Fact, Fiction, or Contradiction?

During my research of Texas history, a persistent point kept hitting home –something I had never given much thought to, but should have. Often the accuracy of the details and the authenticity of the events were called into question as contradictions arose in the storytelling. Of the few people who knew the stories, almost none were professional writers. In fact, many pioneers couldn’t read or write and often led solitary lives with no one to witness or chronicle their experiences. Of those who wrote personal journals, their diaries were very late in surfacing, some only in this century. As for the stories handed down by word of mouth, there’s no way to tell if any had been embellished as the narratives passed from one person to the next. 

That’s why I read with great interest Journal of A Trapper, a personal log written by frontiersman Osborne Russell, recounting his nine years as a fur trapper in the Rocky Mountains from 1834 to 1843. His firsthand descriptions of the mountain terrain and lush valleys inspired me. As he trapped in the greater Yellowstone region before leaving the solitary mountain life to settle in Oregon, his encounters with grizzlies and wolves were at times hair raising, and his run-ins with the American Indians were sometimes, but not always, hostile.

This rather lengthy prelude brings me to another question. What really happened at the Alamo? When I read historian John Myers’ book on the history of The Alamo, it was obvious that the author had done exhaustive research to lay bare the authenticity of the siege and the legendary characters – Bowie, Travis, Crockett, and Santa Ana – who were behind the heroism that made the Alamo story immortal. But I also wish historians had given more credence to Travis’s slave, Joe, who was interviewed a few days after the siege but whose statements were put aside. He was described as intelligent, and he was there to see what happened – one of the few people able to give a firsthand account. That prompted me to learn more about Joe’s story of the battle at the Alamo. Read more about Joe: https://www.austintexas.gov/sites/default/files/files/Joe%20Article.pdf. 

My fascination with knowing more about Joe paralleled my prior research on another slave, Bob Jones, who overcame enormous obstacles to become a prosperous landowner in the Roanoke-Southlake area, a well-respected rancher, and family man. Link back to prior blog post on Bob Jones.

Impressed by Myers’s exhaustive research and his dedication to chronicle the details of the Alamo, I promptly bought his book titled The Saga of Hugh Glass: Pirate, Pawnee, and Mountain Man. Is this legendary hero’s story true? Did Glass survive being mauled by a grizzly bear and, when left for dead by his fellow trappers, have the will and fortitude to crawl for six weeks until he reached the nearest settlement for help? Buy the book and judge for yourself. 

Then analyze the two movies that were based on Hugh Glass’s life and ask yourself this question. Was either the 1971 movie, Man in the Wilderness starring Richard Harris, or the more recent movie, The Revenant starring Leonardo DiCaprio, an authentic depiction of the remarkable real-life survival story of Hugh Glass? Or were they more Hollywood than historically accurate?

Hitting closer to home, how many of us have taken time from our busy schedules to chronicle our own lives? When was the last time we sat down with our family and asked those all-important questions that seem to arise after our loved ones are deceased?  I often find myself thinking, “Why didn’t I ask before they passed on? Now I’ll never know.” 

On a side note but related, almost every time I charge my camera batteries I muse, What a great invention! How I wish digital SLRs had been around during all those years of growing up overseas. Sure, I have Polaroids, but the quality is lacking and fades with age. On the other hand, photos in general are wonderful visual memories of times past. I did keep a diary of those informative years aboard, and I’m thankful that my father kept a log . . . of certain events. But nothing compares to a face-to-face talk to get the facts, cutting out the fiction or contradiction from the truth.

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Texas: Quanah Parker, Comanche Leader

The Comanches were known as the Lords of the Plains and were regarded as perhaps the most dangerous – certainly the most feared – of the American Indian tribes in the advancing frontier. They not only stymied the Army’s effort to contain them, but they were the reason the Spanish Empire stopped expanding northward and the reason the Texan Republic stopped expanding westward.

In 1836, a 9-year-old pioneer girl named Cynthia Ann Parker was kidnapped during a Comanche raid in North Texas. She was strapped onto the back of a horse and taken north into the Plains where the powerful Comanches lived.

Parker became a ward of the chief and, later, a full member of the Comanche nation. She eventually married the highly respected chief Peta Nocona and gave birth to three children, including Quanah, who was born around 1845. He would grow up to become the last and greatest Comanche leader.

In 1849, in response to settler concerns about the growing number of Indian attacks, the US Army established Fort Worth, Texas, as an outpost along the Trinity River. It was one of eight forts assigned to protect settlers.

In early 1860, after Parker’s father was killed by Texas Rangers, young Quanah moved west, where he joined the Kwahadi (sometimes spelled Quahadi) branch of the Comanche. Parker proved an able leader, fighting with the Kwahadi against the spread of white settlement.

But by the end of the 1860s, the men who had won the Civil War for the Union were now running the country. President Grant, Commander of the US Army William Tecumseh Sherman, and General Philip Sheridan were determined to end the Comanche threat. In 1875, the relentless Red River campaign finally subdued the Comanche with overwhelming force. Parker and the Kwahadi ultimately surrendered and moved to reservation lands in Oklahoma.

In his new life, Parker quickly established himself as a successful rancher and investor. The government officials he had once fought soon recognized him as the leader of the remaining Comanche tribes.

Parker encouraged Indian youth to learn the ways of white culture, yet he never assimilated entirely. He remained a member of the Native American Church and had a total of seven wives.

The respect Parker earned is evident in the Texas Panhandle town of Quanah. There, by the Hardeman County Courthouse, stands a monument to the town’s namesake: Quanah Parker, chief of the Comanche.

For More about Quanah Parker

The Quanah Parker Trail is an online road trip guide to the Texas Plains Trail Region featuring sites with a real or legendary connection to the famous chief.

Star House, Parker’s home in Cache, Oklahoma, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

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Texas: The German Belt

Texas Bluebonnets, photo credit, Bryan Hughes

As I delved into the history of the Lone Star State, beyond the events already familiar to me, I was surprised to learn that the largest ethnic group that migrated to Texas were the Germans.

From their first immigration in the 1830s, the Germans clustered in fragmented enclaves in a broad band across the south-central part of the state. The band became known as The German Belt. It stretched from Galveston and Houston in the east to Kerrville, Mason, and Hondo in the west, covering fertile, humid coastal plain to semi-arid hill country.

These voluntary migrations generally began with a person of dominant personality, a true pioneer. This natural leader was forceful and ambitious, someone who perceived emigration as a solution to the economic, social, political, and religious problems in their homeland. Such a person was Johann Friedrich Ernst, whose birth name was Friedrich Dirks but who began using the surname Ernst after leaving the area of Germany where he was raised. A professional landscaper, he immigrated to America intending to settle in Missouri, but while in New Orleans, he learned of large land grants available to Europeans in Stephen F. Austin’s colony in Texas. He then used the strength of his personality to persuade others to follow him to Texas.

In 1831, Ernst applied for and received a grant of more than 4000 acres in the northwest corner of Austin County. His land formed the nucleus of The German Belt. Through his many lengthy letters to friends in Germany, he reached and influenced prospective migrants. As a result of his “American letters,” the interest in emigration spread quickly, and a small, but steady stream of migrants left northwestern Germany for Texas. By the late 1830s, German immigration to the Lone Star State was widely publicized in the Fatherland.

The German settlers who came to Texas were solid, middle-class peasants, the majority of whom were ambitious farmers who believed that their futures in the Fatherland were cramped by the social and economic system. They weren’t poverty-stricken or oppressed. In fact, they could afford the cash investment required to move overseas.

Between 1844 and 1847, more than seven thousand Germans reached the new land, and by early 1850, the Germans numbered more than 5 percent of the total Texas population, a number that remained constant throughout the rest of the nineteenth century.

The 1990 census revealed that 17.5 percent of the total Texas population claimed pure or partial German ancestry. This chain migration continued until the Civil War when the Union blockaded the Confederate ports, halting all immigration.

After the Civil War ended, ships loaded with German immigrants once again disembarked at the Galveston wharves, which was the port of entry before Ellis Island opened in 1892. From 1865 to the early 1890s, it is estimated that the number reached 40,000.

In the 1890s, immigrants who had arrived earlier and had settled in the midwestern states of Illinois, Minnesota, and Iowa relocated to Texas, sponsored by the Flusche brothers and the Catholic Church. These Germans founded a colony at Muenster in North Texas. Also around this time, sizable numbers of Germans appeared in Texas cities, most notably in San Antonio, where one-third of the population was German.

Many German settlements of the time had distinctive architecture. In the Hill Country, settlers built half-timbered and stone houses with miles of rock fences and grand Gothic churches with jagged stone towers that reached skyward. They spoke a distinctive German dialect, ate sausages and sauerkraut, and drank Texas-German beers: Pearl and Shiner. They polkaed in dance halls, watched rifle competitions at Schützenfeste, and enjoyed the ancient Germanic custom of Easter Fires in Fredericksburg.

In the 1890s, German immigration to Texas peaked and began to taper off. Second- and third-generation German-Texans, looking for cheaper land, went westward until the Great Depression halted that movement.

By the early 1900s, the rural German communities received no additional immigrants from Europe, and later in the twentieth century, the older German ethnic sections in cities such as San Antonio broke apart as prosperous third- and fourth-generation Texas Germans flocked to the suburbs. It was also around this time that the San Antonio’s affluent German neighborhood – the King William Historic District – lost most of its German-American residents.

The settlers had survived the difficulties of pioneering, but in the years to follow, acculturation took a heavy toll. Then, two world wars and the associated anti-German prejudice damaged the interest in Germans and their culture, and by the early 1950s, an era had come to an end.

The Texas Germans who settled the Lone Star State were diverse: peasant farmers to intellectuals, Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and atheists, farmers and townsfolk, honest people and murderers, abolitionists and slave owners, teetotalers and drinkers. Mostly, they were hardworking, fun-loving people who had come seeking economic opportunities, and they all had a varied impact on the achievements and influence of Texas.

Side note: The Republic of Texas declared its independence from Mexico on March 2, 1836. But it wasn’t until December 29, 1845, that Texas became the 28th state in the United States.

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