Monday, October 17, 2011
Grimes County Doctors: Part One... and #5 in my TOP TEN of TEXAS
Someday many years from now, one of you is going to ask this question and do a search on the Internet, and WA-LA, this will pop up… another of Cushman’s blogs that he wrote back when nobody was asking... bless his heart.
ANSWER: The Doctors of Grimes County. The question is who were the first leaders and benefactors of this land, later to become the Republic of Texas? Who were they and why did Navasota and the surrounding area have so many, when the rest of the country was deprived of medical care? And even more amazing, how did they survive such dangers and hardships?
The following study of these, men, is an attempt to finally do them justice after so many years of neglect. I think you will find their story interesting…
No account of Texas doctors would be complete without prefacing it with the quintessential proto-physician of the Texas frontier; Cabeza de Vaca (and this gives me a chance to plug Dr. Robin Montgomery’s book, which I illustrated, called March to Destiny, where his and many other great stories can be found). Cabeza de Vaca means Head of a Cow. Yes, "Head of a Cow" was a Spanish nobleman who had the misfortune of being named Royal Treasurer on an ill-fated trans-Atlantic voyage to the Spanish held lands north of Mexico.
A flotilla led by Narvaez left Cuba with hundreds of men and landed first in Florida, where they met one disaster after another. By the time de Vaca and his men arrived on Galveston island, only a few dozen were left, and they were dying off quickly. In rags and famished from days on the open sea, he and his men were glad to be taken in by the Karankawa Indians and become their servants in exchange for survival.
Over time, de Vaca found himself nearly alone, yet a venerated healer among the stone-age men that owned him. His combination of common sense, prayer and experimentation made him seem to be almost a divine- ent medicine man, and he selflessly served these primitive tribesmen for two years. Eventually he made his escape, and like most doctors since then, had to weigh the needs of his patients against the greater good. De vaca spent ten years wandering in Texas, New Mexico and northern Mexico, making a splash wherever he arrived, finding the natives were totally believing he had powers of healing, and making testimonies about that gift. So convinced were they, those healed would escort him to the next village in his path, where they would take everything in sight, in trade for doing that tribe the great service of bringing him there. The stunned villagers would shrug, get their folks healed, and then repeat the cycle. It is quite possible that no doctor in Texas has covered as much ground, or had such success and made such a name for himself as de Vaca, until the mass Media came along and made our heart doctors in Houston world famous.
Not really a trained physician, Cabeza de Vaca typified the frontier Texas doctors that would come three hundred years later. Not greatly educated, but still much more than the average citizen, who was illiterate and superstitious, and feared doctors; Men of faith and cunning who were there to do something when everyone else was wringing their hands.
Their effectiveness may have been questionable, but at least they tried. Over the years, after considerable “practice,” they made the “art of medicine” appear to be science. But as each of these stories will show, they were “great men,” or as some like to put it, not necessarily extraordinary men, but average men doing extraordinary things…
Sad but true, de Vaca went on another mission for his King in South America, only to suffer a mutiny and be returned to Spain in chains. It seems his constant empathy, mercy and healing ministry to the natives irritated his associates, who did not understand de Vaca's demands to be escorted through the jungles on a litter, a kind of man-powered vehicle known as a lectica (ancient Rome), jiao [较] (China), sedan chairs (England), palanquin (also known as palki Bengali'পালকি' ) (Bangladesh, India), Woh (วอ, chinese style known as giao เกี้ยว) (Thailand), gama (Korea) and tahtırevan (Turkey). [Thank you Wikipedia] basically an emperor's style stretcher of sorts (probably for effect, to show the natives his authority). They finally had enough and whopped him on the side of the head and sent him home, so they could resume their search for riches.
An embarassment to the Crown, and perhaps a threat because of all he knew, (after all, he had covered almost two continents and never found any gold... the justification for these excursions) so he spent eight years in prison, before his case was heard. He had been banished to Africa when finally the Crown snatched him up and dusted him off, and gave him a pension and some amount of vindication. For all is efforts to help mankind, Cabeza de Vaca is remembered mostly as the first writer to chronicle the American Southwest. In fact his writings about his adventure in South America is much greater. Alas it is still hard to ever get published... especially when your words do not feed the popular delusions of the day.
So Cabeza de Vaca is, hands down one of my "Top Ten in Texas" if not in the Western Hemisphere.
I think I have around four left to go...
Next time… on the Navasota Current.
Dear Blogreader; This is part of a series called my "top ten in Texas" and part one of a series about early Texas doctors. You can go back to the main page and type in "top ten in texas" or "benevolent bones" in the search button, and then click on the button to find the rest of the articles.