One day in 1982, Eastfield Community College professor Susanne Starling discovered a historian’s gold mine in one of her history classes.
During a discussion of early Dallas settlers, a student named Greg Smith suddenly spoke up with an interesting claim: one of his ancestors, he said, was the original surveyor of what is now Dallas County, and that ancestor’s name was William Angus Ferris.
Starling had never heard of Ferris, but when her student brought family documents to class, she couldn’t believe her eyes. William Angus Ferris had been a prolific writer, and his diary and drawings showed that before settling in Texas, he had been a fur trapper and mountain man in Yellowstone. The extensive journal he kept told of life in the West in the 1830s. He also gave the first public description of the incredible geysers found in what is now Yellowstone National Park.
Fascinated by the information the documents showed, Starling began to research the life of Warren Ferris. What she found led her to spend 10 years working on her book,” Land Is the Cry! The Life of Warren Angus Ferris, Pioneer Texas Surveyor” to be published this month by the Texas State Historical Association.
Ferris originally came from Buffalo in western New York state, which at that time was itself still a frontier. After six years in the West, he followed his brother Charles to Texas shortly after the Texas Revolution in search of land for homesteading.
Shortly after his arrival he was hired as the official surveyor for Nacogdoches County, which then included much of northeast Texas, including what is now Dallas. Warren Ferris surveyed the area beginning in 1839 – well before the better-known “founder” of Dallas, John Neely Bryan, showed up.
“At the time Ferris surveyed the Three Forks area of the Trinity River, there were plans to build a town there and name it Warwick. Because of a drought, those plans fell through, otherwise, we’d all be living in Warwick, Texas,” says Starling, laughing.
Ferris is also credited with the unusual layout of Dallas streets, which has affected the directions in which Dallas has grown.
“In the early days,” Starling explains, “access to water was of primary importance. Because of that, plots were surveyed in the directions the streams and creeks ran–at an angle southeast to northwest.”
Starling, herself a native Texan, grew up in Dallas and Greenville and holds degrees from Baylor and the University of North Texas. She taught history at Bryan Adams High School in East Dallas from 1961-67, and then in the Dallas County Community College system until she retired to travel and write.
At the time she “discovered” Warren Angus Ferris, she had become a true urban pioneer, having purchased and renovated a home in Old East Dallas in the 1970s. “I had studied urban history at North Texas and I really felt like I was doing something no one had ever done before.” Her research on Ferris and the early settlement of the area seemed to dovetail nicely with her background and personal interests.
Warren Angus Ferris lived his life out in North Texas, fathering 12 children before his death in 1873. Today, a Texas Historical Marker can be seen at the site of his 640-acre homestead near Garland Road and St. Francis Drive in the Forest Hills section of East Dallas.
The cemetery where he rests, however, was bulldozed and paved over some years ago–an ignominious end for the man esteemed local historian A.C. Greene calls “the most unappreciated figure in Dallas history.”
Susanne Starling’s biography, “Land Is the Cry!” will be available in local bookstores. For more information or to order a copy, call 1-800-826-8911.
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