George Bernard Erath
Charter Member of Waco 92 "Father of Waco" Texas Revolution Veteran Civil War Veteran First Treasurer of Waco 92
Erath could fairly be called the “Father of Waco” or perhaps even the “Father of Central Texas.” If one was asked to name a Renaissance man from early Texas, Erath would be as good a choice as any. He was a surveyor, rancher, soldier, engineer/architect, legislator, scholar of languages, and he wore all these hats after having immigrated from Austria to New Orleans during the summer of 1832 after attending the Vienna Polytechnic Institute where he studied Italian, French, English and Spanish.
As a boy, he dreamed of America but his parents wanted him to stay in German territory and become a respected citizen there. He ultimately slipped away from the watchful eye of his mother and signed himself as a servant to a German military officer. As soon as the officer took Erath across the border into France on a trip, Erath again slipped away. This time, having escaped into France meant that his contract as a servant no longer applied and being a freed man, Erath boarded a ship and arrived at New Orleans on July 8, 1832.
From New Orleans, Erath headed up the Mississippi and settled in Cincinatti for several months before setting off again, this time for the untamed frontier in Texas where he arrived in March of 1833 in what would be called Robertson’s Colony. He was but twenty years old and for awhile, he earned a modest living making salt under employment of John W. Porter. One week after Erath’s arrival, Santa Anna seized control of Mexico and a group of Texans met at what would be known as the 1833 Convention. One of the main items on the agenda of the Texans was to request a repeal of the Law of April 6, 1830 which included an anti-immigration policy aimed at preventing Americans from coming into Texas while encouraging the immigration of Europeans and Mexicans. It also suspended several empresario colonies. Stephen F. Austin, then the head of a colony in central Texas, managed to obtain an exemption for his colony(an exemption he also managed to extend to the area in which Erath lived) but the damage was done as Austin and many Texans no longer trusted the Mexican federal government.
In the fall of 1833, Erath moved with his employer on up to what was eventually named Washington County and then to the Burleson County area for the winter.
Erath Becomes a Soldier
The tension between Texas and Mexico was not the only problem for Erath at the time. In fact, it wasn’t even the most pressing. In 1834, he was working as a surveying assistant and compass-bearer under future Texas Chief Cartographer Alexander
Thompson, laying out road maps and sectioning off property boundaries, until struggles between settlers and Native Americans reached their boiling point in July of 1835. As a result, Erath joined the Texas Ranger company led by his friend, brother mason, and Texas legend, John H. Moore. These Rangers fought the Tawakoni natives throughout 1835 in a series of conflicts known as “Moore’s Expedition” and Erath was attached to George Barnett‘s company. Moore would go on to command the Texans at Gonzales and designed the infamous “Come and Take It” flag.
A Ranger Becomes a Soldier
In November of 1835, Erath had already joined Robert Coleman’s Company of Volunteers. On Texas Independence Day in 1836, Erath joined Jesse Billingsley’s C Company in Colonel Ed Burleson’s Regiment of Texas Volunteers. As a part of this group, he fought at San Jacinto. He would later recall the exact words of General Rusk to Sam Houston in the report that let Houston know Santa Anna had obtained new supplies and burned the city of Washington. Erath later wrote, “General Houston made us a speech at Harrisburg as we started on our march to attack the Mexicans; he promised us that we should have full satisfaction for all we had gone through; and he closed his address by saying let your war cry be ‘Remember the Alamo!’”
Shortly therafter, the two forces met at San Jacinto and Erath relates his memories of the preceding moments of the battle:
“Some time between three and four o’clock on the afternoon of the 21st, when everything seemed to be in a quiet of suspense, I was moving about in front of a thicket… watching the Mexican camp which could be overlooked from there. Colonel Burleson came galloping up alone. He had come along the line on the left of the regiment, riding somewhat away from the right, on a straight course to the camp (a little in advance of us) of what was called the Battalion of Regulars (about a hundred men armed with muskets and bayonets). Burleson knew me familiarly. He said: “George, you run down and tell your captain and the captains on the right to come up here instantly and meet me.”
After much careful deliberation, Erath goes on to explain how the battle played out after the Texans collectively decided to attack immediately:
“The announcement of the decision to fight acted like electricity. Being ever ready, our lines were formed at once…Coming from the front, General Houston came dashing through our lines. The Mexican bullets were flying. The second regiment on our left had already joined combat. General Houston cried: ‘Not a man reinforcement! Not a man reinforcement!’ and galloping on was wounded soon after… We would have fought the whole world then. While reloading my gun after my first fire I choked the ball. The whole Mexican line was in full flight by the time I got a second shot.”
At this point of Erath’s memoirs, we are given a strikingly impressive example of compassion for his fellow man. It is sometimes forgotten that many of the Texans and Mexicans were relatives or friends:
“I do not like to dwell on these scenes. No doubt our men were justifiable, as the Mexican nation deserved punishment for its perfidy, though the soldiers were not responsible for it. General Almonte with commendable daring came forward among our men, called for officers, and demanded to be allowed to surrender… I wish to make one further comment on that time, which is, that I believe the Mexican soldiers we encountered that day were much braver than they have ever been credited with being.”
In the aftermath of the battle, Erath was assigned to sorting through and watching over two large piles of baggage that had belonged to the Mexicans. As he performed his task, he made a remarkable discovery. His pile belonged to none other than Santa Anna himself and included an impressive collection of treasures, the general’s saddle, a large sum of money, and champagne. Erath guarded over the pile all night long until he was finally relieved in the morning. Hearing rumors of Santa Anna’s capture, he headed down to Sam Houston’s location where he found Houston wounded, resting against a tree and discovered Santa Anna nearby negotiating his terms. So ended George Erath’s service in the Texas Revolution and it is a great honor of the men of Waco Masonic Lodge 92 to have had one of our own give witness to the birth of the Republic.
Following the war, Brother George returned to service as a Texas Ranger and participated in several campaigns until he eventually settled in with Thomas Barron‘s company as a sergeant. As such, he led fourteen Texas Rangers in a battle along Elm Creek and achieved victory in preventing 150 Indians from attacking nearby settlers. During the chase, Erath took aim at a native, fired, and the recoil from his gun knocked him onto his own back. This led him to express surprise at his gun’s ability to “take out those in front of and behind it.” Also in 1837, Erath was among the Barron Rangers given the job of establishing a new fort near the Waco Indians. They named it Fort Fisher and it was ill-fated but gave Erath and Barron the necessary insight to know that the location was prime for settlement. Brother George rose to Lieutenant with the Rangers in 1838 and led his group in many successful charges against marauding natives. In 1839, he was again promoted by being elected Captain of a new Ranger Company which he led until assuming control of the Milam County Minutemen in 1841. In 1842, Erath joined the ill-fated Mier Expedition. Fortune was on his side when on December 25, he was assigned to guard along the Rio Grande River instead of continuing with the rest of the soldiers. By 1843, George Erath was a living legend of Texas and the citizens elected him to Congress.
Erath the Legislator and city-builder
Brother George represented Milam County for the Texas Republic from 1843 to 1845, requiring re-election each year and gaining such as a result of his fine example as a lawman and leader. When Texas joined the United States in 1846, he was again elected, this time to the Texas State Legislature. Privately, he re-assumed his career as a surveyor and was tasked with laying out the maps of Waco in 1849. He told the men who hired him to do the surveying:
“I believe Waco will make an important place on account of its central position to the State and its being above the swamp lands. Also because of the many forks of the water courses near by and the broken lands above.”
In March 1849, George Erath brought forth Waco Village as carefully and exactly as a doctor delivers an infant child. It was Erath who had convinced the owners of the land to form a village and he also fought hard to named the village Waco instead of Lamartine. Erath mapped the new village starting with the first street which began at a big spring on the Brazos and reached westward. It was called Main Street, later Bridge Street. Over the next few weeks, Erath continued the survey in a westerly direction. He mapped areas for the Square, Austin Avenue, and several lots for sale. The first to buy a lot was our Past Master George Barnard, a man with a coincidentally similar name to George Bernard Erath. That same year, Erath moved his family from Nashville-on-the-Brazos to Waco.
Shortly therafter, George was one of seven men to sign that first petition which chartered a new masonic lodge in Waco. It would eventually be Waco 92. He never served as Master of the Lodge but was our first Treasurer.
In 1855, Brother George was again in the business of city-building this time northwest of Waco where he had convinced John Stephen to develop a new town. Erath led the first party of white men into what is today known as Erath County and Stephen agreed to let them start the new town of Stephenville. Years earlier, Erath also successfully laid out the town of Caldwell.
1857 saw Erath again being elected, this time to the State Senate. In 1858, Erath fought hard and won on the Senate floor to have a large company of Texas Rangers formed under John S. Ford in order to protect the frontier from the continued attacks by Indians. Erath was re-elected each year until he resigned in 1861 to work primarily on the task of negotiating between Texas and Indians living on reservations.
At the dawn of the Civil War, Erath successfully gathered up a company of men to serve under our own Colonel Speight but Erath’s age and health concerns led to his being discharged before seeing any serious battle. By 1864, his health had improved enough for Governor Murrah to appoint him as commander of a regiment charged with the task of protecting the home front. At times, his tired body would not allow him to mount his saddle on his own and he required the help of one or two of his subordinate officers. Still, after getting onto his horse, he would ride all day long without need for rest. Following the war, Erath retired to a farmer’s life at his ranch along the Bosque River a few miles from Waco. Even so, his knowledge and memory regarding geography and property boundaries of central Texas was so vast that he did not get to farm very much as he was constantly sought out as in an advisory role on legal matters by the likes of R.E.B. Baylor who trusted Erath’s opinion on such things more than actual lawyers. So perfect was his memory that he was nicknamed the “walking dictionary of the Texas land office.”
Then, in 1873, he was again elected to the Senate. This time, he served two terms before finally retiring for good.
At 4:00 pm on March 7, 1888, four thousand people gathered around one area of Bridge Street in downtown Waco. At that spot, Shapley Ross had driven the stakes to hold the first tent ever pitched in the area. At that spot, George Erath had driven the first peg to begin his surveying in 1849. At that spot, the first peg had been driven to mark the location of the Suspension Bridge. At that spot, Captain Jack Elgin drove the first railway peg in Waco and finally, at that spot on March 7, 1888, George Erath drove the first peg of the Waco and Brazos Valley Railroad. It officially linked Waco by railway to all the other major cities in Texas and thus brought Waco into the new era.
About 2:00 am of May 13, 1891, while George Erath was sleeping on a couch at his son-in-law’s house on Clay Street, his bright light burned out. With his hand under his cheek, he passed so peacefully that others in the room did not even notice despite being awake and sitting around him. Later that day, all the Waco businesses were closed, every bell in town rang in his honor, and Waco 92 laid the Brother to rest in Oakwood Cemetery. He had completed the oration of his memoirs to his daughter just weeks earlier and they would prove to be one of the most valuable resources for Texas history.
Today, his memory lives on all over the state of Texas. Erath County was named for him. The former town of Erath also took his name but has since been absorbed by China Spring. You can see where it was on our map of cities named after members of Waco 92 here. There are statues, plaques, and monuments dedicated to George B. Erath in various places. Truly, it can be said that he lived his life fully. At the time of his death, one local paper read,
“He was a soldier, a scholar, a gentleman and a good citizen; full of honor, brave as Caesar, gentle as a woman, bright, gifted, his like will never be found again. There is no page too bright for Major Erath’s name. He is a subject for the sculptor, and a proper hero for the song.”