March is Texas History Month. A good choice, since the month is named for Mars, the god of war, and in March of 1836 those early Texians spent a lot of time both warring and marching. A month devoted to dwelling on our past is an easy sell in the Lone Star State because we love to noodle around in our attic, which is why we have nearly 12,000 historical markers, more than all the other 49 states combined. The study of our past is required in all public schools, but there is a problem. Texas history is often taught by dull teachers, using dull textbooks.
Perhaps times have changed, but when I was a Texas schoolchild no one told me Sam Houston had three wives and an untold number of kids of various hews. My studies missed the fact that Santa Anna used opium and that Robert Potter, a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence, performed an un-requested sex-ending operation on his wife’s lover and was later murdered by his neighbors. Everyone knows the Republic of Texas had an army, but few know that we also had a navy. We were so poor the entire fleet, including ships and sailors, was once rented out to Mexican revolutionaries for $8,000 a month.
We even maintained a Texas Marine Corps, which had its own money problems. Any Texas Marine who died or was killed on duty had all his effects but his uniform auctioned off, the money going to his next of kin. The Marines then re-issued the uniform to the next in line. Even that uniform was a hand-me-down from the U.S. Marine Corps.
You don’t have to be a Crockett scientist to appreciate the colorful, exciting story of Texas. It is one of those odd situations where, the more you look into it, the more you want to know. So let’s take a look at some overlooked stories of our past.
– To this day, a Texas Ranger’s badge is carved from a Mexican silver coin.
– Outside Brownsville was the Battle of Palmito Ranch. It was the last land battle of the Civil War, more than a month after Lee had surrendered at Appomattox. The Texans won.
– The city of Marble Falls was laid out by a blind man.
– As we all know, William Buckley Jr. is a wit, columnist, TV host and sophisticated Ivy Leaguer extraordinaire. What isn’t very well known is that his grandfather, John Buckley, was high sheriff of Duval County. Honest.
– In Cisco, Conrad Hilton bought his very first hotel, the Mobley. After a later West Texas acquisition, Hilton observed, “At Lubbock, I found that Texas had no use for an imported French chef.”
– In 1924, Warren Pruett’s hardware store in Real County was hit by an airplane. The pilot was Charles Lindbergh.
– During inauguration ceremonies for the president of the Republic of Texas, among the dignitaries walking in procession to the podium were the editors of Texas newspapers. That seems only proper.
– Although the Heisman Award is given by the Downtown Athletic Club of New York City, the prize was named for John W. Heisman, football coach at Rice, 1924-1927.
– Speaking of sports, while stationed at San Antonio, Lt. Dwight Eisenhower coached football at St. Louis College, now St. Mary’s University.
-Sam Donaldson, Debbie Reynolds and Sandra Day O’Conner were all born in El Paso.
– The movie prizes, the Oscars, were named for a Texan. In 1931, an employee of the motion picture academy, Margaret Herrick, upon seeing the little statue, said, “It looks just like my Uncle Oscar.” Oscar Pierce was a Texas rancher.
– The first award for Best Movie was given in 1927. It went to “Wings,” made, not in Hollywood, but in San Antonio.
– It is a myth that Texas can leave the Union anytime it wishes. We tried that once in 1861, and it didn’t fly. Another myth is that only the Lone Star flag can fly at the same height as the U.S. flag. Any state can do that.
– President Sam Houston was once handed a note demanding a duel to the death. Houston returned it to his secretary, saying “This is number 24. The angry gentleman must wait.”
– Among the governor’s powers listed in today’s Texas Constitution is the authority to call out the militia to repel invasions. In 1999, the governor lost a key command that goes with the job: ordering out the militia to suppress Indian raids. Ah, yes. If only the teachings of Texas history in our classrooms were as exciting as the real thing. Nowhere in my textbooks were quotes such as, “… the Texians being entirely a military people, not only fought, but drank, in platoons.” – Western Monthly magazine, October, 1838
During the republic’s days, a shopkeeper in Baltimore sent his partner in Galveston a load of bonnets, writing that they “were old stock and out of fashion, but believe they will sell in Texas.” And remember this line from the movie “Thelma and Louise:” “Look, you shoot off a guy’s head with his pants down, believe me, Texas is not the place you want to get caught.” A Houston newspaper editor, Dr. Francis Moore, got elected to the Republic of Texas Senate and worked for an anti-dueling law. Sen. Oliver Jones labeled it, “An Act for the Protection of Cowards.” The measure became law, and until 1939, all Texas officials had to swear an oath that they had never taken part in a duel.
When we consider the story of Texas, a mere month is not nearly long enough to absorb it all. While Massachusetts and Virginia have good state histories, their juicy parts ended eons ago. Ours continues like a stampeding herd: Enron, Katrina and Rita, Runaway Scrape II, DeLay, Kinky and the continuing saga of the astronauts. The best part about Texas history is that some of it is true.