Primeval Place: Brown's Spring

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Brown's Spring consists of a fresh water source next to the Red River between Cooke County (Texas) and Love County (Oklahoma).

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Origins
Brown's Spring is a natural spring about 200 yards or so from the Red River, and it maintains a continuous and copious flow. This would have proved to be an ideal place for settlement if it weren't for the more-than-occasional floods and the rather yucky river bottom environment. This part of the Red River is very hilly, so whatever homes and businesses were built stood at higher elevations. Still, Brown's Spring became a crossing and stopping point rather than a bona-fide town. Lillie Sprowls lived at Brown's Spring for a while as a child before her family, which came to Indian Territory from Texas in 1875, left to farm along the Washita Bend. She remembered that "There was a little trading post nearby called the Henderson Store. While living at Brown's Ferry we dug up all kinds of dishes and some human bones. We thought there had been Indians buried there at some time in the past."

Prior to American settlement, native tribes camped around the springs. This continued when the Chickasaws entered Indian Territory from Mississippi and Arkansas in the 1840s as some of the last southeastern native Americans to be removed from their original homelands. J.C. Brown or Samuel Brown (sources differ on the first name; the site of the ferry was on an original land grant deeded to S. H. Brown) established a ferry between Gainesville and the springs. Thus, Brown's Spring became a destination for travelers, pioneers, and merchants. James Henry Holland described how the ferry operated at the turn of the 20th century: "The ferry was run by two men. It was a flat boat pulled across by cables and it had a drum on each end and a water wheel beneath. The cable ran from one end of the boat tot he other and around the drums. The drums had cranks on them and the men would load on whatever was to be crossed and start winding the cable and the boat would start going. Some times when the river would be up one of the men would use some long oars and the other would pull the ferry boat across."  

Texans landing
Another group that made use of the springs were Texans who traveled north into Indian Territory after the Civil War to stake farm land in the area designated as the Chickasaw Nation. While the Chickasaw government disallowed purchases of land by non-Chickasaws, a steady stream of Texans continued to arrive. The law required them to purchase permits, pay fees, and enter into leases. Most of the Texans paid these. However, several did not -  L. B. Haney explained that under governor Benjamin Franklin Overton, "the Chickasaw militia put people across Red River when they refused to pay the permit. The militia often passed our house driving people into Texas. As soon as the militia had departed the people whom they had driven out turned around and drove back." Lillie Sprowls' recollection of the Texan opposition to the permits was similar to Haney's: "We had to pay five dollars permit for a year at first then they raised it to $25 and some people would not pay it and the militia would come over and put the people who would not pay on the Texas side... [after doing this to a large number of did not bother the settlers any more...abolished the law."

By the turn of the 20th century, such a large number of Texans had moved into Chickasaw Territory that they outnumbered the citizens of the Chickasaw Nation. This occurred in the Choctaw and Cherokee Nations, too. The many non-Indians who lived in Indian Territory by this time prompted an observer to exclaim, "Why are all the Indians so white?" This ethnic reversal may explain the Dawes Rolls of 1900.

Marshes of Brown's Spring
The Red River itself is spring-fed, and thousands of natural springs still dot the Red River Valley. Unfortunately, many of these springs have been capped or diverted because of towns, water systems, and lake building. Luckily, Brown's Spring still manages to bubble up and
inundate the landscape. Excited to be able to view the site of an historic spring in its natural state (or as close to natural as development has allowed it), I took a field trip to the springs on a hot June afternoon, with storms threatening on the horizon.


The springs are conveniently located along Brown's Spring Road southeast of Thackerville, inside a wildlife management area that hugs the Red River. I had to pass the big casinos to find the road, but it's clearly marked and well maintained, and quite clean. The cemetery is not marked, however. It's easy enough to tell when you come to it, as it sits up a hill on the north side of the road, across from a dirt-round-about, behind which are the marshes of Brown's Spring.

The Brown's Spring Cemetery
While the springs acted as a way-marker for those traveling to and from Indian Territory, whatever settlements had been established are now long gone. The only physical reminder that people lived along the river bottoms in the South Bend Region is a long-forgotten cemetery, often mis-labled as an "Indian cemetery" or even as an "Indian Burial Ground." Several Chickasaw citizens are buried there, but so are a number of non-Chickasaws, and the burial practices are decidedly Christian - there's no need to pretend this lovely place is some
kind of portal for a Poltergeist. The neglect shown to the cemetery, however, does provide the context for the place being viewed as other-worldly, and even haunted. When I visited, I didn't see any ghosts nor did I find it particularly creepy. I didn't care for the poison ivy, mosquitoes and ticks, but they were a small price to pay!

The cemetery is located at the top of a steep hill along a halloway - a path that has been rutted by the footsteps of countless people making their trek north and south. The cemetery is located inside a barbed wire fence to the left on the hilltop. The first few gravestones are the most intact ones. Further down the cemetery path are several markers that have been either kicked over or are partially obscured by overgrowth. Names are hard to make out, but here's a list of the people known to have been buried at Brown Springs.

By 1902, travelers could choose between two ferries to cross to the opposite side of the river: either the Browns or the Sacras ferry. In 1917, U.S. Congress granted permission to the Gainesville Red River Bridge Company to build a bridge at the Sacras Ferry site. From Gainesville, the road to the bridge site is now part of the Stark Ranch and is no longer accessible. However, parts of the bridge's structure are still visible on the Oklahoma side - just two side lanes east of the cemetery. The approach is very much overgrown but is still clearly visible as it rises towards the former suspended road bed. By the 1930s, a free bridge opened to carry travelers on US highway 77, and the toll bridge closed shop.

A primeval place
Brown's Spring still exists, thank goodness. The spring still flows, and some of its physical remains can be visited. Lots of spooky stories abound about the place, too - the dumped bodies of people killed in the Dallas area; sightings of a bog monster; bloody knives left in tree stumps; the faces of dead children appearing in photographs of the gravestones.

When I visited, I didn't feel anything but a bit of sadness from the neglect of the cemetery; and then, the thrill of discovery. So if you go to Brown's Spring and its cemetery, go there with a sense of adventure and with a deep respect for the people for whom this is their final resting place. Brown's Spring - the cemetery, the marsh, and the bridge - are primordial historic sites, and deserve to be preserved for generations to come.

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The Browns Ferry site is now the Stark Ranch; the Sacras Ferry site was turned into a toll bridge around 1917. (1902 Topographical Map, UT Arlington).

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The trail to the cemetery at Brown Springs is an ancient halloway - generations of people have trekked up the hillside in sandy loess, creating a deep and lasting impression on the landscape.

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1917_Congressional_act_bridge_at_Sacras_

Congress gave permission for the Gainesville Red River Bridge Company to "construct, maintain, and operate a bridge... at Sacras Ferry" in 1917. (US Congressional Acts publication, 1919.

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1902_topo_map_of_South_Bend_with_ferries
1902_topo_map_of_South_Bend_with_ferries

The Browns Ferry site is now the Stark Ranch; the Sacras Ferry site was turned into a toll bridge around 1917. (1902 Topographical Map, UT Arlington).

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