My window into the history of Texas in the late 19th century and early 20th century is a scrapbook from my my Bell ancestors. It seems funny to say ancestors, as my great-grandmother Katharine Bell Byrd (May 11, 1894 – May 5, 1985), lived with us growing up in Virginia Beach. Born in San Antonio, Texas in 1894, she lived until 1985. My memory is of a stylish, Buick driving grand lady who gave me Pringles, Coca-Cola and Morton Honey Buns. But there was much more to her life than that.
The scrapbook, which is about 40 pages, includes hundreds of photos, most of early Texas. It is a notable bit of social history, as my great-grandmother’s great-grandfather was Josiah Hughes Bell, who lived from 1791-1838. Bell was one of Steven Austin’s early Texas pioneers. I heard, quite often, about the first capital of Texas being at his town and plantation, Bell’s Landing, later named Columbia, on the Brazos River. I recall her saying that her grandfather was the first “white” baby born in Texas, though later mentions of Thaddeus C. Bell indicate that he might have been the second “Anglo” born in the Republic.
Katharine Bell Byrd (actually known as Mrs. G. Bentley Byrd, who I called Nini) was a Scot, with clear blue eyes, and she always understood herself to be a Texan. This did not manifest itself in too many ways, as she lived most of her life as the wife of a prominent Navy physician in Norfolk, Virginia.She was the only person that I ever knew during my childhood that ate Mexican food; she often had enchiladas after her bourbon toddy.
I would ask her, over and over, to tell me the story of growing up in Texas, and the Galveston Storm. The storm was a horror, and her father Thaddeus Copes Bell, as an executive of New York Life, was one of the first ones there afterward. Thaddeus Bell, who later moved to Virginia, paid out claims as the funeral pyres of the thousands of bodies burned; apparently the smell was what was the worst.
Nini did not not tell me that part (I heard it from my grandmother) but she did tell me of having to go over to a neighbors house across the street during the storm; to protect the windows they put mattresses up against them. I believe then she was living in Houston, along with her sister Ruth Bell.
Unfortunately, she did not actually have the scrapbook in her possession in the 1970s, as far as I knew; it came to my grandmother later. But getting the scrapbook when my grandmother died confirmed the world view that I heard, first hand.
Some photos from the scrapbook.
Above, a hunting party in Encinal County, Texas on November 20, 1898. Included in the 10-person hunting party were Shepard (at far left and perhaps the most stylish of the bunch), Culberson (bottom right) and Albert (far right). Others there (they are identified in an another scrapbook) included Jones, Puckett and Rose. Ike, not pictured in this photo but in another, was the black “all around man” and Albert was the cook. Thad Bell was taking photos.
Above, the house of a J. O. Ferrell (I think that is what it reads) on 100 Summit Ave in San Antonio. There is a house that sort of looks like it on Google Maps, though I cannot find an exact match. Its a great area of old houses.
Often, in their travels and hunts, they were at the King Ranch. Below, a photo of “Mr. Curtis.’
Above, this is apparently a very old tree on or near the Bell property in Columbia, which was the capital of Texas in 1836. Sam Houston was sworn in as president of the Republic in Columbia and it is also apparently where Secretary of State Stephen F. Austin, the “Father of Texas,” died.