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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

When General Sam lived just across the river... ...and #1 in my Top Ten in Texas

The year was 1842. Fellows like the one above were terrorizing central and even east Texas, burning, killing and doing unspeakable things to the women folk...

Washington on the Brazos was a crude, sprawling village of log huts and tents and some new clapboard cabins. It was also the Capital City of the Republic of Texas. The heartbeat of a Nation had chickens and pigs wallowing in the mud streets and homeless wanderers reclining on tree stumps, while Texas Rangers swaggered around half drunk at the pool hall. General Sam Houston, the popular president of Texas, had no problem standing out in the crowd. Tall and straight, he appeared like a man with a mission as he and a few Texas soldiers mounted up and formed an official government delegation to the wild tribes of Texas.

It wasn’t that exciting, for the tribes were camped on the edge of town. But it was just too far to walk. The tribes had been invited to the Texas Capital, or maybe summoned, to talk peace, what some of them called the “white trail.” Native Americans associated the color red with war and white with peace. Unfortunately, the Comanches preferred to continue the red trail, and did not attend.

But there the rest were, camping on the edge of old Washington; Waco, Tonkawa, Kickapoo, Delaware, and Iowa Chiefs napping under their tents, wives cooking over the fires, youngsters play-hunting, discovering how to make harmless arrow points out of corn cobs. Houston rode up with as much military fanfare as his cotton republic could muster, and dismounted with military formality… but he could not hold his straight face as several Indians greeted him with bear hugs. The Texas Army got to see their Commander in Chief swarmed, squeezed and slapped like a pet pig.

They sat in a circle around a campfire and smoked a funny homegrown Indian mix… out of a monster ceremonial pipe, which was accessed by a huge hollow cane. There was supposedly some tobacco in it. But they were not singing Cum Bah Yah, yet. Witnesses said it smelled like sumac, and as each took his turn, he threw his head back and let the smoke roll out of his nostrils, and the smoke all melted together, joined in the sky, much like their hopes for peace… That’s how one witness, an official government scribe described it.

After the stupor wore off, the chiefs all stood one at a time and spoke about their desire for peace, and President Houston invited the chiefs to move into town, into an unoccupied cabin. Later he met with them again, where he planned to give a couple of the most esteemed chiefs Presidential gifts. Houston was famous for giving his Indian friends weapons, which Texans of later regimes had to face. He had ordered two percussion rifles, “cap and balls,” but two new rifles of that description were not to be had in all the stores in the Capital of Texas. Neither one of them. The Government assistants, you know press guys, had come up with two rifles, but one of them was the old fashioned type. A flintlock rifle. The kind used during the Revolutionary War. In 1776!

President Houston gave the flintlock first, to a Waco chief, Aquaquash, who had always been a favorite, and would understand. He would be glad to get whatever he got. The President would give the less predictable chief the newer rifle. He understood this man. Chief Red Bear had often been like President Houston: a troublemaker. Thinking they probably would not know the difference, he gave the flintlock rifle to Chief Aquaquash, as a token of his esteem, for all of his assistance in getting the other tribes to cooperate. Everybody was all smiles. So far so good. But you have to ask, what had Houston been toking, thinking they could tell no difference? When he handed the latest technology in American warfare to the other chief, he stormed away. He was mad. Red Bear disappeared into the Presidential guest cabin. Everybody laughed and went their separate ways.

President Houston waited awhile, then made a surprise visit to the chief’s impromptu bunkhouse. When he entered, it was so dark he could not make out anything. He couldn’t tell, but mad old Red Bear was balled up like an armadillo on a bunk covered with a buffalo robe, looking like a bundle of hides. Appearing like a giant in the little log hut, Houston calmly set his six foot frame on the fireplace hearth. He closed his eyes and dreamed up what he might say. Chief Red Bear was nowhere to be seen. By covering himself, he had effectively flown away in a rage, to a faraway place, he no longer was there. The others sat and looked around respectfully. A couple had smirks on their faces. And the big white man who had been a U. S. Congressman and Governor of Tennessee, who had led a successful revolution, against incredible odds, whose battle tactics are still studied with amazement, who deftly saved his worst enemy, Santa Anna, and kept him from being lynched, who had parleyed with presidents, Texans and several wives, sat in a dark wooden room with a dozen aboriginal warriors, any of whom could throw a hatchet a few feet and end the conversation. And he began to taunt.

President Houston began to pick at the missing Waco chief, as if he were not there. Unlike most Anglos, Houston had lived many years among Native Americans. He knew and loved them. But his attachment of government officials, some able to squeeze in the room, some tip-toeing on the outside, were beginning to sweat. Houston abused the man, basically calling him a big baby. There were some sniggers. The other chiefs seemed to find the whole exchange quite entertaining. The bundle of buffalo hides in the corner began to come to life. Red Bear was beginning to sweat as well.

“Red Bear is just a… SQUAW” Houston jabbed with a chuckle. Right now, in many cultures, is where the great General Houston gets a tomahawk right in the Adam’s apple. But everyone had a good laugh at Red Bear’s expense. Then, finally, he had enough, and Red Bear came out of the robe as fast as he had curled up in it. He lunged like a bobcat at President Houston. Unfortunately, none of his aides had time to react. Before they could stop the humiliated plains warrior, he was hugging President Houston, a pitiful baby, begging for friendship, promising to cherish the gun after all. Talkin’ about wisdom! Who knew? Only one man in the country would’ve known what to do at that moment. And God had put him right there to do it. That was the way it was, here at the cradle of Texas.

And THAT’S a true leader, a man worthy of the presidency. A crazy man, but a worthy one. Houston took it all in stride. Another day in the Republic of Texas. It turns out that Red Bear was mad because, where he would make use of a rifle, out on the Texas plains, he would have no source for the percussion caps necessary to shoot the firearm. He would eventually run out, and the rifle would become a tipi pole. Or maybe a club, a useless reminder of the time he met and toked Peace with the Great White Father at Washington on the Brazos. He only wanted a rifle he could actually use, and shoot his food and shelter, for the rest of his life, and remember the one who gave such a treasure. But he got over it.

Soon the chiefs were offering to trade their guns or horses or whatever for some of the lovely white women in town. Even President Houston must have blushed on that one. Politics is a nasty business.

But because he constantly rose above it, Sam Houston is number one in my "Top Ten in Texas" and that makes one thing that John F. Kennedy, American President and author of Profiles in Courage and myself would have agreed upon.

Note: You can search on the main page for Top Ten in Texas to read about the others who have since been placed on this stellar list.

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