Texas History: A Brief Tour

A couple of homeschool moms asked me to put together a reading list for Texas history so that they could do a (brief) literature-based Texas history unit. Well, the list grew a little longer than the request, but here are a few not-to-be-missed gems for children and adults who are making their way through Texas’s colorful and fascinating history.

TEXAS Unit Study:

Indians Who Lived in Texas by Betsy Warren. This is a nonfiction book, only 46 pages, but it is an introduction to the study that gives students a good overview of the Native Texans who lived here before the coming of the European explorers.

Walk the World’s Rim by Betty Baker. Read aloud fiction about the tragic story of a Native American boy named Chakoh and of Esteban, the slave who accompanied Coronado on his search for the Seven Lost Cities of Cibola.

Easter Fires by Wilma Pitchford Hays. A fictionalized version of the beginning of the custom of lighting bonfires at Easter time among the Indians of the Southwest. This short book also tells the story of how the Tonkawas were introduced to the wonderful story of Easter and of God’s son, Jesus.

Biography of early Texas heroes. Choose one (or read them all):
For younger children, grades 1-3:
A Picture Book of Davy Crockett by David Adler.
Davy Crockett: Young Rifleman by Aileen Wells Parks.
Stephen F. Austin: The Son Becomes Father of Texas by Mary Dodson Wade.

For older children, grades 4-8:
Wilderness Pioneer: Stephen F. Austin of Texas by Carol Hoff.
Make Way for Sam Houston by Jean Fritz
James Bowie by Shannon Garst.
Texas Yankee: The Story of Gail Borden by Nina Brown Baker.

Johnny Texas by Carol Hoff. “In the early days of Texas history, ten-year-old Johann comes from Germany with his family to settle in this vast land and soon grows to love his new home.” In the sequel, Johnny Texas on the San Antonio Road, Johnny travels over 600 miles to Mexico and back on the old San Antonio Road.

Caleb’s Choice by G. Clifton Wisler. In 1858 Caleb Dulaney feels an obligation to help the runaway slave who saved his life even though the Fugitive Slave Law makes it a crime to assist a runaway slave. Mr. Wisler wrote several other good books set in frontier days in Texas. If you like this one, check out Buffalo Moon or Winter of the Wolf or All for Texas.

Old Yeller by Fred Gipson. Classic boy and dog story takes place just after the Civil War.

Texas Rangers: Legendary Lawmen by Michael Spradlin. This picture book packs in a lot of story and information about the men who were Texas Rangers. I have a couple of other books that are longer with more stories about the Rangers for kids who are particularly interested: The Texas Rangers (Landmark history) by Will Henry and The Real Book about the Texas Rangers by Allyn Allen.

Cowboys of the Wild West by Russell Freedman (nonfiction) OR The Adventurous Deeds of Deadwood Jones by Helen Hemphill (fiction). Cowboy life and times.

Galveston’s Summer of the Storm by Julie Lake. (fiction) The Galveston hurricane of 1900, still the deadliest single-day event in U.S. history.

Moonshiner’s Gold by John Erickson. Fourteen year old Riley and his younger brother discover moonshiners have set up a still in a deserted canyon on their family property. How can they protect their single mother, outwit the outlaws, and get them to leave without violence? Great action-packed adventure with engaging characters and a lot of history sneaking in through the back door. John Erickson is known for his Hank the Cowdog series, but this stand-alone adventure is just a good as the Hank books and should be just the right reading level for most sixth graders.

I know that’s more than the five books than the mom who started all of this Texas history listing asked me for. And I have lots more great Texas living books on my shelf: Texas Tomboy by Lois Lenski, Winnie’s War by Jenny Moss, We Were There at the Battle of the Alamo by Margaret Cousins, Holes by Louis Sachar, The Underneath by Kathie Appelt . . . OK, I’ll stop.

Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!

Texas Yankee by Nina Brown Baker

Texas Tuesday: Texas Yankee; The Story of Gail Borden by Nina Brown Baker.

Benito Juarez, Peter the Great, Simon Bolivar, F.W. Woolworth, America Vespucci, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Nellie Bly are a few of the other celebrities and historical figures that Nina Brown Baker wrote about in her prolific career as a children’s biographer. Texas Yankee, about the inventor of condensed milk and sweetened condensed milk, is a biography in Ms. Brown’s short, slightly fictionalized, and highly readable style. The story begins with twelve year old Gail Borden and his family moving from New York to Kentucky and ends 129 pages later with Gail Borden’s death at his ranch near Columbus, Texas in 1874 at the age of 72. Borden’s life in-between these two events took him from New York to Kentucky to Ohio to Mississippi to Texas and back again up north to Connecticut and New York to try to sell his inventions and ideas to an Eastern seaboard audience.

Then, came the disruption of the Civil War, and Gail Borden found himself on the opposite side of the slavery and Union issues from most of his fellow Texans and therefore in exile so to speak from his beloved Texas. But after the war and the bitterness from the war had died down, Gail Borden was able to return to Texas a successful man who gave travelers and immigrants and settlers of the West a way to transport good, healthy milk over long distances without having it go bad and without having to purchase milk for their children from questionable sources along the way.

I once met a restaurant owner who read a book about Gail Borden when she was in fifth grade and was so inspired by her reading that she looked to him as an example for her business dealings and also made a lifelong study of the history of Texas. Nina Brown Baker’s book about Gail Borden may have been the book she read as a fifth grader, for all I know. At any rate, I can see how this book and Gail Borden’s life would be inspirational. Mr. Borden’s commitment to Christ is a thread throughout the biography, not over-emphasized but definitely acknowledged. The only problem in recommending this biography to your fifth grader is that it was published in 1955 and is now out of print. I do find one other biography of Borden, Milk, Meat Biscuits, and the Terraqueous Machine by Mary Dodson, but it’s from 1987 and also out of print. And there’s a Childhood of Famous Americans series volume, Gail Borden: Resourceful Boy by Adrian Paradis, also out of print.

It seems as if the subject of Gail Borden, supporter of the Texas revolution and persistent inventor, might be ripe for a new biography by some up-and-coming adult or children’s biographer.

Christmas in Gonzales, Texas, 1835

Friday, December 25

“I awakened before the sun was up and saw that Mama was still by the hearth. I think she stayed up all night. The turkey was roasting on a spit over a low fire. It must have been the wonderful smell that woke me up. I hugged Mama’s waist and said Merry Christmas. She reached into her apron pocket and gave me a little gift wrapped in a scrap of blue velvet and told me to go ahead and open it before the menfolk got up. It was a beautiful ivory button, carved to look like a rose. It came from her mother’s wedding gown and I knew that it was precious to her and worth much because over the years in emergincies, Mama had sold all the other buttons like it. I threw my arms around Mama’s neck and kissed her face, still warm from the heat of the fire. It didn’t matter what else I got; this was the most precious gift I could receive.” ~A Line in the Sand: The Alamo Diary of Lucinda Lawrence by Sherry Garland.

Z-baby (age 11) and I have been reading this Dear America book together as an assignment for her Texas history class at co-op. I thought it showed quite well the hardship and indecision of individual families in the face of the war for Texas independence. Lucinda’s father is against fighting, against the Mexican army, partly because he knows the cost of war. Lucinda’s brother, Willis, goes off to San Antonio to help defend the Alamo. Lucinda herself is conflicted, proud of her brother and her new nation of Texas, but also unsure whether Texas independence is worth the deaths of brave men and the loss of homes and friendships and families.

Bravely stepping over that “line in the sand” to fight against tyranny isn’t an easy decision, and there’s always a cost.

Texas Tuesday: The Blood of Heroes by James Donovan

The Blood of Heroes The 13-Day Struggle for the Alamo–and the Sacrifice That Forged a Nation by James Donovan.

General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna: “If I were God, I would wish to be more.”
“In this war you know that are no prisoners.”

Oath Davy Crockett and his men signed on February 12, 1836: “I do solemnly swear that I will bear true allegiance to the provisional government of Texas or any other future republican government that may be hereafter declared, and that I will serve her honestly and faithfully against all her enemies and oppressors whatsoever.”
Crockett inserted the word “republican”, stating that he was only willing to support a republican government, and after signing Crockett and his men became part of the new Texian army and proceeded to the Alamo.

Travis’s message to the alcalde (mayor) of Gonzales, February 23, 1836: “The enemy in large force are in sight. We want men and provisions. Send them to us. We have 150 men and are determined to defend the Alamo to the last. Give us assistance. P.S. Send an express to San Felipe with news night and day.

Colonel Travis to the People of Texas and all Americans in the world, February 24, 1836:

Fellow citizens and compatriots–
I am besieged, by a thousand or more of the Mexicans under Santa Anna—I have sustained a continual Bombardment & cannonade for 24 hours & have not lost a man—The enemy has demanded a surrender at discretion, otherwise, the garrison are to be put to the sword, if the fort is taken— I have answered the demand with a cannon shot, & our flag still waves proudly from the walls— I shall never surrender or retreat. Then, I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism & everything dear to the American character, to come to our aid, with all dispatch— The enemy is receiving reinforcements daily & will no doubt increase to three or four thousand in four or five days. If this call is neglected, I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible & die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor & that of his country—


William Barret Travis,
Lt. Col. comdt.
P.S. The Lord is on our side. When the enemy appeared in sight we had not three bushels of corn. We have since found in deserted houses 80 or 90 bushels and got into the walls 20 or 30 head of Beeves. Travis

Portion of Travis’s last letter from the Alamo, March 3, 1836:

Col. Fannin is said to be on the march to this place with reinforcements, but I fear it is not true, as I have repeatedly sent to him for aid without receiving any. Colonel Bonham, my special messenger, arrived at La Bahia fourteen days ago, with a request for aide and on the arrival of the enemy in Bexar, ten days ago, I sent an express to Colonel F. which arrived at Goliad on the next day, urging him to send us reinforcements; none have yet arrived. I look to the colonies alone for aid; unless it arrives soon, I shall have to fight the enemy on his own terms. I will, however, do the best I can under the circumstances; and I feel confident that the determined valor and desperate courage heretofore exhibited by my men will not fail them in the last struggle; and although they may be sacrificed to the vengeance of a Gothic enemy, the victory will cost the enemy so dear, that it will be worse to him than a defeat. I hope your honorable body will hasten on reinforcements ammunition, and provisions to our aid as soon as possible. We have provisions for twenty days for the men we have. Our supply of ammunition is limited. At least five hundred pounds of cannon powder, and two hundred rounds of six., nine, twelve and eighteen pound balls, ten kegs of rifle powder and a supply of lead, should be sent to the place without delay under a sufficient guard. If these things are promptly sent, and large reinforcements are hastened to this frontier, this neighborhood will be the great and decisive ground. The power of Santa Anna is to be met here, or in the colonies; we had better meet them here than to suffer a war of devastation to rage in our settlements. A blood red banner waves from the church of Bexar, and in the camp above us, in token that the war is one of vengeance against rebels; they have declared us as such; demanded, that we should surrender at discretion, or that this garrison should be put to the sword. Their threats have had no influence on me or my men, but to make all fight with desperation, and that high souled courage which characterizes the patriot, who is willing to die in defense of his country’s liberty and his own honor.

Juan Seguin, April 25, 1837: “They preferred to die a thousand times rather than submit to the tyrant’s yoke.”

Cry of the men at the Battle of San Jacinto which won Texas’ independence:

Remember Goliad! Remember the Alamo!

Texas Tuesday: A Personal Country by A.C. Greene

I didn’t quite finish this travel homecoming memoir by a Texas author who hails from my neck of the woods, Abilene, Texas, where I went to college. However, I did find some gems in the book before I had to return it to the library, and I’ll probably come back to it and finish the journey someday.

“Rainfall or the lack of it, the thing that may have killed my great-grandfather, puts its mark on all West Texas life. . . Uninitiated radio and television weather experts will get called down by the natives (assumed or born) when they speak of ‘it’s a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky, the forecast calling for fair weather . . .’ This may be pretty in one sense, but not nearly so beautiful as a black overcast day with the clouds threatening to shed tears at any minute, or a strong, wet wind scudding the dark masses overhead.”

Oh, yes, a lesson I learned early in life: never complain about a rainy day.

And windy days: “Then the girls clutch their skirts, not just for modesty but for survival, feeling the wind to be altogether capable of lifting them up bodily and dumping them, at best, in an undignified sprawl.”

I absolutely remember a day when I was walking down the sidewalk at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, and the wind picked me up and I flew for about 10 feet down the sidewalk. I felt like The Flying Nun.

“West Texans are not adventuresome food eaters. Until enough servicemen from other parts had been stationed there in World War II, steaks were customarily cooked until dark gray throughout, and roast beef with a tinge of pink was regarded as raw. My grandmother Cole sent back more than one hamburger for recooking because the meat ‘wasn’t done’—a term that implied a uniform brown quality. Even now most cattle ranchers will have their steaks no way but well done.”

Yep, me too. I don’t want to eat any pink meat, except for ham. If that makes me unadventurous, so be it.

Happy Tuesday, everyone, especially those of you who live in West Texas. I hope it’s raining or threatening rain for you today.

Texas Tuesday: Goodbye to a River by John Graves

Published in 1959, this nonfiction narrative tells the story of a November 1957 trip down a piece of the Brazos River in central Texas, just before several dams were built along the river to change its course and character forever. Hence, the title: Goodbye to a River.

Mr. Graves grew up along the Brazos, in Granbury, Texas or nearby as best I can tell, and his writing reflects his love for Texas, the Brazos, country living, and history. It’s also a nature-lover’s book and a chronicle of a lost way of life, the Texas of the 1800’s and early twentieth century. I enjoyed the book immensely, even though it wasn’t exactly about MY part of Texas, too far east for that. It was, nevertheless, about the kind of people that I knew when I was a kid of a girl growing up in West Texas among the fishermen and ranchers and hunters and wannabes. My daddy hunted deer during deer season and fed them out of season (I never really understood that). He also went fishin’, but he never paddled a canoe down the river.

The book and the journey it tells of are a taste of Texas and solitude and reminiscence and homely encounters with classic Texan characters, alive and dead.

“We don’t know much about solitude these days, nor do we want to. A crowded world thinks that aloneness is always loneliness, and that to seek it is perversion. Maybe so. Man is a colonial creature and owes most of his good fortune to his ability to stand his fellows’ feet on his corns and the musk of their armpits in his nostrils. Company comforts him; those around him share his dreams and bear the slings and arrows with him.” (p.83-84)

“Mankind is one thing; a man’s self is another. What that self is tangles itself knottily with what his people were, and what they came out of. Mine came out of Texas, as did I. If those were louts they were my own louts.” (p.144)

'Texas sunset' photo (c) 2004, Mike Oliver - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/“I used to be suspicious of the kind of writing where characters are smitten by correct quotations at appropriate moments. I still am, but not as much. Things do pop out clearly in your head, alone, when the upper layers of your mind are unmisted by talk with other men. Odd bits and scraps and thoughts and phrases from all your life and all your reading keep boiling up to view like grains of rice in a pot on the fire. Sometimes they even make sense . . .” (p.151)

“If it hadn’t been for Mexicans, the South Texas Anglos would never have learned how to cope right with longhorn cattle. If it hadn’t been for Texans, nobody else on the Great Plains would have learned how either.” (p.199)

“Neither a land nor a people ever starts over clean. Country is compact of all its past disasters and strokes of luck–of flood and drouth, of the caprices of glaciers and sea winds, of misuse and disuse and greed and ignorance and wisdom–and though you may doze away at the cedar and coax back the bluestem and mesquite grass and side-oats grama you’re not going to manhandle into anything entirely new. It’s limited by what it has been, by what’s happened to it. And a people . . is much the same in this as land. It inherits. Its progenitors stand behind its elbow.” (p.237)

The moral of the story, and I think it’s true, is that I carry Texas and Texans and the Texas landscape in my bones. Even though I’ve never once paddled a canoe down a Texas river or lived rough in a campsite beside the river or caught or shot my own dinner and cooked it up, I am still somehow the inheritor of something that my ancestors, many of whom did all those things and more besides, passed down to me. I’m a city girl, but the Texas wildness and independence and what sometimes turns into a lack of respect for authority and a heedless devil-may-care attitude–all that lives in me, and more besides. I am a daughter of Texas, and Goodbye to a River was a wonderful tribute to some of the places and stories that make Texas great.

For more books about rivers, see last week’s edition of Book Tag with the theme of rivers.

For more books about Texas, see my list of 55 Texas Tales or past editions of Texas Tuesday.

If you love the essays and the localism of Wendell Berry, and especially if you have some connection to Texas, I think you would enjoy Goodbye to a River.

Texas Tuesday: The Buckskin Line by Elmer Kelton

Elmer Kelton is from my hometown, San Angelo, Texas. I’m not much of a reader of westerns, but I thought I should at least sample the work of Mr. Kelton, seeing as he’s a hometown boy and was the farm-and-ranch editor for the San Angelo Standard-Times. Also, for five years he was editor of Sheep and Goat Raiser Magazine, and for another twenty-two years he was editor of Livestock Weekly. He wrote more than thirty western novels, set mostly in Texas, and he was awarded several Spur Awards from the Western Writers of America. In 1977, Kelton received an Owen Wister Award for lifetime achievement, and in 1998, he received the first Lone Star Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Larry McMurtry Center for Arts and Humanities at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas. Now that’s a resume to be found only in West Texas.

The Buckskin Line introduces us to Rusty Shannon, a red-headed orphan who is nearly captured by the Comanches in the first chapter. The Comanches do kill Rusty’s parents as the story opens in August, 1840 during the Comanche raid into south central Texas during which the small town of Linnville in Victoria COunty was sacked and burned. “The surprised people of Linnville fled to the water and were saved by remaining aboard small boats and a schooner . .. at anchor in the bay.”

In the story three year old Rusty is carried off by the Comanche raiders, but rescued by a ragtag group of pursuers, including Mike Shannon, an Irish-Texan wanderer who farms the land he finds until it wears out and then moves on. Mike has a wife, but the two have been unable to have childen. So they adopt the orphan boy and keep his first name, Davy, the only thing the young boy can tell them about himself. Davy grows up to be called “Rusty” in reference to his red hair.

Most of the book is about the adventures of the young adult Rusty Shannon, as he joins the Texas Rangers on the Red River border with Indian Territory just before and after the outbreak of the Civil War. Rusty is a brave and honest young man, but somewhat rash in judgement and too ready for revenge when someone hurts the people he loves. The Buckskin Line shows how Rusty Shannon matures and learns to temper his judgement with faith and patience.

I liked it enough to want to read the other two books in Kelton’s Texas Rangers Trilogy, Badger Boy and The Way of the Coyote.

Kylie Jean, Blueberry Queen by Marci Peschke

Cybils nominee: Early Chapter Books. Nominated by Jennifer Glidden, Capstone Press.

Kylie Jean, who lives with her family in Jacksonville, Texas, has a lifelong dream: she wants to be a beauty queen. I’ve never heard of Jacksonville, but it’s a real town in East Texas, Cherokee County, and it has a population of 13,868 (2000 census). Jacksonville is “the Tomato Capital of the World”, but it’s blueberries that play the starring role in Kylie Jean’s journey to becoming a beauty queen.

In the story the big festival in Jacksonville every year is not Tomato Fest, but rather the Blueberry Festival. Kylie Jean wants to be Blueberry Festival Queen, and since Kylie Jean is not only pretty, inside and out, but also determined, she enlists some help and sets out to realize her dream.

I’m not much on beauty pageants, but I liked Kylie Jean. She talks and acts “Texas” through and through with her “right pretty” and her “hollering” and her “yes, m’am” and “no, m’am.” I liked the way Kylie Jean makes a list of the things she needs to do to enter the beauty pageant, and she goes right down the list, checking each thing off as she gets it done. And I learned a few things you might not know (I didn’t):

“Shouting is not ladylike.” Beauty queens don’t shout.

“Beauty queens always wear a slip because it is classy.”

“Pretty is as pretty does . . . means being nice to the old folks, taking care of little animals, and respecting [my] momma and daddy.”

I’ll just bet at least one of those pieces of information is new to you, too. Consider it a part of your free education in Texas culture.

Z-Baby: “I think all of the books about Kylie Jean look good: Rodeo Queen, Hoop Queen, and Drama Queen.”

*This book is nominated for a Cybils Award, and I am a judge for the first round thereof. However, no one paid me any money, and nobody knows which books will get to be finalists or which ones will get the awards. In other words, this review reflects my opinion and Z-baby’s and nothing else.

Texas Tuesday: Oh, Those Harper Girls! by Kathleen Karr

A few years ago I read Kathleen Karr’s The Great Turkey Walk out loud to some of the urchins, and I remember us deriving immense enjoyment from the humorous story of a simple boy named Simon and his turkey drive across the Midwest. Well, I would love to read this book, Oh, Those Harper Girls!, to my younger children sometime when we’re studying Texas history. I’m sure they would love getting to know the six Harper sisters: March, April, May, June, Julie, and Lily. (Lily, the youngest was born in April, but that month had already been taken. Hence, Lily.)

The Harper girls live in Texas, in 1869, just after the Civil War, with their refined mother and their ne’er-do-well daddy on the Double H Ranch. Unfortunately, the bank is going to foreclose on the Double H if the Harpers can’t come up with enough money to pay off daddy’s bank loan. Fortunately, Daddy H has a plan. Unfortunately, the plan involves rustling some of the neighbor’s cattle and re-branding them with the Double H brand. Fortunately, the girls fail at cattle rustling. Unfortunately, Daddy has another plan . . . etc, etc, etc.

Oh, Those Harper Girls! is a wonderful comedic farce set in frontier Texas. I think kids and adults together could read this one and enjoy the broad humor as well as the subtle touches or irony and understated absurdity. For instance, the Double H, which is falling apart and mortgaged to the hilt, has a backyard full of “black ooze that kept creeping up around the plants no matter what Mama did to get rid of it. Disgusting, thick, sticky stuff. . . Wouldn’t you know her daddy would pick just such a site to build his ranch on. Poor Daddy never did do the right thing.” Only thirty years too soon.

For some Texan hijinks with a little comedic romance and jail-breaking and a stage tour and stagecoach robbery and even a foiled bank robbery all thrown in for free to keep the story moving along, you can’t go wrong with Ms. Karr’s portrait of six sisters trying to survive and thrive in heat- and poverty-stricken Central Texas. Near Fredericksburg. But the sisters eventually get to go to New York and go on stage at Tony Pastor’s Opera House. (We’ll join the Astors at Tony Pastor’s/And this I’m positive of/That we won’t come home/That we won’t come home/No, we won’t come home until we fall in love!)

Projects, New and Old: January 2011

My Bible Reading Project is going pretty well. I’ve read through Genesis, on track to finish Mark this weekend, and several of the Psalms. I also read Galatians, mostly aloud to the urchins, but I can’t say I was very successful in explaining the distinction between keeping the Law for the law’s sake and keeping it out of gratitude for what Christ has done. The urchins stared at me blankly for the most part as I engaged in this lesson in theology for their benefit. Ah, well, push on.

I want to take my old Bible and do this project with it: Blank Bible Project. I can see how this would be really useful—and a way of passing down a legacy to at least one of my children. More detailed instructions on making a blank Bible.

I read Certain Women by Madeleine L’Engle for the Faith N Fiction Roundtable, and I found Ms. L’Engle’s work as satisfying and thoughtful as ever. Come here, or to one of the other participants’ blogs, in February for more discussion of the book and its implications.

Poetry Project: The poems are posting on Fridays for Poetry Friday, and I’m enjoying them, even though we are in the Romantic period right now. I think I’m becoming an anti-Romantic poetry reader.

Newbery Project: I read and reviewed the Newbery Award winner, Moon Over Manifest, this month. I liked it a lot.

Operation Clean House is going nowhere. I haven’t even attempted to put together an Exercise and Diet Project. If anyone know of a way to exercise without actual physical labor being involved, please let me know.

In February, I really want to do more posts for Texas Tuesday and Read Aloud Thursday (to link to Amy’s blog, Hope Is the Word). I also would like to continue my Africa Reading Project, which has gotten off to a good start this year with several posts in January.