Humans began occupying this area about 8,750 years ago. Artifacts found in the park illustrate a long and rich Native American history. Exactly which early groups were here is unknown. Some may have become part of modern tribes in Texas, such as the Tonkawa.
Roads and ranches
From the late 1600s to the early 1800s, a portion of El Camino Real de los Tejas ran through what is now the park.
Missionaries, friars, government officials, soldiers and traders travelled along various routes from Spanish-controlled Mexico into Texas and Louisiana during this period.
Reasons for expeditions varied. Missionaries and friars hoped to convert Native Americans to Christianity. Government officials and soldiers wanted to defend Spain’s interests in the New World from the French. Traders used the routes for commerce. Historical evidence suggests some of these expeditions crossed Onion Creek just above the Lower Falls.
A park's namesake
By 1850, Thomas McKinney was living on this property along Onion Creek, near a crossing of the El Camino Real.
Kentucky-born McKinney had settled in San Felipe de Austin in 1830 as one of Stephen F. Austin’s first 300 colonists before moving to Galveston.
McKinney and Samuel May Williams entered into a business partnership in 1834 that was to have profound effects on Texas history. During the Texas Revolution, the McKinney-Williams firm was the primary source of men, money, and supplies for the Texas army. It financed over $150,000 - more than 10 percent of the total cost of the revolution. The McKinney-Williams ships formed a part of the quickly-assembled Texas Navy.
Voters elected McKinney as a senator to the first legislature in Austin. During this time, he made plans for his new home on Onion Creek. Between 1850 and 1852, McKinney built a two-story limestone home, gristmill and dam on his ranch.
Developed by McKinney’s slaves, his ranch continued to grow in number of structures, livestock and other assets. McKinney owned and bred a number of thoroughbred racehorses, and even had his own racetrack somewhere on the ranch.
McKinney died on Oct. 2, 1873, at his home. He was deeply in debt. His peers remembered him fondly and gave him an elaborate funeral service on the steps of the Capitol building. He is buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Austin.
Look for the ruins of McKinney's homestead, his horse trainer's cabin, gristmill and stone walls in the park.
A park for the people
After McKinney’s death, his widow, Anna, sold the property to James Woods Smith. Members of the Smith family owned and farmed the land for several generations before donating it to the State of Texas in 1973.
The park officially opened to the public in 1976. Enjoy fishing, hiking, swimming, camping and more when you visit the park today.