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Exactly What Are the Cross Timbers?

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Kendall Davis is well-versed in the English language. She has 20 years experience as a published author and writing for clients. Her published works include historical articles in museums, magazines, newspaper articles, columns, content marketing, advertising copy, blogging, and academic papers. Kendall also makes her way in the literary world as a copyeditor. Writing about history is her first love interest. If you have editing or content needs on your website or for your books, articles, blogs, or columns, please visit her website to see details and more examples of her work, the services she offers, and contact information.

I frequently reference the Cross Timbers region in my historical accounts, but I found that I did not understand what the Cross Timbers region is and how it relates to Texomans today. I took it for granted that Texomans live in the Cross Timbers region of the Great Plains. Richard V. Francaviglia writes in his book, The Cast-Iron Forest:

“Most people heading for Lake Mineral Wells State Park, thirty miles west of Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, are drawn by the prospect of boating, swimming, or rock climbing. Ask one of them what "Cross Timbers" means and you're likely to get a blank stare. But a century ago, almost everyone in the area would have used that term to describe the kind of scrubby oak forest...The English term "Cross Timbers" (occasionally "Cross Timber") was in use by the 1820s, but its origin is uncertain. Some people say it arose because the forests crossed the great rivers of the region-the Brazos, Red, Washita, Canadian, and Arkansas. Others believe the reason was that the settlers had to cross through the timbered lands on their way west. ” (1) (2)

Ancient Cross Timbers

The Cross Timbers divide the eastern forests and the southern plains and became the boundary between eastern Indian tribes and the Plains tribes. They stretch from southeast Kansas through central Oklahoma to just north of Waco, Texas. In Oklahoma, scientists found a 500-plus-year-old red cedar and a 400-year-old post oak in Keystone Ancient Forest Preserve close to Tulsa. The ancient forests in the Cross Timbers are becoming increasingly fragmented, but there are organizations in Oklahoma and Texas that strive for their preservation. (3) (4)

Rip Van Winkle Meets the Cross Timbers

Washington Irving, the famous author of two timeless stories embedded in American minds, used the term Cross Timbers. In 1832, U.S. Indian Commissioner Henry Ellsworth invited Irving, already a famous writer, to join his expedition to Indian Territory on horseback through an unknown land full of bison, mountain lions, black bears, wolves, coyotes, and deer, plus Turkey, Bobwhite, and Mourning Dove. Irving said that he would not “easily forget the mortal toil and vexations of the flesh and spirits, that we underwent occasionally, in our wanderings through the Cross Timber. It was like struggling through forests of cast iron.”

In his book, Tour of the Prairies in the eighteenth chapter, Irving writes about the Red River:

“About midday we reached the edge of that scattered belt of forest land, about forty miles in width, which stretches across the country from north to south, from the Arkansas to the Red River, separating the upper from the lower prairies, and commonly called the “Cross Timber.” On the skirts of this forest land, just on the edge of a prairie, we found traces of a Pawnee encampment of between one and two hundred lodges, showing that the party must have been numerous. The skull of a buffalo lay near the camp, and the moss which had gathered on it proved that the encampment was at least a year old. About half a mile off we encamped in a beautiful grove, watered by a fine spring and rivulet. Our day’s journey had been about fourteen miles.”

Throughout the Ellsworth expedition, the men hunted daily for their food with Indian guides. Irving writes about the party’s deer, Turkey, bear, and bison hunts. (5) (6)

Fire in the Cross Timbers

Naturally occurring wildfires maintained the Cross Timbers ecosystem for thousands of years. As humans continued to develop the region, they suppressed fires which allowed invasive plant species to proliferate. Its natural ecosystem predominantly supported blackjack oak and post oak trees. The fires destroyed the saplings and allowed for grasses to take over. Since human development, the eastern red cedar has wormed its way into the Cross Timbers. The overgrazing of pastures has an impact on its ecosystem as well. Irving wrote that the Plains Indians also started fires that spread east though the region. (7)

Cross Timbers: The Ancient Forest of America’s Crossroads and Westward Expansion

Francaviglia did not coin the term “Cast Iron Forest”. Post Civil War settlers used that nickname. Clearing the Cross Timbers for farms and ranches was heavy-duty work. Besides the scrubby oak trees, hickory, elm, bodark, and heavy undergrowth of grapevines, hawthorns, greenbriers, and other brushy plants weaved a mosaic of impenetrable land.

The Cross Timbers consist of upland forests and wide-open grasslands growing out of coarse sandy soil on top of sandstone substrate stemming from Cretaceous limestone. The soil differs between the eastern and western Cross Timbers. Scientists divide the Cross Timbers region of Texas into four separate ecological sub-regions: East Cross Timbers, Fort Worth Prairie, Lampasas Cut Plain, and West Cross Timbers. Before settlement of Cross Timbers, it is estimated to have covered 20 million acres. (8) (9) (10) (11) (12)

How Are Americans Preserving the Cross Timbers?

Today’s generation has largely forgotten how important the Cross Timbers ecoregion was and still is, save for names of businesses, churches, and towns, university intellectuals, and U.S. and state forestry organizations. For example, right here in Texomaland at Juniper Point, you will find the trailhead of the Cross Timbers hiking trail. Present-day Cross Timbers has down-sized due to metropolitan growth and numerous environmental elements. The following private and government Cross Timbers preservation organizations exist to keep it alive and in the public eye.

Thanks to the Cross Timbers Texoma region, we are fortunate that Bald Eagles spend winters here!

Cross Timbers Wildlife Management Area
Love County, Oklahoma














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