Big Land, Big Stories,& One-Eyed Jacks

Western Roundup

illustration by Nathan Jensen

Some American Indian tribes used to believe that, before humans were created, the world was inhabited by a race of giants. It's not hard to imagine primitive peoples looking out on the vast, wild open spaces of the West and believing in such myths; Americans of European extraction have been known to believe in giants, too. Big land, big dreams, big stories, big heroes, and more than a couple of one-eyed jacks.

Some of the biggest stories of all here in this big land called Texas are about that legendary and unique law enforcement agency known as the Texas Rangers. The Legend Begins: The Texas Rangers 1823-1845 by Frederick Wilkins (State House Press, $24.95 hard, 16.95 paper) subjects the Ranger saga to careful scrutiny, finding it to be a two-sided one -- history and myth. Add the two together and you get twice as much great reading.

Wilkins has bravely taken the bull by the horns, laying out a refreshing and in-depth history of the Rangers from their somewhat ambiguous beginnings (Stephen F. Austin authorized the employment of a small militia to protect settlers near the Colorado River from Indian raids sometime after August 4, 1823) up through the revolution against Mexico and ending in 1845, just before the beginning of the Mexican War. Some of the big names include local heroes Edward Burleson, John Coffee Hays, Rip Ford, and Big Foot Wallace, who protected and avenged settlers against marauding Comanche bands that rode into settlements and carted off livestock, loot, and babies. And the next night, did it all over again.

And thank goodness for Rangers like A.J. Sowell and Noah Smithwick, who not only rode with the Frontier Battalion but wrote about it, preserving their hair-raising adventures (pun intended) for posterity. Wilkins uses these contemporary accounts to double-check the Ranger legend against the record, and wherever none can be found, Wilkins says it may be time to call some of these old legends just that -- legends.

For example: Ever seen that plaque at Enchanted Rock which commemorates the story of Captain John Coffee Hays' wild battle with hordes of Comanches atop that wondrous granite dome? As the story goes, Hays became separated from his men while surveying the area, and was forced to shoot it out with those wily Indians, who were frustrated in their attempts to rush and kill him by the miraculous curvature of the rock and Hays' own blazing revolver.

It's a great story, one that many of us grew up with. So is the battle of Bandera Pass. The problem is, Wilkins has sifted through the evidence and concluded, logically enough, that these battles probably never occurred. None of the Rangers' contemporaries wrote about these battles, which surely would have piqued their interest. And the people who did write about Enchanted Rock, for example, years later, described it in such a way that leaves considerable doubt that they had ever been there, or even spoken to anyone who had.

Wilkins' book is far from the last word, and other historians are bound to find gaps and errors in it, but I found The Legend Begins to be a lively and illuminating read. And it's only the latest in a long line of fine Texas history books, including a great many classic reprints, published by Austin's own State House Press.

Big dreams and big stories have also emerged from that wild and fascinating region at the elbow of the Rio Grande River known as Big Bend. Other works have captured more of the natural grandeur and rough and tumble human history of Big Bend (see, for example, Ron Tyler's classic account), but The Story of Big Bend National Park by John Jameson (University of Texas Press, $35 hard, $12.95 paper) is probably the definitive account of the political battles fought to create America's 27th national park and Texas' first.

Jameson tackles his subject with a `just the facts' approach that doesn't always match the tenor of the times or the tone of the place. We are told, for example, that, "...Texas Ranger Everett Townsend remembered vividly the first time he saw the Chisos Mountains on August 31, 1894. For Townsend the scenery `was so awe inspiring' that it `touch[ed] the soul of a hardened human bloodhound trained in the relentless service of the Texas Rangers.'"

Though Townsend was one of the most tireless promoters of the Big Bend national park idea, we learn very little about him, or how this battle affected him personally. Besides giving short or no shrift to the deeper personal insights of the players involved, Jameson gives scant attention to the wider cultural and intellectual currents of thought that provided the context for the national park movement.

Sometimes, however, even this dry recounting of facts resonates with clarity and dry humor. Neighboring ranchers, for example, feared that the national park would be a "predator incubator" from which mountain lions and other wild carnivores would launch attacks on their livestock -- an argument so full of holes you could hear the West Texas wind whistling through it. For starters, since game inside the park was protected, the predators would have little reason to forage outside its borders. In their crabby despair, the ranchers tried to enlist J. Frank Dobie, who had lived in Big Bend while writing his classic, The Longhorns, to come to their defense. Dobie answered the summons of the ranchers and called them, essentially, a bunch of crybabies. He was not invited back.

Fortunately, as the spiked wheels of Manifest Destiny rolled across the big land, national parks somehow squeaked through. The big stories of the big land would be unimaginable without beloved though shop-worn archetypes like pioneers, cowboys, mountain men, and, yes, Texas Rangers. It would also be incomplete without scruffy characters like Jim McIntire, a frontier Texan whose autobiographical memoir, Early Days in Texas: "A Trip to Hell and Heaven" was originally published in 1902. Now it's back in print (University of Oklahoma Press, $12.95 paper) with an introduction and voluminous footnotes by historian Robert K. DeArment. Early Days in Texas relates McIntire's experiences as a Texas Ranger, buffalo hunter, Indian fighter, and desperado. Hanged by a noose of his own making, McIntire emerges as a thoroughly unlikable character whose virulent racism, limited imagination, and sick sense of humor make this one of the most fascinating little books I've come across in a long time. A sample:

"I have killed Kowa and Comanche Indians by the score, and skinned them to make quirts out of their hides; and I once killed and skinned a squaw and made a purse of her breast, which I carried for nine years. I slept in a cemetery, using a grave for a pillow, and when it rained I slept in the vaults...."

The dessert for this feast of prickly pear thorns and curdled blood is the author's personal account of his meeting with god during a bout of delirium brought on by a near fatal case of black smallpox. After asking god a few questions, he takes a tour of heaven, gets a drink of water, and is allowed to go back home. Just think, if he'd died and stayed in heaven, he wouldn't have been able to write this book.

"You may be a one-eyed jack around here,
but I've seen the other side of your face."

-- Marlon Brando to Karl Malden
One-Eyed Jacks

The life and times of another memoir-writing Texan with a dark side is revealed in splendid detail in Alias Frank Canton by Robert K. DeArment (University of Oklahoma Press, $29.95 hard). Frank Canton was born Josiah Horner in 1849. He became a cowboy and cattle rancher, but by the 1870s he had drifted into a violent career of murder, cattle rustling, bank robbery, and other crimes. Caught, convicted, and incarcerated at Huntsville, Horner escaped and emerged in Jackson County, Wyoming, where he began a 50-year career as a lawman under the alias of Frank Canton. A true one-eyed jack, this bad man with a badge fought in the Johnson County War, siding with the fat cat ranchers and their imported army of Texas gunfighters against the small homesteaders and small-time rustlers. His many other positions in law enforcement included stints as a sheriff, deputy U.S. marshal, bounty hunter, and adjutant general of Oklahoma. A heavy drinker, racist thug, and liar, Canton eventually sought an audience with Texas Governor Jim Hogg, who saw Horner/Canton as a rehabilitated good old boy, and granted him a full pardon for his past crimes. Canton's autobiography, Frontier Trails, is a sanitized and self-aggrandizing account of his life that pathetically pales next to DeArment's heroic effort to ferret out every juicy, sordid detail of a man whose lifetime in the saddle was trailed by dark shadows no matter what sun-drenched paths he rode.

Big land, big dreams, big stories. Even the true ones.

Jesse Sublett is an Austin mystery novelist and freelance writer who also writes for film and television.

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