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EXPERIENCE THAT WHICH YOU WRITE ABOUT: SOME BIG BEND HISTORIOGRAPHY 

Any successful novelist worth his salt understands the value of first hand experience in writing. Who wants to read a historical novel or any novel without the ring of truth? There are many exceptions. Science fiction writers must rely entirely on their creative minds to produce a saleable work. Stephen Crane formed a timeless classic about the Civil War without having to without having to fight in the Great Rebellion. But he obviously talked to Civil War soldiers to learn about what it was like to be in combat. Historical fiction in print and in movies, no doubt, does much more to inspire young minds and teach the value of history than some dry, boring history text. But, to be effective some sort of research must be done by the writer who starts out with no life experience to draw upon.

Years ago when I first came to the Big Bend, I had grand but naive dreams of writing the great novel. But I soon discovered I could never manufacture anything between my ears better than the real and fascinating story of the far west Texas. So I set out to write history and resolved to make it readable, accurate and interesting to everyone. I had the fortunate experience of first learning to write in a newsroom noisy with the clack of typewriters. I studied journalism, not mass communications, and learned to tell the story always including, as best I could, the who, what, when, where, why and how. I learned the method of writing for readers who had no advanced degrees or even much formal education.

So how does one experience the past before putting it to paper? Most of the topics I take on are about people, places and events that long ago faded away. Native Americans left us no written records. Only today, their descendents are telling us their real story. Archaeologists fill in a bit of the story with their invaluable but plodding science. The end of prehistory in this part of the world came when Cabeza de Vaca published his remarkable narrative in the 1500s. Other Spaniards later also told us about the Indians they encountered. Likely, the Jumano Indians, as the conquistadores chroniclers named them, would have understood or recognized little about these stories. Later, William Henry Chase Whiting recorded an important bit of our west Texas past when he had the foresight to recognize the value of writing about his groundbreaking journey in his excellent journal.

The historian is bound by the written word with all of its troubles. Yes history is many times anecdotal. But that does not mean the story cannot be told accurately or in words only the very learned can understand and enjoy. Mark Twain formed the modern genera of writing what, in our time, is enduring history with "Roughing It". He learned his method by writing for a newspaper. But today the historian, to do quality research and writing must have first hand experience about which he or her writes. This experience comes from the land and the people living today and, of course, the primary source documents left from those who went before. Writers of history must make use of primary sources, as much as possible, and not simply rehash what others looking back have penned.

Big Bend historiography has seen much good work done by local historians and writers. J. E. Gregg, Alice Jack Shipman, Carlysle Graham Raht, Barry Scobee, Clifford Casey and Clayton Williams learned well the history from the land and the people. Later, Mildred Bloys Nored, Lucy Miller Jacobsen, Cecilia Thompson and Enrique Madrid also contributed their valuable local viewpoints. More recently, Lonn Taylor, Glenn Willeford, Jerry Raun need be included in this list. There are others. Our Big Bend folklorists including Virginia Madison, Halley Stillwell, Elton Miles and Blair Pittman have added their talents to the telling of our past from the oral tradition.

Although they did not spent much time in the Big Bend, Ronnie C. Tyler, William H. and Shirley A. Leckie, and Robert Wooster did fine research and writing in their efforts. Those who have only visited this part of the world only occasionally have written a fair amount of our more modern Big Bend history with considerable and lasting influence. When the lauded historian Walter Prescott Webb came to Marfa at some point in the 1920's for a short stay to do a little Big Bend first hand research, he was fascinated by the stories told him by the Texas Rangers he idolized. As a result, Webb's writings have greatly influenced our historiography. A prime example of this is Webb's telling of the Porvenir massacre. To Webb, the massacre was not a massacre at all, but rather a gunfight between brave Rangers defending themselves and Mexican badmen. Bill Smithers did much the same thing helping to further carve in stone the Ranger and U.S. Army view of the bloody border raids and reprisals on the Rio Grande during the Mexican Revolution. Their dated books are still in print and can be easily found in Big Bend bookstores.

Webb was the father of the Handbook Of Texas. Certainly, I would be the last to be overly critical of this fine effort by the Texas State Historical Association. That said, however, there are some factual errors about the Big Bend even in the latest online edition. The common problem is usually that many of the Handbook articles were written by those who had seen, first hand, little or nothing of the places and people they wrote about. An example is the Handbook article on Pilares, Texas. There is no such place as Pilares, Texas although it may have been called that by some years ago. Porvenir, Texas lies just across the Rio Grande from Pilares, Chihuahua and the two places continue to be confused even today. This error bled into Bob Keil's book and goes on even in the maps published in the book. The Keil account is highly colored by his attempt the whitewash the actions of the U. S. military on the border 1910-1920. No editorial comment is made anywhere about this in the book. Keil's one-sided but at the same time important telling of the story is now in print and his influence will live on. Gj










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