Sunday, October 9, 2011
You guys have probably figured out by now that I am a voracious reader. I hated to read when I was young, and now I can’t read enough. When growing up, my scholastic abilities were so non-evident that I was sure to be headed to a life of hard work and hard time. Then when I realized that I could learn… even understand, reading has been like a great seductive trail leading to wisdom and something far more useful… COPING WITH THE CRAZY WORLD AROUND ME.
That was, until I read enough to see that gaining and assimilating knowledge was hopeless, and just an addiction and delusion. The more I know, the more I realize the less I know... So as I share my latest read with you, it is not with an overview of comfort and resolve, but a growing suspicion of the whole process. But I have another reason to tell you about this book, as it helps illustrate the other subject I promised you... how traditionally Democrats have enjoyed overwhelming support from the Afro-American vote, even though they were originally their worst oppressors. The story of Wesley Smith is a fitting springboard for much I have to share on that subject, a great deal of which is covered in my book (unpublished) called The Light of Day.
Diamond Six is about Sheriff Wesley Smith, a former neighbor to Grimes County, the region where I have spent most of my adult life. When he came to Montgomery, Grimes and Montgomery Counties were just about to be split up, and young Wesley had been recruited, so the story goes, to serve in the Texas Rangers and fight Comanches over in... Navasota, my town. When I first read the book about him I was shocked at the history his biographer, his grandson, told of this area which was not recorded anywhere else. I dismissed the book, some twenty years ago as an unreliable family legend gone amuck in the imagination of a starry-eyed grandchild.
I have probably read the book four or five times since. I could not leave it alone. It was first recommended to me by Elliott Goodwin, one of the town’s acknowledged historians, as our history, albeit sealed in secrets of dark ways long since buried...
In a nutshell, Diamond Six is about a young Kentuckian who migrates with his brother to Texas to avoid prosecution for the killing of their father’s murderer. On their way they meet an "honest" gambler who GIVES them six diamonds as a token of his esteem. This is just the first extraordinary windfall of Smith's serendipitous life. But by the time they enter “The youngest nation on earth,” in 1844, They have a price on their heads and have used their guns to resist arrest and have even fired upon a border patrol of the United States Army.
And it gets much worse. They are soon caught up in shooting scrapes, Wesley is even commissioned as a Ranger, and he soon parts with his strife-weary older brother. Then the young fugitive successfully inspires a conspiracy among his fellow Texas Rangers to murder two bounty hunters from back home who are seeking to capture him and his brother, and the ten thousand dollar reward for their hides.
Serving as a part-time Ranger, and full-time farmer and later as a Lieutenant in the Confederacy, Smith kills untold Indians and Yankees, and because of his amazing luck, stumbles upon a Federal gold shipment during “the War of Northern Aggression” which, as fate would allow, he and his cronies successfully retrieve after the war, making all of them millionaires by today’s standards. With gold taken from the Federal Government. Of course, this was seen as justice and rationalized by the writer, who no doubt grew up in the largess of this wealth.
Often taking the law into his own hands, Wesley Smith, according to his own grandson, kills over sixty men, (not including Mexicans, Indians and Yankees) yet very few while working as a peace officer. It seems he was later elected Sheriff of Montgomery County in the 1880’s because he was so greatly feared and it was assumed it was expedient to just give him the badge, and let him and God sort it out. This was far more productive than arguing with such a prolific killer about legalities which he was bound to confront, doing his thing, which his grandson insisted was always justified. And this kind of logic was pervasive in the West. The Daltons and Earps and many other famous gunmen were all basically criminals-cum-lawmen.
The first time I read Wesley’s exploits, I shook my head and hoped it was not true. But there was the problem of his grandson, writing the book and claiming it was a true story. Why would a man make such claims, which could only establish his progenitor as lifetime criminal, if not a killer and a thief, unless it was truth. Yet even more paradoxically, the grandson failed to ever mention those facts of history that could be proven today. William Fielding Smith got a nationally famous novelist to edit his book, yet neither ever seemed to feel the need to mention that Wesley Smith had introduced and developed an important agriculture crop to Montgomery County, one that became an important local industry, that being tobacco.
True, by the end of the book you cannot imagine Smith without sporting one of his cigars, but we are never told that he had a cigar factory in Willis, or that Willis grown tobacco became a highly coveted product, winning international tobacco awards. There were eventually eight cigar factories in Willis, and Smith grown and made cigars were famous in Texas, much more famous than the dangerous man that produced them. The operation was finally reduced to oblivion when Congress passed laws that lifted import tariffs on Cuba, who immediately blew away all the competition.
By the end of Sheriff Smith’s life, his tobacco dynasty had been trounced, much like his ante-bellum cotton kingdom, and all that was left was his sizable cattle operation, which had been overseen by a couple of dozen unreconstructed confederates who served as his personal posse and jury and executioners for scores of rustlers. And when the old sheriff died, so did the alliance, the secrets, and the dangerous ground they protected. Strangely, when William Fielding Smith sat down to resurrect his family’s legacy, he ignored the obvious and strained at the radical, almost unbelievable legend of his grandfather. One that might well have been better forgotten.
Like me, I suppose the grandson could not resist the attraction of a great story.
And now after many readings, I am finally looking at the story through a different lens. It cannot all be a lie. Perhaps a lot of it is second hand, and distorted and unreliable. But in all of it there is the ring of truth. So I want to share some of the amazing parts of this “true story” that have haunted me for two decades, and introduce you, if not to the world of Sheriff Wesley Smith, to the muddy memories of his devoted grandson. And the sinister politics behind it all. Next time.