A key witness to the Republic of Texas and early statehood left behind a memoir.
When in doubt, go to the source.
That’s what I did last week when I wrote about a recent expedition to the site of Fort Coleman, later known as Fort Colorado, in eastern Travis County.
I consulted Noah Smithwick.
Author of the spellbinding memoir "The Evolution of a State: Recollections of Old Texas Days," Smithwick is among the best storytellers about the period between 1830 and 1860, at least as told from the point of view of an American colonist and frontiersman.
He was not one of Stephen F. Austin’s "Old 300," but he arrived in 1827, soon after that first big wave of American colonists.
A blacksmith and miller, North Carolina-born Smithwick arrived in Texas with much-needed skills. He settled on the Brazos River at San Felipe, which he describes in great detail, but he was exiled as a "bad citizen" after he surreptitiously freed a friend accused of murder from leg irons and provided him with a gun.
Smithwick next spent four years in the lawless Redlands between Texas and Louisiana, where he observed typical border shenanigans, including the work of a diligent counterfeiter. He returned to Texas in 1835 and arrived in Gonzales right after the "Come and Take It" battle, which heated up the Texas Revolution, and he took part in the Battle of Concepción, which he diligently narrates. He skipped the Siege of Bexar and instead joined a ranger company in Bastrop to protect that area from Native American warriors who took advantage of the War of Texas Independence.
The rangers served as rearguard defenders as settlers fled from Santa Anna’s army during the "Runaway Scrape." Smithwick arrived at the San Jacinto Battlefield the day after the Texans triumphed in 1836, and then he returned to Bastrop to work as a smith while also serving as a ranger, some of that time at Fort Coleman. With his wife, Thurza N. Blakey, he moved to Webber’s Prairie, among the first American communities in what is Travis County. The town is now called Webberville.
From there, they moved to Brushy Creek in Williamson County to raise livestock. In the 1850s, Smithwick served as armorer at Fort Croghan, which grew into the town of Burnet. He purchased a saw and grist mill from a group of Mormons in 1850. After he sold that, he started a new and very successful mill 10 miles east of Marble Falls in the rugged country along what is now FM 1431.
A Unionist like Sam Houston and several other prominent Texas leaders, he left the state in a wagon train for California in 1861 after Texas seceded from the Union. Smithwick lived there until his death in 1899, by which time his stories of old Texas had been polished to a fine edge. Each anecdote leads to a small revelation, often humorous. Some of his stories were published in his lifetime, but the memoir was dictated by the then-blind Smithwick to his daughter, Anna (or Nanna) Smithwick Donaldson, who gathered the materials into a book published by Karl Gammel in Austin in 1900.
Sadly, the 2016 paperback edition that sits on my shelf comes without a crucial index, which I would have used often.
Good at relaying the suspense of action in the field, Smithwick is equally adept at describing what people gathered for food and how they prepared it, how they made clothing, furniture and housing, and how implements like guns and mills, which he specialized in, operated. He recounts the plagues of floods and locusts, encounters with bears and wolves, as well as frequent interaction with American Indians, some peaceful, others not.
Vividly, he writes about the backbreaking labor of turning corn into meal with steel hand mills and mortars before the arrival of mechanical corn crackers powered by water.
"Captain Jake Harrell said that, after a man had hauled water and ground his bread on a steel mill or beat it in a mortar for a year, he was unfitted for any business requiring energy and perseverance," Smithwick writes. "Said he: ‘It got so that I knew to a grain how much corn it would take for a meal and I couldn’t turn another lick till driven to it by the necessity of bread for the next meal.’"
It became the habit of travelers to stop at a cabin and offer to hand-grind corn, for which they would receive turkey, venison and other treats from the grateful homesteader.
Smithwick refers to racist theories of white superiority, but he often treated Mexicanos, Tejanos and indigenous people, as well as black people — free or slaves — in a manner indicating more empathy than many of his contemporaries.
He participated, sometimes stationed at Fort Coleman, in skirmishes with American Indians that sound especially punitive, but he also lived for a while with the Comanches. He tried to learn their language but communicated with them and other tribes mostly in Spanish.
He references two people "in his possession," but he goes to great length to praise a freed slave with three children, Silvia Hector, who married John Webber of Webberville fame. Silvia and John had at least eight children of their own together, making one of Travis County’s first families both blended and mixed-race.
Smithwick and his family were threatened for their Union sympathies — his nephew was murdered for it — so "with a feeling of inexpressible sadness," they loaded up the wagons and headed to California. While the rest of the memoir is rich with Texan details, this short chapter about the epic trip west is a revelation. The Smithwick party was joined by other Texans along the way, until a considerable number lumbered from fort to fort, most of those in a state of chaos or seized by Confederates.
"On the evening of July 3, we reached Fort Filmore," Smithwick writes about a stop on the overland trail in what is now New Mexico just past El Paso, "and for the first time in many months saw Old Glory floating from the mast. That beautiful ensign never before looked so lovely to me, and I thought of Francis Scott Key when straining his eyes ‘through the dawn’s early light,’ the ‘broad stripes and bright stars’ floating over Fort McHenry, catching ‘the gleam of the morning’s first beam,’ flashed them the signal that their friends still held the fort."