Chenango, Texas

            Very few know that there is a place in Texas named Chenango. If you google the word, you will find two places in the U.S. besides the southern tier of New York State that use the name: a parish in Louisiana and a hamlet in Texas. And the two place names may have been named by the same man.

The  Indian word Chenango is unique. No one really knows what it means or where it comes from; its meaning has been lost in the mists of time. It could be an Oneida or Mohawk word. It has several English translations such as “region of the bullthistle” or “beautiful river flowing south” or “where the two rivers meet”. The Chenango County Museum has a copy of a map of the 20 Towns of Chenango that was done in 1789 and the word Chenango is on the map. So it was in use before the European settlers began to come into the area.

 On August 2, 2005, Donald Windsor, Deputy Historian of Chenango County, wrote an article for the Evening Sun on the word Chenango,  researching many sources as well as researching the bullthistle plant. Chenango cannot mean bullthistle, as this plant is a non-native here and was most likely brought in by the Europeans. State Museum Curator, Charles Sheviak, suggested that the Indian name could have been a generic name for any coarse thistle. Don found four species of coarse thistle in Chenango County. I found a reference to the Canada thistle, considered a noxious weed, in the Chenango American in 1880. Anyone who did not cut it down on his premises before it went to seed was fined $25.00. Perhaps the bullthistle was just incorporated with the other species and they all were associated with the river. As Don writes, it really matters very little whether the meaning is correct or not. The bullthistle  now represents Chenango County.

The story of Chenango, Texas, is a fascinating one and truly ties in with the article last week on maple syrup. The area near Houston was named by Munroe Edwards, a rogue, an outlaw, a forger and scoundrel. He told folks that he named it after a town named Chenango in New York State. I have no knowledge if he ever lived here or not. One article said that his brother had been in New York to make his fortune. Chenango is in Brazoria County near the Brazos River. The hamlet is just a crossroads now but at one time it was a thriving community. There was a book published in 1926 titled The Old Plantations and Their Owners of Brazoria County. In 1821, Stephen F. Austin received a land grant from Mexico to sponsor three hundred European families to settle the area. Brazoria County’s logo is “Where Texas Began!” Being a flood plain, the land was perfect for growing sugar cane and cotton and many plantations were built. Between 1825 and 1830,  Munroe Edwards received a land grant and built the Chenango Plantation for sugar production. The sugar house was of brick and had a double set of kettles. Making sugar from sugar cane is a complicated process but basically the juices compressed from the cane must be boiled down just as the sap is from the maple tree.

The Chenango Plantation not only produced sugar; Edwards used it as a base for smuggling slaves from Cuba into Texas- a profitable business at that time. For example, Edwards and his partner from Baton Rouge, (Louisiana is where the other Chenango is used as a parish name)  bought 196 African slaves in Cuba for $25 each, brought them to Texas and sold each one for $600. From 1835-1836 the slave traffic to Texas increased with a minimum of eight vessels importing at least six hundred African slaves.

Edwards had a clever scheme to cheat his partner out of his half-interest in Chenango Plantation by forging his name on a bill-of-sale document. Edwards was arrested but put up bond money and then fled the area to lie low in Europe for some time. While there he passed himself off as a military hero of Texas and as a highly respected plantation owner who was against slavery. He wanted to see Europe first class.  Again he resorted to forgery and in one account it states that up to that time he was the only successful forger of a Bank of England note for $500,000. The authorities were so close on his trail that he returned to New York City where he obtained a loan fraudulently from a Philadelphia bank.

The law finally caught up with him and he was sent to the Tombs, a jail in New York City. His trial was reported in the New York Daily Tribune with lengthy descriptions of each day’s events. He was sentenced to Sing Sing prison for ten years, the maximum time for forgery. He attempted to escape many times and in 1847, after another attempt, he was severely beaten by prison authorities and died.

The plantations are all gone now and there is hardly any production of sugar in Brazoria County. It was replaced by oil derricks. One plantation, owned by Ima Hogg, a benefactress of the arts in the Houston area, is a museum in a State Park. There you can see how well the plantation owner lived and the outline of a sugar mill and the big kettles used for boiling. The docent who showed me around told me that some of her ancestors had worked at the Chenango Plantation.

It is ironic to think that Munroe Edwards, the owner of the Chenango Plantation in Texas, died less than 200 miles from the region of Chenango in New York State; that he put Chenango on the map in two places; and because of his slave-related criminal activity, he helped boost the consumption of maple syrup in the Northeast in the 1800s.