a report submitted to Texas
    Parks and Wildlife Department In Compliance with Contract 340-299 and Texas Antiquities
    Permit, No. 239. February 1985, reprinted 1988.

Texas General Land Office. Map #K-4-19.

Texas Historical Commission. "Seminole Camp." and "Seminole Scouts." State subject
    markers.

Turpin, Solveig A. "Seminole Canyon: The Art and the Archeology, Val Verde County,
    Texas." Texas Archeological Survey. Research Report No. 83. University of Texas. 1982.

Footnotes--

1Silver, The Rock Art of Seminole Canyon State Historical Park, page 9.
2Silver, The Rock Art of Seminole Canyon State Historical Park, page 9.
3Mulroy, Freedom on the Border, pages 112-115, 174.
4Mulroy, Freedom on the Border, page 115.
5A THC subject marker, "Seminole Camp," was recently dedicated on the site. Val Verde County is home to
    another historical marker, "Seminole Scouts."
6Mulroy, Freedom on the Border, pages 116-129, quotation from 129. The quote mentions "white settlers" which is
    sadly ironic because the Scouts were promised land for their families in exchange for their move from Mexico to
    Texas and their service in the U.S. Army. The Scout descendents still believe the Army broke its word to their
    ancestors, and the sentiment is embodied in the title of another Scout history, Our Land Before We Die.
7Briggs, "The Archeology of 1882 Labor Camps on the Southern Pacific Railroad," page 37. Incidentally, a
    crossing on the Pecos River near its mouth is named for legendary Scout leader John Bullis. A ford on the Devil's
    River is also named for Bullis, though its location has been forgotten. The ford may be near the railroad line's
    crossing about a mile upstream from the mouth of the Devil's.
8Turpin, "Seminole Canyon: The Art and the Archeology, Val Verde County, Texas," page 56.
9Turpin, "Seminole Canyon: The Art and the Archeology, Val Verde County, Texas," page 2.
10"Seminole Canyon welcome addition," Del Rio News-Herald, October 9, 1980, page 4A; Ima Jo Fleetwood,
    "Seminole Canyon dedication Oct. 19," Del Rio News-Herald, October 9, 1980, page 1A; John Vaughn, "Seminole
    Canyon dedication set Sunday," Del Rio News-Herald, October 16, 1980, page 15A; John Vaughn, "Hobby helps
    open new Seminole park," Del Rio News-Herald, October 20, 1980, [no page number]; John Vaughn, "Seminole
    Canyon: A park with history," Del Rio News-Herald, November 2, 1980, page 8D.