(January 30, 1998)
Brittle brown leaves coated the mud on the steep stream banks, giving a false impression of sure footing.
Crossing the creek -- locals call it a branch -- was certainly possible, but whether I could do it and stay dry was an open question.
Using moss-covered rocks as stepping stones, I made it across the gently flowing water. It wasn't pretty, but judicial use of protruding roots and branches, along with a strong pull from Butch Strunk got me up the slippery bank.
Of course, hunting buried treasure is seldom easy. My share of the $80,000 in gold supposedly buried nearby would make up for the minor barbed wire nicks in my skin and jeans.
So far, however, we were $80K shy of our goal. Our metal detectors had for the most part been as silent as the thick woods around us, buzzing only occasionally. Our artifact inventory was short and mundane: Part of an old buggy wrench, a piece of iron, a couple of old nails, the brass end of a paper shotgun shell and a chrome tire air valve cover.
The Navidad River is only 74 miles long but it is as tangled in history and folklore as the vines and trees along its banks.
A west fork and an east fork rise in Fayette County and merge into one stream just to the northwest of Oakland, a small community on the western edge of Colorado County.
An old Spanish trail from Louisiana to Mexico, locally known as the Gonzales-San Felipe Road, crossed the Navidad near Oakland, first known as Prairie Point. On April 7, 1836 -- a month and a day after the fall of the Alamo -- Santa Annas's army crossed the Navidad here as it headed east in pursuit of Sam Houston.
One of Santa Anna's soldiers, Lt. Jose Enrique de la Pena, wrote:
"We halted in order to organize a passage over a creek, the name of which I did not know [the stream we had just crossed?]. . . . We camped on the left bank of Navidad Creek [River] after we had traveled twelve miles. We also found houses that had been burned, and one usable but without furniture. There were also tilled fields, and in one of these we found the corpse of a man that must have belonged to Ramirez y Sesma's division."
The next day, the Mexican soldiers marched on, moving over "an ever-changing and beautiful road."
Left behind, de la Pena wrote, were some of the wagons they had been unable to get across the creek. Also left behind, though de la Pena does not mention it, was an artilleryman's sword. An Oakland area farmer found it about 25 years ago while plowing a hillside. Strunk, a fourth-generation Colorado County rancher and former county judge who has a strong interest in history, now owns the sword.
The de la Pena diary was published as "With Santa Anna in Texas: A Personal Narrative of the Revolution," translated and edited by Carmen Perry with an introduction by James E. Crisp (Texas A&M University Press, 206 pages, softcover, $16.95).
When the book first appeared in 1975, it touched off a second Texas Revolution of sorts. It contained heresy, an account of Davy Crockett surviving the final assault on the Alamo only to be summarily executed on Santa Anna's order. There were assertions that the diary was a fake.
Now "With Santa Anna in Texas" has been republished in an expanded edition, with a week's worth of diary entries not in the first printing. Also, the introduction by Crisp makes a cogent -- though too detailed to go into here -- argument that the diary is for real.
After my recent visit to the Navidad, I believe more than ever that the diary is genuine. It is obvious that it was written and rewritten after the fact (though not very long -- de la Pena died in a Mexican prison in 1841 or 1842), but the passages and descriptions have the resonance of coming from someone who was there during the Texas revolution.
Someone else who was there along the Navidad was the Wild Woman. People began seeing her tracks, and missing food and property, around the time the area re-settled after the revolution. Theories on the origin of the mysterious creature ranged from its being a child, lost as settlers fled ahead of Santa Anna during the so-called Runaway Scrape, to a runaway slave.
J. Frank Dobie told the story of the Wild Woman of the Navidad in his "Tales of Old-Time Texas," still available from the University of Texas Press in softcover for $12.95.
This is how my tracks came to be on a tributary of the Navidad 162 years after de la Pena, and nearly a century and a half since the Wild Woman last prowled these bottoms: My friend Gary McKee -- a computer techie at the LCRA's Fayette Power Plant and an energetic independent historian -- about a month ago ran across an intriguing letter while doing some work at a research library.
The letter, purportedly written in Matamoras, Mexico by a man to his son, details fairly specifically the location of buried gold near the Navidad and Oakland. (More specific than I will be. The areas we searched -- with permission -- all were on private property.)
The diarist de la Pena makes no mention of lost treasure, by the way, nor does Dobie. But de la Pena did complain, in several places, that Santa Anna was very sparing in the coin he furnished his men. Reading between the lines, it is obvious the Mexican Army was traveling with a fair amount of money for the time. Clearly, it was in coin. But Santa Anna wasn't sharing much of it.
Santa Anna found the traveling hard that rainy spring, and it made sense to travel light when your wagons often were hub deep in mud. But burying a fortune in gold seems an unlikely course of action. It is well documented that the general was used to the finer things of life.
Of course, we don't know for sure if it was his Army which left the treasure. The paper McKee found puts the date a decade later, but we dismissed that as bad history on someone's part. An 1836 date seems much more likely if any gold was ever hidden.
Like the fate of the Wild Woman of the Navidad, we'll probably never know for sure.
(January 23, 1998)
Wonder if Alfred Hitchcock ever read about Cullen Montgomery Baker?
In the spring of 1866, almost a century before the black and white movie "Psycho" would give theater goers chills, Baker was sitting in his East Texas cabin chatting with an effigy of his dead wife.
This effigy, as someone who saw it later wrote, was "so natural as to startle the beholder." Baker dressed it in his late wife's clothes, adorned it with some of her jewelry, and spent hours talking to it.
Two months later, however, he had sufficiently overcome his grief at the loss (to natural causes) of his wife to propose marriage to his 16-year-old sister-in-law. She said no.
Baker clearly was a real life psychopath -- well, at least a sociopath -- but no Norman at the Bates Motel. He didn't stab ladies in showers. He killed soldiers, federal Freedmen's Bureau officials and blacks, usually blasting them from ambush with a double-barreled shotgun. Even the most conservative estimate credits him with at least 15 murders, though some authors have put Baker's body count as high as 76.
In 1869, shortly after he was finally gunned down in Arkansas, an East Texas newspaper writer opined that the "future novelist, in search of facts as a foundation for a thrilling romance, will find no more fruitful theme than that of the life, exploits, and death of Cullen M. Baker."
Indeed, much has been written about Texas' first famous outlaw, including one of the late Louis L'Amour's early Westerns, "The First Fast Draw" (1959). Unfortunately, not much of it has been accurate, including L'Amour's assertion (made earlier by other writers) that Baker invented the fast draw of Western movie fame.
Finally, the first scholarly treatment of the Cullen Baker story has been published. The book is "Cullen Montgomery Baker: Reconstruction Desperado." Written by Barry A. Crouch and Donaly E. Brice, an archivist with the State Library, the 190-page book was published by Louisiana State University Press and sells for $34.95.
Baker was born in Tennessee, but his family came to Texas during the days of the Republic. Not much is known about his early life, but something sure made him mean. Though some of the writers who have helped shape his legend portrayed Baker as an ex-Confederate soldier who kept fighting for the lost cause, in truth he was a mental case -- a man with a bad drinking problem who seemed to enjoy killing for the sake of it.
We know the general state of disorder that followed the Civil War as Reconstruction. But one New York newspaper called it "The New Rebellion," which seems more accurate considering the things that happened in Baker's territory of Northeast Texas, Southwest Arkansas and Northwestern Louisiana.
Baker may have evolved into a folk character, but he is no folk hero, at last not to anyone who is not a racist with genocidal notions. The authors have done a fine job in separating truth from myth, considering the scarcity of primary sources.
While there are things about Baker and his short but sanguinary life that may never be known, most folks at least agree that he died when his tombstone says he did. That's more than can be said for another famous outlaw, Billy the Kid.
Most historians believe the Kid was killed by Sheriff Pat Garrett in Fort Sumner, N.M. on the night of July 14, 1881. But there are others who believe that Billy lived five years beyond the dawning of the atomic age, finally passing away in 1950 of old age -- not of acute exposure to the element commonly known as lead.
The continuing saga of when, where and how Billy died is explored in W.C. Jameson and Frederick Bean's readable "The Return of the Outlaw Billy the Kid." Published by Republic of Texas Press, the 256-page softcover book sells for $16.95.
Jameson and Bean's book is the second book-length look at the story of Brushy Bill Roberts, the man who claimed shortly before his death to be Billy the Kid. The first was historian C.L. Sonnichsen's "Alias Billy the Kid," published in 1955.
The new book is a balanced perspective on the controversy, including some intriguing computer-based photo comparison evidence. The authors end their book with their assertion that they believe the case for Roberts being the Kid "is stronger than the case against it."
Whoever it was that Sheriff Garrett killed that summer night in New Mexico, considering the continuing controversy over his identity, the man's last words are a fitting epitaph:
"Quien es? Quien es?" ("Who is it? Who is it?")
(January 16, 1998)
Christopher Columbus thought he had reached the Indies, so he called the natives he encountered Indians. At least that's the way I learned American history.
Not so, according to Jack Battise, Alabama-Coushatta elder, who says the name "Indian" is not a mistake. Rather, he believes, Columbus described the people he found in the New World as being "en Dios," or People of God.
Whether you choose to say Indian, American Indian, or Native American, the problems of modern cultural and ethnic identity remain.
Jonathan Hook, an enrolled member of the Cherokee nation, explores a number of such problems in "The Alabama-Coushatta Indians" (Texas A&M Press, hardback, 152 pages, $29.95.) By the mid-1950s, Hook writes, much of the tribe's cultural heritage had been lost. When tourism became important to their economy, the Alabama-Coushatta turned to the Plains Indians, adopting their ceremonial regalia, dances and crafts.
In gathering material for his book, Hook spent a great deal of time with the Alabama-Coushatta on their reservation in the Big Thicket of East Texas.
This tribe, forced westward by advancing American settlement, are not the only longtime residents of the Big Thicket, however.
Between 1820 and 1835, the wooded area of the Neches River bottoms became home to settlers from the old Southern states of Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana. They were not the wealthy planter class. They were backwoodsmen as tough as the vines and briars entangling the thick stands of oak, gum, walnut and loblolly pine trees.
Much of Thad Sitton's well-done "Backwoodsmen: Stockmen and Hunters along a Big Thicket Valley"(University of Oklahoma Press, hardback, 310 pages, $29.95) is based on oral histories, Sitton's specialty. Stories of moonshining, game poaching and hog killin' come the first good freeze picture a tough subsistence existence. As one backwoodsman explained: "You killed it or caught it or went hungry."
Another Thicket old-timer, asked about the season for deer, replied that the best season was salt and pepper. Game laws, in other words, were not widely accepted.
Sitton's book doesn't mention the Alabama-Coushatta but does tell a little about the earlier inhabitants of the area, the Caddos.
The prehistory of the Caddos began about A.D. 800. The arrival of early European explorers brought about a number of changes, but it was the push of Anglo-American settlers into the fertile lands of Louisiana and East Texas that led to relocation of native tribes into "leased territory" north of the Red River.
In "The Caddos, the Wichitas, and the United States, 1846-1901 (Texas A&M University Press, hardback, 184 pages, $29.95), author F. Todd Smith examines the histories of the peoples and their relations with the U.S., the Republic of Texas, and the Confederate States through various legal documents and treaties.
Well-illustrated with maps and photographs from the late 1800s, the book also touches on the relations between the Republic and, later, the State of Texas with other tribes.
"Caddo Indians: Where We Came From" (University of Oklahoma Press, hardback, 420 pages, $34.95) is written by Cecile Elkins Carter, cultural representative of the Caddo Tribe of Oklahoma. The daughter of a Caddo father, Carter began her research with the intention of learning more about her Indian heritage. The result is a sensitive, well-written account, covering everything from archeology to contemporary ceremonials.
For children, there is Wanda Landrey's "Lost in the Big Thicket" (Eakin Press, softcover, 126 pages, $10.95).
When cousins Missy and Luke travel by train in 1913 to visit their grandparents at the Hardin County community of Bragg in East Texas, they run across a mysterious stranger carrying a curious box. In addition to the mystery, the two children also learn about lumber mills and meet Chief John Battise of the Alabama-Coushatta.
The significance of the box? Get your child to read the book to find out.
(January 9, 1998)
If someone gave you a first edition of Larry McMurtry's "Comanche Moon" for Christmas, don't treat the dust jacket like it was just another piece of wrapping paper.
While it may not be wise to judge a book by its cover, a lot of books are judged harshly by collectors and rare book dealers if they are without what in the used book trade is referred to as a d.j.
The dust jacket of a book is the thinnest, most abused, most ephemeral part of a book. Many of us tend to remove them when we read the book, and sometimes they get lost. Or thrown away.
So what's the big deal about dust jackets?
A first edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel "The Great Gastby" without a dust jacket is worth a couple of hundred bucks. With the dust jacket intact, we're talking thousands of dollars.
A first edition of Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian" (his first novel) will buy you a nice big screen television set, but not if its dust jacket is missing.
"In modern literature, most of the value of a book is based on whether it has its dust jacket," said Austin book dealer Ray Walton.
Collectors and scholars are obsessed with having a pristine dust jacket on a book. Scarce first editions of 20th Century fiction (called "modern firsts" in the trade) are worth incredible amounts. Assuming they still include a dust jacket.
Books had been around a long time before publishers started wrapping them in paper. The earliest dust jackets date from the 1880s, but they were not common until around the turn of the century.
It didn't take long for publishers to realize that by putting attractive, interesting illustrations on the dust jackets, they could get protection and a marketing tool in one piece of paper. By 1910, with the advancement of color lithography, dust jackets had become a book's peacock's tail. In addition to author and title, they featured original art, and on the inside flaps, blurbs about the book's contents and author. Other books were often advertised on the inside of the jackets, but that practice has faded.
The artwork and information on a dust jacket usually are not duplicated inside the book, which means a book without a jacket is simply not whole.
Some would argue that a book, or any other work of art, should stand on its own, dust jacket or no. That may be a noble concept, but don't expect collectors and dealers to go along with it.
Since non-fiction books are often more important for their content than is the case with a novel, the absence of a dust jacket does not decrease value as much as it does in fiction. The value of a piece of Texana or Western Americana drops at least 30 percent without a dust jacket. Condition of the jacket also is important.
"Anyone who buys new or used books should make every effort to protect the covers," Walton said. (Library supply firms sell clear, protective covers for dust jackets.)
If you hope to get more than knowledge out of a book, don't abuse, destroy or lose its dust jacket.