The Story of the San Saba River

Today’s guest blog about the #3 San Saba River- a part of our America’s Most Endangered Rivers® series- is a historical perspective from Bob Davee, a local long-term resident, rancher, and farmer in the San Saba River Basin.  Bob was born and raised in McCulloch County, where his family has lived since his Great Grandpa settled on the San Saba in 1858. Today, Bob and his family raise Brangus cattle, winter wheat, and coastal hay along the San Saba River without irrigation.

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San Saba River

Don’t let the San Saba be pumped dry through unregulated pumping!

The San Saba River rises in the rocky, semi-arid hills and mesas of western Texas and flows easterly toward the Highland Lakes above Austin.  It also packs far more adventurous history than most rivers.

With a mild climate and abundant game, the San Saba country was always a favored home for Native Americans, and early Spanish colonists had long waged a bitter war against the Apache occupants of the area.  Authorities in San Antonio were therefore dumbfounded in 1757, when a delegation of Apache chieftains announced a burning desire for a Christian mission to be established at an idyllic spot they had selected on the San Saba.  The mission was duly built, but on a bright fall morning in 1761 its priests were awakened by the terrifying war cries of two thousand Comanche warriors.  

It was only after the mission had been totally destroyed that the Spanish realized that they had been duped; more than religion the Apache had desperately wanted help in their hopeless war against Comanche invaders.

For more than half a century, no white man dared enter the San Saba country.  However, around 1835, the legendary James Bowie led a small group of Texans to the site of the old Spanish mission in search of a rumored silver mine.  Bowie found no silver; what he found was a running Indian battle and death shortly thereafter at the Battle of the Alamo.

By 1850, the United States had defeated Mexico and Texas had joined the Union.  To combat the Comanche, the U.S. Army established an infantry outpost, Fort McKavett, on the San Saba.  Unfortunately, federal leaders failed to appreciate that foot soldiers could never protect a frontier against Comanche raiders mounted on fleet mustangs.  Urgent pleas to Austin finally brought real relief in the form of the Texas Rangers who established a camp on the San Saba and proved themselves just as tough as the Comanche.  But the Rangers also had better horses and Colt’s new six shooters.  They finally brought an end to Comanche lordship over the San Saba.

After the Civil War, this part of Texas was infested with outlaws and rustlers; for years the Rangers were obliged to act as mounted detectives, solving cases such as the mysterious robberies of the Overland Stage at the famed Peg Leg Crossing of the San Saba.  

The country was eventually tamed, so that today there are irrigated farms and orchards along the upper reaches of the San Saba.  But further downstream for more than fifty miles, the river still runs swift and clear through rocky canyons— a wild and lonesome land of large ranches and few people.  Indeed, should the Rangers of the 1870’s somehow return to this part of the San Saba, they would doubtless feel right at home.  Long may it so remain!

Lend your voice to protect the San Saba River from being pumped dry!