The Medina River in Pioneer Texas
It was usually on a Saturday morning when my Grandad (Andy B.) would take my brother and me for visits in the Hill Country. Sometimes we would have to stop by the Piggly Wiggly on Fredericksburg Road in San Antonio to stock up on candy, RC Cola, and Frostie Root Beer. Then we would head out West to meet some of Andy B’s old friends, watch deer, and shoot bottles with our rifles.
A favorite drive headed west on State Highway 16 through Helotes, Pipe Creek, Bandera, and on to the sleepy town of Medina. Our return trip often took us through Hondo and Castroville on Highway 90. It was always a long, but fun day. I loved the Medina River. We often stopped somewhere around Bandera to wade out into the cool waters, and drink a pop while sitting on a big tree branch. Little did I know that so much Texas history was associated with this cheerful river.
The Medina River finds its source in the Edwards Plateau in Bandera County, and flows southeast about 120 miles until it empties into the San Antonio River near Helena. The Banks of this beautiful river feature many varieties of trees including cedar, post oak, Spanish oak, live oak, pecan, maple, and cypress. The waters are usually cool and restful. Just right for a tube or canoe or a siesta. But what about the history?
There is an amazing archaeological excavation known as the Beene site, that is located along the banks of the Medina River, about 20 miles south of San Antonio. It was named for Richard Beene, an engineering inspector for a dam-design firm that was hired to build a dam on the Medina in 1989. His accidental discovery of pre-historic artifacts revealed a deeply layered archaeological find that led archaeologists to believe that for the last 10,000 years, small groups of hunters camped beside the Medina River. Some of the evidence included cemeteries, flint flakes, animal remains, ovens, stone tools, religious relics, projectile points, fire-cracked rock, and other items consistent with human activity. The nearby Coleman Cemetery site, dates to around A.D. 1300 and contains the remains of several dozen individuals. Here we see religious rituals used in honoring those who have died.
According to the diary of Spanish explorer Alonso De Leon, the Medina River was named on April 11, 1689, on his first expedition to Texas. De Leon named it for his good friend Pedro Medina, a Spanish engineer. As De Leon headed northwest from Mexico, he crossed and named other rivers including the Nueces, Hondo, and Guadalupe. Over the years, the Medina River has had several names including Rio Mariano, Rio San Jose, and Rio de Bagres (Catfish river). For a long time, the Medina River was the official boundary between Texas and Coahuila, Mexico, and the name Medina River was used all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. However, the Medina now ends at its confluence with the San Antonio River.
The Medina River was used for hunting and fishing by the native Americans. Later, Spanish and French explorers stopped to refresh their armies, and even Santa Anna rested his army on the banks of the Medina. But one little known fact is that God used the Medina River to build churches! The beauty of the river led people to see the handiwork of God and to admire His creation. First the native Americans, established their religious rituals. But as settlers came, the Indians moved away and the pioneers established their own way to worship God. Here are a few examples:
In 1842, Rev. John W. DeVilbiss came to Texas from Ohio for the purpose of ministry. He was young, well-educated, and a sought-after preacher. It is said that Rev. DeVilbiss preached the first Protestant sermon in San Antonio in April, 1844. He then organized the Travis Park Methodist Church in June, 1846. Pastor DeVilbiss then served as a circuit-riding preacher, and in 1861, he was the first Methodist minister to preach on the banks of the Medina River in Bandera. Again, he established a church. In his later years, Pastor DeVilbiss built a home on his beloved Medina River and lived there until his death in 1885.
Born in 1829, Mexican settler Policarpio (Polly) Rodriguez moved to Bandera County near the Medina River. In 1852, he married Nicolasa Arocha and they had four children. In 1858, Polly settled on Privilege Creek, and purchased land from John James, the founder of the town of Bandera. Polly built “The Fort,” and became the Justice of the Peace. When he converted to Protestantism, Polly became a circuit-riding preacher and started churches throughout the area. Polly donated much of his land for civic needs including schools and government buildings. But he would often say that his greatest joy was in the 125 seat church he built called Polly Chapel. In his later years Polly said that when he converted from Catholicism, his family virtually disowned him. Even his wife refused to eat at the dinner table with him! However, she eventually decided to follow him into Protestantism and joined his church. On March 25, 1914, Polly died in Poteet, Texas, on a ministry trip to help the poor.
The Medina River has a long history in Texas. That history is mixed with war and beauty, hardship and refreshment. But at almost every stage, we see locals seeking God. Never discount the love of God and what it means to each individual. “But from there you will seek the LORD your God and you will find him, if you search after him with all your heart and with all your soul.” (Deuteronomy 4:29 ESV)