Onderdonk, Gilbert (1829–1920)

By: Evelyn Oppenheimer and Craig H. Roell

Type: Biography

Published: 1952

Updated: December 1, 1995

Gilbert Onderdonk, pioneer pomologist, was born into an old Dutch family at Sharon, New York, on September 30, 1829, the third child of John and Harriet (Ward) Onderdonk. At age eleven he had already originated several new varieties of Irish potato that won him eleven awards at the New York State Fair four years later. He graduated from New York State Normal School at Albany in 1849. Fragile health induced him to leave his home permanently in the fall of 1851 for the warmer climate of Texas. He reached Indianola on November 14, 1851. As his health improved he began teaching school and worked on the ranch of Rev. Stephen F. Cooke at Green Lake, where he became educated in stock raising. He then raised horses until 1856, when he drove his herd to Booneville, Missouri, and sold them at a profit. He married Martha Jane Benham, originally of Kentucky, in 1854 and bought 360 acres at Mission Valley in Victoria County, Texas, where he ventured into the nursery business about 1858. The Onderdonks eventually had five children. During the Civil War Onderdonk enlisted in Company E, Eighth Texas Infantry, and participated in the battles of Corpus Christi and Fort Esperanza (on Matagorda Island), where he was captured. He was held prisoner in New Orleans for eight months before being exchanged.

Onderdonk's reputation as a fruit grower increased as he collected and raised specimens of fruits and flowers and furnished the area between the Rio Grande and New Orleans with acclimated fruit trees and shrubs. He published his first nursery catalog in 1872, and in 1883 he established a branch of his nursery on the San Antonio and Mexican Gulf Railroad about ten miles northwest of Victoria. There he laid out a town which he named Nursery and of which he became postmaster; the fertile soil provided an excellent laboratory and the railroad a convenient shipping point for his new nursery and those at Mission Valley. By 1894 he had seventy acres devoted to nursery stock. His success dispelled the previously accepted notion that fruit could not be grown in that part of Texas. He originated or introduced into Texas more than seven peach varieties, including the Onderdonk, Texas, Galveston, Gilbert, Rupley, and early China; at least eleven plum varieties, including the African, Coleto, early red, Piram, Munson, and golden beauty; as well as the Victoria mulberry and the Lincoln apple. He was awarded a bronze medal for pears at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Onderdonk published news about his work extensively in Meehan's Gardener's Monthly, Burke's Texas Almanac, and the Texas Almanac, as well as through the Texas Department of Agriculture. His Pomological Possibilities of Texas came out in 1909. Onderdonk's distinguished work on peach breeding and selection is noted in standard works, and his classification of peach varieties was accepted as authoritative as recently as 1959. Onderdonk was a consultant to the United States Department of Agriculture, which regarded him as among the greatest horticulturists of his time. He was also a member of the Texas Horticultural Society and the American Pomological Society. He was a Methodist and an Odd Fellow and was active in Victoria County politics; he served as county commissioner and county justice, among other posts. He died on July 28, 1920, at Nursery and was buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Victoria.

S. W. Geiser, Horticulture and Horticulturists in Early Texas (Dallas: University Press, 1945). S. W. Geiser, "Men of Science in Texas, 1820–1880," Field and Laboratory 26–27 (July-October 1958-October 1959). Memorial and Genealogical Record of Southwest Texas (Chicago: Goodspeed, 1894; rpt., Easley, South Carolina: Southern Historical Press, 1978). Evelyn Oppenheimer, Gilbert Onderdonk, the Nurseryman of Mission Valley: Pioneer Horticulturist (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 1991). Victor Marion Rose, History of Victoria (Laredo, 1883; rpt., Victoria, Texas: Book Mart, 1961). Victoria Advocate, 88th Anniversary Edition, September 28, 1934.

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Evelyn Oppenheimer and Craig H. Roell, “Onderdonk, Gilbert,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 24, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/onderdonk-gilbert.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

December 1, 1995