(Image credit: Waco Tribune Herald)
George Bernard Erath was born in Vienna, Austria in 1813. He was educated at Vienna Polytechnic Institute where he studied liberal arts. Young Erath lived on his own and worked for a few years in Europe, eventually setting sail for America. One of the reasons given for his departure was that he did not want to be drafted into service for the Austrian Army. Whatever his justification for not wanting to serve in Austria, he would show no reluctance whatsoever to fight for the State of Texas. In fact, he spent years doing just that. He arrived in America in the summer of 1832 in New Orleans. He then worked in Cincinnati, Ohio before returning to the South again in Florence, Alabama for a short time. Erath then relocated to Texas in 1833 where he would remain for the rest of his life, entering at Brazoria on the Gulf and settling in Robertson County.
He was twenty years old and apprenticed with a surveyor where he learned the trade that he would adopt as a career. It was not long until news of Santa Anna’s having taken control of the Mexican government reached the area, then still part of Mexico. The Texas Revolution was brewing and young Erath first joined a Ranger company where he served in defense of the local settlements. He enlisted in the Texas volunteers, participating in the Battle of San Jacinto under Col. Ed Burleson. In his memoirs, he recounted his personal experiences the day of the battle. After the revolution, Erath remained with the Rangers and was with the group of men who were assigned to establish Fort Fisher, located on the banks of the Brazos, about where I-35 crosses the river today. He eventually achieved the rank of Captain. Erath participated in the unsuccessful Somervell Expedition and Mier Expedition, being one of the most fortunate survivors of the latter because he happened to be on guard duty the day that most of the other troops were captured. The story is that he had collided with a prickly pear cactus which resulted in some cactus splines being left in his knee. He happened to be not able to march when the ill-fated Mier battle occurred.
Erath continued his surveying business, laying out the town of Caldwell in 1840. He served as a representative of Milam County to the Congress of the Republic of Texas from 1842 to 1845 and was elected to State Legislature in 1846. Still working as a surveyor, he is credited for laying out Waco Village in 1849, where he also settled along with some of the earliest European residents to locate there. He is noted for defending the name Waco against an alternative name, Lamartine, presumably in honor of President Mirabeau B. Lamar. Erath prevailed after pointing out the obvious connection to the native Waco tribe which had previously inhabited the area. For these actions he is referred to as the “Father of Waco.”
Erath continued to represent the region, serving in the Texas Senate from 1857 until 1861. When the Civil War broke out, he helped raise and also joined the 15th Texas Infantry under Joseph Speight. He was one of the older members, being about 48 years old at the outset of the war. He did not serve long with the 15th Texas because he became ill enough to be discharged and return home. After a partial recuperation, he joined a local group of rangers who essentially provided protection for the area. He continued to work as a surveyor and was well regarded for his complete knowledge of the Central Texas area. He lived the remainder of his life on his farm from which he continued to provide surveying services, also serving another two terms in the Texas Senate.
His book, The Memoirs of George B. Erath, was dictated by Erath to his daughter Lucy A. Erath. It was first printed in 1922 and a second edition was printed in 1956. It is long out of print and not available for download, but copies are available in selected Texas libraries. Excerpts from it appear to be very vivid descriptions of the battles and provide first-hand accounts of them.
Erath died in May, 1891 and was buried in the historic Oakwood Cemetery in Waco. He was highly esteemed, as evidenced by the following paragraph from his obituary, “There is no page too bright for Major Erath’s name. He is a subject for the sculptor, and a proper hero for the song. He has written his memoirs, and when the public is allowed to read his story, told in his own strong, but simple language, light will be thrown upon many a page now darkened by error. Major Erath found time in his eventful life to read much, and what he read, he digested. He was a soldier, a scholar, a gentleman and a good citizen; full of honor, brave as Caesar, gentle as a woman, bright, gifted, his like will not be found again.”
In 1856, while he was still living, he was honored by having Erath County named for him. The county was created from portions of Coryell and Bosque Counties. There was once a town named for him, though it was later absorbed into China Spring. There is a statue in his honor on the grounds of the Texas Ranger museum in the approximate location of old Fort Fisher. His statue was created by sculptor Robert Summers and depicts a youthful Erath carrying a long surveyor’s tripod over his left shoulder, with his right hand holding a rifle by the barrel.
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