Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day Remembrance: The American Civil War and The Great Gainesville Hanging

It is difficult, and painful to imagine what life must have been like during the American Civil War. The example often used is "brother fighting brother," but it was more than that, it was neighbors fighting neighbors, friends killing friends, children lying about their ages and rushing off to join their older siblings only to die, anonymously, beneath trees or in ditches. War is painful for everyone, and the memories last beyond the lifetimes of those involved, spreading through the generations, changing families forever.

My ancestor, David Miller Leffel, died during the American Civil War. He was killed in a mob hanging in Texas. He was not a soldier. He was a farmer, and a family man. In 1858, on the brink of the American Civil War, he packed up his household and with his wife and eight children, headed south from Ohio to claim his wife's inheritance in Grayson County, Texas.

The Leffels would soon be embroiled in one of the hottest debates that Texas had ever known: Should Texas revert back to its original status as a separate country, remain loyal to the Union, or join the other Confederate states in seceding?

The question was highly debated in Texas. In the late 1850s, the Butterfield Overland Mail Route was completed, allowing for a mass migration into north Texas. It is estimated that fewer than 10% of north Texas households owned slaves at the start of the Civil War. The increasing population of northerners and abolitionists made slave owners nervous. In fact, in 1860, all of the counties above Dallas actually voted against secession.

The Confederate Conscription Act of 1862 increased tensions when thirty men from north Texas signed a petition arguing that large plantation owners should not be exempt from the Confederate draft. Brig. General William Hudson, commander of the militia district around Gainesville, ordered the arrest of all men who refused to report for duty with the Confederate Army. Soon, more than 150 men were arrested by the militia.

A “Peace Party” was formed of men who objected to these arrests. These men used a special handshake for identification and took vows of secrecy. Doctor Henry Chiles was one of the leaders of the Peace Party. In September of 1862, Dr. Chiles’ brother, Ephraim Chiles, had a bit too much whiskey at the local bar and revealed the details of the secret society to an acquaintance. Soon, the members of the Peace Party faced a far more sadistic end than conscription into the Confederate Army.

In October of 1862, residents of north Texas were forced to face the brutal realities of the American Civil War when forty men were dragged from their homes by a Confederate mob and transported to Gainesville. Two other men were shot and killed while trying to escape. One of the men dragged from his home was my ancestor, David Leffel.

The accusers held a mock trial. The men were charged with conspiracy and insurrection against the Confederacy by a jury of slave owners and owners of large plantations. Someone claimed the Peace Party intended to rise up against all Southerners and kill women and children. This claim, of course, was picked up by the newspapers, adding to the hysteria.

An angry mob formed in Gainesville. A mock trial was held and most of the men were found innocent, but a decision was made to release some of the men to the mob to appease their anger. At least three of the men hanged were elderly and arthritic, could not mount horses and were taken to their own hangings in a wagon. David Miller Leffel, referred to as "old man Leffel," my great+grandfather, was among the men who were fed to the crowds, along with four of his immediate family members, and Dr. Henry Chiles, along with his brother, Ephraim.

The bodies of most of the hanging victims were never found. It is believed they were buried in a mass grave. Surviving family members were harassed and abused for many years following the hangings. Many of the surviving family members sold their property and left Texas forever. My ancestors, David Leffel's oldest son, moved back to Ohio.

Shortly after the Civil War was brought to an end, David Leffel’s wife, Susan, wrote a letter to Edmund Davis who was Governor of Texas at that time. She begged Davis for assistance against further harassment and protection for her children.

Southern newspapers applauded the hangings, which they referred to as “The Great Hanging at Gainesville.” However, Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States, expressed his embarrassment over the situation and fired General Paul Octave H├ębert as military commander of Texas for improper use of martial law.

Northern newspapers used the incident as an example of the barbaric nature of the Rebels. Unionist and former Texas congressman Andrew Jackson Hamilton later made use of the hangings to lend support to his campaign for Governor of Texas.

There are a few books detailing this incident, including Tainted Breeze: The Great Hanging at Gainesville, Texas 1862, and many newspaper articles detailing the events in a very biased manner. Most of the information known about this incident has been passed down through the generations in heart-wrenching stories.

And strangely, the incident is still referred to as "The Great Gainesville Hanging," though there was nothing great, admirable, or noble about anything that took place during this time.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Prickly Pear Cactus--the Texas State Plant

The American Southwest just would not look the same without the prickly pear cactus. These amazing plants have not only represented the State of Texas since 1995, they have always represented, in the minds of many, the life of the cowboy in the Old West. It may come as a surprise to learn that the word "cactus" is derived from a Greek word, "kaktos," but what is not surprising is the meaning of kaktos: prickly plant. Thus, the "Prickly Pear Cactus" is a bit of a tongue twister. Prickly Pear prickly plant. In Texas, though, they are generally referred to simply as "pear."

Prickly Pear plants can grow quite large. They have oval-shaped patties that grow on top of each other in clumps that can be as high as eight feet--not something you want close by when you're struggling with a bucking horse. Sometimes the deer knock off the pads. Let the end dry a bit, then stick it in soil and it will root.


Prickly Pear cactus in Rio Grande Valley, New Mexico. 
Photograph by Darla Sue Dollman.

Prickly Pear Cactus is more than landscaping for the people of the American Southwest and Mexico, it is also a source of food, and can save one's life when lost in the desert by providing a small amount of fluids and a large amount of nutrients. The plant contains both a fruit and a vegetable. In times of drought, cowboys often burn the needles off so the cattle can use the pads and fruit for food. This is called "burning pear." Aoudad, or Barbary Sheep, wild sheep in the Southwest, also enjoy nibbling around the edges. During times of severe drought in the days of the Old West, the Texas Longhorns would use the Prickly Pear Cactus for survival, munching down the entire plant, spines and all.

The fruit of the Prickly Pear grows on top of the patties resembling stubby fingers on a hand. The fruit starts as a flower, then grows into a pink to purple stub called a "Tuna." To eat the tuna, it is best to remove it from the plant with a pair of tongs, then hold a match or lighter to the needles and burn them off. The tuna is then sliced in half and the seeds are removed. This leaves a small amount of sweet, juicy, goo that is very tasty and packed with Vitamin C. It tastes best when chilled, and in some places, is considered a delicacy.

The pads of the Prickly Pear are also edible. They are called "nopales" or "nopalito" and sold as a vegetable in the produce section in the Southwest and Mexico. The needles are removed and they are sold in packages, but in the field, one would burn the needles off before trying to remove the nopalito from the plant. They are generally sold in small and medium sizes. They are harvested between spring and summer.


Nopales for sale at grocery store. Photograph by Darla Sue Dollman.

To eat the nopalito, first make sure even the fine needles are removed. It might be best to wear thick gloves, or run a flame around them one more time. Any remaining spines will burn off in cooking. Wash the pad with cold water and remove and dried patches or scarred areas. They are then fried or boiled and added to eggs, soups, and chili.

Of course, there is another use of the multi-purpose Prickly Pear cactus. There is a type of bug that loves the Prickly Pear. It resembles mealy bugs, but it's called Cochineal. They grow on the pads and sometimes the fruit. They are considered an infestation and can destroy a large grouping of Prickly Pear, knocking it to the ground, if not removed with soap and water. It is easily recognized if you rub the white with your finger. It leaves an indigo smear on the plant.

The bugs can be removed with a knife and placed in a plastic bag. Take them into the house, spread them on a cookie sheet--I would obviously cover the pan with foil--then cook them in the oven on a light setting for 10 minutes until dry. They can be stored or used immediately.

The Cochineal is then used in a dye bath with alum as a mordant. If the dye is used on wool fabric, it produces a bright red color. This dye was used by Native American Indians in California mission to make blankets.

And this is one of my favorite little Prickly Pear bits of trivia. According to Factropolis, the Prickly Pear Cactus secretes an oily substance during full moons!

So remember, next time you see a Prickly Pear as you walk through the desert, show the plant the respect that it deserves. It will serve you well.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Wild West Trivia

When the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad was finally connected to Dodge City in 1872, some of the rails were actually placed on the old wagon ruts of the Santa Fe Trail. The station opened in 1896.

"On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe" is also an Academy Award-winning song from the 1946 movie The Harvey Girls, sung by Judy Garland. I'll never forget the first time I watched that movie as a child. Judy Garland looks so beautiful in this film.

There was a Harvey House Restaurant and Hotel in Dodge City, Kansas. The hotel, one of the largest Harvey Houses in Kansas, opened in 1900 and closed in 1948. The Harvey Hotels and Restaurants, started by Fred Harvey, who wisely connected the hotel and restaurant chain to the railroad depots, helped "tame" the West by providing quality food and service to all who came through the Harvey House doors. Harvey advertised for beautiful, single women to work in his restaurants, knowing this would appeal to the population in the small Western cattle and mining towns where men generally outnumbered women nine to one.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Mother's Day and a Prayer for Peace

The American Civil War played an important role in the history of the Old West, and in the history of the creation of an American Mother's Day, as well.

In England, mothers and mothering were celebrated for many years before settlers came to America, but the tradition slowly disappeared. However, when Julia Ward Howe,author of The Battle Hymn of the Republic, found herself overwhelmed by the death and destruction caused by the Civil War, she decided it was time for mothers to band together out of love foe their sons and demand peace in America. How wrote the following proclamation, demanding an end to the fighting, and calling for an international Mother's Day to celebrate the peaceful nature of mothers and their acts of nurturing and compassion:

Arise, then, women of this day!
Arise all women who have hearts,
Whether your baptism be that of water or of tears
Say firmly:

"We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands shall not come to us reeking of carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of
charity, mercy and patience.

Howe was somewhat successful in her plea. Numerous women's groups celebrated Mother's Day on June 2, 1870. Eventually, all of these celebrations stopped, except for the one in Boston, which continued for another ten years.

In Virginia, however, Anna Reeves Jarvis started a campaign to celebrate the holiday with the goal of reuniting families that were divided by the war, bringing together brothers, fathers and sons who fought for the Confederate and Union armies. Jarvis's celebration was called Mother's Friendship Day, and the goal was, again, a plea for peace.

When Jarvis died, her daughter, Anna M. Jarvis, suggested that her mother's church honor her mother's dedication to peace with a Mother's Day, which they did, distributing white carnations, the favorite flower of Anna Reeves Jarvis, to every mother in the congregation. News of the celebration spread, and soon, white carnations were distributed to mothers across the country.

U.S. Senator Elmer Burkett proposed a national Mother's Day holiday in 1908. He was denied his request, but Mother's Day services continued across the country. Anna Jarvis quit her day job and became a full-time petitioner for a national day of remembrance of Mothers. In 1914, Woodrow Wilson signed a declaration proclaiming the second Sunday in May the official Mother's Day.

Unfortunately, as the sale of flowers soared during the merry month of May, Miss Jarvis's mood plummeted. She despised the commercialization of the holiday, believing it should be honored as a day of peace, the original intention of both her mother and Julia Ward Howe. Anna M. Jarvis died in 1948, penniless from her endless dedication to first promoting, then protesting, Mother's Day without ever learning from anyone that her last days of care had been paid for by The Florist's Exchange.

As a dedicated mother and dreamer of peace, I respect the original intentions of Julia Ward Howe, Mrs. Jarvis, and her daughter, but I think their quest to preserve the intention of Mother's Day failed for two reasons. First, they failed to recognize that many men also dream of peace, despise war, and want to see their sons live long, full lives.

They also did not recognize that a gift of flowers, perfume, or whatever makes a mother happy, is a gift from the heart. It really doesn't matter what the commercials say or how much money is spent, even if the only gift is a phone call, it still comes from the heart, and mothers know this to be true. Celebrating Mother's Day, in whatever form that celebration takes place, is an unspoken promise between mothers and their children that says "I will love you forever, and I hope that forever means a long, happy, peaceful life for us all."

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Tornadoes in the Old West and Tornadoes Today

Sometimes, as I gaze across the Texas fields listening to the birds and the wind moving through the trees, I like to imagine that I am a pioneer, walking beside our covered wagon. I am trying to keep the children from walking too close to the heavy wooden wheels, watching as my husband, in front of me, guides the horses, or oxen, along the ruts in the trail.

Tornado photographed in Manhatten, Kansas, May 31, 1949

We stop for the afternoon so the animals can rest and prepare lunch for the children. Suddenly, as we are eating, fast-moving clouds cover the sky like a black blanket. My husband looks nervous. He unhitches the horses.

It starts to rain and we move beneath a tree because no one has told us that trees attract lightning. The children are starting to cry. Suddenly, we hear what sounds like a giant beast, and off in the distance a black cloud begins to form, not in the sky, but on the ground, like a funnel, a funnel that grows in width as it moves upward toward the heavens, and we can see that inside of this funnel trees and grass are whipping around, tossed about like a child's toys in the dust.

Early pioneers knew very little about tornadoes. Most of the early pioneers came from Europe and there is no place in the world that has tornadoes like the United States.

It was 1882 when the first tornado researcher started gathering information on weather patterns and damages in the hopes of saving lives in the future. According to the NOAA website, U.S. Army Signal Corps Sergeant John P. Finley was assigned tornado duty and he was the first person to establish forecasting methods, which he published in 1888.

This is believed to be the oldest known photograph of a tornado taken outside Howard, South Dakota in 1884. It is difficult to say if tornadoes have increased in frequency or strength because the study of tornadoes is still relatively young. 

Unfortunately, the U.S. Government banned the use of the word "tornado" from forecasts by the U.S. Army because they were afraid that the use of the word might cause people to panic. This rule was in place for the next forty years. This did not, however, prevent tornadoes from destroying homes and lives. On April 11, 1896, two tornadoes hit Colorado City in Mitchell County, Texas, killing a twelve year old boy and destroying five homes. On April 15, 1896, an F3 tornado destroyed numerous farms and killed two children near Faulkton, South Dakota. Imagine how different the results might have been if these families were issued a pamphlet from the U.S. Army warning them how to take shelter in a tornado?

Shoal Creek Valley, Alabama tornado. Photo taken April 27, 2011 by Wjalex4.

On April 27, 2011, the deadliest outbreak of tornadoes since 1932 struck Dixie Alley in the American South. The NOAA's National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center Meteorologists issued the first warning eight days in advance. Local meteorologists started warning residents three days in advance. Most residents received a 24 minute warning that a series of tornadoes were on the ground. In spite of these advance warnings, a horrific number of lives were lost.

When I think about these warnings and the days of the pioneers when no warnings existed, and I think about what would have happened when the pioneers encountered these deadly tornadoes, I feel grateful that times have changed, that warnings do come, and although far too many lives were lost, the situation could have been much worse.

The way I see it, the NOAA's National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center Meteorologists and our local Meteorologists are true Western heroes.

Colorado's Deadliest Floods

You may have noticed fewer posts over the past year. I've been working on a history book about flooding in Colorado. Colorado...