Texana Book Reviews -- 1999
(by Mike Cox)


The Texas Coast
(February 7, 1999)

As fundamental as it is to Texas and its history, the state's long coastline has never received the attention it deserves from writers and publishers.

Think about it: The Spanish first came to Texas not by land, but from the Gulf of Mexico. Stephen F. Austin's first group of colonists sailed to Texas on a schooner from New Orleans. Part of the Texas revolution against Mexico was fought in the Gulf.

Most Texans with a German heritage can trace their lineage back to names on the passenger manifests of ships that arrived at Galveston or the now-vanished town of Indianola. What made Houston boom for the first time was the ship channel connecting it to the Gulf. The list could go on.

The bibliography of Texas matches the state itself in scale, with the exception of books about its coast. Almost all the books about Texas focus on events that occurred inside its borders, not along its barrier islands and bays or out in the Gulf itself. At least not until recently.

Finally, Texas has a good overview of its rich maritime history: From Sail to Steam: Four Centuries of Texas Maritime History 1500-1900 by Richard V. Francaviglia. Published by the University of Texas Press, the book sells for $34.95 in hardcover.

As Francaviglia, a professor of history at the University of Texas at Arlington, points out in his introduction, he wasn't the first writer to think about doing a history of Texas' coast and the vessels that brought explorers, settlers, warfare and commerce. In the early 1900s, a Galveston newspaper writer named Ben C. Stuart collected material for a book on the state's maritime history. He even did an outline. But the journalist died before a manuscript could be finished.

Francaviglia had already started the research for his book when he discovered Stuart's material in the Rosenberg Library at Galveston.

"Today," Francaviglia wrote, "nearly eighty years since Stuart began his manuscript, little has changed: The Texas coast remains, in a word, neglected."

With Francaviglia's solid text, however, the long-moored neglect of Texas' relation with salt water has sprung a significant leak. His book is an excellent general history of Texas' relationship with the Gulf of Mexico up to 1900.

The story of the Texas coast begins with its first human inhabitants, the Karankawa Indians. Though their population remained stable from 1750 to 1820, thanks to diseases transmitted by Europeans--and guns--the Indians were virtually extinct by 1840.

Though Francaviglia devotes several pages to the Karankawa, they are only part of the Texas coastal story. For anyone interested in more detail on this tribe, there is The Karankawa Indians of Texas: An Ecological Study of Cultural Tradition and Change by Robert A. Ricklis. It is a solid scholarly history of the tribe. Published by the University of Texas Press, the 222-page book is available at $35 in hardcover, $16.95 in soft-cover. The book is part of the well-done Texas Archaeology and Ethnohistory series edited by Thomas R. Hester.

Keith Guthrie, the author of a three-volume series on forgotten Texas ports, has a new book out on the wild and wooly days of Texas middle coast, The Raw Frontier: Armed Conflict Along the Texas Coastal Bend. Published by Eakin Press, the 162-page hardback is available at $19.95.

According to Gutherie, the term "raw frontier" came from the editors of the Houston Telegraph and Texas Register during the days of the Republic of Texas. To them, the frontier was anything west of the Colorado River. This well-done book covers the violence associated with cultural and territorial clashes, from Indian depredations to the lawless days following the Texas Revolution.

By the time the Texas coast was tamed, shipbuilders had begun making iron hulls and steam competed with sail as the basic method of propulsion. Only a few of the vintage sailing ships have survived. One of those is the iron-hulled, 400-ton barque Elissa, which was restored in the late 1980s and is now berthed at Galveston. Built in Great Britain in 1877, she called on the port of Galveston in her heyday. Eventually she was de-masted and converted into a steamship. On the verge of being scrapped, she was discovered in Greece and towed to Texas for restoration by the Galveston Historical Foundation.

Her story is beautifully told--in words and pictures--in Sailing Ship Elissa by Patricia Bellis Bixel with Jim Cruz, the book's photography editor. Published by Texas A&M University Press, the 93-page book sells for $22.95.

Galveston has fared a bit better over the years than the rest of the coast in the attention it has received from writers and publishers. Two recent books add to that bibliography: Battle on the Bay: The Civil War Struggle for Galveston by Edward T. Cotham Jr. and Galveston and the Great West by Earle B. Young.

Cotham's 241-page book, published by the University of Texas Press at $37.50 in hardback and $16.95 in paper, is the best work ever on the Battle of Galveston. Federal forces captured the city in the fall of 1862 but on New Year=s day in 1863, the Confederacy won Galveston back and held it for the rest of the war. When the war ended, Galveston was the only major southern port still controlled by the Confederacy. For Texas, holding Galveston meant a planned federal invasion never occurred, sparing the state much death and destruction.

In the latter part of the 19th century, Galveston civic leaders worked to make their port even more vital to the state and nation by deepening its harbor and the channel leading to it. The efforts culminated with Galveston's emergence--for a time--as the world's leading grain and cotton port. Young explains how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers got this done before the turn of the century in his well-researched 232-page book. Published by Texas A&M University Press, it sells for $32.95 in hardback.

A final recently-published book dealing with a little-known aspect of Gulf coast history is Wooden Ships From Texas: A World War I Saga by Richard W. Bricker. The 216-page book chronicles the story of 17 wooden sailing ships built in Orange beginning in 1916. The tide already had ebbed on the era of wooden ships, but wartime fuel and steel shortages suddenly made them useful again. It is a fascinating story, well told. Published by Texas A&M University Press, Bricker's book sells for $29.95 in hardback.

Originally intended to transport East Texas pine to Europe, the ships ended up carrying other cargo after America entered the war against Germany in 1917. One of the wooden ships, in a symbolic clash of old and new technologies, was sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of Spain.

All of these titles are excellent contributions to our understanding of the history of Texas' long coastline, but Francaviglia's From Sail to Steam will stand as the metaphorical lighthouse among books on the state's maritime past.


Texas Local Histories
(January 3, 1999)

Political consultants like to say that all politics is local. So is history.

Local history fits into the matrix of state, national or world history like pieces of a puzzle. If the Chisholm Trail went through a particular county, the story of that cattle trail is part of that county's history, part of Texas history, and part of the history of the old West.

The problem with local history is that there is not always a state, national or world-class historian available or willing to compile it. City and county histories often are put together by well-meaning amateurs. And sometimes these local histories are published with little or no editing.

The product, while it might cost up to $75, looks more like a thick high school annual than a book. These books often are poorly written, poorly organized and poorly indexed -- if indexed at all.

Happily, not all local history is badly done.

One of the oldest cities in Texas is Nacogdoches. It's also where Texas historian Archie McDonald lives and teaches at Stephen F. Austin State University. McDonald is the author of "Nacogdoches, Texas: A Pictorial History." Published by The Donning Company, the 192-page hardback sells for $34.95, and is available through the Nacogdoches Convention and Visitors Bureau (phone toll-free 1-888-564-7351).

McDonald weaves the story of this East Texas city through numerous photographs, including what may be the first picture of nude college students ever published in a Texas local history book. Or any Texas history book, for that matter. The photograph (tastefully taken from the rear) was shot at the height of the streaking craze in the 1970s, when several Stephen F. Austin students took off everything but their shoes and socks and ran through a school-sponsored event. Hey, fads are a part of history.

Those students remain nameless in the book, as do numerous abandoned saw mill towns deep in the East Texas pines. Thad Sitton and James H. Conrad have written an excellent study of these long-vanished communities and the way of life they engendered. Their book, published by the University of Texas Press, is "Nameless Towns: Texas Sawmill Communities, 1880-1942." The 257-page book sells for $18.95 in softcover.

Another East Texas community with a colorful history is San Augustine. Founded in 1833 on the El Camino Real, the main road across Texas to Mexico, San Augustine quickly became a significant town. Its story is told in "The Cradle of Texas: A Pictorial History of San Augustine County" compiled and edited by Charla Jones. Published by Eakin Press, the 112-page hardback sells for $31.95.

By the 1850s, the Texas frontier had moved well beyond East Texas. The new edge of settlement was about 100 miles west of Austin, which is the distance to Mason County.

The Mason County Historical Commission has published a solid history of its county by Margaret Bierschwale, "A History of Mason County, Texas Through 1964." The 702-page hardback sells for $55 and is available from the Mason County Historical Commission, Box 524, Mason, TX 76856.

This is a work of history with an unusual history of its own. Bierschwale began collecting information for a history of Mason County around 1950. The research, writing and rewriting stretched out over two decades. In 1973, her study still in progress, she was killed in a traffic accident. Her manuscripts--one on the county and one on old Fort Mason--were given to the Mason County Historical Commission in 1992. The commission edited them, added material and published them in a single volume.

The result of all this effort, over a period of more than 40 years, is a county history that is a cut above most.

While Bierschwale's history of Mason County is nearly encyclopedic, Michael V. Hazel has shrunk the history of Dallas down to 72 pages in "Dallas: A History of Big D." Published by the Texas State Historical Association, the book sells for $7.95 in softcover.

Hazel's history of Texas, an excellent overview, is part of the Texas State Historical Association's Fred Rider Cotten Popular History Series.

From Big D to Haynie Flat is 200 or so miles, and considerably farther than that in terms of size and culture. Haynie Flat is one of 10 small communities west of Austin in Blanco, Burnet and Travis counties.

Stories of these places and the people who settled them are told in "The Valley between the Colorado and the Pedernales," compiled and published by the Spicewood Area Historical Focus Group. The 86-page hardcover sells for $24.95.

The beginning of "The Valley between the Colorado and the Pedernales" makes up for its relatively mundane title: "'I have found a land of flitter trees and honey,' Hugh Clark wrote to his family in Tennessee in the early 1870's. 'Come to Texas.'"

Obviously, many followed Clark's advice. And they created a lot of local history.


Book Reviews from Previous Month: (December 1998)

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