Sienna is known for its local history. It began as a vast and prosperous sugar cane and cotton growing community, eventually becoming important as a religious retreat, and today serves as a comfortable and welcoming suburban oasis.
1820s - 1860s
Originally part of Stephen F. Austin's "Old Three Hundred" colony settlement, the land that has become Sienna was first settled by Captain William Hall and Captain David Fitzgerald, who died shortly after making his claim and sold his property to J. B. Capels.
After the Texas Revolution and the final battle at San Jacinto, the area now known as Fort Bend County continued to prosper. The efforts of the early settlers attracted the attention of Jonathan D. Waters, a planter from South Carolina, who set about acquiring the claims of Hall and Capels.
By 1860, this land was known as the Waters Plantation and included more than 6,500 acres dedicated to cultivating sugar cane, cotton, and other crops. Over 500 African-American slaves worked the plantation and sugar mill. The plantation had its own shipping wharf on the Brazos River, where paddlewheel ships docked to deliver supplies and pick up sugar, corn, and cotton produced on the plantation. A brickyard, sawmill, two sugar mills, and some 80 houses were located on the property, along with the impressive Waters mansion and formal gardens, which overlooked a pecan orchard along the Brazos River.
1860s - 1920s
Waters was known throughout Texas for the empire that was built on thousands of acres of productive land. As president and major stockholder of a railroad that served 12 plantations, which produced millions of pounds of sugar, hundreds of bales of cotton, and thousands of bricks each year, shipping them by rail to Houston and Galveston. Waters became the wealthiest man in Fort Bend County and one of the largest slave owners. However, with the beginning of the Civil War sugar prices crashed and with the end of the war came the abolishment of the slave labor system. Waters, in failing health, witnessed the demise of his empire. Upon his death in 1872 his widow sold the plantation to Thomas A. Pierce for $50,000 to pay off debts.
One week later, Pierce sold the plantation to Thomas W. House Sr., who was a successful Houston merchant, banker, and Mayor of Houston during the Civil War, for $100,000. House put the plantation back on the road to prosperity and was instrumental in establishing the Houston and Galveston Navigation Company to carry passengers, freight, and the U.S. mail via steamship between Houston and Galveston. This bold notion eventually became the Houston Ship Channel on Buffalo Bayou.
House Jr. incorporated the Arcola Sugar Mills Company on March 10, 1903, and along with his brothers, operated the company with $750,000 in capital stock. The Arcola Sugar Mills Company operated its own private railroad which connected with the larger Santa Fe Railroad and the International and Great Northern Railroad. House leased convict labor from the State of Texas to work the land from 1875 to 1911, with the number ranging from 100 to 150 convict workers. House also used wage laborers, who were generally African Americans, Mexican Americans, formerly leased convicts who returned to the plantation after completing their sentence, and former slaves that remained on the plantation after Emancipation. During House’s tenure of the property, he constructed a cooper shop, commissary, two dormitories for single seasonal workers, eleven residences for the manager and other employees, cane field derricks, and upgraded the sugar mill.
House, like many other sugar producers, fell on hard times in the late 1800s and early 1900s when the U.S. annexed Hawaii and granted protectorate status to Puerto Rico, thus creating competitive sugar markets. In addition, the convict lease system was abolished in 1911, which ended the plantation’s source of cheap labor. However, the failure of the House Bank in 1908 pushed House to liquidate, and the estate of Thomas H. Scanlan, who was Mayor of Houston from 1870 to 1873 during Reconstruction, received ownership of the property. During his Houston mayoral term, Scanlan was responsible for several municipal improvements in Houston, including paved streets, sidewalks, better roads and bridges, a sewer system, and improved navigation of Buffalo Bayou. Upon Scanlan's death in 1906, his seven unmarried daughters inherited his substantial estate, including the shares Scanlan had in the House Bank.
1930s to the Present
Lillian and Stella Scanlan dismantled and utilized materials from their family mansion at 1917 Main Street to build a plantation house in 1937 following a dispute with the City of Houston over the removal of a giant oak tree along the road. They named the property Sienna Plantation, for Siena in the Tuscany region of Italy and possibly because St. Catherine of Siena is the patron saint of single women. The name also reflects the rich alluvial soil of the area, the color sienna. The sisters preferred to live in seclusion, and while one sister controlled the estate’s business affairs, the other ran the plantation as a working ranch, farm, and even leased a small area near the Brazos River for oil. Much of the land cultivated for growing sugar cane and row crops was allowed to return to pasture and woodlands, but the plantation cannery remained in use until 1950. Cattle ranching replaced sugar cane and cotton as the primary activity on the plantation. The sisters lived in relative seclusion on the plantation until their deaths in 1948 and 1950.
Having no direct heirs, the Scanlan sisters created the Scanlan Foundation, a charitable trust benefiting various Catholic charities. From 1955 to 1967, the Catholic Diocese of Houston-Galveston used the plantation as the Cenacle Retreat. The bell that once called plantation workers to dinner was used to call the Cenacle Sisters to prayer.
Massive oaks, some more than two centuries old, still stand today, existing as a reminder of the epic time when Stephen F. Austin, the "Father of Texas," walked beneath their branches and early colonists explored the bends in the Brazos River and established the crossing at Oyster Creek.