Into the Light – HISTORY – April 2017

Last month we left the Insall family hanging, Richard, the patriarch, having just been cleared of a charge of treason- possibly for acting as a Confederate spy- and right back in the army while his wife Caroline was back home at the family seat in Lavaca County having and raising her kids.  If you missed the first part of our saga and want to catch up, you can do all that at hillcountryexplore.com under the archives tab, and meanwhile I’ll catch you up a bit right now.  Richard was a wanderer from Louisiana, we learned, and had spent his professional life gypsying around and dabbling in land speculation, some of which flew pretty close to the wind, legally and ethically.  He’d married a neighbor by name of Caroline Keller, and they’d had a daughter, Alzenith, when Richard got another of his famous wild hairs, took the fam and lit out for Harrisburg, Texas (a place soon to be absorbed by what my grandmother, a transplanted Houstonian, used to call Heavenly Houston.)  The first Caroline Insall didn’t find it so heavenly, though, and after eight months she took her baby, made like a banana and split.  Back home she told everybody her husband was dead in order to avoid the stigma of divorce, and Richard went on doing whatever he did, and eventually landed in Hallettsville.  There he met and married another Caroline, this time of the Mims family of Lavaca County, they started having babies post haste, and then Richard went off to fight for the bad guys in the Civil War where he was almost immediately slapped with a treason charge, of which he was later acquitted, and then it was back to the war for him.  Can you believe I said that all in one breath?  And that’s where we left him, sick and miserable and at forty-eight years old, too old for the mess of war- and on the march with the Confederate army somewhere in Texas.

Fifty-eight years later, an ancient Caroline Mims Insall would sit down with a reporter for the San Antonio Light newspaper and tell her story about coming to Texas from Alabama and her family’s hardscrabble life in, reportedly, the oldest cabin in Kendall County, in a bend of the Guadalupe way out in the middle of nowhere, and that’s where we come across her.  Only- well, Caroline, who didn’t get a “bored well” until 1900 and up to that point had to haul every drop of water up a bluff from the Guadalupe River- she could never have foreseen such a thing as the internet, or the 6th floor of the San Antonio Central Library, or that all of her carefully guarded secrets would ever be out there just waiting for someone to happen upon them.  A heaping portion of what she divulged in that newspaper article was a deliberately constructed fable, carefully managed in order to shroud the skeleton hiding in the tiny cabin and which was wholly capable at any time during Richard Insall’s life of suddenly gathering flesh and life unto itself and coming back to Insall Bottoms to seek its vengeance.

 

Now, Mrs Caroline Insall nee Mims was blessed (or burdened, or possibly a little of both), with a surfeit of siblings and all their husbands and wives and kids and the whole entourage that goes with an enormous family.  Caroline, like her husband Richard, was one of ten children, and most of them stuck around and settled near the home place in Lavaca County, so when one of Caroline’s sons referred to that part of the world as  “Mims territory” he wasn’t just whistling Dixie.  One of Caroline’s sisters, a certain Marilda Mims, was first married to a guy named Charles Chambers, who was an assistant marshal and constable at various times, and who may have been murdered (I’m looking into it)- at any rate he died, leaving behind what one contemporary report called his “relic”, which is an old word they used to use in obituaries to refer to the widow, meaning “a surviving memorial of something past.”   I include that snippet of information free of charge, because I think it’s interesting.

Anyhoo, Marilda Mims Chambers next married a fella by name of William McGathey (or McGahe), who may have been a whole ‘nother ball of wax from her first husband, the upstanding lawman, just based on one little glimpse of Mr McGathey at a fateful moment in his life.  It seems that while they were all living in their hometown of Hallettsville, McGathey borrowed either a hoe or a “plough” off his sister-in-law Caroline Mims Insall, and when it came time for him to give it back so that Caroline could hoe or plow her own corn crop, William flat refused.  At least that’s the story.  Furthermore, when Caroline marched over there to take the thing back, a huge argument erupted and it ended in brother-in-law William striking Caroline and knocking her to the ground.

Oh no he didn’t!

Yes, he did.  And it would cost him.

Richard Insall, away somewhere waging his “wore” (which is what he termed it in a letter home; Richard was a lot of different things but champion of the spelling bee doesn’t seem to have been one of his accomplishments), got wind of what had happened back home.  Perhaps his wife wrote and told him what went down, or, more likely, Caroline’s brother Henry Mims, a big running buddy of Richard’s and with whom Richard spent some time in the army, was the informant, but no matter how Richard found out, find out he did.  And he was mad.  He immediately took a furlough- family historian Shirley Pieratt suggested it was more likely that Richard granted himself the furlough and went AWOL- and hot-footed it straight back to Mims territory, looking for William McGathey.

And found him, on a moonlit March night in 1864.

McGathey and his wife were reportedly “going to preachin’,” when McGathey showed up in one Thomas Bullock’s horse lot to water his horse.  Marilda was with him at the water trough when a shot from outside the lot hit her husband in the back and dropped him to his knees.  Confused, Marilda took a step in the direction of the shot, and it was then that she saw her sister’s husband, “saw him plain…saw Insall half-bent looking under the sides of the fence; the moon shone full in his face.”  (Another Mims sister, a Mrs Brooks, would contradict Marilda during Insall’s “examining trial”, which must’ve been something like a grand jury hearing.  Mrs Brooks said that Marlida told her, the morning after the shooting, that she’d seen the shooter “running through the adjoining lot,” and that “she knew Insall by his clothes and hat.”  Marilda Mims McGathey responded that she’d only said that because she was afraid of her brother-in-law (with very good reason, it would seem) and didn’t trust her sister Malinda not to tell him what she’d said.  Richard Insall was arrested for the murder of William McGathey, thrown into jail, and was finally released on ten thousand dollars bond- payable in Confederate money- on the first anniversary of the murder,.

“No one now living,” quoth author and Insall descendant Pieratt, “whether Richard had reason for shooting McGathey other than avenging Caroline’s honor.  In those days a woman’s honor was sufficient motive for a duel in the Old South.  But in Texas,” she added, “murder was safer and simpler.”

And at any rate, Richard didn’t plan to be around to be convicted and hanged for it.

Lawyers would soon argue that the bail wasn’t binding anyway, since it had been paid in Confederate scrip which, at the time bond was posted, a month before the end of the Civil War, was worthless anyway.  How that argument fared is anyone’s guess- what’s worth noting is that nobody was saying Richard hadn’t done the murder.  They were merely pressing a technicality.  And whether or not his bond was binding or legal or anything else, Richard wasn’t waiting around to see how it all came out.  He went home, grabbed his wife and their kids and whatever would fit in a wagon and could be packed in a hurry, and got the hell out of Dodge.  They left behind everything they owned besides the clothes on their backs, pretty much, even forfeiting some land they owned in Lavaca County, and literally fled under cover of darkness.  It was the last either of them would ever see of Caroline’s hometown- of Mims territory- and the beginning of their life on the lam.

Said Shirley Pieratt: “Richard Insall, boldest and most impulsive of the Insall clan, was now a fugitive in fear for his life.”

Fifty-eight years later, a ninety-one year old Caroline Insall spun a tale for her interviewer that skimmed right over that pivotal event in the family’s fate.  With a straight face told him all about she & Richard’s journey to Texas from Bridgeport, Alabama, a treacherous trip over water through Mobile and New Orleans, over the Gulf of Mexico to Indianola, with a herd of fifty-three “good, fat hogs” and their children, a dangerous, treacherous trip, fraught with peril.  It was all a lie.  It was all part of a sixty-year cover-up of Richard’s ambush and shooting-in-the-back of his brother-in-law back in Hallettsville, and yet fifty years after his death, she still faithfully repeated the myth the two had crafted to cover Richard’s tracks and save him from the noose.  You can almost see that family skeleton peering out a window of the cabin, over the old lady’s shoulder as she rocked on her porch so far from where she’d started, and hear Caroline sigh with resignation, knowing without looking that he was back there, never forgetting he lived with them, had for fifty years.  That trip Caroline described for the reporter had actually happened- it had happened to her own parents when they’d come from Alabama to Texas, when Caroline was an eight year-old child in that boat on the shark-infested Gulf of Mexico, but it hadn’t been her story, nor Richard’s.  Later on, the birth certificates of the youngest of the Insall children, even their death certificates, listed Richard’s place of birth as Bridgeport, Alabama.  It was a false narrative that would reach down through the decades far into the future, through a century and more.

 

On the run, the Insall family- the two parents and four children, ranging in age from a year old on up to twelve or so- travelled in a pair of oxcarts, Richard driving one team of oxen while they “hired an old man to come with us and drive the other,” according to Mrs Insall.  “Of course,” she noted, “I could have done it myself, but I never had done much rough work up to that time, and we didn’t know then, that I could drive an ox team all day, and cook and take care of the children at night.”  She was no shrinking violet, our Caroline, but if there was one thing that did scare her it was Indians.

“We camped out at night,” she recalled when she was ninety-one. “We would stop by the side of the road- when there was a road- to cook our supper, and we’d cook it with just as little fire as I could manage with, because the country was full of Indians and we were afraid to let them see our smoke.  After we had eaten we would go way in among the trees as far away from the road as we could get, hiding from the Indians, and try to sleep where they couldn’t find us.”  Talk about sleeping with one eye open!  “It isn’t as easy to hide nine yolk of oxen, four children, two men and a woman as it sounds,” she went on, I guess in the assumption that anyone reading the story might think the whole thing sounded like a fun-filled lark.  One of the Insalls, remember, was only a year old, and if it’s been awhile since you’ve hung around with a one year-old or if you’ve never had that particular pleasure, I can tell you that if the one I live with is anything like the rest of her peer group, they can be loud and restless and squirmy, they don’t mind overly well and they haul off and cry- yea, scream- without any provocation or prior warning.  And they do all this wherever and whenever the urge strikes, in church, say, or in the car or in the middle of the night, or even, presumably, while hiding out in the woods from folks who’d just as soon kill you as look at you.  I’m gonna say it right here, it actually doesn’t sound easy at all.  It sounds like Mrs Insall probably didn’t manage to get a whole lot of shuteye on the trip.  Caroline, continued: “We never saw a single Indian on that whole trip, though we were always thinking we heard them, [see the part above about the lack of shuteye] and knew they were very near us.”  Yikes.

Any rate, the whole crew finally fetched up in Kendall County, and landed at a place described as “three miles, as the crow flies, from Comfort, reached via the Brownsboro road” with “an old Spanish Trace, known as the San Saba road, [passing] two miles east of the cabin.”  If that doesn’t lead you right to the spot, it might help to know that this was roughly halfway between Comfort and Waring, tucked into a big bend of the Guadalupe River (right down River Bend Road from today’s James Kiehl River Bend Park), right about at the place where the San Antonio & Aransas Pass Railroad would build a big trestle bridge over the river along about 1890 or so.  The big bridge is still there, and visible from Ranch to Market (RM) road 473 between Sisterdale and Comfort (you can get even closer via River Bend Road).  They tried to tear it down after the SA & AP quit running, but the Seidensticker family who have that amazing big 1920s house overlooking the old Insall place on the other side of 473, bought the bridge in order to save it from what some (idiots) call progress.  There was an ancient log cabin down there in what would become known as Insall Bottoms- a cabin the SA Light article of 1923 claimed, on unspecified evidence, to be the oldest house in Kendall County- and it was just standing there empty when the Insalls happened upon it.

All the land down there, including the piece where the old “log-and-stone” cabin stood, was once a part of the old Juan Andres Zambrano tract, a section of the old Spanish Land Grant, but it had changed hands several times and it’s not real clear who owned the place at the time the Insalls got there.  Caroline Insall recounted to the San Antonio Light reporter that she and her husband paid fifty bucks for the cabin and the “small fenced-in yard in which it stands”, but this detail is all mixed up with a tale of selling a slave they brought with them from Alabama, where, of course, they hadn’t come from at all- anyway, it’s hard now to say what’s actual fact, what’s part of the big cover-up, and what just got muddled up in the fuzzy memories of a very old lady, sixty years after the fact.  In 1875, Caroline Mims Insall actually did purchase four hundred and eighty acres at Insall Bottoms, while her son Cade bought four hundred more acres adjoining his mother’s land.  What the arrangements were at the time the family first got to the abandoned cabin in 1865 aren’t really known.  What is known is that the place was deserted, and that the present owners were either, as Shirley Pieratt put it, “absent or very tolerant, and let the family stay there [either] as renters or squatters.”

The SA Light in 1923 described it as “a tiny cabin of five small rooms and a smaller sagging porch and when the family came there in 1858 [it was actually 1865], the logs of which it was originally built were so badly worn and decayed from age that it was necessary to nail rough-hewn cypress boards on the outside to prevent its further disintegration.”  One of the Insall descendants recalled that the “inside cabin walls were rough split logs chinked with clay,” and that “the kitchen floor was dirt; the bedrooms had wood floors.”  Another said that “the house had one big room, a kitchen and a bedroom, and one big vine on the porch.”  About the home where she would spend the rest of her long life, Mrs Insall herself reported that “we liked the place right away.  Everything was so convenient.  We were only about a quarter of a mile straight up the hill from the Guadalupe river, and it wasn’t much trouble to bring all the water we needed up to the house.”  Clearly, Caroline had discovered somewhere along the way that she could, indeed, handle the rough work, since she was able to find delight in the new situation in which all she had to do to get ahold of some water was to walk down a sheer cliff to the river and haul buckets of it back up the bluff and then four and a half football field lengths to the house.  Easy-peasy.  She was happy, too, with the school situation for her kids, with aschool “only four miles away from the house” and taught by a man named Merritt, whom she considered “a mighty good teacher [who] give [sic] the children all the book learning they really needed.”  There was a public school at the time the Insall children were young, the Brownsboro school, which served the river bend folks from 1848 to 1944, but it was only a mile or so from the cabin- but who knows what the roads were like in the old days, the trip might have stretched to four miles or it might’ve just felt like it.  The kids all rode a horse to school, “an old gray horse,” according to Caroline, the oldest kid on the front of the horse “and so on, petering on down to Dick- Dick always was the baby- just above the tail.  They couldn’t ride very fast ‘count of Dick slipping off in the back.”  So with Dick always sliding off the horse’s butt and the next-to-the-last Insall having to haul him back up, the mile or so to the Brownsboro school might well have seemed like four.  Or forty.

Richard and Caroline and all the kids, “in the summer and all the time they wasn’t in school,” all worked the place together, “hoeing and plowing,” said Caroline, and you’ve gotta wonder whether she ever thought about that hoe or plow or whatever implement it was that had started all their trouble out in Hallettsville and had brought them to this rough new life on the banks of the Guadalupe in the middle of nowhere.    It was a spare, hand-to-mouth life there in the river bend; “cotton and corn,” wrote Shirley Pieratt, “a few chickens and a cow or two were their mainstay.”  For their staple goods and all those things they couldn’t produce on the homeplace, Insall sons Cade or John had to travel to Comfort, as Richard Insall dare not leave the place for fear of his life and liberty.  Still, Caroline said, “things went along pretty good,” in those first years at Insall Bottoms.  She allowed as how “the crops was better in those days than they are now, and we was doing fine…”

Ah, but in those three dots.  Life was about to change out of all knowledge, in that ellipsis, for Caroline and her children, and their life on the hardscrabble farm in the river bend.  More Insalls would go to their rest in the family burial plot just up the road and other folks would seep in from the outside, some would go on to be heroes while others would become scalawags, there would be scalpings and cattle rustling, a railroad that would be laid a few steps from the cabin and scare the Insall chickens.  And running through the whole saga like a fine, strong cord, was always that rough diamond, that redneck mama with the southern accent and the solid core of quiet courage, Caroline Mims Insall.

 

TO  BE CONTINUED

 

 


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