Previous Chapter | Evolution of a State Title Page | Next Chapter
EVOLUTION OF A STATE
San Felipe de Austin! The shibboleth that flings the door of memory wide; the spell that bids the tide of years roll back, and from the ashes, where it has lain these sixty years and more, conjures up the old town which formed the nucleus of the movement that eventuated in the extension of the great American Union in an unbroken plane from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
Here, in pursuance of the scheme which cost Moses Austin his life, his indomitable son, Stephen Fuller, established his headquarters, from thence distributing the colonists who followed him into the wilderness seventy-six years ago.
San Felipe de Austin! Itself but a phantom, what a host of phantoms the name summons back to repeople it.
Though not one of the Three Hundred, the writer was but a few years behind them, and knew them all by repute, many of them personally. The town was still in its swaddling clothes when the writer made his advent therein in 1827. Twenty-five or perhaps thirty log cabins strung along the west bank of the Brazos River was all there was of it, while the whole human population of all ages and colors could not have exceeded 200. Men were largely in the majority, coming from every state in the Union, and every walk in life.
There seeming to be a good opening for my trade in San Felipe, I bought a set of tools from George Huff on the San Bernard and set up business in the parent colony in the year 1828. In the absence of a more comprehensive view, a pen picture of the old town may not be uninteresting. The buildings all being of unhewn logs with clapboard roofs, presented few distinguishing features. Stephen F. Austin had established his headquarters something like half a mile back from the river on the west bank of a little creek - Palmito - that ran into the Brazos just above the main village. Just above Austin's house was the farm of Joshua Parker. Austin's house was a double log cabin with a wide "passage" through the center, a porch with dirt floor on the front with windows opening upon it, and chimney at each end of the building.
In this vicinity the Ingram brothers, Seth and Ira, had a store, with them being associated Hosea N. League, a lawyer by profession, who with his wife lived near by. League later formed a law partnership with David G. Burnet, their office being in the immediate vicinity. Ira Ingram later moved to Matagorda, of which municipality he was the first alcalde. He also drew up the first declaration of Texas independence, at Goliad, in 1835, was a member of the first Texas Congress and Speaker of the House. Seth Ingram, a surveyor, laid off the town of San Felipe. William Pettus, better known as "Buck", Pettus, who was later elected a member of the Ayuntamiento, also resided in a suburban villa in the "west end." Going on down to the town proper, which lay along the west bank of the Brazos, the first house on the left was my bachelor abode, and near it, on the same side, stood the "village smithy" over which I presided. Then came the Peyton tavern, operated by Jonathan C. Peyton and wife; the house was the regulation double log cabin. The saloon and billiard hall of Cooper and Chieves, the only frame building in the place, was next below the Peyton's. The first house on the right as you entered the town from above was Dinsmore's store, and next it the store of Walter C. White. The office of the "Cotton Plant," the first newspaper in the colonies, and near it the residence of the genial proprietor, Godwin B. Cotton, filled the space between White's store and the Whiteside Hotel, which differed from its companion buildings, only in point of elevation, it being a story and a half in height; through the center ran the regulation "passage," and at either end rose a huge stick and mud chimney.
It must not be understood that these rows of buildings presented an unbroken or even regular line of front; every fellow built to suit himself, only taking care to give himself plenty of room, so that the town was strung along either side of the road something like half a mile - like Samantha Allen's funeral procession, "Pretty good as to length, but rather thin."
Professional men, as a rule, did not affect "offices."
The alcalde's office was in a large double log house standing back some distance from the main thoroughfare almost immediately in the rear of the Whiteside Hotel, which building it much resembled. By whom it was built, or for what purpose, I do not now remember, but my impression is that it was designed for a hotel. The walls of hewn logs were roofed in and abandoned at that stage. It was here the ayuntamiento held its sittings, and this windowless, floorless pen, through the unchinked cracks of which the wild winds wandered and whistled at will, was presumably the Faneuil Hall of Texas.
I regret that, having left Texas in 1831, I am unable to give any of the incidents or details of the conventions which decided the fate of the colonies, though many of the members were personally known to me. Strains of eloquence doubtless many times echoed through the old council chamber, but only on one occasion was I an auditor. Hearing loud talking in the alcalde's office one night, I concluded there must be something interesting going on, though there was no light save that which the bright moon poured in through the cracks and open door. Approaching warily, expecting every moment to hear the bullets begin to sing, I got near enough to make out that it was some one apparently delivering a speech. Curious to learn what it was all about, I quietly drew nearer, and, peering through a crack, perceived Whiteside, junior, a boy of sixteen, rehearsing the address of the Scythian ambassador to Alexander the Great to an appreciative audience composed of the negro boy Will; though doubtless the familiar lines, aided by the mystic light of the moon, brought up before the mental vision of the youthful orator an admiring circle of faces such as was wont to greet him on exhibition days in the old schoolhouse "back in the states."
Ludicrous as the incident was, there was something pathetic in it, occurring in that schoolless land, a relic of civilization which as yet had made but little progress there. The laws providing that two single men might constitute a family for colonization purposes, many of the so-called three hundred families consisted of a couple of old bachelors, a number of whom made their homes in town. Austin's colony being the mother colony, and San Felipe being the seat of government, the empresarios of the surrounding colonies naturally assembled there to take counsel together, and there was, of course, a floating population, some of whom tarried but a few days, while others remained indefinitely.
Among the men who were laying the foundation of a nation, Stephen F. Austin, the father of Texas, was of course, the central figure. He was at that time about thirty-six years of age, though care had left an added weight of years to his appearance. Dark hair and eyes, sparely built, and in manner, there was little in Austin's outward appearance to indicate the tremendous energy of which he was possessed. Though only mortal, he was far above the average of the mould, as his patience and perseverance under trials and difficulties that would have driven an ordinary man to despair abundantly testify.
His character often maligned, his motives impugned, the compact he had entered into with the Mexican government disregarded, thus impeaching his integrity, he yet extended his protecting care over the colonies, alone undertaking the doubtful mission to Mexico in 1833 to present the memorial of the colonists for statehood and exert the remnant of his influence to heal the ever-widening breach between them and the home government, his appointed colleagues refusing to take their share of the risk.
The story of his arrest and long imprisonment is well known. Returning home in broken health to find his labor and suffering thrown away, and the colonies already in the throes of revolution, he cast his lot with them, like his illustrious father, receiving his final summons in the hour of victory. Stephen Fuller Austin died at Columbia, December 27, 1836, a little over two months after the first regularly elected administration of the Lone Star Republic began its labors, Austin being Secretary of State.
Intimately associated with Austin was Samuel M. Williams, Austin's first secretary. An early advocate of independence, Williams, for his opposition to Santa Anna's centralization scheme, was one of the first five men proscribed by that tyrant. Associating himself with McKinney, the firm opened a store at Quintana, and patriotically purchased and equipped the first two vessels for the Texas navy. Williams and McKinney also opened the first bank in Galveston. When, in 1843, the British Ministers in Mexico and Texas arranged a peace conference between the two countries, Williams was one of the two commissioners appointed by President Houston to confer with the Mexican government, his colleague being George W. Hockley.
David G. Burnet, the first president of the republic, though having a colony of his own to settle, made his headquarters at San Felipe. A man of medium size, of no particular type of features, there was nothing in his general appearance to attract attention, unless it was a noticeable twist in his face. His father sat in the Continental Congress, and he himself was a delegate to the first convention of the Texan colonists; he it was who drew up the memorial to the Mexican government for statehood, of which Austin was the unfortunate bearer.
Francis W. Johnson, who afterwards distinguished himself in the revolution, I knew as a clerk in the store of Walter C. White, and later, a clerk of the ayuntamiento. Frank, as he was familiarly known, was of an inflammable temper and was consequently one of the earliest and most active supporters of the war, which course placed his name on the proscription list. Being second in command in the assault of San Antonio in 1835, Johnson was, on the death of Milam, raised to the full command and led the Texas forces to a glorious victory. Ambitious to achieve still greater renown, he joined Grant in his ill-advised scheme of a descent on Matamoras, which cost the struggling patriots so dearly, Johnson narrowly escaped the fate that befell nearly the entire force engaged in the undertaking, as well as Fannin's command, which but for the delay caused by waiting for detached bands, might have effected a safe retreat.
Godwin B. Cotton, the pioneer newspaper man in Texas, launched the "Cotton Plant," as he facetiously christened his paper, at San Felipe in '29. He was a genial old bachelor of fifty or thereabouts, his aldermanic proportions making him a conspicuous figure. His signature, G. B. Cotton, prompted an inquiring individual to ask the significance of the initials, "Why d----n it, can't you see? Great Big Cotton, of course," replied the owner of the name.
Judge Williamson was associated with him in the Cotton Plant, which after struggling about four years against conditions unfavorable to its perfect development, finally succumbed. The press was moved down to Brazoria and used to print the Texas Republic, the publication of which continued only about eighteen months; the editor, F. C. Gray, removed to California where he became wealthy, a circumstance so phenomenal to his craft as to unsettle his reason. Gray died in New York by his own hand.
Gail Borden whose name is more widely known than any of them and will perhaps outlive them all, had a blacksmith shop next door to me in San Felipe. He had an inventive genius, but strange to say it did not lean toward mechanics. His first venture was the soup biscuit which took quite a run, being very popular with seafaring men. He next embarked in the newspaper business, bringing out the fourth paper in the state at San Felipe in 1835. The Telegraph, as it was called, was devoted to the cause of independence, therefore when Santa Anna's invasion necessitated the evacuation of San Felipe, Borden thought it advisable to go along. The paper was accordingly removed to Harrisburg which was in turn abandoned, the plant being left in charge of a couple of printers who bravely stuck to their forms and had the paper in press when Santa Anna's invading host entered the town, captured the outfit and dumped the plant into the bayou.
Not realizing, presumably, the strength of the weapons wielded by the harmless looking typos, they were not included in the sweeping decree of "death to every man taken in arms." The printers whose names do not appear though they should have been preserved, succeeded in saving a few copies of the paper, one of which, containing the account of the burning of San Felipe de Austin is still extant.
After the battle of San Jacinto freed Texas from Mexican domination, Gail Borden resuscitated the Telegraph and having purchased a new press set it up at Columbia; and subsequently at Houston where under new management with the name of the Houston Telegraph it flourished long after the civil war. Retiring from the newspaper business, Gail Borden turned again to invention, this time bringing forth the project which made him famous the world over; the Gail Borden Eagle brand condensed milk being a feature of every grocery store and every advertising medium.
Among the earliest and most ardent advocates of resistance to Santa Anna's usurpation of power was Judge R. M. Williamson, who being one of the first proscribed by the dictator, retreated to Mina, which district he represented in the Consultation which established the provisional government. To Judge Williamson nature had indeed been lavish of her mental gifts, but as if repenting of her prodigality in that line, she later afflicted him with a grievous physical burden; his right leg being drawn up at a right angle at the knee, necessitating the substitution of a wooden leg, which circumstance gave rise to the name by which he was familiarly known - "Three-Legged Willie." A member of a wealthy family, highly educated and an able lawyer, Willie was a living illustration of the aphorism, "'Tis but a step from the sublime to the ridiculous." Being appointed judge for the district of Washington, which office he filled with credit both to the state and himself, he would leave a court room over which he had just presided with all the grace and dignity of a lord chief justice, and within an hour be patting Juba for some nimble footed scapegrace to dance. The versatility of his genius was further evidenced by his success as a comedian. In the absence of support, he "went it alone," constituting himself a whole company. His strongest "cast" was the country school where all the urchins studied "out loud," the principal text book being Webster's elementary spelling book.
Beginning in the low diffident tone supposed to belong to the tyro, Willie plodded his way doubtfully through the tedious length of the alphabet and gaining courage from the successful termination of the journey, tackled the "a-b abs" in a louder tone passing on through the intermediate stages of "b-a ba, k-e-r ker, baker," thence to "c-r-u, cru, c-i cy, crucy, fi-x fix, crucifix," and so on through the successive increase of syllables gaining confidence with each rise till he finally arrived in triumph at in-com-pre-hen-si-bil-i-ty. To this succeeded the reading of the short proverbs at the bottom of the pages, the climax being reached when the star scholar shrilly piped out, "An old man found a rude boy up in one of his apple trees stealing apples, etc." So perfectly were the tone and manner varied to correspond with the successive stages, that one might almost imagine himself in an old fashioned country school. The Judge also conducted revival meetings by way of variety, in which he combined all the essential elements in himself. He was also a nimrod of no mean order, having accomplished a feat in that line which had no parallel in the history of the country. Being out alone on the prairie he espied a buffalo calf that had got lost from the band. Willie gave chase and coming up with the game, being otherwise unarmed, attempted to lasso it. Not being an expert with the lasso, however, he only succeeded in getting it on his own neck. The calf being pretty well winded, came to a stop and thinking to slip a noose over its head; Willie dismounted, when seeing its persecutor within its reach, the calf turned on him and before he could get out of its way the Judge received a blow in the stomach which sent him to earth, and no sooner had he risen to his feet than the vicious little brute gave him another. Willie retained his recumbent position till the calf being apparently satisfied that its foe was effectually disposed of, started on its way. The calf so far had the best of it, but the majesty of the law must be vindicated. Casting about for a weapon with which to avenge the insult offered to the state in the assault upon an officer who was attempting an arrest, the judicial eye fell upon the great clumsy wooden stirrups. Quickly unbuckling one of the straps, Willie grasped it firmly in his hand and again running upon his adversary dealt it a blow on the head with the stirrup which in turn sent it to earth, continuing the application till life was extinct.
I was aroused early one morning by hearing my name called by some one in the street. "O Smithwick; come here; here's a man with a broken leg." Recognizing the voice as that of Judge Williamson, I hastily donned my clothing, and, opening the door, found Willie sitting on the step with his wooden leg broken; he had been making a night of it with that result. I took the fractured limb to my shop and braced it up so that it was as good as new, and the Judge went on his way rejoicing.
The Mexican stirrup, usually made of oak and weighing about five pounds, encased in leather housings, the long ear-like tips of which almost touched the ground, is in keeping with his bridle bit and spurs, the outfit being aptly described by old Johnnie McNeal. Said he, "Their bridle bits look like steel traps, and the rowels of their spurs remind me of a cart wheel with the fellies knocked off, the piece that goes on the heel looking like a clevis."
Those old wooden stirrups made quite effective weapons, as I had occasion to demonstrate. Having business down at Columbia, I went to old Jose Riel to get a horse for the trip, telling him that I wanted a good animal "O, si" said he; "buena, mucho buena." I expected to be away five days and old Jose exacted a dollar a day in advance; I paid the tariff and started. It was about sixty miles, and about midway was a wayside inn kept by Madam Powell, who had two attractive daughters; therefore it was not a source of concern to me that the horse began to flag toward night. The next day I went on to Columbia, where my business detained me one day, during which time my horse rested, but he had proceeded but a few miles on the homeward journey till he began to slow down. After working my passage a few miles further I dismounted and tried to lead him, but a Spanish horse will not lead, so I turned him loose and drove him. I wore out a good deal of timber on him and having got on the prairie, where I could not renew the supply, I took off a stirrup with which to urge the sulky brute along. The horse finally came to a dead stop and when I applied my persuader backed his ears and kicked at me. Exasperated beyond endurance I brought him a welt over the head that felled him to the ground; he lay quivering a few minutes and gave up the ghost. I took off the saddle and bridle and replacing the stirrup hid the outfit in the high grass and went on up to Madam Powell's, about ten miles, where I procured a horse for the remainder of my journey. I didn't go near old Jose Riel, but by and by he came around to know what I had done with his horse. After delivering him a lecture savoring strongly of brimstone for hiring me a broken down horse, I told him where I left it, also the saddle. The next day he came back and demanded pay for the horse. I threatened to wear the ground out with him; he then took his grievance to Thomas Dukes, the alcalde. Dukes came around to see me and after enjoying a hearty laugh over my adventure, advised that I pay the old fellow something, just to settle the controversy. We settled on $5 in addition to the five I paid for the hire of the horse.
An important personage was Padre Muldoon, not only in San Felipe where he made his home, but throughout the colonies, he being the only authorized agent of Cupid east of San Antonio. The father made a tour of the colonies occasionally when in need of funds, tying the nuptial knot and pocketing the fees therefor, $25 being the modest sum demanded for his services. But his visits were so much like an angel's, and his charges so much on the opposite extremity that the colonists had recourse to a plan of their own combining in itself the essential features of both marriage and divorce, the latter unknown in Catholic countries. When a couple concluded to join their fortunes they forthwith repaired to the alcalde's office and had him draw up a bond to avail themselves of the priest's services whenever he came around; both parties signed the bond and went on their way as man and wife. The plan had this advantage; that if they changed their minds before the priest got around, they had only to go together to the alcalde and demand the bond, which they tore to pieces and were free again.
Padre Muldoon was a bigoted old Irishman, with an unlimited capacity for drink. He found a congenial spirit in the person of "General" Walker, with whom he was one day "doing" the town. Stepping into Frank Adams' grocery just as the crowd were preparing to "lubricate" Frank politely invited the newcomers to join them. Old Muldoon elevated his nose. "No, I never drink with any but gentlemen," said he. Adams promptly drew back and dealt the Padre a blow between the eyes which had the effect of considerably modifying his ideas of gentility. The person of the priest being considered sacred by the Mexicans, Adams' assault came near involving him in a serious difficulty. Muldoon and his satellites demanded redress, and Austin, fearing that the government might resent the indignity offered its spiritual representative, would fain have made some show of compliance; but the sympathy of the populace was with Adams, regardless of consequences; Muldoon, who was no fool, seeing that he had few friends, apologized for his offensive language and accepted the proffered drink to assist him in swallowing his medicine.
Nestor Clay, the gifted nephew of a gifted uncle, though not a resident of the town, was an occasional visitor, at which times he was wont to imbibe rather freely; with the result that while he soon became unable to stand, his mental faculties seemed to expand in proportion to his loss of physical power.
Educated, brilliant, a perfect master of English and an adept at retort, I have seen him sit and talk politics when he could not rise from his seat, and not a man among us could begin to hold his own against him.
Thus he was sitting in Thomas Davis' saloon talking, and having his drinks brought to him, when Davis incautiously ventured into argument and getting the worst of it turned away saying:
"O, you're drunk, Clay."
"Ah! Is that so?" said Clay.
"Well, then are you not a fool to be arguing with a drunk man?"
A shout went up from the crowd which Davis drowned with free liquor.
There was nothing whatever to indicate that Clay's emigration had been compulsory, but with a family educated and refined and ample means, it was difficult to account for their presence in the colony on any other hypothesis.
Walter C. White, who kept the leading store, was associated with Colonel Knight, the proprietor of the trading post at Fort Bend; they had a little trading schooner, which ran up to Bell's Landing (Columbia), where they unloaded their goods, piling them up on the river bank and covering them with dry cowhides to protect them from rain while waiting for ox teams to take them up to their destination. Years afterward I met Colonel Knight at Bastrop. Out in front of a store lay a number of grinding stones with a chain passed through the eyes and fastened with a padlock. Colonel Knight cast a contemptuous look at the pile, and turning to me said:
"Gad, Smithwick, the 'better sort' must have got here. Do you remember how I used to pile my goods out on the river bank and leave them for days at a time? I never lost a pin's worth; we used then to hear fellows with 'store clothes' on lamenting the crude state of society and consoling themselves with the assurance that the 'better sort' would come after a little. I reckon they have arrived; there," pointing to the padlocked grindstones, "is indisputable evidence."
Colonel Knight was one of the earliest white settlers in Texas. Joining Long's expedition he assisted Mexico in throwing off the yoke of Spain, and also bore a gallant part in the Texas revolution. He had no family. Cooper and Sheaves, both single men, built the first frame building in San Felipe, using it for a billiard hall and saloon. The merchants were Walter C. White, Richardson & Davis, Clopper Bros., Cooper & Sheaves, Ira & Seth Ingram, and Thomas Gay, all single men, though Gay afterward married.
The legal profession was represented by David G. Burnett, Judge R. M. Williamson, Thomas M. League, Luke Lasacia and Holtham & Ewing; the last two bachelors.
Doctors Miller, Mosely, Rivers, Dayton, Gazley, Peebles and Phelps - the last three only having families - looked after the health of the people, the major part of their practice being devoted to the dressing of wounds and holding inquests.
The first preacher to venture into this stronghold of Satan was Thomas J. Pilgrim, a Baptist; but as the colonists were supposed to be Catholics, Colonel Austin did not deem it advisable to establish a Protestant church, so the preacher, willing to make himself useful, turned dominie, teaching the first English school in Texas, 1829. Comparatively few families resided in town, most of them going out on farms. On the farms, too, were to be found the wealthier portion of the colonists, who, having brought out slaves, were opening up cotton plantations.
Thus while there was a scarcity of ladies of any kind in San Felipe, single ladies were indeed few and far between. Occasionally one ventured into town to be almost immediately captured by some aspirant for matrimonial honors. Of the young ladies who were thus summarily dealt with during my sojourn I remember Miss Eliza Picket who a few days after my arrival married William C. White; Miss Westall married to Brown Austin; Miss Jane Wilkins, who was captured by the alcalde, Thomas Duke, and Miss Scott who became Mrs. Samuel M. Williams. Miss Pickett was the daughter of Mrs. Parmelia Pickett, a widow possessed of capital, and the bridegroom being a nephew of Jared E. Groce, the richest man in the country, the wedding was very select; social distinctions, it was alleged, having even then begun to develop. The leadership of the "ton" was accredited to Mrs. Jane Long, the widowed sister of Mrs. Alexander Calvet, and widow of General Long.
Miss Jane Wilkins with her widowed mother and younger sister maintained themselves by sewing; therefore the wedding was very quiet notwithstanding the high official position of the bridegroom. Miss Wilkins was an expert needlewoman and we old bachelors found much need of her services, almost all clothing then being made to order; consequently we felt that we had just cause of complaint against the alcalde when he selfishly appropriated our fair seamstress, leaving us with enough ready made clothing on our hands to stock a small clothing store.
A little incident connected with the marriage of Brown Austin and Miss Westall furnishes a sample of the annoyance and inconvenience to which the colonists were subjected by the religious restrictions imposed upon them. Anxious to show due respect for the law of the land, Austin had notified Padre Muldoon to be on hand; but the priest's residence being in San Antonio, and the distance and mode of traveling rendering intercourse uncertain, the padre failed to arrive at the appointed time. The bride was ready and so was the feast, but everything had to await the pleasure or convenience of the dilatory priest.
So great was the dearth of female society in San Felipe that during my whole residence there - '28 to '31 - there was not a ball or party of any kind in which ladies participated. There being so little opportunity for social intercourse with the gentler sex, the sterner element should not be too severely censured if they sought diversion of a lower order. And if our stag parties were a bit convivial, they would probably compare favorably in that regard with the swell club dinners in the cities. Godwin B. Cotton was the host in many a merry bout; love feasts, he called them. Collecting a jovial set of fellows, he served them up a sumptuous supper in his bachelor apartments at which every guest was expected to contribute to the general enjoyment according to his ability. Judge Williamson was one of the leading spirits on these occasions. Having a natural bent toward the stage, Willie was equally at home conducting a revival meeting or a minstrel show, in which latter performance his wooden leg played an important part: said member being utilized to beat time to his singing. One of his best choruses was:
"Rose, Rose; coal black Rose;
I nebber see a nigger dat I lub like Rose,"
a measure admirably adapted to the banjo which he handled like a professional.
Some sang, some told stories and some danced. Luke La Sascie, a Louisiana Frenchman, and by the way a brilliant lawyer, was our champion story teller; with Cotton and Doctor Peebles worthy competitors. I, being reckoned the most nimble footed man in the place, usually paid my dues in jigs and hornpipes, "Willie", patting Juba for me. Many a night was I dragged out of bed after a hard day's work in the shop to help out an impromptu "jag." The biggest time we ever had was on the occasion of a double wedding, the brides being a couple of grass widows who were domiciled together just out of town, their comfortable home and reputed bank account proving an irresistible attraction to a couple of good-looking young scamps who were hanging about; hence the wedding. The boys all got together and went out to charivari them. It was my first experience in that kind of a performance; and was unquestionably the most outrageous din I ever heard; cowbells, cowhorns, tin pans and in fact everything that contained noise were called into requisition; and with their discordant sounds mingled hoots, howls and caterwaulings enough to make the hair rise on one's head. But all our efforts to bring out the happy quartette proved abortive. We overdid the thing and frightened them out of their wits; so after exhausting every device short of breaking in the door and dragging them forth, we adjourned to town to wind up. Austin never participated in these jamborees, nor did the Bordens. Sam Williams sometimes looked in, took a glass and cracked a joke.
A noted member of Austin's colony was Captain James B. Bailey, better known as "Brit", Bailey, his arrival even antedating that of Austin himself. But as up to that period foreigners could not procure title to land, Bailey had only a squatter's claim. Still he felt that the priority of his claim should be respected; therefore he rose in rebellion when notified that his claim was within the limits of Austin's grant and that in order to secure it he would have to comply with the regulations governing the real colonists. A compromise was effected, however, and Captain Bailey lived and died on his original claim. When he was in his last sickness, realizing that the end was near, he said to his wife:
"I have never stooped to any man, and when I am in my grave I don't want it said, 'There lies old Brit Bailey.' Bury me so that the world must say, 'There stands Bailey.' And bury me with my face to the setting sun. I have been all my life traveling westward and I want to face that way when I die."
His widow, in compliance with his request, had a deep hole dug like a well, into which the coffin was lowered, feet first, facing the setting sun.
Isaac McGeary was among the early settlers. He was a genial fellow with a passion for practical jokes in which he sometimes found a boomerang. While I was working down at Colonel Bell's, McGeary and a stranger one day rode up, their feet encased in moccasins and their heads covered with rude caps made of a green deerskin. The caps and moccasins so at variance with the balance of their attire, especially that of the stranger, whose name was Dickerson, at once suggested a misadventure. Inquiry elicited the remarkable story that they had camped out on the prairie the night before and the coyotes had stolen their hats and shoes. I saw by the twinkle in Mc's eye that there was a sequel to the story and as soon as he got a chance he unbosomed it to me. Dickerson was as verdant as a meadow in May and on their ride down from San Felipe, Mc amused himself by imposing on his credulity; telling him among other things of the penchant of coyotes for hats and shoes, cautioning him on retiring to put those parts of his apparel under his head, himself setting the example. After Dickerson fell asleep, Mc softly arose and stealing the hat and shoes from under his companion's head he carried them, together with his own, a little way aside and hid them in the high grass. Great was Dickerson's consternation when he awoke in the morning and felt for his hat and shoes. Mc felt for his and they too were gone. He commenced looking around, and when he had carried the joke far enough, he sauntered out to the place where he had deposited them intending to explain their disappearance, but behold they were not there; the coyotes had gotten them. The hats they found torn to fragments, but the shoes were gone. McGeary dared not cheap then, so they went across to Captain Martin's on the river where they were fitted out in the manner above described. Dickerson often told that story as he understood it to illustrate the stealth of the coyote.
McGeary played a worse joke on me, and that I should have liked to lick him for had I been physically able. Old Martin Varner had a lot of wild hogs running in the bottom and when he wanted pork, went out and shot one. Having occasion to replenish his larder, Varner invited McGeary and myself to go out with him. We all went out on foot accompanied by several dogs. The first game we flushed was a boar with tusks three or four inches long. The dogs caught him and Varner, seeing that he was not marked, took the opportunity of establishing his claim, an operation that somewhat riled his porcine lordship's feelings. McGeary and I held the struggling beast while his ears were being mutilated, and when I released my hold, McGeary, who had him by the hind feet, deftly slued him around with his head toward me, and shouting, "Look out, here he comes," turned him loose. With gnashing teeth and bristling hair the enraged beast sprang to his feet and made for me. I was considered fast on foot, and there seeming to be no other alternative, I took to my heels, the boar after me and the dogs after him. For about sixty yards I led them till, catching nay foot on a stub, I fell flat. My pursuer was being too hotly pursued by the dogs to assault me. When the chase passed I rose to my feet; there was McGeary fairly rolling with merriment. I was mad for a few moments, and as before stated would have licked him had I been able. McGeary swore it was the fastest foot race he ever saw, and would want nothing better than to "travel" with me if I could run like that on a bet.
Old Vicente Padilla was running a monte game in San Felipe. Money was too scarce to bet more than a quarter at a time, and quarters - dos reales - were not plenty, so in order to provide enough such change, they cut a dollar in four pieces. When Mexico established her independence, one of her first acts was to change the stamp of her coin, the eagle dollar taking the place of the Spanish milled dollar. The latter being defaced by hammering was then worth only seventy-five cents. These hammered dollars were often cut into five pieces by a little extra hammering and made to pass as quarters. Old Vicente was getting the best of the game of course and nobody had any scruples about beating him in any way. One of the "buckers" was in my shop one day and seeing a lot of little triangular bits of iron lying around was struck with an idea. Gathering up the bits, he polished them up till they bore quite a resemblance to the quarters cut from the hammered dollars. He departed with his prize and after dark repaired to the monte bank where the dim light of the tallow candles enabled him to pass off his iron chips on the dealer without detection.
Nacogdoches was the gambler's heaven; that being the first town the newcomer struck after crossing the Sabine. Here there was a regular organization for roping in the greenhorn and relieving him of his cash. Several of its members afterward took an active part in the revolution, one at least being a signer of the Declaration of Independence. This brave patriot having spotted a stranger who seemed to have deep pockets, steered him into a game and went out to look for another sucker. When he returned the game was over and the clique dividing the spoils. The steerer demanded his share. "Why you wasn't in the game," they contended. "The h----l I wasn't; didn't I find him first?" and backing his claim with a pistol he secured his share. So unscrupulous were they that they didn't even wait till the victim was out of the room to divide. Taking in the situation, a fellow that had been thus robbed, said to them, "I think it's a d----d outrage for the government to send old John H. Murrill to the state's prison and let such fellows as you go free."
Charles Falenash, one of the earliest settlers in Austin's colony, located on the river above San Felipe in territory now included in Burleson County. The family were well calculated for pioneers, fear having been left out of their makeup; its place being given over to cool, level-headed, self-possession, a quality invaluable on the frontier. This family trait came out conspicuously in an exploit performed by John, one of the little boys. The children were playing about a pond, into which a little chap incautiously waded. Hearing the child in the water scream, John was horrified to see that an alligator had him by the leg. The boy knew there was not a moment to lose as the alligator would make for deep water, so he wasted no time in trying to summon aid, but drew his knife and rushed to the rescue. Knowing, also, that the eyes were the only vulnerable points in an alligator's head, he directed his blows accordingly, getting in his work on both the creature's optics before it released its hold. Then, seizing his brother by the arm, John broke for the bank, which they reached in safety.
Old John Cummings, one of the Three Hundred, made his usefulness in the colony manifest by building the first mill in the state on a little creek to which he gave name, a few miles above San Felipe. There was a sawmill, with corn cracker attached, all run by water. The saw was getting along in years and therefore a slow feeder. The old man, who was not in favor of wasting time, started the saw into a log and went home to dinner, and did up other little chores while it was eating its slow way through. He one day sat down on the farther end of a log to cast up his accounts, and becoming absorbed in the work, forgot the saw, stealthily creeping toward him with tortoise-like gait, till it seized him by the sleeve, and finding flesh easier to masticate than wood, proceeded to chew him up. Fortunately his assistant had the sense to stop the saw before it did more than lacerate his arm and head.
Down on the river below San Felipe, dwelt another of the original Three Hundred, old Joe Kuykendall. The old man was rather inclined to take life easy, a disposition which the superabundant energy of his thrifty helpmate, Annie, together with his implicit reliance on her ability to manage the affairs of the house of Kuykendall, gave him ample opportunity to indulge.
Colonel Knight, getting down sick and having no family, Kuykendall took him home to take care of him. During the time one of Annie's milk cows came home, evidently having left a young calf hidden out. Annie put on her bonnet and followed the cow to find the calf. She was gone so long that Knight said he began to entertain fears for her safety, and suggested to Joe that he had better go and look for her, as she might have got lost.
"Annie get lost," exclaimed Joe, as if such a proposition were incredible. "O no! If it don't get cloudy, and a snake don't bite her, I'll be ---- if Annie don't come home." His confidence in her was fully justified when along toward sundown Annie came in driving the cow and calf.
Bob Matthews, a tinner, had a shop, in San Felipe, the first enterprise of the kind in Texas, and probably the first on Mexican territory as the Mexicans had not progressed beyond the gourd and pottery. Bob had led a roving life, having been on a long trip to the Rocky Mountains before coming to Texas. He must have passed through some sanguinary scenes which left their tinge on his mind, one of his favorite adjectives being "bloody," sometimes using it in most incongruous connections. I was talking of going home.
"Ah," said he, "if you go home, you won't stay; they'll be all the time telling you of some bloody thing you won't want to hear. I went back once. I went to visit my sister, whose husband kept a hotel. On Sunday morning I was in the bar-room tossing pennies with the barkeeper when my sister passed the door. Going into her room shortly after, I found her crying over my wickedness. I was so disgusted with the bloody nonsense that I got up and left and never went back."
At another time he said to me: "You talk too much with your mouth. In a place like this it is best to keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut; and if you see something say nothing." Failure to heed the latter part of the admonition was really the mainspring of the trouble that befell me later.
Bob and I being the two crack shots of the place, where everybody was on the shoot, we often went gunning to see who could bag the most game. Our favorite sport was picking the squirrels from the tall pecan trees in the river bottom.
Colonel J. W. E. Wallace, United States Consul for the colonies, was anxious to pose as a crack marksman. He went squirrel hunting with us, and when we were dividing up the game asked to be allowed to take those that were shot in the head. We let him make his own selection and had many a sly laugh over his wonderful skill. Colonel Wallace used to go alone into the river bottom to practice, bringing back only proofs of center shots.
The boys used to come to my shop to get up shooting matches; every fellow putting up his dollar, the one who came nearest the center taking the pot. They came one day when I was very busy. I told them to go ahead, and when they had all shot I'd take my turn. When it came to me, I shot and won. Just then old Joe Callahan staggered up, rifle in hand.
"See here, boys, can't Uncle Joe have a chance?" Willing to increase my winnings another dollar I replied, "O yes, Uncle Joe, you shall have a chance; go ahead." He anteed his dollar and raised his gun. He was too drunk to stand still, but after several lurches he made a supreme effort and blazed away. The ball struck the ground some ten feet short of the target and glanced, caught the lower edge of the target board, ploughed its way up through the center, tearing the paper to atoms. Uncle Joe won the money.
It wasn't always the man who hit the bull's eye oftenest that did the most effective shooting in an emergency. There were a couple of men in town, Moore and McKinstry, who fell out and agreed to settle their differences with pistols. They both came to me to train them. The course of training for dueling was to stretch a tape a man's height on a tree and shoot at the tape. Moore cut the tape oftener than he missed it, while McKinstry often missed the tree, seeing which, I looked on McKinstry as virtually a dead man. But when the duel was fought, Moore missed entirely, while McKinstry's ball struck him just above the ankles, breaking both legs.
Discussing the affair with Jesse Thompson, I expressed surprise at the result. "Ah," said he, "the tree had no pistol pointed at Moore when he was shooting at it."
And speaking of duels reminds me of another duel that look place, without the aid of seconds. There was a certain doctor who, when under the "influence," was always belligerent. He had a falling out with Colonel DeWitt and challenged him. "You can have choice of weapons," said the doctor. "All right," said the colonel, "I accept your challenge, and this is my weapon." And with that he raised his cane and gave the bellicose medico a drubbing that cured him of dueling.
There was a lawyer who had a penchant for dueling, to which men paid no attention. He sent a challenge to a merchant with whom he had trouble. The challenged party made no reply and the challenger proceeded to post him as a coward. A brother of the man who was being thus maligned, ordered him to take down the poster, and upon is refusal he was shot dead.
Nor were these San Felipeans indifferent to the claims of genius. The first public function after my arrival in the town being a demonstration in honor of a local bard, in which the distinguished gentleman, after having been made the recipient of a bran new suit of tar and feathers, was escorted through the whole length of the town seated on a rather lean Pegasus and bidden a long adieu at the further end.
The poetical flight which called forth this popular expression, had for its inspiration the banishment of a woman who, though posing as the wife of a prominent man, had previously sustained the same relation to an old circus manager, whom she deserted without the formality of a divorce when a younger suitor appeared. Her charms being already on the wane, the faithless lover soon wearied of his conquest and, in order to make room for a younger woman, to whom he could establish a legitimate claim, preferred charges against his whilom inamorita, which led to her banishment; an injustice which fired the poet's soul with indignation. The pen being mightier than the sword, the champion of the injured fair, chose the former weapon with which to avenge her wrongs, but unfortunately for him he neglected to put up his shield when entering the arena.
The verses as a whole, I do not recall, nor would their publication be admissible; the following couplets will be sufficient to establish their character. They were headed "Mrs. W----s' Lament."
"The United States, as we understand,
Took sick and did vomit the dregs of the land.
Her murderers, bankrupts and rogues you may see,
All congregated in San Felipe."
Then followed a long string of names including those of the most prominent men in the place, together with the cause which impelled them to emigrate. There was literally "more truth than poetry" in the argument, the master of ceremonies in the demonstration on the author, having been lighted on his journey thither by the moon's pale beams. As Dr. Rivers expressed it, "people were nearer on an equal footing socially in San Felipe than any place he ever saw; if one said to another, 'you ran away,' he could retort, 'so did you.'". Some wag fitted a tune to the doggerel rhyme, and the dare-devil spirit, which tempted the disinterested to sing it, was several times productive of blood-shed.
Many hard things have been said and written of the early settlers in Texas much of which is unfortunately only too true. Historians, however, fail to discriminate between the true colonists - those who went there to make homes, locate land, and, so far as the unfriendly attitude of the Indians permitted, resided on and improved it - and the outlaws and adventurers who flocked into the towns.
To the lasting honor of Stephen F. Austin, be it said, that he conscientiously endeavored to comply with his contract with Mexico to settle none but respectable families on the land allotted to his colony. It being also stipulated that they should be Catholic in religion, Austin probably placed a liberal construction on the word "Catholic," which Webster defines as "universal," his colonists as a rule being of no particular opinion on religious matters. They were honest and kind hearted, never refusing to lend a helping hand to those in distress, and if that isn't universal religion it is near enough for all practical purposes. And in this connection it may not be amiss to state that though Austin was temporarily invested with discretionary power for the government of his colony, the founding of which was by special contract antedating the promulgation of the general colonization law by four years, his functions ceased with the establishment of a general system of government; after which the local conduct of affairs was vested in the ayuntamiento, the members of which were elected from the different sections of the colony. So that, at the period at which we have arrived, Austin had been divested of every semblance of authority; his colony being under the domination of a ring, the leader of which had skipped his bonds in Alabama to avoid prosecution on a criminal charge, bringing with him all of his personal property and leaving his friends to mourn his departure to the tune of several thousand dollars.
Faulty statutes in the United States sent many a man to Texas. Dueling was still practiced in many of the states, a trivial matter often ending in the death of one party, the other fleeing the country.
Another fruitful source of emigration was debt; and, while some absconding debtors took their portable property along, others gave up all and went to Texas to take a fresh start and grow up with the country. The law of imprisonment for debt was still in force in some states, and, as the Indian said: "How Injun goin to get deer skin in jail?" If an insolvent debtor really wanted to pay his debts, his only chance was to abscond.
Bob Stewart, a knight of the green cloth, whose capacity for contracting debts was only limited by his credit, had an original way of disposing of duns. When a creditor presented a bill, Bob would dismiss him with the rebuke, "Go and pay your own debts and don't come bothering me about mine."
It was the regular thing to ask a stranger what he had done, and if he disclaimed having been guilty of any offense he was regarded with suspicion.
There was one man in Texas - yes, two, though one, being only a slave, didn't count - whose title to honesty was above suspicion - Joseph Mims, who lived down on the San Bernard. The circumstances which gave Mims an opportunity to demonstrate his unimpeachable character, was one in which the Mexican Government would have been the only loser, which latter consideration makes his action all the more remarkable. The paymaster was on his way to Nacogdoches with a large sum of money, and in crossing the San Bernard in a dugout, the boat tipped over and the box of money went overboard and could not be found. Sometime later in a low stage of water, Mims' negro found the money, which he delivered to his master, who promptly notified the Government of the find.
I never killed a man, but I came so near it that I never felt the least inclination to repeat it; and can well understand how such a deed may poison a man's whole life, even though done under circumstances that entirely justify him in the eyes of the world; haunting him sleeping and waking, driving him to seek oblivion in the wine cup.
There were several men in San Felipe who labored under such a burden. I several times had to defend myself, but fortunately never had a fatal quarrel. The nearest I ever came to it was in the case above referred to. I had employed an old deserter from the United States army to cut a lot of wood to burn into charcoal for my shop. He came every morning for a bottle of whisky and then went off to the woods for the day. At length some one told me he wasn't cutting any wood, so I went out to see about it. I found him lying under a tree and very little wood to show for the whisky I had advanced him. The next morning when he came around for his regular bottle, I told him I would give him no more till he cut wood enough to pay for what he had already. Upon that he grasped his ax in both hands and, raising it above his head, came at me. I was working at the anvil with a heavy hammer, and, being quicker than my assailant, planted it between his eyes, felling him senseless to the ground. The blood gushed from his mouth and nose and I thought I had killed him, and, notwithstanding it was a clear case of self-defense witnessed by several persons, I began to feel very miserable over it; but he didn't die, though he was laid up for some time. I paid all his bills and was glad to do it. Yes, I know just how it feels to have killed a man.
But bad as many of the San Felipeans were, I was presumably the worst of the lot, I being banished from the colony in a "Star chamber" proceeding in which I was not allowed to participate; the indictment against me charging me with being "a dangerous person, having treated their authority with contempt." To the latter part of the charge I enter no demurrer, for I certainly felt the contempt, whether I evinced it or not.
The facts in the case were, that having in a difficulty with the alcalde at Gonzales (an overbearing man) killed the alcalde, the homicide, knowing there would be no chance of a fair hearing there, voluntarily came on to San Felipe accompanied by Henry Brown and gave himself up. As the case had to be tried in Saltillo the prisoner asked to be admitted to bail. This was refused and, there being no jail, he was put in chains and his trial delayed till the poor man was worn out. I knew there were frequent killings under less provocations for which no one was held accountable; but killing an alcalde was not an ordinary affair. The prisoner was a friend of mine, and, becoming incensed at the treatment to which he was subjected, I gave him a file to cut his irons off, also providing him with a gun and other essentials with which to leave the country. Instead of getting out of the way, however, he lay around in the hills, stealing in to the house of his brother-in-law at intervals to learn if his case had been decided. The minions of the law got wind of his proceedings and, going to the brother-in-law's louse, took the latter out and whipped a confession out of him. They then went to the hiding place of the escaped prisoner and, upon his trying to elude arrest, shot him dead. The gun I had given him was rather a noted weapon, being all of my own make and the first rifled gun made in the colonies; hence the charge against me. But had I heeded the advice of my friend Bob Mathews and kept my mouth shut, I probably would not have been molested.
The first official notice I had of the case against me was when a squad of militia under Captain Abner Kuykendall came to serve the sentence. I told them "they needn't make such a fuss about it, I thought, considering the character of the place, it was about the best thing they had ever done for me." Without allowing me even a day's time in which to wind up my business they put me in charge of a couple of my friends, who undertook to see me across the Sabine. When we were mounted to start, some one ran out with a bottle and glass and proposed that I drink to the health of Old San Felipe. I took the proffered glass, which I drained to the following toast: "If there is an honest man in the place may he be conducted to a place of safety, and then may fire and brimstone be rained upon the iniquitous town." That was my last farewell to San Felipe de Austin, my curse having literally been fulfilled before I was through that way again. This was in 1831.
I went on across the Sabine, where the authority of my escort ceased, and the next day recrossed the river, going up into Redlands, as the country between the Sabine and Ayish Bayou was called. Here I sojourned for a short time, after which I drifted down to Alexandria, in Louisiana, where the next four years were mostly passed pleasantly and profitably among the wealthy planters, the most liberal and kind-hearted people in the world; and but for the unhealthy climate, which came near taking me off, I should probably never have returned to Texas. I had some rather interesting adventures in the Redlands, which I here relate. But first I want it distinctly understood that the disclosures I make are not to be construed as reflecting on the whole population of the Redlands, who were no more responsible for the evil emanating therefrom than it is that of any other section tyrannized over by a band of ruffians.
Southwestern Classics On-Line | Lone Star Junction
Online Edition Copyright © 1997 Lone Star Junction. All rights reserved.