Building a Texas-Sized Exhibition

“…a wise and prudent administration in the commencement of her national existence will be universally expected; improving upon the difficult and delicate task of settling in complete and successful operation a political body based upon principles so hazardously asserted and so gloriously maintained.”

Sam Houston’s signature

The above quote could easily be attributed to any number of government entities that have arisen since 1776.  In fact, I wager that it’s applicable to many political upheavals we’re following in 2011.  At least, that what struck me as I recently read this historical document.  The phrase that was deliberately omitted from the quote is this, “For Texas.”  It comes from a letter President Sam Houston wrote to Edward Hall on November 3, 1836 from the town of Columbia.  You can see this letter yourself in our recently opened Texas! exhibit.

If there is any thread to my occasional posts as a HMNS registrar, it is that the connection between an object and a viewer influences the viewer in some way.  As someone whose professional life consists largely of dealing with objects, I am not unfamiliar with the concept.  My collections and exhibits colleagues and I are always keenly aware of the care and respect employed when handling museum objects.  So sometimes we can temporarily lose sight of an object’s scientific/ historical/ aesthetic/ educational value when we’re trying to ensure that its mount is supportive, the lighting levels aren’t harmful, the proper temp and humidity of a gallery/case environment is steadily maintained; in short that nothing goes wrong.  However, being Texas born and bred, I found it difficult not to get caught up in the emotional wow! factor of the items in this exhibit.

Audrey Jones Beck’s Mardi Gras Dress

I’ll readily admit that I inwardly groaned when I saw all the documents that needed condition reports at the start of the exhibit installation. Paper documents are delicate and fragile so we mostly viewed them through mylar sleeves, but even that method still needs an abundance of caution. It wasn’t a job we could zip through. And once again I marveled at the miracles a conservator can perform to mitigate the damages of time.

But over and over I found myself drawn into the words on the page, especially when they were handwritten and signed. In the letter quoted above, Sam Houston goes on to delineate his cabinet members. As I read the names my decidedly low-brow reaction was: well, geez, that’s half the streets downtown. Somehow I never knew that Rusk was the Secretary of War. While perusing the pages of the minutes of the Convention of Texas Independence, I started making connections with my travels throughout the state. The list of attendees is basically a roll call of the counties in this state. Sometimes the words would just sing and I had to take a moment.

Here’s a brief quote from page 24 of the minutes that I particularly like:

“…that unless a people are educated and enlightened, it is idle to expect the continuance of civil liberty or the capacity for self-government.”

Also in the minutes, directly following the declaration of independence, is the appointment of a committee charged with immediately getting the declaration to a printer for wide distribution. Communication is important no matter what era a revolution takes place but the distance between the printer’s broadsides of 1836 and the revolutionary tweets of 2011 is amazing, isn’t it? Not to mention the difference between putting quill to paper and tapping thumbs to glass screens. Which reminds me of something else I noticed through this long (fifty-four plus pages) document, the handwriting was remarkably clear and beautiful to start, towards the end the poor secretary’s hand was beginning to sag. It was a long convention.

Other documents provoked equally strong but completely opposite reactions. As one colleague pointed out, “We’re all creeped out by the slavery stuff.” Documents are made on paper but it’s the actual words that matter. So, yes, it’s pieces of paper from the Harris County tax office but those dry and orderly tax receipts for humans beings considered personal property right here in our now very diverse cosmopolitan city will always retain a repulsive taint. That’s why it’s important to include them in this exhibit.

Davy Crockett’s Violin

But enough already about documents! Let’s go on to random ‘wish we’d snapped a photo’ installation moments.

The faces when folks first saw the turkey dress, a combo of wow! and how the heck are we going to display that thing? Beth and Mike struggling with the San Jacinto Mardi Gras dress, dress waist too tiny, mannequin hips and shoulders too wide, Mike taking a hammer to the nude mannequin in an attempt to narrow said mannequin, suggestions made that our skinniest staff member just stand in the exhibit wearing the dress, sanity returns, new mannequin ordered. (Audrey Jones Beck truly was ‘a mere slip of a girl’ when she wore that thing.)

Rodney ‘age-ing’ the canvas of the Santa Anna tent prop in his backyard. Looking inside the proper right sound hole on Davy Crockett’s violin and seeing penciled “FRANKLIN CO./Feb.14, 1819,” then realizing that the date the violin was being examined was February 14, 2011.

Small things can humanize historical figures. Santa Anna was definitely a cruel harsh man but his fawn paperweight is unexpectedly goofy and charming. The small wood heart whittled by Sam Houston is a tender link to the monumental figure across the street from the museum’s doors.

Beth happened across a list of clothing in Anna Chase’s journal who may have been a spy but according to that wardrobe inventory was also something of a clothes horse. Trying not to hum “Old Man River” (Lift that bale!). The cotton bale is the traditional five hundred pounds, no mount needed. Most disappointing moment for yours truly during the exhibit installation was learning that due to curatorial decision the way cool children’s cap guns from the 1940s and 50s were cut from the exhibit. Man, they had Texas Rangers emblems on ‘em and really worked and everything! Dang.

So that’s a few behind the scenes moments from the Texas exhibit.  Many people worked tirelessly on this exhibit and the gracious lenders were very generous with their treasures.  It wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

But one last thing… On that letter from Sam Houston to Edward Hall which started off this post, in the viewer’s upper left corner an unknown hand exuberantly wrote “Save this!”  Whoever scribbled that was absolutely right and I like to think it was an early forebear of a museum collections worker.

Letter from Sam Houston to Edward Hall with the phrase “Save This.”

Don’t miss these famous objects and more that make up our Texas! exhibition, now on display at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Quanah Parker: Part 2

Quanah Parker was an important Comanche chief, a leader in the Native American Church, and the last leader of the powerful Quahadi band before they surrendered their battle of the Great Plains.  With five wives and 25 children, Quanah had numerous descendants. Many people in Texas and Oklahoma claim him as an ancestor. S.C. Gwynne recently published a book on Quanah Parker, and is giving a lecture on him at the museum on April 5. Here is part 2 of my blog on Quanah Parker. If you missed the first part, don’t worry, just click here to read it.

Quanah grew up to be a full warrior by the time he was fifteen years old, when he led a raid to steal horses in the San Antonio area. His reputation grew when, on his second raid, he was intercepted by a company of U.S. Army cavalry. Instead of taking off, Quanah confronted his assailants and managed to steal the cavalry’s sixty mules (Gwynne 2010: 199-201).

These were the years during which the Civil War raged further east. While there were no large scale military encounters in this part of the US, the Civil War did affect the frontier area by siphoning off manpower and money. This left the border wide open to Comanche raids once more (Gwynne 2010:210).

Over time, Comanche raiding changed in nature. Instead of being primarily aimed at stealing horses, these raids became the 19th century equivalent of what would be called political terrorism today: their goal was to roll back the frontier. There was good evidence that this tactic was working (Gwynne 2010: 202). In addition, Quanah retained a burning desire to avenge his father’s death and his mother’s abduction (Gwynne 2010: 202).

After the Civil War, things did not improve. Comanches engaged in cattle raids, which they ended up selling to the army in return for guns and ammunition, to be used in later raids (Gwynne 2010: 223).

In 1868, Quanah took part in a raid that went into Mexico. However, by then the traditional Comanche lifestyle of hunting buffalo and raiding had become a whole lot more difficult. A line of forts had been built in Texas along the San Antonio – El Paso Trail (Gwynne 2010:201). These forts, built by the US after the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo were intended to protect Mexico from raids across the new international border by the Indian tribes of the North. This certainly included the Comanches. One of the men posted to these forts was US Army captain Ranald Slidell MacKenzie (Gwynne 2010: 238).

Ranald Slidell MacKenzie
Image from Wikipedia

In 1871, President Grant placed MacKenzie in command of the Fourth Cavalry on the frontier, placing him squarely in the path of Comanche war parties (Gwynne 2010: 238). This set the stage for the Battle of Blanco Canyon.

MacKenzie’s force consisted of six hundred men and twenty-five Tonkawa scouts. This was the largest force ever assembled against the Comanches to that date (Gwynne 2010:242). True to form, Quanah Parker attacked the force the night of October 10, 1871. He managed to run off some – but not all – of the horses. Still, sixty-six soldiers who had lost their horses were forced to march back east to their supply camp. The rest of the troops continued their search for their attackers. The next day, October 11, they did just that and more. They stumbled across the main body of the Quahadi band, to which Quanah Parker belonged (Gwynne 2010: 243). The Battle of Blanco Canyon had begun.

Blanco Canyon, in Crosby County, Texas, as it looked in 2009
Image from Wikipedia

Traditional Comanche tactics, especially when defending women and children, was for the warriors to face their attackers, buying time for their families to escape. This Quanah Parker and his warriors did. The odds definitely favored the attackers. MacKenzie outnumbered the Comanche warriors, and they were equipped with superior weapons. Quanah Parker and his fellow warriors, on the other hand, had to secure the safety of the entire band, consisting of several hundred lodges. There were large numbers of women and children to be moved out of harm’s way, as were tons of equipment, provisions and supplies, about three thousand horses and mules, as well as cattle and dogs. It seemed like an impossible task to hide them on the open plains, but that is exactly what they did (Gwynne 2010:245).

MacKenzie deployed his trackers, but the band disappeared in the canyons carved by the Brazos river east of the present city of Lubbock. For two days, the Comanche band marched and doubled back, leaving false trails heading in all kinds of directions. The pursuers, new to this part of the country were lost. Finally, mother nature came to the rescue. When at one point, the tribe was sighted and the Anglo force started to gain ground on them, a “blue-norther” roared in. In the face of snow, sleet and winds blowing up to fifty miles per hour, the Fourth Cavalry broke of its pursuit, and the Comanche vanished in the darkness (Gwynne 2010:248).

A blue norther heading toward Landergin Mesa.
Such storms can take a nice warm day and turn it cold, wet, and blustery in a matter of minutes,
a fact well known to anyone who has lived in the Texas Panhandle.
Photo by Rolla Shaller. Image courtesy of Texas Beyond History, Texas Archeological Research Laboratory,
University of Texas at Austin. Photo from

While a success in the short run, the Battle of Blanco Canyon marked the beginning of the end for the Comanche who still roamed the Plains freely. Within a few years, most would be dead, and the survivors forced to relocate to reservations.

Make sure you check out S.C. Gwynne’s lecture on the Comanche on April 5, 2011 at the museum.

The museum’s Plains Indian collection is quite extensive; at its core is the Gordon W. Smith collection, which the museum acquired in 2008. For more information, see here.

Anyone interested in the history of Texas, and its close connection to the history of the Comanches, check out our exhibit on Texas!, on display now at the museum.

Check back next week for the conclusion of the blogs on Quanah Parker.

Quanah Parker

Quanah Parker was an important Comanche chief, a leader in the Native American Church, and the last leader of the powerful Quahadi band before they surrendered their battle of the Great Plains.  With five wives and 25 children, Quanah had numerous descendants. Many people in Texas and Oklahoma claim him as an ancestor. S.C. Gwynne recently published a book on Quanah Parker, and is giving a lecture on him at the museum on April 5. Here is part 1 of my blog on Quanah Parker.

Sometime in 1848, a baby boy was born in a tipi near the Wichita Mountains in what is now southwestern Oklahoma. His name was Quanah Parker. His mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, had been abducted by Comanche raiders in 1836. His father, Peta Nocona, was a powerful war chief of the Quahadi band, one of five bands that made up the Comanche nation. The Quahadi roamed the headstreams of the Colorado, Brazos and Red Rivers in Northwest Texas.

Quanah Parker. Photographed by Lanney.
National Archives Photo – ARC ID # 530911

This is Quanah’s story, and that of his people, both the Comanche and the Anglo settlers in Texas. It is based on a book by S. C. Gwynne, entitled Empire of the Summer Moon. An in-depth interview with the author, conducted in the summer of 2010 can be heard here.

Over the last four centuries, the Comanche nation in general and Quanah Parker in particular exerted a huge influence on the history of the Plains, providing answers to questions such as:

• Why were the East and West Coasts settled by people of European descent before the central portion of North America?
• What are the roots of Texas’ history?
• When, why and how did the Texas Rangers come into being?
• What is the story behind the five shot Colt revolvers?

When the Spanish arrived in the Americas, they re-introduced horses, long gone from this part of the world. They also brought with them firearms. This combination of horse and firepower created profound changes in North American Indian societies. The first known herd of horses to arrive in what is now the United States was brought in with Don Juan de Oñate in 1598. It did not take long before the Apaches mastered horse riding. This made them better hunters and gave them much greater mobility as raiders of agricultural settlements in New Mexico. Those raids started as early as the 1650s. It was a way of life that would culminate in the life of Geronimo. From then on, horses were the principal form of wealth on the Plains.

The Comanches were one of the first Plains Indian Nations to obtain horses. They became America’s most accomplished horsemen.

George Catlin commented on their prowess in the following way:

“Amongst their feats of riding there is one that has astonished me more than anything of the kind I have ever seen or expect to see in my life: – a stratagem of war, learned and practiced by every young man in the tribe; by which he is able to drop his body on the side of his horse at the instant he is passing, effectively screened from his enemies’ weapons, as he lays in a horizontal position behind the body of his horse, with his heel hanging over the horse’s back… in this wonderful condition, he will hang whilst his horse is at fullest speed, carrying with him his bow and shield and also his long lance 14 feet in length.”

Here is how Catlin illustrated this:

Comanche Feats of Horsemanship, George Catlin 1834-1835.
Smithsonian American Art Museum,  Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr.

In 1836 the world of the Comanches and that of Anglo settlers clashed at Fort Parker. The Parker family had moved from Illinois to Texas in 1833 and settled on land granted to them by Mexico. By 1835, on the eve of Texas’ independence, about two dozen people representing six Parker families had built a one-acre fort, located about two miles (3 km) west of present-day Groesbeck.

Fort Parker. Image courtesy of

This fort was situated on the western edge of the frontier. There were no Anglo settlements to the west. Gwynne notes:

“Between Parker’s Fort and Mexican California stood Santa Fe and the small, scattered settlements of New Mexico. [T]he fort was so far beyond the ordinary line of settlements that there were hardly any people behind it either. [Emphasis his]) (Gwynne 2010:14).

At this point in time, Texas was the only place where whites and Plains Indians met. Oklahoma was a place where the tribes of the South and the middle-Atlantic states were forcibly relocated to. North of Oklahoma, part of what would become Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas had not been reached yet by white settlers.

On May 19, 1836, a band of about 100 Comanche Indians rode up to the fort. They attacked the fort, killing five of its occupants before riding off with two women and three children. Among the children was nine year old Cynthia Ann. The survivors struggled to make it Fort Houston, near modern-day Palestine, Texas (Gwynne 2010:18).

Cynthia Ann survived, and was treated comparatively humanely, possibly because of the presence of a warrior by the name of Peta Nocona. He would later become her husband and war chief (Gwynne 2010:37).

Attempts on the part of her family to locate Cynthia Ann were unsuccessful. However, Leonard H. Williams, an Indian agent dispatched by the US government in 1846 did manage to find her in what is now Oklahoma. His attempt to purchase her freedom met with refusal from the tribe and Cynthia Ann’s as well (Gwynne 2010:107-108).

Quanah Parker was born two years later, the oldest of three children. As son of a powerful war chief, Quanah led a privileged life growing up among the Comanches. All this changed when he was twelve. In 1860, Peta Nocona led a bloody raid against the frontier. This resulted in the abandonment of hundreds of farms in the area, but also the raising of a posse by a man named Charles Goodnight (Gwynne 2010:173).

Charles Goodnight,
Picture from Wikipedia.

Goodnight tracked Nocona and his fellow raiders, as well as the 150 horses they had stolen. He followed them to a village well inside Comanche territory. Realizing that they were outnumbered the posse returned and organized a full-scale expedition against the village. Forty Rangers, twenty-one army soldiers and about seventy local volunteers left Fort Belknap on December 13, 1860. They were commanded by Sul Ross, at age twenty three already a veteran of the conflict with the Indians (Gwynne 2010:174). Six days later, they reached the village and attacked. Most of the warriors were killed, as were some of the women.

The battle ended with a brief running fight: Ross and another soldier pursued three Indians who had fled on horses. In the ensuing fight, one of the fleeing Indians was killed. He was later identified as Peta Nocona (Gwynne 2010: 177). The others were Cynthia Ann and a child, the son of another white girl who had been abducted by the Comanches and married an Indian (Gwynne 2010:178).

During the attack, Cynthia’s two sons, Quanah and “Grassnut” were separated from their mother. They would never see her again. Cynthia was taken back to Fort Belknap, much against her will. There she recounted her story. Eventually, she was moved from one family member to another but she never quite re-adjusted to Anglo society (Gwynne 2010: 181-193).

The two brothers not only escaped, but managed to make it to a Comanche camp some 100 miles west (Gwynne 2010:195). Quanah’s social status completely changed. He was now an orphan, his father killed, and his mother taken by the army. Moreover, within a year or so, his brother also died. At age 13, Quanah Parker had to stand up for himself, often being treated more cruelly than other orphans on account of his white blood (Gwynne 2010: 199).

Make sure you check out S.C. Gwynne’s lecture on the Comanche on April 5, 2011 at the museum.

The museum’s Plains Indian collection is quite extensive; at its core is the Gordon W. Smith collection, which the museum acquired in 2008. For more information, see here.

Anyone interested in the history of Texas, and its close connection to the history of the Comanches, check out our exhibit on Texas!, on display now at the museum.

Check back next week to learn more about Quanah Parker.

Texas Exhibition! Spotlight on Sam Houston

You can’t miss him if you’re traveling Interstate 45 near Huntsville. He towers over the surrounding land, continuing to watch his beloved Texas, from a height of 67 feet. Who was the man for whom this giant statue was built?

Sam Houston was born on March 2, 1793, in Rockbridge County, Tennessee. He only attended a local school for six months. Houston moved with his mother and brothers to Eastern Tennessee at the age of 13 when his father died.

Rebelling against his older brothers’ attempts to get him to work the family farm and in the family store, Houston ran away to live with the Cherokee Indians. Adopted by Chief Oolooteka, he lived with the Cherokee Indians for three years and was known as “the Raven.” This close relationship would forever affect Houston’s feelings towards Indians.

Houston joined the United States Army when war broke out with the British. During this service he received three wounds that were nearly fatal. General Andrew Jackson recognized Houston’s bravery and Houston became a staunch Jackson supporter. While healing from his wounds, he was appointed a sub-Indian agent and helped Chief Oolooteka’s tribe settle west of the Mississippi.

Houston later opened a law practice in Lebanon, Tennessee. With Jackson’s support, he became a colonel in the state militia. In late 1818, Sam Houston was elected attorney general of Nashville, but later returned to his private law practice in the early 1820s.

Elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1823, Houston worked unsuccessfully to get Andrew Jackson elected President of the United States. Sam was re-elected to Congress for a second and third term, followed by a successful bid for the Governorship of Tennessee.

In grief over the breakup of his 11-week marriage, Houston crossed the Mississippi River and headed to Indian Territory. For another 3 years, Houston again lived with Chief Oolooteka’s Cherokee tribe in Oklahoma. He married a Cherokee woman and became active in Indian affairs, attempting to maintain peace among Indian tribes. After he thrashed Ohio Representative William Stanberry with his cane over an Indian tribe conflict, Houston was tried, reprimanded and fined for the assault. He left his Cherokee family and entered Mexican Texas.

He immediately got involved in Anglo-Texan affairs, serving as a delegate to the Convention of 1833. As unrest grew in Mexican Texas, he considered whether there should be another consultation to attempt to resolve the issues. By October he believed that war between Texas and Mexico was inevitable. In early November, Houston was appointed as the major general of the Texas army. On March 2, 1836, the assembly at Washington-on-the-Brazos adopted the Texas Declaration of Independence.

On March 6, 1836, the Alamo fell to the Mexican Army under General Santa Anna. In the meantime, Sam Houston returned from Washington-on-the-Brazos to his army in Gonzales and they retreated towards the east. The citizens of Gonzales soon followed on foot, burning their town and whatever belongings they couldn’t carry. They wanted nothing left in Gonzales to help Santa Anna’s army.  Many were worried about Houston’s retreat, fearing that he was afraid of Santa Anna’s strength and feeling that their men had died at the Alamo in vain.

However, Sam Houston needed time to train his newly-formed, poorly-trained volunteer army.  The Battle of San Jacinto on April 21, 1836, proved General Sam Houston’s ability to lead his army to victory. Santa Anna’s army was defeated in an 18-minute battle, and he was captured the following day.

Sam Houston at the Battle of San Jacinto 
Painting by Harry Arthur McArdle (1836-1908)

Sam Houston became the first elected president of the Republic of Texas, defeating Stephen F. Austin. He served as the Republic’s president for two terms. In late 1836, Sam Houston sent prisoner-of-war Santa Anna to Washington to seek Texas’s annexation to the United States.

According to its constitution, Sam Houston was unable to succeed himself as President of the Republic of Texas, so he ran for and served in the House of Representatives from 1839-1841. He defeated then-President Mirabeau B. Lamar, and again became President of the Republic of Texas in 1841, serving until 1844.  When Texas joined the Union in 1845, Sam Houston served as one of its two U.S. Senators.

Houston was defeated the first time he ran for the office of Governor of Texas, but won the election in 1859. A slave owner himself, Houston opposed secession from the U.S. and was removed from office when he refused to take the oath of loyalty to the new Confederate States of America. He moved with family to Huntsville, Texas, and died there on July 23, 1863.