Christmas on Galveston Island, Texas, 1840

From Carol Hoff, author of Johnny Texas and Johnny Texas on the San Antonio Road, comes this story, Head to the West, of German immigrants to Texas in the early days of the Texas Republic. in the first chapters of the book, Franz and Rosa and their parents land on the Texas coast on Galveston Island on Christmas Eve:

“They worked until almost dark. With sunset a fine rain began to fall, but the norther the captain expected did not come. The sailors had built two shelters, enclosed on three sides with the sail canvas, open to the west for the fire. Inside they had laid mattresses from the ship, and each woman had carried in a little pile of her belongings.
After a supper of venison steaks broiled over the coals, everyone sat in the women’s shelter and sang Christmas carols. Rosa sat watching the flickering firelight on the faces of the shipwrecked singers as the lovely melody of ‘Silent Night’ flowed about them. Some looked sad and lonesome, and some afraid, but a few were gay with the love of adventure.
Rosa thought of the lonely stretches of sand and sea about them, the wind sighing around their makeshift shelter and the rain dripping from the canvas. She thought of Mary and Joseph seeking shelter in faraway Bethlehem. ‘Franz,’ she whispered, ‘I think I understand about Bethlehem and Baby Jesus in the manger better than I ever did before.’
‘Yes,” Franz whispered back. ‘So do I.'”

This book is one I discovered on my most recent book-buying jaunt, at a Half-Price Bookstore in north Houston. I am looking forward to reading the entire story, since the first few chapters that I did read are wonderful.

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!

Up the Trail from Texas by J. Frank Dobie

Texas Tuesday.

This book, published in 1955, is one of the Landmark History series from Random House. The publisher had a policy of hiring the best writers, award winning authors and experts in history and in particular historical eras and events, to write these books, and it shows. J. Frank Dobie was a journalist and a rancher and a professor at the University of Texas at Austin for many years. He was instrumental in saving the Texas Longhorn from extinction. He wrote over twenty books about the history, folklore, and traditions of Texas. If anyone was qualified to write a Landmark history book about the history of the cattle, cowboys, and trail drives of Texas, it was Mr. Dobie.

And Up the Trail from Texas is certainly a well-written, exciting nonfiction compilation of the stories of various cowmen, trail bosses, and cowboys that Mr. Dobie interviewed personally, along with information about the real life of a trail driving cowboy and the logistics and work of a trail drive from Texas to the northern cattle markets in Kansas or Nebraska or Montana. Read about drouths, blizzards, lightning, and floods, encounters with the Comanche and other Indians, and about the jobs the cowboys were expected to perform. Dobie’s writing especially shine when he is recounting the stories that the cowmen told him, many of them recalling in old age their youthful exploits and adventures on the cattle trail.

I remember when I was a kid of a girl watching Clint Eastwood as drover Rowdy Yates in the early 1960’s TV series, Rawhide. I think the writers of Rawhide must have read Mr. Dobie’s books, especially this one. If I were teaching a unit on the cowboys and trail drives of the 1860’s, I’d read a couple chapters of Up the Trail from Texas to my students each day until we finished the book, and then I’d let them watch a few episodes of Rawhide.

Keep movin’, movin’, movin’,
Though they’re disapprovin’,
Keep them dogies movin’, rawhide.
Don’t try to understand ’em,
Just rope ’em, throw, and brand ’em.
Soon we’ll be livin’ high and wide.
My heart’s calculatin’,
My true love will be waitin’,
Be waitin’ at the end of my ride.
Move ’em on, head ’em up,
Head ’em up, move ’em on,
Move ’em on, head ’em up, rawhide!
Head ’em out, ride ’em in,
Ride ’em in, let ’em out,
Cut ’em out, ride ’em in, rawhide!

At the end of each episode, trail boss Gil Favor would call out, “Head’em up! Move’em out!”

Five Things to Make You Smile on March 2nd

Texas independence Day. On March 2, 1836, Texas declared its independence from Mexico.

Texas Grunge Flag from Flickr via Wylio
© 2012 Nicolas Raymond, Flickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

Coincidentally, March 2, 1793 happens to be the birthdate of that most famous Texan, Sam Houston. If you haven’t read Jean Fritz’s biography of Mr. Houston (see list below), you should.

Read Across America Day. Oh, the Places You’ll Go when you read!. March 2, 2015 is NEA’s Read Across America Day and this year, the book is the Seuss classic, Oh, The Places You’ll Go. Be sure to follow Read Across America on Facebook and Twitter with #readacrossamerica.

“You’re never too old, too wacky, too wild, to pick up a book and read with a child.”

Not coincidentally, March 2nd is Dr. Seuss’s birthday also.

Related books that I have in my library:
By Dr. Seuss: The Foot Book, Green Eggs and Ham, And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, ¡Cómo el Grinch robó la Navidad!, Horton Hatches the Egg, The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins, and several more.
Sam Houston, the Tallest Texan by William Weber Johnson.
Make Way for Sam Houston by Jean Fritz.
Remember the Alamo! by Robert Penn Warren.
The Story of the Lone Star Republic by Conrad R. Stein.
Remember the Alamo!: The Runaway Scrape Diary of Belle Wood, Austin’s Colony, 1835-1836 by Lisa Waller Rogers.

Christmas in the Davis Mountains, Texas, 1839

On Christmas Day in 1839, frontiersman Kit Carson allegedly carved his name and the date on a huge boulder on Sawtooth Mountain in the Davis Mountains in Texas. Carson was born in 1809 in Kentucky and grew up in Missouri. He ran away to Santa Fe in 1826 and subsequently embarked on an arduous and wide-ranging career as a fur trapper. As a guide and hunter for John C. Frémont in the 1840s, he gained national fame through Frémont’s published reports. Carson was an Indian agent in Taos, New Mexico, in the 1850s. He served in the Mexican War and in the Civil War, commanding a New Mexico volunteer regiment in the battle of Valverde. His connections to Texas history included helping foil the Snively Expedition in 1843 and leading the attack against a large number of Kiowas and Comanches in the first battle of Adobe Walls in 1864. He died in Colorado in 1868. Engineers of the State Department of Highways and Public Transportation discovered the inscription on Sawtooth Mountain in 1941.

Hiking Davis Mountains from Flickr via Wylio
© 2014 Martin Konopacki, Flickr | CC-BY-SA | via Wylio

The Time It Never Rained by Elmer Kelton

If there was ever a piece of fiction that should be adopted as a manifesto and banner for the conservative/libertarian movement in American politics, it’s not any of that nonsense by Ayn Rand. (I never could get through either of her most famous tomes although I tried . . once . . each.) Elmer Kelton’s The Time It Never Rained is a Western classic, a conservative classic, and a cracking good story. It should be recommended reading for all little conservatives-in-training.

So, in the 1950’s, about the time I was born, West Texas ranchers and farmers endured a seven year drouth. Seven years with little or no rain. Seven years. Charlie Flagg has lived through drought before, and he’s sure he can make through this one. But seven years is a long time, and no one, of course, knows that the drought will last so long or when or even if it will ever be over. Charlie, cantankerous and set in his ways even before the drought begins, only becomes more so as he faces the loss of his cattle, his sheep, his family and friends, and finally most of his land. Still, Charlie never gives up, never gives in to what he believes is wrong.

And one thing Charlie believes is wrong, at least for himself, is accepting government aid and price supports. As it turns out, the government aid offered to the ranchers to help them feed their animals and survive the drought comes with strings attached, and artificial prices confuse the free market so much that the ranchers can’t make a living even when the rains return. Charlie must change, accepting the idea of raising goats in addition to the sheep that have been his mainstay, but he never compromises his principles.

Charlie Flagg isn’t perfect, and the author shows us his faults as well as his strengths. Charlie and his wife have grown apart, mostly because Charlie is the strong, silent type, not much of a communicator (Charlie’s attitude: He told her he loved her when he married her, and he’d be sure to let her know if anything changed.) Charlie is an old-style patron to his Mexican American workers, and he sometimes patronizes them and treats them with the kind of “separate but equal” attitude that was the trademark of the fifties relationship between Anglos and Latin Americans, as we used to call them. Charlie doesn’t hire illegals, but he respects them for their work ethic and their willingness to cross the border to find work. He wishes the government would just leave everybody alone, including the Mexicans who come to work in the United States, and especially including the ranchers who are just trying to make a living raising cattle and sheep and goats.

That’s the typical attitude of the typical West Texan that I knew growing up. I grew up in San Angelo, Mr. Kelton’s hometown. And most people there, at least thirty years ago, would have told you they just wanted the government, state and federal, to leave them alone. Some older men and women I knew were “yellow dog Democrats” and others were newly-coined Republicans, but all of them shared the desire to be left alone to raise their families and do their work without interference or help from the government.

QOTD: How do you respond to adversity or failure? How do you want to see yourself respond to hard times?

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:“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.