September 14, 2017 § Leave a comment
A friend had rabbit at his BBQ party the other weekend. It wasn’t Texas jack rabbit. They taste too gamy for most folks and eating their meat undercooked can damn near kill you, or at least make you wish you were dead. Jack rabbits define the word “fleabag.”
And they don’t bother to dig burrows like other rabbits, although they’ll pinch yours, in a pinch. It’s the time-honored Texas way of doing things—do as little work as you can to support your preferred style of living.
Which leads us to a story about Texas jack rabbits and the founding of San Antonio, published in the San Marcos Free Press on February 3, 1887.
AN EXPENSIVE FAILURE.
Rabbits Demoralizing an Early Texas Colony.
Some of the early immigrants of Texas must have been of a very peculiar stock, to judge from the experience of a certain colony founded in the old Spanish times.
According to Hubert Howe Bancroft’s History [of the Northern Mexican States and Texas, Pub. 1884—Ed.], the Spanish commander Aguayo [Marques de Aguayo–Ed.] had submitted to the King a plan for a settlement at the presidio of San Antonio, which was favorably received and acted upon by the government.
In February 1729, a royal cedula was issued, providing that every vessel from Spain clearing for Havana should take ten or twelve families from the Canary Islands to the latter place, thence to be re-shipped to Texas, whore the king would maintain them for one year.
In 1730 fifteen families arrived, who were joined by a like number from the southern parts of Mexico, and all were settled in the town of San Fernando de Bejar. In order to avoid trouble between the new comers and the Indians about lands and water rights, the governor made a new settlement according to a petition of the colonists.
The new town was named in honor of the Prince of Asturias. It enjoyed the favor of the king in a high degree, and received $12,000 from him towards the construction of a church. But if his royal majesty supposed that after having transported free and supported for a whole year at his expense the colonists would open for themselves the road to prosperity, he was mistaken about the character of his protégés.
The settlers accomplished nothing in the line of improvements, but were content to live by fishing and hunting. The transportation alone of the few families had cost the king $70,000, and when he could see no possible benefit from a repetition of the experiment, the colonization scheme was abandoned.
The Canarians might have prospered well enough in Texas if it had not been for the Texan rabbits [jack rabbits—Ed.]. These innocent looking animals had set the example how to live without exerting one’s self and the colonists were not slow to profit by it.
Says the historian Morfi [Fray Juan Agustín de Morfi—Ed.], who visited the place: “One of the settlers informed me that his father on his arrival in Texas discovered that the rabbits made no burrows, and thereupon told his son that in a country where rabbits made no burrows men need not build houses nor cultivate the land. From that time he had never worked, and had brought up his children according to the theory of their grandfather.”
August 7, 2017 § Leave a comment
The photos for “The Blessing of the Flock” and “Colquitt Carnival” from yesterday have been added.
August 6, 2017 § Leave a comment
Governor Oscar Branch Colquitt blesses a flock of his party’s legislative candidates, October 1912.
August 6, 2017 § Leave a comment
Who is the governor in this photo and who is his first lady?
“Should We Have Another Such Legislature, Would It Not Be Well to Dissolve Our State Government and Get Attached to the Indian Territory?”
June 21, 2017 § Leave a comment
“Around the Texas Capitol this year, it wasn’t unusual to hear the 85th Legislature described as the worst anyone could remember. … this session had more than its fair share of dispiriting moments. … not much got done. This Legislature passed the fewest bills in years, and while some might argue that’s a good thing, the biggest issue facing Texas—the crumbling school-finance system—went unaddressed. Instead of action, we got grandstanding over school vouchers, property taxes, and, as ever, abortion.” — Texas Monthly, June 2017.
Well, yes, the 85th deserves its place in the history books, but no one alive now is old enough to remember the 19th Legislature, and it was really a doozy compared with the rather tame 85th. Read this chapter from my recent book, Austin Murder and Mayhem, and make up your own mind.
“Should We Have Another Such Legislature, Would It Not Be Well to Dissolve Our State Government and Get Attached to the Indian Territory?”
The lawmaking process is often compared to making sausage. Little good ever comes from any Texas legislative session, but some legislatures grind out particularly wretched sausage. The Nineteenth Legislature (1885) was possibly the rudest, most feckless and most violent legislature in Texas history.
Ah, where to begin with the carryings-on of the Nineteenth…
Let’s start with the evening of Wednesday, March 11, when a disgraceful scene marred forever the history of legislation in Texas.
The Senate was discussing a bill abolishing the office of insurance commissioner, its supporters claiming that the commissioner was little more than a newspaper clipping collector and filer, and that any clerk could do the job. Augustus Houston of Bexar County made an elaborate and forcible argument in favor of its retention.
William Davis of Cooke County replied in his characteristic style and took occasion, as he often did, to ridicule. He compared Houston to a “strutting turkey gobbler.” 066
At the conclusion of Davis’s speech, Houston rose to a question of privilege and stated that in debates, criticisms were often indulged in, but never before had the personal appearance of any member been dragged into the fray, until that “little yellow, sallow-faced mummy and blackguard from Cooke” saw fit to allude to him, and that he was ready to settle the matter outside the chamber, or either within or outside of the state, as the senator might select.
Confusion followed, and the Senate president instructed the sergeant-at-arms to arrest the two senators. Comparative quiet was restored without this extreme measure, but intense excitement prevailed in the lobbies.
Davis arose and said that any senator who would take advantage of his position on the Senate floor to insult a member was a deliberate coward, poltroon and pusillanimous blackguard and that if he (Davis) wanted to raise a fight he would do it outside the Senate chamber.
As he said this, Houston passed from the Senate floor into the lobby, saying as he did so, “Come out, then.”
Davis said he would not go out into a crowd, where he would be prevented from fighting, but that he could be found on the streets, at his boardinghouse or anywhere else outside the chamber.
After quiet was fully restored, Davis took the floor and stated that he had not intended to insult anyone in the heat of the debate and he was sorry that offense had been taken.
Houston replied that if that was the case, he felt sorry, too, and took back all that he had said.
That extraordinary scene in the Senate chamber was all the chief topic of discussion the next day. The belligerent senators had yet to encounter each other, and mutual friends were trying to preserve the peace. There was little hope of an actual reconciliation, but perhaps a difficulty might be staved off. There was no doubt that a very bad feeling prevailed and very little business would be done during the remainder of the session. The Senate was hopelessly cut up into hostile factions, and bickering and antagonism would destroy the hope of the business of the public being cared for.
“Back in the day,” journalists tended to protect the reputations of the sinners they covered—but only up to a point. By March 19, the Galveston Daily News had had enough of the Nineteenth’s shenanigans and ripped the covers off of events in the Senate chamber on Monday night, March 9:
“During the delivery of this speech the senate chamber was a perfect bedlam—shouting, gesticulating, remonstrating, denouncing from all corners of the chamber, pistols were passed around, as cards are dealt at a whist-table. Messengers were dispatched for pistols, knives were taken out and opened, and for a while everyone present was morally certain that bloodshed, if not slaughter, was imminent.”
The hostilities extended beyond the statehouse. A number of legislators were eating supper at Bulian’s restaurant on the evening of March 19. Mr. Merriweather, of Frio County, came in and took a seat. He had a stick in his hand with which he kept tapping Doctor Camp, the member from Limestone. Camp at first paid no attention but finally objected. Merriweather had been drinking and was ripe for a row. Some emphatic words passed, and a fight was prevented only through the intervention of friends. The difficulty was, however, renewed on the sidewalk not long after, and flourishing their walking canes, both the gentlemen made at each other. Speaker Upton, in endeavoring to act as peacemaker, caught one of the blows, a sorry reward for his benevolent intentions. Then others again interfered, and the row was stopped for the night.
On March 28, the Dallas Herald ran the following:
Prepared for War
A few days since, when war was raging in the legislature, and the lie and “sich” was being hurled promiscuously by the members, the constituents of our representative, Mr. R.S. Kimbrough, purchased and expressed him a six-shooter, with the injunction to defend the honor and good name of Dallas county at all hazards. Yesterday the following reply, which explains itself, was received:
Austin, March 27, 1885 — W.G. Sterrett, J.G. Stephens, et al, Dallas, Texas:
My Dear Friend: The “gun” came to hand O.K.—charge 25 cts. Many thanks for the same and accompanying kind expressions. I have loaded her up and am waiting for an opportunity to “distinguish” myself. My friends were very thoughtful, indeed, for a statesman working for $2 per day here would never accumulate enough to buy a 50-cent pistol with which to defend himself and country. I needed it, and my only regret is that you didn’t think of my poor, lone condition among savages sooner. Again tendering my most heartfelt thanks to one and all, I am yours for war and reform.
P.S.—The senators don’t come in the house now, except when I am out. K.
After these preliminary rounds, real blood finally began to flow.
That same morning, March 28, an Austin Statesman headline blared: “Cutting to Kill.”
Between ten and eleven o’clock on the evening of March 27, a very serious stabbing affray occurred almost in front of the Avenue Hotel, involving Tobias Mitchell, correspondent of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, and Alexander Sampson, calendar clerk of the Senate.
The origin of the row was a caricature of Sampson in the March 25 issue of the Globe-Democrat, one of a series of burlesque pictures of members of the legislature, with some little accompanying description of the man. Sampson was not at all pleased with his, only a rear view being presented, and his ill temper was ill concealed. The sketch, though a burlesque on the surface, along with the accompanying brief biographical narrative, conveyed a deeper meaning in the light of subsequent developments:
This presents a view of the handsomest part of Major Alex Sampson, the calendar clerk of the Senate. He is the only representative of the Israelites in that body, and has a great reputation for “being seen” as he terms it, or shaping the course of legislation for a reasonable consideration. He is a daisy at securing free railroad passes for himself and “particular friend,” or none at all. Like all of his race, he is possessed of the strong ability to look out for number one, and it is a cold day when a senator can get him to calendar a bill conveniently.
Other men occupying far more honorable positions with quite as much reputation at stake were hit equally as hard, both by pen and picture, and yet did not consider themselves insulted.
Sampson claimed that he and Mitchell met on the sidewalk near the Avenue Hotel. Sampson told Mitchell that he had been given a rough deal in the paper and cursed the man who did it in terms not fit to be printed. At this, he said Mitchell drew a knife, whereupon he endeavored to do the same, but it caught somehow in his pocket and he could not pull it out. Then he ran, Mitchell after him. Sampson entered the Occidental saloon, followed by Mitchell, and the difficulty was renewed, resulting in the severe stabbing of Mitchell. Sampson’s weapon was a paper knife, double edged and sharp as a razor. Policeman Jim Williams came and arrested both men. Sampson was taken to the police station and released on a bond of $150, for disturbing the peace.
The wounded Mitchell walked to his room. He was bleeding terribly. Doctors Richard Swearingen (state health officer) and Frank McLaughlin were sent for, and they did all they could. The blade had entered at the point of the left shoulder and passed downward in the direction of the axillary artery. The artery was probably severed, the doctors thought, from the great flow of blood. They would not allow him to be talked to, for his life appeared in danger at the moment. (He recovered.)
A friend who heard it from the wounded man’s lips told Mitchell’s side of the story. It differed from Sampson’s statement in one important particular. He admitted having gone into the saloon after Sampson, but his better judgment began to assert itself, and wishing to avoid a scene, he was turning to go when Sampson suddenly sprang forward and stabbed him.
Mitchell was well known in Texas journalism. He was managing editor of the Houston Post before its demise, a well-built, muscular man, weighing about 180 pounds, and possessing great nerve. He was around forty years of age and generally popular, having pleasant manners and a genial smile for every man he met. Scarcely a newspaperman in Texas was better liked.
Although arrested only for disturbing the peace, Sampson would find a far more serious charge to confront the next morning.
Sampson hailed from Galveston, where he was a ward politician. Little was known about him, except that when the legislature assembled, he sought, and was elected, the Senate’s calendar clerk. In the early days of the session, he was earning a reputation as an efficient officer, winning golden opinions from the senators and others who came in contact with him. But his true motives gradually began to reveal themselves.
For more than a month, the moral atmosphere of the capital had been rendering an unpleasant odor. The lobby was filled with whispers of questionable doings, and members of both houses swapped reports of questionable methods indulged in by attaches of the legislature: of bills being extracted from the committee rooms, defaced, altered and mutilated; that officers, mostly clerks, of both houses were professional lobbyists who levied blackmail on every party who appeared before the legislature, interested in either the passage or defeat of a bill.
They levied tribute on all who would yield up a dollar. The advocates of certain new counties were bled freely. When the gambling bill was up, the gamblers were sucked dry. A telegraph lobby that appeared was rich game. The “sailors bill” (which would have prevented foreign sailors from working beyond their ship’s tackle in Texas ports) was tackled when it was first introduced, but it didn’t produce much.
The grand stand of the session was made on the bucket-shop bill. A bucket shop was a private establishment where a customer could put up a specified margin on gold, cotton or other commodities to be delivered on an agreed-upon date in the future. We call it futures dealing. Here the boys expected to make the blood flow freely. They looked for big returns and luxurious expenditures, and some of the ring’s members had planned a trip to New York, Hot Springs and other points when the bucket shop bill was called up.
When the House convened on the morning of March 28, Representative Lorenzo Fisher of Galveston exposed Sampson and company. About a month earlier, Sampson had written a letter to a well-known bucket shop proprietor in Galveston, stating that a pending bill, the bucket shop bill—which would prohibit speculation in grain and stock futures—could be suppressed if the bucket shop men would pay Joseph Tryon, clerk of the house’s Judiciary Committee No. 2, $1500. The bill was killed by placing on it a rider that would also prohibit dealing in futures in cotton and other public exchanges.
The reading of Sampson’s letter on the House floor created a great sensation. Fisher, in a vigorous speech, exposed the doings of the band of clerical blackmailers, who, he said, had infested the legislative halls since the opening of the session.
Sampson was expelled that day.
Tryon was a young man from Houston, according to the Galveston News. He was a generous, impulsive fellow, reckless and thoughtless and could easily be made a tool of by designing men. In conversation with a News correspondent following Sampson’s expulsion, Tryon admitted that others made a cat’s-paw of him, though with loyalty worthy of a better cause, he refused to squeal.
Tryon was expelled on March 30, the day before the legislature adjourned.
They returned to their respective home turfs, evidently with open arms, because in September 1886, Tryon was a candidate for Harris County attorney, and Alex Sampson for Galveston County judge, which the Galveston News regarded as a rebuke to the Nineteenth Legislature.
Sampson would play a prominent role in Galveston’s legal circles and politics for years to come.
The postmortems on the Nineteenth began weeks before its adjournment, and they cut to the bone.
The Fort Worth Gazette declared on March 18, “The legislature has been at work now since the 13th of January, and has nothing but a few local bills and several disgraceful scenes, to show to the people as the result of its labors.”
Hasn’t Texas just a wee bit too much of “good fellowship” in its legislature? A “devilish good fellow” may be place around the stove of a courthouse room or a “store”; but men who make laws should be “honorable” men in “word and deed.” “Tom, Dick, and Harry” and the slap on the shoulder may do for the street, but dignity, self-respect, and a regard for personal, as well as public, rights, are expected of statesmen. There is too much of big-boyism, “kids,” “mugwumps,” etc., at Austin, and the solons have not been without a certain newspaper encouragement in converting the legislative halls of the state into the play-ground of a village school. Indeed, it is likely, from the aid and comfort they received from one newspaper, that “the kids” actually grew to believe that people in Texas had suspended all business and were standing on tiptoe to see what “the boys” would do next; whether they would thump another newspaper man, put a mansard roof on a judge, or curse and abuse each other. Texas is sick and tired of this “kid” business, in the legislature as well as in the university.
The Austin Statesman nailed the lid on the coffin on April 9:
“The Nineteenth Legislature had no intelligent executive suggestions, until at the last hour Comptroller Swain took the bull by the horns and showed the necessity for increased taxation for State expenses, as well as for a law forcing payment for the use of lands set aside for educational purposes. The two measures suggested by him led to the only two valuable enactments of the Nineteenth Legislature.
“The Legislature failed to pass the granite bill—even permitting the capitol to be built of granite. Such was legislation to the Nineteenth Legislature. When will we have such another; and should we have another such legislature, would it not be well to dissolve our state government and get attached to the Indian Territory?”
It’s appropriate to close the books on a joke of a legislature with a joke about it, from the Statesman.
We do not know how much good or bad the legislature has thus far accomplished. They are still grinding away, but the grinding is like the turning of the crank on a peanut roaster. A countryman from Onion Creek watched a man who was turning the handle on a peanut roaster steadily for half an hour, and then he asked:
“When are you going to play a tune?”
He had taken the peanut roaster for a hand organ. The legislators are still turning the crank, but we are unable to determine just yet whether it is a hand organ for the amusement of the people or a peanut roaster for their own private profit.
June 5, 2017 § Leave a comment
Given the comportments of our country’s current Chief Executive and the Texas Legislature, which can charitably be described as erratic, I have had mad dogs, mad men and mad stones on the brain. And as I am prone to do, I have dug back into Texas’ “good old days,” before the Pasteur vaccine, for a couple of stories about one of humanity’s most dreaded maladies — hydrophobia — which was indiscriminate with regard to its victims, from the lowest street urchin to the mightiest politician.
Both of these articles appeared in the Austin Daily Statesman.
December 21, 1887
A Young Merchant Expires With the Horrible Malady.
A death from the effects of hydrophobia occurred this morning in the town of Anna, the victim being a prominent young merchant by the name of John Herrington, of Petty, in this state.
The deceased went on a business trip to Denton county three weeks ago, and, while there encountered a dog afflicted by hydrophobia, which he made an effort to kill by shooting, but failed and was bitten several times on the face. He came immediately to Anna, where a farmer by the name of McKinney lived, who is the possessor of a mad stone, which has been used successfully in cases of hydrophobia for more than half a century.
The stone adhered tenaciously to the wound, drawing out large quantities of poisonous matter, and it was thought the patient was relieved. He returned to his home at Petty and entered upon his business duties.
In about a week he was suddenly attacked with hydrophobia, evincing great fear of water and having all the prominent symptoms of the disease. He was taken immediately to the mad stone, but received no benefit, and for ten days past suffered the horrors of a raving maniac, till this morning death relieved him of his suffering.
September 5, 1882
Hon. George A. Reeves
His Death Yesterday Of Hydrophobia.
A private dispatch to your correspondent tonight announces the death at noon today, at his home in Grayson county, of Hon. George A. Reeves, speaker of the present Texas house of representatives, and a candidate for reelection to the new legislature. His death was one of most horrible character.
He was bitten about a month ago by a rabid dog. He had mad stones applied but they did no good. A few days ago he showed symptoms of approaching virulent hydrophobia, and two days ago the attack was so bad it was necessary to tie him in bed. He frothed and snapped and raved in the most virulent manner, without cessation, till death. Physicians were in constant attendance but could not relieve him.
Mr. Reeves was one of the best known and best liked public men in Texas, He was born in Crawford county, Arkansas, about sixty-five years ago. His father, William Reeves, represented Crawford county in the Arkansas legislature upwards of forty years ago.
He moved to Texas thirty-eight years ago, settled nine miles from Sherman at old Ft. Georgetown, then in Fannin county, but now a part of Grayson, and the family has resided there ever since.
The deceased was a deputy sheriff in 1845; was major in a Texas regiment during the war between the states; had several times been a member of the legislature, and years ago presided over the house as speaker, the same position he occupied at the time of his death. Mr. Reeves was a planter and a man of more than ordinary ability.
One strange thing about his life was that in almost forty years’ residence in Texas he had never visited Galveston.
June 2, 2017 § Leave a comment
This story has nothing to do with Austin except that it appeared in the April 25, 1892, edition of the Daily Statesman, and I found it as entertaining as the Statesman’s editors and readers no doubt did. It was reprinted all over the world for decades after his death.
Dr. William “Tiger” Dunlop (1792-1848) was an army officer, surgeon, Canada Company official, author, justice of the peace, militia officer, politician, and office holder. He is notable for his contributions to the War of 1812 in Canada and his work in the Canada Company, helping to develop and populate a large part of Southern Ontario (the Huron Tract). He was later elected as a Member of the first Parliament of Upper Canada. Find out more about Tiger at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_%22Tiger%22_Dunlop.
A Curious Will.
Here are the principal portions of a will made by Dr. Dunlop, at one time a member of the Canadian Legislature:
“I being in sound health of body and mind, which my friends who do not flatter me say is no great shakes at the best of times, do make my last will and testament … .
I leave the property of Gairbread … to my sisters Helen Boyle Storey and Elizabeth Boyle Dunlop, the former because she is married to a minister, whom may, God keep him, she henpecks, the latter because she is married to nobody, nor is she likely to be, for she is an old maid and not market ripe.
I leave my silver tankard to the eldest son of John, as the representative of the family. I would have left it to old John himself, but he would have melted it down to make temperance medals, and that would have been a sacrilege. However, I leave him my big horn snuff box; he can only make temperance horn spoons out of that.
I leave my sister Jennie my Bible, the property formerly of my great grandmother, Betsy Hamilton of Woodhall, and when she knows as much of the spirit as she does of the letter she will be a much better Christian than she is.
I leave my late brother’s watch to my brother Sandy, exhorting him at the same time to give up Whiggery and Radicalism, and all other sins that do most easily beset him.
I leave my brother-in-law, Allan, my punch bowl, as he is a big gausy man, and likely to do credit to it. I leave to Parson Cherussci my big silver snuff box I got from the Simcoe Militia, as a small token of gratitude to him for taking my sister Maggie, whom no man of taste would have taken.
I leave to John Caldwell a silver teapot to the end that he may drink tea therefore to comfort him under the affliction of a slatternly wife.
I leave my books to my brother Andrew, because he has been “jingling wally,” that he may yet learn to read with them.
I leave my silver cup with the sovereign in the bottom of it to my sister Janet, because she is an old maid and pious and therefore necessarily given to hoarding, and also my grandmother’s snuff box, as it looks decent to see an old maid taking snuff.
May 31, 2017 § Leave a comment
The succulent aroma of Llano wafted through Guy Town this morning, which reminded me of the last time Llano infamously invaded Austin, back in 1876. The resulting altercation, just 4 blocks up Congress Avenue from our “Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que of Llano” outpost at the corner of Cypress (3rd Street) and Congress, was reported in every newspaper in America, in many different versions.
Llano exported rock heads as well as rocks back in the day.
This report appeared in the Austin Daily Statesman:
February 5, 1876
SHOOTING SCRAPE. — A shooting scrape occurred yesterday on the Avenue [mid-block between Bois d’ Arc and Hickory—Ed.] and in front of the Mitchell saloon, between a man named Hanna, of Llano, and Ben Thompson, of this city.
It is currently reported on the streets that three or four men, claiming to be from Llano, and on the rowdy order, had been hunting a fight during the day, and in the forenoon had pulled out their pistols in a saloon and bluffed around generally, saying that they wanted to show the Austin fighters the Llano style of fighting.
They especially wanted to encounter someone in Austin that had a reputation for fighting, and finally came up with Ben Thompson on the sidewalk of the saloon above named, and used offensive language and threw out a general invitation for a fight.
Thompson replied, it is stated, that he knew nothing of the Texas fighters; that he was down here from Boston for his health, but that he did not apprehend that the Llanoites could fight any better than anyone else.
Hanna thought they could, and said, “if you come up there we will show you how it is done.”
Thompson said, “if I should come up there I would serve the boys just so,” drawing his hand across Hanna’s face gently.
Instantly Hanna struck him with his fist, knocking off his hat, when the pistols were drawn and the firing commenced. It is said by some that Hanna fired first, and by others that he attempted to fire but that his pistol would not go off.
Thompson at this time was on the sidewalk and Hanna had stepped down into the gutter behind a post, and seemed to be trying to get his pistol to revolve, and while thus engaged, Thompson fired at him, the ball, perhaps, taking effect in his neck, and passing through one ear.
Hanna then started across the street, and while doing so, and after having reached the middle of the street, another shot, it is said, was fired by Thompson, which passed through Hanna’s side. Hanna then continued his retreat to the opposite sidewalk, and the fight was at an end.
Both parties were taken to the mayor’s office, and the wounds of Hanna, which were not considered dangerous, were dressed, and Thompson was put under bond for his appearance on trial. Shooting in the streets of a city is at all times entitled to the severest censure; but in this instance it fortunately happened that no one was hurt but the Llano man that was spoiling for a fight.
No doubt frontier “bad ones” will hereafter be a little shy of Boston invalids who are down in Texas to restore weak lungs.
Ben Thompson went on to become Austin City Marshal in 1880.
May 14, 2017 § Leave a comment
I offer this story for what it is, a reflection of the times: nothing more, nothing less. History is seldom pretty or simple. But we cannot ignore it.
July 29, 1901
“Old Uncle John Price,” Who was Known to Many Austinites
A short time ago the Austin Daily Statesman contained this simple notice. John Price, colored, was buried yesterday, aged 65.
That was all.
Few of those who read that short notice knew or cared who John Price was or had been. Just one more old Antebellum nigger shuffled off.
Brief as that paragraph was it revived memories in the hearts of a few.
Back in the stormy sixties, General W. R. Hamby, Captain W. C. Walsh, General A. S. Roberts, John G. Wheeler of Manor, Garland Calvin of Watters, Dr. L. D. Hill, physician at the Confederate home, and myself, all members of old Company D, Fourth Texas regiment, Army of Northern Virginia, knew that old negro and knew him well.
In camp, on the march, wherever the fortunes of war carried Hood’s Texas Brigade, Old Uncle John was there.
At the field hospital, a little back from the line of battle, where the wounded and dying are hurried in ambulances and on litters, that brave old black Samaritan could be seen, busy preparing bandages, scraping lint or helping the surgeons and nurses.
A field hospital is no bomb proof position, and it takes nerve, lots of it, to stay there and work to alleviate the agonies of the wounded. I had rather be on the firing line anytime than at a field hospital in close proximity to a battle.
As a rule, soldiers of every nation fire, too high while in action, and many of the shot and shells pass over the heads of the men at the front and do great damage in the rear, where the field hospitals are always established.
The Tom Green Rifles, afterwards Company D, Fourth Texas regiment, was the first company to leave Austin in the spring of 1861. John T. Price, former Sheriff of Travis County, was fifth sergeant in the company and took “Yeller John,” the only negro he owned, with him as body servant and cook. It was a familiar sight back in those eventful days to see Old Uncle John flooding along the dusty roads in Old Virginia, literally loaded down with cooking utensils, blankets, canteens and haversacks. Perhaps there were government mules that carried heavier loads of plunder than old John, but none of them carried a more general assortment or got to the place of destination any sooner.
Honest as the days were long, he was faithful to every trust and stuck to his old regiment through thick and thin. A negro cook in the Confederate Army had more privileges than his master, and could take shortcuts and forage through the country, as he was not required to stay in line or answer to roll call. The boys would furnish John with money, he would strike out through the rural districts parallel with the route of the army and at night come into camp loaded down with good things for old mess no. 5.
Some of us will never forget the old man at Gettysburg. On the memorable night of July 2nd, 1863, the Texas Brigade lay on the side of the mountain in a broken disordered line, the crest of the ridge 50 yards above us covered with Federal infantry and artillery. Both armies were whipped and both were vicious. The snapping of a twig or the misplacing of a stone brought a shower of many balls down upon us. All night we lay there, not speaking above a whisper, with our haversacks and canteens empty.
Just as the gray dawn was breaking Old Uncle John came slipping up the mountain with a camp kettle full of boiled beef, a bag of boiled roasting ears, cold water biscuits and several canteens of cold water. He had rambled up and down the line for hours hunting the Fourth Texas Regiment, which was a mere fragment in that great Army.
Giving the provisions to Lieutenant McLaurin he dropped down behind a big boulder and in two minutes was sound asleep. The heavy load and long search had worn the old man out, and he slept like a log with cannon booming all around him.
He had many opportunities to go with his so-called friends the federals, but he clung to those he knew and was as proud of his gray uniform as many of the Confederate soldiers. Many of the Negro cooks and body servants abandoned their masters on the Maryland and Pennsylvania raids but old John remained true through it all.
When the remnant of Lee’s army stacked arms at Appomattox on the 9th of April 1865, Old Uncle John with his white friends, what few were left, turned his footsteps westward and homework. Barefooted, ragged and hungry he tramped back to Texas, back to the land and people he loved, and for all this faithful devotion he has at least received his reward, a pauper’s grave.
The Statesman was misinformed in regard to the old man’s age; he was nearer 80 than 65. When the American National Bank of Austin was organized Major George W. Littlefield, president, and General W. R. Hamby, cashier, gave Old Uncle John the position of porter. This place he kept for a number of years, really to the detriment of the bank, for the old man was not able to do the work required of him.
Then they pensioned him on $10 per month, relieving him of all labor, paying him $2.50 every Saturday night. He soon became too feeble to care for himself, was alone in the world without kindred, and strange to say of one of his race was an old bachelor.
Knowing the history of this old man’s life, knowing how true he had been to his white friends in the Army and how he still stood by them through the dark days of reconstruction when his own color threatened to lynch him, I made an appeal through the Statesman to the managers of the Confederate home. I simply asked them to give the old man a place to rest his weary old bones and something to eat out of the bountiful supply of provisions out there. My appeal met with cold indifference.
In fact it was not noticed at all and the fate of this brave old black Confederate was “over the hills to the poorhouse.”
John was a proud old darky and felt the humiliation of becoming a pauper and he knew the days of his usefulness were gone, and bent with years and toil he accepted the charity of the county and now like Old Uncle Ned in the song:
“There is no more work for poor old John,
He’s gone where the good niggers go.”
That everlasting “might have been” looms up before us wherever we go and like the little word “if” is always chiding us and making us unhappy. We the old soldiers who knew John in the Army might have provided for the old man simple wants and not have permitted him to die at the poor farm a beggar.
But now that he has crossed over the Border beyond the reach of human ingratitude, Christian charity or what “might have been,” let’s do something that no ex Confederates have ever done before. Lest we forget the old man dead like we neglected him while living, let’s build a monument to his memory. A shift of grey granite will not cost much and it will be a fitting tribute to the services and faithful devotion of this old negro to the dead Confederacy.
I spoke to General Hamby, cashier of the American National Bank of Austin, in regard to this matter. And he heartily approves of it. He knew how faithful John had been through all those long years of Civil War and told this anecdote about him.
“John reached home before the federals arrived in Austin. It was on the morning of July 4th 1865 when the federal cavalry entered the city. The Sunday before their arrival John brushed up his old faded grey uniform and remarked to General Hamby’s mother, ‘Well, Miss Louisa, this is the last time I will ever wear this old uniform. The Yankees are coming and won’t let me wear it anymore.’”
True to the last and braver than some of our old soldiers, for I know one fellow who burned his uniform for fear the Yankees would find it and get him into another war. Some soldiers had a better excuse than that for burning their old clothes.
Now, if there are any who have any sympathy with this novel but worthy object and are willing to contribute toward building a modest shift over this faithful old colored Confederate, they can leave or send their contributions, no matter how small, to General Hamby. He will receipt for all monies contributed to the John Price Monumental Fund and at the proper time publish the names of the contributors in the Austin papers.
Signed, Val C. Giles
May 11, 2017 § Leave a comment
This little story comes from my unpublished (and likely to stay that way) biography of Ben Thompson in Austin, and comes in response to a thread on Facebook today (May 11, 2017) about the present Texas Capitol and the limestone quarry at Oak Hill’s “Convict Hill.” The capitol was to have been built with Convict Hill limestone, but the rust stains resulting from the iron pyrite nodules that riddled the stone rendered it unfit for exterior use, prompting the use of the beautiful pink granite from Marble Falls.
On February 22, 1884, there was a kind of picnic out at Oatmanville (present-day Oak Hill), seven miles from Austin. The syndicate that was building the new Texas capitol had its rock quarries at Oatmanville, and the leading citizens, including Governor Ireland and other state officials, were invited out to look at the work. There were about 130 persons present.
While the picnic was in progress, who should drive up but prominent gambler and former city marshal Ben Thompson, in a handsome carriage drawn by a fiery team of horses. On his right was Colonel Bingham Trigg, Ben’s attorney and ex-city attorney. In the back seat sat Mr. C. D. Johns, the recorder of the City of Austin, by whom Ben had frequently been tried. The fourth gentleman was Ben’s long-time friend and defense attorney, George Pendexter, who was now Austin City Attorney, chief prosecutor of violators of the law. The appearance of this strangely assorted quartet on the grounds created some little sensation. For a time, they mingled with the other excursionists and partook of the cakes, oranges, cigars, etc., provided by the generous agents of the capitol contractors.
Sauntering up to Governor Ireland, Ben excused himself for not having come out sooner. “I was detained by my friend, the Recorder here, who fined me ten dollars for some fun I had yesterday; but, as your Excellency will perceive, I am fixed now. I’ve got the Court, and the Prosecuting Attorney, and my own counsel, and the corpus delicti, which is me, all in the same vehicle. If I commit any illegal indiscretion, we stop the carriage right in the road, and try the case then and there. I pay my fine, if my attorney can’t persuade the Court that I’m innocent, and then we drive on until I commit a fresh indiscretion.”
Governor Ireland smiled, and made some bantering reply, after which Ben and his friends resumed their places in the vehicle. Off they went at a breakneck speed, headed back to the capital city along the winding path from Oatmanville, amid the solitudes of a Texas cedar brake, Thompson driving the horses with one hand, while he plugged the trees with the revolver in his other hand. Recorder Johns joined in the fun as well, fairly matching Ben shot for shot, it is said.
But the eagle eye and acute ear of Travis County Deputy Sheriff Pace, whom Johns had fined $100 and costs (the maximum allowed by law) a few weeks earlier for discharging a pistol within the Austin city limits, were open. Pace happened to live in the township of Oatmanville, and when the rattle of the volleys awakened the echoes in the glens, he hastened thither and beheld the city recorder of Austin shooting his gun “on and across a public highway” in the State of Texas, which was a misdemeanor. No matter if the road be the poorest of paths, the law protected the poor as well as the fat. “Strictly in the line of his duty,” the Statesman remarked, tongue firmly planted in cheek, Deputy Pace caused information to be filed against Recorder Johns on two charges: one for carrying a pistol and the other for shooting “on and across a public highway.”
The charges were filed before Justice of the Peace D.C. Pace, one of the deputy’s brothers. Turnabout was indeed fair play in this matter, and as Deputy Pace had been before him, Recorder Johns was in it for all it cost, to get out of the meshes of wisdom surrounding a court of justice.
As it turns out, the cases against Johns were dismissed by the Travis County Attorney on March 3, on grounds that the facts didn’t constitute a violation of any state statute, or as Johns put it, “No violation of any law of either God or me.”
Officer William Howe made complaint on the evening of February 23 against Ben, charging him with shooting a pistol in his presence. Ben was not arrested, and afterwards rode around Austin in a buggy, firing his pistol off several times, just as he had done on the day he returned in his buggy from Oatmanville. This might have been very interesting for Ben, but it was certainly not amusing to the people whose lives were endangered by so much promiscuous shooting.
That night, Ben borrowed a hand organ from an Italian name of Michlo Penilo and went to several places about the city serenading his friends. When he took it back, Penilo said it was broken. Ben politely told him it was not, and requested the mendicant to “grind it,” which he did not seem inclined to do. Ben gave Penilo to understand he had to grind. Then Ben told him it had too much wind anyway and proceeded to shoot it out. After Ben had fired several shots at it, its usefulness as a hand organ was at an end. Ben was promptly arrested by Officer Callahan, and the next day he pleaded guilty and paid his fine, $10 dollars and costs, and also paid Penilo for his music box.
Penilo moved to San Antonio shortly thereafter, where he took up residence with his sister, Ignaciano. Fighting the world together, saving, scraping and denying themselves everything or anything which was in any way expensive, thus by degrees a sum of money was accumulated in one of the San Antonio banks to the amount of about $400, but over the half of which belonged to Ignaciano. Both seemed inordinately affectionate and doing all in their power for each other’s interests.
The sister’s show of love to her brother seems to have been sincere, but the brother’s was evidently a snare whereby to gain the sister’s confidence, and to have the whole power of managing the money in his hands. How this power was abused the unfortunate sister came to know when Michlo, drawing the whole sum from the bank, almost two months to the day after Ben deprived him of his livelihood, decamped for parts unknown, leaving her almost penniless.
On February 27, 1884, the Statesman noted, “Ben Thompson had a happy time late Saturday night and Sunday morning. He must have been omnipresent, for there is hardly a locality in the city that does not lay claim to be honored by the ‘whang’ of his gun. His young companions, too, are getting more glory than they like, it is surmised.”
Theodore Hillyer, one of the young men who was with Ben that Saturday night and Sunday morning, was charged before the recorder with discharging a pistol within the limits of the city. A similar charge was also filed against Ben. But the case against Hillyer for having a pistol was dismissed because he was a deputy sheriff, and thus permitted to carry arms.
Ben could have cared less; after he paid off Penilo the organ grinder he left town on the 6 p.m. Houston and Texas Central train. February 26 was Mardi Gras day, and King Dionysus in Galveston was beckoning. Ben changed trains at Houston and took the Texas and New Orleans to Galveston, arriving at 9 on the morning of the 25th.With all the festivities and the prevailing royal atmosphere that so appealed to Ben’s British roots, Mardi Gras was Ben’s favorite holiday, apart from Christmas with his family.