The Big Thicket of Southeast Texas is difficult to define geographically. The early explorers thought of it as the heavily wooded area south of the Old San Antonio Road, east of the Brazos, north of the coastal prairie and the La Bahía Road, and west of the Sabine. As pioneers began penetrating and settling the area the size became more tightly defined, but to this day it has never been absolutely delineated. Some scientists identify the thicket by soil types and vegetation and stretch it across Southeast Texas from Grimes to Newton counties. The federal government established the Big Thicket National Preserve in twelve different units in Polk and Tyler counties and the counties to their south. The old people and old families, however, who have always known that they lived in the Big Thicket, define it as a much smaller area. This is frequently called the bear hunters' thicket.
This traditional Big Thicket–the bear hunters' thicket–is about forty miles long and twenty miles across at its widest. It is flat land, grey clay and sand, part of the Pine Island Bayou drainage system. It is a thickly wooded area that begins in the southern parts of Polk and Tyler counties, where the creeks flow out of the red dirt hills. It ends in the south below Sour Lake, where the dense woods thin out in stands of pine and in the rice farms of the coastal prairie. The eastern and western boundaries were easier to define in the old days before the loggers got hold of it, but east of Cypress Creek the elevation is higher, the land is sandy, and there used to be great climax stands of yellow pine five and six feet in diameter. The western boundary of the thicket was marked by big open pine stands along the spoil banks of the Trinity River and by Batson Prairie on the southwest. Before the incursion of the lumber and oil industries, this heart of the thicket was characterized by dense vegetation and by large numbers of deer, bear, panthers, and wolves, as well as the common varieties of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians.
The history of the Big Thicket goes back to the time when it was covered with water. In the last sixty million years, "recent times" according to geologists, the Gulf shoreline of Southeast Texas submerged and emerged time after time, in unison during the Pleistocene Age with periodic glaciations to the north. The shore line that contained the thicket rose above the waters of the Gulf during the Ice Age, and was built up by silt washed down and deposited by some ancestral Trinity River. The woods of the thicket grew, and ten thousand years ago the thicket dwellers included mastodons, elephants, the American horse, Taylor's bison, camels, tapirs, and giant sloths, beavers, and armadillos. Preying on these animals were the sabre-toothed tiger and the dire wolf. Their day ended around 8,000 years ago. The time of the glaciers established varieties of soils and vegetation in the thicket that remained after the glaciers retreated, and produced a unique biological crossroads of at least eight different kinds of plant communities. The Big Thicket is possibly the most biologically diverse area in the world. Cactus and ferns, beech trees and orchids, camellias and azaleas and four carnivorous plants all occupy what is called the thicket, along with the pines, oaks, and gums common to the rest of East Texas. The thicket also supports a wide variety of animal life and is especially noted for the many species of birds, around 350, that either live in the area or visit annually. The abundant rainfall and the long growing season, around 246 days, ensure that vegetation and all the animal life that depends on it thrive.
Three groups of American Indians are historically associated with the early history of the thicket. They are the Atakapas, the Caddos, and the Alabama-Coushattas. In the historical beginning only the Caddo and the Atakapas moved through the thicket with any regularity. Other tribes from as far away as Oklahoma, Colorado, and Kansas made periodic hunting trips into the thicket for bear meat, skins, and tallow. The Tonkawas, Lipans, and Wichitas met in peace at the medicinal spring around what is now called Sour Lake. But primarily the thicket was the meathouse of the mound-building Caddos, who occupied the fertile rolling hills to the north, and the cannibalistic Atakapas, who bounded the thicket on the Gulf Coast and on the Trinity bottoms. At the end of the eighteenth century the Alabamas and Coushattas began to settle on the northern and western fringes of the thicket, and the woods became theirs. The first man to lay a personal claim to the area was Lorenzo de Zavala, whose 1829 Mexican land grant included the Big Thicket. No Mexicans came, however, and the first settlers to move into the thicket area were Anglo-Americans who began moving into Southeast Texas in the 1830s. The first settlers stopped on the eastern edge of the Thicket, but soon the Thicket itself was spotted here and there with log cabins and with people who lived off the land as naturally as their Indian neighbors. These are the people who are still there, in blood and genes if not in the flesh. The core of the Thicket population is still White, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant. The Black population within its boundaries is small. The thicket did not lend itself to plantation farming and the slaves and field hands that went with it. There are a few Cajuns on the southwestern edge, in the Batson Prairie area. There are a few Slavonians left over from the days of tie cutting and stave making, and some "foreigners" stayed behind after they drifted in to work for the big sawmills or during the oil boom. But the natives, the ones whose roots are generations deep in the thicket soil, are Southerners by sympathy and migration; they are conservative politically and socially, and they are Protestant fundamentalist in religion.
The economic history of the thicket is much the same as that of the rest of East Texas. Until the 1880s the inhabitants dwelt scattered through the woods and lived off what they raised on subsistence farms. They ran hogs and cattle on a relatively free range and hunted small game, deer, and bear. The lumber industry brought a new economy in the 1880s, cut the virgin pine, and opened up more land to farm and graze. The Sour Lake oilfield in 1901, then the Saratoga and other thicket oilfields brought about a period of frantic activity. After the booms, life settled back to its normal, rural pace and remained so through the 1930s. World War II and the shipyards of the Gulf Coast brought about the major change in the thicket way of life. Many of those who went to war or the shipyards never returned to the thicket country. After the war the increasing number of paved roads and cars and power lines funneled in massive doses of the outside world. Except for the most confirmed woodsmen, the bulk of the population is now located in Kountze, Honey Island, Sour Lake, Saratoga, and Batson.
Formal efforts to save the Big Thicket from the devastation of the lumber and oil industries began with the founding of the East Texas Big Thicket Association by R. E. Jackson in 1933. Early conservationists joined the association, which hoped to preserve 400,000 acres as a national forest. One result was a biological survey in 1936 by H. B. Parks and V. L. Cory of the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station. The East Texas Big Thicket Association gained considerable political support during the thirties, but the war economy at the end of the decade demanded pine lumber and hardwoods, and the conservation movement fell into neglect. In the early 1960s conservationists again began their drive to save parts of the thicket for a state park. They were led by Lance Rosier, a longtime thicket guide and naturalist, and Dempsie Henley, mayor of Liberty, who on October 4, 1964, founded what became the Big Thicket Association. By 1966 the Big Thicket Association had decided to push for national-park status. Senator Ralph Yarborough was its most powerful proponent in Congress. In 1974 a bill by Charles Wilson and Bob Eckhardt to establish an 84,550-acre Big Thicket National Preserve was passed by Congress and signed by President Gerald Ford. The preserve now consists of twelve protected units scattered through Hardin, Liberty, Polk, Tyler, and Jasper counties. Some of these units are in the heart of the old bear hunters' thicket.