Texana Book Reviews -- February 1998
(by Mike Cox)


Texas New Year
(February 27, 1998)

Happy Texas New Year, y'all.

Those of you recently arrived in Texas may wonder why March 2 is a state holiday. Native Texans know the date as this state's version of the Fourth of July -- the day Texas declared its independence from Mexico.

Of course, the document was not signed at Washington-on-the-Brazos by its 59 authors until March 3, 1836. But why let the facts get in the way of a good story? The declaration was favorably reported out of committee on March 2 which was close enough for government work. And March 2 was Sam Houston's birthday.

New publications dealing with the events of 162 years that culminated in Texas' nearly decade-long status as an independent republic range from the funny to the fascinating.

First the fun part.

Native Texan Roger Moore has created a Texas calendar ("The 1998-99 Bonafide Original Real Texas Calendar") that begins on March 2, which, as the calendar proclaims, "is the day the New Year starts for real Texans." The calendar continues through March 1, 1999.

Moore's calendar is filled with traditional history and fun facts, from the notation that March 1, 1836 was the day the Alamo received its last reinforcements to observation that on July 24, 1958, Jack Kilby, then an employee at Texas Instruments in Dallas, came up with an idea for something called a silicon chip.

The calendar is available at $4.95 from Roger Moore & More, P.O. Box 685154, Austin, Texas, 78768-5154.

Now the fascinating publications.

The source for the fact that the Texas Declaration of Independence was not actually signed until March 3 -- and of just about everything else that is known about the convention that led to the document -- is the diary of William Fairfax Gray.

Gray, a well-born Virginian who came to Texas in January 1836 to look for land deals for the two investors who hired him, kept a detailed diary for his employers. Fortunately for history, the diary stayed in his family's possession following his death in 1841. His last surviving son printed the diary in 1909, and there have been a couple of other printings, but the account of Texas during the formative stages has been out of print for years.

Now, Southern Methodist University's De Golyer Library and William P. Clements Center for Southwest Studies, as part of its Texas Library series, has brought out an edition of the diary based on the original manuscript. Historian Paul Lack has added an introduction and annotations. The 303-page hardback, "The Diary of William Fairfax Gray: From Virginia to Texas, 1835-1837," is available for $50 while copies last. Only 500 were printed, so the book won't stay in print very long.

The reason is the diary's depth. Gray was an educated man and an astute observer. It is the Gray diary that points out that the Texas Declaration of Independence was not actually signed until March 3, and that Sam Houston, on his birthday the day before, gave "a somewhat declamatory address in committee of the whole."

A good diary, such as Gray's, is a joy to the historian. A memoir by a participant in an historical event is the next best thing, though as Lack put it in his introduction to the diary, memoirs "lack immediacy and often have the disadvantageous baggage of hindsight and special pleading."

Even so, the book written by Herman Ehrenberg between 1843 and 1845 -- "Der Freiheitskampf in Texas im Jahre 1836" (The Fight for Freedom in Texas in the Year 1836) -- is another important source on Texas during its time of revolution.

Ehrenberg's book has been translated from German by Peter Mollenhauer with annotations by Natalie Ornish, who also has written Ehrenberg's biography. The result is "Ehrenberg: Goliad Survivor-Old West Explorer." The 403-page book, published by Texas Heritage Press (P.O. Box 12765, Dallas, Texas, 75225) sells for $29.95.

Coming to the United States from Germany in 1834, Ehrenberg joined the New Orleans Greys in 1835 and marched to San Antonio to fight in the brewing revolution. He was in the Battle of Bexar and then the Battle of Coleto Creek, where he was captured. He escaped the massacre of Texas prisoners at Goliad and hid behind the Mexican line until the fighting ended.

The book, well researched and written, also chronicles the rest of Ehrenberg's colorful life, which ended with his murder in California in 1866.

A final book ideally suited for release at the beginning of the Texas New Year is the second volume of "The Personal Correspondence of Sam Houston." Edited by Madge Thornall Roberts, Volume II covers two years of Houston's life, from 1846 to 1848.

Published by the University of North Texas Press, the 390-page hardback sells for $32.50.

While the letters in this book were written a decade or more after Houston's defeat of General Santa Anna at San Jacinto on April 21, 1836, they reflect on the character of the man whose leadership made an independent Texas possible.

As was the case in the first volume of this planned four-volume set, most of the letters are between Houston and his wife, Margaret. Topics covered in the correspondence vary from advice from Houston on child rearing to his feelings about the U.S.-Mexican War.

Houston was a prolific correspondent, and the letters are a pleasure to read, but he was crazy for commas. Consider this sentence: "Dearest, believe me, my only one, that my heart pants to know, who will get the first kiss, and to embrace you, and our dear children."

But surely we can forgive old Sam for his comma transgressions. After all, his birthday -- and Texas' -- is coming up.


The Mexican War: 1-1/2 Centuries Later
(February 20, 1998)

This week's column is dedicated to Austin Dr. George Lowe, a student of military history who happened to be the heart guy on call when my mother was admitted to the intensive care unit at Seton Medical Center last Sunday. He lost an early skirmish, but seems to have won the war.

As the riverboat carrying young Army Lt. Rankin Dilworth to New Orleans churned down the Mississippi, the young West Point graduate and his fellow soldiers heard shouts of encouragement from people along the river's banks, saw flags waving and enjoyed patriotic music.

Twenty-four years old, having graduated 13th in his military academy class of 25, Dilworth was on his way to Texas to join General Zachary Taylor, whose forces already were clashing with Mexico. When the steamship Galveston pulled away from the wharf at New Orleans, Dilworth wrote, "There was a crowd of carriages full of ladies on the shore, and when we left, a national salute was fired."

The United States was going to war with Mexico. For both countries, the consequences of that conflict would be immense. Mexico would lose nearly half its land. The U.S. would gain effective control of most of the North American continent. And Dilworth would be dead.

From April 28 through Sept. 19, 1846, Dilworth kept a diary chronicling his experiences and observations. Now, a century-and-a-half later, his diary has been published by Texas Western Press in "The March to Monterrey." Edited and annotated by Lawrence R. Clayton and Joseph E. Chance, the 119-page book sells for $12.50. "The March to Monterrey" is one of nine recently-published books on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Mexican War and one of five in the words of participants.

"'Surrounded by Dangers of All Kinds': The Mexican War Letters of Lieutenant Theodore Laidley" (James M. McGaffrey, editor; University of North Texas Press, 208 pages, hardback, $25.00) is a readable account of the wartime experiences of ordnance officer who survived the war and went on to a 40-year Army career.

Many of the men who fought on the United States side in the Mexican War had not been born in the country they served. One of them was Frederick Zeh, who wrote "An Immigrant Soldier in the Mexican War" (translated by William J. Orr and edited by Orr and Robert R. Miller, Texas A&M University Press, 117 pages, $35.)

An educated German immigrant who worked as a laborer during the war, Zeh wrote reflectively of his experiences in the U.S.-Mexico conflict. Two of the new books focus on the two armies which fought the war: "Mr. Polk's Army: The American Military Experience in the Mexican War" by Richard Bruce Winders (Texas A&M Press, 284 pages, $34.95) and "The Mexican National Army, 1822-1852" by William A. DePalo Jr. (Texas A&M Press, 280 pages, $39.95.)

Another book deals with one of the ways we can assess the tangible evidence of the war, other than looking at a map: "On the Prairie of Palo Alto: Historical Archaeology of the U.S.-Mexican War Battlefield" by Charles M. Haecker and Jeffrey G. Mauck (Texas A&M Press, 227 pages, $39.95.)

The biggest of these books -- both in size and impact -- is a newly annotated and unexpurgated printing of "My Confessions: Recollections of a Rogue" by Samuel Chamberlain with notes and an introduction by Pulitzer Prize-winning University of Texas history professor William H. Goetzmann. (Texas State Historical Association, 400 pages, $60.)

A sanitized version of Chamberlain's memoir, illustrated by his own drawings, was published in 1956. But the new version has all of Chamberlain's recollections, 150 original color illustrations, and maps. This complete version of Chamberlain's work fully supports the word "rogue" in the book's subtitle.

Chamberlain had in mind being a theological student, but his interest in women and fighting took precedence. He left Boston to head West. He fought in the Mexican War, and, as the historical associations' description of the book puts it, "seduced countless women in the U.S. and Mexico, [and] never missed a fandango...."

There's nothing smutty about the book, of course. Chamberlain's confessions are tame by today's standards. It's his detailed writing and watercolor paintings that make this book such an historical treasure.

"My Confession," a recollection that Chamberlain worked on for half a century, has long been a major source for insight into the war. Now researchers have something to remind them that there is always more to war than a conflict between two nations.

Another classic Mexican War memoir, John Taylor Hughes' "Doniphan's Expedition," first published in 1847, has been reprinted for the first time since 1962 by Texas A&M University Press with a new introduction by Joseph G. Dawson III. (Softcover, 219 pages, $16.95).

Hughes ended his book with an observation that most modern writers can identify with: "Should anyone...think that the narrative herein given...is unfaithful or incomplete, let him consider how difficult it is to write history, how impossible it is to feast every appetite, and how diverse are the sentiments of mankind."

Hughes was a teacher who joined the First Regiment of the Missouri Mounted Volunteers under Col. Alexander Doniphan and marched with the unit down the Santa Fe Trail from Fort Leavenworth, Kan. into Mexico. The book chronicles two battles in the war and is an important cultural history.

A final book deals with a major player in the peacemaking process after the war, Nicholas Trist, a Virginian whose role model was Thomas Jefferson. Wallace Ohrt's biography, "Defiant Peacemaker: Nicholas Trist in the Mexican War" (Texas A&M Press, 190 pages, hardback, $29.95) is the first book on this little-known but important figure.


Black History
(February 13, 1998)

In the mid-1930s -- during the Depression -- government-funded interviewers fanned out across Texas to interview men and women who had been slaves.

As an institution, slavery had been dead by Presidential decree for more than seven decades. But the memory of it burned on in the minds of those who had not been born free.

"Lot of old slaves close the door before they tell the truth about their days of slavery," one old man told federal Works Progress Administration interviewer. "When the door is open, they tell how kind their masters were and how rosy it all was."

It is not reflected in the interview of 82-year-old William Moore whether his door was open or shut as he talked, but he did not seem to mind saying this:

"Marse Tom has been dead a long time now. I believe he's in hell. Seems like that's where he belongs. He was a terribly mean man."

Moore went on to give an example of his one-time master's cruelty:

"He had a big bullwhip and he would stake a [slave] on the ground and make another [slave] hold his head down with his mouth in the dirt and whip the [slave] till the blood ran out and reddened up on the ground."

Then "Marse" Tom sent young Moore to get some salt from his mother Jane, the plantation cook.

"He'd sprinkle salt in the cut places," Moore continued, "and the skin jerked and quivered and the man slobbered and..." That's enough to make the point.

This account, and other recollections, was published in 1974 in "The Slave Narratives of Texas." The book, edited by Ron Tyler and Lawrence R. Murphy, had been out of print for years but it has been reissued by State House Press (143 pages, hardback, $24.95; softcover, $16.95).

I hope teachers, in any observance they have planned this February of Black History Month, will read selections from this book to their students -- or have them read the book themselves. It is too simplistic to say that slavery was the sole cause of the Civil War and all the racial strife which followed, but it was a major factor and one of the crucial issues of American and Texas history.

As Tyler pointed out in his introduction, some of the old slaves did wax nostalgic about the era "before freedom come," but that more likely reflects repressed or selective memory than reality.

Many of the slaves interviewed by the WPA workers came to Texas from plantations elsewhere in the South during or immediately after the Civil War. One of those newly-freed slaves was Emmaline, who with her children left the Col. John Overton plantation in Nashville, Tenn. and travelled by wagon to Texas.

Emmaline -- who took the last name of her former owner -- settled in Maha. Her great-great-grandson was born in Maha in 1924. He was named Volma Overton.

Overton would grow up to become one of the major players in the civil rights movement in Austin. His story, which tracks much of the history of this century's black struggle for equality, is well set out in Carolyn Jones' just-published "Volma: My Journey." Published by Eakin Press, the 288-page book sells for $18.95 in softcover.

During World War II, Overton served in the still-segregated Marine Corps. His brother was killed in the war. After the conflict ended, Overton married and got a job as a postal worker. Going into the Army Reserve, he eventually rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. In 1962, he became president of the Austin branch of the NAACP.

From that time until he chose not to run for reelection in 1983, Overton had a hand in almost every aspect of the civil rights movement in Austin, including the school busing issue. That fight, which began with a federal lawsuit filed against the Austin Independent School District in the summer of 1970, was not settled until 1979.

Jones' book is both a biography of Overton and a history of desegregation in Austin. It is well-researched and well-written. While its contents are not as starkly shocking as the remembrances of the old slaves, "Volma" chronicles a journey that began after the Civil War and still continues.


Ranching in Texas and the West
(February 6, 1998)

"Buy land and never sell." -- Richard King

Richard King, starting in 1853, followed his own axiom. The spread that bears his short, powerful word brand is still in business, one of the world's largest ranches.

But the King Ranch was not the only big ranch in Texas or the rest of the West. It may be one of the more famous land holdings devoted to livestock raising, but as a new book by Western historian Bill O'Neal shows, there's a fairly sizable herd of other ranches.

O'Neal has rounded up the stories of these ranches in an excellent book, "Historic Ranches of the Old West." Published by Eakin Press, the 362-page hardback sells for $28.95.

The book features 55 ranches in 12 states.

Quite logically, the book does not takes the states in alphabetical order. O'Neal starts where the story should start -- with the King Ranch and Texas.

In addition to the dynasty of the Running W (King's brand), the book tells the story of 13 other Texas ranches, from the JA up in the Panhandle to the Renderbrook-Spade Ranch.

O'Neal then turns his attention to historic ranches in 11 other states: Arizona, California, Colorado, the Dakotas,

Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Wyoming. (In the book he takes the states in random order for some reason, but while mildly confusing, does not detract from the overall high quality of his work.)

Interspersed between the stories of the historic ranches are interesting vignettes, nicely fenced off in a typographical sense with a barbed wire border. My favorite involves the wife of a Scottish ranch owner who watched a group of Matador Land and Cattle Company cowboys branding and castrating bull calves.

"It is terrible to treat those little cowlets like that!" she said.

"Ma'am, them's not cowlets," one of the cowboys responded. "Them's bullets."

Second favorite vignette: A cattleman showed one of his cowboys where he had hidden $2,000 in gold. When the cattleman went to get the cache two days later, it was gone.

There was no evidence, but only a small group of men knew where the gold had been.

The cowboys came up with an unusual method of handling the situation. They placed all their hats on the ground, near a bag of shelled corn. Each cowboy would place a grain of corn into the hat of the person he felt was responsible for the missing gold.

All the corn went in one hat.

The owner picked up his hat, shook out the corn, put the hat back on his head, got on his horse and rode off.

Why the suspect was allowed to mosey on in good health was not explained, but it's a good story.

Speaking of corn, another vignette lists cowboy lingo for certain food items. Beans were known as "Pecos strawberries," flour gravy as "Texas butter" and pancakes were "saddle blankets."

O'Neal says in his introduction that his book is not intended to be an encyclopedic treatment of historic Western ranches, but he has clearly cut the best stories from the herd.

"Historic Ranches of the Old West" is a solid reference work with an ample bibliography.

Ranch lives sounds colorful and romantic, and it probably is, but it's also hard work. If you have any doubt, read two ranch diaries from Texas publishers: "Lambshead Legacy: The Ranch Diary of Watt R. Matthews" (Texas A&M University Press, 277 pages, $24.95) and "LZ Cowboy: A Cowboy's Journal 1979-1981" by John R. Erickson (University of North Texas Press, 181 pages, $24.95).

Edited by Janet M. Neugebauer with an introduction by Frances Mayhugh Holden, the Matthews diary is terse and to the point -- "Harve bucked me off & got me mighty sore but I am thankful not to be hurt more...." -- while Erickson's recollections are more expository.

Erickson, who went on to literary fame with his "Hank the Cowdog" stories and books, was still making his living as a cowboy when he wrote the passages included in the book. He was working on the LZ Ranch west of Amarillo when he kept the journal that is the basis of the book.

As Erickson explains in his introduction, many of his experiences and stories he heard ended up in his Hank books. But the diary entries in "LZ Cowboy" are not filtered through memory. He wrote them in what we now call "real time" and they reflect without distortion what it was like to be a cowboy in the era of the so-called Urban Cowboy.

Ranching and cowboying have changed, clearly, but reading these three books shows that much has not changed, especially the lasting bond between man, animals and the land.


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