Millions of years ago, the earth was fractured by the Balcones Fault. Running through what is now central Texas, the escarpment was cut by the Brazos River causing a lowering of the landscape and a natural place for habitation. Mastodons from the east and mammoths from the west traveled to the area. Skeletons of 68,000-year-old mammoths have been excavated as well as skeletal remains of a 10,000-year-old man and child.
The Waco Indians
Waco is named after the Huaco Indians, the first inhabitants of this area. The Huacos were a branch of the Wichitas and were closely related to the Tawakonis. The tribe lived in beehive shaped huts, 20- to 25- feet high, made of poles, buffalo hides and rushes. The Huacos had approximately 400 acres of land under cultivation, planted in corn, beans, pumpkins, melons and peach trees.
In 1837, the Texas Rangers arrived intending to build a fort at Waco Village. Texas Secretary of War William S. Fisher ordered them here to protect the white frontier after a Comanche raid at Ft. Parker near Groesbeck. The Rangers spent three weeks cutting a road through the woods and building a bridge over Cow Bayou. However, it was decided the outpost was too far from any white settlement to offer any protection.
An Indian trading post was established around 1844 on a bluff eight miles south of Waco village on the east side of the Brazos River. A year later another settlement was established further north by a rugged Scot named Neil McLennan.
In 1848, two years after Texas statehood, General Thomas J. Chambers sold his Mexican grant of land, which surrounded the old Waco Village site, to a group of businessmen from Galveston. In early 1849, surveyor George B. Erath laid out the first streets of Waco. Lots were sold for $5 each, with "farming lots" selling for $2 to $3 each. Among the first buyers was a Texas Ranger, Shapley P. Ross. Captain Ross opened a ferry across the river in 1849 and built the first house in Waco with help from Armstead Ross, who by all accounts, was the first African-American to arrive in Waco. The City of Waco was incorporated on August 29, 1856.
Civil War and Beyond
Despite its remoteness from the Civil War hostilities, McLennan County supplied 2,200 volunteers to the Confederacy, out of a county-wide population of about 8,000. Six of McLennan County's volunteers became generals. Although Waco was in a severe and desperate condition at the war's end, it recovered rapidly. Ranchers and cattlemen soon began driving cattle north. As the Chisholm Trail became more and more popular, cowboys and their herds crossed the Brazos River in Waco.
Waco's Multicultural HeritageWaco celebrates its rich cultural heritage in many ways. From the museums to the many buildings, churches and homes, Waco highlights the traditions and historic significance that each culture brings to the community. To read more about Waco's multicultural heritage, please click here.
Waco Becomes a Hub of Commerce
In 1870, the 475-foot Suspension Bridge was opened as the first pedestrian/wagon bridge across the Brazos. A year later, the Waco and Northwestern Railroad reached Waco. It was followed by the Cotton Belt, and later by the Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Railroads making Waco a hub of commerce for the state of Texas.
Waco - a Center of Learning
In 1886, Baylor University moved to Waco from Independence, Texas and merged with Waco University. Founded in 1845 under the Republic of Texas, Baylor is the oldest continually operated university in Texas.
Texas Christian University (TCU) also called Waco home for more than 10 years, leaving for Ft. Worth in 1910 when fire destroyed its main building.
Paul Quinn College, Texas' oldest liberal arts college for African-Americans, was originally founded in Austin in 1872 as the Connectional College. The college was moved to Waco in 1881 and was located at 8th and Mary Streets in downtown Waco before it relocated to Elm Street. The school was named in honor of Bishop William Paul Quinn, longtime AME missionary. The college relocated to Dallas in the early '90's.
Another historic African-American college located in Waco was the Central Texas College, opened as the Central Texas Academy in about 1891. The school changed to a college in 1927. It closed between 1930 and 1932.
Texas Cotton Palace
In the mid- to late-1800s, the fertile soil of the Brazos valley drew plantation owners from the deep South. As the turn of the century approached, Waco was one of the world's leading producers of cotton. In 1894, the first Cotton Palace Pageant was held in Waco. The opulent building which housed the month-long exhibition was destroyed by fire and rebuilt in 1910. Even though the Cotton Palace building no longer exists, the Cotton Palace Pageant is still held in Waco each year in late April.
Waco's Historic Suspension Bridge
In the mid-1800s, Texans began to focus their attention on a future that had been dramatically altered by the devastation and economic upheaval of the Civil War. Settlers were moving west, businesses began to flourish and cattle drives became a common sight.
Civic leaders decided a bridge across the Brazos was needed. It took 2.7 million bricks from Wacoan J.W. Mann and $135,000 to build the 475-foot span, which was finished in January of 1870. It was the first bridge built across the Brazos River.
Upon completion, the Suspension Bridge brought the Texas section of the Chisholm Trail straight through Waco. A year later, the railroad was extended into Waco, and the city became a flourishing trade center. Following the bridge's completion, a toll was charged for each person and each head of cattle. On September 1, 1889 the toll charge was eliminated.
The Suspension Bridge showed its sturdy engineering when, during the devastating 1953 Waco tornado, it held fast. The tornado destroyed much of downtown Waco and killed 114 people.
The historic Suspension Bridge is the centerpiece of present-day Waco and is surrounded by lovely city parks. Indian Spring Park is on the west bank and Martin Luther King, Jr. Park is on the east bank. A beautifully landscaped riverwalk connects the bridge to the Waco Tourist Information Center and the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame & Museum at Fort Fisher. West of the bridge is the beautiful 416-acre Cameron Park.
Click here for information on the Waco History Project.