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Thursday, September 10, 2009

The greatest Aggie... and second greatest Texan [Top Ten in Texas series]

As Texans, we have lost our identification with the mystique so commonly attached to our State. The Wild West is as foreign to us as it is to some Japanese tourist. In fact we have much more in common with that person from the other side of the world, than our own predecessors. Your home is full of things manufactured in Taiwan, Korea, Pakistan or Japan, but how many things can you point to and know that they were made in Texas? More specifically, what in your material sphere speaks of the Republic of Texas, or the culture that established your town?

Part of my goal as a writer and an artist is to keep my culture in touch with…. My culture. The Navasota Chamber of Commerce once adopted a slogan I really liked: “Where Texas is still Texas,” and I was really excited that somebody else appreciated the importance of taking our history and cultural identity serious. Austin wants to keep its weirdness. We should want keep our unique character as well. One way we can establish what that is, and protect our cultural identity, and hopefully some of our material culture as well, is to know the people who forged this community. You have already met some of them, like Mance Lipscomb and Carl F. Steinhagen in this blog.

I want you to know the essential personalities of this wonderful region, who gave us our specialness. And one of them was Sul Ross, a worthy member of my "Top Ten in Texas" list. Texas' history patriarch J. W. Wilbarger called him the "Chevalier Bayard of Texas." So let me just give you the highlights of the life of this extraordinary Texan. Lawrence Sullivan Ross.

After leaving Iowa, his family had come to Texas just three years after independence was won, in 1839. He was just a baby when they settled up in Robertson County on the Little River near present day Cameron, where they lived in constant fear and harassment from Comanches. The family moved to a more civilized environment in Austin and later moved to Waco.

Lawrence "Sul" Ross was just a boy when he participated in his first skirmish with Indians. He would grow up to become one of the most famous Indian fighters in the West. He began his formal education across the river at Independence, at the first site of Baylor University, then transferred to Wesleyan University in Alabama.

He came home for the summer, and at age nineteen, found himself acting as an impromptu captain of a local militia of 135 Tonkawa and Caddo scouts, when his father fell ill. They were headed to assist the U. S. Cavalry in finding and fighting the Comanches, after numerous atrocities. His father was the Indian agent at the Brazos Indian Reservation, and when he became unable to travel, the Tonkawas eagerly elected the young White brave as their War Chief.

The Indian scouts were more than game and knew right where to find the ferocious and elusive Comanches, and led young Sul Ross and the cavalry unit into a life or death battle inside the very heart of Comancheria, the lair of the legendary Chief Buffalo Hump. Way up in Indian Territory, in the Wichita Mountains, they descended upon 500 or more Comanches, stampeded their horses, and began a five hour battle where Ross took a bullet and an arrow, while retrieving a White captive child. The Comanches were subdued and scattered, but his wounds caused him to beg his comrades to kill him and put him out of his misery. When General Winfield Scott heard of his bravery, he immediately offered him a commission in the Army, but Sul shook off the glory of Indian fighting and went back to finish school.

• After graduation, he learned that no one had claimed the little girl he had risked his life to rescue in the Indian Territory, so he adopted her himself and named her Lizzie, after his bride to be. He got married, joined the Texas Rangers, was elected captain, and by 1860 he was literally ranging under the direction of Governor Sam Houston. He and his Rangers tracked down Chief Peta Nokona, the scourge of the Llano Estacado, on the Pease river, and with a token detachment of U.S. troops, killed him and many of his braves. In the process he solved one of the greatest mysteries in Texas lore, and that was the whereabouts of Cynthia Ann Parker, the most famous white captive in Texas, taken decades before, and now the great Chief’s wife.

• This made young Sul Ross a veritable Texas giant. Soon he was leading the way in the War Between the States, rising quickly through the ranks, becoming one of the youngest generals in the Confederate States of America.

• At age 26, he returned after the war to farm near Waco. He and Lizzie had eight children, six of whom lived to maturity.

• In late 1873, Sul Ross was elected Sheriff of McLennan County. He hired his brother as a deputy, and within two years had captured over 700 outlaws. One of the more notorious was Belle Starr and some of her gang.

• He served as a delegate to the 1875 Texas Constitutional Convention, where his name and reputation grew rapidly.

• In 1880 he was elected to the Texas Senate as a compromise candidate.

• In 1886 he was elected by a landslide as the 19th Governor of Texas. And then to a second term, overseeing the construction and dedication of the Texas State Capitol building.

• In 1890 Lawrence Sullivan Ross became the first official President of Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College. We call it Texas A&M. That’s not all, the college had been traditionally run by a faculty chairman and was in desperate straits, even threatening to close its doors, when Sul took over. As soon as he accepted the challenge, enrollment skyrocketed. Understanding well the needs of a military and agricultural school, Sul Ross rescued the Aggies as much as he had Cynthia Ann Parker.

• Outside of Sam Houston, no other man has left such an imprint on the life and lore of the Brazos Valley, as Ranger Captain, General, Senator, Governor, and Texas A&M President as L. S. Ross.

"Texas, though her annals be brief, counts upon her roll of honor the names of many heroes, both living and dead. Their splendid services are the inestimable legacies of the past and present, to the future. Of the latter, it is the high prerogative of the State to embalm their names and memories as perpetual examples to excite the generous emulation of the Texan youth to the latest posterity. Of the former, it is our pleasant province to accord them those honors which their services in so eminent a degree entitle them to receive. Few lands since the days of the Scottich Chiefs have furnished material upon which to predicate a Douglas, a Wallace, or a Ravenswood; and the adventures of chivalric enterprise, arrant quest of danger, and the personal combat were relegated, together with the knights's armorial trappings, to the trusty archives of Tower and Pantheon, until the Comanche Bedouins of the Texan plains tendered in bold defiance the savage gauntlet to the pioneer knights of progress and civilization. And though her heraldic roll glows with the names of a Houston, a Rusk, Lamar, McCulloch, Hays, Chevellier, which illumine the pages of her history with an effulgence of glory, Texas never nurtured on her maternal bosom a son of more filial devotion, of more loyal patriotism, or indomitable will to do and dare, than L. S. Ross."

From "Ross's Texas Brigade"

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