It’s an old-fashioned study in contrasts, considering the two of them, Abraham Lincoln and Sam Houston; both political giants, both of them a linchpin around which a certain point of American history turned, both of them men of the frontier. The similarities continue from that point: both of them almost entirely self-educated, as lawyers among other things. From reading accounts by their contemporaries, it is clear that each possessed an enormous amount of personal charm. In modern terms, both would have been a total blast to hang out with, socially. In their own time each of them also acquired enormous numbers of bitter enemies. In fact, for a hero-founder of Texas, Houston attracted a considerable degree of vitriol from others among his contemporaries, and a level of published vilification which was not bettered until Lincoln appeared on the national scene as the presidential candidate favored by the north in the 1860 election. And both of them had ups and downs in their political and personal lives, although it’s hard to argue that Lincoln’s personal story arc was anything as eventful as that of Houston, who appears as the ADHD child of Jacksonian-era politics.

Sam HoustonBut they were also opposites in at least as many ways as they were similar. The family of Samuel Houston had at least some pretensions to property and gentility, whereas that of Lincoln had not the slightest shred of either. Born in 1793, Houston was just barely old enough to have served actively in the War of 1812. He seems on that account to have been representative of an earlier generation than that of Lincoln, a generation only a half-step removed from the founding fathers. He came to the notice of Andrew Jackson, and thereafter spent much of his life when not strolling up and down the corridors of power, loitering meaningfully in the vicinity. He served variously in the Army or state militia of Tennessee, as an Indian agent, in Congress and as elected governor of Tennessee. He was married three times, was an absolutely legendary drunk and lived with the Cherokee tribe for a number of years on two occasions. He was brave, impulsive and addicted to flamboyant gestures and attire, being talked with great difficulty out of wearing a green velvet suit to one of his inaugurations as the President of independent Texas. He was also, to judge from portraits and photographs a very handsome man, resembling a rather rugged Colin Firth on a bad hair day.

Houston’s enduring legend was established as the hero of Texan independence; just another one of those footloose adventurers, drifting in during the 1830ies. Like those whose names would be soon written in letters of blood and gold – Bowie, Crockett, and Travis, he was under a cloud and looked to Texas for redemption. Unlike the other three, he would survive the experience. Some of Sam Houston’s cloud was of his own making: he went from a disastrously and very publicly failed marriage, leaving his term as governor of Tennessee and going on what appeared to have been a prolonged bender in the Cherokee Territory before pulling himself together and going to Texas. In the mad confusion that was the founding of independent Texas in the spring of 1836, Houston was about the only senior military commander who kept a cool head, faced with Santa Anna’s invading army. He also — and this was no mean feat — kept his cool in the tomcats-in-a-sack political wrangling that proved to be fairly typical of Texas state politics, then and forever afterwards. He pulled together an effective army, and decoyed Santa Anna into East Texas, farther and farther, until his own commanders were on the verge of deciding he was a coward and would not fight at all. But he turned, when he had the terrain in his favor, and became that rarest of heroes; the one who dies of old age in his own bed. By then he had married Margaret Lea, who was half his age at the time, a shy and beautiful southern belle with a spine of steel; she stopped him from drinking, and kept him more or less on the straight and narrow for the rest of his life.

Abraham LincolnAbraham Lincoln was born in obscurity and might very well have stayed there, save for the unquenchable burning spark that led him once to walk twenty miles to borrow a book that he had not read before. One has the impression of a ferociously hungry intellect, pulling every scrap of knowledge, of history and poetry, politics and the law into a mind never entirely content. It has been speculated recently that he was subject to bouts of deep depression. He was also ambitious, and went into politics early, while still in his early twenties before teaching himself law and being admitted to the bar in 1837. He practiced law in Springfield, Illinois and increasingly involved himself in state political affairs.

The existing pictures of Lincoln give an impression of melancholy, of someone haunted by unbearable sorrow, whereas those of Houston in his prime seem to be of a scrappy fighter with three aces among the cards in his hand, and a fairly good idea of where he will find a fourth. Another difference between the two: Lincoln was not handsome. In the words of the country expression: he fell from the top of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down. From the accounts of his closest early friends, he was the most endearing and entertaining company, a gifted raconteur and mimic, able to reduce his audience to helpless laughter, and a shrewd lawyer, particularly relentless in cross-examination. He married the lively and cultivated daughter of a notable and politically well connected family from Kentucky, the Todds of Lexington. Mary Todd had also been courted by Stephen Douglas, with whom Lincoln would debate over the slavery issue in 1858. Possibly that added a frisson to the debates; one cannot tell at this late date, though.

In 1846 he was elected to the US House of Representatives for one relatively lackluster term, before devoting himself almost exclusively to law for most of the subsequent decade. He returned to politics again, as the question of America’s ‘peculiar institution’ of chattel slavery went from a simmer to a full rolling boil on the stovetop of political consciousness. The Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854 seemed to be nothing more than a crude exercise of the power of pro-slavery expansionists, in permitting the spread of slavery to territories where it had been forbidden in the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The public debates, and lectures which followed, energized that portion of the Northern public which was against such expansion, or even the existence of the institution itself and brought Lincoln to more than just local attention. He was put on the Republican ticket in the 1860 presidential contest as a compromise candidate, a moderate who would attract voters in the western states. His election was seen as a low blow by the Southern slave-holding states, who began walking out almost before the voting was finished. Texas was among them, even though Sam Houston was governor of the state that he had variously served as general, congressman and president. Although he owned slaves, he was a unionist, and valiantly fought a delaying action against the secessionists. Lincoln even offered to send Federal troops to keep Texas in the Union: Houston declined, and rather than swear an oath of loyalty to the Confederacy, left his office and public life.

They might possibly have met face to face. They had a chance of course, being both in Washington at the same time, from 1846-1848: Lincoln in the House of Representatives, and Houston in the Senate. One of Houston’s biographers speculates that if Houston had only been a little younger, and had been considered more than briefly for the 1860 presidential slate of candidates the Civil War might have been averted or delayed for another few years. Or maybe not.

(The original version of this essay came about when I was trying to channel what Sam Houston would have thought of Lincoln, as part of writing Adelsverein: The Sowing, which deals with the Civil War as it was experienced in the Texas Hill Country.)

So not being really a romance writer, and having pretty much washed out of the lists of matrimony personally, I still have managed to write about romance … mostly by pulling in a little bit of inspiration from here and there from real-life couples. For instance, the main romantic couple in my first book, Dr. John and Elizabeth in To Truckee’s Trail were inspired by … you’ll never guess. Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning! A married couple, wildly, passionately, crackers-in-love with each other after twelve years of marriage – why not? The romance doesn’t and shouldn’t end at the altar, but it should go on. I rather liked the Victorians, by the way – they weren’t nearly as prudish as they’ve been painted, nor were their emotions quite so stifled. Robert fell in love with her through reading her published poetry – and lest that sound rather stalker-ish, it worked out. They married blissfully, although she was an invalid and several years older than him. They went off to Italy and were more or less happy for the rest of their lives together, just as I imagined Dr. John and Elizabeth to have been. Men and women alike poured out their souls in letters and poetry, and they weren’t ashamed or repressed in the least, especially when it came to a good manly weep or putting down on paper how they really, really felt.

I didn’t particularly have a literary model for the central romance and tragedy in the Adelsverein Trilogy – that between Magda Vogel, the immigrant German girl, and Carl Becker, the former soldier and Ranger. I did think at first that it might be one of those sparkling Beatrice and Benedict-type confections, where they poured witty scorn at each other, and only later realized that they were in love. There did have to be a romance, of course – between the daughter of an immigrant family, and a representative of the country they were coming to – bridging the two worlds, as it were. But I just couldn’t make it work in that way; Magda turned out to be rather humorless and stern, and Carl was just too reserved. I did recycle the Beatrice and Benedict angle for the romance in the third book of the Trilogy; with Peter Vining and Anna Richter. They both had a sense of humor, and were quite aware that their sharp teasing of each other amused the heck out of anyone who had the luck to be in the vicinity.

Another great historical romance happened between two very real people, and which I put into Deep in the Heart; the marriage between Sam Houston and Margaret Lea Houston, which initially horrified her family and dismayed his friends. Some of them gave it six months, tops. He was twice her age, twice and disastrously married before, had a reputation of being a drunk, a rake and a reprobate, and being the hero of Jan Jacinto and the President of an independent Texas  just barely made up for all of that. Marry a gently-bred Southern girl barely out of her schoolroom? Everyone confidently predicted disaster – and everyone was wrong. They were devoted to each other. She had a spine of pure steel, unsuspected under those fashionable Victorian furbelows.  For the rest of their lives, whenever they were apart – and they were often separated, since Sam Houston spent much time at his official duties as a senator in Washington DC, or campaigning for office – they each wrote a letter a day. Margaret Lea bore and raised a large family of children, made a comfortable home for him whenever he was there to enjoy it, made him stop drinking and eventually to be baptized. His very last words included her name.

And my final real-life romance inspiring a romance between a couple of my characters is that of the painter Charles M. Russell, and his wife, Nancy – who, like Margaret Lea, was very much younger than a husband who had a bit of a reputation. Half his age, a bit prim and self-contained, Nancy also had steel in her spine – and she was a much better marketer and business agent than her carefree cowboy artist husband. C.M. Russell lived for art, and likely would have been no more than locally known as a wrangler-cowhand who had a talent with a paintbrush, but he made a partnership with Nancy, and she put him on a wider artistic scene. And that is the angle for one of the romances in the current book – between a young prospective professional artist, and a woman with a head for business. Because it all isn’t just love – it’s a partnership between a woman and a man, each filling in each other’s lacks and supporting each other in a mutual endeavor called life.

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 »

Ok, so the look-inside feature isn’t bolted on yet, but the Adelsverein Complete Trilogy has gone live at Amazon and Barnes & Noble, as of yesterday – and in Kindle and Nook editions. Now that it’s well-launched, I’m back to the next two projects: the sequel to Daughter of Texas – which will be called Deep in the Heart and be ready for launch at the New Braunfels Weihnachtsmarkt, which will be held at the end of November. And just in case there is not quite enough to on all of that, Watercress Press is going to do a second print edition of To Truckee’s Trail . . . which I have wanted to do, both because it would be at Watercress and at a slightly lower retail price than previously . . . and because I had found out from a descendent of one of the real-life people that I wrote about – that he had actually been to California two decades before crossing the Sierra Nevada with the Stephens-Townsend Party in 1844. The character of Old Man Hitchcock, the mountain man and fur-trapper was painted as an entertaining teller of tall tales . . . but in this one instance he had been telling the absolute truth. So – the second edition in print will be out by mid-October. And one last thing – I’ve been asked, in person and via email, if there wasn’t a way to have the Adelsverein Trilogy translated into a German edition, as there would be a terrific audience among all those Karl May fans, who absolutely eat up anything to do with adventures in the 19th century American west. Anyone know anyone in the literary agent world who pitches to German-language publishers, and wants to negotiate rights to a German translation of the Trilogy? Any agent looking to explore that option would make out like a bandit, even at 15%. Fortunes in the book-world these days favor the nimble. It may be a bit of a niche market relative to American publishing – but owning a large chunk of a niche market is not bad.

29. July 2010 · Comments Off on The Gonzales Ranging Company · Categories: Uncategorized · Tags: , , ,

Texas map

One of the challenges of writing about a frontier-era woman of fairly conventional background and 19th century limitations, and trying to keep it all exciting for a reader comes when you have to start tackling things like  war, politics, commerce, Indian raids, and frontier exploration adventures. All the above were happenings that only men participated in fully. Mostly, in order to write directly about them is to either tell of them through male characters, or to create/locate a female outlier, of some variety – perhaps a tomboy who dresses as a man, or an unusually determined woman following her husband or lover. Generally, women were on the fringes, watching from the sidelines, holding up the home-front and generally cleaning up afterwards; which makes the drama rather understated – since a lot of it will be happening offstage. For the current WIP I am having to fall back on Margaret Mitchell’s stratagem in the first half or so of Gone With The Wind, when it comes to the Civil War – that is, having male characters appear, breathless and exhausted, from the wings, and giving an account of the varied events to my leading characters, mostly wives and mothers, sitting restlessly at home and waiting for word. In this way I have dramatized elements of the Come and Take It Fight, the Grass Fight  . . .  and the siege of the Alamo. Kind of hard to find any fresh aspect or angle of that to write about: but when I was tackling the story of the rise of the cattle industry in Texas I also thought all of the stories had been told. Lucky for me, they haven’t been. To the larger world, the story of the Gonzales Mounted Ranging Company is a relatively small footnote in the Alamo saga, and the Runaway Scrape – the civilian counterpart to Sam Houston’s strategic withdrawal to East Texas, likewise.


These two elements are linked, however – and in a terribly dramatic way. Gonzales, the farthest west of the American grants and settlements in Mexican Texas, was also the nearest such settlement to the seat of Mexican civil and military authority in San Antonio de Bexar – seventy miles or so by road. Oddly enough, relations between the citizens of Gonzales and the Mexican government had been fairly amiable; Gonzales was the locus of the ‘peace party’ which favored accommodation, as much as possible – as opposed to the ‘war party’, centered in San Felipe, who touted independence and took a hard line in response to the ongoing ‘Federalist-Centralist’ dispute in the politics of an independent Mexico. That is, right up until the Commandant of the presidio in Bexar had asked for the six-pound cannon to be returned, and then all heck broke out.

Far to the west – and on the very edge of American settlement – Gonzales of the early 1830s was a tidy little town, a hub of entrepreneurial activity; settlers had brought their wives and families, the tools of their trade. They had qualified as generally good and law-abiding citizens of the places they had come from, and of their new town. They were settled and relatively prosperous – not easily driven to open rebellion which would put at risk everything they had build in five hard and dangerous years on the frontier. When William Barrett Travis sent out a plea for reinforcements for his tiny garrison, one of the first of his messages went to Gonzales. And Gonzales was the first to respond, sending thirty of their own. These were not newly-arrived volunteers from the United States, land-hungry, restless and ready for a fight: but men of family and considerable substance, relatively long-established in Texas, in comparison to those who they were going to join, behind the crumbling adobe walls of a former mission. Most left wives and large families behind them, although four of the Gonzales relief company were teenagers. One of them, fifteen-year old William King argued his way into the company even as they were departing, insisting that he could well substitute for his father  . . .  but his father was desperately needed at home.

A bare week and a half later, of course – the news arrived that the Alamo had fallen, and all the defenders were dead – including those leading men of Gonzales, whose remains were burned with all the other defenders (save one) in two large pyres on the Alameda by order of the victor, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. Their widows and orphaned children hardly had time to grieve, for by then Sam Houston had been put in complete command of what passed for the Army of Texas. Sam Houston was not going to risk his lightly armed, ornery and quarrelsome body of some three hundred soldiers and militia volunteers out on the farthest edge of American settlement, in a place where they could be mopped-up and massacred by a larger and well-equipped Army. Santa Anna had all the advantage of the ground, of fast-moving and well-mounted cavalry, of experienced artillery and disciplined and professionally officered infantry. Santa Anna had just finished putting down rebellion against his authority in half a dozen other Mexican states, including Zacatecas, where his army was permitted to loot and pillage at will for two days.

Well knowing of Santa Anna’s reputation for reprisal against those he defeated, and realizing they would be left defenseless, settler families began to flee, even as Houston gave orders for his force to abandon Gonzales. Much of Houston’s baggage train was turned over to evacuate women and children; equipment and supplies were dumped in the river or burnt. The town of Gonzales was purposefully burned; Houston, knowing that Santa Anna’s force was at the end of a long supply line, wanted to leave a scorched earth, as he and his army retreated eastwards. He sent word to Colonel James Fannin, at Goliad, in the old Presidio of La Bahia, to fall back to the line of the Colorado River. Fannin, at best an indecisive man, boxed in by an inability to make hard decisions, left departing too late to save himself or the 400 men of his garrison. He was defeated in a pitched battle at Coleto Creek in middle of March; those who survived Coleto were executed on Palm Sunday, 1836 – again, by the order of General Santa Anna.

Holding a line at the Colorado River was not possible: Houston fell back again, upon hearing of the massacre at Goliad, and the refugees fell back with him. Conditions were not helped by it being the rainiest spring in years. Rivers and creeks were running high – which did put the pursuing Mexican forces at a disadvantage in pursuit – but intensified the suffering of the refugees. Many had left their homes on a bare half-hour notice, packing in haste and burying such valuables as they could not take with them. Their homes were abandoned to the elements. Pregnant women gave birth with no other shelter than their friends holding pieces of canvas over them. Houston fell back again – San Felipe, which had been the heart of the American colonies, having been established by Stephen F. Austin, was burned also to the ground, although by whose orders – or if by the pursuing Mexican column has never been quite clear. In the space of a month, all that had been built in ten years across a vast tract of the lowland plains of Texas was abandoned, empty, and burned-out. Some even thought, in despair, that Houston and his army, and the fleeing settlers would have no other choice but to take refuge by crossing back over the Sabine, the final river dividing Texas and Louisiana.


But in April, at a meadow at edge of Buffalo Bayou, near the present-day town named after him, Sam Houston saw his opportunity to strike, and took it. Perhaps sensing that his ragged and contentious little army only had one fight in them, he wished to make it where it would count, and where they had a better than good chance of winning – and in a brief 18 minutes they did.