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April 2010 cover image 12 Hooked!

Texas Reader: Who is Mother Neff?

The stories behind how state parks got their names.

By Kathryn Hunter

If you’ve ever found yourself wondering about the history behind a park’s name — as author Allan C. Kimball did — you’ll enjoy Who is Mother Neff and Why is She a State Park?, a book that explores the origins of 113 Texas state parks, natural areas and historic buildings.

Mother Neff State Park, the impetus for Kimball’s research, was the first official state park of Texas, created in 1937. Texas Gov. Pat Neff, one of the founders of today’s state park system, named the park for his mother, Isabella. She was known by the community as “Mother Neff” because of her initial six-acre donation of land for a public gathering place and for her hospitality to cowboys on the Chisholm Trail. Mother Neff often gave these travelers pie and coffee as they went on their way.

Texas has a varied and interesting history. From the Native Americans who first inhabited these lands to the Anglo settlers who later colonized them, many individuals are responsible for making Texas what it is today. Kimball reveals, for example, that Seminole Canyon State Park was named for the U.S. Army’s Seminole Negro Indian Scouts, who helped protect the surrounding area from Apaches and Comanches between 1872 and 1914.

The Seminole Negro Indian Scouts were the descendants of escaped slaves who settled among Seminole Indians in Florida’s swamps, combining African traditions with Native American ways of life. Later, when the Indian tribes were driven to reservations in Oklahoma, many black Seminoles moved to Mexico. The U.S. Army, in need of experienced scouts familiar with the terrain and fluent in English, Spanish and various Indian dialects, hired them, promising them land in exchange for their service. Though they fought in many battles, no Seminole Negro Indian Scout was ever wounded or killed in combat, and four received the Congressional Medal of Honor. They did not, however, receive the land promised to them.

A name is rarely meaningless; often it recognizes the important contribution of an individual or group of people, or brings to light a story long forgotten or obscured. Kimball’s detailed descriptions uncover the meaning and human sentiment behind the names of some of our favorite places.

“After reading this book, you’ll be able to enjoy the park you’re visiting just a little more because you’ll know just a little bit more about the park than the person at the picnic table next to yours,” Kimball writes. “And you’ll know it all began with Mother Neff.”

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