Tuesday, December 2, 2014


NOTE: After deciding I’d cease and desist back in September I was flooded with emails from people wanting to know why I’d stopped writing this blog.  The reasons centered primarily on commitments to other projects.  Many readers suggested I write when I could and so I’ve decided to post articles as time permits.  Look for a new article about every ten days to two weeks.  I’ll write more if possible.  As before, the posts will deal with topics related to ethnobotany, especially primitive technologies, and with knife-making, historical themes and issues associated with keeping our lands clean and free of pollutants.  May I offer a special thanks to all those who took the time to write me and I hope you enjoy what’s coming down the pike.

The two most popular fellows on the Texas Mexico border in 1875 were named Oliver and Samuel.  There wasn’t a ranch house within a hundred miles of the Río Grande that didn’t have their namesakes tucked into a holster or hanging from nails hammered into hard-plastered walls or hand-hewed lumber.  Not too many people knew them by their first names but Winchester and Colt was good enough.  Back when I was a kid there were still plenty of 44/40s and .45 Colts in cabinets and closets and even riding the racks of pickups.  Backwoods types had learned long ago that nothing matched the feel and balance of a Winchester carbine and the hand-hugging warmth of a Colt Peacemaker.

There was good reason to own a gun or two back in 1875.  Cattle rustlers, bandits, marauding Apache and Comanche and other ornery characters scoured the countryside looking for loot and captives.  In 1875 a few houses were made from uninsulated boards set on concrete blocks but that wasn’t the norm.  Some parts of South Texas had been so overrun by Indian attacks that they’d become no man’s lands.  Of course, that game will never end as one group comes in and displaces another and people fight over land and resources.  A hundred and fifty years earlier or around 1725 Catholic missionaries living in what is now San Antonio noticed the Apache had vanished.  Now to these Christian sorts the Apache constituted a fresh batch of converts.  Change their names, erase their cultures, show them a “better life” and usher in a brand new flock.  I guess you’ve heard that story.  But when these parishioners-to-be grew sparse the missionaries became concerned.  After all, how can you spread the Gospel when “there ain’t no one to spread it to?”  The priests grew anxious but then someone finally told them the Apache had been shoved aside by a new bunch of potential believers.  What’re their names the priests asked?  “Them’s the other guys,” someone told them.  But the word came out sounding like comanche so Comanche it became.

Now people have affinities for family members and these other guys—like the other guys before them—enjoyed stealing pilgrims to become slaves.  Shucks, the white folks should’ve been used to that I heard someone once say.  But that’s another story.

Along the borderlands these raids were common and, in fact, in some places where the King of Spain had given away big chunks of territory called porciones the new landowners had no peace at all.  You see the previous landowners (just like the landowners before them) still considered what we now call South Texas their home.  A never ending story of conflict and bloodshed; by the time 1875 came along these Celtic Iberians had learned a thing or two about thick walls, gun ports and family bonds.  Nearly every old-time family in the region has a story or two about some ancestor who was kidnapped by either Apache or Comanche.  In some cases people who’d been kidnapped were able to escape years later and make it back to their families.  In other cases those who were kidnapped never returned.  But even when children were abducted and managed to break free they are said to have never fully acclimated back into the European lifestyle.  Some came close but none of them ever forgot their Indian ways.  It seems “the Christian life” was kind of boring and lacked all those neat adventures of the Indian way.

In order to make a proper defensive home one needed thick walls and enough places to return fire should the need arise.  Families kept close to each other and maybe that’s one of the sad parts about modern life because these days families split away like wood chipped from an axe.  That’s not to suggest that families didn’t go their separate ways in the old days because when people journeyed to America from homes in England, France, Spain, Galicia, Asturias and other places they were more often than not gone forever.  Their families back in the Homeland might get a letter or two in the next forty or fifty years but that wasn’t common.  Come to the New World and never have any contact with the Old World again.  Kind of sad when you think about it but I imagine I have distant grandfathers and grandmothers who said goodbye to whatever life they’d known and even if they looked back now and then there was nothing much to see.  It turns out that the Apache and Comanche had a similar history in that regard.  The Comanche were never a tribe in the traditional sense but instead groups or bands connected only by a common language and culture.  Other than that they roamed their respective territories and oftentimes a family member joined another band as a result of marriage or some other circumstance and if that band drifted far enough away then chances were an individual might never see his family again.

The old houses pictured go back to about 1875.  They’re made of mud and limestone slabs carefully stacked one atop the other then plastered over to form a uniform inner and outer skin.  The original roofs were also covered with sticks and mud then overlaid with grass seed to form a living roof so-to-speak.  Later on someone came along and replaced the original roofs with corrugated metal.  The influence is strictly European since these early settlers arrived from the Celtic kingdoms of Galicia and Asturias though there were also a few Basque in the mix.  Later on other people showed up from the region that once constituted the kingdoms of Spain, Castile and Granada.  The priests in San Antonio finally had their way and got to “save” a bunch of Natives who didn’t really need saving (but that too is another story) and most of the Natives were assimilated into the greater society having lost their original Indian names, cultures, myths, songs and even a knowledge of their glorious past.  Oh well, I guess all I’ve done here is open the door to telling a bunch of other tales about life in South Texas by common folk who came to homestead and live close to the land and didn’t’ care much about building "empires" or becoming scripts of cheap Hollywood movies and, if truth be known, were the ones who really built the region.  Not by destroying it but instead filling it with romance, adventure and a love of family.