Married duo unearths Texas trading history

The Wichitan

Story by Donace Wilkinson

The husband-and-wife team Walt and Isabel Davis, who helped to unearth a buried city and wrote a book about their meanderings across Texas, will kick off MSU’s 11th annual Speakers and Issues Series on Sept. 22.

This is the Davis’ second formal discussion of their book, “Exploring the Edges of Texas.”

Their first was a similar presentation for the East Texas Historical Association last spring.

Next week’s presentation will focus on chapter 12 of the volume. The chapter explores a three-part trading network between French traders, Caddo hunters, and Comanche and Kiowa horsemen.

This was a free-trade agreement that started in the 1700s.

The triangular trade network tied France to the southern Great Plains of Texas via the Red River.

“The story was pieced together by amateur and professional archeologists, and historians working together,” Walt said.

“The story is an example of what E. O. Wilson calls consilience. Wilson spoke at MSU in the spring. I want to follow up with an example of cooperation among disciplines that E. O. Wilson calls for. My talk is one example of how consilience can pay off.”

“We will talk about how we know what the Indians and French were doing,” Isabel said.

“We also wrote about some of the interesting people we found out about like Bernard De la Harpe. He was a French explorer who established the first trading post near Texarkana.”

In their research about other sites, the couple came across information about Gilbert Site, an 18th-century deer-hide-processing locale in East Texas, Isabel said.

The Davises co-authored the book—their retirement project — after doing research and an exploration which took them along the 4,000-mile boundary of the state.

The couple said they started their journey in 2004 and decided to go all the way around.

Their ultimate goal was to publish a book about Texas’ natural history. They said the goal of the exploration was to have an exciting time…and they were not disappointed.

“We like to travel and that’s why we did it,” Isabel said.

“It took us about four and a half years to do the traveling and research, and one and a half years to write the book, so about six years to complete.”

The couple jokes about their challenges with writing the book.

“We co-wrote the book so there was a challenge in deciding who got their way,” she said.

But neither of them is a stranger to Texas’ natural history.

Before retiring in 2004 Walt was the director of the Panhandle Plains Historical Museum in Canyon and former curator of exhibits at the Dallas Museum of Natural History.

In 2003 Isabel retired as a reference librarian at West Texas A&M University.

Prior to that, she was director of Rockwall County Library and collection development librarian for natural science at the Richardson Public Library.

She also coordinated the 1995 Panhandle Plains Historical Museum workshop for museum professionals on compliance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

“I did a lot of the library research and kept journals,” Isabel said, with reference to their book.

“Walt did the drawings and wrote the first drafts and I critiqued them.”

Walt’s illustrations are his recreations of the several historical and natural sites the couple visited on their journey around the state’s border.

Each chapter opens with depictions which include a national park, a stretch of river, a mountain range and an archeological site.

The couple’s other adventures included their participation in an excavation project at the northeastern corner of the Texas Panhandle.

There they joined members of the Texas Archeological Society—about 450 men, women and children—and spent a week searching for clues to the buried city at Chill Hill Site.

“The excavation was done near Lake Fryer and it was done by amateurs working with the Texas Archeological Society,” Walt said.

As the authors state in chapter 16, “This [was] our chance to work in the trenches of a real excavation—to see what it takes to piece together the story of people long dead.”

With reference to their upcoming presentation, the couple said their hope is that people will understand how important it is for cooperation between historians, archeologists and other professionals to put these stories together.

The Davises are members of the Red River Chapter of Texas Master Naturalists.

They are currently studying to be certified Texas naturalists.

Walt is a museum consultant. He also teaches watercolor art at his studio near Commerce, Texas. Isabel spends her spare time making quilts.


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