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

Mier Expedition: A Definitive History
(March 27, 1998)

At daybreak on Sunday, Nov. 10, 1843, the steamship New York hove within sight of Texas.

Joseph D. McCutchan and 76 other survivors of what has become known as the Mier Expedition -- an unauthorized Texas invasion of Mexico in 1842 that ended in imprisonment and death for many -- stood on deck as the vessel made for the wharf at Galveston.

"With proud anticipation we reach the Wharf -- not a shout -- not a hurra -- not a sound of wellcome, went up towards Heaven," McCutchan later wrote in his not always correctly spelled diary. "No friendly hand was stretched out to congratulate us, save those who had, perhaps, a personal friend, or relative among!"

This survivor's description is from what should be considered the definitive history of this lessor-known aspect of Texas history, Joseph Milton Nance's "Dare-Devils All: Texas Mier Expedition." Published by Eakin Press, the 560-page hardcover sells for $59.95.

The Mier Expedition had its genesis with Texas' response to a Mexican attack on San Antonio in 1842. A force of 750 Texas soldiers marched to the Rio Grande and captured Laredo (at that time only a city on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande) and then moved downriver to Guerro, which they also took. But the leader of the Texans, Gen. Alexander Somervell, decided it was not prudent to stay in Mexico. The general and more than half of his men went back to Texas.

The rest of the Texans opted to stay on the border and move downriver to Matamoras. Whether motivated by patriotism or the possibility of plunder, the Texans' decision to continue the campaign was a bad one. Eventually, after a fierce battle outside the Mexican town of Mier, the Texans surrendered.

Seventeen of the prisoners later were executed in the so-called Black Bean episode, in which the Texans were forced to participate in a lottery of death. Those who drew a black bean faced a firing squad. Those who drew a white bean were spared.

The story is dramatic and quite involved. No wonder it took Nance a considerable number of words to tell it.

In fact, though "Dare-Devils All" is a substantial work, it is a distillation of somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 manuscript pages of text, footnotes and bibliography that Nance had compiled -- enough for three hardbacks. The needed paring down was too much of a task for Nance, then in his 80s, to take on.

With the blessing of Nance's family, historian Archie McDonald of Nacogdoches was brought in by publisher Ed Eakin to get the manuscript in publishable form. Nance died in January 1997.

Nance had first become interested in the Mier Expedition in 1937, when then State Archivist Harriet Smither showed him a diary of one of the men who participated in the fiasco, Israel Canfield.

More than two decades of research later, "After San Jacinto: The Texas-Mexican Frontier, 1836-1841," the first book of what is now Nance's trilogy on post-revolution Texas was published in 1963. A year later, "Attack and Counter-Attack: The Texas-Mexican Frontier, 1841" was published.

In his preface, Nance quotes J. Frank Dobie, a man who seldom lacked for an opinion on matters:

"According to historical values, the Mier Expedition was negligible, according to human values, it was dramatic, daring, admirable -- and mad -- beyond almost any other episode recorded in North American life."

Readers of his book on the expedition, Nance went on, "will discover that [it] was of more historical significance than Dobie thought."

So what did so many Texans suffer and die for?

In his epilogue, Nance says the expedition "showed the Mexicans that Texas was not to be trampled upon" and that "she was determined to maintain her independence."

The expedition also taught Texas that Mexico was "no push-over" and that "she, too, would defend her frontiers."

Indeed, during the last three years of Texas' status as an independent republic, no major hostilities occurred between the two countries.

In 1848, the remains of many of those who died as a result of the Mier Expedition (along with remains of Texans who died in three other similarly ill-fated incidents) were placed in a vault on the highest elevation in Fayette County. In 1933 a bigger vault was built. Three years later, during the Texas Centennial, another monument was put up at the site, which is now operated as a state park.

But "Dare Devils All" is a monument itself, to the all-too-human participants in the Mier Expedition and to the man who put years of his life into telling their story.

Respite in Big Bend
(March 20, 1998)

Not every spring-breaker has gone to the Texas coast for beer on the beach. Some have had the good sense to go to the Big Bend.

Whether college students like the Trans-Pecos area for its mountainous solitude or because they think they can get away with more in a sparsely populated area, I am long past the age of knowing, but I hope it's the first reason.

Maybe there are a few college students who have come to understand the renewable power of a striking landscape by day and a sky full of seemingly touchable stars at night. And the peace and quiet any time. Of course, in the Big Bend a person also can rent a rowboat, cross the Rio Grande into Mexico and then ride by burro to Boquillas to check out the night life. Or pig out in the famous restaurant at the Gage Hotel in Marathon.

If I were fleeing the classroom for a week or so, I'd head to the Big Bend with a copy of Roland H. Wauer's new book, "For All Seasons: A Big Bend Journal." Published by the University of Texas Press, the 208-page softcover sells for $19.95.

For six years, from 1966 to 1972, Wauer was chief naturalist at Big Bend National Park and has continued as a regular visitor on Park Service business since then. For 30 years, he kept a journal to record his observations on the huge park and its flora and fauna.

"For All Seasons" is a mosaic of a typical year in the park, drawn from Wauer's journal entries over three decades. The diary begins in January, the coldest month of the year in the park, and continues month-to-month to show what each season brings to this remote and rugged piece of Texas real estate.

If Wauer were trying to be another Henry David Thoreau, expounding on his personal philosophy as well as nature, this composite technique would not work. I'm sure that Wauer has changed considerably in his outlook on life in three decades, but the seasons of nature are a bit more constant.

Just because Wauer doesn't figuratively rail against railroads, Thoreau-like, doesn't mean his book is not interesting.

On Oct. 1, 1968, for instance, he was working his way along a canyon trail toward Boot Spring when he noticed a fresh set of mountain lion tracks.

"On closer inspection," Wauer wrote, "I found that several [of the tracks] were on top of the boot tracks I had made a couple of hours earlier."

That meant that the big cat had been travelling the same trail with him.

"Whether it had actually been following me or its route lay only coincidentally with mine, I will never know," Wauer continued. "That incident," he concludes in understatement, "was exciting and rather chilling at the same time."

From birds to bears to blackbrush acacia, Wauer details his observations on the animal and plant life of the Big Bend Park. Once he saw a pair of javelinas taking a mud bath they seemed to be thoroughly enjoying. Another time, he had a brief stand-off with a black bear who did not at first want to yield right-of-way to a human. At various times, he has seen most of the 450 varieties of birds found in the park.

Adding to the author's word pictures in "For All Seasons" are drawings by long-time wildlife artist Nancy McGowan and a selection of black-and-white photographs.

Though Wauer's diary entries stick to when, where and what he has seen in the park, his afterword is more Thoreau-like. In fact, he uses a quote from the 19th century Massachusettes transcendentalist in his explanation of why the Big Bend appeals to him so much:

"I love to be alone. I never found a companion that was so companionable as solitude."

The Texas J Factor
(March 13, 1998)

Let us ponder the J Factor in Texas letters.

For more than three decades, the best-known Texas writer -- and one of the best-known Texans, for that matter -- was J. Frank Dobie. Of course, this storyteller was actually James Frank Dobie (1888-1964). But for some reason, early in his life, he shortened "James" to "J." His friends called him Frank or Pancho, but his byline always was "J. Frank Dobie."

No question, from a typographical standpoint, that "J. Frank Dobie" looks more interesting in print than "James Frank Dobie." Maybe Dobie figured the bold J stuck in front of his middle name would burn into the consciousness of readers like a cherry-red running iron, causing them to remember his name and buy more of his books. Or maybe Dobie just didn't cotton to his given name.

Still, the J Factor as it pertains to Dobie could be dismissed as mere idiosyncratic were it not for these six other J-fond Texas writers:

  • J. Frank Davis
  • J. Frank Norfleet
  • J. Frank Norris
  • J. Evetts Haley
  • J. Marvin Hunter
  • J. Mason Brewer

These all were men of letters, particularly the letter that follows "I" and precedes "K."

J. (for James) Frank (for Francis) Davis (1870-1942) moved from newspapering to fiction writing and directed the federal Works Projects Administration's Texas Writer's Project during the Depression. He was older than J. Frank Dobie, but the two sometimes were confused with each other.

J. (for Jasper) Frank Norfleet (1864-1967), a rancher turned private detective, wrote a book about his adventures in tracking down the three con men who swindled him for $45,000 in 1919.

J. (for John) Frank Norris (1877-1952) was a controversial fundamentalist Baptist preacher who went from the editorship of the Baptist Standard to the pulpit of Fort Worth's First Baptist Church. Also, in one of Fort Worth's juicier scandals, he was tried for murder and acquitted.

J. (for James) Evetts Haley (1901-1995) was a conservative rancher and historian who wrote the definitive biography of Panhandle pioneer Charles Goodnight and other significant Texas books.

J. (for John) Marvin Hunter (1880-1957), printer and grassroots historian, founded "Frontier Times" magazine and preserved much Texas and Southwestern history.

J. (for John) Mason Brewer (1896-1975) was an educator who collected black folklore and put together three solid books, including "The Word on the Brazos" and "Dog Ghosts and Other Negro Folk Tales."

I've wondered about the J Factor for a long time. Recently, while perusing a 25-year-old copy of "Riding Line," a newsletter then edited by Austin historian Ken Ragsdale for the Texas State Historical Association, I discovered I have not been alone in my reflections on the 10th letter of the alphabet and its popularity with Texas writers.

In writing about Norfleet, Ragsdale observed: "Something that has puzzled me since youth is that so many people of that era [the teens and 20s] called themselves J. Frank. . . . Is there a progenitor who was famous, so that ambitious mothers or ambitious boys patterned their names after this worthy person? It is a Texas phenomenon?"

Ragsdale went on to suggest that the J Factor is worthy of grant money for some researcher. Coming up with a birth control method for fire ants would be a much better use of such funds, but an answer to the J Factor would be interesting.

If anyone ever came up with that answer, I am not aware of it. I'd certainly be interested in hearing any theories.

Meanwhile, given the success of these J-branded Texas writers, I'm off to the courthouse to get my name changed. J-ust call me J. Mike Cox.

Alamo Books
(February 6, 1998)

More than a century passed before someone finally got around to writing a full-length non-fiction book on the Alamo.

The first modern author to take on the timeless story of the siege was John Myers Myers. His book, "The Alamo," was published in 1948.

Another decade went by before Lon Tinkle, then a professor at Southern Methodist University and book editor of the Dallas Morning News, wrote his classic "Thirteen Days to Glory" (MacMillan, 1958; reprinted by Texas A&M Press, 1985).

The next big Alamo book came three years later with publication of Walter Lord's excellent work, "A Time to Stand" (Harper and Brothers) in 1961.

Tinkle's book is well-researched and written, and I greatly admired Tinkle as a literary mentor, but when it comes to singling out the better of the two books, I've got to draw a figurative line in the dirt and cross over to Lord's side.

Lord also wrote riveting accounts of two other seminal events in American history -- the sinking of the Titanic ("A Night to Remember") and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor ("Day of Infamy").

In 1991, the members of the Alamo Society, a group formed in 1986, voted that "A Time to Stand" was their favorite Alamo book. They presented Lord with a plaque at the Alamo Restaurant in New York City to mark the 30th anniversary of the book.

Texas writer-historian A. C. Greene, however, thinks Tinkle's "Thirteen Days to Glory" is better because its author explored why the men of the Alamo chose to stay in the old mission and fight, even though they knew it almost certainly meant death.

As Greene wrote in his 1982 book "The 50 Best Books on Texas," Tinkle's "Thirteen Days to Glory" gives "the essence of the Alamo story without attempting to exhaust history's explanation."

Since none of the Alamo defenders survived to tell their story (actually, one or two may have, but if they did, they didn't talk or write about it), and since the Alamo fell in a news vacuum (imagine what such a siege would be like now that we have CNN -- "Stand-off at Bexar: Day 13"), some questions about the battle probably never will be answered. In addition to these, another mystery of sorts: Why hasn't an author taken on the Alamo story since Lord?

No publisher has brought out a full-length, generalized Alamo overview since "A Time to Stand," though numerous books on specific aspects of the siege have been issued in the last decade.

Given all the Alamo-related research that has gone on since the early 1960s, I'm surprised some writer has not endeavored to pull it all together in one modern narrative. Maybe someone has tried to peddle such a project and found the mainstream New York publishers aren't interested. Maybe no would-be Alamo writer has measured up to Tinkle and Lord in narrative grace.

Still, it would seem there is a good market for such a book. Three million folks a year visit the old mission in downtown San Antonio.

Historian Stephen Hardin did an excellent job on the Texas Revolution in his award-winning "Texian Iliad," (University of Texas Press, 1994) but the Alamo is only one aspect of the book, albeit a well-done part.

The only Alamo book new this spring is George Nelson's "The Alamo: An Illustrated History" (Aldine Press, $19.95). The 105-page softcover book contains some previously unpublished Alamo images, including a series of color drawings by Nelson showing what the mission probably looked like at various key periods in history.

Nelson's book has some interesting new material, and concentrates on the history of the structure itself rather than the siege that made it famous.

One man, New York fireman and writer Bill Groneman, has written five Alamo-related books: "Roll Call at the Alamo" (with Phil Rosenthal, 1985), "Alamo Defenders" (Eakin Press, 1990), "Defense of a Legend: Crockett and the de la Pena Diary" (Republic of Texas Press, 1994), "Eyewitness to the Alamo" (Republic of Texas Press, 1996) and his most recent, "Battlefields of Texas" (Republic of Texas Press, 1998).

Other notable recently-published Alamo books include Ron Jackson's "Alamo Legacy: Alamo Descendants Remember the Alamo" (Eakin Press, 1997), William R. Chemerka's "Alamo Almanac and Book of Lists" (Eakin Press, 1997) and Wallace Chariton's "Exploring the Alamo Legends" (Wordware Publishing, 1990).

A thoughtful and well-illustrated study of the Alamo as cultural icon is Susan P. Schoelwer's "Alamo Images: Changing Perceptions of a Texas Experience," published in 1985 by Southern Methodist University's De Golyer Library.

Myers' 50-year-old book certainly is not the best in the Alamo genre, but it has an enduring ending:

"The Alamo isn't a structure now; it is a symbol of valor in the minds of men. It can never fall again."

Book Reviews from Previous Month: (February 1998)

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