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Let’s acknowledge the role of slave labor

Guest Column
Sunday, February 3, 2019

City Council delayed the fate of Cape’s Dam & Mill Race this week, but a glaringly disturbing question emerged: are the loudest advocates of Local Historic Landmark status correct on the local history?

Presently, the official Texas Historical Commission monument to Thompson’s Islands reads:  

“With slave labor, the family built a mill on the San Marcos River near this site. Construction and operation of the mill resulted in the creation of three land masses in the river channel which became known as Thompson’s Islands.”

Don’t take my word for it — park behind The Woods on River Road, carefully cross the street, and examine for yourself. Because multiple Cape’s Dam preservationists in recent days have publicly denied the contributions of individuals enslaved by the Thompson family.

A Save the SMTX River coordinator commented on a local online publication Tuesday: “[A]ccording to my knowledge, that is inaccurate regarding the slaves. As you know, some people print things up without looking into more info before claiming things to be fact.”

Similarly, on Wednesday, a Hays County Historical Commissioner proclaimed on a popular community facebook page that enslaved labor did not play a role.  

“Juneteenth celebrates June 19th, 1865 when word of the ending of slavery reached Texas. Note: 1865. Capes Dam was built in 1867. Just thought if it was important that facts be out there, you should say ‘what are believed to be former slaves.’ Without specific names to check on the 1850/1860 and 1870 censuses, there is no way to prove that they had ever been slaves. They could have been free men of color,” she declared.

Curiously, yet another Texas Historical Commission monument, on Conway Drive, for the Thompson’s Island Homeplace, reiterates the role enslavement played in harnessing the river to build mills:

“William Alexander Thompson (1803-1879) made an agreement with neighbors in 1850 to use the San Marcos River for irrigation and as a source of energy.  He and his sons William A. and James used slave labor to build a gristmill, sawmill and cotton gin.”

While prominent Cape’s Dam preservation advocates insist slave labor had nothing to do with the mill race, Thompson family historian — Kathryn Thompson Rich, granddaughter of William A. — suggests otherwise.

In 1978, she wrote, “In the years of 1866 and 1867, the ‘ditch’ was enlarged to a width of 34 ft for 450 ft in length, and a 20-ft width for the remaining 1,400 ft.  It was now a proper millrace of great power…”

“Enlarged” because the ditch was first carved out prior to 1866…

Texas Parks and Wildlife Magazine affirmed that in June 1994, reporting, “In 1850, Thompson, a Caldwell County planter, decided to build a mill along the river. Slaves dug a ditch and wasteway by hand. An irrigation system of hollow cypress log pipes, several head gates and a large water wheel were constructed.”

Ms. Thompson Rich, who lived on the family property until late in her life and died in 2010, chronicled in a separate historical account (Thompson’s Islands: On The San Marcos River in Hays County),“A ditch was built to channel the water to the mill by the manpower of slave ‘hands’ who rhythmically chanted as they plied their strength with pick and shovel to carve out the ditch.”

The Thompsons already enslaved eight families upon moving to the San Marcos area.  They enslaved more in years to follow.

Sadly, we may never know the names and stories of everyone held captive by the Thompsons; research at the library reveals an individual called “A Man” lived on the plantation throughout the 1850s.

A Super Bowl quarterback shares his name with the youngest of 12 children of a family enslaved by the Thompsons in 1860: Tom Brady.

Tom’s father’s name was Steven Brady and a few of his brothers were named Alonzo, Freeman & Walt. Tom’s mother routinely prepared meals for the Thompson clan, while her children labored under the punishing sun.  

Mr. Thompson also purchased Joe Cephas off an auction block in New Orleans for $800 and brought him, against his will, to San Marcos.

Later, Mr. Cephas, an accomplished blacksmith, would help construct the water-wheel used on the dam’s sluiceway.

Violent white supremacy is an unshakable reality of San Marcos history.  However, white supremacy continues to thrive when we erase the contributions of those whose forced labor yielded local landmarks that today we cherish — and instead amend history to solely admire the enslavers.

As San Marcos and Hays County officials contemplate a park-land swap, may they also earnestly consider paying tribute to the Brady family who, among numerous others tragically forgotten to history, lived and labored on that land, building up the unearned wealth of the Thompsons and indeed the San Marcos community.

Why not rename the historic site “Brady Island?”  We’ve celebrated the slaver long enough, but have yet to meaningfully honor, much less remember, the resilience and achievements of those who endured a vast injustice.  

Buckley is a San Marcos resident