The other day I was on the 6th floor of the San Antonio Central Library downtown (the site, my dad tells me, of the old Sears store), and I realized what a good place it would be to actually live. There are all kinds of nooks and alcoves where one could set up a nighttime hobo camp, and I’ve always thought it would be cool to camp out like that in a pile of blankets and pillows, as long as I was awake and had my stuff stowed before people started showing up for work (I have a friend who works there, the possessor of the perfect job, and it would be awkward if he discovered me curled up in the Edward W. Heusinger Geographical Collection one fine morning.) I could sponge up and brush my teeth and all that kind of thing in the restroom so as not to give myself away by emitting any attention-drawing aromas, and as far as nourishment, why I’d be within walking distance of Lulu’s and the Blanco Cafe, and I could tend to my ice tea addiction at the neighborhood Bill Miller. And the rest of the day, I would just read. I would spend days- and nights- lost in the genealogy stacks, I’d stare at old numbers of newspapers on the microfilm screen until my eyes started looking like the opening sequence of The Twilight Zone, and I would be in paradise.
The library is my spiritual home, setting of some of my best and earliest memories, and even today, fifty-something years later, the whiff of the musty interior of an old book and a waft of river water on the breeze carry me instantly back to the perfect bliss of reading Curious George in the old downtown library overlooking the San Antonio River. Some girls don a pair of plastic glasses, adorably rumple their hair and snap a selfie to show the world what a sexy little nerd they are but brothers and sisters, I walk the walk. I’m all about that life.
So sometimes when I don’t have any ideas for my next Explore article and I have the sinking feeling that perhaps this is it, I’ve written about everything and now there isn’t anything more to say, I report to the historical research room at the library in Boerne and proceed to randomly pillage those trusty old vertical files, glomming onto anything that looks even slightly interesting. The next step is coming home to immediately lose my notes, enabling me to stumble across them later in a desperate grope for a story idea, usually three days past the deadline about which I only remembered fifteen minutes ago. And this time I rootled up a doozy.
This story begins with a fuzzy Xerox copy of a San Antonio Light story from April 1923, headlined ‘PIONEER TEXAN LIVES IN TINY CABIN IN HILLS…Oldest House in Kendall County a Relic of By-gone Days.’
I mean, what are you gonna do? This is the kind of stuff that makes me believe in the inherent upward arc of fate in spite of my experiences with marriage- a ninety-one year old pioneer woman who’d purportedly lived in the backwoods of the Hill Country for sixty-five years in the first cabin ever built in Kendall County, no less. It was a nice story, a fascinating story, really, about a pioneer family come down from Alabama by perilous waterways ending with a terrifying trip across the shark- and pirate-infested Gulf of Mexico and finally to Port Lavaca, thence to an ancient cabin on the Guadalupe River in the wilds of Kendall County. About the life the couple and their children carved out of a wilderness where hostile Indians roamed and floodwater sometimes raged through their home, the graveyard down the road a piece where lay two of their young children and eventually the father, about the grinding labor and loneliness and isolation of the woman and her fatherless kids in the early days of the state. I thought I’d do a little poking around, see who their descendants were, what had become of the land, and write it up and present it to you guys as a story of pioneer days and this one hardy family who helped to shape the county and this part of the world.
The weird part, though, the thing I started to discover, is that BIG chunks of that old pioneer lady’s story just weren’t true! In fact, the whole history that sweet old lady narrated, all her colorful tales, a whole lot of them were nothing but lies invented to hide the truth of what had really happened in their lives, and who they really were. Sussing out the truth and separating it from all the chaff that the old lady had built up as a defense against the truth all through her long, long years in the backwoods of the Texas frontier, digging down into the reality of their lives until I finally stood on the spot where she lay buried, believing that her secrets went with her- that’s been an amazing experience, and one of those things as close to time travel as you can get.
Let’s start with this article. Dated April 12, 1923, it appeared in the San Antonio Light- the now-defunct, venerable old man of San Antonio News, and the paper my dad always took because he thought the SA “Excuse for News” was too liberal. Of course, my dad might well have considered Barry Goldwater a little too radical at times, but that’s neither here nor there. And then the poor man goes and has a daughter like me. Wait, where was I?
Accompanying the news story is a photo of the subject, and in her picture she’s wearing an old-fashioned bonnet, sitting in a rocking chair presumably on the porch of the oldest house in Kendall County. She looks ancient, and bears a striking resemblance to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s little corncob doll. She is Caroline Mims Insall, second wife of Richard Insall, and together they lived and farmed the land attached to their ancient cabin in a place called Insall Bottoms, better know to descendants as the Big Bridge, for it’s proximity to the trestle bridge of the SA & AP railroad that spans a bend of the Guadalupe three miles or so from Comfort on Ranch-to-Market Road 473. It’s a beautiful bridge, and when it was threatened with destruction by the (stupid and shortsighted) powers-that-be, the Seidensticker family, owners of a beautiful 1920s limestone rock home on the other side of the highway, bought it in order to save it for the landmark it is. When the San Antonio and Aransas Pass railroad came through those parts around 1890, they laid their tracks just a few steps from the front door of the Insall’s cabin, very near to the present-day James Kiehl River Bend Park on River Bend Road, and even though the advent of the railroad facilitated delivery of the mail more often than the once a month service they’d been used to, Mrs Insall complained that it scared her chickens. And besides, she told the reporter, it “didn’t matter a bit, since no one ever wrote to them anyhow.”
Mrs Insall told the reporter all about her life in Insall Bottoms, about the children and the husband she’d buried and the grueling work of running a farm and raising her small children as a widow on the frontier, and about her and her husband’s journey to Texas by water from their home in Bridgeport, Alabama. She described the start they’d had on their place in Kendall County with just their “children and 53 good fat hogs- but that was plenty for anybody to start out on.”
Indeed, it turns out that it was a whole lot more to start out with than what she and husband Richard had actually had, which was pretty much just the clothes on their backs. In fact, her whole saga of coming to Texas from Alabama with the old man and their kids and all those pigs was nothing but a tall tale, borrowed from her own folks who actually HAD gotten to Texas that way. Turns out, how Richard and Caroline Insall had actually gotten to Kendall County was by going on the lam, and they spent the rest of Richard’s life hiding out from the authorities who would surely hang Richard if they could but lay their hands on him. What a story!
On one hand we have in the newspaper this wonderful memoir of a sweet but tough little old lady, a transplant from the Deep South who’d braved the waterways and the elements, the Indians and the land, in order to survive in the woods, and who could now sit back and rock on her porch and look back at a life well-spent. And all the while she was sitting on this enormous big secret, this huge ugly skeleton in the family closet that she dared not speak about, even fifty years after her husband’s death. Think of that!
What really happened started with Richard Noel Insall, who had never lived in Alabama in his life but who was, in fact, a native of Bayou Chicot, Louisiana, where his father was a wealthy planter. Caroline Insall, in her interview with the SA Light reporter, allowed as how she and Richard had both been married before, and were both widows without any children, but here again she engaged in a little fibbery. Turns out, Richard had indeed been married, but the truth is that his first wife outlived him by a good long piece, and they certainly did have a kid together, who also lived to a ripe old age.
Miss Caroline Keller was the daughter of a wealthy plantation owner who used to vacation with his family at a spa in Bayou Chicot right next door to the Insall place, and whose sister was already married to Richard’s brother when she married Richard in 1837. A couple years later, Richard and Caroline hauled off with their baby daughter Alzenith and lit out for Texas, where they settled in Harrisburg (which would later become a part of Houston.) Actually, “settled” might not be the right word, at least not for Caroline Keller Insall, who up and split after eight months in the new place. Now, a lot of us, including me, have spent time in the whole greater Houston area and know what a delightful place it can be, but try to imagine it a hundred and eighty years ago, sans paved streets or air conditioning or indoor plumbing or sanitation laws- you get the picture. According to Shirley Pieratt, Insall descendant and author of Cade Insall, Texas Ranger, “Caroline had found a combination of cholera, typhoid, yellow and scarlet fever, mosquitos, mud, Indians- and maybe Richard himself- to be unbearable.” And, she added, Caroline’s precipitate departure took place at the tail end of a brutal, humid summer, “Houston’s season,” quoth Pieratt, “of infernal heat.
“Richard’s land speculation and gypsy ways may have infuriated Caroline Keller,” she added, and the god-awful summer may have been the last straw with her. I mean, can’t you just feature it? At any rate, Caroline Insall of the Light article (or maybe Richard was the culprit, and hadn’t actually hipped Wife #2 to the fact that Wife #1 was still very much alive), wasn’t the only one making spurious claims of widowhood: when Caroline fled Richard and Texas and the whole damn thing for the relative comfort of the ancestral home back in Louisiana, she was a little red-faced at the bust-up of her marriage and engaged in a little fiction of her own. She and the fam told everybody they knew, not that she’d abandoned her husband but that Richard had been out on his horse one fine day in Harrisburg when the two of them rode straight over a cliff to their deaths. Later on, Caroline married a fella named Ward, but without the pesky formality of divorcing Richard Insall first- quite possibly because she’d told everybody that her first hubs was dead, and there wouldn’t be any sense in divorcing a dead guy. She and her new man had a couple kids by the time Richard met someone else too and the two of them went ahead and made their divorce official in 1852.
After his wife and little girl took a powder, Pieratt says that Richard “wandered for ten years. Young Insall, as he soon came to be called, was a wanderer like his daddy,”- which is an intriguing bit of enigma itself, since we don’t know much about daddy and his wandering ways. About Richard, though, we know that he got his tail in a crack more than once with issues over money and with the law, being sued for debt several times and once “mortgaging” a young slave who’d travelled with him. Richard’s livelihood during all this time seems to be buying, selling and trading around land he got ahold of by one way and another, and you get the idea not all of his business was exactly what you might term on the level.
Any rate, one thing he did manage to accomplish during his wandering days was to get all nine of his siblings and his widowed mother Mary to Texas from Louisiana- which probably considerably facilitated his first wife’s little white lie about Richard’s death, since it was probably a tad awkward telling everyone her husband was dead while living next door to his family, who must’ve known he was alive and kicking. One wonders, too, what the general gossip was like in Bayou Chicot when Richard started turning up to whisk his brothers and sisters away to Texas and everyone suddenly realized that reports of his death had been greatly exaggerated.
But 91 year-old Mrs Insall of the SA Light story didn’t mention any of that business. What she did say was that she had been nineteen when they married and “he wasn’t much older”- although he would’ve been thirty-eight, twice as old as she was- and that they’d “been married a good while and had four children and were living very comfortable with all our kinfolks in Bridgeport, Alabama, when he got the fever to move to Texas.” As a matter of fact, she’d contrived to leave Louisiana out of the story altogether! The adventure of the harrowing over-water journey to Port Lavaca from Alabama had actually happened, but it had happened to the second Mrs Insall’s mother and father and their children, one of whom was the nine-year-old Caroline, later Mrs Insall. Richard Insall had never lived in Alabama at all, but later census entries for Richard, and even the death certificates of the couple’s children, list Richard’s birthplace as Alabama, even though he was actually born in St Landry (now Evangeline) Parish in Louisiana. So these lapses in the second Mrs Insall’s memory would seem to be more deliberate than simply the forgetfulness of a very old woman.
ALERT! Here’s a confusing thing that fate or whatever threw in just for fun, and it messed me all up for a while: Richard Insall apparently had a penchant for marrying women named Caroline. His first wife was Caroline Keller, and his second Caroline Mims. Just keep in mind that both of his wives were named Caroline, and also, to help you out, I’m gonna try to stop referring to the first Caroline anymore. She and Richard are divorced and she’s remarried and out of the story. Forget about her.
To continue: After ten years of wandering around, sowing his wild oats and getting sued over bad debts and running into other little scrapes of that nature, Richard Insall met this other woman, the young widow named Caroline Mims…although of course it can’t be that easy, not with this story. Shirley Pieratt, Insall biographer, mentions in passing that the second Caroline was divorced from her first husband, one James Campbell, and not widowed. But you know what? Let’s just skim over that part. It doesn’t matter to us. We’ll just shunt James Campbell to the side over there with the first Caroline.
So Richard meets this nineteen year-old widow/divorcee who was, according to Pieratt, “a tall, angular girl with at least three assets: strange, sultry eyes, eternal optimism, and a fighting nature.” Caroline’s family had been in Lavaca County since their migration from Alabama in 1841, and one of the Insall sons referred to that part of the world as “Mims territory.” And on November 13, 1853, Caroline and Richard were married in Mims territory, and began having children right away.
So several years passed by without much news from the Insall camp, except for babies being born right along on schedule. Richard seems to have spent his time plying his trade of buying and selling land during this time, and getting into trouble over money on a fairly regular basis. And then the Civil War broke out.
Insall family lore has Richard, forty-seven years old at the outbreak of war, itching to get into the action, so much so that while participating in a “bean drawing” held to determine volunteers for the Confederate army, Richard kept drawing a “no-service bean”, but kept tossing it back “until he found a bean that made him a soldier.” And maybe that family tradition is true: I can hardly see the Richard we’ve come to know as the kind of guy who enjoyed hanging out at the house rumpussing around with the kids and telling people “we’re pregnant” every time Caroline got into the family way again. At any rate, the old fella was too old to be drafted but he did turn up in Brownsville in late 1862 or early 1863 as a private in Company A, 4th Battalion, Texas Artillery- or maybe in a whole different company, as is reported elsewhere, pretty much in keeping with everything else about this tale. At any rate, about that bean-drawing story, according to biographer Pieratt: “The truth is not so romantic.”
Possibly because, in 1863, Richard Insall found himself charged with treason.
A pair of Caroline Mims Insall’s seemingly endless supply of brothers-in-law and some of their neighbors would testify on Richard’s behalf when the trial finally came around, but there was some evidence to show that he was at least patrolling with the CSA at the time of the accusation and some speculation that “maybe he was a Confederate spy- accused of treason against the Confederacy.” I’m not sure how this all works out, but part of the evidence against him seems to have been in the form of a letter to his wife used by the prosecution, apparently, to establish his whereabouts at the time of the incident. It was delivered to Caroline by way of her brother Henry Mims, a big running buddy of Richard’s. Here’s what it said, verbatim, and I want you to see it for several reasons:
Brasos Co Texas Aprile the 4, 1863
Dear Sister, [the letter was ostensibly from her brother to Caroline, although Richard actually penned it]
I this morning take the oppertunity of ritin you A Few lins thease few lins leave me sick but beter than I have bean
I no that I never will get well while I stay in this wore hopin this May Come to hand in dew time and find you all well I havent no nuse to rite
We air on the March to grocies retrete About 18 Mile from Hempsted. I wish it was to come home I dont think this wore will every end
I want you to rite and rite what Dick is doin and if he is in the Same notion that he was when I was thair I am still in the notion yet
Caroline I want you to rite all the nuse it is raining and I will have to quit. Fair well for this time rite and be shore to rite
Ok, some explanatory stuff: Richard Insall handed this letter off to his brother-in-law Henry when they met up near a place called Jared Groce’s Landing, the site of some Civil War action or skirmish known as Groce’s Retreat. Pieratt speculates that his illness was likely malaria, since quinine, a malarial treatment, had been listed among the items on an old grocery bill of his. She also points out that “he was obviously sick, miserable and ‘still in the notion’.” But what was he in the notion to do with the mysterious Dick? Pieratt also points out that just “because [his] parents owned land and slaves, it doesn’t follow that the children were well-educated.” But I think this note is great, because it’s as if you can hear Richard’s voice come down through the years, and you get a kind of idea about the sort of guy he was, and what was going on in his head. Apart from its usefulness to the prosecution at his trial for treason, we get an idea of a man who’s ailing and unhappy, a homesick man writing in the rain, sick of the war, sick of being sick, quite probably wondering what the hell he’d been thinking when he kept throwing that damn bean back, kicking himself for still gadding around and looking for adventure at his age- but still hatching a whole new damn fool plot with his buddy Dick in order to get out of this mess he’d gotten himself into. I also get a sense of the relationship between Richard and Caroline Insall, just a little insight, in the way he calls his wife by name.
Well, whatever the effect of this missive on the judge or the jury or whoever was charged with deciding his fate, Richard was eventually cleared of the charge of treason, and by September of that year he was back in the Confederate army.
But not for long. The end for him of that “wore” he thought would never end would be sudden, violent and dramatic, and in September 1863 that event that would change the course of his and his family’s life was only half-a-year away. In September of 1863, as the war dragged on, the skeleton that would one day huddle in the dim recesses of the oldest cabin in Kendall County, about which Caroline would hold her peace, even sixty long years later, was not yet a skeleton but still a living man with flesh and skin and soul and spirit, but he only had six months to live.
TO BE CONTINUED