Riis Christensen: Tales from the Real Estate Crypt—Settle Down, Dallas!

Riis Christensen

As a youngster growing up in southern Louisiana, I was taught at an early age what separated a coon-ass from a dumb-ass: the Sabine River! Having now been in Big D for two-thirds of my life, more of the dumb-ass part is attacking me. It struck me recently that I knew very little about the history of the city that I have come to love and call home. Sure, I could tell you about virtually anything that has transpired in the office space realm over the past three decades, who shot J.R., and that the Cowboys need a real general manager, but I didn’t have much of a clue about Dallas history.

I wrote several months ago about “The Top Titans of Tenancy”—guys and gals in the commercial real estate industry that I’ll forever connect with certain office buildings that they leased for so long. I started to write a follow-up blog about iconic buildings in our town, but each time I picked a few, an earlier coven of projects moaned to me that they were just as, if not more significant. I finally pried open the historical crypt (that Al Gore invented) to learn more tales about our city—and the people, businesses, and buildings that helped create the monster of industry, commerce, and culture that Dallas is today. I determined that a terrible injustice would be done to start the story anywhere but at the very beginning.

So, in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. But due to word-count constraints in this blog, I’ll fast forward up to 1492, when Chris Columbus “discovered” America—and its 10 million natives. Just 27 years later another Spaniard, Captain Alonso de Pineda, sailed the Gulf Coast and reached the area later to be called Texas. (He also figured out Florida wasn’t an island before “upgrading” to Apple mapping). In the 1600s when the Spanish claimed Texas as part of New Spain, the Caddo Indians were one of the largest groups that inhabited the area primarily north up to the Red River and east over to Nacogdoches.

The two largest tribes were part of a Tejas—the Spanish spelling for the Caddoan word meaning “drive friendly.” (Actually, “those who are friends.”) Along with the Caddoans, it has been estimated that 49 other tribes roamed Texas or were set up in more permanent camps. Texas and Dallas remained under Spanish rule until 1821, when Spanish General Iturbide declared Mexico’s independence and named himself emperor. After chafing under Mexico’s flatulent rule and after cries of “Remember the Alamo/Remember Goliad,” Texas declared independence from Mexico on March 2, 1836.

In 1839, an enterprising pioneer/farmer/lawyer from Tennessee named John Neely Bryan (as in Street, Plaza, and Tower) came from his Arkansas home base and began scouting around here for a place to establish a trading post for Indians and settlers. He camped at what is now the Baylor Hospital campus north of the central business district. Bryan had the whole Daniel Boone thing working—buckskin suit, coonskin cap, moccasins, a flintlock-muzzle loader rifle, a pistol, and a Bowie knife—all things you still need around Baylor today (kidding—sorry Mr. Allison!) or to practice family law in Dallas. He noted thousands of buffalo carcasses and skulls, though saw none alive. (It is estimated that tens of millions of buffalo roamed North America, but that number was cut to 1,000 at the turn of the century. As of today, about the only buffalo you’ll find in the Dallas is ground up in the meat case at Central Market).

After some scouting around and connoitering, Bryan figured out that one of the only places to cross the wide Trinity River floodplain for hundreds of miles was also at the intersection of two major Indian traces (trails). He decided that this was a perfect spot for a trading post (and future master-planned school book depository). After checking out the area, he returned home to Arkansas to settle his affairs.

Bryan returned in 1841 to find that a treaty had moved out all of the Indians in North Texas and thus many potential customers. But two highways proposed by the Republic of Texas were soon to converge nearby, including the north-south Preston Trail—from Austin to Preston, Texas (on the Red River). We know this trail today as Preston Road/State Highway 289, which runs up to Lake Texoma to Preston Point. So Bryan dreamed a bigger dream of establishing a permanent settlement here. He built the first successful mixed-use project in Dallas: a 10-foot by 12-foot log cabin on a bluff of the East bank of the Trinity (on the north side of Commerce between Houston Street and the River). The site is better known today as the top of the Grassy Knoll.

Around 1842, he convinced a group of settlers at Bird Fort (located near Green Oaks and Collins in Arlington) to join him. From that group of settlers he married Margaret Beeman, whose father John Beeman established the second official residence in these parts, where White Rock Creek later intercepted the Texas and Pacific Rail Line. (Beeman also named Turtle Creek). Bryan fathered five kids with Margaret, ran a general store, was the first postmaster, operated a ferry crossing business, and ran the first Courthouse—all out of that 120 square foot cabin. (Things got really cramped in there when they added the wine bar, dog-washing station, and home theatre).

In 1844, Bryan helped J.P. Dumas (that Sabine thing again?) survey a town plat that was a half-mile square, complete with blocks and streets that were laid parallel to the Trinity. The origin of the name Dallas is cryptic (sorry, couldn’t resist). Possibilities include George Miffin Dallas, vice president of the United States from 1845-49; his brother Commodore Alexander J. Dallas, U.S. Navy; Joseph, Dallas who settled near the town in 1843 and was a good friend of Bryan; and, of course, Dallas Alice. (It is quite possible that the City of Dallas and Dallas County were named after two different individuals.)

With Bryan’s prodding, Dallas County was formed in 1846 and named the temporary county seat. In 1850, it was voted the permanent county seat over Hord’s Ridge (Oak Cliff) and Cedar Springs, both of which ultimately came within the same corporate limits. Dr. Samuel Pryor was elected the first mayor, and he headed a government consisting of six aldermen, a treasurer-recorder, and a constable. Bryan sold his remaining interest in the city for $7,000 to Alexander and Sarah Cockrell. Soon after, Bryan shot a man who insulted his wife and fled to the Muscogee Nation in Oklahoma (men don’t insult insolent insulters, guns insult insolent insulters). The injured man made a full recovery, and Bryan returned to Dallas six years later.

As more time passed, Bryan was instrumental in securing the completion of the Houston and Texas Central Railway and was one of the directors of the Dallas Bridge Co., which completed the first iron bridge across the Trinity. The “Father of Dallas” was admitted to the Texas State Lunatic Asylum (which later became the Austin State Hospital) where he died at age 67. His wife, Margaret Beeman Bryan, lived to the ripe old age of 97 and saw Dallas grow from a 120 square foot mixed-use cabin with a population of 2 to more than 150,000 people in 1919. A hearty coonskin cap/hat’s off to John Neely Bryan and his vision, grit, determination, and hard work that helped us all in Dallas to settle down!

In my next blog, we’ll look at “Tales from the Real Estate Crypt-Rise of the Machines,” covering the city’s growth during the industrial revolution, when banking, commerce, and manufacturing really got smokin’ in Dallas.

Riis Christensen is a nostalgic and aging tenant rep at Transwestern, and probably on his way to Luby’s. Contact him at riis.christensen@transwestern.net.

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4 comments on “Riis Christensen: Tales from the Real Estate Crypt—Settle Down, Dallas!

  1. Yay! Dallas needs more amateur historians!

    As one myself, I would like to share a little more of the Bryan real estate saga, as told by John William Rogers in The Lusty Texans of Dallas (1951). A man named John Grigsby was granted 4,605 acres for fighting in the War of Texas Independence which included the area enclosed between Turtle Creek, Grand Avenue, Lamar Street and Henderson Avenue. This was well before John Bryan’s “claim” on the land. In 1874 his heirs sued over 1,000 acrea of the property which had since become a part of the city of Dallas, subdivided, and resold into parcels. Their case won over the Supreme Court, and many property owners had to settle with the heirs out of court. It was known as “the Grigsby League”.

    This book and many other old out-of-print books about Dallas can be found in Forestwood Antique mall, there is a bookseller in the rear left of the store with an amazing collection. Shhh, don’t tell anyone.

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  2. Love this …Why not start a John Neely Bryan here in Big D?.We can dust of our grandpaw’ s Coonskin cap and reconnect with our pioneer heritage!Nice job!

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