arrived in Austin from
61-year-old former Texas Ranger Buck Barry took a sheet of House
of Representatives stationery and began scratching out a letter
to his 12-year-old son.
Elected to the House in 1882, in January 1883 Barry traveled to
Austin to serve in the
12th Legislature. In the largely ceremonial early days of the session,
he had been presented what he called "the finest gun that could
be bought" in recognition of his Ranger service along the frontier
during the Civil War.
Once the two chambers finally got down to business, Barry proved
to be as good a lawmaker as he had been an Indian fighter. The North
Carolina native, who had come to Texas in 1845 as a young man of
24, had a way with words even if he couldn't spell those words all
that well. Nor did he seem to have awareness of what a period is
used for in composition, his missive essentially only two giant
run-on sentences. Even so, it was a meaty letter.
I came by a copy of the letter in 1999. My late mother, much better
at deciphering old-style handwriting than me, graciously transcribed
Barry's missive into a digital file. Organizing my papers, I recently
came across a copy of her efforts and realized I had never written
about it. At least until now.
Texas's 1850s-vintage limestone
Capitol had been gutted by fire in November 1881 and the Legislature
was conducting its business in a hastily built temporary brick state
house at 11th and Congress. Meanwhile, a permanent red granite Capitol
slowly took shape across the street, construction having begun in
February 1882. Reading between the lines, Barry likely wrote his
letter while sitting in the House chamber.
son," he began, "I hardly know what to write you unless I knew what
would please you most…. After that, the old ranger dispensed with
any "I'm fine, how are you?" sentiments and went right to the most
interesting thing he could think of, the recent death of former
Gov. E.J. Davis.
"[H]e died 7th Feb of something like Pneumonia Called pleurisy[.]
Yesterday the 9th he was buried in the state
Cemetery[.] The weather was bad and there was not [a] great
many that turned out maybe five hundred with the Colored folks,"
Barry said Davis had lain in state in the House for four hours.
"His face was left bare that all who wanted to could see him[.]
He looked very natural though his beard was much whiter than when
I last saw him," Barry wrote. "He was a man that all rebels hated
very much, but the Legislature bothe the House and Senate were all
rebels…paid a great tribute of respect to him when he died, as [his]
History…will constitute a part of the great state of Texas history
and consequently the tribute of respect paid to him after his death
by his political enemies will also be a matter of history."
Davis had served as a Union officer during the Civil War, and as
the state's chief executive during Reconstruction had been seen
as a near-despot by most of his constituents. The respect Barry
described likely masked near elation at his passing on the part
of many Texans.
But now, nearly
18 years since the war ended, Texas faced new problems.
wire, and its growing popularity in the state, pitted large
landowners (ranchers) against small land owners (mostly farmers.)
Those opposed to the fencing of what for years had been free range
land took every opportunity to cut wire fences, often in the dead
of night. Fence cutting had led to violence, and Barry's successors
in the Rangers had been saddled with stopping the costly practice.
"Johnny," the freshman representative from Bosque
County continued, "I am trying now to get a law passed to indict
[indiscernible] and all others who do not put pole or rail on their
wire fence so that we will not have so many horses to doctor for
worms." (The result of parasites entering wounds caused by barbed
But Barry was having trouble with the measure.
"The stock men on the Rio Grande and the Panhandle Country oppose
me[.] They have 20 to 40 miles [of] wire fence without pole and
do all they can against me as they don't want to pay money for [poles]
and they have no poles out there," the ranger-turned-lawmaker wrote.
While Davis's death and the barbed wire problem had been the main
topics of his letter, Barry did dispense a bit of fatherly advice
to his son:
"You must try to write well which you do very well for a boy of
your age," the elder Barry said. "You must not forget it no boy
or man can get a position in any Department of state unless he writes
a smooth, clear…hand."
His election to "a position" in the Legislature didn't happen because
of his penmanship, but Barry practiced what he preached. His script
was readable (at least by those familiar with the handwriting of
the day) and with no scratch-outs.
Barry would live to be an old man, dying on his 85th birthday on
Dec. 16, 1906. But even in his early 60s, he seems to have had a
sense of posterity.
"When you read this [letter] and all the rest," he enjoined his
son, "file it [away] with your old papers as rellicks."
© Mike Cox
- October 8, 2015 Column
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