Frederick Law Olmsted's A Journey Through Texas gives the reader a clear and unvarnished account of life in the young state prior to the Civil War. His travels covered the years 1856 and 1857, when talk of Civil War and close encounters with native tribes were at the forefront of frontier life. Olmsted's descriptions of cities and towns well known to us today, like San Antonio, Goliad, Houston, San Marcos, and Fredericksburg, give the reader a fascinating glimpse into the formation of the state. From its earliest foundations, Olmsted reveals that Texas has been a melting pot of race and ethnicity. Native tribes, Germans, English, Irish, Mexicans, and Africans all came to Texas searching for a better life. The author interviewed a wide variety of inhabitants, including farmers, priests, cowboys, and small business owners; some who have quickly attchieved their dream, and some who are struggling to survive. If you feel that life is difficult to manage now, reading Olmsted's account of early Texas will give you a new outlook on life.
Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was a Spanish explorer who survived the doomed Narváez expedition to Florida in 1527 and spent the next eight years crossing the North American continent on foot before finding Spanish colonies in Mexico and eventually returning to Spain. His is the first recorded account of the flora and fauna, as well as the native tribes in what would eventually become Texas. The unvarnished and straightforward account detailing the daily lives of the inhabitants and their cyclic struggle to survive provides a clear picture of what settlers to the area would encounter three hundred years later. He was held as a slave, promoted as a faith healer, and forced to suffer hunger and physical hardships beyond imagination. His account supersedes the concept of a “noble savage” and instead describes the brutal reality that life in primitive societies was “nasty, brutish, and short”. There are many accounts and translations of the explorer’s first-hand account, but this 1961 edition translated by Cyclone Covey, includes helpful historical context from research that has traced much of the actual route he and his four companions took on their six-thousand-mile trek. Anyone with even a passing interest in Texas history would do well to start with this slim volume recounting Cabeza de Vaca’s epic journey.
The main character in the Nick Fischer series comes from a rural area known as the Texas Hill Country. He was raised mostly by his grandfather on a ranch that's been in the family since the first Europeans settled the area. That long history and connection to the land shapes Nick’s attitude toward his work and his life. There are a number of works of history that detail the extreme hardships the first pioneers faced. For specifics about confrontations between the native tribes and the early settlers, two books by Gregory Michno provided a wealth of detail, including maps and precise descriptions. Reading just a few of the stories leaves the impression that the pioneers had good reason to arm themselves and be prepared to fight to protect their families. Several attacks on settlers chronicled in these volumes happened in and near Nick’s hometown of Fredericksburg. In one case referred to in Second Chances, book two of the series, a nine-year-old girl was kidnapped by a band of Comanches. She was with her fourteen-year-old sister walking less than a mile from main street. The mounted natives grabbed both girls, but the older resisted and was shot with arrows. She died on the spot and her body was left on the side of the road. The younger sister was strapped to a horse and taken on an eleven-day trip to the tribe’s main camp in what is now Oklahoma. The young girl survived a year in captivity and then was sold to a trader who returned her to Fredericksburg. She eventually married and lived a long life, no doubt repeating her story several times. Children don’t grow up listening to stories like that without it having some effect on their psyche. Both meticulously researched books are well worth reading.
Books by Gregory Michno
The Settlers' War: The Struggle for the Texas Frontier in the 1860s
A Fate Worse Than Death: Indian Captivities in the West, 1830-1885
My family had a vinyl recording of J. Frank Dobie reading The Ghost Bull of the Mavericks and other stories that was released by Domino Records in 1960. We even had a record player that worked so that I could spend countless hours listening to Dobie's raspy Texas drawl spin tales he'd collected from old-timers around the state. During break-time in elementary school, I would retell those stories to my classmates, pretending I'd heard them first-hand. They believed me in general, until I got to the title story about the "ghost bull" who disappeared from the wild cattle trap. They had no problem with a bull who could disappear. But I lost them when I claimed to be hunting "wild cattle". These were kids from Texas who knew there were no more wild cattle. It was an early lesson in how far the storyteller can stretch credulity. Today, a recording of the original work is hard to come by, but Dobie's book, Tales of Old-Time Texas, is readily available. Some of the stories are signature Dobie humor, some are filled with mystery, and some are clearly "tall tales" meant for entertainment. Stories such as "The Dream that saved Wilbarger", which I used in the latest Nick Fischer novel, A Time to Die, are included and give the reader a strong sense of the life and times of the early Texas pioneers.