Seldom are historians in agreement on all the details of any story from Fort Worth’s past. The “when?” and “who?” of Frenchman’s Well are no exception. (Photo from Howard’s Texas Guidebook, 1948.)
“When?”: When was the well dug? Some say early 1850s; some say late 1850s. And the dark horse date is 1849.
“Who?”: Who was the “Frenchman” who dug the well and built the ten-foot-tall beehive-shaped stone wellhouse over it? We have a field of three candidates:
1. Some say he was Adolph Gounah.
2. Some say he was Alexander Barbier.
3. And the dark horse candidate was Francis Knaar.
First let’s present the case for candidate no. 3, le cheval noir.
This 1949 Star-Telegram story re-creating the establishment of the Army’s Fort Worth a century earlier says Francis Knaar, the fort’s saddler and blacksmith, dug the well upon the order of Major Ripley Arnold. Knaar had “a slight French accent” and was known as “Monsieur.” The soldiers, the Star-Telegram wrote, referred to the well as “Frenchman’s Well.” The well was dug, the story says, “in the northwest corner of the outpost.” That location would become 212 North Taylor Street between West Belknap and West Bluff streets. The Thomas R. Windham Building, housing the Fort Worth Police Department and county jail, occupies that space today.
The 1949 Star-Telegram story says that before the well was dug, soldiers had to haul water from the Cold Springs back to the fort on the bluff.
After his military service, Knaar stayed on in the civilian settlement that grew up around the abandoned military fort. In 1859, as Birdville continued to lobby the state legislature for a third county seat election, Knaar was among the Fort Worth residents who signed a bond promising to build a county courthouse of brick and stone in Fort Worth at no expense to taxpayers if the county seat remained in Fort Worth. Knaar died in 1867 and is buried in Pioneers Rest Cemetery.
Moving on to Adolph Gounah, candidate no. 1, Rex Howard, a Fort Worth doctor who for forty years spent his annual vacation seeing the sights of Texas and wrote Howard’s Texas Guidebook in 1948, wrote that Gounah dug Frenchman’s Well as a source of water for the soldiers of the Army’s Fort Worth. Howard wrote that Gounah built the wellhouse over the well to shield from Native American attack those soldiers drawing water from the well. Howard located the well at the western edge of the fort—there was no Taylor Street yet, of course. The opening of the wellhouse faced north, toward the river, he said. Gounah, Howard pointed out, was Texas’s first state geologist and built other stone structures, including the tombs of Major Ripley Arnold and Arnold’s two children in Pioneers Rest Cemetery. Gounah came to Fort Worth about 1850 from the French colony of New Icarie in Denton County. New Icarie began in 1848, located on ten thousand acres of Peters Colony land and founded on the social theories of Etienne Cabet. But the New Icarians watched helplessly as the Texas summer sun baked their crops. Malaria and cholera broke out. The colony dissolved in 1849. Gounah migrated down to the Army’s new Fort Worth. But by 1852 Gounah was operating an art “saloon” in Dallas. So, his time window for digging the well probably was 1850-1852.
And now the case for candidate no. 2. Historian Julia Kathryn Garrett said the well was dug by Alexander Barbier in the late 1850s or early 1860s—after the Army had abandoned the fort. Garrett located the well near the corner of today’s Bluff and North Taylor streets and said Barbier built a house for his family, dug the town’s second well, and built the stone wellhouse over the well to keep its water uncontaminated.
Garrett said Barbier came to Fort Worth from the French-Belgian-Swiss-German utopian colony of La Reunion in Dallas County, which began in 1855, founded on the social theories of Francois Fourier. Ah, but French social theories again were no match for Texas summers, Texas winters, and Texas grasshoppers. Sacre bleu, y’all! The colony disbanded in 1857. Images are from a history of the colony printed in the January 25, 1891 Dallas Morning News.
The Barbiers were living in Dallas when the Morning News printed the history of the colony in 1891. Barbier, the Morning News said, was a stone mason and had built the director’s house and the cooperative store at La Reunion. He used native fieldstone. The Morning News said the colony had a lime kiln, so Barbier probably heated limestone to produce quicklime for use in mortar.
If Barbier built the Fort Worth wellhouse, perhaps he used the same masonry techniques he had used in La Reunion.
Fast-forward to 1894. This remarkable photo provided by historian Quentin McGown, taken from the new courthouse about 1894, looks west over the intersection of Houston and Belknap streets.
This detail of the preceding photo shows the wellhouse in the shade of a tree beside a small frame house just north of the intersection of North Taylor and West Belknap streets.
But just to muddy the well waters, historically speaking, on June 16, 1915 an article about the well in the Star-Telegram does not mention Gounah and Barbier but rather suggests that the well dated back to 1849 or even to before 1836. The article says the well was at 212 North Taylor Street in the yard of “an untenanted little house”: the house shown in the 1894 photo.
In 1931 the Six Flags chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution placed a marker on the wellhouse, which by then was showing its age. The DAR cast its vote for candidate no. 2, saying that Alexander Barbier built the wellhouse in 1857 and that Howard Peak (born here in 1856) remembered knowing Barbier and drinking from his well. This photo from Tarrant County Archives shows the wellhouse next to a wood-frame house—surely the house shown in the 1894 photo.
Fast-forward to 1938. The Star-Telegram said the well and wellhouse would be undisturbed by construction of the Ripley Arnold housing project on the former site of Battercake Flats.
Fast-forward yet again, this time to 1948. By 1948 Marvin and Obie Leonard owned the property at 212 North Taylor Street. The Leonard brothers paid for removal of the wellhouse to the courthouse lawn (where the Civil Courts Building would stand from 1958 until 2013). This Star-Telegram story says Adolph Gounah built the wellhouse in 1849. Note that Frank Kent was president of the Tarrant County Historical Society.
This detail of a 1952 aerial photo may show the beehive wellhouse on the west lawn of the courthouse.
On Independence Day 1954 the Star-Telegram spotlighted the wellhouse, along with Pioneers Rest Cemetery and the cottage of Major Khleber Miller Van Zandt.
But soon after that photo was taken—in the early 1950s, historian Oliver Knight said—somehow a city garbage truck hit the wellhouse on the courthouse lawn. The resulting rubble, historian Quentin McGown said, was removed from the courthouse lawn.
About 1957, McGown said, the rubble of the wellhouse, through a lapse in custodianship, was removed to a private home in Fort Worth. There it was reassembled, and there it remains as it was in the 1894 photo: standing in the shade of a tree. The wandering wellhouse may have one more move in its future. McGown said there is “every possibility” that the wellhouse could be restored to public display, perhaps even on the courthouse lawn where it stood sixty years ago. (Photo by Quentin McGown.)
These stones are the very bones of our city, our past made tangible, one of the oldest relics of Fort Worth regardless of the answers to “who?” and “when?” If the well was dug for the military Fort Worth, at this beehive of stone and mortar once stood Ripley Arnold, Abe Harris, and dozens of other soldiers from America and Germany and France and Ireland. If the well was dug for the civilian Fort Worth, at this beehive of stone and mortar once stood the earliest residents of Fort Worth, drawn westward to start a new life on the frontier on a bluff overlooking the Trinity River.