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Rancho Comal at Spring Branch

Photo Caption: Portion of an 1874 Comal County Land Grant map. Highlighted are the land surveys making up the Rancho Comal in the 1870s.

Photo Caption: Portion of an 1874 Comal County Land Grant map. Highlighted are the land surveys making up the Rancho Comal in the 1870s.

By Keva Hoffmann Boardman —

A Princely Estate — We learn that Maj Leland of New York, has settled among us, having purchased the Comal Ranch of Col. Sparks, fronting the Guadalupe River 9 miles, and laying 22 miles west of New Braunfels … all one body of some ten thousand acres with improvements thereon, and some 640 acres under fence near Mr. G.W. Kendall’s celebrated sheep farm. In his purchase of stock from Col. Sparks, there are some 3000 sheep, 750 head of cattle, 250 head of horses and mules, working oxen, a Maltese jack, two Bramah bulls and the celebrated race horse, Hockaway, and also 1000 hogs, goats, etc … amounting to $106,700, the largest sale ever made in Texas of any stock farm.” — The True Issue (LaGrange) Feb 22, 1859.

Wow. So many questions. Where was this? Who was Col. Sparks? Who was Maj. Leland? Why have I not heard of this enormous ranch?

Oscar Haas apparently had the same questions, because piece-by-piece he collected information from the older generation. Piece-by-piece a mental image has started to come together in my head.

First, where was it? The article said, “fronting nine miles on the Guadalupe … 22 miles west of New Braunfels” and another description adds “about 30 miles nearly north of San Antonio”. This puts us in the Spring Branch area. Bridging Spring Branch and Western Comal County, Texas, by Brenda Anderson-Lindemann, is an exhaustive history of the early German settlers of that area. However, there are only a few references to Comal Ranch, one being that “the Comal Ranch, a Confederate Post about a mile from Spring Branch” became the area post office with William DeForest Holly as postmaster in 1861 and Col. Charles Power from 1862-1865. Knowing these names, Mr. Haas delved into early land records. If you have never read original land grants/deeds, let me tell you, it is not easy.

The news article of Feb 1859 gave the names Col. Sparks and Maj. Leland. Found very little on Daniel P. Sparks. He was originally from South Carolina and served in the US Army in 1812 (yes, that war). In 1857, he moved his family to Louisiana and then to Indianola, Texas. Don’t know how he got to Comal County but after he died in 1867 on a trip to New Orleans, his will was probated in Comal County. According to the above news article, he sold the expansive Rancho Comal to Maj. Leland in 1859.

Maj. William W. Leland was from a well-known family of New York hotel proprietors. In 1849 at age 28, he headed to California for 10 years. After that, he owned a hotel in New York for several years and then did a salvage project in Russia. He took the remains of his fortune and purchased the Comal Ranch, in 1859, to go into stock raising on a grand scale. In a May 1859 issue of the NB Zeitung, Maj. Leland advertised the service of several fine stallions for $25-$75 and the sale of merino rams from Vermont for $100-$500. He was fairly successful, but the project was doomed by the coming of the Civil War. Maj. Leland was elected to the Texas Convention on Secession as a delegate from Karnes County. He strongly opposed secession and spoke out defending the Union. He was given two hours to leave the State, his property was confiscated, and he went back to New York financially ruined. He joined the Union Army and after the war got into the hotel business again.

The Rancho Comal was next owned by William DeForest Holly and Danville Leadbetter. In 1860, DeForest Holly conveyed half of the following tracts of land for $19,375 to Danville Leadbetter: 431 acres of the (1851) James Henderson Survey north of the river; 50 acres known as the Foster Place on Spring Branch Creek; 960 acres of (1846) John Angel Survey; 1280 acres of the (1846) James Henderson Survey; 1600 acres of three (1846) Gordon C. Jennings Surveys; 580 acres of the (1848) James Webb Survey; and 640 acres of the (1848) James W. Luckett Survey. You can see these land grants on the map.

DeForest Holly was made Confederate postmaster of the Comal Ranch/Spring Branch area in 1861, but in 1862, the Comal Ranch was sold to Col. Charles Power … 5324 acres for $19,543.44. The ranch came with: a caballado of 322 horses; 350 head of stock cattle; 50 beef cattle; 2000 sheep; 40 bucks; one Brahmin bull; 3 stallion horses named Belchazer, Scott Morgan and Hockaway; 5 yokes of oxen; 1 ox wagon; hogs and goats.

In 1869, an incident at Rancho Comal made the NB Zeitung. A young black girl was living with a Mexican family named Rodriguez. She was molested by a black man called “Crazy Gus’. Mr. Rodriguez confronted Crazy Gus, but was stopped in his questioning by two other men, Alfred Carson and Antonio Rubio, who defended Gus. A week later, Crazy Gus went to the Rodriguez home and threatened to hurt or murder the girl and Mrs. Rodriguez. Old man Carson tried to shoot him but Mrs. Rodriguez intervened and the men were taken to Comal Ranch and held. Rodriguez appealed to the Justice of the Peace Theodor Goldbeck for retribution. JP Goldbeck could not have Crazy Gus arrested because there was no sheriff sworn in. It seems that the Reconstruction government after the Civil War had not gotten around to everything yet. Crazy Gus, crazy politics, just crazy.

Col. Power went bankrupt in 1869. The Rancho Comal went into receivership secured by creditors in Austin. 2800 sheep, 233 horse, 400 cattle, 30 beeves, 2 stallions, 1 jack, 28 bucks, 2 Mexican jacks, 1 jenny, 1 Durham bull, 12 stock horses, 200 hogs, 6 yokes of oxen, 2 ambulances, 6 sets of harness, and 3 mules were auctioned off on Tuesday, May 1, 1869.

The 5334 acres, made up of 9 surveys, were bought by the creditors for $4,500.

In 1871, 960 acres of the John Angel Survey were purchased by Dietrich Knibbe who had founded the community of Spring Branch in 1852. In 1880, 92 acres were bought by Keturah M. Voight; Voight picked up 277 ½ acres more in 1881. In 1882, 1421 acres of the Luckett, Webb and Jennings Surveys were sold to F.W. Rust; 195 ½ acres were bought by Herman and Charles Knibbe; 976 ½ acres were sold to Friedrich Bartels; and the last 546 acres were purchased by Henry Bender.

The Comal Ranch was now a part of the families of many of the early Spring Branch settlers. However, the extensive ranch with prize stallions lived on in stories. In 1884, the San Antonio Light related a story which had recently occurred to C. J. Forester while at “Comal Ranch”:

I want to tell you a horse story, not a fish story, yet a true story … I had in New Braunfels a spring wagon and a pair of horses. One of them, a stallion was taken sick with colic and came near dying; he was so bad that after the lance was struck it was nearly two minutes before he bled. We then took about a gallon of blood from him, and turned him into an unused lot to get a roll and some grass. Next morning I put his mate in with him. In the lot was a well about 50 feet deep, with 15 feet of water in it, partially covered with plank, and it is supposed that in playing or fighting, the stallion kicked his mate into the well. Some men nearby, hearing the rumpus and the fall, and going to the well, found the horse partly submerged, with his feet resting on the ledges of rock, keeping his head above water. Being at once apprised of the case, I had a derrick rigged and placed, and paid a negro $10 to go down and fix the ropes on him. The air was so bad that he nearly fainted, but pulled through, and we pulled up the horse, who, strange to say, after four hours in the well, started off with only a limp, and went to grazing. We found he had a cut in the shoulder, which we sewed up; otherwise he seemed uninjured …” — San Antonio Light, October 9, 1884

I have asked lots of people what they know about Rancho Comal and truth be told, even if they have heard of it, no one really knows anything about it. Was that because it belonged to a string of Anglo Americans originally from other parts of the US and not the German immigrants? I find it interesting that several of the early owners were military men with visions of a grand project in Texas, but that none of them were buried in Texas. And then there was the Civil War; it definitely had an impact on the viability of Comal Ranch.

I keep looking at the land grant maps and thinking, “Wow. I can barely imagine a huge ranch like that here in Comal County.” Sadly, that vast Comal Ranch full of cattle, race horses, sheep, goats, pastures and farm buildings is now full of lots and lots and lots of homes.

Sources: Sophienburg Museum Oscar Haas Collection; Texas General Land Office; Neu Braunfelser-Zeitung; San Antonio Light; The True Issue, LaGrange; Bridging Spring Branch and Western Comal County, Texas, Brenda Anderson-Lindemann; Sparks Family pedigree; Find a Grave; Wikipedia; Comal County Historical Commission; Land Grant Map of Comal County, DelRay E. Fischer, 2007.