Monday, June 16, 2008

Two solid new books on early Texas

Every wordsmith interested in writing about the events of yesterday should print the following quotation, frame the words, and hang them in view of their computer:

“No harm’s done to history by making it something someone would want to read.”

Those words come from David McCullough, best-selling writer of books on important figures of the past, but I read them in the introduction to a good book by another fine writer-historian, Stephen Hardin.

Hardin’s book is “Texian Macabre: A Melancholy Tale of a Hanging in Houston.” (Abilene: State House Press, 325 pages, $24.95.)

Hardin found McCullough’s quote useful in explaining what he hoped to accomplish with his new book: Use an interesting story to help readers better understand what Texas, particularly the nascent city of Houston, was like during its days as an independent republic.

The story focuses on David James Jones, a survivor of the Goliad massacre (see below) and obviously a committed participant in the Battle of San Jacinto, who went from war hero to convicted murderer in little over a-year-and-a-half.

Beyond that, “Texian Macabre” sheds light on the state of law enforcement back when Texans called themselves Texians. (Answer: Pretty lax until the movers and shakers got exercised over the conduct of “rowdy loafers” like Jones, who had the honor of being the guest of honor at one of Texas’ earlier legal hangings.)

Reading Hardin’s overview of the art and science of hanging, and its affect on the human body, will possibly break you of ever wearing a neck tie again if you are a man. No matter one’s gender, if hanging still were the official means of execution in Texas, Hardin’s description of it would surely serve as a crime deterrent.

The detailed pen-and-ink drawings of Gary S. Zaboly, who also illustrated Hardin’s excellent history of the Texas Revolution, “Texas Iliad,” further enhance Hardin’s quite readable story. Another plus is the reader-friendly design of the book – a reasonable-sized typeface with ample “leading” between lines.

While Hardin definitely tells a macabre story in this book, it’s a fun to read, thoroughly researched look at life in the Bayou City 171 years ago. Definitely, no harm has been done to history in the writing of this excellent book.

* * *

More formal in tone than Hardin’s book, but no less well-searched and presented, is Jay A. Stout’s “Slaughter at Goliad: The Mexican Massacre of 400 Texas Volunteers.”

Published by the prestigious Naval Institute Press, the 242-page book sells for $29.95.

Though not as well known as the fall of the Alamo or the Texas victory at San Jacinto, at Goliad on March 27, 1836 more Texians lost their lives than in any other engagement during the revolution that freed Texas from Mexico. In fact, as Stout points out, for a good while the massacre of most of Col. James Fannin’s men (and his subsequent brutal execution only two feet in front of a firing squad) stood as one of the largest one-day military losses in American history.

Stout is a former Marine Corps fighter pilot, obviously schooled in military tactics and strategy. While the Texas Revolution did not involve the kind of warfare he participated in at supersonic speed, his background brings a lot to this book.

The author looks at the players on both sides, assessing what was in it for them and the quality (or lack) of leadership. In a particularly nice touch, the book is illustrated with black and white shots of modern-day re-enactors portraying the events covered in the book. Given that military re-enactors pride themselves on historical accuracy in terms of uniform and gear, it’s as if you’re look at vintage photographs even though photography did not exist back then. The book also features detailed maps.

Overall, “Slaughter at Goliad” is full of rich detail, including something not commonly known about Col. Fannin’s widow. In the summer of 1836, she tried to assassinate the captured Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna at Velasco.

She did not succeed, I’m sure to the regret of many Texans at the time and not a few even today.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Roundin' up Ranger books

Only slightly newer than a brush-scarred Winchester Model 1895 with a rusty barrel, the concept of “One Ranger, One Riot” sure doesn’t hold when it comes to books about the Texas Rangers.

In little more than a year, eight non-fiction books dealing with individual Rangers or general Ranger history have been published. For serious collectors, genealogy buffs or those who simply enjoy reading about the Rangers from the days of the Wild West to modern times, here’s a round up of the latest additions to the Ranger bibliography:

Lawmen on the Texas Frontier: Rangers and Sheriffs by Candice DuCoin. (Round Rock: Riata Books, 260 pages, $30.)

This well-researched book shows that law enforcement tends to run in families, particularly the Jones family of Texas. Augustus H. Jones, the author’s great-great-great grandfather, rode as a volunteer Ranger in the 1830s. His nephew, Captain Frank Jones, died in a gunfight with Mexican outlaws along the Rio Grande near El Paso in 1893. While the story of his demise is well known, far less known is that the captain was one of seven brothers who served as Rangers. DuCoin did a great job in this book of “keeping up with the Jones’.”

Captain J.A. Brooks Texas Ranger by Paul N. Spellman. (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 272 pages, $24.95.)

One of the “four great captains” as proclaimed by former Adjutant General W.W. Sterling, Brooks transitioned from brush country Ranger commander to legislator to judge of the South Texas county named in his honor. A solid biography from Spellman, whose first book was a biography of Capt. John H. Rogers.

Unbridled Cowboy: Joseph B. Fussell, edited by E.R. Fussell. (Kirksville, MO: Truman State University Press, 278 pages, $19.95 in softcover.)

For Ranger history aficionados, this is a book best not judged by its title. Texan Joe Fussell ran away from home as a teenager and made his living primarily as a cowpuncher before becoming a career railroad man. In between, sometime after 1903, he worked for Capt. W.J. McDonald as an undercover Ranger to ferret out cattle rustlers.

Though not a Ranger when he did it, he rode alone into Mexico to exact revenge on cattle thieves who had killed a friend of his and nearly killed him. In the late 1940s, near the end of his life, Fussell wrote this memoir. The manuscript remained unpublished until his grandson took it up.

Having been invited to read this book before publication, I was asked to write a blurb for it. I happily did and will repeat what I said: “This is one of the most compelling memoirs I have ever read. Portions of the book, particularly [Fussell’s] sanguinary trip to Old Mexico, read like something from a Larry McMurtry novel.”

Captain Ransom, Texas Ranger: An American Hero, 1874-1918 by Pat Goodrich. (Nappanee, IN: Evangel Publishing, 243 pages, $18 in softcover.) This book is about Capt. Henry Ransom. Born the year the Frontier Battalion was organized, he became a Ranger for the first time in 1905. Later, he commanded a Ranger company in the Rio Grande Valley during the turbulent and controversial days of Mexican Revolution. In 1918, he was shot to death in a Sweetwater hotel. Written by the captain’s granddaughter, this book profits from her access to family papers and photographs as well as from archival sources.

Law on the Last Frontier: Texas Ranger Arthur Hill by S.E. Spinks. (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 265 pages, $28.50.)

Hill became a Ranger in 1947 when Col. Homer Garrison headed the Department of Public Safety and served until he retired in 1974. With the exception of a brief stint as sergeant of Company B in Dallas, he spent his entire career in Alpine. Spinks, who is married to Hill’s grandson, did an excellent job on this book. She also benefited from access to family papers.

I got to know Hill when I worked as a reporter for the San Angelo Standard-Times in the 1960s. One day in 1968 my editor dispatched me to Eldorado to cover an outbreak of oilfield vandalism connected to a labor dispute. When I got there, I found Hill and Ranger A.Y. Allee Jr., who worked out of Ozona. When I jokingly asked Allee why it took two Rangers for just one oilfield “riot,” he said, “Arthur’s here for the riot, I’m here to keep my eye on you.”

While that’s one incident not included in Spinks’ book, just about every other aspect of Hill’s long career is covered in this well-done biography.

One Ranger Returns by Joaquin Jackson with James L. Haley. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 237 pages, $24.95.)

This is Jackson’s sequel to his first memoir, a book which broke long-standing sales records for UT Press. In this highly readable follow-up, Jackson and Haley cover everything from the still-unsolved 1938 Frome murder near Van Horn to the 1966 farm worker’s strike in the Rio Grande Valley. If you read the first book, you’ll want this one.

Finally, two general histories of the Rangers have been published:

Lone Star Lawmen: The Second Century of the Texas Rangers by Robert Utley. (New York: Oxford University Press, 416 pages, $30.)

This is the second volume of former National Park Service historian Utley’s scholarly, no-punches-pulled history of the Rangers. In this volume, he takes the Ranger story to the turn of the 21st century. Like its predecessor, the book is well-researched. He calls it as he sees it.

The Texas Rangers: Wearing the Cinco Peso, 1821-1900 by Mike Cox. (New York: Forge Books, 496 pages, $25.95.)

I won’t stoop to review my own book, but I’m not above plugging it. Let’s just say it’s gotten good reviews from readers more objective than the author. I’m putting the final touches on the second volume, which will carry the history of the Rangers through the creation of the new Company G along the lower Rio Grande border.