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Monday, December 9, 2013

He never claimed to be a historian

Lone Star,by Fehrenbach
Last Sunday Texas lost T. R. Fehrenbach, a writer who never claimed to be a historian, but who wrote books of history which brought Texas' past to life.
His book "Lone Star: a History of Texas and the Texans" is, in my opinion, the best history of our state ever written. Published in 1968, the book begins with the land, tells of its earliest inhabitants, and then of the waves of missionaries, settlers, and migrants (from all over the globe) who built the Texas we know today.
Though the book has its critics, I found it very helpful when trying to understand the story of our state. Often Wolfmueller's Books has a copy or two available, and it's available at the library as well. Of course, it's also available online by clicking HERE.
T. R. Fehrenbach was the author of several books, including one on the Comanche, one on Mexico, and an account of the Korean War. In addition, he wrote a column for the San Antonio Express-News until August of this year, ending only because of poor health.
I met Fehrenbach just once, in Fredericksburg, back in 1999. My old fishing buddy Gary Anderson noticed something in the paper announcing a talk Fehrenbach was giving in Fredericksburg's public library, and off we went one Sunday to hear him.
As I reported then:
On Sunday [Fehrenbach] spoke about the American West -- specifically about the short span of the Cowboys, and their lasting influence on how we Texans think about ourselves.
Mr. Fehrenbach suggests that the fellows we recognize from the Westerns, the flickering black and white matinee images, the Cowboys, were really a part of the short-lived Cattle Kingdom that sprang up right after the Civil War and was virtually gone by the 1890's. What gave rise to this important, but brief, part of our history was pure economics: cattle was worth 50 cents a head in Texas, but worth $16 per head in Kansas. The cowboy was invented to meet the challenge of getting the cattle from here to there.
Now, many cultures contributed to the Cowboy we recognize today. A significant part of his heritage came from Mexico, where the vaquero way of life was well developed, importing such words as ranch, corral, mustang, lariat, and even rodeo to our vocabulary. The cattle of Mexico were largely used for their hides; the markets in Kansas focused on the value of the beef needed to feed the growing industrial cities of the American North. All types of people were needed to help move the cattle north to market, and many of the Cowboys were Hispanic or Black, foreign or Yankee, and they blended together into their own culture. They were almost uniformly young, "teenagers out in a dangerous area making their own rules."
Young people responded to the dangerous job of moving the cattle north for several reasons: the adventure, the challenge, but mostly for the freedom. "There were no structures in the Texas West, where you had 1 person in 100 square miles -- because you couldn't impose structure in that environment."
The job itself wasn't the glamorous Hollywood picture we've grown accustomed to: you could get killed on a trail drive, and cowboys seldom made two trips. The work was hazardous, cold, dirty, wet and often brutal, and all for little pay. Yet the trail drivers seldom lacked recruits.
During the height of the Cattle Kingdom era there was little lawlessness. Fehrenbach noted that lawlessness came "when the barbed wire and lawyers showed up," bringing with them the tensions that would whittle away at the cattle business until it was no longer what it was. To drive cattle north required great open unfenced spaces and free access to water along the way.
Why would this business and this American original make such a lasting impression on us, even today when our West is intersected by interstates, dotted by deeds, and formally fenced?
First, it was a uniquely American experience where different cultures worked closely together. Few people realize that a third of the cowboys during this time were Hispanic or Black.
Secondly, its myth was built through the appearance of "penny dreadfuls," cheap novels of the West, and popular traveling shows, such as the famous Wild West Show. This work was continued by Hollywood.
The Cattle Kingdom was "a tiny business handled magnificently for a short while -- it was the last time young men were truly free. Today cowboys are no longer heroes and ranch owners are no longer King," Fehrenbach concluded.
A significant part of the early capital of this county was built on the trail drives of a few rancher-merchants, which helped pull our community to its relative prominence today. An important part of our local history and economy is indebted to a band of young, fearless men who rode a dusty, dangerous trail north and converted a local resource into much needed cash.
T. R. Fehrenbach was born San Benito, Texas, in 1925, and died in San Antonio at age 88. I am happy to recommend his books to you, especially if you're interested in history. They're well-written and comprehensive.
Until next week, all the best.
Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who wishes he had more time to read. This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times on December 7, 2013.

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