A RIVER BEGAN IT. Sluggish in summer, scant. A red and awesome terror in a wet spring. Too much river … or not enough.
Called Daycoa by some Indians, Arkikosa by others, in 1690 Alonso de Leon, a Mexican-born officer of the Spanish crown, bestowed its modern name: La Santisima Trinidad.
The Most Holy Trinity.
Trinity: three-in-one. Was it only a coincidence that the veins of the upper river, coming together as they do in three-part pattern, gave the earliest identity to a place in the wilderness that would someday be Dallas?
The Three Forks, it was called: the West Fork rolling in from the prairies, joined (near the spot where the city would begin) by the Elm Fork from the north, flowing together southward until the East Fork made the Trinity whole.
It was an easy landmark, and although today not all the forks are within the city limits, we may be fairly certain when those old travelers and explorers mention visiting the Three Forks, they crossed some part of the present city of Dallas.
The first Europeans may have come as early as the fall of 1542. Having buried their leader in the waters of the Mississippi, the survivers of Hernando de Soto’s expedition, with Luis Moscoso in command, are believed to have straggled across Dallas in a wandering attempt to reach Mexico.
In journals and reports it keeps cropping up, this description of a river and the three branches that made it; French traders camping on the site in the eighteenth century, Spanish diplomats and priests treating with the Indians. Never staying, but always noting this region of good water, fertile soil, plenteous hunting.
Not until 1837 did citizens of the new Republic of Texas make an appearance in the Three Forks. And it was inauspicious enough. In the autumn of that year some 50 men from La Grange chased an Indian raiding party up the Colorado River to present-day Eastland County. They divided, and 20 men under Lieutenants Van Benthuysen and Miles moved easterly and struck the Trinity in Wise County. There, on November 10, they were ambushed and lost Lieutenant Miles and eight others, plus all the party’s horses.
After a retreat downriver, the survivers camped on the site of downtown Dallas a few days, then limped home.
Sometime early in 1840, a 29-year-old bachelor made an exploring trip to the Three Forks country. His name was John Neely Bryan. He had been a lawyer in his native Tennessee, then a merchant and town planner in Arkansas. He had even clerked a while at Coffee’s trading house, and once (to overcome the after-effects of the cholera) had lived four years with the Indians. His interest in the lands to the south must have been intensified by the radiant reports of those who stopped by Coffee’s—but on his visit he seems to have found no one to accompany him but a Cherokee friend and guide named Ned, Bryan’s horse Neshoba (which meant “Walking Wolf”), and a bear-dog named Tubby.
Some historians posit Bryan planned to set up a trading post with the Indians at a likely spot on the Trinity. Whatever his intentions, he seems to have encountered a likely destination. He stood on a small bluff on the east side of the river and looked across and (one likes to think) had a vision. He hurried back to Arkansas and told his friends in Fort Smith he had found what he had gone looking for.
It took John Neely Bryan nearly two years to cut his ties, gather up needs, and return to the Three Forks. In November, 1841, he entered Texas again at Preston, and rode down the trail south, this time leading a pack horse in addition to Tubby and Walking Wolf. He reached his little bluff that looked westward across a satisfactory ford on the river. The immediate surrounding land on his side was open, but there were plenty of trees nearby for logs and creeks with good water.
He dug into the bluff and, using a tent as part of the shelter, constructed himself a dugout home of sorts.
Dallas had been born.
He was not an aimless wanderer, John Neely Bryan, and it is a shame that the city he made can’t know more of him. He was one of the frontier strange ones; gifted in vision, but touched with a kind of driven, vengeful fate that finally enveloped him (he suspected the terrible experience of cholera had damaged his mind and body) and he died, many years later, honored by his booming town but confined to an Austin insane asylum: his grave unmarked and unknown to this day.
Bryan began concrete plans for creating a city as early as 1843. His townsite made a near grid plan, with eight streets running north-south and a dozen running east-west. The original streets, from the river were: Water, Broadway, Houston, Jefferson, Market, Austin, Lamar, and Poydras. The east-west streets, beginning at the southern edge of the plat, were: Columbia, Polk, Jackson, Commerce, Main, Elm, Burleson, Carondalet, Walnut, and Calhoun. (Although the preliminary surveys were run in 1844, there is good reason to believe the names were all finally given a short time later.)
Water and Broadway were eliminated when the Trinity was rechanneled in 1928—although strictly speaking, they still exist as far northern extensions. The Triple Underpass today stands about where the river ran in the 1840’s.
Jefferson was changed to Record in the 1920’s to honor James Record, a pioneer county clerk and to avoid confusion with the extension of Jefferson in Oak Cliff. Columbia Street disappeared in the 1870’s (it would be somewhere near the rear of the present Dallas News offices). Polk was renamed Young late in the nineteenth century to honor the Rev. W. C. C. Young (whose wife, Marilla, was also honored with a nearby street). Burleson became Pacific in 1873 at the request of the officials of the Texas & Pacific Railway when its rails were laid down that avenue. Carondalet became Ross Avenue when the lower end of Ross was