09. June 2014 · Comments Off on Book Adventures on the Banks of Sister Creek · Categories: Book Event, Old West · Tags: , ,
Special frosted shortbread cookies from the Bear Moon Bakery in Boerne

Special frosted shortbread cookies from the Bear Moon Bakery in Boerne

We spent all day Sunday at the Sisterdale Dance Hall and Opera House, where the Kendall County Historical Commission had set up an event to observe the 170th anniversary of Jack Hays’ big fight near where the old trail between San Antonio and the deserted San Saba presidio and mission crosses the Guadalupe. This was an event gone down in song and story, for Jack Hays and his fourteen Rangers were matched against sixty to eighty Comanche warriors looking for glory, scalps and the odd bit of good horseflesh. The Rangers were armed with Colt’s patent revolving pistols, so what would have been a very one-sided fight turned into a vicious slugging match to the Ranger’s clear advantage. With a few years of that fight, Sisterdale was settled by Germans brought over by the Mainzer Adelsverein, and within a few years after that, the line of the frontier had moved north and west … and within a few more years after that, the remnant of the fighting Comanche had moved to a reservation in Oklahoma, and the Hill Country eventually became the charming, and bucolically Texan cross between Napa-Sonoma-Mendicino and the English Lake Country that it is now.

Tipi displayed on the banks of the creek

Tipi displayed on the banks of the creek

Although, as we were driving up on Sunday morning, and it began to pour simply buckets between Boerne and Sisterdale, I did have my doubts that it would actually happen. It would be a bust and a misery, and we would sit in a wet tent, looking at the rain falling down, hoping that some intrepid visitor with water-wings or maybe a small kayak would come drifting by. Really, I was that worried. But we set up the pink and zebra-striped pavilion and made ourselves at home … and the rain went to a drizzle, the clouds thinned, and more and more people appeared, and oh, my – was there a crowd, by noon. I think there must have been cars parked by the roadside halfway to Luckenbach.

Reenactor Rangers - Ranger on the left is dressed as Ad Gillespie would have been

Reenactor Rangers – Ranger on the left is dressed as Ad Gillespie would have been




And the Dance Hall and Opera House and the little row of rooms that are part of a B&B are quite charming a venue, all shaded with oak trees, and nicely landscaped. It seems to be a pretty popular venue for weddings, which would explain why the ladies restroom is palatial beyond all belief. There were Ranger reenactors, veteran for-realsies Rangers, historians and collectors, and displays of books and weapons and relics … and people keen for books. I actually sold the last copy I had of The Gathering in German to a stray German visitor and Karl May fan, who was so tickled that he insisted on taking a picture of me autographing his copy.

Replica of a 1903 Oldsmobile Ranger paddy-wagon

Replica of a 1903 Oldsmobile Ranger paddy-wagon




We talked to some of the other writers, discovered some mutual author and historian acquaintances, sold a LOT of books – definitely well-worth the drive—and made some interesting contacts. I am supposed to check in with the Genealogical Society in Boerne, for the president of that charming organization is interested in them selling my books. I forgot to bring my copy of Empire of the Summer Moon, so never got a chance to ask S.C. Gwynne to autograph it for me. He was doing his talk at 3:00, just about when the crowd cleared out of the author area, and we looked around and discovered that well … many of the other exhibitors and authors were folding their tents or pop-up canopies and slipping away.

Weapons of the time - Colt Paterson and Walker model revolvers

Weapons of the time – Colt Paterson and Walker model revolvers

An excellent and hopefully profitable day in the long-term as well as in the short term; with luck I’ll have a chance to do other events in Kendall County. So that was my weekend – yours?




18. December 2013 · Comments Off on Lone Star Sons – Without a Trace · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book · Tags: ,

Lone Star Sons Logo - Cover(Behold – the beginning of another thrilling episode of Lone Star Sons; on the track of a cattle drover who vanished on his return from New Orleans, somewhere along the Opelousas Trace. Lone Star Sons is a YA adventure series set in Texas during the time of the Texas Republic, featuring young Ranger Jim Reade and his Delaware Indian friend, Toby Shaw.)

“There’s something strange going on,” Jack’s guest said, when Jim came through the front door of Jack’s lodgings in Bexar. It was a bright autumn morning; the Plaza Mayor was alive with the bustle of the marketplace – the market-women in their bright skirts and shawls, presiding over piled up mounds of green and red peppers, yellow ears of corn. “My brother was due to return from New Orleans a month ago.” The strangers’ eyes went to Jim at once, and Jack said,
“Clay, this is Jim Reade – he’s one of my Rangers – Jim, you haven’t ever met Clayton Huff before, have you?”
“Not had the pleasure,” Jim said, as Clay Huff rose to exchange a handshake. Jack added, “Pull up a chair, Jim – since this is going to fall to you, since you’re from that part of Texas. Clay and his brother Randall run cattle near Bastrop – they’re distant kin to John White; he has a big place north of Anahuac. This summer Clay and Randall took a herd of theirs along the Opelousas trace to New Orleans … Clay, you tell him what happened, then.”
“It all went as we planned,” Clay sighed – he had a pleasant and open face, some years younger than Jim, but his face was lined and weather-burnt, as if he spent many hours in the open air. “We got to New Orleans, found a buyer and paid off all the hands. Randall, he was courting a pretty widow-lady, so he decided he would stay on for a week so he could escort her to church the next Sunday. I took my half of what we got for the sale of the cattle and came home straightaway to my wife an’ little childer by way of a coastal sloop to Copano. I’d had enough of riding the trail, I’ll tell you what.”
“How was your brother intending to return to Bastrop, then?” Jim asked, and Clay’s open countenance furrowed with lines of worry.
“The way we came – by way of the Opelousas trace. But he has just never shown up. I wrote to his lady-friend, and she answered that he set out on the Monday after they went to church. A neighbor of ours in Bastrop said that he passed an hour or so with him at the Sabine Crossing, so we know that he had come that far, but … Captain Hays, sir – Randall should have been home a month ago. I know that there’s misfortune can happen to a man … but my brother isn’t no fool. He had a brace of fine pistols, a dog and his own horse – and he was traveling on the trace! There ain’t no more public or well-traveled public road as that, and the Indians are all friendly-like. It’s like he vanished walking across the plaza outside, this very day and in broad daylight.” More »

Lone Star Sons Logo - Cover(This is part two, of the next Jim Reade – Toby Shaw adventure. Part one is here. Jim and Toby have been set to assist three agents of foreign powers who have come to Bexar, looking for something hidden away in a long-closed house, by a long-dead General with a slippery reputation. The third part is almost finished, and will be posted in a few days.)

“As you and Captain Hays may already have guessed, my real and my feigned purpose both have to do with the late General Wilkinson’s house,” Albert Biddle explained, as soon as they had strolled beyond the edge of the crowd and the reach of Bernard Vibart-Jones’ mellifluous voice.
“Something is hidden within; documents or artifacts of considerable value?” Jim ventured and Biddle nodded. “Do you have any idea what we – you – are looking for? Something large, or small – papers don’t take up much space. If the house is like the other old Spanish houses of Bexar, there will not be much in the way of furniture.”
“Documents and letters,” Biddle affirmed. “The old man was a distant relative of mine by marriage. He died at a good old age, which perfectly astounded those who knew him best. Never won a battle or lost a court-martial, died rich, and in bed. It’s been suspected for years that he was blackmailing … certain people and a government or two, with whom he associated over the years, by holding on to proof of embarrassing peccadillos.”
“Certain people?” Jim’s eyebrows lifted. “Such as?” When Biddle replied with a short list of names – men of an older generation, all well-famed and of good repute – Jim whistled in astonishment. “Yes… I can see the worth of ensuring his silence.”
“It’s not just the men,” Biddle said unhappily. “It’s the good name of the nation, too.”
“Likely more than one nation,” Jim observed – Ah, that had surprised Biddle, at least momentarily, but then Biddle nodded.
“Credible,” he murmured thoughtfully. “The old general spread his nets very wide indeed; how many nations, then? Or would you be indiscrete in telling me?”
“No,” Jim answered, deciding to put all his cards on the table. “There are two other men making inquiries; an Englishman and a Spaniard. Captain Hays has given me wide discretion in this matter … for reasons of diplomacy, my government desires that all three of you find whatever it is that you are looking for in the Casa Wilkinson, do whatever you wish with it, and leave Bexar quietly and without causing an international ruction. That being understood, I will help you as best I can. Deal?”
“Deal,” Biddle answered. “I must admit that you Texians get down to brass tacks faster than practically any other Southren gentlemen I have ever dealt with. It’s quite refreshing.”
“It saves time. I still don’t quite grasp – why all the interest now?”
“Because everyone else is interested,” Biddle answered; he looked thoughtfully at Jim. “I did procure the keys to the Casa, for a brief inspection upon my arrival. The caretaker took them back almost at once, and has not permitted me access since; a most unpromising prospect for a search – almost no furniture at all, only bare walls and floors.”
“A caretaker?” Jim took a moment to accept that intelligence. “I hardly think any care of the place has been taken at all. Who is this assiduous caretaker – I was not given that information,” he added hastily.
“A great lump of a muleteer named Gomez, who lives in the house next to it. It seems that his aged grandmother was once the housekeeper there. Gomez has taken himself off to parts unknown, likely taking the only key with him.”
“I have sent a scout to look at the lay of the land,” Jim answered. “He speaks Spanish well – he rooms with a local family when we are in Bexar. From the stories, it seems that someone else has been able to get inside and search. I’d like to know how they did it, if not with a key.” Jim snapped his fingers, struck with a sudden insight. “The Spaniard, Don Esteban Saldivar; Captain Hays told me that he is also a recent visitor curiously interested in the Casa, to the point of taking rooms with the Gomez family. If there is a common wall, I would bet that he has found a way through – and that Gomez has gone away in order to keep you out while Don Esteban searches at leisure. These places are made of unbaked mud brick covered in plaster. It would be a simple matter simply to tunnel through …” Jim found himself walking faster in his excitement. He and Biddle had now gone the length of the Plaza, past the brooding dome of San Fernando, and back towards where Soledad Street led into the plaza.
“Let us walk towards the Casa – and see what my trusty scout has found.”

Without haste, they strolled into the narrow canyon of Soledad Street, the walls of mud-brick and plastered cedar-log jacal-huts rising at either hand, as the sky darkened overhead. This was the old part of town, where most houses had been built as sturdy as fortresses, nearly windowless on the side looking onto the street – and those which did have windows were as heavily barred as if they a prison. Only now and again did the amber of a candle or lamp lit within them cast a glow into the street. Music from an out-of-tune piano floated in the evening air from one direction, from another the sound of a melancholy guitar. The darting shadows of swifts flashed briefly across the sky.
“It is very different from Hartford,” Albert Biddle mused. “Almost a foreign country – is a foreign country, indeed.”
“But home to me,” Jim answered. With a start, he realized that it was true; Bexar was the place that he always returned to over the last handful of years, between the wide-ranging assignments given to him by his captain; here were the colors brighter, the food tastier, the water clearer, the sun in the sky brighter and the stars in the night sky sparkling ever more brilliantly. They walked on a little way, picking their footing carefully through the ruts and puddles, and piles of horse-dung in the uncertain and erratic light. Even being in town foxed Jim’s night-vision abominably, and he was about to suggest to Biddle that it was too dark to really see the lay of the land around the crumbling Casa Wilkerson, when he was galvanized by a scream – a woman’s shrill and panicked scream from somewhere ahead. Heedless of puddles, horse-apples and other hazards, Jim ran towards the source, with Biddle following closely.
In the light-limned oblong of an opened door, a woman stood, crying out in Spanish; a body huddled at her feet just outside the door.
“What has happened?” Biddle demanded, as the woman continued – it sounded now as if her horror and distress had merged into indignant complaint.
“The poor fellow has been beaten,” Jim answered, “and left at her door – my god!” The light from within the house fell across the prostrate figure of Toby, groaning and covered with mud and blood. “It’s Mr. Shaw – the scout that I sent… I can only guess that he found something.” Jim knelt next to his friend and helped him to sit up. “Brother – what did you find? Who did this to you?”
“I didn’t see,” Toby answered indistinctly. He spat blood from his mouth. “Two men, I think. I thought I saw something in the shadows – I looked toward it, and someone hit me from behind.” He winced, squinting as if the light from the doorway hurt his eyes. “Then they took turns hitting me. James, I do not think that any bones were broken – I think they took it amiss that I was here…”
“Then that someone had better get damned used to it,” Jim answered. “Help me with him, Biddle – carefully! I’m gonna take it personal, now. I wonder …” He thought perhaps he should keep his supposition to himself, but Biddle shook his head and affirmed, “Couldn’t have been Vibart-Jones, he’s still on stage. And Senor Don Saldivar was still on the other side of the square when we walked into this street.”
“Either one of them may have hired their own ruffians to do the dirty work,” Jim answered, and unshipped his hesitant command of Spanish, “Senora, podemos entrar y tienden heridas de este hombre?”
“Si, si!” the woman answered, standing a little aside from the doorway, as the two of them guided Toby’s uncertain steps through it and into a small and cozy room, lit with a single lantern hung from a metal bracket over the cooking fireplace – the old-fashioned kind most often seen in the oldest houses in Bexar. In the warmest corner of the room, an elderly person lay propped upon a rough cot, so tiny and shriveled, so wrapped in layers of robes and blankets that it was difficult to tell with certainty if the person was a man or woman. The person’s eyes were milky and unfocused, without color at all, and a querulous voice called from the midst of the bundle. The woman of the house answered, in a voice which sounded at once soothing, but with an underlay of irritation. The elderly person sank back into their blankets, as if reassured, a shriveled turtle retreating to the cozy shelter of its shell.
“Senora Gomez,” Toby gasped, as Jim and Biddle hoisted him within the room and let him down before the fireplace. “I am glad for the hospitality…estoy agradecido por su hospitalidad…” he added.
“Agua caliente, por favor,” Jim demanded, before adding to his assistant. “We must wash those deep wounds immediately, lest they become putrid…”
Jim bent to this task, while Biddle and the woman of the house watched with interest – even moving to brew a tea of dried herbs over the fireplace.
“Willow-bark and sage,” Toby explained, although it obviously pained him to talk. Presently the elderly person ventured a querulous remark and Toby drew in his breath with a hiss, before responding in courteous Spanish.
“It is Dona Adeliza,” he explained to Jim and Albert Biddle. “The Old One; she wants to know what is going on. I have told her. She is amused – for she remembers the old General very well. He was a … disruptor of peace and quiet when alive, so of course he would do the same when dead. A restless and unquiet spirit – she says that we should ask the priest to come from San Fernando and do a blessing in each room of his old house. But she thinks it should best be torn down, or made into a stable.”
Senora Gomez interjected a comment – which sounded like a chiding – and the old lady answered, as feisty as a very old sparrow.
Biddle chuckled, “Old as she must be and blind to boot, she doesn’t sound like she has ever missed much. Ask her – about Don Esteban Saldivar and why a rich Spaniard would take rooms here … go on. Ask her – maybe she has some knowledge of this matter.”
That question elicited a perfect fountain of indignant Spanish from Senora Gomez, as well as a witchy-sounding cackle of laughter from the old lady. “Todo lo que tenían que hacer era preguntarme!” she exclaimed. – All they had to do was ask me! – Dona Adeliza continued in much the same vein, of which Jim divined a few scraps of words, enough for a rough estimation of what the old lady was saying; “You silly fools! All they had to do was ask – silly men – the General, he had caused to build within the house a secret place for his most precious things. And I know where it is! I have known all this time!”
At their backs, the door to the outside suddenly swung open, admitting a gust of chill night air into the room and making the candle flicker wildly.

25. October 2013 · Comments Off on War in the Borderlands – Juan Cortina · Categories: Old West · Tags: , , ,

In the last few years before the outbreak of the Civil War, another war stalked the borderlands of the Rio Grande Valley, this one between Mexico and Texas, personified by a reckless young Mexican grandee named Juan Nepomunceno Cortina. He was the ‘black sheep’ son of a large and wealthy family with considerable holdings on either side of the border; a handsome, dashing and impulsive man, quick to take offense at insult. For a number of reasons, most to do with his family wealth and influence, he was also seen as the champion of the poorer Mexican residents, who were not infrequently stung by Anglo contempt and injustice. For his own part, Cortina violently resented certain Anglo ranchers, including one Augustus Glavaecke, who had often accused Cortina of helping himself to his and other Anglo rancher’s stock.

In spite of this, in 1858, Cortina was living at one of the family properties near Brownsville – close enough that he rode into town every day and whiled away the morning at a popular local coffee shop, drinking coffee and reading the newspapers. But one mid-June day, a former employee of his – one Tomas Cabrera was drunk and disorderly, disrupting the peace and quiet of the coffee shop. Robert Spears, the city marshal, tried to arrest Cabrera, over the objections of Cortina. Spears answered Cortina with an insult, whereupon Cortina whipped out his pistol and shot Spears in the shoulder. He then grabbed his horse, pulling Cabrera up behind him, and galloped out of town. It was a spectacularly theatrical exit, and made him even more popular than ever among the poorer Mexicans along the border.

Cortina lay low at the ranch for some month, while those Anglo residents of Brownsville – especially those who entertained lively suspicions about him – wondered what he would get up to next. He was buying horses and recruiting men for some purpose, probably nefarious. It didn’t come clear until the end of September, the morning after a grand ball in Matamoros, which practically everyone of means, Anglo and Mexican had attended.  In the wee hours of the morning, Cortina rode into town with a hundred of his mounted, well-armed new best friends, and took it over, lock, stock and both barrels. He was after a number of his bitterest enemies, rancher Glavaecke and Marshal Spears among them. They escaped, but three other Americans and a Mexican who tried to shield one of the Americans died at the hands of Cortina’s men. They broke into the jail, liberating about a dozen prisoners, but murdering the jailor. They also tried to hoist the Mexican flag over the deserted American compound of Fort Brown.

The city fathers of Brownsville were horrified – those of Matamoros apoplectic. Cortina was the proverbial loose cannon. The prospect of setting off another Mexican-American war was a very real possibility. Aside from being bad for business, the Mexicans had vivid memories of exactly how badly the last round had gone for them. Cortina was talked into withdrawing from Brownsville and going home to a nearby ranch owned by his mother, while the good folk of Brownsville begged for military aid. In the interim between Cortina departing and American troops and Texas volunteers arriving, civilian volunteers – the Brownsville Tigers – and a detachment of Mexican soldiers jointly patrolled the streets of Brownsville to keep order. Towards the end of this interim, the Brownsville Tigers and a number of local allies struck at Cortina, with embarrassing results – although a small party led by Augustus Glavaecke did manage to capture Tomas Cabrera and lock him up in the town jail. Meanwhile, the defeated Tigers and their friends forted up in Brownsville; they barricaded the streets of the town, while Cortina did as he wished in the countryside.

Very shortly, a local company of Texas Rangers from San Antonio arrived, led by one W. G Tobin. In the general rejoicing on their arrival, Tomas Cabrera was taken by a mob from the jail and summary hanged. It was believed by many – including the commander of a US Army regiment and the OIC of a contingent of Texas Rangers dispatched by Governor Runnels – that many of Tobin’s volunteers were an instrumental part of the lynch mob. For three months, Brownsville and the lower Rio Grande Valley was a free-for-all brawl, during which Cortina’s collection of men beat Tobin’s Rangers and the Brownsville volunteers in another pitched battle.  Cortina’s star rose, even if many of the volunteers flocking to him appeared to be motivated by loot more than they were by social justice, law and liberty.

The better-organized and official forces of law and order arrived in December; Major Samuel Heintzelmann and a regiment of U. S. infantry regulars, and Rip Ford – who eventually wrote as much history as he made, with a small company of volunteers. During November of that year, Ford had encountered the state senator for the district around Corpus Christi on the streets of Austin. The senator related to Ford a horrific rumor – that Cortina had laid waste to the entire Rio Grande Valle and burned Corpus to the ground. Just at that very moment, Governor Runnels passed by – this at a period in time when important members of the body public walked the streets as ordinary citizens. The senator unburdened himself to the governor, who turned to Ford and exclaimed, “Ford, you must go; you must start tonight, and move swiftly!”

Such were the easy, informal ways of governance in those days. In the space of moments, Rip Ford had command of all state forces in the district on the Rio Grande. The next morning, he set out south with eight volunteers, collecting another forty-five along the way. Such was the temper of the time,  all of them were well-armed, well-experienced, well-mounted, well-supplied – and spoiling for a good fight.

They arrived in-theatre just as Tobin’s rangers and two-hundred US Army regulars made a concerted assault on Cortina’s fortified encampment at a place called La Elbronal. The place turned out to be empty and abandoned when they arrived – but the lesson taken away was that Cortina had no problem with tangling with the US Army. For the next three months, Ford and his company chased Cortina the length of the Valley; eventually after a pitched fight at Rio Grande City they drove Cortina and his henchmen from the American side of the Rio Grande. But he didn’t go very far, or give up raids into Texas. His new stronghold was in a southwards-oriented C-shaped loop of the river known as La Bolsa – The Bag. And meanwhile, the Anglo ranchers took advantage of the lull to do a little ordinary business.

The steamboat Ranchero, which was jointly owned by Mifflin Kenedy and Richard King ventured a journey from Rio Grande City to Brownsville, carrying goods and currency to a value estimated between $200,000-300,000 – and a pair of cannon captured from Cortina. Knowing that Cortina, or any other freebooter likely couldn’t resist temptation, the Ranchero carried a squad of regular US troops and only a few very brave civilian passengers. Two companies of Rangers and two of cavalry were shadowing the Ranchero as it approached a bend in the river where it would be most vulnerable to ambush. Just as the Ranchero appeared around the bend, Rip Ford’s contingent clashed with a larger force of Cortina’s men. The steamboat was fired on – and response, the soldiers aboard fired back with one of the cannons. Ford went aboard the Ranchero and proposed to it’s captain that he and a good body of men be ferried across the river to the Mexican side and attack Cortina’s stockade. This done, Ford and another officer led forty-five men on foot, backed up by the two cannon on the Ranchero. They achieved total surprise, Cortina and his men fled, defeated and disorganized. The next day, Ford crossed over to the Mexican side again, with a company of nearly fifty mounted men. He intended to follow along the river, escorting the Ranchero. When they got to the town of Las Palmas, the mayor and other officials appeared, with a well-armed escort, demanding to know what they were doing on the Mexican side of the river. Ford explained – chasing Cortina, adding that he had been authorized by Mexican officers to do so, with no intention of harming anyone else. At a conference the next day, Ford was assured of the safety of the Ranchero in its passage downstream. Satisfied with that, he returned to the American side … but didn’t stay there.

The search for Cortina continued; several weeks after the Las Palmas incident, Ford got word that Cortina was in La Mesa – and he and his Rangers rode in like a storm. It turned out that Cortina wasn’t there, and of the resulting brief skirmish, Ford remarked in disgust, “We have played Old Scratch, whipped the Guardia Nacional, wounded a woman and killed a mule!”

Early in April, Ford heard that the town fathers and citizens of Reynosa had cheekily offered a reward of 30,000 dollars to any foreign troops reckless enough to march through the town. Bold as brass, three detachments of Rangers – Ford leading one of them – galloped into the center of Reynosa by three different roads, with a large body of US Army troopers lurking meaningfully just across the border in Edinburg as a back-up. Ford and his Rangers were surrounded by armed Mexicans – every one spoiling for a fight but not daring to set it off by shooting first. Later Ford reported that some of his men deliberately dropped their weapons, hoping that an accidental discharge would set off the firefight.  The town fathers and local authorities called for a parley – asking why their town was being invaded.

 “To get the thirty thousand dollars,” Ford replied, and asking for the surrender of any Cortina men in Reynosa. Ford graciously accepted their instance that there weren’t any around and an official escort back over the border.

The wild goose chase after Cortina might have continued for months longer, to the ruin of ranching, farming and commerce on both sides but for a timely intervention by the new senior commander of of the Department of Texas for the US Army. Colonel Robert E. Lee spoke softly to Mexican military and civil officials and carried a very big stick as overall commander of the US Army in the Southwest. The diplomatic words and the effective stick proved sufficiently impressive that Cortina was effectively put on a tight leash, lest he bring down a bigger war upon them.  The Cortina troubles ended, at least temporarily, although Cortina remained a power in the Rio Grande Valley and a thorn in the flesh of American ranchers in the borderlands for decades. Eventually he also became a thorn in the flesh of his some-time political ally – strong-man Porfirio Diaz, who ordered him arrested and imprisoned. Ironically, Juan Cortina’s old opponent, Rip Ford was one of those who interceded with Diaz on Cortina’s behalf.


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 »