Navasota is one of the few places where the famous "six flags" over Texas literally embody the history of the town, perhaps more authentically than San Antonio, Nacogdoches, or even Galveston. This new park displaying the six flags on the west end of town could not have been more appropriate, right here at the crossroads of Texas History. Navasota has direct historic links to all six flags, and thus the countries they represent. But in fact there have been more like 9 flags, but you have to draw a line somewhere...
Many of you know the passion I have for local history... among my many others... I've spent much of my life gathering and storing it, and after recent conversations, which proved how little people know about the people and places of Navasota, or value our historic resources, or desire to protect them, I finally realized that there might be folks who would NEED, or perhaps would like to have more than snippets of info in my misc. blogs. Some of you might actually want to know everything about Navasota that you can possibly know; The whole saga of this place that I often call the Center of the Universe... So I offer you "NAVA-SAGA."
Here is a collection of past blogs pertaining to that saga. But first a timely introduction to our wonderful heritage, as captured by Navasota's grandfather of photographers, Earl Mercer. This little treasure was recently shared with me. In 1943 Mercer sent this selection of hometown shots to a serviceman and Navasota historian, named Hamer Wilson, to remind him of home. It was and still is the quintessential Navasota photo spread...
We can trace our history back to when the Spanish blazed La Bahia Trail through here in 1689 in search of the interloper Rene Robert Cavalier Sieur de la Salle, the French adventurer who had claimed the whole Mississippi Valley for France and established a fort on the Texas coast. He was never apprehended because his men had mutinied and killed him and several of those loyal to him, somewhere in the area. Today Navasota is the only town in America with TWO statues of the ill-fated Frenchman who laid the groundwork for the Louisiana Purchase; One placed in 1936 by the DAR, the other a gift from the French. No other town in Texas has made so much of a tribute to the French hero, or received as much attention from the French government in the process.
Cotton was the reason. The fertile Brazos and Navasota river valleys were the home of Texas' first and most prolific plantations. Navasota was placed on the map by the H&TC Railroad in 1854 because it was ideally situated at the fork of these two rivers, to be the central gathering point for all agricultural products being produced in the heart of the farming region. From here it could be shipped to Galveston by rail. Every autumn, for one hundred years, cotton lined the streets as it awaited the market.
Cattle was no less important, and today is the area's biggest agricultural product. These Navasota cowboys are branding a calf so that he cannot be claimed by any neighboring rancher. Blessed with good rainfall and tall, nutritious grass, the area was originally stocked with buffalo, wild mustangs and longhorns, feral descendants of the livestock left behind by the Spanish Conquistadors, which soon gave way to more profitable European breeds.
Because of great geography, Navasota has always been an ideal distribution center for Texas industries. In 1943, it was the Holsum Food cannery that was the leader in bringing industry to town. Today there are TWO industrial parks, north and south of town for industrial development.
If Navasota is famous for anything, it is the area wildflowers, especially the Texas Bluebonnets, which still grace many pastures and roadsides from March through April. If Navasota has one under-rated but consistent asset, it would be her young people, who always shine in the face of competition. Time after time, over decades, in sports, academics, and the arts, Navasota youth delivers way above expectations.
But before there was all of this, there were native peoples trying to live here. La Salle had encountered the Bidias, and Caddoes, who were humble, Woodland Indians known for their peaceful ways. When the Texans arrived, they were already a beaten, poverty stricken remnant of their past. When Zuber, the famous County historian arrived in the 1830's, his family found "abandoned" lodges made by "Kickapoo" Indians.
The Kickapoo (Kiquepagua) were semi-nomadic peoples who had migrated from the Ohio Valley in search of hunting grounds not contested by White people. They wintered in Texas and roamed all over the ancient range of the southern bison herds. They were fierce, cunning and as can be imagined, hated Texans, who were the last group to displace them. They also had funny hats. This painting was done in Mexico, around the end of the American Civil War, where the Kickapoos finally settled and began a war against Texas that lasted twenty years.
The Kickapoo have a Son of God/Creator as in Christianity. He is known as Wisaka and he taught them his law, or thirteen commandments to live by:
Kill another Kickapoo
Kill an Indian from another nation
Kill A Mexican
Fail to fulfill ceremonial obligations
Indulge in excessive drinking
Participate in witchcraft
Indulge in malicious gossip
If you want to know more, I recommend: The Mexican Kickapoo Indians by Felipe and Dolores Latorre: The Latorres moved into the last bastion of Native American tradition, hidden away in Old Mexico, quite unaware of the chasm of cultural differences they would so artfully uncover, which give us a long overdue view inside the un-Americanized Native American mind. Who knew there were displaced Indians, long since expunged from the Great Lakes region, who found refuge in Mexico after all relations with Texans had come to bloody results and distrust, and these unconquered Native Americans would hold on to their traditions perhaps more fiercely than their kinsmen on the Reservation in Oklahoma.
A great story on several levels… Academics verses primal instincts, warring perspectives on history, ethnology, psychology… the Latorre’s loving patience and diligence, the Kickapoo’s fierce independence and suspicion, the Mexican’s pragmatism, the American’s hardness and ambivalence; Everyone grows with this book, which certainly should be a treasure to every Native American, as a glimpse into their world as it was.
I don't know a whole lot about these wonderful handcrafted pine needle baskets. I just know they are the only items you find floating around in our Texas material culture that speak of our original peoples.
Woodland Indians, dispossessed of their native lands in the American South, migrated to Texas even before the Republic years. Cherokee, Shawnee, Alabama, Kickapoo, Delaware, Iowa, and some unique peoples associated with the Creek Nation known as Coushatta or better "Koasati." Settlers recalled how the east Texas tribes hunted Buffalo in this area, along what was known as the Upper and Lower"Coushatti Traces." These hunting trails were roughly our present-day HWY 90 and HWY 105.
Today the Alabama-Coushattas enjoy the only official Native American "reservation" left in Texas. All others were banished before the Civil War. The pre-Republic understanding they had with General Sam Houston seems to have preserved them miraculously unto this day. Known to occasionally get caught up in warpaths against whites with their kinsmen, the Alabama and Coushatta as we know them today became peaceful neighbors and today are celebrated citizens.
Alabama - Coushatta women.
Just like the flags above, the pathways to Navasota embody much of our local history, and provide a great way to tell our wonderful story. Whether you are new to Navasota or have grown up here, you might find that understanding these paths will make travel through the area much more meaningful. There are at least six different important paths that have woven this rich fabric of our heritage.
1) Native American Pathways:
For eons the Native Americans hunted buffalo along their hunting and trading routes that crisscrossed through Grimes County. The early settlers called the two most obvious trails the Upper and Lower Coushatti Traces. The Upper Coushatti Trace seemed to temporarily join the larger and longer La Bahia Road here in Grimes County. As the bluffs over the Navasota and Brazos Rivers made natural traps for buffalo harvesting, there is no doubt that other tribes found their way here as well. Tonkawa, Comanche, Caddo, Deadoses, Bedias, Anadarko, Kickapoo, Karankawa, Delaware, Tawakoni, Waco, Paouites and others were tribes that were known to camp or travel nearby, and would have used the trail.
2) Spanish and French Explorer Routes:
Rene Robert Cavalier Sieur de La Salle brought his desperate party through this area right before a tragic meltdown that left him and a couple of other Frenchmen dead. A buffalo was killed for food, and local Indians protested, resulting in the execution of one Frenchman and then the murder of La Salle by a man who feared a similar fate. An officer named Joutel witnessed everything and lived to find Canada and wrote of the failure of the French settlement and the tragedy in Texas. Soon the Spanish were seeking to nip the French intrusion at the bud, and a small army carved a path through the wilderness, shaking down the natives and looking for the French invaders, and passed through Navasota in the search. The road they used from the abandoned French fort on Matagorda Bay became known as the "La Bahia," or the Bay Road, more correctly La Camina Bahia, which is marked as such near downtown Navasota. It later became a popular path form the Texians, as it connected Nacogdoches in East Texas with San Antonio, the largest town in Tejas at the time. Numerous missions were established in east Texas, and the road was a major artery in Texas from 1687 on.
3) The Austin Colony Trails and Waterways:
One notable American adventurer-path finder to have followed La Bahia Trail through here was Zebulun Pike, in 1807.
It was at the juncture of this road and the Brazos River, called La Bahia Crossing, (just a few miles west of Navasota) where in 1819 Dr. James Long had placed a small army to fend off the Spanish during an earlier campaign to liberate Texas from Mexico. As usual, these "filibusters" were always summarily crushed and destroyed without a trace.
As time passed, the early settlers knew little of the history of the old La Bahia road, and in fact had other names for it. “Labadie,” and “Contraband Road” and other corruptions of La Bahia muddied the history of this important road during the pre-Republic days, when Jim Bowie used the road to smuggle slaves into Louisiana. Stephen F. Austin was very familiar with his colony, and in fact had carved out a league with his name on it in Grimes County, just south of the La Bahia Road on the southern route of the Coushatti Trace, just a few miles east of Navasota. He is supposed to have hanged seven white men for stealing mules from some Mexicans, near the present townsite of Navasota, in an effort to prevent an all-out race war in his fledgling colony. He never married or settled down, and died fairly young in service to Texas, and the land here bearing his name was never settled by him. Stephen F. Austin had presented a map of his proposed colony to the Spanish, and had named it “Austiana,” and in the past Grimes County has advertised itself as the “Gateway to Austiana,” and a Navasota subdivision is called Austiana Hills.
Just as important as the roads, the Brazos River was the true lifeline to this region for thirty years. Mail was delivered by steamboat all along the Brazos, and on a tributary of the Brazos, the Navasota River, during the Republic years. Steamboats brought everything necessary to outfit Washington on the Brazos, where the Texas Constitutional Convention was held, independence from Mexico was declared and a frontier capital was established for the new Republic. Great Indian chiefs and foreign dignitaries came there to visit Sam Houston, then President of Texas. Planters were able to send the cotton and other produce grown in the Brazos Valley south to Galveston by steamboat, and later the steam vessels brought Texans up the river to do business with the Texas Rangers and the Texas Government that stayed there.
4) Civil War Roads and Railroad:
Eventually the railroads came, and in 1854 Navasota was established by the Houston & Texas Central Railroad, and became the furthest inland railroad stop in Texas during the Civil War, making it a major wartime purchasing, warehousing and shipping center. True the rail head had moved on up the rails a few miles to Millican, a fledgling Confederate outpost but with no east-west road to accommodate teamsters driving ox carts and wagons. Once again, geography was on Navasota's side, and resting on La Bahia Trail as well, it had a head start before the war, building warehouses and hotels to facilitate commerce. Guns, shoes, clothes and other military needs were manufactured locally and warehoused or sent east via La Bahia Road, to supply Confederate defense efforts in Louisiana. Later the Santa Fe and others built more rails, making Navasota a major distribution hub during the Turn of the Century.
5) The Cattle Drives:
Everyone in Houston is familiar with the "Salt Grass Trail," a famous trailride re-enacted every spring to kick off the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Thousands of riders follow a trail designed by area cattlemen back in the 1950's, such as the former mayor of Brenham, Reese Lockett and his friend Emil Marks. These men had to find a way to get from Washington County to Downtown Houston, where the annual Livestock Show parade was held. Of course, the men chose a practical route, emplementing the existing Farm to Market roads at the time.
Originally, the Salt Grass trail was a cattle trail used to move cattle from the ranches in the interior of Texas to winter grass, salt grass, on the coast. This was virtually the same path used by Texas travellers stretching from the north extension of Galveston Bay (Harrisburg, Liberty) to Washington on the Brazos. There can be no doubt that cattle drivers would have crossed the Brazos at it's safest place... and before it forked into the Navasota River (to avoid having to cross two rivers), placing the Salt Grass Trail once again, somewhere near the old Brazos Crossing of La Bahia Trail. Of course, the trail might have forked at this point, to the south and west and northwest, even to connect with the famed Chisholm Trail, which worked through Burleson County and points north.
Today the trail ride starts in Brenham, then goes to Bellville before heading west in the flatlands below Hempstead and on into Harris County where it camps just inside Houston's Loop 610, before circling in Downtown for the parade. But the original trail, as best as I can tell, with the help of A Historical Atlas Of Texas, could certainly start at Brenham, but took a more northerly route, to Washington on the Brazos, then passed just under present day Navasota, to Courtney, Hempstead, Cypress, Fairbanks, and then perhaps through North Houston and then on to the Salt Grass Prairie region, which was an immense prairie that covered many square miles. I was once told that the reason the founders of the Salt Grass Trail trailride chose the southern route was the fear of the multiple bridge crossings over the Brazos and Navasota Rivers, and the other route was safer for horses and wagons. The trail was more likely a network of trails that led to various Gulf Coast salt grass and winter grass pastures which enveloped the Houston area. As modernization came, and with it fences, roads, railroads etc, this network was no longer an option for ranchers, and it fell out of use by the Turn of the Century.
Although the Chisholm Trail has captured the imagination of Western history buffs, La Bahia Trail actually served as a cattle trail to move Texas longhorns to market for a longer period of time, and to a much more important destination. There was always a buyer in Shreveport and New Orleans for Texas livestock, and Texas horses and cattle were driven to northern Louisiana, along the Bahia, and the southern route then known as the “Opelousas Road,” to New Orleans and the largest population center in the South, and later to supply the Confederate States with essential beef and fresh mounts.
6) Blues Valley: The Brazos & Navasota Rivers
Any study of Music is pointless without a study of the Blues, and any study of the Blues will have to focus sooner or later on the Brazos and Navasota River valleys, the epicenter of the Texas cotton industry, and where 75% of Texas Blues musicians were born and bred. Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie Johnson, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Texas Alexander, Albert Collins, Mance Lipscomb, Pee Wee Crayton, L. C. Robinson, Big Mama Thornton, and many more traveled the paths and learned the songs along these rivers and their flood plains, and knew the roads to Navasota. The legendary Moore Brothers Prison Farm was nestled where the two rivers met, and the songs about them have been recorded by a half dozen recording artists. The Brazos, like the Mississippi, has a sort of delta, and a similar demographic chemistry which created a significant portion of American blues music.
Obviously it was the very heroes of Texas who used the "Roads to Navasota," and this ancient network of paths led many here and produced a strong culture of pioneers who made Texas what it is. Navasota has more than its share of real life stars in history and music. Here is a partial list of Texas “Who’s Who,” who followed the roads to Navasota. The * (asterisk) means this baker’s dozen of folks are truly legends, famous all over the world, and underlining means they were actually a resident of Grimes or an adjacent county. Some names are self explanatory…
*Rene Robert Cavalier Sieur de La Salle
Alonso de Leon- he led the largest manhunt in Texas history in search of La Salle.
Maria Agreda aka the “Blue Nun”- Sixteenth Century nun in Spain, who set off intense Spanish evangelical efforts to Texas Indians, after unusual visions and claims of teleportation to Texas where she preached to many Southwestern Indians in their own tongues, and converted large groups of Jumano Indians she found camped along a “large river with red sediments…” Later the Jumanos told of finding the bluebonnets for the first time where her blue robe had dragged the ground…!!! (Sounds like the Brazos and Navasota to me!) Even the Inquisitionists could not crack her story… and she became a 20 year confidant of King Philip.
*Jim and Rezin Bowie
*Stephen F. Austin
Thomas Rusk- San Jacinto veteran, Republic of Texas Secretary of State under Sam Houston. His name was originally used to name the present area of Plantersville-Grimes Prairie.
*Jesse Chisholm- Southwestern Indian guide, trader and interpreter, blazed trail known by his name.
Z. N. Morrell- Earliest Baptist preacher, held services at Washington on the Brazos in 1830’s. Early Texas author.
W. P. Zuber- Grimes resident, received first- hand account of the Alamo “Line in the Sand” story from Moses Rose, fresh from the siege, fought at San Jacinto, wrote important Texas histories. Shaped the Alamo Myth.
Jared Groce-Grimes resident, Considered the “Father of Texas Agriculture,” first planter to establish himself in Texas, very influential during the drafting of the Declaration of Independence from Mexico in 1836.
George Childress-The Thomas Jefferson of Texas. Young , well-schooled patriot, sent across the Brazos during the Convention to help ailing Jared Groce write the Declaration of Independence from Mexico at Groce’s home in Grimes County.
*Sara Dodson- Grimes Resident, The Betsy Ross of Texas, young wife of a Captain in the Texas Army, she fabricated the first red, white and blue, Lone Star flag, which hung at the “Independence Hall” during the Constitutional Convention, 1836.
Martin Ruter- Early Texas Methodist evangelist and preacher. Ruterville was named after him.
Jeff Milton- Grimes County cowboy, Famous Western lawman, Texas Ranger, who faced down John Wesley Hardin several times while Police Chief of El Paso, Texas… Subject of “A Good Man With a Gun.”
*Adelaide Prince aka Lena Rubenstein, was born in Millican and grew up in and around Navasota, before becoming a popular stage actress and silent screen star. My articles on her http://russellcushman.blogspot.com/2009/08/new-york-east-coast-and-london-theatre.html
Carl Frederich Steinhagen- Texas' foremost pioneer cabinetmaker. You can read about him here: http://russellcushman.blogspot.com/2009/08/holy-thrones-of-grimes-county.html
*Captain Frank Hamer- One of the most famous lawmen of all time, Texas Ranger, appointed by Texas Governor to serve as Marshal of Navasota as his first assignment, in 1908. Most famous for killing Bonnie and Clyde.
Find his story at:
*Mance Lipscomb- Grimes resident, Blues guitar master, recorded half a dozen albums, lived to old age, became mentor to Leon Russell, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Taj Mahal.
*Blind Willie Johnson- Considered the progenitor of the slide guitar, he played for nickels on the streets of Navasota, right in front of Tex’s Music on Washington Ave.. Mance Lipscomb would tune his guitar for him. A brief bio of him at:
*Texas Alexander- Grimes resident, one of the first major Blues vocalists, influential older cousin of Lightnin’ Hopkins, played with the Mississippi Sheiks, recorded numerous 78’s in New York and San Antonio, 1920’s.
*Lightnin’ Hopkins- A passive rival of Mance Lipscomb, he played in the Brazos bottom juke joints and learned and recorded the “Tom Moore blues.” Now recognized as the King of Texas Blues.
*Alvin Ailey- Grimes resident arguably one of the most influencial dancers in the country, who established the Alvin Ailey Dance Theatre in New York City. Click below for his inspiring story.
L. C. Williams- Brazos County resident (Millican), Blues drummer, played with Lightnin’ Hopkins, called “Lightnin’ Jr” made numerous recordings for Gold Star.
*Joe Tex- Grimes resident, 1970’s Soul recording artist, considered to be most important Texas Soul Singer, moved to Navasota at the apex of his career, became popular local resident, recorded a song where he mentions Navasota. Read about Joe here:
Jerry Jericho- Brazos County resident (Millican, just across the Brazos River ), 50’s and 60’s country singer, toured with Hank Williams.
America’s Top Texas TV Hero, Chuck Norris, star of Walker, Texas Ranger, lives with his family at Lone Wolf Ranch, on the outskirts of Navasota.
Child actress Jenny James Busse was raised in Navasota and graduated from Navasota High. She was in several movies, including Secret Garden and Places in the Heart with Sally Field and Danny Glover.
A segment of Matt Houston, starring Lee Horsley was shot in Navasota.
Now.. here are a few articles I have written about our people and places
NAVASOTA... Nabasote? Navi Soto?
[Dear Blogreader: This is the intro to a lengthy and somewhat untested string of semi-academic wild goose chases that research many possible ways to translate the word Navasota in about five languages. If you are determined to read all of the study, and I encourage you to, search the word BEDIAS at the top right corner of the blog and it will bring up all FIVE, or is it six? of the articles about this elusive word.]
Navasota is the name of a significant river in central Texas, and also the frontier town built at its convergence with the mighty Brazos. Navasota, Texas as we know it was actually born in 1854 when the railroad began to deliver the mail instead of the river steamboats, and established a United States Post Office, removing the original Post Office on the east side of the Navasota River inland to a site near the crossing of the new tracks and the La Bahia trail, where it converged with an old Indian trail known to locals as the Coushatti Trace. Formerly known as the tiny crossroads village of Nolanville, after a Judge Nolan who presided here, in much the same fashion as the legendary Judge Roy Bean, the new town site was laid out by the Railroad and named Navasota, after the nearby river, and the river-front post office there, soon to be relocated. This was only after the nearby town of Washington on the Brazos had turned down the option of embracing the railroad and the progress it might bring. But that is another story. It might be worthy of note however that it was the short-sighted vision of others that helped Navasota become one of the most important shipping and warehousing locations in early Texas, as its steamboat dependent neighbor across the river became a footnote in Texas history. But even before there was a town by that name, there had been a Navasota County, a label which was abandoned when Brazos County was formed. Strange that today we know so little about the meaning of this ancient Texas name.
Navasota. It has a poetic sound to it. In earlier times it might be written variously as Navasota, Navisot, Navisota or Navisoto. I always assumed it was some sort of Spanish name which we could not decipher. I was disappointed when a Mexican relative assured me it meant nothing particular in her language. I had read claims by various historians that it was an Indian word, or perhaps the conjunction of Navidad with De Soto, suggesting that the explorer by that name had crossed this river on Christmas, or his birthday, or something like that. You may have read the silly legends about the name arising from chickens that “never sat,” or the illiterate Texican seeking his missing bride, who “nevah sawed her.” One of my first inclinations that one might eventually figure this riddle out was when, years ago I discovered a Cherokee cognate, “navi - sudi,” which means local fishing. This was intriguing but problematic. The Cherokees did not migrate into Texas until the nineteenth century, and there were no known language groups known here similar to theirs.
So none of this was very satisfactory. In the years I have lived here in the Navasota area, I have matched the word with hundreds of possible translations in dozens of languages, determined to crack this mystery. I have found some interesting leads, many of which still point to Native American languages. But there are even more fascinating translations possible. So now you might find my discoveries useful as you lie awake at night pondering the imponderable. There is more elsewhere in this blog than anyone should read about the possiblities...
Le Doc wants to AX you a question... The messy story of La Salle's fateful stroll across Texas.
It was in 1685 when the official Surgeon with Robert Cavalier Sieur de La Salle arrived with the ill-fated colonists at Matagorda Bay. His name was Liotot, and he has the distinction of committing the first murders by Anglo-Saxons in Texas.
The FIRST Texas axe murders…
Financed by the French Crown, Dr. Liotot was eventually caught up in a conspiracy to kill their intrepid leader, the famous French explorer, and in the process he became one of France’s most infamous mutineers. La Salle was now headed possibly for St. Louis on the Mississippi, what he considered Canada, leading seventeen men on a trek across the Midwest in search for help for his ailing colony on the Texas Coast. Liotot and his party had been sent to retrieve some buffalo meat cached in a tree trunk somewhere near the mouth of a River, probably the Navasota, while La Salle visited the Bedias Indian village in northernmost Grimes County. The meat had been hidden to help supply this planned, desperate march back to French held lands on the Mississippi, but it was rancid so someone did the sensible thing and killed some more buffaloes. The hungry hunters began to feast on them, forgetting La Salle and his advance party who were waiting on them.
Some accounts have it that not long after, La Salle found these men and some irate Native Americans near present day Navasota, in a deadly stand-off, as the Frenchmen had violated their hunting treaty. Considering the greater good, La Salle shot and killed the man suspected of killing the buffalo in order to appease the Indians, but in the process caused immediate discord with the rest of his men. Feeling the heat, he quickly left, supposedly to go back to report to his advance party, and get protection from his new Bedias allies as this new meat could be shared with them. He left instructions for the men to butcher the expensive beeves, and to hurry along to the village with the meat. But Liotot and others had decided they were not following La Salle anymore, and if they had an opportunity, they would kill him on sight.
After the meat gatherers had taken too long, La Salle sent two men to find the stragglers, and the legend is that Dr. Liotot killed them with an axe while they slept! Ouch! Soon La Salle came looking for them, and caught up with his renegade party near the fork of the Brazos and the Navasota Rivers, and was shot dead by another malcontent named Duhaut. Liotot was a witness to his murder, and fittingly when they returned to their hunting camp, he was killed himself by these scurrilous French cutthroats, after a quarrel ensued over the spoils of the mutiny.
This is the wilderness adventure that must have inspired the TV reality show “Survivor.”
Many of the Frenchmen joined up with the Indians, but some including a priest found the way to the Mississippi River and a French fort that La Salle had built on an earlier expedition, living to tell the sordid tale that one day would put Navasota on the map. Who knows, if Dr. Liotot had refused to join the assassination plot, perhaps La Salle may have been spared, and then Navasota would be less two monuments, and a lot of attention and tourism.
Thank goodness, that saga is the last mention of a treacherous, bloodthirsty surgeon killing the very people he was hired to save. Since then, Navasota has been blessed with an impressive list of physicians, some of whom came while Texas was still just a Mexican state.
Navasota Doctors... Creme a la creme
The following is a directory of sorts. I'm sure its not complete, but perhaps it is a good start in listing the earliest doctors of this area, including Washington on the Brazos, Navasota and Anderson.
Dr. Charles Ballinger Stewart, Member of first Convention 1832, ’33, Secretary to Mexican Supreme Court, 1834, member of Convention at Brazoria 1834, Secretary to Provisional Governor Smith 1835, FIRST to sign Declaration of Independence, 2nd Lieutenant Gov., helped write Constitution, Republic of Texas Army, bilingual, interpreter during capture of Santa Anna, designed Texas Flag adopted 1839, Delegate to Convention discussing Annexation 1845, many terms as State Legislature, lived in Montgomery and Navasota. Died 1885.
Dr. Anson Jones: Surgeon, 2nd Regiment, Battle of San Jacinto, last President of the Republic of Texas, architect of annexation. (Lived at Washington on the Brazos.)
Dr. James B. Miller: came to Texas in 1836, President of Texas during the formation, Secretary of Treasury, ran for Governor. (Washington on the Brazos)
Dr. J. W. Lockhart: Came to Texas in 1839. Author, doctor, early day Indian negotiator. “Being a doctor meant something in those days. It meant long hard rides on horseback, with perhaps all the medicine in that part of the country stowed in one’s saddle bags. It meant treatment of people who knew little about care of themselves or sanitary matters. It meant homespun nursing, the care of the unlettered whites and of superstitious blacks. It meant little pay and long waits for that pay. Often Dr. Lockhart would be called on to follow a black man into the black night- perhaps fifteen miles, often twenty. One night when he could scarce see his hand before his face, he followed for fifteen miles through river bottoms the elusive lead of a white horse.” (Dr. Lockhart lived in Washington on the Brazos and later Chappell Hill.)
Benjamin Briggs Goodrich: Arrived in 1833. Served in Alabama Legislature, Delegate San Felipe 1835, and Washington on the Brazos, signor Texas Declaration of Independence, co-author of Texas Constitution, probably first doctor in Grimes County.
*Dr. Robert Caldwell Neblett: Came in 1840. First doctor in Navasota area.
Dr. Richard Fox Brenham. The City of Brenham was named for Dr. Richard Fox Brenham, soldier of fortune, volunteer in the Mier Expedition, imprisoned at Salado, killed when he led the charge to escape in 1843.
The 1850 Grimes County Census: Showed these doctors to be residents of Anderson: D. C. Dickson, E. W. Belding, Enoch Jones(Dentist), and Edmund Tucker.
1859 According to Dr. Kilpatrick the first doctor in Navasota was Dr. Armitage in 1859. I suppose he discounted Dr. Neblett as he did not live right in the town proper.
Dr. McFall, Dr. Alexander Waugh, and *Dr. Edward Arrel Pye came right after. Pye served in the Fourth Tx Inf, CSA, lost own son, his assistant, in the Yellow Fever epidemic.
1860 *Dr. David Alexander Jameson (fell victim to Yellow Fever while in Galveston, but survived) came to Navasota about 1863, fought Yellow Fever in quarantine camp in Calvert. Physician and surgeon for the Houston and Texas Central Railroad. Moved to Millican 1866 - 1884. County Health Officer, Brazos county; rode a circuit in the Brazos plantation bottom region, often gone for weeks. Camp Physician at convict camps in Conroe. 1884, returned to Navasota. Died in 1903
1861 Dr. Pryor H. Smith, Built Navasota's magnificent "P. A. Smith Hotel," on Railroad St., died in 1867 fighting Yellow Fever.
1864 *J. N. Baylor, 1st Lt. Surgeon, who ran a Civil War Hospital in Navasota. Covered forty miles square. Known to have stayed and fought the Yellow Fever epidemic valiantly. Elder, Presb Church, Died 1903.
1866 T. Newsom, ?. Beasseley d. 1867 YF, J. Hamilton Jones d. 1867 YF, Paul Smith d. 1867 YF, Ed Cade, J. P. Barnett , also Rx, Hightower, also Rx,
*Andrew Robert Kilpatrick : Active Mason, medical journalist, meteorologist, historian, memb. State Medical Asso., married four times!
1867 Dr. J. H. Kerr worked during Yellow Fever epidemic, J. W. Hill, also Rx
Also died of yellow Fever: Dr. A. Campbell, Dr. J. W. Russell.
1870 Dr. J. T. Montgomery
1871 Alexander G. Beaumont,
1876 Dr. William Goodrich
1878 *Dr. Alfred Huntington Ketchum: “Considered one of the most successful physicians in South Texas.” Graduate from Alabama Medical College with honors, came to “Old Washington” in 1874. Immune to Yellow Fever because he had the disease as a youth. Considered an expert on the disease. Moved to Navasota as Old Washington died out, in 1878. Director of First National bank, Vice President of the Navasota Telephone Company, and a druggist as well. Appointed as a Major and Surgeon of the Texas Volunteer Guards, in 1880, by Governor O. M. Roberts. In 1898, Texas health officers equipped him with a train to swiftly access various population centers during Yellow Fever breakout.
1885 *J. H. Neal: Came to Old Washington in 1866. The graduated from the Medical College of Alabama in 1877. Moved to Navasota in 1885. Died 1924.
The Republic Years: The making and breaking of a republic.
The other day, a friend of mine and I were riding somewhere and talking about Sam Houston, and he said, ”Wasn’t he just a drunk?” And stunned and a little surprised, I gave some kind of lame defense.
Yes he was a drunk. A big one, during a large part of his life. He was also a fearless young soldier, wounded in the War of 1812. Before that he had lived for a time with the Cherokee Indians, and was considered a member of their tribe. He was a school teacher, a U. S. Congressman and then the Governor of Tennessee. The General of the Texas Army that pulled off one of the most celebrated upsets in military history, winning independence for his new nation, the Republic of Texas. He would be elected President and later serve as Governor of his beloved Texas. And yes, he got drunk, and divorced, like most men did in those days.
And yet, it is none of these accomplishments which have captured my heart, as much as the one that got him in so much trouble at the very end of his career. All of Texas was eager for war against the United States, her own wet-nurse. Houston stood nearly alone, arguing against the War Between the States. When Texas went for secession, and war, he stepped down as Governor. John F. Kennedy was so moved by his costly and unpopular stand, he told of Houston’s convictions in his book, Profiles in Courage.
Like all great men, Houston had his rivals, who never missed an opportunity to find fault with him. Many were officers who fought under him during his battles, and knew just how kind history had been to Sam Houston. They could not enjoy the fact that some GREATER FORCE had delivered him and smote his enemies. An All Star cast of jealous malcontents and lesser generals nipped at his heels his whole career.
What might have happened, to have turned the brawling, barbarian drunkard into such an unparalleled man of history? Certainly Houston was a man of his times, and that explains his remarkable contradictions to some satisfaction. But he was much more complex than that. There were traits of character that even demon alcohol could not drown. When he became a man and left home, his mother presented him a ring, with the word HONOR inscribed in it. That was the building block of the man that history has failed to do justice. Sam Houston had been in Texas years when a preacher finally counseled with him and satisfied his doubts about Christianity. Sam Houston, the hero of Horseshoe Bend and San Jacinto, the Cherokee known as Colonneh, the Governor of Texas, walked down the muddy banks of a spring-fed creek near Independence, Texas and submitted himself to baptism. He became a follower of Jesus.
No doubt the angels sang an extra verse of Hallelujah. And ol’ General Sam put away the bottle and other childish things, and became the man his last and most influential wife expected him to be.
When the State began to rumble about secession, and whipping the Yankees, Houston went on a whirlwind tour, warning and beseeching Texans to show restraint. In the end, Houston died during the conflict, his son fighting for a cause he refused, his friends numbered on one hand, considered a "traitor to Texas" and the South.
History proved him correct on all counts. He predicted the South would lose, and it would be decimated because of the war, and the price for the institution of Slavery was too high, and Texas should lead the way to Southern Abolition, or be forever punished for her part in the Confederacy. The man that stood against the winds of war, trying to save a State that he had shaped with his own hands, and losing every worldly status he had earned with blood sweat and tears, was not the famous drunk known for laying around with Chief Jolly in Arkansas. He was the man who had the guts to take a dip in the spring-fed creek at Independence, Texas, where he learned the true measure of a man, and his real potential for greatness in God’s eyes.
Even Dr. Lockhart, who undoubtedly had sympathies towards the South, spoke fondly of Houston as the “noblest of men,” : "…But Texas was then a weak and very unpromising child, and was threatened many times with collapse; but when that grand old man, Sam Houston, would put his fingers on its pulse the arteries would commence to flow with renewed vigor. By his great wisdom and judgment Sam Houston brought the tottering child through the many trials which it seemingly had to pass…"
It is hard today for us here in Navasota, who live our mundane lives without much drama or excitement, to imagine that just across the river, less than ten miles as the crow the flies, a nation was born and a man like Houston lived and worked there for a legendary empire, that has inspired the world. When you live here in the Center of the Universe, you take things like that for granted.
I have written recently about our faded cultural memory, the loss of giants in our cultural identity like King Robert the Bruce, how their lives and accomplishments are all but erased from our books and stories and collective consciousness. And I fear that old General Sam will devolve from the old drunk to nothing at all. The fact that we so easily berate our national heroes only feeds the cynicism we suffer from these days. We need to forgive them for their human failures as we study their magnificence. As best as I can tell, our generation is not doing any better, and a man like Sam Houston, someone of vision, courage and unwavering conviction, would be a welcome addition to the political scene today.
When we do not care enough for history that we ignore it, or even scoff at it, we are doomed to repeat it.
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.
Martin Ruter... is buried here
One of the quirks about Navasota and Grimes County history has always been that we were more famous for who died here, rather than who lived here. La Salle of course, Sarah Dodson, the “Betsy Ross of Texas,” Kenneth L. Anderson, Vice President of Texas, and Mrs. Miriam Luxton, the mother of famed Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, who sent her here for “safety” during the Civil War, only to get a deadly laceration stepping down from the stagecoach. The wound got infected and she died and was buried here, near the old Camp Inn. In the early days this area was perceived as a safe haven, with fine homes, excellent medical professionals, sulfur springs nearby for restoration, a good mix of rain and sunshine, and a very nice cemetery for those in need of such.
And that’s how Navasota became the last resting place for a Methodist legend. Martin Ruter was 51 when he felt the call of adventure. Born in 1785 the son of a blacksmith, he had fashioned a surprisingly stellar portfolio, teaching himself several languages, and even studying under a rabbi to learn Hebrew. He served the Methodist Church over the years as a circuit rider in New England, and as an educator at New Market Academy and Cincinnati College, and then helped to found Augusta College in Kentucky. Transylvania College awarded him their first Doctor of Divinity degree in 1822, in recognition of his educational legacy. He then served as president of Allegheny College for four years. At fifty, he had quite chest full of medals so to speak.
But Ruter was not through. He was read a desperate letter from a young lay minister in Texas named William Barrett Travis, who was begging the church to send missionaries. He decided to go. He and two others were commissioned to take the Gospel to Texas and he arrived here in the autumn of 1837 with a wagon load of Bibles and hymnals, over a year after Travis had written his name in the journals of patriotic self-sacrifice by leading 186 men in the most famous losing battle of all time, the fall of the Alamo for Texas freedom.
Ruter’s own contribution to Texas was similar to Travis’, short and powerful. He went right to work, ignoring danger and impossible odds. He preached in San Augustine, Nacogdoches and Washington on the Brazos, gathering support for his mission. He met with President Sam Houston in Houston, and got the assistance he needed to tame pagan Texas. He established a network of Methodist churches all over south-central Texas, including Washington on the Brazos, Egypt, and Houston. He journeyed a heroic two thousand two hundred miles, in about six months, and began to envision a seminary college, perhaps near present day Chappell Hill. When things looked the most promising, he decided to head back East and fetch his family, and more financial backing. But he never got to the Red River. A fever overcame him and he returned to Washington on the Brazos, where he died on May 16, 1838, just six months into his epic mission to the Republic of Texas.
I believe that he was originally buried at the old Washington cemetery, and when it became obvious that town was headed to extinction, a number of graves were relocated to the Navasota Oakland Cemetery, including his. A behemoth, beautifully engraved, marble slab rests over his remains, a token of the esteem of Texas Methodists, who eventually established a college in his name two years later. It was later combined with other small Methodist colleges to form Southwestern College in Georgetown. The Texas town of Ruterville is named after him as well. Whether it was Typhoid or Pneumonia, we will never know, but it does not matter.
Either way he is still another legendary character that never resided here but found the end of the trail here… his name almost forgotten, except for a few who will not let go of these things. You might say he and Colonel Travis were sacrifice flies in the baseball game of Life. You have to be a baseball player to appreciate the importance of just one good fly ball, that will knock in the winning run, even if the player who hit it is thrown out. A "sacrifice fly." Strange that Travis and Ruter would be in the Hereafter so soon, so close together, so tragically, one the answer to another’s letter, both lives now a mist in our memory. Neither lived in Texas long enough to ever see the fruits of their labors. Compared to Travis, whose body was burned like rubbish in a pyre in San Antonio with his intrepid Texians, I'm sure that Martin Ruter, not able to arrange the return of his body to his family in the East, was just as pleased to be buried here, at the Center of the Universe. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head…”
Bravely, fearlessly, selflessly, Martin Ruter was true to his Lord.
STATEHOOD and the War Between the States
By 1867 many more doctors had come to the area, and just in time, for when death came riding on a swarm of mosquitoes… and bringing with it "three months of woe..."
“In 1867, Navasota seemed to be in a state of healthy growth and prosperity: trade was quite large and brisk. Numbers of buildings had been erected and many more projected. Our population was pleasing. Early in the summer the physicians encountered many cases of severe fever, some of which proved fatal, showing symptoms of yellow fever. The fatal disease showed itself in some of the northern seacoast towns; it soon reached Galveston and Houston and in August it showed itself here. In the month of August, 1867 there were 15 deaths, all white but two. In September there were 119 deaths, only 14 of whom were colored; the other 105 were whites. Nearly every one of the colored dying were mulattoes; pure blacks seldom died. In October there were 39 deaths, of whom 5 were colored. In November there were only three deaths...."
"The panic created by the epidemic was equal to any made by an invading army. Out of the resident population of over three thousand, there were only a thousand two hundred or a thousand three hundred who remained in the city, nearly every one of whom had the fever. Many of those who left the city died where they fled and scores of the survivors never returned, owing to the dread they had of the fever. It completely revolutionized the City and prostrated it more than the four-year war had done. Scores of persons in the Country and in the neighboring towns who had fully determined to move here and settle were deterred from doing so and for many months several houses in town were vacant.
The Mayor, W. E. Jones, left the City precipitately, and all was in the most utter confusion. Every carriage, wagon, or conveyance of any kind was brought in to use to haul people and their effects. The weather was rainy and many more were killed by the exposure. The alarm spread in the country, and the country people dreaded to hold intercourse with the refugees... Navasota was like a city in the state of siege. The cars [railroad] continued to run but so many merchants had fled that provisions soon became scarce and dear. Scarcely anything could be procured from the country, and soon all kinds of eatables ran up to fabulous prices, and the same spirit of speculation prevailed that had existed during the war.
Nurses were hard to be procured and they charged very high for their services. Five dollars a day and ten dollars a night was demanded, and sometimes paid; but most of the persons who had remained in town were poor, so they were unable to pay. Ignorant nurses caused many deaths.
R. H. Geisel took a very active part in helping the sick and convalescent, and burying the dead. He assumed the duties of the Mayor, as far as he could, and his memory should be cherished by us for his self sacrifice and his prompt and constant effort to help the sick and suffering. Day and night during the entire three months of woe, he seemed to be everywhere. Sometimes he went to the country to minister to the sick. He died the third day of January, 1873 at the age of 39 years. In justice to him the people should rear a monument over his grave.”
Kilpatrick also counted that there were many other heroes in those times, especially amongst the physicians. Out of the 176 known deaths, six were physicians working tirelessly to save the others. Drs. Beasley, J. Hamilton Jones, Paul Smith, A. Campbell, J. W. Russell, and Dr. Pryor H. Smith, all perished in the battle with this merciless disease.
Navasota's first famous artist...
Kathleen Blackshear (1897-1988) was an artist and teacher who left a lasting legacy at the Art Institute of Chicago. Born to Edward Duncan and May Blackshear, and raised in Navasota, Texas, she excelled in art and music early in life. Able to draw energetic pen and ink action scenes, she was recruited to provide illustrations and the cover design for the Sachem, her High School annual, and she was designated the class "Art Editor." But her classmates were swift to keep her humble, characterizing her as "three-fifths genius and two-fifths fudge."
Never the less, this beginning set Kathleen's path, which grew into a lifelong passion for art. She ultimately devoted her artistic skill to teaching and capturing intriguing cultures, beginning with her hometown and its people. Kathleen became accomplished in the modern styles of the day, especially regionalism and cubism, and she was a respected art instructor for many years, as she explored drawing, painting and printmaking.
Blackshear graduated from Navasota High School in 1914 and enrolled at Baylor University in Waco, where she earned her Bachelor of Arts degree. Pressing the idea of establishing the Armstrong Browning Library on that campus, she began a lifelong pattern of advancing art and literature. Fittingly, her picture was placed in the cornerstone upon the construction of the Browning Library in 1950.
Blackshear went to New York, and studied at the Art Students League in New York. While there she worked under the famed sculptor, and brother of Gutzon Borglum, Solon Borglum in 1917. Borglum, a former rancher and Paris-trained sulptor, was working on an art text that leaned heavily on an academic approach to art, which may have helped young Kathleen find her own path, that opposite of his. When she reached the age of twenty-one, she travelled in Mexico and then Abroad. She began taking various design jobs and teaching. When Kathleen returned to her formal education, the fall semester of 1924 found her at the Art Institute of Chicago, a melting pot of new ideas. She studied under Charles Fabens Kelley, William Owen, John Norton and Helen Gardner, author of a popular art history textbook used in colleges all over North America.
In her Art Through the Ages, Gardner’s revolutionary multi-cultural approach to art history made a profound impression on generations of American artists, including Blackshear, whose work reflected this perspective for the rest of her life. Blackshear would often incorporate African, Mexican and Asian influences in her work, and her subjects were often from these cultures. By 1926 Kathleen Blackshear was teaching art history at the Institute under the supervision of Helen Gardner, beginning a lifelong friendship as well as a career in art education.
Like her mentor, Blackshear would often take her students to the Oriental Institute or other places where art from non-Western cultures was on display. Gardner and Blackshear encouraged their students to make the leap from looking at these works as anthropological artifacts to studying them as works of Fine Art. This introduction to the world of art made a profound influence on their art students, who began to see art history as the study of art, as well as history.
As the American Depression began to unfold, artists were hired through government programs to paint public art in libraries, post offices and courthouses. The search was on for those lasting images and icons of American culture. Rejecting academicism, Kathleen Blackshear focused on the cultures of her own youth and began to paint the life and people of Grimes County Texas, where she grew up. She especially took on a study of the black people she knew and loved, and began to paint them in the monumental, heroic style known as Social Regionalism. Her forms were solid, heavily shaded, with somber expressions; laborers working in a blackened landscape with little sunshine. Her paintings evoked the timeless drudgery of farm life, the hardships of living in rural America, the reduction of men to beasts of burden, and women to mere breeding stock.
Kathleen finished her Master’s degree in 1940. During this time she found inspiration in abstract compositions, fashioning flamboyant geometric rearrangements of animals, African masks, and still-lifes. She also experimented with ceramics, and grew to love batiks, a complex treatment of fabric with dies and wax.
The Witte Museum in San Antonio, Texas hosted her first one woman show in 1941. Blackshear was featured in dozens of group exhibitions, including ones at the Texas State Fair, Art Students League of Chicago, the Chicago Society of Artists, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Fine Arts of Houston, the Fort Worth Museum of Art (Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth), Dallas Museum of (Fine) Art and at Rice University, in Houston.
Kathleen Blackshear also left a legacy in print. She illustrated at least two books, including Art Has Many Faces: The Nature of Art Presented Visually by Katharine Kuh (1951), wrote two plays, and served as editor for the 1936 and 1948 revisions in Gardner’s Art Through the Ages.
Blackshear retired in 1961, and returned to Navasota, where she lived with her lifelong companion and fellow artist Ethel Spears. Both women had been shaped by the Social Regionalism of the 1930’s as espoused by Grant Wood and others, but Blackshear had developed at least two distinct styles, and had equal prowess as an Abstract artist. Whereas Spears made busy, almost naive genre illustrations of people and factories and whimsical farm-life scenes, Blackshear painted many stylized portraits, often with cubistic treatment of her subjects. Where Blackshear saw the legacy of slavery, and alluded to it through symbolism, Spears saw quaint country lifestyle, in all its simple glory. Each artist’s style represented the philosophical answer to the other. Blackshear and Spears taught private art lessons to Navasota youth for many years.
Kathleen Blackshear is fondly remembered in Navasota as someone who ignored social barriers and befriended blacks, and as the first woman in Navasota to dare to wear pants in public. She and Ethel Spears scoured the Grimes and Brazos County countryside, painting scenes of the disappearing cotton culture, and edifying the black field laborers who had been the foundation of the cotton industry for one hundred years.
As her art exhibitions began in San Antonio, so they also ended. In 1968, Kathleen Blackshear made her last exhibit at HemisFair in San Antonio. This same year she received the title, long deserved, of Professor Emeritus from the Art Institute of Chicago.
Kathleen Blackshear died on October 14, 1988, and was buried in Navasota in Oakland Cemetery.
Her work is actively sought by collectors and museums as significant to art done by American women, before and leading to the Civil Rights Movement, and is preserved at several museums, including the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the Art Institute of Chicago, and Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas.
Kathleen Blackshear and Ethel Spears Papers, 1920–1990, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington
Chris Petteys, Dictionary of Women Artists (Boston: Hall, 1985)
Carole Tormollan, A Tribute to Kathleen Blackshear (School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 1990).
Navasota High - 1914 "The Sachem"
It seems on days too numerous to mention, things have had amazing serendipity at Blues Alley. The "coincidences" surrounding my multi-faceted contact with Tary Owens are a good example. And then, while writing the previous blog about Kathleen Blackshear, even more of the same...
It all started when I got frustrated with Wikipedia. They erased my erasures, and put back very undesirable things in an article gone bad, due to relentless hacking, which I have more than a casual interest in. So I decided to get into the whole Wikipedia thing, to better understand it. I spent a whole day writing and rewriting a new article, just for Wikipedia. I chose to write about Kathleen Blackshear, as she has been neglected and is not found in this, the most popular of Internet encyclopedias. I had found a bunch about her on the Internet and in a book that I had... but I needed more... something deeper.
About 3:00 that Sunday afternoon, as I furiously pecked away with my two forefingers, Leon Collins walked in with something to sell... very rare and amazingly appropriate: a 1914 Navasota High School Annual, in those days called the Sachem.
I acted uninterested, as Bert began to look at it and read aloud. "Illustrated by KATHLEEN BLACKSHEAR! Art Editor..." She did the cover, the illustrations inside... there were quotes inside by her classmates about her. The price was going up. Leon knew it was something special. I was marginally aware of him, told him I was busy, to come back when I was through with the article.
He came back about thirty minutes later, hoping I was ready to deal. I was finishing the additions to my article, which I had just conveniently gotten from the old tattered annual. It was time to deal. Our eyes had just made contact when a woman bounded into the store, "My husband is looking for anything done by Kathleen Blackshear." Our eyes made contact again.
"Now Leon, you need to either..." Leon stopped me and reassured me the annual was mine. "This is your store..." He smiled and shrugged as we then turned our attention to the couple, looking passionately for a Blackshear piece, staring at the annual, wanting an original painting and hoping we knew of one for sale. We talked about the artist, the scarcity of her work, and gave a phone number of her living relatives.
This kind of thing happens about two or three times a year. But this time I was not only writing an article about her, but Leon had found our first actual Kathleen Blackshear artifact for our museum, just in time for my article, and brought it in minutes before these folks arrived. They looked upon the old annual with true interest. Hey, at least it was something tangible. I was more convinced than ever that the old book needed to be here on display at Blues Alley from now on, so others can come bounding in and see bits of our special heritage, and keep the legends of Navasota alive. And at least on February 20, 2011, Kathleen Blackshear was not forgotten, but as much the topic of conversation as if she were still about town.
Sadly, as then, most people in Navasota today have no idea who she was.
And the Wikipedia article? It was rejected and deleted swiftly, that very day, by a volunteer "deletionist" who gave little hope of it ever being used. That story is not over.
Caught up in the moment, with people breathing down my neck as I tried to negotiate with Leon, I'm sure I paid a little too much for "The Sachem." But, Hey, these pictures and this story were worth something...
The two Navasota beauties? Marie Danford and Melba Camp.
Little Lena from Millican, Texas
Another Texas woman who has not only been forgotten to history but robbed of her origins is Adelaide Prince. From Millican, Texas, she became one of the leading ladies of the stage, touring all over the United States and England. But her legacy has had no resting place, and that is much her own fault.
Born to a family of Jewish immigrants around 1868, the home folk in Navasota knew her as Lena Rubinstien. According to Maureen Chinski, fellow Jewess and the author of The Navasota Bluebonnet, (published in 1954) young Lena moved to the Navasota area when young and attended private schools there, where she grew into a “great beauty” and showed dramatic skill early. By age nineteen she was married to Harry Prince, a Galveston showman who gave her a stage name and a start in show business.
But soon little “Len” from Millican had left him and her children for fame and fortune in the east, where she fell under the spell of Creston Clarke of the famed Booth acting dynasty, whom she married and starred with in many productions. Later Rubinstien/Prince became one of the first actresses to attempt the difficult transition from the stage to the Silent Screen. She is credited with at least three early films.
Perhaps embarrassed by her lack of motherly responsibility, she shed old associations in Texas and assumed a new life with her new career, and as this handbill reveals, she claimed to her fans that she was born in England. This could be true, but if it is, she must have come over to America as an infant. She actually came back to Navasota in 1890, where she and her company put on a one-night show; The Last of His Kind. It is presumed she had come to Navasota to see her children, who were still young and might well have been farmed out to their grandparents. [An anonymous blog commenter has offered that both of her children lived long lives, and son Harry became a successful writer in California, actually writing at least one screenplay.]
Her true hometown of Millican, Texas was never exposed, and she died in exile. By then her relations back home had probably given up on her, and there was no blood-kin to mourn her passing. Had not Maureen Chinski casually mentioned her in a paragraph in her book, which she never lived to see published, we would have never known about this amazing story… begging to be told.
Since discovering Lena in the Chinski account, I have found several wonderful relics of her career, floating around the Internet, such as tobacco cards, magazine covers, and the advertisement at the top, which quite clearly illustrates her flamboyant tendencies. Adelaide Prince was never a big star, but certainly a worthy member of the incredible "Residents of Navasota and the Surrounding Area
Hall of Fame"
And at the top of that list, would be Ranger Frank Hamer...
[Above: Standing 6' 3", Texas Ranger Frank Hamer was the reality that Western actor John Wayne could only pretend to be.]
Everyone has heard of John Wayne... a man who acted brave and dangerous. We have heard of Pancho Villa, a man who brought terror and destruction. We have heard of Wyatt Earp, who broke the law repeatedly to kill his enemies, and was prosecuted for it. But strangely, we Americans have rarely edified men who truly deserved our praise and admiration. We have made famous the beautiful, the controversial and the scandalous, gave fame to those who desired it, and usually overlooked the real heroes of our generation.
History is full of great men and women who never became famous. Texas history is especially blessed with many notable characters who never captured the eye of the myth makers of Hollywood, who have picked our heroes. Frank Hamer is one of the best examples of larger than life Texas heroes who are known well in small informed circles, in his case enthusiasts of Texas Ranger history, but virtually unknown to the average citizen. After you have read this, perhaps that miscarriage of fame may begin to change.
Everyone has their own idea about who should be famous and why; Soldiers for winning battles, politicians for winning elections, athletes for winning competitions. We like winners in our history. We like pathfinders, innovators and those who left a mark on their own generation, and perhaps still challenge our own. We like those who were the best in their fields, record-setters and the firsts of human accomplishments. We like our history to offer up attractive, successful, standard setters who still amaze us. Frank Hamer was all of these.
Frank Hamer was named by historian and western author Walter Prescott Webb as "…one of the three most fearless men in Western history." If you have not heard of him, you probably have never studied the history of law-enforcement in Texas, or the most respected of Texas Rangers, the man who stopped the murderous crime spree of the infamous “Bonnie and Clyde.” Frank Hamer was all of these too. In one of life’s ironies and absurdities, several movies were made about them, always minimizing their hunter and slayer, and making romantic heroes of them. One movie even made Frank Hamer out to be a blundering fool. So let’s get the story around Frank Hamer straight, and right a little bit of history if we can. And I will do it as briefly as I can, as I know most people do not like history and have little patience for it… Unless it is a warped and sexy version with Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty in it.
Born in 1884, Frank Hamer grew up in the western half of Texas, in the 1890’s, where the Indian Wars were still remembered and cowboy culture was the predominant lifestyle and Mexican banditos were still a daily threat. The West had been “won,” but had not been tamed. Many men in Texas still wore a sidearm, and used it whenever it seemed necessary. All of the stereotypes of the “Old” West were still very much in activity, and men who were the sons of the pioneers, the cattle drivers and the outlaws were still trying to walk in their father’s footsteps. Frank Hamer was engaged in his first kill-or-be-killed shootout with a corrupt and angry boss when just sixteen years old. He suffered multiple gunshots and was almost killed. When he recovered from his wounds, he returned to his former employer and finished the exchange, killing his first badman. This was the unwritten “code of the West,” where men settled deadly differences with their six-shooters and often faced little if any, legal consequences.
If Frank Hamer had been anything less than an authentic Western alpha-male, he would never have seen his seventeenth birthday. And he was not through with danger. When twenty years old, he tracked down and arrested some horse rustlers and took them to jail. Later he tracked and captured another horse thief for the local Sheriff, who began to see potential in him, and contacted the Texas Rangers. The Rangers saw in him the mettle necessary for taming the West. He was hired as a Ranger when just twenty-two years old. Enlisted as a Private in Company C and based in Del Rio, he was soon chasing Mexican bandits and impressing his superiors with his mental and physical ability. During this first assignment he showed extreme bravery and shooting skill during a shoot-out with a desperate killer, who had commandeered a home and would not be taken alive. In a hail of gunfire, Private Hamer fearlessly positioned himself near the window where the outlaw’s shots were originating. One of his lever action Winchester bullets had entered the crazed gunman’s left jaw and ended up in his heart. The legend had begun.
In 1908 when the Navasota City Council approached the Governor of Texas for assistance in quelling the violent and lawless forces in their town, the Rangers looked no farther than Frank Hamer. Although the incorrigible town of Navasota had been unable to keep lawmen very long, because they would always be intimidated or bought off, Hamer came and conquered. Blues legend-to-be Mance Lipscomb, just 12 years old, was hired to be his buggy driver. He drove the young lawman around Navasota proudly, and remembered the new Marshal to be fair and brave and a terror to outlaws with his feet, which he used to kick them all the way to jail. His “feet were always loaded,” and Marshal Hamer was known to put down his guns and whip any defiant punks who challenged him, and would often use vicious kick boxing techniques to subdue his foolish challengers. He avoided the use of firearms, and for the first time, absolutely forbade sidearms on the streets. Marshal Hamer thwarted train robbers, shot robbers and even contentious dogs, and shut down the gun play that had ruled the streets. He was feared and respected and in the end, loved by many who saw the town transformed into a decent place to live. By 1911, Navasota had been tamed, and like the Old West, became a kinder and gentler version of its former self. But Texas was big and there was still great work to do.
He went to work in Houston for the Mayor as a special agent, where he tracked down and captured a cop-killer called “Mississippi Red.” He captured an escaped convict and outran a drunken sideshow entertainer billed as the “Wild Man of Borneo” and disarmed and arrested him. He busted up a burglary ring. He even arrested a fellow policeman who beat a man unnecessarily. And then, caught up in reckless accusations by a Houston Press reporter, Special Agent Hamer lost his cool and smacked the culprit. Soon he became a political liability to the Mayor, who quietly appreciated his resignation.
Frank went back where he belonged… to west Texas. By 1915 he was back in Company C, this time defending the Texas border country against a poorly organized invasion of sophisticated banditos executing an insurgency known as the “The Plan of San Diego.” On the verge of WWI, the Germans were aiding and abetting these Mexicans in their attempt to reclaim the American Southwest. Towns and ranches were raided and innocent travelers murdered. Many manhunts and shootouts and even some wartime style martial law was used to protect Americans and their property. One battle led by Sargent Frank Hamer at Candelia, Mexico ended the dispute, when dozens of the banditos were killed in a bloody firefight.
This is where those sensitive to Hispanics might question Hamer’s methods. But history is never so neatly understood, or our heroes so predictable. Soon The Carranza regime of Mexico had proven it would not be allied with Germany, and even welcomed help in fighting its revolution led by Pancho Villa’s “Villistas.” The Mexican Government plead with American authorities to stop the flow of arms across the border, which only equipped the revolutionaries. American law forbid this anyway, but many gun runners continued to sell arms to the Mexicans. The Texas Rangers were told by “higher ups” to act as if they were policing this smuggling nuisance, but in reality to ignore it. Many Rangers obeyed their orders, but Frank Hamer continued to enforce the law. Since Captain Hamer could not be overtly stopped, those interested in helping the revolution arranged to have all the Rangers relocated except one. Frank Hamer alone was left to enforce the laws he was sworn to uphold. And that he did.
Left to his own devices to patrol hundreds of miles of border, and therefore quite vulnerable, Hamer turned the tables on International relations and law enforcement. He crossed the border and joined forces with the Mexican police, who were more than happy to be allied with the legendary Ranger. Soon he led a small army of Mexican lawmen, who made his goals safer and more attainable. Hamer led a successful war against American gun runners from the other side of the Rio Grande, and enjoyed reciprocal assistance from Mexican authorities from then on. Frank Hamer was not ever against anything but lawbreakers, of any race or nationality.
Their corrupt schemes frustrated at every turn, authorities in Austin had Ranger Hamer yanked from his cooperative with the Mexican officials and assigned to the Hill Country to harass cattle rustlers for Texas cattlemen. That was just fine with him, as the border was an immense, wild badland, where law enforcement was like stomping around an acre of ants. Rustling rustlers would be like eating ice cream.
By 1918, World War I was winding down, and a new enemy had risen on the horizon; Prohibition of alcoholic beverages... and its enforcement. Many law enforcement officers walked away rather than be forced to arrest their friends, family and neighbors. But Frank Hamer figured that anybody that knew how to bootleg whiskey, and was willing to play the game of crime was probably bad company anyway. The formidable Ranger was recruited to help with State prohibition efforts. He was reassigned to border duty, where he excelled at catching Mexican smugglers who were bringing caravans of tequila and Mexican moonshine into west Texas.
In 1921, Captain Hamer organized a fateful rendezvous with a notorious robber and killer named Rafael Lopez. Lopez had killed five men in Utah before hiding out in Mexico with the Villistas. Then Lopez and his men had robbed a train and killed 19 people in the process. When a man had offered to betray the bandito, Hamer and his men stepped into a devilish assassination scheme. But just in time the legendary Ranger smelled the double cross and moved his men to a safer position. When a hail of gunfire poured into the spot where he had just been standing, he returned the lead and took out one of the worst killers in Western history.
Frank became the star witness in a murder trial in Abilene. The defiant defendant hired a gang of professional killers to kill him and keep him from testifying. As a local Grand Jury watched most of the bloody scene play itself out below their window, he and his family were jumped and he was shot in a couple of places, but managed to forever silence his enemies in the shootout. Wounded seriously, he still had the presence of mind to stop his enraged brother from shooting one of the fleeing assailants in the back. The stunned and thankful Grand Jury no-billed him, and even thanked him for his admirable ethics.
But then something happened to the Ranger service Frank Hamer could not stomach. In 1925 the “Governors Ferguson” returned to power after James Ferguson had been convicted and banned from office. His wife was elected Governor and aggressively renewed their painful dynasty of corruption and nepotism and cronyism and a pervasive lack of professionalism. Ma and Pa Ferguson had a policy of giving anybody they liked a Ranger badge. The Texas Rangers organization became an embarrassment to all law- abiding people. “Ferguson Rangers” were typically local yokels, slovenly and unprofessional, who used their office for personal aggrandizement. Hamer threatened to resign, but cooler heads enticed him to stay for the good of Law and Order. Hamer bounced around trying to find other employment he could feel right about, and finally officially left the Rangers in 1932 out of protest and personal pride, even as his brother Harrison was being sworn in to take his place. Even the Fergusons believed that you had to have a Hamer on the Force to have any credibility.
In 1928, Hamer was hired as a bounty hunter in Houston and exposed an insidious murder for hire ring, inadvertently sponsored by Houston banks, where outrageous rewards were being offered to kill bank robbers. No rewards were offered for live ones. Money greedy bounty hunters had found the perfect crime. Vagabonds and loiterers were set up as stooges and then killed, so crooked bounty hunters and even some lawmen could collect large rewards. The Texas Bankers Association had become a law unto itself, and many lawmen just shrugged at these methods. But Frank Hamer took the story to the newspapers, and defied them to take action against him.
But perhaps the most telling account concerning Frank Hamer’s career in law enforcement was during the so-called “Sherman Riots.” In 1930 A black man named George Hughes had been accused of sexually assaulting a white woman. A lynch mob, said to have been numbering in the thousands, had gathered outside of the Grayson County Courthouse and had come to administer their own brand of Western justice. It had been rumored that the Governor had forbid anyone being shot at during the protection of this defendant. In other words, if the mob comes, let them have him. It is easy to imagine that Hamer’s enemies in Austin had sent him to Sherman knowing they were throwing him into the lion’s den. So Captain Frank Hamer, now the Texas Ranger always called upon in the worst situations, had been assigned to protect Hughes, a foolish and deadly and probably impossible task. And not surprisingly, Hamer had not gotten the memo. He was the lion in the den. He would do his job, and stop any person who threatened those in his custody, even a man suspected of sexually assaulting a white woman.
Unfortunately, most of the east Texas vigilantes had never heard of Hamer, and did not know what kind of lawman they were dealing with. Frank Hamer and his Rangers stood at the Courthouse steps and backed down the angry mob, who had developed considerable courage because of the supposed statements from the Governor. Hamer warned them to stay back, and argued that these supposed orders were not true, and assured that anyone who advanced towards them would be shot.
Frank Hamer did not care whether the Governor’s alleged statements were true or not, he was there to enforce the law. When finally the mob decided to take their chances, and charged the Rangers, the Rangers leveled their guns on them.
This may have been one of the few times in the early Twentieth Century when white Southern lawmen shot white lynch mob members in order to protect a black prisoner. In most other cases, the law would usually step aside and let the mob have its way, out of fear for their lives. But Frank Hamer had not been assigned to those details. Unable to have their way, the mob waited until later and then burned the Courthouse down, in order to kill the prisoner who had the luck of being escorted by Ranger Frank Hamer. But they dared not face the Ranger and his men again.
Ranger Frank Hamer may be the only lawman to have so blatantly challenged equally the worst criminals of the day and the powers that be in Austin, and anyone who broke the law, to his own demise. More than once he turned on his fellow lawmen, or his employers, and he repeatedly ignored the state powers in Austin, as he did his job, often against impossible odds, and consistently challenged lawbreakers of every race or social class, and shed light into the darkness, no matter who was implicated, and no matter the cost to himself.
The cost? After some fifty plus gunfights, Frank Hamer was a bundle of scar tissue. In the process of exchanging gunfire with around 20 men and one woman, in life or death battles, and countless garden variety scrapes, he was injured in the line of duty 23 times. His body was a half-Century collection of bullet and knife wounds and shotgun pellets under the skin. Hamer was forced to resign or was reassigned to keep his job numerous times. This was a big sacrifice for him and his family as they moved around a great deal. There were many inconsequential attempts on his life, which had to take a psychological toll on his family. How do you put a value on such sacrifice? Most people would not have lasted, but surely few would ever have done what he did for such pay. And yet, there are those who say he was cold-blooded, arrogant, even a law unto himself, not very likable, and much worse. So-called historians and latter day pundits judge Hamer by modern, perfect-world, if not down right impractical standards, and dare question his goodness or integrity.
That too is the cost of public service; A naive, thankless and critical citizenry, who could never walk in his boots, would ignore or denigrate his amazing service because it required so much... violence. Yet it was a barbaric and violent society that demanded such a Ranger, such a hero as this... Frank Hamer.
Frank Hamer was the only man who could have walked that walk, and many Texans thanked God that he was out there, chasing, and yes killing those bad guys. Those that challenge him one hundred years later, would be the first to run to him for protection if they were to chance upon the kind of overwhelming evil that ruled this place then.
I have only mentioned a few outstanding cases, but Hamer’s life reads like a super hero. But it is obvious to me that tracking down and exterminating Bonnie and Clyde was just a small part of his life. After spending some time with him, Hollywood cowboy actor Tom Mix encouraged him to become a Western hero on film, as he was already the real thing. Ranger Commander Hughes said he may have been one of the bravest men he had ever seen. Other writers have proclaimed him one of the greatest Texas Rangers of all time.
So it is fitting that there was a movie being created about him. It may never see the theatres, but there is no reason why the people of Texas should not venerate this great man. A bronze statue of him is long overdue. One erected in Navasota, the town where he cut his teeth and began his lifetime of public service would be real Justice in my mind, if not poetic justice for me.
You see, this great lawman was an acquaintance of my father's. He first met him late one night when Captain Frank Hamer carried a bleeding, unconscious relative into my grandmother’s home after he received serious injuries during a Strike riot on the docks in Houston. Hamer had been there to bust up the Strike, and caringly brought one of his helpers home to be doctored. Many historic characters graced my grandparents home, but he was always considered one of the greatest. Later my father interviewed him when working as a writer for the Texas Highway Department. Their magazine wanted an interview, but Hamer would not give one. My father, ever outgoing, used his family connection to get the interview. As usual it was pretty gruff and uninteresting, as one writer later recalled, Hamer was “as talkative as an oyster.” But for my father, who became a published author, it was a personal triumph, and a highlight of his writing career.
I grew up hearing about the big Texas Ranger, who knocked down rows of men with his huge paws like a bear, who hardly ever used a firearm in the line of duty, but could shoot the eye out of a flying bat at night, if he wanted to. A lawman who never backed down and never lost a fight, and who never showed favoritism. A man who kept to himself, raised a pet javelina, and shot tin cans down the road with deadly precision with his six shooter while driving, for sport. As you can tell, I have only gotten warmed up about Frank Hamer. Even though it would be fitting to sculpt a monument honoring this Texas hero, the fact is, no artist, and perhaps no movie could ever do him justice. But of course, I would still like to try.
Note: As of almost three years later, I have sculpted a life-sized bronze statue of Marshal Hamer which was placed in front of the new City Hall in Navasota, Texas! If you go back to the main page, you can search for those announcements with pictures of the statue.