The Plantation at Comal Bluff
Sneed House ruins tell a story beneath and behind modern Austin
Over its long history, a number of stories have been written about what has come to be known as the "Sneed House." Like teasers in a TV news report, they typically begin with titillating commentary on its origins, meant to catch the reader's interest. This story, I hope, will be different; but like any writer, I want you to keep reading. To that end, let me briefly introduce the Sneed House, also called "Comal Bluff."
According to scans of faded documents generously provided by the Austin History Center, the house was commissioned by Sebron Graham Sneed in 1852, on a hill near what is now the corner of I-35 and William Cannon Drive, in what is now the Dove Springs neighborhood. Slavery was legal in Austin then, as it was in all of Texas, and Sneed was a slaveowner, which came in handy in procuring labor power for the house's construction. The house was ready to live in by 1857. What the slaves built for Sneed and his family was a six-room limestone estate, a rather severe edifice designed (most likely) by Abner Cook, the same man who designed the Governor's Mansion.
A look into the timeline of the house suggests a long run of deteriorating luck that began almost as soon as construction was completed. The Sneeds were owners of 21 slaves as late as 1860, a year before the start of the Civil War. Sebron was a delegate to the Texas Secession Convention, which decided the state of Texas should secede from the Union and join the Confederacy. Sneed's sons fought for the Confederacy, and Comal Bluff was used as a Confederate recruiting station. (A 2013 Austin American-Statesman article says the house was a Confederate hospital. Either way, the political affiliation seems clear. Perhaps the house served as both.) In the end, things didn't turn out well for slavery, and by 1865 the laborers who'd built and maintained the house a few years earlier were no longer obliged to do so.
The Sneed family gained various positions of prestige around the Austin area both before and after the war. Sebron himself was a judge. His son, Thomas, was briefly mayor of Austin. The family lived in the house until 1921, when it was sold. According to the Statesman, a man named Calvin Hughs purchased the house from a Sneed descendant and lived there until his death, at which point his daughter stayed there until she died at an old age some time "in the 1960s."
This is when the story of the house starts to become a troubling puzzle of squabble and conflict between various corporate owners interested in making use of the land for profit and those, like the Texas Historical Commission, who wish to harness and commemorate the significance of the house as a relic of Texas' past. More recently a local resident, Bobby Cervantes, has made serious efforts to save the property. While he's had luck securing the nearby Sneed family burial plot, he has had much more difficulty keeping current owners Indo Pak Investments LLC from infringing on the ruins of the house itself. "At times," Cervantes says, "it seems as though no one cares. Calls, emails go unanswered, City Hall and our City Council couldn't care less."
It is not hard to sympathize with his frustration. Reading the reports of meetings and lawsuits and appeals is confusing and disheartening, as no clear plan ever seems to shake loose from the proceedings. There have been times when the house has come to public attention, only to disappear again until someone new (like myself) comes along and takes it up as though we were the first to hear of it.
All along, the house itself has remained in the same place, on an unnamed lot behind a shopping center, surrounded by apartment complexes on Austin's mostly ignored southeast side. Since its last resident departed, "in the 1960s," it has gone through a persistent and seemingly irreversible process of decay, the windows boarded up and antique interior elements stolen by pillagers, until its original details have been utterly stripped away, its white walls marred with graffiti. In 1989, at the end of a series of meetings and threats between the city and then-owners Data Port Inc. (the city wanted the owners to secure and renovate the house; the owners said they couldn't afford it), most of the house was burned down – razed in a devastating and permanent way. All that remains is a stone, Gothic skeleton.
A Lost History
This was the state of Comal Bluff when I first came to learn of it, in the early Nineties. I grew up in Dove Springs, the low-income, mostly Latino neighborhood that currently circles the house. One day my mom stopped at the corner of Bluff Springs Road and Nelms Drive and pointed out the car window toward the trees on the other side of a chain-link fence. Near the top of the tree line was the unmistakable and thrilling sight of a ruin: the white stone walls of something ancient. She said it had been a plantation, and that it had burned down. My mind was blown, because this was not the kind of history that was supposed to exist only a few hundred yards from the Supercuts where I had my head buzzed, behind the Target where my mom bought my school clothes. I'd had some introduction to the Civil War and slavery, some understanding of what took place on a plantation – mostly based on my sister's VHS copy of Gone With the Wind. They were not stories I associated with Austin. How could they be, when despite my years of Texas history in Austin public schools, and even through my ensuing high school years, the state's intimate relationship with slavery and segregation was rarely, if ever, mentioned?
In the context of this astounding ignorance, the "plantation" my mom pointed out to me that day was an impossible insistence of history upon a city and a neighborhood that, from my perspective, didn't even have one. How could slavery and the Civil War possibly exist in a neighborhood that as far as my 8-year-old mind knew hadn't come into being until the early Eighties?
Imagine my surprise when my mom later pointed out the Williamson Creek Cemetery (distinct from the Sneed family plot), a small and overgrown graveyard near the intersection of I-35 and Stassney Lane, the highway separating the cemetery from Comal Bluff, like the modern ancestor of an early Texas river set into the hills of old Austin country. According to documents provided by the Texas Historical Commission, the cemetery is known to hold the graves of members of the Sneed family as well as some of former slaves, and has seen its own history of neglect and abuse, including the vandalization and theft of headstones. When my mom took me into the cemetery (nearly 20 years ago) it was little more than a patch of weeds and brush in an anonymous lot. Stones had been kicked over and names had been rubbed away. The cemetery is currently settled within short reach of the Metropolis movie theatre and a Krispy Kreme doughnut shop, among other establishments. At the time, my mom said it was a slave cemetery, though it is difficult to say for sure. Some stones are so rubbed down that their origins are unknown and they could, indeed, be the final resting places of people who died in slavery, including some who may have laid stones and gathered lumber for Comal Bluff.
Forgetting a Bloody Past
Whether Williamson Creek Cemetery can truly be called a slave cemetery or not, its existence, as well as its relationship to the Sneeds' antebellum estate, helps to complete a story on Austin's southern border that has largely been overlooked – a story of a time and place when and where the buying and selling of human beings for forced labor was an accepted practice, a practice that was worth fighting two wars over: the Texas Revolution and the American Civil War. With a tighter and more personal focus, the story becomes one of pain, loss, tragedy, persistence, wealth, power, family, and time, a story that was taking place on the edge of the Texas frontier in the middle of the 19th century, in places all across the Hill Country and deeper into the slaveholding regions of the state.
Considering the degree to which Comal Bluff has deteriorated, the story can also be said to be one of forgetfulness and, perhaps, regret. In some places south of the Mason-Dixon Line, the antebellum and Confederate past remains, somewhat awkwardly, still a glorious dream. Richmond, Va., the former capital of the Confederacy, has maintained Confederate President Jefferson Davis' house, and erected a museum to the Confederacy, both venues dedicated to the memory of an unfortunate history Virginians have embraced, largely because it is a history they could never realistically manage to abandon. Austin, although its history is likewise tightly intertwined with that of the Confederacy and the antebellum South, has largely managed to distance itself from what took place here when slavery was still legal, and later, when Jim Crow still menaced – when race and racial relations were more overt, virulent, and bloody affairs than they are now.
Austin has largely understated (or forgotten) its role during the years of slavery and the Civil War, but that doesn't change what actually happened. S.C. Gwynne puts it plainly in his remarkable book Empire of the Summer Moon, when he describes the mood in the city at the beginning of the war, just four years after the completion of construction on Comal Bluff: "Abraham Lincoln had been elected president the previous fall, and anti-Union sentiment in Texas was in full cry. Austin was its center." Indeed, it is likely those Civil War-era residents would recognize lingering elements of Austin's secessionist past that typically go unnoticed by 21st century Austinites.
While working on this story, for example, I was reminded that some statues on the Capitol grounds as well as the University of Texas campus are specifically dedicated to "heroes" of the Glorious Cause. A page on the UT website refers to statues of Jefferson Davis and Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Albert Sidney Johnston as an "honor court." I do not know what an "honor court" is, but it does sound sufficiently Southern. Fittingly, these statues are located on the campus' South Mall and, equally fitting, they face south. The statue of Jefferson Davis is especially noble, standing at the foot of the UT Tower in rank with Presidents George Washington and Woodrow Wilson, looking toward the Capitol Building, location of both the Confederate Soldiers Memorial (erected in 1903 on the south side) and the Hood's Texas Brigade Memorial (erected in 1910). It is as though President Davis is still giving orders and surveying territory for the rebellion.
I have passed these monuments innumerable times and, to my discredit, never stopped to truly consider what they referred to until now. I can distinctly recall noting that it was odd to see a memorial to Confederate soldiers on the Capitol lawn when the Confederacy had lost the war, but odd is all it seemed to me. Even more preposterous, and more telling of the degree to which I was unable to recognize the significance of what was right in front of me, is that I graduated from Albert Sidney Johnston High School. The tragic irony of a high school in a predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood being named after a high-ranking Confederate commander is almost as rich – or tasteless – as that of a house built by slaves existing within the confines of Dove Springs, another mostly Mexican-American neighborhood. (The high school has since been renamed Eastside Memorial.)
I lived in the shadow of Comal Bluff for most of my life, and would like to think that I am somewhat more enlightened, and can comprehend the situation of the crumbled plantation on Austin's southeast side. But even now I have no firm grasp of what the house means to the city, aside from its being an unmistakable reminder of the way years pass and times change. The house seems to have been built for an era that ceased to exist almost before the building was finished. Since then, days, months, and years have rolled over it like tides, unstoppable, and our memories have gone with it.
Beauty and Horror
Like anyone else alive today, I have no real knowledge of what black American slavery was like before the Civil War, in Austin or anywhere else. I only know that it was a degrading and miserable manifestation of human cruelty, a three-century holocaust whose legacy continues to darken social, economic, and political dialogue across the nation.
I have always wanted to climb the fence surrounding the house's ruins to get a good look at them, wander among the rubble and trash I'd surely find there, but I don't know what I might actually learn by doing so. Even reading articles and looking at pictures seem to have the same result as going on a ghost hunt, searching constantly for an ultimate answer to something that has already said its piece, though softly: You cannot know. It is a haunting claim to consider, especially for those dedicated to saving the house, who have suggested plans for memorializing it. Personally, I am a fan of these ideas. I ache to see the house maintained, for what is left of it to be conserved for public display. I do believe there is something in the object, something to be learned, something we need, especially in the South, a seat of American beauty and American horror.
As I mentioned above, I wanted this Sneed House story to be different from those that have come before it. In retrospect, that was a terribly pompous statement. It first suggests that I might have had the time and initiative to read everything that has ever been written on the house (in fact, there does not appear to have been much, so I may have come close to doing this). It then suggests I might be able to stumble on some angle that no other writer or reporter has previously considered. I would like to believe that by adding my words to the conversation, a tide of new interest might bring the house out of the catacombs of Austin's cultural awareness and into the light for good, turning it into a popular attraction like the Alamo or Monticello (the former home of President Thomas Jefferson, another slaveowner. Austin's leadership could perhaps learn a lesson from that Virginia plantation, an example of a memorial that is determined not to forget its roots in human bondage) – that somehow I will be doing a small part to reclaim a bit of important history.
These seem worthy goals, but unlikely to be achieved. This story has been less about the house itself, than about the tendency of events to be replaced by more events until all or most are forgotten, and only the most meager strands survive. While I would like to see the house renovated to recall some semblance of what it once was, a more conspicuous reminder of our own complex past, this is mostly out of curiosity, my personal interest in relics and legends. Ford's Theatre in D.C., where Abraham Lincoln was shot, and the Petersen House across the street, where he died a few hours later, have both been kept in a condition that is very close to what they were in 1865 when those events occurred. They include period furnishings as well as some original artifacts, such as the pillow Lincoln bled on as he was dying. I've visited these places and, to some extent, was moved by them. But even with the attention these historic places have seen, and the upkeep they have benefited from, they do not replicate the eras they have witnessed. It is this fleeting quality of lives and moments that leaves me more befuddled than outraged at the glorification of Confederates on the Texas Capitol grounds, or the subtle, determined nudging of Comal Bluff toward oblivion.
I described the house as having been "marred" by graffiti. Perhaps it is appropriate that it is so. After all, what amount of allegiance to a 19th century slaveowning family's home could a modern teenager, most likely a racial minority, be expected to have? What is unfortunate may be not that the graffiti exists, but that it is more blind deviance than political gesture, an artifact of economic and social disparities which are themselves a product of America's legacy of inequality. These economic and social structures are far more sinister, and much harder to ignore, than a crumbling foundation on the south side of town.
I can write my story, but in the face of the years, those before me and the ones to come long after I've gone, I am powerless. This story, like the Sneeds, might briefly shine a light on a corner of Austin – but after a few days, that light will fade, and the story will retreat to the margins to haunt the legacy of the house ... another ghost.
The house will stay where it is, on an unnamed portion of acreage at the edge of civilization, destined for demolition, primed to be forgotten.