Texas Memories on Independence Day

T

by Wayne Allensworth

March and April are special months for true Texans. March 2 is Texas Independence Day. March 6 is Alamo Day. And April 21 marks Sam Houston’s victory over Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto. Being a Texan has always been the bedrock of my identity. I’m an American because I’m a Texan. And my boyhood memories are full of Texas Independence Day commemorations, Go Texan! days at school, and the great pride we held then in our state and all it meant to us. What follows is a piece I’ve run previously. It was originally a talk I gave in San Antonio, Texas in November 2004. I called it “Big Foot, Big Sam, Little Audie, and the Texas Mystique.”

Part of this country’s undoing has been the loss of connection to place and the local and regional identities that grounded us in our American identity. Any of us who are serious about the future must take that into account in looking ahead to what might come after the present globalist regime, assuming it fails. I hope and believe it will. We will have to salvage something for our posterity, and that something, though it will be new, will draw on the bricolage left behind by memory, the old loyalties, and history.

An associate and I were waiting for a flight to Washington, D.C. out of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport in the fall of 1996. I spotted another waiting passenger in the lounge and a made a bet with that associate, a native New Yorker, that the man was a fellow Texan. He took the bet and now it was time to fish or cut bait. I walked over to the man, offered him my hand, and struck up a conversation. This young fellow was working for an oil company out of Midland/Odessa. My astonished friend, a perplexed look on his face, asked me how I knew he was from Texas. It wasn’t terribly complicated—not at all. First, he was wearing Wrangler jeans and Justin Ropers. The way he shaped the bill of his cap helped, too. Then there was the cut of his thick mustache, as well as more subtle things like the way he carried himself. He could have been from Oklahoma—maybe. But chances were, he was a Texan. I felt like Sherlock Holmes explaining to Watson why my deduction was elementary.

I also remember feeling a little sad, as I knew that there were fewer and fewer of his—of our—kind. Being a Texan has been of benefit to me on more than one occasion, from Vladivostok to Normandy; when I told the locals I was from Texas, it rang a bell, even if it was only through association with a character named J. R. Ewing from a now thankfully forgotten nighttime soap opera. In Vladivostok, with a blizzard outside, no heat inside, and Russian TV flashing images of a U. S. presidential campaign (this was years ago—in 1992), there was a vague Slavic conviction that I must know the Tekhaskiy billionaire (Ross Perot) on the screen. The dezhurnaya, a sort of Russian combination of nagging grandma, security guard, and cleaning lady, made sure I had everything I needed, except for hot water, but I didn’t mind that so much. I was something of a mini-celebrity, with everybody from hotel employees to local gangsters acknowledging my mythical connection to cattle barons, oil magnates, and that Tekhaskiy billionaire.

Texas has always been a place that generated myths. It’s big and wide, and no real Texan ever let the truth get in the way of a good story. From the beginning of America’s engagement with Texas, the land itself sparked the imagination. Texas fever swept through America in the 1820s and ‘30s, as empresarios like Stephen F. Austin opened Texas to American settlement. As the Americans headed for the border, they scrawled “GTT” on the doors of their abandoned cabins: “Gone to Texas.” Gone to settle a new land and make a new life. Settler Micajah Autry, for example, would write to his wife, Martha, “I am determined to provide for you a home, or perish.” As Walter Lord wrote of early Texas, the land that met the settlers was

“Eye opening, a breathtaking sight…the sheer abundance of everything staggered the imagination. No drought or fallen water table had as yet taken its toll. The prairie was an endless sea of waving grass and wildflowers…The fresh green river bottoms were thick with bee trees, all dripping honey. Deep, limpid pools lay covered with lilies. The streams were full of fish, and game was everywhere…there for the taking. It was enough to give birth to a Texas penchant for superlatives that was destined to endure. Travelers described sugarcane that grew 25 feet high in a single season…pumpkins as large as a man…a sweet potato so big a whole family dined on it, and there was enough left to feed the pigs.”

The Texas legend and the Texas identity were forged in the age-old pattern of migration and war. Micajah Autry did make that home in Texas but perished securing it at the Alamo. Texas was the Lone Star of the West, an independent republic with a foundational myth formed by heroes, storytellers, and rogues, forged by courage, determination, folly, and tragedy. Texas was defined by the tall tale, and the tall men who made them.

William Alexander Anderson “Big Foot” Wallace, for instance, was a folk hero who never told the same story twice. J. Frank Dobie once wrote that Bigfoot was as honest as daylight, but nevertheless, liked to “stretch the blanket” when he recounted his adventures. Wallace, it was claimed, was descended from the Scottish hero William Wallace. How he got the nickname Bigfoot remains a mystery. In one of Wallace’s versions of the story, he had once tracked an Indian chief of Goliath-like proportions, but since Wallace himself was a big man and wore moccasins like the elusive chief, his fellow trackers mistook Wallace’s footprints for those of the giant Waco chief. Wallace didn’t mind the nickname, saying “Bigfoot Wallace” was preferable to “Lying Wallace” or “Thieving Wallace.”

Whatever the truth of it, Bigfoot came to Texas for reasons that William Wallace would have readily understood. He was determined to avenge the death of his brother and cousin. Both were among the prisoners executed by the Mexican army at Goliad. So Bigfoot set out to “take the pay out of the culprits,” as he told his biographer, John C. Duvall. Later, he told Duvall that he figured the account had been squared. Indeed, Wallace became a legendary Texas Ranger captain, as well as a scout, riding with other great captains like Jack Hayes and Sam Walker. Bigfoot was among those who stormed and captured the Bishop’s Place in Monterey in 1848, and he spent a lifetime tracking and fighting border raiders and Indians.

But the most famous story of all related to Bigfoot is that of the Mier expedition and the white bean. Following an 1842 raid by Mexican General Wall, Bigfoot took part in a punitive expedition against Mexico. He was among a group that was captured near the town of Mier, south of the Rio Grande.

After an escape attempt, Santa Anna ordered that some of the Texans be executed. One-hundred-seventy-six Texans had survived the battle and the grueling march some hundreds of miles long, which eventually brought them to their prison at Hacienda Salado. It was decided that the Texans would be punished by lottery. One-hundred-fifty-nine white beans and seventeen black beans were poured into a pot. Anyone drawing a black bean would face the firing squad.

As legend has it, Bigfoot shoved his hand into the pot and grasped two beans—one large and one small. Believing that the white beans were smaller, he dropped the larger one and kept the small one. He was right: It was a white bean. When the drawing was done, Bigfoot saw that four of his fellow Rangers had drawn black beans, along with thirteen others. “Boys,” says Bigfoot, “I never did cotton to white beans. I’ll trade you a white one for a black one.” None of the condemned men took up Bigfoot on his offer, and part of what Will Henry later called “the living heart” of the Texas Ranger tradition was born. Like Bigfoot, a Ranger must always be prepared to offer his life for a comrade, and a Texas Ranger must never follow the example of the leader of the doomed 1842 expedition. Rangers never surrender.

Big Sam Houston was one of the fathers of the Lone Star Republic, leaving behind a life among the Cherokee, a political career, and a reputation as a warrior, boozer, and brawler.

His first marriage ended in scandal, with Sam’s young wife leaving her husband after only eleven weeks. Sam never revealed the source of the conflict, but departed Tennessee and the governor’s post, as well as a fair prospect of becoming a presidential candidate, to live among the Cherokee, then to begin a new life and career in Texas.

Like Bigfoot, Sam may have liked to stretch the blanket, and his life and career generated a mass of myths and stories. Known variously as “the Raven” or “Big Drunk” among the Cherokee, the story of his failed marriage generated its own tales wild enough to suit the persona of Big Sam Houston. Following the rather hurried departure of his young bride, the wagging tongues of Tennessee speculated that Sam’s questionable hygiene, and possibly the nature of his conjugal expectations—both perhaps relics of his time with the Cherokee—might have startled young Eliza. Others said that Sam’s fondness for John Barleycorn may have tested Eliza’s tolerance. One later tale had Sam as president of Texas throwing his household into an uproar when he awoke late one night with an unusual request. The president wanted a cup of water.

At any rate, someone once quipped that Sam was irresistible to two kinds of people: artists and women. Indeed, he loved posing for portraits, and as for the ladies, one wag claimed that a party thrown by Houston was reminiscent of the Muslim paradise.

During his second stay among the Cherokee, Sam spent two years largely out of the limelight. He was, however, appointed the Cherokee nation’s envoy to Washington. On a trip to the Capitol in 1832, Houston beat the daylights out of a congressman, William Stanbury, with his cane, for accusations of corruption that Stanbury had made against him. Houston was tried for contempt of Congress. The dramatic trial (Francis Scott Key was his defense attorney) dominated the Washington scene and thrust Sam Houston back onto the national stage. Houston was released with a not especially harsh reprimand and found himself invigorated by the incident, later telling friends that the Stanbury affair had given him the will to live.

It certainly refreshed his confidence and sense of destiny. Later that year, he set out for Texas, and the rest, as they say, is history. Sam Houston won independence for Texas and a place in the Texas Pantheon. At San Jacinto, Houston was wounded and had his horse, Saracen, shot out from under him, displaying the kind of heroics in battle that he had shown under his mentor Andrew Jackson at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814.

Twice president of the Republic of Texas, congressman, governor, senator, and revered hero, Houston was surely one of the most remarkable men in a remarkable American age. He also had the distinction of being the only man in U.S. history (that I know of, anyway) to be run out the governorship in two states—once in Tennessee, and a second time in Texas, when Houston’s unionist views got him in trouble. (Houston, however refused Lincoln’s offer of troops to use against his own people.)

Before the battle of San Jacinto, one of the pivotal clashes in American history, Houston told his troops “to be men, be free men, that your children may bless their father’s name.” On his deathbed, “Texas” was among the last words heard as Sam Houston passed into eternity.

Texas stood tall among the nations in World War II. Audie Leon Murphy, a son of poor Texas sharecroppers, may have been the most decorated soldier of the war, receiving every decoration for valor his country had to offer—some of them twice. His name was widely known in America and revered in his native state. My father often told me Audie Murphy stories. He certainly was among my boyhood heroes. Murphy was a little man with boyish baby face, a talented man, an author, a songwriter, and actor to boot. Film director John Huston once commented that Murphy was a “quiet little killer,” but he was a humble, if not especially gentle, man. In his book, To Hell and Back, Murphy did not focus on himself or his own exploits. He told the story of the GIs he served with. “If there be any glory in war,” he wrote, “let it rest on men like these.”

Audie Murphy was born in either 1924 or 1925 in Kingston, Texas. He was one of a dozen children. When Audie was 12 years old, his father abandoned the family. When he was 16, his mother died. His early years were desperately poor, the country in the grip of the Great Depression. Audie faced responsibilities far beyond his years, picking cotton and hunting small game to help support the family.

When the war came, Audie rushed to enlist. He was turned down by the Marines. The paratroops wanted nothing to do with him, because he was too small. Audie was consigned to the infantry, where he went on to prove himself as one of the finest soldiers of this or perhaps any age.

On January 26, 1945, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his valor in an action near Holtzdear, France, where he was credited with killing or wounding 50 enemy troops, stopping an attack by German tanks. In the years after the war, Audie exhibited what today would be called “post-traumatic stress disorder.” He suffered from insomnia, had frequent nightmares, and was never able to adjust to postwar life. He gambled, lost most of the money he’d made in Hollywood, and spent much of his career grinding out B-Westerns.

But Audie Murphy’s greatest misfortune, perhaps, was to have been born in the wrong time. After Vietnam, war heroes were no longer in vogue, and an increasingly urbanized America found it harder to honor Murphy for what he was: a magnificent warrior, an uncommon common man, grown from the soil of rural Texas.

Murphy was very much a part of an old Texas remnant, one marked by both informal courtesy and harsh violence. His biographer, Don Graham, once pondered what might have become of Murphy had he lived on to the Reagan years. Perhaps his country might have seen him differently, rejuvenating an aging war hero, but Murphy had already lived too long by his death in an airplane crash in 1971. The America that had produced him was gone. As Graham writes in No Name on the Bullet: A Biography of Audie Murphy, “Americans nowadays prefer video fantasy,” an “MTV version of reality.” 

Audie Murphy was the real thing, more human and more tragic than the made-up or the phony. Have we reached the end of the line? Murphy was an authentic Texas hero. Not some movie star who moved to Austin, or a mercenary professional athlete. Little Audie, like Bigfoot and Big Sam, and the old Texas that produced them, was more interesting, more worth loving, more worth hating, than the pumped-up celluloid America that our elites, and, indeed, millions of Americans seem to want. May they live on in our memory and in our myths.

Chronicles contributor Wayne Allensworth is the author of  The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood

About the author

Wayne Allensworth

4 comments

  • Three larger than life Texas heroes! I’d like to think that Texans are still as proud a bunch as I knew them to be in the 1950s and 60s but I suspect that pride has eroded significantly during the last four or five decades of political correctness/cultural Maxrism.

    Going through OCS at Quantico in the 1960s there was a drill sergeant from Texas who decided to have some fun with us California boys and asked us to tell him exactly where was this place called California. We described the state’s location and he deadpanned, “That must be somewhere out in West Texas.”

    That sergeant was born in the late 1930s in a Texas that Texans simply knew was bigger, better, stronger, and tougher than any place on earth–about the same way the rest of us felt about America in general.

    There was no American hero bigger than Audie Murphy to me and my friends growing up in California in the post-WWII era. We were told of his exploits many times before To Hell and Back appeared at our local theater in 1955. I saw it three times and that was not enough.

    Murphy was actually born in 1925 and not in 1924 as his official Army record states. He was two weeks past his 17th birthday when he enlisted in the Army with a letter from an older sister falsely attesting to his age of 18. He stood but 5’5 1/2″ and weighed only 112 lbs. (He would grow an inch an a half while in the Army.) With auburn hair and blue eyes, freckles and a baby face that he didn’t yet have to shave, no one would have guessed him as more than 14 and that’s why he was quickly rejected from earlier attempts to enlist, first in the Marine Corps and then in the Army. He appeared more cherub than warrior.

    This was the kid Murphy who in 2 1/2 years during WWII rose from private to 1st lieutenant and was awarded the Medal of Honor and every other decoration for valor that America could award as well as the highest decorations for valor from France and Belgium. Moreover, his Distinguished Service Cross could easily have been another Medal of Honor. His two Silver Stars could have been DSCs and his two Bronze Stars with V for valor could have been Silver Stars. He was awarded the Purple Heart three times for wounds in battle. He refused what would have been his third Purple heart because he knew it would take him out of combat. When he was wounded a fourth time, the wound was so severe–requiring a lengthy hospitalization–that he could do nothing but accept the award and end his days of combat.

    When Murphy’s combat was ended, he was still only 19 years old–but was the most decorated American of WWII. There is footage of Murphy being awarded the Medal of Honor by Lt. Gen. Alexander Patch at an Army camp near Salzburg, Austria, nearly six months after the events that earned him the medal. Murphy looks like a Boy Scout getting merit badge.

    • Well said R.M.,
      I tear up thinking about the brave men and women that came before me to make this state a beacon for individualism, not law. I salute your essay and will fly the TEXAS flag on 6 March and 21 April.

      I was born in Ft. Worth by WWII parents, and I will die in Texas, preferably with my boots on.
      You’re right. I am a remnant of what once was. The Texas mystique is still alive and well in many hearts and minds.

      STM

    • He was a boyhood hero of mine, too. We were very proud to be from Texas, the home state of Audie Murphy. Great story about your Marine days.

Recent Posts

Recent Comments