Texana Ranger

We let Jesse Sublett loose—he brought back these reports.

By Comments

Digging Texas Outlaws

Wild West outlaws died young and left good looking corpses, but is that any reason to keep digging them up?

It’s a craze in the name of “historical” curiosity that has seen the supposedly-final resting places of guys like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Jesse James, and, most recently, Wild Bill Longley, disinterred and subjected to the prying eyes of DNA experts, reporters, and the more morbid Western buffs amongst us.

Before Bill Longley’s remains were exhumed from the Giddings Cemetery and subjected to the latest is-he-or-isn’t-he test, 21 graves were opened and perused in error. According to history, William Preston Longley was buried in Giddings after being hung for one of his 32 murders in 1878. (Longley had to be hanged twice because the first time, the hangman used the wrong length of rope, and the killer dropped through the gallows’ trap door and hit the ground, neck sore but not snapped). But legend has it Longley’s friends rigged a fake execution and aided his escape from Giddings, after which the outlaw lived to a ripe old age under another name. Similar legends persist about Jesse James, the Wild Bunch, and Billy the Kid.

Researchers at the University of Texas at San Antonio will examine the grave’s remains and perform DNA testing to try to confirm that they indeed belonged to Longley. One part of the body the people in San Antonio don’t have is the skull—which was sent to the Smithsonian, where experts will attempt a facial reconstruction.

Searching for the truth about Bill Longley has always been tangled in ambiguities. A racist killer, thug, and pathological liar, one of the kindest things that can be said about the man is that he was probably exaggerating when he claimed to have killed 32 men. By far the best book on Longley’s murderous career is contained in Bloody Bill Longley, by Rick Miller.

John Wesley Hardin is another Texas gunslinger whose corpse must be spinning from all the fuss over whether it should remain where it has been since his death in 1896—Concordia Cemetery in El Paso—or be moved to Nixon. The Nixon camp, which includes some descendants and Nixon-area residents who think Hardin’s new grave would be a dandy tourist attraction, contend that Hardin was a family man, and should be moved to Nixon where he can lie next to the grave of his first wife. (Jane Bowen Hardin died in 1894, while Hardin was serving 16 years in Huntsville for murder.) The El Paso camp feels Hardin should stay where he is because the El Paso of the late 1890s was obviously Hardin’s kind of town—a place where gambling, drinking, prostitution, and aging gunfighters flourished. After being released from prison, Hardin showed no inclination to retire to the Nixon area, which held plenty of bad memories for him. Hardin, in fact, remarried and spent even less time with his children than he had before he was incarcerated. That is, very little.

Hardin didn’t kill anyone in El Paso. The fact is he was hitting the bottle so heavily at that time he probably couldn’t shoot straight if he wanted to. But the locale did add to his legend. On August 19, 1896, Hardin was shot from behind by El Paso Constable John Selman (himself a multiple murderer and ex-criminal) in the Acme Saloon. Bolstering its claim as not only the place where Hardin fell but where he shall remain, El Paso recently convinced the state to erect a historical marker at Hardin’s gravesite.

In the latest round of legal wrangling over Hardin’s corpse, the county of El Paso filed an injunction against the Nixon camp, which stipulates that the latter must prove they have the authority to move the body, including permission from the owner of the cemetery and the owner of the grave. That seems unlikely, but the matter will be brought up in El Paso County Court sometime in August.

For the past several years, August 19th has been celebrated in El Paso with reenactments of Hardin’s death, tours of his favorite haunts, and a suitably irreverent six-shooters-and-champagne celebration at the cemetery.

If it’s western lawman lore you dig, August definitely promises to be a red-letter month. This year, the Texas Rangers celebrate their 175th anniversary, and August 21-22, the Texas Ranger Museum and Hall of Fame will host a symposium on the Rangers, featuring formal presentations by leading Texas history experts, including Harold Weiss, Chuck Parsons, Mike Cox, and Thomas Knowles, author of the official Texas Rangers history tome, They Rode for the Lone Star (which should be published in December). Other events include a shooting demonstration ranging from black powder guns to the latest in Texas Ranger ordnance, and a keynote address by senior ranger Captain Bruce Casteel. Call 254-750-8631 for details.


Visit Bill Longley’s grave

Visit John Wesley Hardin’s grave

The Heat is a Killer

The tortuous heat of summer can be a rude awakening for anyone visiting Texas, even a native returning from a few years in cooler climes. For Sam Bass, a native of the Denton area, June and July of 1878—exactly 120 years ago—must have seemed like a cruelly warm welcome home. Bass and his gang had netted $60,000 in a train robbery in Big Springs, Nebraska, and were re-entering Texas with lawmen hot on their trail.

On June 13, 1878, a posse led by Texas Ranger June Peak and Sheriff W. F. Eagan caught up with the Bass gang at Salt Creek, Texas. In the shoot-out that ensued, the lawmen killed a gang member named Arkansas Johnson and captured all of the gang’s horses. The surviving outlaws escaped on foot and made it to Denton riding stolen horses.

During his flight through Denton, Bass asked a young black man named Andy Nelson to show him the quickest route to the lower crossing of the Trinity River. Years later, Nelson would recount this harrowing incident in an interview with field operatives with the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

Bass concocted a plan to rob the bank at Round Rock, but one of his cohorts, Jim Murphy, turned informant and got word to the Texas Rangers. After camping outside of town, Bass and his buddies—Seaborn Barnes and Frank Jackson—rode into Round Rock on Friday, July 19, a day before the robbery was to take place, to case the bank. Pretending to be three average cowpokes, the outlaws tied up their mounts near Henry Koppel’s general store on East Main Street where Bass intended to buy some tobacco.

That’s when the outlaws were accosted by two local deputy sheriffs, Ellis Grimes and Morris Moore. Supposedly, Grimes and Moore had no idea who the three outlaws were. They had merely noticed that the strangers appeared to be wearing pistols—which, at the time, happened to be against the law in Texas.

Grimes boldly approached Bass and said, “Young man, give me your gun.”

“You can have both of them,” replied Bass, who whipped out a pair of pistols and immediately began firing.

Grimes fell dead with five bullets in his body. Deputy Moore went down with a chest wound. Suddenly, the whole town seemed to erupt in a storm of bullets and gunsmoke.

A shot from Texas Ranger Dick Ware fatally wounded Seaborn Barnes. Through the hail of gunfire from other Rangers, lawmen, and armed private citizens, Bass and his pal Frank Jackson made it to their horses and galloped out of town. Bass, however, had suffered a serious wound, and Jackson dropped him off under a tree just outside of town and rode on, never to be seen again. Bass was soon captured and brought back into Round Rock, where he drifted in and out of consciousness for the next two days, refusing to divulge any details of his criminal activities to the lawmen. On Sunday, July 21, Bass uttered these last words: “The world is bobbing around me.” It was his 27th birthday.

Sam Bass will probably always be Texas’ most famous outlaw. Even today, Round Rock is best known as the place where his life came to a tragic and brutal end.

San Antonio’s Missions

The original objective of the 36 Spanish missions that were established in Texas between 1690 and 1793 was to help Spain cement a firmer foothold in this contentious frontier. Sure, the missionaries hoped to convert the local Indians to Christianity, but that aim was almost secondary to Spain’s political agenda in the New World. The Spaniards figured that about ten years would be enough time to convince the natives to adopt European habits and so regarded the missions as temporary institutions.

So much for transience. Little did the Spaniards know that many of the missions (which, on the whole, failed miserably in most of their goals) would not only remain standing 300 years later, but would rank among the state’s most popular tourist attractions. The irony is that, although the Indians stubbornly resisted learning the ways of the Spanish, modern archeologists, tourists, and other history buffs flock to these fascinating, highly evocative structures to learn what life was like for European settlers and the natives they interacted with in 17th, 18th, and 19th-century Texas.

In June of this year, San Antonio kicked off Phase One of a $17.7 million project to make improvements to the city’s five historic missions, including schemes that will benefit the residents who live in the neighborhoods around the missions. One of the objectives of San Antonio’s Mission Trail Project is the construction of a 12-mile trail linking the city’s best-known mission, the Alamo (originally established in 1716 as Mission San Antonio de Padua and renamed Mission San Antonio de Valero in 1718) with four other missions, San José, Concepcíon, San Juan Capistrano, and San Francisco de la Espada, already included in an 850-acre national park. The trail linking the park to the Alamo will make it much easier for tourists to visit the missions, which San Antonio regards as the city’s “crown jewels.”

Touring in person is really the best way to gaze through these haunting windows on Texas’ past, but for those of you who just can’t seem to find the time or scrape up the gas money, taking a virtual tour of the missions is an easy, cheap, and surprisingly educational alternative. There are several online options:

To go straight to the mission of your choice, visit the official National Park Mission Trail Or you may choose to start at the Knowledge Trail link and visit the missions in designated order. If the browse encourages you to jump in the car and actually go there, this is the website to visit to learn the hours of operation, parking information, and all the other stuff that matters in real time.

“Mission Accomplished”, from the December 1994 issue of Texas Monthly, offers a pleasant and informative virtual tour of the four national park missions located in San Antonio, accompanied by a well-written commentary and attractive illustrations, plus links to other mission sites on the Web.

Shipwreck Search

The Amiable isn’t the first shipwreck that novelist Clive Cussler and his National Underwater and Marine Agency have uncovered in Texas.

A team of shipwreck hunters announced that they had found the remains of the Amiable, a 100-foot long supply ship that had sailed from France under the command of the explorer Renee Robert Cavalier Sieur de La Salle. La Salle established one of the first colonies in Texas after mistaking the coastline around Matagorda Bay for the mouth of the Mississippi River. The discovery of the Amiable, which sank in 1685, came roughly a year after the recovery of La Salle’s flagship, La Belle. The Amiable was located using advanced techniques that included aerial magnetic surveys, a supersensitive metal detector capable of picking up even minute magnetic activity, and Global Satellite Position System technology. According to news reports, the assistance of an outfit called the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA) was instrumental in finding the shipwreck. Who is NUMA? They are a nonprofit group of shipwreck hunters, founded by novelist Clive Cussler, who when he isn’t searching for lost shipwrecks, spends his time writing about searching for them.

This wasn’t Cussler’s first shipwreck hunting adventure in Texas, though. Back in 1986, the author was searching for the wreck of the Zavala, a Texas warship that participated in one of the more thrilling escapades of the Republic of Texas navy. In 1840, Commodore Edwin Moore, leading a force consisting of the Zavala and two other warships, steamed up the San Juan Bautista River to the provincial capital of Tabasco, aimed his ship’s guns at the city, and demanded that the mayor hand over $25,000 or Tabasco would be leveled. The ploy worked, and Moore’s ships steamed back downriver $25,000 richer. The Texas navy, it seems, was always being short-sheeted by the Texas government, and this wasn’t the first time Commodore Moore had to resort to creative means to find money to pay his crews and repair his ships.

But on the way back to Galveston, Zavala ran into a terrible storm and suffered extensive damage. The ship was run aground in Galveston harbor and left to rot. Not only was the ship’s location forgotten, but the section of the harbor where it lay was filled in and became a part of the waterfront warehouse district. Almost 150 years after she was abandoned, and after expending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars on his search, Cussler finally found the Zavala: in a parking lot, buried under 12 feet of asphalt and landfill.

Cussler wrote in his memoir, The Sea Hunters, that despite his success and his affection for the Texas navy, his memories of the Texas adventure weren’t all that warm and fuzzy. After he located the Zavala, Cussler was invited to meet then-Governor Mark White. During the meeting, Cussler presented Governor White with a historically accurate, detailed scale model of the Zavala, which he’d paid a sculptor several thousand dollars to build. On accepting the model, White supposedly looked up at Cussler and said, “Did you build it?”

Apparently Cussler didn’t appreciate being mistaken for a humble model-builder instead of being credited as an intrepid shipwreck hunter. “I’m outta here,” Cussler told the Governor of Texas: According to witnesses cited in the memoir, the Governor shrugged his shoulders after Cussler left and said, “I guess he’s in a hurry to build another model.”

Juneteenth Heroes

Juneteenth is a reminder that perhaps as many as three in five cowboys were black, and African-American cowboys were often among the most-talented cowpunchers you could find.

On June 19, 1865, General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas to address a public gathering of Galveston citizens. One of his first orders of business was the reading of an announcement that would catch them up with the rest of the country.

“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.”

Gordon’s announcement was made over two-and-a-half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had become official. But news traveled slowly in those days—especially the kind of news that some folks wished to ignore. There were few federal troops in Texas to enforce a law the plantation owners were hoping and praying would eventually just go away.

Today, June 19th is popularly known as Juneteenth, and what began as a mostly Texan holiday to celebrate the day when America finally did become “the land of the free, home of the brave,” has become a major holiday observed in hundreds of cities across America, and in other parts of the world as well.

As Juneteenth approaches, the media generally profiles notable African-Americans, especially those whose accomplishments have been overlooked because their contributions didn’t fit with the stereotypical version of events that used to pass as history. The largely Hollywood-invented notion of the West where the good guys all wore white hats and had white faces to match, has given way to the modern, informed view that as many as three out of five cowboys were black, and African-American cowboys were often among the most talented cowpunchers you could find.

Bill Pickett, for example, who was born and raised just north of Austin, went on to international fame as the cowboy who invented the sport of bulldogging. Supposedly, while rounding up strays in the early 1900s, Pickett learned that a sure-fire way to pacify a wild steer was to bite it on the lip and throw it to the ground. Pickett later moved to Oklahoma, went to work for the legendary 101 Ranch, and became the star attraction of the 101 Ranch’s traveling wild west show. Highlights of his amazing career include a starring role in a movie (sadly, no copies are known to exist) and a performance at Madison Square Garden, where he was assisted by a young hazer named Will Rogers.

Another black ex-Texan, Bass Reeves, was an escaped slave who fled into present-day Oklahoma shortly after the Civil War. In those days, Oklahoma was still known as Indian Territory, and in addition to being the home of the Five Civilized Tribes, the state was a haven for outlaws, bootleggers, killers, and other misfits of all colors. Bass Reeves secured a job as a deputy U.S. Marshal, working for the infamous Fort Smith jurist Isaac Parker, best-known as “The Hanging Judge.” Reeves became one of the territory’s toughest lawmen, making more than 3,000 arrests during a career in law enforcement that lasted over 30 years. He even arrested his own son on a murder charge.

One of my favorite 19th century black heroes is Reverend Jacob Fontaine. Fontaine came to Austin in 1841, accompanied by his master, the private secretary of President Mirabeau Lamar. Fontaine used to attend the same Baptist church attended by Sam Houston, where he rang the church bell every Sunday morning. After the white services were concluded, blacks were allowed to conduct their own services as long as a party of whites were available to keep an eye on things. When the Civil War ended, Fontaine was 57 years old. He began an amazing career as a minister, newspaper publisher, grocer, and tireless promoter of self-improvement in the black community. Besides establishing more than five new churches, Fontaine was an influential voice in the Republican party. In the early 1880s, when a statewide referendum was organized to determine the permanent site of the University of Texas, Fontaine was asked to drum up support for the university to be located in Austin. Fontaine toured the state tirelessly, meeting with black congregations and fellow clergymen in hopes of securing a large number of votes in this crucial—and surprisingly hard-fought—contest. Austin won the election, of course, and Fontaine should rightfully be remembered as one of the founding fathers of the University of Texas—would be able to attend for more than half a century. Fontaine was originally buried in an unmarked grave near the eastern border of the UT campus. Now a state historical marker stands next to his final resting place—the first black Texan so honored.

General Juneteenth info, many links

Juneteenth Worldwide

Order Juneteenth Texas: Essays in African-American Folklore

Order Guts : Legendary Black Rodeo Cowboy Bill Pickett, by Cecil Johnson

Bass Reeves, a hero of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

New Words of the West

Waiting for Cormac McCarthy and other new words of the West including a new LBJ bio, a handful of mysteries, and Marion Winik’s The Lunchbox Chronicles.

May is Texas Writers Month, and judging by the prodigious output of the authors who either claim Texas as their state of residence or state of mind, 1998 is shaping up to be a banner year for Texas literature. New Texas history books abound, from Robert Dallek’s new LBJ bio, Flawed Giant, to El Llano Estacado, by John Miller Morris. We’ve got new Texas mysteries, including Neal Barrett’s Bad Eye Blues, Bill Crider’s Death By Accident, and Mary Willis Walker’s All the Dead Lie Down. We’ve got contemporary non-fiction, fiction, and a memoir or two, including Lunchbox Chronicles, the new one from NPR commentator Marion Winik (She calls it her “Erma Bombeck book.”) There seems to be a little bit of everything for everybody, but there’s a haunting feeling that the best of ë98 is yet to come. Cities of the Plain, the third novel in Cormac McCarthy’s border trilogy (preceded by All the Pretty Horses and The Crossing) is slated for publication May 18. Now that’ll be something to sink your teeth into. For those of you who just can’t wait for the latest from Texas’ greatest living novelist, you can read an excerpt of the new novel at the Borzoi Reader site.

One good way to pass the time waiting for the new McCarthy book is to catch up on new non-fiction books about Texas history. One of my favorite scribes in that department, Charles M. Robinson III, has a new biography of Kiowa warrior Satanta (1815-1878), packed with enough action, tragedy, and historical insight to fill a whole series of novels. Robinson is the author of The Buffalo Hunters; Bad Hand: A Biography of Ranald S. McKenzie, and an upcoming book on the Texas Rangers. Satanta: The Life and Death of a War Chief is a fine work on a fascinating individual who, despite his bloody reputation as the leader of the infamous Warren wagon train massacre, was certainly a better man than many of his “civilized” enemies. Satanta’s people, the Kiowa, were a Plains tribe who, like the Comanches, had been transformed by their acquisition of the horse and the gun The Kiowa became, in effect, fierce, nomadic mounted cavalry units who raided and hunted their way across the Southwest, thwarting efforts to civilize the frontier for many years. As civilization inevitably encroached on the Kiowa, Satanta rose to the occasion with his talent for combat, leadership, and diplomacy. A skilled orator, Satanta’s eloquence caught the imagination of the Eastern press and helped draw attention to the tragedies being perpetrated on Native Americans by white men in the name of progress and civilization. “A long time ago this land belonged to our fathers; but when I go up to the river I see camps of soldiers on its banks. These soldiers cut down my timber; they kill my buffalo; and when I see that, my heart feels like bursting; I feel sorry … Has the white man become a child that he should recklessly kill and not eat? When the red men slay game, they do so that they may live and not starve.”

Satanta and other Kiowa leaders were sentenced to prison in Huntsville for their crimes, and Santana was later paroled by the controversial Reconstruction Governor Edmund J. Davis. But Davis’ Democratic successor, Richard Coke, sent Satanta back to prison. “I cannot wither and die like a dog,” the proud Kiowa said. Shortly afterward, Santana committed suicide by jumping off a second story landing of the prison infirmary — where he was being treated for a previous suicide attempt.

In 1963, more than a century after his death, Satanta’s legacy was so contentious that hard feelings rose when his descendants sought permission to move his remains from Huntsville to Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Representative James Cotton fought the legislation proposing the reburial, saying: “Satanta led numerous raids on the white settlements in Texas, including some in my district.

Satanta is a prime example of why our frontier past continues to haunt and invigorate Texas writing. With so many figures who were not only larger than life but whose eloquence and depth of emotion still rings true today, it’s no wonder we’re blessed with great stories, and talented Texas writers to tell them.

Order Satanta: The Life and Death of a War Chief


Middle May

Big Stories from the Big State: Celebrate Texas Writers Month with reviews of three new history books, including a unique study of one of the weirdest episodes in the short history of the Republic of Texas.


As Texas Writers Month continues, I want to bring attention to three fine new books written by Texans and pertaining to interrelated corners of Texas history.

Dare-Devils All: Texas Mier Expedition 1842-1844, by J. M. Nance (Eakin Press, $133).

Dare-Devils All is a unique study of one of the weirdest and most haunting episodes that occurred in the short history of the Republic of Texas. Despite the fact that Texas had won its independence from Mexico in 1836, trouble still brewed, and twice in 1842, Mexican troops captured and occupied the town of San Antonio. Texas volunteers under General Alexander Somervell’s command mounted a raid on Mexican border towns, capturing Laredo and Guerrero without much trouble. But then about 300 of Somervell’s volunteers got restless and disobeyed orders to retreat. Instead—motivated by patriotic fervor or merely hunger for revenge—they continued deeper into Mexico and captured the town of Mier. Two days later the disobedient troops were captured by Mexican forces and imprisoned in Salado, where Santa Anna ordered that one out of every ten men be executed. A drawing was held; each man who drew a black bean was blindfolded and shot. Some of the lucky ones who drew white beans — eventually freed and allowed to return to Texas—would later become some of our best-known frontier heroes: Ben McCulloch, Bigfoot Wallace, Samuel Walker, and many others. The late historian, J.M. Nance, worked on Dare-Devils All for over fifty years, compiling an exhaustive array of resources and producing a manuscript over 3,000 pages long. Archie P. McDonald took over the project just before Nance’s death in 1997, whittling the manuscript down to 546 action-packed and insightful pages—a vital addition to any serious Texas history bookshelf.

Fifty Miles and a Fight: Major Samuel Peter Heintzelman’s Journal of Texas & the Cortina War, edited by Jerry Thompson (Texas State Historical Association, $39.95 hardcover).

In nineteenth century Mexico, Juan Nepomuceno Cortina was seen as a hero, a defender of the rights of Mexicans and Tejanos. Texans—especially the most vociferous ones—saw Cortina as a bandit and cattle thief who was fomenting a revolution by making forays north across the border to avenge various injustices against his people. Fifty Miles and a Fight excerpts the diaries of U.S. Army Major Samuel Peter Heintzelman, who spent five months on the border leading U.S. troops against Cortina, after the Mexicans had taken over the town of Brownsville with a force of only 75 men. Heintzelman’s diary is fascinating not only for its attention to minute daily details during the campaign, but for his obvious disdain for the Texas Rangers, whom he regarded as undisciplined, untrustworthy, and as editor Thompson puts it, “a serious distraction to peace.” Thompson’s introduction gives a solid overview of the Cortina War, as well as details on Heintzelman’s life before and after. The colorized photo of Heintzelman on the book jacket, however, is worth more than a thousand words: Seated in an ornate wooden chair in a freshly pressed uniform, saber angled across his lap, the major sports a salt and pepper beard and a very distracted, worried look on his face. Between the irascible Cortina, the rough and ready Rangers, and the upcoming Civil War, Heintzelman had plenty to worry about.

El Llano Estacado: Exploration and Imagination on the High Plains of Texas and New Mexico, 1536-1860, John Miller Morris (Texas State Historical Association, $27.55 hardcover).

How many different ways can you say “This land is flat and barren?” In his thought-provoking, beautifully written book, John Miller Morris not only catalogs many of the more eloquent ways in which the legendarily flat, arid and harsh mesa land of the Texas Panhandle and New Mexico was described in the first three centuries after European contact, but also waxes mighty poetic about the region himself. One of the oft-repeated images of El Llano Estacado’s 30,000 square miles of unbroken tableland seems to have been first expressed by the sixteenth century Spanish explorer Coronado:

“I traveled … until I reached some plains, with no more landmarks than as if we had been swallowed by the sea….”

Indeed, as Morris surveys three centuries of exploration by Spanish, French, Mexican, and Anglo-American adventurers, it seems that this untamable locale had a profound effect on those who tried to make their mark on it. Miller enlivens his study with some intriguing mysteries, such as the search for the Lost Coronado Trail. But his biggest contribution to environmental history is his relentless probing of the effect the Staked Plains have had on the human psyche. In his study of toponymns given to the area he points out the obvious advantages of the names applied to area landmarks by the Spanish. For example, a creek called Los Alamocitos, named for the young cottonwood trees along the stream’s banks, is much easier to locate than the same creek, renamed Maxwell Creek after a local landowner by Anglo settlers. Morris’ exploration offers insight into the disparate relationships Texas’ first settlers had with the land.


Read more about the Mier Expedition

Another Day, Another Dollar

The recently-released film The Newton Boys, the saga of America’s most successful train robbing gang, premiered at Austin’s Paramount theater on March 14. All we wanted was the money, just like doctors, lawyers and other businessmen. Robbing banks and trains was our way of getting it. That was our business.” -Willis Newton

For independent filmmaker Richard Linklater, making movies—Texas-style—is his business, though he’s not necessarily in it for the money. The recently-released film The Newton Boys, the saga of America’s most successful train robbing gang, opened nationwide on the heels of a gala Hollywood-style premiere at Austin’s Paramount theater on March 14. The $27 million film, the latest (and in this writer’s opinion, definitely the best) effort from Linklater, was a made-in-Texas project from concept to wrap party: A true Texas story, written by Texans and filmed on location in Texas. The Newton Boys also boasts a soundtrack composed and recorded by a little ol’ Austin bluegrass band called the Bad Livers and features two expatriate Texans—Matthew McConaughey and Ethan Hawke—in lead roles. Although modestly budgeted for a major Hollywood film, the budget was a large one compared to Linklater’s previous projects—Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise—films whose homemade, independent look gave them a sort of underground cachet. The Newton Boys, however, packs incredible firepower and comes off as a slick period action film—atypical of the genre only in its lack of sex, profanity, and large amounts of graphic violence—that could easily hold its own with films that cost five times as much. McConaughey plays Willis Newton, the leader of the bank-robbing clan who holds an almost religious conviction that the criminal exploits perpetrated by his five-man operation (with Ethan Hawke, Skeet Ulrich and Vincent D’Onofrio as the other three felonious Newtons, and Dwight Yoakum as an unstable gang member who can be trusted with nitroglycerin but not much else) are nothing more unsavory than “little crooks stealin’ from the big crooks.”

Willis Newton’s ironic, hard-boiled philosophy gives The Newton Boys much of its quirky charm. But what the average viewer may not realize until after the film is over is that Linklater has literally ripped Willis’ character straight out of the pages of history. As the final credits roll, Willis appears in documentary footage and Joe Newton is seen on “Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.” Both brothers, then in their seventies, are as unrepentant and hard-bitten as ever. In the documentary footage that accompanies the credits, Willis stares steely-eyed at the camera and almost rants that he and his brothers were nothing more than entrepreneurs.

Linklater, along with co-screenwriters Clark Walker and Claude Stanush, really seem to have nailed the soul of a true Texas story here, and have translated it into a highly entertaining movie with sympathetic, multi-dimensional characters. The film is based on public record and interviews with Willis and Joe Newton conducted and edited by Stanush and David Middleton in the 1970s. These interviews were collected for the book The Newton Boys: Portrait of an Outlaw Gang, published by State House Press in 1994.

The book is a rollicking read and even more quirky than the film version of the Newtons’ story. The book is essentially an oral history, with introductory and transitional sections written by Stanush and Middleton. The great majority of the talking is done by Willis, who describes his childhood with his “restless” father: “My daddy was a cyclone farmer, always looking for a honey pond and a fritter tree.” His mother, who once told Willis, “I guess if I had been a man, I’d a-been a bankrobber or outlaw too,” would read stories about famous outlaws to the kids at night, and when she ran out of outlaw stories, she’d relate tales from the Bible.

Eventually, Willis grew disenchanted with his father’s search for honey ponds and fritter trees and with the meager opportunities for adventure and high times in hardscrabble Uvalde, Texas. “I wanted something,” he says, “and I knew I would never get it following a mule’s ass and dragging cotton sacks down them middles.”

If you ask me, the bad guys always get the best lines.

The Border Roll Incident

John Wesley Hardin was a controversial and charismatic character for the tumultuous times in which he lived, and remains a fascinating figure today.

By his own admission, Texas gunfighter John Wesley Hardin killed more than 40 men during his lifetime. That’s a lot of blood on his hands, especially for the namesake of the founder of the Methodist Church, whose father was a Methodist preacher himself. Possessed of what seems to have been a borderline psychotic need to inject himself into feuds, racially-motivated disputes, manhunts, and other violent situations, the infamous outlaw was a controversial and charismatic character for the tumultuous times in which he lived, and remains a fascinating figure today.

Ironically, one of the most famous six-gun standoffs Hardin got himself into was one in which not a single shot was fired. His opponent was another of the West’s top guns — Wild Bill Hickok. Hardin rode into Abilene, Kansas in 1871 as an 18-year-old cowboy who had just killed five Mexicans in a confrontation on the trail up from Texas. Carrying a revolver was against the law in Abilene; Hardin ignored the ordinance and flaunted his pair of six-shooters as he caroused from saloon to saloon. Hickok, who just happened to be the town marshal, was well-informed of Hardin’s reputation and was not amused. Confronting Hardin on the street, he drew his own sixguns and demanded Hardin surrender his pistols and submit to arrest. According to his autobiography, The Life of John Wesley Hardin, Hardin slid his revolvers from their holsters butts first. Then, as Hickok reached for the guns, Hardin executed what was known as a “border roll,” twirling them over so that Hickok found himself with the muzzles of Hardin’s revolvers in his face. “I cursed him for a long-haired scoundrel,” wrote Hardin, “that would shoot a boy in the back.” Hickok quickly countered that Hardin had “been misinformed” and called him “the gamest and quickest boy I ever saw.” Then the two gunfighters retired to a nearby saloon to discuss matters further over some liquid refreshment.

That’s how Hardin tells it anyway. But over the years, western historians have drawn a line in the sand, arguing long and hard over the incident in Abilene. There are those who say it never happened. Wild Bill Hickok’s ardent fans are generally supportive of this view, using the logic that Hardin couldn’t have gotten the drop on Hickok because nobody was capable of doing so. They say Hardin wrote his autobiography after Hickok was dead, and therefore unable to dispute Hardin’s braggadocio.

With no other contemporary accounts of the incident to provide evidence one way or another, the issue was largely a matter of conjecture and hotly contested opinions. A few years ago, while researching Hardin and the Abilene incident for an Old West documentary broadcast on the Disney Channel, I was thrown into the frontlines of the battle. I consulted many of the top names in western history and came away scorched and battered by the experience, caught in the crossfire between dueling history posses.

During the height of the confusion, author Chuck Parsons, who was one of our more cool-headed consultants, came to my rescue. Parsons sent me some excerpts from the unpublished memoirs of a Texas cowboy named Alfred “Babe” Moye. Arriving with a herd of cattle in Abilene at the same time as Hardin, Moye witnessed an incident in which Hardin was showing off his gun-twirling prowess in an Abilene saloon right under Hickok’s nose. Moye says Hickok eventually told Hardin to cut it out before one of his guns accidentally went off and killed someone (which would happen later on, but that incident was no accident); apparently Hardin complied without protest.

Moye’s modestly written memoir doesn’t describe the same incident Hardin recounted but it is a smoking gun nevertheless, the point being that Hickok not only allowed Hardin to wear his weapons in town but that there was some kind of truce or relationship between the two men — likely one that was based on a kind of mutual respect. Therefore, the border roll incident very well could have happened, and because there’s no compelling evidence to the contrary, it probably did.

While working on the Disney documentary, I also learned that another of my consultants, El Paso author Leon Metz, was working on a new biography of Hardin. Hoping to make my own small contribution to wild west history, I cheerfully forwarded Metz the Moye memoir excerpts.

A writer with a garrulous way with words and a novelist’s sense of the dramatic, Metz is without a doubt the best and most exciting living writer of wild west history. He’s also appeared in scores of documentaries, and is a much sought-after lecturer on western history. Metz did include Moye’s version of Hardin’s shenanigans in Abilene in his fine book, John Wesley Hardin: Dark Angel of Texas, and concluded that, yes, the border roll incident must have happened. What’s more, Metz’s book will probably stand as the definitive Hardin biography for many years to come.

John Wesley Hardin was not a good man. But he led a wild and adventurous life during some of Texas’ formative years. His experiences and his skewed view of events make him a figure of compelling interest that is sure to keep producing a flood of entertaining books, documentaries, web sites, and debates.

John Wesley Hardin links:

“John Wesley Hardin: The Fortysomething Killer” by Jesse Sublett

Visit Hardin’s grave

“Richland Crossing” by Walter C. Dixson

Order “Dark Angel.”

Order “The Last Gunfighter,” a fascinating Hardin bio by Richard Mahron

Whooping it Up

The first of the month means you’ve got a measly 45 days to untangle your income tax, and even less time to see the great, majestic and endangered whooping cranes while they’re still in Texas.

Whether March comes in like a lion or a lamb, the first of the month means you’ve got a measly 45 days to untangle your income tax, and even less time to see the great, majestic and endangered whooping cranes while they’re still in Texas. Come April 1st, the 150-odd members of the world’s only wild, migrating flock of whooping cranes are expected to have left their winter home at Aransas National Wildlife Refuge for a 2,500-mile journey back to Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Canada. Once there, they’ll make their nests and raise their young over the spring and summer, returning to Texas in the fall.

I love big wading birds. Great blue herons are the most common ones that live near me, and if I don’t get around to visiting them on Austin’s Town Lake several times a week, something’s not right with my world. A egret is a nice sight to see, and the roseate spoonbill is very cool, too. But the whooping crane is extra-extra-special. For one thing, they’re really, really big.

Standing upwards of five feet tall, the whooping crane is the tallest bird in North America, almost humanlike in scale. But a human with even just one ounce of humility in his or her soul can’t help but be inspired by the presence of a bird of such awesome dimensions. A whooper’s wing span can range up to seven and-a-half feet. They glide effortlessly through the air, necks fully extended (a trait that distinguishes them from other large wading birds—herons, for example, who fly with necks folded back, like an S), spiraling up into the heavens on thermal updrafts. Boosted by a stiff tail wind, a whooping crane was once clocked going 107.5 kilometers per hour. Normally, during migration, their average speed is about 53 kph.

The whooping crane’s name is derived from its vibrant, trumpetlike call, which can be heard for miles.

John James Audubon, the nineteenth century naturalist for whom the Audubon Society was named, was especially fascinated by whooping cranes. He kept a one-winged crane for a pet and grew quite fond of it. Less fortunate cranes ended up on Audubon’s dinner table. He described the flesh of the young birds as “tender and juicy, of a colour resembling that of young venison, “and excellent eating.” Well, those were different times. During the Civil War, there was an estimated 1,400 whooping cranes in America. As humans moved in, whoopers faded out. By 1940 there were fewer than 16 whooping cranes left in the country.

Now, thanks to preservation efforts such as the establishment of the 100,000-acre Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in 1937, the population has rebounded and currently hovers around 150 cranes in the migrating flock. In other locations, there are two dozen or so other whooping cranes living in the wild as a result of experimental breeding programs. Like the cranes you see at the zoo, however, these birds do not migrate.

Seeing the Texas whooping crane flock is relatively easy. The Aransas Wildlife Refuge, located 85 miles from Corpus Christi off Texas Highway 35, is open to the public. If you’re lucky, the catwalks in the refuge will bring you close enough to view the cranes with binoculars, not to mention a bounty of other wildlife, including alligators, deer, javelinas, feral hogs, armadillos, raccoons, cougars, and bobcats. If you’re really, really lucky, you might even spy the whoopers doing their mating dance, which is reportedly quite a sight to see. However, one must bear in mind that the whooping crane is an incredibly suspicious bird (Audubon even observed that his pet whooper was extremely cautious in approaching a head of cabbage), and well aware of the fact that most of its enemies approach by land. So you might do better by booking a boat excursion. In the Rockport area, there are at least nine companies that do birdwatching tours. Link up to the Rockport-Fulton Area Chamber of Commerce for information on boat tours and lodging in nearby Rockport. According to my research, the hotels, motels and bed and breakfasts look quite reasonable, and many places offer their own fishing piers.

Check out The Majestic & Endangered Whooping Crane: An Alberta, Canada Perspectivefor many, many links to other sites.

Historic Haven

An ecological gold mine and a monument to Texas history, the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge consists of 11,950 acres of land along the Rio Grande River.

An ecological gold mine and a monument to Texas history, the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge consists of 11,950 acres of land along the Rio Grande River, extending upstream from where the river empties into the Gulf of Mexico. This area is home to more than 20 endangered or threatened species, including ocelots, jaguarundi, peregrine falcons, piping plovers, horned lizards, and the Texas indigo snake. The more than 1,100 plant species found here include the last remaining stand of mangroves in the state. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officially acquired the title to the land in January, after a long and complicated process of extricating the tract from an ill-fated real estate venture known as Playa del Rio. That project envisioned a resort area with thousands of homes, a dozen golf courses, several hotels, a theme park, and a marina.

“This land is a national treasure,” said Nancy Kaufman, director of the southwest region of the Fish and Wildlife Service. “Fish, wildlife, and people will benefit from this acquisition, as will the growing ecotourism industry of South Texas.” Even more encouraging, the long-range plan for the refuge is for it to extend at least 120 miles up the river valley, to Falcon Dam, ensuring the preservation of this ecologically significant river corridor.

The refuge also includes Palmito Ranch Battlefield. Here, on May 13, 1865, Col. John S. “Rip” Ford, who was leading a large Confederate cavalry unit, arrived just in the nick of time to rescue another Rebel cavalry force from what seemed to be certain defeat. Soon after Ford’s artillery opened fire and his cavalry charged, the Union forces were sent scurrying away in retreat. The Battle of Palmito Ranch, the last battle of the Civil War, was a victory for the South. Unfortunately, after the battle, Ford’s men learned from their prisoners that General Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomatox a month earlier. News traveled more slowly in those days. Today we gripe if our browser takes a couple of extra seconds to download our favorite online news source. A hundred and thirty years ago, there was nothing unusual about a month’s delay—especially after General Sherman’s troops tore down all the telegraph lines on his infamous march across the south.

For more information on the Battle of Palmito visit: http://www2.cr.nps.gov/abpp/battles/tx005.htm

Out to Sea

Texans, it seems, are rarely thought of as seagoing people, and yet we’re blessed with ample coastline marked by many thrilling nautical links to the past. Consider the Texas Navy, which protected our shores until the Republic of Texas became a state in 1845. And the sailor Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, the shipwrecked Spaniard who came ashore at Galveston Island in 1528 and wandered Texas and other parts of the Southwest for three years with his two surviving companions. The notes he took were transcribed into the very first book about Texas.

And then there’s La Salle, the French explorer whose expedition accidentally mistook Matagorda Bay for the mouth of the Mississippi River, and established an ill-fated, short-lived settlement there. When the last of La Salle’s four ships ran aground in the bay during a storm in 1686, the doomed adventurers were left short of supplies and unable to return to France. The remains of the ship, a two-sail, four-gun sloop known as La Belle, were excavated last year, and a small but tantalizing sampling of its 300-year old contents has already hit the road as a traveling exhibition. The Daughters of the Republic of Texas Museum in Austin (512/339-1997) is currently showing one of the ship’s beautifully decorative 800-pound canons; glass beads intended for trade with the Indians; various pins and buttons; eating utensils; rapier hilts; hawk bells; one shoe; a photographic documentation of the excavation; and portions of a journal written by one of La Salle’s men (the leader himself was murdered by a disgruntled expeditioneer).

Though the booming cannon on La Salle’s ship surely impressed the Karankawa Indians who met them on shore, these 17th century pea shooters look like the proverbial ants on an elephant’s derrière when compared to the armored hulls and fourteen-inch guns of the massive battleship USS Texas, which now serves as a permanent floating museum on the watery edge of San Jacinto Historic Battlefield and Park. The “Mighty T”, commissioned in 1910, served in both world wars and was a product of the feverish naval arms race that engulfed the world in the years before and after World War I. We visited her every summer when I was a kid. I fondly remember sitting behind her anti-aircraft guns, rat-tat-tatting pretend Japanese Zeros and gawking up at those awesomely huge turrets, big-as-telephone-pole guns that fired explosive shells weighing as much as a small car.

Finally, before dropping anchor on the old browser, I highly recommend paying a visit to the site devoted to the first US battleship named after the state of Texas. This USS Texas, commissioned in 1895, was the sister ship of the ill-fated USS Maine, the ship that blew up in Cuba and started the Spanish-American War. The first USS Texas fought in that war and was, in effect, America’s first battleship, having been commissioned a year before the Maine. These ships, and America’s victory in the war against Spain, marked the United States’ emergence as a world power at the beginning of the 20th century. The web site gives a good brief history of the ship and sports a spiffy color illustration of the USS Texas in all her armor-clad, tubby glory that makes a great desktop background.

Naval Gazing

Edwin Ward Moore was the intrepid, inventive, never-say-die naval commander who single-handedly built the fledgling Republic’s naval forces from scratch.

Way up yonder in the top shelves of the Panhandle, just north of the bend in the Canadian River that backs up behind Sanford Dam to form Lake Meredith, lies Moore County. Moore County is north of just about every significant body of water in Texas, and a very long way from the Gulf of Mexico. That’s strange when you think about it, because Moore County was named after Edwin Ward Moore, Commodore of the Texas Navy; the intrepid, inventive, never-say-die naval commander who single-handedly built the fledgling Republic’s naval forces from scratch despite being perennially under-funded, understaffed, and to this day, underappreciated.

Besides miraculously keeping his shoestring navy afloat on a day to day basis, Moore achieved at least one victory that most would have called impossible. On April 27, 1843, while Texas’ still simmering troubles with Mexico were threatening to boil over into another full-scale war, Moore led a two-ship force consisting of the Stephen F. Austin and the Wharton—both wooden sailing ships—against two brand new, vastly superior Mexican warships, the Montezuma and the Guadaloupe. Both the latter were steam-propelled and armed with powerful new Paixhans guns, the first naval guns to fire explosive shells. But under Moore’s command, the Texas ships outmaneuvered and out-shot the Mexicans, winning an important victory against incredible odds—not the least of which was Sam Houston’s constant efforts to destroy the Texas Navy through willful neglect, non-appropriation, chicanery, and finally, court-martial. Houston, in fact, charged Moore with disobeying orders during the April 1843 battle and had him tried for disobedience, contumacy, mutiny, piracy, and murder. The court-martial proceedings, however, acquitted Moore on all but four minor charges.

Besides its unique commander, the Texas naval forces had at least one other ace up their sleeve: the Texas Navy’s official flag so closely resembled that of the United States’ that many a Mexican ship sailed within range of the Texans’ guns before realizing the error, an error that had just cost them their ship and its valuable stores of booty.

You can read more about Moore and the Texas Navy, and all sorts of historical happenings off the Texas coast in two new books slated for publication in March by University of Texas Press. From Sail to Steam: Four Centuries of Texas Maritime History, 1500-1900, by Richard V. Francaviglia, reaches all the way back to the Spanish flotilla that wrecked off Padre Island in 1554, La Salle’s expedition to Matagorda, and includes the latest archeological discoveries about these and other shipwrecks. The book also covers the Texas Navy, the Civil War battles at Galveston and Sabine Pass, and the major maritime developments of the late nineteenth century, concluding with the disastrous Galveston hurricane of 1900.

More limited in scope but just as highly anticipated is Battle on the Bay: The Civil War Struggle for Galveston, by Edward T. Cotham, Jr. Also employing onsite research and archival material such as maps and rare historical photographs, Cotham chronicles the Civil War experience in Galveston, including battles in the Bay and in the city, and of course, includes the very exciting Battle of Galveston Bay on New Years Day 1863, in which the spunky Confederate “cottonclads” whipped the Union navy and retook the city.

Before sailing away, I’d like to point out that trivia king L.M. Boyd, a literary hero of mine, echoed the theme of my last column in his syndicated column in the Austin American-Statesman (2-13-98). He said: “Not many people outside Texas thinks of that state as one of the great coastal quarters of the nation. But it is.”

It’s good to know I’m not alone at sea.

Texana Links

More and more about the Texas Myth.

Now that I look back at 1997 in my rear-view mirror, it’s clear to see that I spent too much time browsing the web for Texana. Fortunately, because I had a faster modem and because of the explosion of worthwhile content, I spent more of my time actually downloading cool stuff and less time just trying to figure out what’s out there. Still, I found myself returning to my favorite Texana bookmarks time and time again to see what’s new. Here are my top Texana bookmarks of 1997:

Texas Ranger Hall of Fame & Museum
Check out this cool site for classic photos and graphics of lawmen, outlaws, and guns, including some that belonged to Billy the Kid and Bonnie and Clyde. And be sure to order some stuff from the museum shop, because the museum is funded solely through admissions, souvenir sales, and the kindness of friends. Traveling to Waco, where the museum is located, is an even better way to explore Ranger history. Plot your visit by following the links provided to other Waco sites, and tell ‘em Texana Ranger sent you.

The Gunfighter Zone
Not much original content here, but this site functions as a must-stop corral for links to western history, cowboys, gunfighter re-enactors, collectibles, etc.

Guidon Books
An Arizona bookstore that specializes in new, used and rare western history books. The book selection is pretty good, but the collection of links is out of this world.

Leon Metz
Leon lives in El Paso and writes the best books ever written on guys like John Wesley Hardin, John Selman, Pat Garrett, and other reknowned western characters.

Lone Star Junction
This is a great place to get a Texas factoid fix. Forget the name of the State Flower, the State Mammal? Want to download images of the Texas capitals that preceded the permanent one in Austin? Hankering to download the entire text of old and rare Texas history works? This is the place for all that and much, much more. Contains more links than a chain factory, too.

Whistle Blower

The train is late and the evening air nippy, but the crowd gathered at 4th and Red River Streets in downtown Austin is practically giddy with good cheer. After all, we’re waiting to take a ride on a steam train—the River City Flyer—and the excitement of the many youngsters in the crowd can’t help but rub off on the adults. The banjo playing troubadour doesn’t hurt either. Since the four o’clock excursion had been canceled, some of us have been waiting over two hours (We later learned the reason why: the train had run over a car on the way down from Cedar Park). Then, at last, here she comes ‘round the bend, rolling under the I-35 overpass black and big as a dinosaur, hissing and clanking and belching steam and smoke. Wow. What a sight. She’s bigger than you’d expect. Everybody cheers. The whole thing takes us back in time, back to a past that, strictly speaking, we were never a part of—an era when steam trains were the only kind of trains there were, when a ride was a horse, not a car, and flying was only for the birds and drunks and opium fiends. Steam trains may have been commonplace in those days, but I’d like to think the sound of that whistle blowing and the sight of those big lumbering beasts rolling down the track had the same power to conjure up feelings of magic and wonder as they do now.

On March 11, 1884, Ben Thompson, one of Austin’s most colorful citizens, boarded the train for San Antonio and a night of carousing that would end up being a trip to nowhere. Ben was a gambler by trade and he was also pretty handy with a six-shooter. No less an authority on gunfighting, lawman and writer Bat Masterson estimated that Ben was in all probability the top gun in the West. Ben’s reputation and skills came in handy when he served as Austin City Marshal. Crime fell to an all time low during his term, but he had to resign when he was tried for the murder of Jack Harris, owner of a San Antonio joint called the Variety Theater, which offered booze, dancing girls, stage plays, cigars, and the like. Ben was acquitted, and when he returned to Austin, he was greeted with a huge parade and a brass band. But less than two years later, on March 11, 1884, Ben and his pal, John King Fisher, another gunfighting sometime-lawman who shared Ben’s fondness for strong drink, got together and started tossing ‘em back and the next thing you know, they were on the train for San Antonio, headed back to the Variety Theatre. Between Austin and San Antonio, however, somebody got off the train and telegraphed ahead, tipping off Harris’ revenge-hungry pals, and they set a deadly trap at the nightclub for the two carousing gunfighters. What resulted was no gunfight; it was an assassination. Ben Thompson and John King Fisher died in a hail of no less than two dozen bullets. The dastardly deed was ruled to be self-defense, but Austinites didn’t buy that. In fact, the two cities began a war of words in the press that lasted for months.

For more details on Ben Thompson and his train ride to oblivion, check out the web site at left and follow the links to cool period photos of some of the principals and the scene of the crime. The bio material on Ben, however, contains the oft-repeated and inexcusable misconception that Ben was once arrested by Wyatt Earp. I’d venture to say that if Earp and Thompson had ever confronted each other, Wyatt would have died young and the OK Corral would never have happened. Think of all the cool movies we’d miss out on. Like train whistles too far away to hear. Hill Country Flyer and other steam train sites around the state

A Weirder, Wilder Texas

Yes, the Texas Book Festival is upon us, and some of us Texas lit fanatics are just fanatical enough to suggest that if the festival were to celebrate just one book, it ought to be the fabulously dark, picaresque novel Blood Meridian , by Texas’ most powerful writer, Cormac McCarthy. Presenting a vision of the western frontier far wilder and weirder than the mythic one we Americans have cherished over the years, Blood Meridian tells the story of a nameless young adventurer who joins up with a gang of scalp hunters working their way West. There’s a reward of $50 per Apache scalp, but the gang isn’t so picky about the heads they harvest them from. No heroes here, only bodies piled up in a blasted landscape where terms like rape, pillage and atrocity begin to sound like naive euphemisms for deeds so horrid they’d likely have Heironymous Bosch hammering his delete key. One of the most interesting things about Blood Meridian is that McCarthy’s horrific but terrifically-told tale is based on real events, the single best account of which was written by Samuel Chamberlain—a writer who had his own touch of dark genius.

Chamberlain was a Boston boy whose youthful aspirations ran to fighting, romance, and theology. The first two pursuits somehow won out, however, and Chamberlain went West and joined the 1st Dragoons in time to fight many of the key battles of the Mexican War. In his memoir My Confession: Recollections of a Rogue, published posthumously, Chamberlain also claimed to have joined the gang of scalp hunters led by ex-Texas Ranger John Glanton, and it was this account that Cormac McCarthy expanded and re-imagined in Blood Meridian. Unlike McCarthy’s novel, however, Chamberlain’s high-body count tale alternates between scenes of unspeakable atrocities and innumerable romantic conquests. What makes My Confession so exquisitely interesting is the fact that Chamberlain’s text was illustrated with his own watercolor illustrations and sketches, some of which are quite eye-popping. The combined effect could be described as a sort of 19th century multimedia journalism with a melodramatic flair. The book documents mostly real events but they are infused with fantasy, romantic ideals, and dime-novel imagery. Think of a swashbuckling war correspondent, a Peter Arnett crossed with James Bond (or better yet, a Matt Helm) who wanted to preserve all his conquests for posterity—on the battlefield and in the boudoir.

This year, the Texas State Historical Association published the first completely unexpurgated edition of My Confession, in a large format (10” x 13”) to accommodate facsimile reproductions of Chamberlain’s journal pages and 160 full color illustrations. Annotated by William H. Goetzmann, one of America’s top historians, his peerless prose prepares readers to be astonished and amazed as they embark on Chamberlain’s wild adventures. Also, at spots in the narrative trail, Goetzmann cautions us that while Chamberlain may not, in fact, have done everything he claimed, what he did see and do is more than enough reason to pay careful attention to the whole package.

Strong stuff, these visions of a wilder, weirder West. Sam Chamberlain alchemized them into a fantastically illustrated memoir. Cormac McCarthy translated them into great literature. But be forewarned, ye thrifty Texas Book Festival attendees, these visions don’t come cheap: The TSHA books go for $50 apiece, with deluxe limited editions for $150. A fine condition collector’s copy of the first edition of Blood Meridian (published in 1985), goes for $750 and up. For noncollectors, there’s always the paperback edition and, of course, the library.

The Cormac McCarthy Society: conferences, discussion groups, books on his books, links, etc.

Booking Down the Road
Thoughts on the recent Texas Book Festival.

Rolling north on I-35 in my Karmann Ghia convertible, it’s a beautiful autumn day. Leaves are falling, the Cowboys are losing, and the stretch of freeway between San Antonio and Austin, normally the most congested portion of the route between Mexico and Kansas, is actually moving along quite nicely.

I was coming home from the San Antonio Book and Authors Luncheon, where North Carolina novelist Clyde Edgerton delivered a spellbinding reading from his latest, Where Danger Sleeps. Clyde’s honeyed drawl was still ringing in my ears when I pulled into Austin. Traffic on I-35 slowed to a crawl after Onion Creek, and being reminded of the fact that this is the same route traveled by millions of longhorns during the heyday of the Chisholm Trail, I was tempted to moo instead of honking my horn.

Coincidentally, the bottleneck was thickened by herds of book lovers hoofing it to the Capitol extension to see and hear and schmooze with more than 100 Texas authors at the Texas Book Festival. My four-year-old son Dashiell and I joined the throngs to attend readings by several featured authors. Although we enjoyed Dallas novelist Doug Swanson’s (Big Town) reading, Dashiell felt that his delivery was a bit rushed: “I think he was in a hurry,” he said. “I think he had to go somewhere after he read. Maybe it was an emergency.” Children’s author Angela Shelf Meaderis didn’t disappoint, she held a tent-full of adults and children in the palm of her hand. We left her reading with lighter spirits and a much heavier book bag. In the hallway we ran into my friend, Mitch Lobrovitch, who writes for Barney, and later, we shook paws with Clifford the Big Red Dog. We also chatted with Gary Lavergne, whose excellent biography of rabid rifleman Charles Whitman, Sniper in the Tower, was published this year by University of North Texas Press.

Back on I-35 again, as we merged with the cattle trucks and Ford Explorers, the trail drives came back to me. The romantic era of the cowboys and Indians and buffalo is still with us, at least in spirit and legend. Modern Texas, and America as well, may be a nation on wheels, but we’re still intoxicated by the smell of trail dust and saddle leather. It’s a theme that’s woven through many of the books I’ve picked up on my book-trailing weekend: Through the Shadows with O. Henry, by bank robber Al Jennings, The Longhorns, by J. Frank Dobie, North to Yesterday, by Robert Flynn, and Blessed McGill, by Bud Shrake. I find the same theme in rock ‘n roll songs like “Route 66,” the saga of Lewis and Clark, Charlie Siringo’s fabulous trail-driving memoir, A Texas Cowboy, Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, and the works of Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac, Willie Nelson, Wallace Stegner, Cabeza de Vaca, and countless others.

Travel means adventure and discovery which equals self-discovery. That’s the theme. I don’t need a new age guru to tell me that the journey is the destination. I used to be in a rock ‘n roll band, and I’ve seen the USA in a Chevrolet (van), and I know that one of the greatest discoveries you can make on the road is the face staring back at you in the rear view mirror. I like to think of Lewis and Clark as a struggling rock ‘n roll band on a high mileage, low budget tour.

Dashiell’s favorite score of the weekend was a new Curious George book. In this one, as in all the others, the Man in the Yellow Hat admonishes George to be a good little monkey and not get into trouble while he’s gone. But as soon as the Man leaves, George goes on one of his wild adventures and gets into lots of trouble. I think there’s a little bit of Curious George in every Texan.

Interested in the books mentioned here? Click on the links below to purchase them from Amazon.com.

Big Town
by Doug Swanson

Sniper in the Tower
by Gary Lavergne

by J. Frank Dobie

North to Yesterday
by Robert Flynn

Blessed McGil
by Bud Shrake

A Texas Cowboy
by Charles Siringo

Lonesome Dove
by Larry McMurtry

A Capitol standoff
The Coke-Davis Dispute of 1874.

It was a classic Texas standoff: Tempers flaring, both parties heavily armed, a bloodbath feared, a President painfully aware that sending in federal troops would only make matters worse, and two opposing entities who claimed to be the only legitimate government of the state. But since it occurred 123 years before Fort Davis and only 38 years after the Alamo, CNN wasn’t there to cover what became known as the Coke-Davis Dispute of 1874.

On the evening of Monday, January 12, 1874, when the new and overwhelmingly Democratic-controlled Texas legislature moved into the Capitol to inaugurate Richard Coke as governor, there was just one problem: Governor Edmund Jackson Davis was still in the building. Protected by state troops on the first floor, Davis not only refused to step down, but refused to recognize either the governor-elect or the new legislature, which had dug in on the upper level with their own militia.

Elected governor by a narrow margin in 1869, Davis already knew what it was like to have a “kick me” sign on his back. If it wasn’t enough that his radical wing of the Republican Party pushed the implementation of many progressive Reconstruction programs including school integration and the extension of the basic rights of citizens to blacks, his unpopularity was solidified by his commanding of a cavalry regiment during the Civil War—for the Union army. During his term, Davis also established the State Police, whose ranks included a good number of African-Americans (as well as whites and Hispanics), and many white Texans who blanched at the prospect of black Texans enjoying the right to vote positively saw red at the idea of a former slave carrying a gun and a badge. Davis also irked many ex-Confederates when he took out a notice in an Austin paper in 1871 urging people to buy pies from Mrs. Brown, an African-American, instead of those sold by Mrs. Warren, who’d lost two sons in the rebel army.

So no one was surprised when Confederate hero, Richard Coke, stomped Davis by a margin of 2 to 1 in the 1873 election. But because of certain technical irregularities in the election and, believe it or not, a missing semi-colon in the State constitution, the State Supreme Court ruled the election invalid and Davis subsequently decided to hang in there like a bad cold, declaring that his term would not officially expire until April 28, 1874. Undaunted, the Democrats were armed and ready to oust the most unpopular governor in Texas history. While hundreds of blacks gathered on the Capitol grounds to show their support for Davis, the mayor of Austin, a Coke man, was arrested in an attempt to take over a state ammunition storehouse.

As the week wore on, the crisis continued to escalate. Davis sent an urgent telegraph to President Grant requesting federal troops. Grant turned him down. His only remaining option was to use the State Police and militia forces still loyal to him, but he was painfully aware that such a confrontation was bound to end tragically, no matter what the final outcome. Although it was largely unrequited, Davis loved Texas and loathed the idea of Texans shedding other Texans’ blood—again.

But none of that really mattered to the Coke forces. All that mattered to them was that Davis knew when to give up. On Friday, January 16th, Edmund Davis left the capital in a horse-drawn carriage, cheered by an assembly of his faithful militia. Monday morning the sun would shine down on a state once again ruled by Democrats, and a capitol building where Coke was the real thing.

The Big E had finally left the building.

Me & Billy the Kid

Well, it wasn’t quite like pulling the sword from the stone, but to an eight-year-old boy, it was a hell of a thrill. The year was 1963, and I was poking around in the dirt on my grandparents’ Hill Country farm. Previous expeditions had recovered an impressive cache of animal skulls, fossils, cool rocks, and other stuff, but this time I unearthed a hunk of rusted iron that my fertile imagination proved to be an old, completely rusted Colt .45 sixshooter! Naturally I jumped to the exciting conclusion that the gun had belonged to none other than Billy the Kid, who was the hero of many an eight-year-old boy at the time.

I’m older and wiser now, and that gun has long since gone the way of my collection of cat’s eye marbles and other boyhood treasures, but I’ve never forgotten it. More importantly, I’ve never forgotten the thrill of finding that chunk of Wild West history by merely poking around in Hill Country dirt.

That experience reinforced the idea that the place where I lived was special. Exciting things had happened here. After all, the town I lived in, Johnson City, was also the hometown of LBJ. We even attended the same church. Many times I literally stood in the shadow of this giant man, and the experience left an indelible impression on my mind.

I grew up reading stories in national magazines that focused on the hardscrabble Texas Hill Country as not only the place where the leader of the free world was born and raised, but considered the environment that had molded and shaped his great vision and insight. That made me proud. I grew up with the odd, egocentric conceit that small towns and rural areas are not, after all, insignificant. That where you’re from, and the things that happened there, matter.

Thirtysomething years after digging up that sixgun and looking up at LBJ, I’m still poking around for connections to the past. As a novelist and freelance writer, I try to put the material I find into profitable use, in both fiction and nonfiction work, but I know I’d keep digging even if there wasn’t a dime in it. I love the thrill of stumbling over some heretofore unrealized story or surprising link to the past. For example, the subject of my previous column, the Coke-Davis Controversy of 1874 “A Capitol Standoff,” was completely unknown to me until, one day, ten years or so past, I literally tripped over a plaque commemorating this bizarre incident, and I felt as if I’d just dug up another rusty sixshooter.

It’s that spirit of surprise and serendipity and déja vu I hope to infuse in future “Texana Ranger” columns.

By the way, I later learned that, in all likelihood, Billy the Kid never passed through my grandparents’ farm. However, he did have some Texas connections. I’ll expound on some of those in a future column.

Related Content