Last summer, as I was driving past the library of a small town north of San Antonio, I spotted a stand of books for sale. Amongst them was a landscape-sized catalogue of watercolour plates of San Antonio and its environs in the 1850s – rare visual representations by a female artist of antebellum Texas. The watercolours had been displayed in the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth 30 years previously.
In 1852, the artist, Sarah Ann Hardinge, had travelled from Boston to San Antonio by stagecoach to redeem land left to her in a will. During her four years in Texas she painted local scenes and also wrote a memoir. Of her arrival in San Antonio she wrote, ‘after travelling all night in stage coach. I could hear the Wildcats as we crossed the dark dismal prairie and wood.’
Browsing through the lovely paintings, I was particularly struck by the one of the Polley Plantation in Sutherland Springs, Sarah’s last residence before returning to Boston, and which was described by the catalogue’s editor as ‘one of the most important surviving plantation homes in Texas’. With money short and her land proving difficult to sell, Sarah lived there for a year in exchange for teaching the Polleys’ children and running the Sunday school.
I hadn’t heard of Sutherland Springs, only 30 miles east from San Antonio, before the tragic mass shooting in its Baptist church in 2017. I checked the internet and the plantation house not only still stood but was being restored. One spring-like day in January I decided to go and see it for myself. On the way I saw fields of black-and-white cattle, ancient pumpjacks beavering away and the odd swathe of magenta penstemon, early for the time of year. It was a fascinating journey: a few miles north of Sutherland Springs, in the small town of La Vernia, I saw an original drugstore (now a very dusty museum), an old Lutheran wooden church (which initially held services only in German) and a cemetery containing the remains of Prussian and Irish pioneers (the only other visitor was a grazing longhorn). I then took to the backroads and along the way saw an old wooden school constructed by emancipated slaves, a ‘bug catcher’ (mechanical harvester) invented by Pat Higgins the ‘Grass Seed King’, and the Linne oil field, once the most extensive oilfield in the area. From here I could see the two-storey Polley mansion just a short distance away. It was set just off the narrow road and surrounded by pastures. As I drove up, it looked fully restored and very lovely, with six porch columns and made from stone that had been quarried from nearby Cibolo creek.
Getting out of my car, I first had a look at the Polley cemetery on the other side of the road. Fronted by an overhead metal sign and surrounded by low iron railings, it contained about a dozen graves. The oldest belonged to a Revolutionary War veteran and the last to a World War II veteran. It was a peaceful little place. I crossed back to the house. A group of goats grazed under a live oak on one side. On the other stood a large restored cistern. At the back was the sole surviving slave cabin – there had been several more in Sarah’s painting. She wrote in her memoir:
‘Instead of door bells stands a little black belle … ready to notify their master or mistress of the approach of visitors – it would seem very odd to me now to sit down at any table at the North and not see a black boy or girl behind almost every chair.’
By all accounts the Polleys, who had come to Texas from New York, were good to their slaves and generous to the community. Whilst staying at the mansion, Sarah was especially afraid of The Indian threat which reached its peak in 1856:
‘Great fear this year of the Comanches and Lipans – parson Mr Geelittle son killed by them while driving home…Neighbours coming in from their log homes to our two story stone house for protection – Slaves brought in & horses within enclosure. Knife, guns, spikes, stones & scalded water all in readiness, case of need…’
I got back in the car and drove a mile up the road to Sutherland Springs, a village by English standards, and quite poor looking in places. The white wooden Baptist church was much smaller than I imagined. It was difficult to imagine that horrific scene inside. A much larger church was being erected to replace it.