Tree hanging over San Gabriel River

The long, winding history of the San Gabriel River

The San Gabriel River’s beauty can draw us in. It beckons us to come close, to be still and listen to the water flowing freely to places unseen—places beyond the end of the highway and even beyond gravel roads, places where deer pause to drink and where fish swim, unnoticed. The river calls us to take a break from the bustling city life around it to experience the contrasts of nature.

Three forks of the San Gabriel River run through Georgetown, embracing homes, businesses, and parks. Bridges old and new connect the city over the river’s clear water. If the river could speak, it might tell riveting tales from hundreds of years ago, tales about the lives of those who crossed it, fished in it, swam in it, and even died along it.

The San Gabriel River begins in Burnet County and flows east, stretching 120 miles, and ends in Milam County as it joins the Little River.

The river was inhabited by local Tonkawa, Lipan Apache, and Comanche for many years before it was discovered by the Spanish in the eighteenth century. It’s easy to imagine Native Americans camped out along the banks, sustained by the river’s abundant fish and surrounding wildlife, and shaded by the same imposing limestone cliffs we marvel at today.

The San Xavier River

In 1707, Diego Ramón set out from Coahuila, Mexico, with the Ramón Expedition to explore areas north of the Rio Grande. Priest Fray Isidro Felix Espinosa, among others, accompanied Ramón. When the group crossed the San Gabriel River in the summer of 1716, Fray Espinosa named it the Rio de San Xavier for Francisco de Xavier, a well-known missionary who was sainted in 1622.

Thirty years later, in 1746, a group of Native American Indians from the Yojuane, Deadose, Mayeye, and Ervipiame groups traveled all the way to the San Antonio mission to plead with Mariano Francisco de los Dolores y Viana to establish a mission in their territory along the San Xavier River. Father Dolores, who knew and was friendly with almost every major tribe along the Brazos River, told them to go back to the river and wait. They set up camp along the San Xavier River, in present Milam County, and waited for Father Dolores and Father Francisco Xavier Ortiz. When the padres finally arrived in the fall of that year, they got right to work teaching and converting the tribes to Christianity and eventually establishing more missions along the San Xavier River.

By 1755, after years of disagreements, attacks, drought, and epidemics, the San Xavier Missions were abandoned and relocated to San Antonio and San Saba.

Stephen F. Austin and a New Name

As Stephen F. Austin was settling hundreds of families in Texas in the 1820s, new maps were being sketched. According to the Texas State Historical Association, Stephen F. Austin mistakenly wrote “San Javriel” where the San Xavier River appeared on his 1829 map. This name somehow evolved over the years, and by the time Williamson County was founded and Georgetown became the county seat in 1848, the river was known as the San Gabriel.

In the 1800s, four major crossings, named for families living nearby, were established in Williamson County along the river: Booty, Russell (later Jenkins), Box, and Hunt. Small communities, with schools, churches, cemeteries, postal stations, and a gin, were established near the crossings.

Farmers and ranchers in the Williamson County area often traveled by horse or buggy to a picturesque spot along the river known today as San Gabriel Park. They brought food and spread quilts beside the river and under the cottonwood trees. They attended reunions, revivals, and other county and city functions, including Williamson County Old Settlers’ Association events. In 1869 Sam Houston drew a large crowd there when he delivered a passionate speech outlining his political views in hopes of being elected governor of Texas. The spot didn’t always host happy occasions, though. For some 20 years, it was also the site for Williamson County’s public executions, beginning in 1886 with a man who killed his wife. A crowd of six thousand or so gathered along the river to watch as the sentence of hanging from a tree was carried out near the present-day low water crossing in San Gabriel Park.

Today, on any given afternoon in San Gabriel Park, you can see families offering bits of bread to ducks, runners jogging and walkers trekking along the river trail, and usually a fisherman casting out a line under the shade of a tree. Splashes and laughter echo off the bluffs in the summertime at Blue Hole, and passersby rest on a rock bench along Scenic Drive just to take in the river and a sunset.

I can’t think of Georgetown without thinking of the San Gabriel River. I visit the river often and always catch myself looking down at it while driving over the bridges that span it, trying to see how far it flows. I wonder about the early explorers’ impressions when they came upon the river. Were they merely thankful to find water? Were they wowed by its beauty? Could they imagine that it would one day be the heart of a place like Georgetown?

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