For a long time I’ve been wanting to tell you the story of a Connecticut Yankee who, before he became famous as one of the first American landscape architects and the guy who designed New York’s Central Park, the grounds of the US Capitol building, the Biltmore estate in North Carolina, university campuses all over America including Stanford and Yale, and the big boss of the World’s Columbian Exposition, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair, in 1893- let me pause for breath (oh, and that’s just a smattering of the things he did)- anyhoo, before he did all that, this fella, (name of Frederick Law Olmsted, by the way), he came to Texas with his brother on assignment for a New York newspaper (THE New York newspaper, in fact, the New-York Daily Times in those days, before they dumped the hyphen and the ‘daily’ part)…this is one of the sentences which drive the editor of this rag to distraction, by the way.
In vain have I pointed out to him that Charles Dickens, he who penned perhaps the greatest opening line in all literature, that thing about its being the best of times and the worst of times, was also given to long and euphonious passages consisting of a stunning array of punctuation marks but only the one period- including one memorable sentence from his Barnaby Rudge that runs to 251 words. I have called my editor and friend’s (one guy) attention to the fact that this tendency of mine to long-windedness, puts me in excellent company, right up there with those who have wielded the pens which have produced our classics, among them Leo Tolstoy and Virginia Woolf, EB White and AA Milne,Jane Austen ,who outdid herself with a nice fat sentence of 180 words in Emma- Martin Luther King, for Pete’s sake! who produced a real lulu, weighing in at 310 words, in A Letter from Birmingham Jail! Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in The Last Voyage of the Ghost Ship, may well have given himself an incurable case of crab claw with this one sentence that goes on for 2156 words. David Foster Wallace. Proust. William Faulkner with a twelve-hundred-plus monster in Absalom, Absalom! I could go on and on, but I think it’s probably become pretty obvious by now that I’m just padding my word count here.
By the way, not that it matters, but in case anybody’s keeping track that first sentence contained 164 words- not a bad showing I think. Not too shabby at all.
So anyway, this guy named Frederick Law Olmsted, he and his brother came to Texas on assignment for the New-York Daily Times to report in dispatches back to the avidly curious citizenry back East, all about this mysterious no-man’s land, this largely unexplored wilderness of Indians and outlaws and cowboys and the brave, tragic defenders of the Alamo, this state which was still brand-new to the Union and actually, at the time of the Olmsted bros’ visit, only relatively recently emerged from the mists of Spanish territory way so far, far away from long-civilized New York City- (and yes, that proper noun should be read in the manner of the picante sauce commercial unless I explicitly state otherwise.)
To sum it up real quick- because I’m gonna get to the whole story later, not in this article but kind of a lot later- they, these Olmsteds, ended up taking a 2,000 mile saddle trip all the way from the Sabine River as far west as Fredericksburg, down to the coast from Indianola to Galveston, even making a brief foray into Mexico, then back to San Antonio before heading back home again, writing and having adventures the whole way, barging in unannounced on random settlers unfortunate enough to live along their route, commandeering food and lodging and fodder for their mounts (and then bitching about same in their journal entries), accidentally starting prairie fires, getting their horses and/or mules stuck in muddy bottoms of creeks, victimized by wild hogs and insects, chatting with the native people and the Mexican, French, German, Irish, Alsatian and American newcomers and old-timers alike, and incidentally, passing through “some good bottom-land…on the Cibolo, at the road-crossing, where a town called Borne had been laid out and a few houses built”, on their way to a settlement on the Upper Guadalupe called Sisterdale, which both brothers loved so much they seriously considered moving there themselves.
203 words. Bam.
I was actually writing this month’s article about the Olmsted brothers, Frederick and John, and after my usual nonsense at the beginning of one of these things had actually written the words, ‘It’s Christmas Day, 1853’…when I was suddenly seized with uncertainty. After all, what was the significance of this pair of Yankees landing in Texas on Christmas Day of 1853? There had to be some context, right? A quick review of what was going on in Texas around 1853 was indicated, a reminder about how new this state was back then, just about eight years old in fact, to the day, it having become the 28th state of the US on December 29, 1845 . It had only been what, seventeen years prior to that 1853 Noel that Texas had become independent of Mexico even, had become her own independent Republic with the defeat of Santa Anna at San Jacinto, and at the time of the Olmsted brothers’ arrival there were still mucho hard feelings about that whole splitting-off-from-the-mother-country thing, as illustrated by the occasional-to-frequent raids made by folks coming up from the mother country with disruptive intentions like stealing livestock and burning houses and murdering settlers and that kind of just general mayhem. There existed a state of uneasy tension in the new state then, among all these different people with different ideas who’d come to Texas for their different reasons; the southern Americans who’d arrived in the days before the 1836 revolution, once citizens of Mexican Texas, who’d come down from the backwoods of Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi and mountainous places like that; the Texians, the Anglo settlers of who’d joined up when it was called the Province of Coahuila and Texas and later, the Republic of Texas; and mixed in with the numbers of both groups were all kinds of fugitives who’d slid across the border into Texas before the law could tag them with the ball, since the territory had long been considered a kind of no-man’s land, a neutral strip where la ley couldn’t or wouldn’t chase you too far, figuring there was a pretty good chance that either the Indians or the elements or some combination of both would carry out the ultimate sentence before too long anyway and thereby save a US lawman the trouble. Also in Texas in 1853 were all the former Mexican citizens who had remained in the new Republic, many of whom had fought and died beside those who would free Texas from Mexican rule and who had been promised fair and equal treatment under the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, but who, in reality, were almost universally looked upon as foreigners- and undesirable, inferior foreigners to boot- by the mostly anglo, mostly Southern, settlers pouring into the state.
The treaty promised citizenship to these former Mexican citizens, including the Native Americans living in the territory, but the indigenous people were never given full US citizenship until the 1930s, and in fact continued to be exterminated like pests until their population was decimated, while the Hispanic people of old Mexican Texas were treated like second-class citizens at best, were treated, actually, like crap, their human rights and property rights trampled at a whim, and by the next generation the Mexican-Americans in Texas had become a disenfranchised, impoverished lower caste, despised by the usurpers of the land which had been theirs. In fact, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, finally ending the Mexican War and recognizing the annexation of Texas to the US, hadn’t been signed until February 2, 1848, not six years before the intrepid Olmsteds crossed the Sabine into the brand-new state. Then there were the Germans, many of them so-called 48ers, fleeing their homeland after the revolutions that had broken out- and failed- in 1848, and the Germans who had come to Texas to establish socialist, idealistic colonies here and those who had just come looking for freedom, for a new start. And there were many, many others, pioneers and outcasts and exiles and vagabonds from countries all over the globe, looking for what all of them were looking for, what all pioneers and trailblazers have always sought, from the beginning of time: land, space, a place to make a home where they could be safe, where they could raise their families and live their lives on their own terms,all of them yearning for that sweet, sweet freedom.
Oh, and then I realized, sheesh, I need to remind them, too, about how recently Texas and Mexico and the whole shebang had all been part of the great Spanish Empire, that bitter-cold and sleety Christmas Day in 1853, which was the state of the weather as the Olmsted brothers prepared to cross the Sabine, which fact I think I forgot to mention before. See, as of that December 25th of 1853, it had only been a mere thirty-three years and some change since that fateful Diez y Seis de Septiembre in 1810 when, near midnight, Father Miguel Hidalgo ordered the bells to be rung in the parish church in the small Mexican town of Dolores, calling his parishioners as if to mass but instead launching the Mexican War of Independence with his proclamation of the famous El Grito de Dolores, calling on them to join him in throwing off three centuries of Spanish colonial rule. Hidalgo spoke straight to the hearts of the native Mexicans and the lower classes of mixed blood, the Mestizos- in fact, he spoke against the whole caste system in Spanish Mexico- and exhorted his people to “stand up and take back the lands stolen from their forefathers”. By the time he ended his speech with the famous Grito :“¡Viva México!”, the revolution had begun.
Within moments, Father Hidalgo had an army numbering six hundred men, with thousands more Indians and Mestizos joining the peasant army in the following days and weeks, every step of the way on their march to Mexico City. The Father himself was captured and executed on July 31, 1811, and independence would not be won at last until 1821 with the Treaty of Córdoba, but Hidalgo’s call to arm, El Grito de Dolores, was to become almost mythical in its importance. It would be- and still is- remembered as the moment that independence was born, and his grito- his cry- became the cry of independence, bearing the heroes of Mexican independence into countless battles during those ten years of war and echoing down the years forever afterwards. Today Diez y Seis is the biggest celebration in Mexico, a national holiday, commemorated by a performance in which the President shouts a version of El Grito from the balcony of the National Palace in Mexico City to a sea of over one hundred thousand celebrants: “Viva México! Viva la Independencia! Vivan los héroes!”, and the cry is repeated throughout the country, from almost every public square.
Did you guys know that? I only had a vague and fuzzy idea about Diez y Seis, and that all mixed up in some way with Cinco de Mayo, and this big blank space in my store of knowledge suddenly being revealed, I was covered in shame. Here I am, passing myself off as a knower of history to the hoodwinked masses, when I don’t even know the first thing about it my own self. In attempting to sketch in a little background detail with which to orient my readers to the atmosphere on that Christmas Day of 1853, I discovered my own vast reservoirs of ignorance.
Incidentally, the whole affair has forced me to confront a truism about myself that has long niggled at the back of my consciousness, namely that I never know when to begin a story. It crops up fairly often when I attempt to impart a pearl of historic wisdom to, say, whoever else is in the vehicle (unable to escape) when we chance to drive by something about which I know a Fun Fact: for instance maybe I’ll pipe up with, see that building over there? Intending to follow up with some clever anecdote about how on that very site in 1981 I tripped on some leaves and fell down a flight of stairs while on a first (and only) date with a dude who would go on to develop a habit of ducking around corners every time he saw me for the next thirty-seven years (and counting), but then I realize that I haven’t made it clear that Herman Lehmann, kidnapped by Lipan Apaches but later escaped to the Comanches, actually lived for a time with Quanah Parker’s family on a reservation in Oklahoma where he was noticed and eventually reunited with his family and that the swimming pool in my grandparent’s neighborhood in Houston is actually named after Cynthia Ann Parker. This very failing is what’s always prevented me from getting a good start on my memoirs- I can never decide if it’s better to just plunge right into the action with my actual birthday some fifty-three years ago or whether I should start with the point at which the first single-celled creature emerged from the primordial soup and developed lungs. It’s so hard, you know?
Currently, the autobiography project is on hold due to the utter lack of interest among the target demographic, or possibly the lack of a target demographic altogether, I’m not sure, the letter from my agent that put the kibosh on the whole thing was worded kind of ambiguously.
I’ll tell you what I did though- oh, and this is back to the story. What I did when I realized that there are these huge holes in my Texas history education or memory or whatever, I stopped trying to write an article about those poor Olmsted brothers and faced the fact that we have a whole lotta work to do before Christmastime 1853.
Being serious now- mostly- what has occurred to me is that so many things happened to make this place called Texas, all these weird and really unique historical circumstances, with all these different people and their sometimes wildly divergent, sometimes polar opposite, motives, ideas, visions- and they’re all coming together to settle this land, to grab at their piece of freedom, to plant their own flags, having no idea what kind of place they’re going to build, what kind of legacy they’ll leave, even, in so many cases, whether they’ll still be here in a year’s time, when it comes time to harvest. The Native Americans had lived here all along, they had known nothing else for thousands of generations, they had always known this land and its seasons and cycles, and now this was one of the last places they could still be free.
The indigenous people further south, in Old Mexico, they had paired off and intermarried with the invading Spaniards throughout the years, their children were labelled Mestizos and condemned to the lower rungs of the Spanish Colonial caste system; there were the Texians and Tejanos, the immigrants and outlaws from the Southern US, and people from all over the world, all leaving their homes and everything they knew, all Gone To Texas. From evidence of the first people to come here some 40,000 years ago to one of the first known Texans, Midland Minnie, who lived and died in Texas some 8,000 to 18,000 years ago, to the Karankawas, the Caddos, Coahuiltecans, Lipan Apaches, Tiguas, Tonkawas, and other tribes and family groups, and later the Alabama and Coushattas, Cherokees, Comanches, Kiowa-Apaches, Kiowas, and the Wichitas. Italian sailors, believed to be the first Europeans to ever see what would become Texas, in 1497 while they searched for new trade routes; the Spanish who established the first foreign settlement in 1519, with visions of wealth and glory and adventure dancing in their heads, and big plans for the thousands of lost souls to be converted, forcibly or otherwise, to the glory of God; the Afro-Americans who have been here since the beginning, some having come freely and others brought as slaves with the earliest European expeditions, working as navigators, soldiers, merchants, and draftsmen, the first known of whom got to Texas in 1528.
Under Spanish colonial rule, free black people were accepted socially and could work at whatever profession or trade- and marry anyone- they chose; under Mexican rule, people of color had all the legal and political rights of citizenship, those adventurers and pioneers hoeing their own rows in pre-revolutionary Texas tending to take a man on his merit. Black people and slaves fought alongside the anglo soldiers in the Revolution, and the Republic of Texas paid them back by enslaving them in the new constitution. People from England, from Belgium, from Switzerland and Ireland, from France and Sweden and Norway, Serbians and Polish and Czech and Slovak, Bohemian, Moravian, Silesian, German-Bohemian, Slovak, Ruthenian, Jewish, Austrian or Hungarian, the Syrian and Lebanese and the Greek, whose first community of fishermen, sailors, and merchants was in Galveston and who teamed up with the Serbians, Russians, and Syrians to build the Orthodox church. And all those Germans, beginning in 1831, later groups immigrating with the (sometimes dubious) help of the Adelsverein, the Verein zum Schutze deutscher Einwanderer in Texas, and many more coming to Texas during the revolutionary 1840s in Europe, settling heavily in Central Texas, our neck of the woods, but making their presence known all over the new Republic.
There have been heroes and evil villains and a fair share of plain old idiots in the saga of Texas, nuns and priests and missionaries and drunks and madams and psychopaths, moments of breathtaking bravery and instances of mind-boggling cruelty- just like there are, most of these things anyway, in the history of every other state in the Union, and every country in the world. But this is our history, and all the things that have happened here on this land, ever since the Leanderthal Lady lived and breathed and laughed under the Texas sky, through the violence and the hard times and the droughts and the floods and the wars, have each had their part in shaping this place. And it’s time we knew all about it y’all.
So I’m gonna leave Fred and John Olmsted standing in whatever scant shelter their horses afford, in the freezing rain and spitting snow, waiting for the ferry to take them across the river that Christmas Day so many years ago. Next time we see them we’ll all know exactly what kinda Texas they’re fixing to cross into.