19. September 2013 · Comments Off on The Tireless Mr. Colt · Categories: Old West · Tags: , , , ,

Born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1814, Samuel “Sam” Colt was an innovator and inventor, single-minded, energetic to the point of hyperactivity, and the very epitome of a self-made man – of which there were a great many in 19th century America. At the age of seven years, his mother died. She was the daughter of a fairly well-to-do family; his father was a farmer turned minor industrialist, having gone into the business of manufacturing textiles with the aid of his in-laws. When Sam was eleven, his father went bankrupt. While the senior Colt attempted to regain his economic footing, Sam and his five brothers and sisters were farmed out to relatives and neighbors. Sam was apprenticed to a farmer, with the understanding that he attended school regularly. Which Sam Colt did, but likely did not learn anything beyond what he was really interested in – his handwriting was lamentable and his spelling a matter best left unmentioned. But he read widely and voraciously; his favorite was a then-popular scientific encyclopedia called the Compendium of Knowledge, and sometime in his early teens he resolved to be an inventor. At fifteen, he left school and went to work in his father’s mill, a splendid venue for tinkering – and indulging in a taste for showing off. On July 4th, 1829, he gained a degree of local notoriety by blowing up a raft in a local shallow pond, detonating a large quantity of gunpowder with a galvanic cell which he had built himself. He had advertised the event beforehand, by having handbills printed and distributed – so there was a substantial crowd gathered for the show. But the raft with the battery and gunpowder on it had drifted from position – and the resulting mighty blast showered the crowd with mud.

A year after that disastrous demonstration, Sam’s father encouraged him to apprentice as a seaman on a trading ship, the Corvo, out of Boston and bound on a round-the-world venture to Calcutta, London and back to Boston. One might very well conclude that Sam was even more of a handful as a teenager than he had been as a child; doubtless Sam’s father hoped that a long sea voyage and the chance to see the world (and a lot of ocean) would be the making of him professionally. Which it did turn out to be, but in an unexpected way. More »

Several days following the final assault on the walls of the Alamo, word was recieved in Gonzales, the nearest Texian settlement to San Antonio.  Sam Houston had gone there to rally the Texas Army … and a company of local men had gone to the Alamo in response to Travis’ plea for help. From Daughter of Texas, this is what happened on the day that Susannah Dickinson brought the world from San Antonio that the Alamo had fallen.

            The hours and days of March dragged past at a snail’s pace; a week and a half since the Gonzales Ranging Company had ridden down towards the ferry and the road to Bexar. Surely they had achieved a safe passage into that crumbling and shabby fortress and other reinforcements were on the way? Now and again, Margaret fancied that when it was very still – at dawn, or just after sunset, and the light breeze came from the north that she could hear a faint continuous rumble, like distant thunder – the sound of cannon-fire. Toward the end of that time, rumors swept Gonzales, each more dreadful than the last: the worst of them had the Alamo fallen and all the defenders put to the sword, but that tale had been brought by a pair of Mexican cattle-drovers, who – as it turned out, had not seen anything of the sort, but had heard the dreadful tale from another drover.

Within days of reading Colonel Travis’ declaration and plea in the Telegraph, soldiers, militia, and ranging companies began arriving in Gonzales, singly or in companies. Colonel Neill, who had taken leave from his duties at Bexar, thinking that all would be in order and there would be time enough to finish reinforcing theAlamo, began gathering those new recruits to his little army. Race, with his face seeming to be pale skin stretched over the bones of his face, had recovered enough strength to resume his duties as a courier and dispatch rider. More »

21. February 2012 · Comments Off on Mr. Cannon-Ball Was Not His Friend · Categories: Old West · Tags: , , , , ,

Thomas William Ward was born in Ireland of English parents in  1807, and at the age of 21 took ship and emigrated to America. He  settled in New Orleans, which by that time had passed from French to  Spanish, back to French and finally landed in American hands thanks to  the Louisiana Purchase. There he took up the study of architecture and  engineering – this being a time when an intelligent and striving young  man could engage in a course of study and hang out a shingle to practice  it professionally shortly thereafter. However, Thomas Ward was diverted from his  studies early in October, 1835 by an excited and well-attended meeting  in a large coffee-room at Banks’ Arcade on Magazine Street. Matters  between the Anglo settlers in Texas and the central Mexican governing  authority – helmed by the so-called Napoleon of the West, General  Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna – had come to a frothy boil. Bad feelings  between the Texian and Tejano settlers of Texas, who were of generally  federalist (semi-autonomous) sympathies had been building against the  centralist (conservative and authoritarian) faction. These developments  were followed with close and passionate attention by political junkies  in the United States.

Nowhere did interest run as high as it did in those cities along the  Mississippi River basin. On the evening of October 13, 1835, Adolphus  Sterne – the alcade (mayor) of Nacogdoches – offered weapons for the  first fifty volunteers who would fight for Texas. A hundred and twenty  volunteers signed up before the evening was over, and Thomas Ward was  among them. They formed into two companies, and were apparently  equipped and outfitted from various sources: the armory of the local  militia organization, donations from the public, and ransacking local  haberdashers for sufficient uniform-appearing clothing. They wore grey  jackets and pants, with a smooth leather forage cap; the color grey  being chosen for utility on the prairies. The two companies traveled  separately from New Orleans, but eventually met up at San Antonio de  Bexar, where they became part of the Army of Texas.

They took part in  the Texian siege of Bexar and those Mexican troops garrisoned there  under General Cos – who had come into Texas earlier in the year to  reinforce Mexican control of a wayward province. Thomas W. Ward was  serving as an artillery officer by then; a military specialty which men  with a bent for the mathematical and mechanical seemed to gravitate  towards. The Texians and volunteers fought their way into San Antonio by  December, led by an old settler and soldier of fortune named Ben Milam.  Milam was killed at the height of the fighting to take the town by a Mexican sharp-shooter,  and Thomas Ward was severely injured; one leg was taken off by an errant  cannon-ball. The enduring legend is that Milam was buried with Ward’s  amputated leg together in the same grave. Was this a misfortune – or a  bit of good luck for Thomas Ward?

Not very much discouraged or sidelined, Thomas Ward returned to New  Orleans to recuperate – and to be fitted with a wooden prosthesis. He  would be known as “Pegleg” Ward for the remainder of his life. He came  back to Texas in the spring of 1836, escaping  the fate of many of his  fellow ‘Greys’ – many of who were among the defenders of the Alamo,  their company standard being one of those trophies captured there by  Santa Anna. Others of the ‘Greys’ were participants in the ill-fated  Matamoros expedition, or became part of Colonel James Fannin’s garrison  at the presidio La Bahia, and executed by order of Santa Anna after the  defeat at Coleto Creek.

Thomas Ward was commissioned as a colonel and served during the  remainder of the war for independence. Upon the return of peace – or a  condition closely resembling it – he settled in the new-established city  of Houston, and returned to the trade of architect and building  contractor. He was hired to build a capitol building in Houston – one of  several, for  over the life of the Republic of Texas, the actual  seat of government became rather peripatetic. When the second  President of Texas, Mirabeau Lamar, moved the capitol to  Waterloo-on-the-Colorado – soon to be called Austin – in 1839, Thomas  Ward relocated there, serving variously as chief clerk for the House of  Representatives, as mayor of Austin and as commissioner of the General  Land Office. As fortune would have it, during an observance of the victory  at San Jacinto in April of 1841, Thomas Ward had another bit of bad  luck. In setting off a celebratory shot, the cannon misfired, and the  explosion took off his right arm. (I swear – I am not making this up!)  To add to cannon-related indignities heaped upon him, in the following  year, he was involved in the Archives War. Local inn-keeper, Angelina  Eberly fired off yet another cannon in to alert the citizens of Austin that  President Sam Houston’s men were trying to remove the official national  archives from the Land Office building. (Either it was not loaded with anything but black powder, or she missed hitting anything substantial.)

Fortunately, Thomas Ward emerged unscathed from this imbroglio. I  think it would have been plain to everyone by this time that Mr.  Cannon-ball was most definitely not his friend. He married, fought  against Texas secession in the bitter year of 1860, served another term  as Mayor of Austin, as U.S. Counsel to Panama, and lived to 1872 – a very  good age, considering all that he had been through.

(Thomas Ward appears  briefly as a character, along with Angelina Eberly and some other characters from early Austin, in Deep in the Heart.)

All righty, then – we had a great time at the Evening with the Authors last weekend in Lockhart, Texas – sipping fantastic wines from Pleasant Hill Winery, and nibbling wonderful little noshes; the food and waitstaff were from the Austin Community College Culinary school, which has their own café and apparently does cater events like this.

I had only one opportunity to give a mini-lecture to a full table: how important it was to know our history, how I came to write historical fiction as a way to teach people about it  . . .  and the best way to teach history is to make a ripping-good and readable yarn (while still being historically accurate!) I also had the chance to face one of my greatest private dreads – a descendent of a villain.  Ever since the Trilogy came out and I began doing book events, I’ve met people descended from those historical figures which I  wrote about in it: C.H. Nimitz, Dr. Keidel, Herman Wilke, Louis Schultze and others. Those descendents I have met have been pleased with how I ‘wrote’ their ancestors, although one sniffed that she had never heard of CH Nimitz ever being called ‘Charley’. Anyway, one of the attendees was a descendent of the notorious ‘black hat’ J.P. Waldrip  . . .  and as she whispered to me, upon departing from the table it appears from the family records and memories – that he was pretty much as I wrote him.  I love it when I get things right – even if it comes through instinct.

The Barnes & Noble outlet, who supplied the books to be sold at this event, to benefit the Dr. Eugene Clarke library sold out entirely of Daughter of Texas, and a lot of readers were asking me – well, when is the sequel coming out?

The sequel will be called Deep in the Heart, which picks up the extraordinary life of Margaret Becker Vining during the Republic of Texas era – and will be available on the 19th of November, just in time for Christmas. I am taking pre-orders through my website – the copies bought will be mailed on the 15th.

 I am also taking pre-orders for the second edition of To Truckee’s Trail – which I always wanted to do, since the typo quotient in the original edition was embarrassingly high. That also will be released on the 19th, and purchased pre-release copies will be also be mailed on the 15th.