"It is extremely improbable that I shall ever see Texas again, as the first of January, 1899, ushered in my ninety-second year, but I will cherish the memory of the long ago spent on her soil, and wish her a prosperous future. I am proud to note the progress she has made, though I can scarcely realize the transformation that progress has wrought," spoke Noah Smithwick, as he concluded The Evolution of a State or Recollections of Old Texas Days, a classic in the field of Texana. The author died less than ten months after dictating the above to his daughter. He never saw Texas again, but his wish for a prosperous Texas certainly came to pass.
When North Carolina-born Noah Smithwick came to Texas as a recruit for Sterling C. Robertson's colony in 1827 at the age of nineteen, the population of the Mexican frontier province numbered only a few thousand. Indians still controlled much of the area. Wildlife was abundant: deer, bear, panthers, buffalo, wild horses, and even alligators. After more than one hundred years of occupation, Spain had left its imprint on Texas, but the latter still remained only sparsely settled when it became Mexican territory in 1821. Mexico opened Texas up to colonization by foreigners, and Americans quickly took advantage of the government's generous land offer. For Smithwick, however, a life of adventure, not land, served as the attraction. By the time he left Texas in 1861—he opposed secession—the population totaled more than 600,000. By the time of his death, railroads crisscrossed the state and more than 3,000,000 people called themselves Texans. The frontier era had ended. No wonder that he could "scarcely realize the transformation that progress had wrought."
Smithwick was not an empresario; he held no major military command or important civil office; he amassed no great landholdings—he "had a strong aversion to tearing up God's earth." His trade was that of a gun- and blacksmith; his schooling was from nature. His Recollections are those of a man who loved nature and enjoyed life. There is no bitterness, no regrets. His observations on social, military, and personal events are laced together by a kind of harmony with his environment and friendship for his fellow frontiersmen. He blacksmithed in San Felipe, smuggled tobacco across the Rio Grande, fought in the Revolution, farmed on Webber's prairie, and operated a mill near Marble Falls; but whatever the occasion or wherever the place, he was observant. His descriptions of Mexican life in San Fernando, where he stayed for awhile after his smuggling venture, are as vivid, although much briefer, as are his remarks about life in San Felipe de Austin.
Smithwick's social commentary offers a perspective on a wide range of life of the period. The hospitality of the frontier is reflected in the sharing of bed and board, however humble, with friend or stranger. Dress ranged from buckskin to "store clothes," even at weddings. And weddings were special occasions—filled with conviviality—and included, in addition to the ceremony, supper and dance. "When young folks danced those days, they danced; they didn't glide around; they 'shuffled' and 'double shuffled,' 'wired' and 'cut the pigeon's wing,' making the splinters fly."
Historians and anthropologists have frequently borrowed from his observations about Indian life. His comments about the Karankawas have been woven into the literature about those coastal people. But it is the Comanche life and culture that Smithwick most enlightens us about. He spent three months among them negotiating a treaty; he succeeded, but both sides ignored it. During his stay with those people, he came to respect them and to appreciate their effort to protect their ranging grounds.
His observations on Comanche life include remarks about the place of women, the deferential treatment accorded older tribe members, and his inability to grasp their religious practices or to learn much about their language. Boys—future warriors—were the center of parental affection and pride; girls were generally neglected. During Smithwick's stay with the Comanches, meat constituted the only element of their diet and buffalo ranked as the major staple. The white hunters' wanton slaughter of those animals constituted one of the Indians' principal grievances. Their sense of sport leaned to lassoing turkeys, deer, mustang, and buffalo calves rather than the destruction of their staff of life.
In 1835 Smithwick stood with his comrades at Gonzales and Concepción; and his accounts of the battles are exciting and exacting. His description of the citizens' army that comprised the revolutionary forces during those critical days reveals initially a rowdy band of patriots—men undisciplined, ill-prepared for war, and overconfident, yet unawed by Mexican military strength. But it is his commentary on the Runaway Scrape that is most gripping: "The desolation of the country through which we passed beggars description. Houses were standing open, the beds unmade, the breakfast things still on the tables, pans of milk moulding in the dairies. There were cribs full of corn, smoke houses full of bacon, yards full of chickens that ran after us for food, nests of eggs in every fence corner, young corn and garden truck rejoicing in the rain, cattle cropping the luxuriant grass, hogs, fat and lazy, wallowing in the mud, all abandoned.... Wagons were so scarce that it was impossible to remove household goods, many of the women and children, even, had to walk....
"And, as if the arch fiend had broken loose, there were men—or devils, rather—bent on plunder, galloping up behind the fugitives, telling them the Mexicans were just behind, thus causing the hapless victims to abandon what few valuables they had tried to save. There were broken-down wagons and household goods scattered all along the road."
But one must read for oneself the entire passage for the full effect of the plight and trauma that settlers felt in the wake of Santa Anna's victory at the Alamo.
In a few years Texans will commemorate the sesquicentennial of their independence from Mexico. It is particularly fitting that in anticipation of that event the University of Texas Press issue this new edition of Noah Smithwick's Evolution of a State, for this volume is unmatched among recollections and reminiscences of early Texas settlers.
Smithwick had been gone from Texas for close to forty years when he died in 1899, but he never lost interest in the land he called home for almost thirty years. Through the Dallas Morning News and other sources he kept informed of developments in the state. He contributed articles in 1896, 1897, and 1898 to the News. These pieces were incorporated into Evolution of a State when H. N. P Gammel, an Austin publisher, printed the volume in 1900. The work has enjoyed a continuous popularity ever since. In 1935 and 1963 the Steck Company and the Steck-Vaughn Company, respectively, published facsimile editions of the original.
Any reader, whatever the age, who begins this book will almost certainly finish it, for Smithwick has provided an account of frontier life that will interest and fascinate everyone who wants to know how the evolution of Texas occurred as seen through the eyes of a man who was there for the most exciting period of its history.
L. Tuffly Ellis
What the discovery of gold was to California the colonization act of 1825 was to Texas. In the following year Sterling C. Robertson, who had obtained a grant for a colony, for each ioo families of which he was to receive a bonus of 23,025 acres of land, went up into Kentucky recruiting. The glowing terms in which he descanted on the advantages to be gained by emigration, were well calculated to further his scheme. To every head of a family, if a farmer, was promised 177 acres of farming land—bottom land or land susceptible of irrigation, for the Mexicans considered no land arable unless irrigable—and 4,428 acres of pasture land for stock; colonists to be exempt from taxation six years from date of settlement, with the privilege of importing, duty free, everything they might desire for themselves and families; an abundance of game, wild horses, cattle, turkeys, buffalo, deer and antelope by the drove. The woods abounded in bee trees, wild grapes, plums, cherries, persimmons, haws and dewberries, while walnuts, hickorynuts and pecans were abundant along the water courses. The climate was so mild that houses were not essential; neither was a superabundance of clothing or bedding, buffalo robes and bear skins supplying all that was needed for the latter and buckskin the former. Corn in any quantity was to be had for the planting, and, in short, there the primitive curse was set at defiance. Mexican soldiers were stationed on the frontier to keep the Indians in check. Of the hardships and privations, the ever increasing danger from the growing dissatisfaction of the Indians, upon whose hunting grounds the whites were steadily encroaching, and the almost certainty of an ultimate war with Mexico, he was discreetly silent. Viewed from that distance, the prospect was certainly flattering, and it should not occasion surprise that men with large families—for families increased in geometrical ratio those days—were induced to migrate thither with the hope of securing homes for themselves and children.
I was but a boy in my nineteenth year, and in for adventure. My older brothers talked of going. They, however, abandoned the project; but, it had taken complete possession of me, so early in the following year, 1827, 1 started out from Hopkinsville, Kentucky, with all my worldly possessions, consisting of a few dollars in money, a change of clothes, and a gun, of course, to seek my fortune in this lazy man's paradise. Incredible as it may seem to the present generation, seeing the country traversed from ocean to ocean and lakes to gulf with innumerable lines of railroad, there was not then a mile of railroad in operation in the United States; and though twenty years had elapsed since the Clermont made her triumphal trip from New York to Albany, few steamboats plied the western waters and none had ventured out to sea. I saw the first one that went up the Cumberland river—the Rifleman, a sternwheeler. Its progress was so slow that one had to take sight by stationary objects to determine if it moved. The stage coach, being the only public overland conveyance, took me down to the mouth of the river, where I intended to take steamer for New Orleans; but the steamboat had not arrived and no one knew when it would. My impatience could brook no delay, so I took passage on a flatboat, or as they were known in river parlance, a "Mississippi broadhorn," the poor man's transfer. Out on the broad bosom of the Father of Waters these boats floated from the Ohio, the Cumberland, the Tennessee and numerous smaller tributaries, laden with the products of the vast region contiguous, to be floated down to New Orleans and thence distributed around the seaboard by sailing vessels. The flatboat having served its purpose, it was broken up and sold for lumber and fuel, while the owner pocketed his cash and wended his way home, generally on foot up through Mississippi, where he was liable to be interviewed by footpads and relieved of his money if not his life. Many were the gruesome stories of robbery and murder thus committed by old John A. Murrill and his band of freebooters. My transport was loaded with ice, artificial ice being a thing unheard of. The crew consisted of three men, whose principal duty was to look out for "sawyers," sunken trees, and to keep clear of eddies, for a boat once drawn into the swirl would go floating around indefinitely, in danger of colliding with the ever-accumulating drift and being sunk. As flatboats never returned and seldom passed each other, the slow, leisurely drifting, day after day, became intolerably monotonous. So I stopped off at Natchez and waited for a steamboat. Very poetical it was, no doubt, this dropping down with the rippling stream, but I had not started out in search of the poetical. By the time I reached New Orleans my exchequer was running low and mechanics were getting big wages, so I went to work as finisher in the old Leeds foundry. It was but a small affair, then employing only about twenty-five men. When I revisited it in 1835 it had spread over a whole block and employed over a hundred hands. It was a rough place for a boy to drift into. The men all got good wages and most of them spent their money either at the gambling table or in other disreputable resorts. When I went to work they eyed me with ill-concealed displeasure. I was so young to stand up beside old mechanics and do equal work; but they soon found more serious cause for dissatisfaction; I did too much work. Finally old Father Blair, the pattern maker, who took a friendly interest in me, cautioned me to go slow or I would have all the men down on me. I was "green from the states" then and felt indignant at being told that I must shirk. "Our employer pays me for my time; do I not owe him all I am capable of doing in that time?" "No," said they, "he pays for so much work. You get no more for your big day's work than we do for ours, and if you go on like this you will make trouble for the rest of us," and the words were accompanied by a look that said plainly, "No sprig of a boy must presume to set the pace for us," and so I was forced to slow down and drift with the tide. This was Labor Unionism in its incipiency.
When the sickly season came on and the men began to leave, I again took up the line of march for Texas, this time on board a coasting schooner owned by parties in New Orleans, chartered by Carlysle & Smith and laden with supplies for the Mexican army. A steam tug towed us out to the mouth of the Mississippi as far as steamers ventured. The weather was lovely as a dream of Venice, and we rounded the Balize and sped away on the wings of the trade winds over the placid waters. We passed Galveston island in plain view. There was no sign of human habitation on it; nothing to give promise of the thriving city which now covers it. It was only noted then as having been the rendezvous of Lafitte and his pirates, and as such was pointed out to me. The trip was a delightful one and I was in fine spirits, when on the third day we threaded the Paso Caballo and ran into Matagorda bay, having made the run in a little over forty-eight hours, a remarkable record in those days. We cast anchor in the mouth of the Lavaca river, where we had calculated to find the Mexican troops, but the movements of the troops, as well as the government, were very uncertain, and there were no troops, no agent, no one authorized to receive the goods. There was not an American there. The colonization law exempted from settlement all land within twenty-five miles of the coast, so the territory was given over to the Karankawa Indians, a fierce tribe, whose hand was against every man. They lived mostly on fish and alligators, with a man for fete days when they could catch one. They were the most savage looking human beings I ever saw. Many of the bucks were six feet in height, with bows and arrows in proportion. Their ugly faces were rendered hideous by the alligator grease and dirt with which they were besmeared from head to foot as a defense against mosquitoes. They rowed outside to our vessel in their canoes, but Carlysle warned them to leave their arms on shore, enforcing the argument by the presence of a wicked looking little cannon, which was conspicuously pointed in their direction. The mate and I had made special preparations for their reception, having molded several pints of bullets with which to load the cannon, and we were eager for a chance to turn it loose among them, but they gave us no provocation. It was a dreary place for a lone stranger to land. A few Mexicans came around, but they spoke no English and I understood no Spanish. At length two men, Fulcher and McHenry, who had squatted on land six or eight miles up the river, sighted the schooner and came down in a dugout. They took me in with them and I spent my first night in Texas in their cabin. My first meal on Texas soil was dried venison sopped in honey. After having spent some months in New Orleans, where everything of the known world was obtainable, it looked like rank starvation to me, but I was adaptive. The sea voyage had sharpened my appetite and I was possessed of a strong set of grinders, so I set to and made a meal, but I was not anxious to trespass on their hospitality, so next morning I set out on foot for Dewitt's colony, ten miles further up the Lavaca. Even at that early date there was a controversy between the government and colonists with regard to the meaning of the line of reserve, the government contending that it was ten leagues from the indentation of the gulf and bays and the colonists that it was ten leagues from the outer line of the chain of islands that extend around the coast, precisely the claim that England is now setting up in Alaska. The Texans made their own claim stick; it remains to be seen how John Bull will come out. Fulcher accompanied me up to the station. The beautiful rose color that tinged my visions of Texas while viewing it through Robertson's long-distance lens paled with each succeeding step. There were herds of fine, fat deer, and antelope enough to set one wild who had never killed anything bigger than a raccoon, but, to my astonishment and disgust, I could not kill one, though I was accounted a crack marksman; but I found it was one thing to shoot at a mark, the exact distance of which I knew, and another to hit game at an uncertain distance.
The colonists, consisting of a dozen families, were living—if such existence could be called living—huddled together for security against the Karankawas, who, though not openly hostile, were not friendly. The rude log cabins, windowless and floorless, have been so often described as the abode of the pioneer as to require no repetition here; suffice it to say that save as a partial protection against rain and sun they were absolutely devoid of comfort. Dewitt had at first established his headquarters at Gonzales, and the colonists had located their land in that vicinity, but the Indians stole their horses and otherwise annoyed them so much, notwithstanding the soldiers, that they abandoned the colony and moved down on the Lavaca, where they were just simply staying. The station being in the limits of the reserve, they made no pretense of improving it, not even to the extent of planting corn, one of the first things usually attended to, for the Texan Indians, unlike their eastern brethren, scorned to till the soil, and the few Mexicans scattered through the country did so only to the extent of supplying their own wants; so when the colonists used up the breadstuff they brought with them they had to do without until they raised it. This, however, was no very difficult matter near the coast, where there were vast canebrakes all along the rivers. The soil was rich and loose from the successive crops of cane that had decayed on it. In the fall, when the cane died down, it was burned off clean. The ground was then ready for planting, which was done in a very primitive manner, a sharpened stick being all the implement necessary. With this they made holes in the moist loam and dropped in grains of corn. When the young cane began to grow they went over it with a stick, simply knocking it down; the crop was then laid by. Game was plenty the year round, so there was no need of starving. Men talked hopefully of the future; children reveled in the novelty of the present; but the women—ah, there was where the situation bore heaviest. As one old lady remarked, Texas was "a heaven for men and dogs, but a hell for women and oxen." They—the women—talked sadly of the old homes and friends left behind, so very far behind it seemed then, of the hardships and bitter privations they were undergoing and the dangers that surrounded them. They had not even the solace of constant employment. The spinning wheel and loom had been left behind. There was, as yet, no use for them—there was nothing to spin. There was no house to keep in order; the meager fare was so simple as to require little time for its preparation. There was no poultry, no dairy, no garden, no books, or papers as nowadays—and, if there had been, many of them could not read—no schools, no churches—nothing to break the dull monotony of their lives, save an occasional wrangle among the children and dogs. The men at least had the excitement of killing game and cutting bee trees. It was July, and the heat was intense. The only water obtainable was that of the sluggish river, which crept along between low banks thickly set with tall trees, from the branches of which depended long streamers of Spanish moss swarming with mosquitoes and pregnant of malaria. Alligators, gaunt and grim—certainly the most hideous creatures God ever made—lay in wait among the moss and drift for any unwary creature that might come down to drink. Dogs, of which every well regulated family had several, were their special weakness, and many a thirsty canine drank and never thirsted more. This was not perhaps from any partiality for dog meat; on the contrary, when the alligator went foraging under cover of night he evinced a decided preference for human flesh, particularly negroes, and many blood-curdling stories were told of alligators stealing into sleeping camps and seizing an inmate. One story, in particular, I remember as being told by an eye-witness. A company of emigrants were camped at the mouth of the Brazos waiting for teams to take them up to Austin's colony. One night they were aroused by piercing screams, and rushing to the place from whence they proceeded found a huge alligator making for the river, dragging a 24-year-old negro girl by the arm. He had crawled into a tent, where a number of persons were sleeping, and, whether from accident or choice I cannot say, seized the darky and struck a bee-line for the river, which he would have reached on time with his prey but for his inveterate foes, the aforesaid dogs, who rushed upon him and, though finding no vulnerable point of attack, swarmed around, harassing and delaying his retreat till the men pulled themselves together and came to the rescue, when, seeing the odds decidedly against him, his alligatorship relinquished his prize and sought his own safety in the river. Their bellow was just such a hideous sound as might be expected to issue from the throat of such a hideous creature, and was of itself enough to chase away sleep, unassisted by the tuneful mosquito, whose song, like the opera singer's, has a business ring in it. I had heard the bellowing nightly while in New Orleans, but heard amid the noise and lights of the city there lurked in it no suspicion of the horror it could produce when heard amid the gloom and solitude of the wilderness. Wolves and owls added their voices to the dismal serenade. I had heard them all my life, but I had yet to learn the terrible significance that might attach to the familiar howl and hoot. The whippoorwill's silvery notes filled in the interludes, but they seemed strangely out of tune amid such surroundings.
Newcomers were warmly welcomed and entertained with all the hospitality at the command of the colonists. Sleeping accommodations were limited to mosquito bars, a provision not to be despised, since they were absolutely indispensable to sleep. The bill of fare, though far from epicurean, was an improvement on dried venison and honey, in that the venison was fresh and cooked, and Colonel Dewitt, my host, had bread, though some families were without. Flour was $10 a barrel. Trading vessels came in sometimes, but few people had money to buy anything more than coffee and tobacco, which were considered absolutely indispensable. Money was as scarce as bread. There was no controversy about "sound" money then. Pelts of any kind passed current and constituted the principal medium of exchange.
Children forgot, many of them had never known, what wheaten bread was like. Old Martin Varner used to tell a good story of his little son's first experience with a biscuit. The old man had managed to get together money or pelts enough to buy a barrel of flour. Mrs. Varner made a batch of biscuits, which, considering the resources of the country, were doubtless heavy as lead and hard as wood. When they were done Mrs. Varner set them on the table. The boy looked at them curiously, helped himself to one and made for the door with it. In a few minutes he came back for another. Doubting the child's ability to eat it so quickly, the old man followed him to see what disposition he made of the second. The ingenious youngster had conceived a novel and altogether illogical idea of their utility. He had punched holes through the center, inserted an axle and triumphantly displayed a miniature Mexican cart. And I assure you, from my recollection of those pioneer biscuits, they were capable of sustaining a pretty heavy load; shouldn't wonder if that was the first inception of the paper car wheel. Game was the sole dependence of many families and I fixed up many an old gun that I wouldn't have picked up in the road, knowing that it was all that stood between a family and the gaunt wolf at the door, as well as the Indians. Domestic animals were so scarce that the possession of any considerable number gave notoriety and name to the possessor; thus there were "Cow" Cooper and "Hog" Mitchell. Failing to secure more choice game, there were always mustangs to fall back on. Over on the Brazos lived Jared E. Groce, a planter from South Carolina, who had over 100 slaves, with which force he set to work clearing ground and planting cotton and corn. He hired two men to kill game to feed them on, and the mustangs being the largest and easiest to kill the negroes lived on horse meat till corn came in.