A natural and legendary history of Enchanted Rock
By Katie Armstrong Nelson
A flash, and then darkness.
For a second I think I couldn't have seen it. But it appears again in a different spot, a bright white light hovering in a nearby bush. If I were anywhere else, I would think the light belonged to a wayward hiker with a powerful flashlight. Or maybe a nocturnal animal with ultra-reflective eyes. But I'm not anywhere – I am halfway up Enchanted Rock, at night, with only my 16-year-old brother for protection.
"Hey," I whisper to Wes. "Did you see that?"
"Yeah. What is it?"
"I don't know. There are supposed to be spirit fires. And noises."
In the cloud-veiled moonlight, there are more shadows than light on the barren granite landscape that is Enchanted Rock. It is silent save for a mosquito whining in my ear, but suddenly the wind gusts, whipping our hair and the pages of my notebook.
"Shut up," Wes says, attempting bravery. "It wasn't anything."
Then the light flashes again.
By daylight, Enchanted Rock is more apt to inspire awe than fear. Its huge pink dome, 1,825 feet above sea level, looks so alien in the Hill Country that it appears as if the surrounding land were giving birth to Mars. Enchanted Rock and its smaller counterparts are granite anomalies in an area dominated by limestone, bald giants in a landscape carpeted with green.
In his 1956 pamphlet Facts and Fiction about the Enchanted Rock, rancher Charles Moss wrote, "The name 'Enchanted Rock' goes back into the unwritten chapters of Spanish and Indian history and tells the story of aboriginal rites and ceremonials, of wars and loves and treasure seekers; stories of which we have but fragments enduring as the rock itself."
The rock has weaved its powers of enchantment over many people for thousands of years, drawing those inspired by religious awe, or inspired by greed, or inspired to appreciate the rock simply for being a natural wonder. Enchanted Rock beckons visitors to climb to its summit, where they enjoy a breathtaking view of the surrounding hills before they look down upon their startlingly steep descent. The wind roars on top of the rock, but without warning it drops off completely from time to time, leaving a void of sound that isolates a lone climber as if she were suddenly transported to the moon.
The void, the barrenness, the beauty in the austerity of the place – perhaps these are the sources of Enchanted Rock's power; perhaps these are the fountainhead of legends that transcend boundaries of culture and time. At night, so the common superstition goes, strange lights appear on the rock as spirit fires or ghost lamps, and the rock emits haunting groans and creaks. Some say the sounds pierce the night like a panther's scream. Scientists say that the sounds occur when layers of rock, expanded by heat, contract in the cooler night temperatures. The lights, they say, are moonlight reflecting off crystals in the granite.
But native tribes looked to the supernatural for explanations, giving rise to the idea of enchantment. Some Indian legends attribute the noises and lights to a great devil trapped in the rock, while other legends attribute them to various spirits that inhabit the rock. According to one story, the last of a tribe's warriors fought to their end on Enchanted Rock, where their spirits linger. According to another story, the spirit of a doomed chief is forced to walk the rock forever as a punishment for sacrificing his daughter; his footprints are indentations on the rock's summit.
Yet another story tells of an Indian princess who saw her tribe defeated and so threw herself from the rock, leaving her ghost behind. Europeans recorded such indigenous legends and added their own interpretations to Enchanted Rock: Their tales promised great mineral wealth, telling of lost gold mines and whole mountainsides of silver and platinum.
"People associated caves and metamorphic rock with mines, especially silver and sometimes gold," says John Davis, director of the Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio. "It's easy for people to associate their own fears and desires in a place like that."
Treasure legends find their inspiration in Enchanted Rock's unique geology and its awesome size. Located 18 miles north of Fredericksburg, Enchanted Rock is technically an exfoliation dome considered to be one of the largest in the United States. The dome is composed of curved sheets of granite that range in thickness from less than one inch at the top to several feet at the base. While no definitive size ranking exists for exfoliation domes, Enchanted Rock is shorter than Georgia's Stone Mountain and larger than Wyoming's Independence Rock.
"So huge is the Rock, that, even under its shadow, visitors misjudge its proportions, and innocently start out for a breakfast appetizer climb that, before it is ended, consumes most of the morning," wrote Moss. "Small trees growing in its crevices look like grass and weeds from below; the great vultures that police its barren slopes appear to be diminutive crows."
But Enchanted Rock's 640-acre expanse is a relatively tiny outcrop of a gigantic granite batholith that expands outward and downward for miles beneath the surface of the earth. A batholith is a formation of igneous rock that occurs when molten magma intrudes into the crust, melts the surrounding bedrock and cools underground. The story of Enchanted Rock begins 1.1 billion years ago, when two continents collided and formed a mountain range that once reached into Canada.
"Very commonly when continents collide the crust gets too thick and can't support its own weight," says Sharon Mosher, who chairs the geology department at the University of Texas. "It will many times drop off, and when it does the heat from the mantle and the mantle come up from underneath and cause the lower crust to melt, which formed the Enchanted Rock."
Over the next several hundred million years, periods of erosion alternated with periods of deposition, when ancient seas covered the area and put down layers of sedimentary rock. One hundred million years ago, a sea inundated Central Texas and deposited the limestone that today forms the Hill Country. Beginning 65 million years ago, around the time the dinosaurs died out, uplift exposed that limestone to erosion. Unlike limestone, metamorphic rock like granite is resistant to weathering and erosion. The stone that once covered Enchanted Rock wore away, leaving a granite mountain to tower above its surroundings.
Mosher calls the stone that makes up Enchanted Rock "a spectacular granite." Officially dubbed Town Mountain Granite, the stone is a distinct mix of salmon-pink microcline feldspar with flecks of black mica, glassy quartz crystals and other minerals. Quarriers have long prized Town Mountain Granite, which was used to build the state capitol in Austin.
The dome has remained relatively unchanged for the last 10,000 years, where human prehistory begins. Enchanted Rock itself is considered one giant archaeological site, while Enchanted Rock State Natural Area contains about 98 other archaeological sites. Spear tips, pottery shards and middens point to 12,000 years of indigenous habitation of the Enchanted Rock area. In the 18th century the Tonkawa controlled the area, but the Apache took control and displaced them. The Apache were displaced then by the Comanche, who controlled the region in the 1840s when German colonists established Fredericksburg.
The first well-documented explorations of the area began in 1723, when the Spanish were intensifying efforts to colonize Texas. Two Enchanted Rock legends concerning the Spanish survive: A conquistador captured by the Tonkawa described how he lost himself in the rock area, creating an Indian legend of a "pale man swallowed by a rock and reborn as one of their own." He explained that he believed the rock wove spells, saying that "when I was swallowed by the rock, I joined the many spirits who enchant this place."
Then there is the adventurous legend of the Spaniard Don Jesus Navarro. The beautiful daughter of an Indian chief, christened Rosa, was living in the Mission San Jose near San Antonio. Don Jesus fell in love with Rosa, but a band of Comanches attacked the mission and carried her off to Enchanted Rock. Together with a band of Spaniards and Texans, Don Jesus rushed to Enchanted Rock, where he found the girl bound to a stake and surrounded by tinder. Don Jesus and his men fought the Comanches and freed Rosa before any harm befell her.
"The Indians no doubt had an awe for the mountain that they expressed in narrative detail," wrote folklorist J. Frank Dobie in Legends of Texas. "The early Texans heard these accounts; then the descendants of those early Texans invented a story in which the Spaniard played a part to fit the legendary atmosphere of the mountain."
Anglo explorers followed the Spanish, and they added their own points of view to the changing interpretation of Enchanted Rock. The first recorded Anglo-Texan to encounter the rock was Captain Henry Brown, an explorer and Indian fighter, who came across it in 1829 when he killed a group of Indians in the area. Other Anglos came after. In an 1834 letter, W.B. Dewees described what could be Enchanted Rock.
"A few of our young men started to go up to the headwaters of the Colorado and Brazos rivers to examine a large rock of metal which has for many years been considered a wonder," Dewees wrote. "It is supposed to be platinum. The Indians have held it sacred for centuries, and go there once a year to worship it. They will not permit any white person to approach it. It is almost impossible to make any impression on it with chisel and hammers. When struck it gives forth a ringing sound which can be heard miles around."
Dewees' description is characteristic of the lore that white settlers developed about Enchanted Rock. Their tall tales tantalized hearers hungry for mineral wealth, while alluding to the veneration that Indian tribes had for the rock. Moreover, their legends provide a snapshot of the troubled relations between white settlers and native tribes, especially the Comanche. In Legends of Texas, folklorist Julia Estill wrote, "The daring ranger always knew that if he could induce his sure-footed pony to climb the Rock, horse and rider would be safe from the pursuing savage, for the Comanche would not follow, nor would he direct an arrow toward the white man who sought the protection of the Spirit of the Rock."
In 1841, Captain John C. Hays of the Texas Rangers sought Enchanted Rock's protection, whether he was aware of it or not. According to legend, Hays became separated from his men while scouting for Indians when he came upon a small group of Comanches who pursued him on horseback to Enchanted Rock. Hays jumped off his horse and ran up to the summit, trading shots with the Comanches for hours until his men found him and drove the Indians away. It remains in question whether Hays really fended off a band of Comanches singlehandedly, or whether they were unwilling to pursue Hays fully while he was on Enchanted Rock.
"There is much truth in legend, but some of that is the truth of the human mind," says Davis of the Institute of Texan Cultures. "Some of them start with a real fact, like the date that John C. Hays was on Enchanted Rock, and that becomes the fabric of a legend after considerable embroidering."
Regardless of the legend's truth, in 1936 the state placed a bronze plaque commemorating Hays on the southeast face of Enchanted Rock. Visitors on the main trail read that "From its summit in the fall of 1841, Capt. John C. Hays, while surrounded by Comanche Indians who cut him off from his ranging company, repulsed the whole band and inflicted on them such heavy losses that they fled."
Out of the many struggles between European settlers and the natives came controversial rumors that Indians once held human sacrifices at Enchanted Rock.
"As far as I know, it's complete hogwash," says Davis. "There are some people who want to denigrate or shame another group of people, reduce the opponent in some way. In the history of the Americas, the people doing the conquering would ascribe to the native people beliefs that they did not hold. Killing and sacrifice can be used insultingly."
Rhett Rushing, folklorist at the Institute of Texan Cultures, seconds that opinion. "[Human sacrifice rumors] help to justify taking away their land, shooting at them. ... I feel very comfortable that it's absolute hokum." Rushing also adds that the rumors served a cautionary function, "to keep the kids in bed at night, and keep women in the home – these stories work; they've worked for millennia."
While we have insight into white settlers' Enchanted Rock stories, we know little of how Enchanted Rock functioned in the minds of the Tonkawa, Apache and Comanche, beyond the fact that they held the rock in great religious awe. But the versions of their legends that survive show that native people were trying to explain the mysterious rock.
"Human beings can't stand chaos. We all have to find order," Rushing says. "Whenever you find a physical abnormality, it's going to be the source of legends and stories to explain it, and that's why there are so many stories about [Enchanted Rock]."
To the white settlers and their descendants who came to control the land, Enchanted Rock shifted from being an object of religious veneration to a natural wonder to be profited from. The Moss ranching family controlled the land almost continually from 1895 to 1978. Tate Moss opened Enchanted Rock to the tourist trade in 1929, and after Gutzon and Lincoln Borglum carved Mt. Rushmore, some people even anticipated seeing the faces of Texas heroes in Enchanted Rock.
Used for private profit for many years, Enchanted Rock finally became a public treasure worth protecting. In 1978 Enchanted Rock was saved from development by one of America's most beloved conservationists, Lady Bird Johnson. When the Moss family decided to sell the land, they first offered the land to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, but the agency could not pay the price. Quarriers expressed interest in buying the property, but instead Johnson stepped in.
Patrick Noonan, former president of the Nature Conservancy, told the Austin American-Statesman that Johnson called him and said, "I want you to come down to the ranch and hike with me on a rock." That rock was Enchanted Rock, and the Nature Conservancy purchased the property for $1.3 million. It deeded the land to the state, and TPWD opened Enchanted Rock State Natural Area in 1984.
Today Enchanted Rock annually draws more than 250,000 visitors who come to hike to the rock's summit, rock-climb and experience the magic of Enchanted Rock for themselves. Geologists have solved many of the rock's mysteries, but science alone can't explain the je ne sais quoi that calls people to the rock, nor can it vouch for the rock's odd power to inspire legends.
In legend, Rushing says, there might be a kernel of truth, but there's always tradition. "You rarely come across a new story, but the stories are traditional," he says. "Across cultures, those stories exist. It's one of the beautiful commonalities of being human."
Like many Enchanted Rock pilgrims who preceded me, I created a new legend from my own experiences. I had gone to the rock that night to see if the stories would come true for me, and I was not disappointed. I'm not convinced that I saw only a reflection of moonlight during my nighttime vigil, and since I am romantic and gullible at heart, I prefer the legends over the science anyway. I'd like to believe in stories of lovers who lost one another on the rock, where their spirits appear as ghost lamps searching eternally for the other.
I can interpret the light I saw as a ghost lamp, or a spirit fire, or as a trick of the eye. But perhaps the most accurate interpretation of that light is as another strand for the tapestry of legends surrounding Enchanted Rock. The only truth I can give to my experience is that Enchanted Rock deserves its name.