matter the old cowpoke’s backstory, in his dotage he could round up
words on paper just about as well as he once rode down and roped strays.
For a while in the 1920s, an organization called the State Association
of Texas Pioneers published a monthly magazine in San
Antonio, The Texas Pioneer. The publication, copies of which are
now pretty scare, detailed the affairs of the organization and featured
articles on Texas history
as well as old-timer recollections.
a section called “Back Trailing,” the magazine’s October 1928 issue
published a letter to George W. Saunders, prime mover in the Old Trail
Drivers of Texas and with J. Marvin Hunter, compiler of the classic
book “The Trail Drivers of Texas.” The letter came from one R. Van
An old trail driver, Van Dolen obviously was in a reflective mood
when he wrote Saunders. As the letter’s salutation suggests, they
were well-acquainted. Here’s how he started out:
Dear Old Friend: -- In the early days of Texas,
that is when we were young –that is when all of Southwest Texas was
just an open wilderness where the longhorn
cattle, the mustang horses, the deer, the antelope and wild turkey
roamed free, then when we old trail drivers after a round-up laid
down in the grass while the cook hummed his song while making that
good old corn bread and frying meat, when he called out ‘supper is
ready, come and get it.’ He never had to call us twice when we were
up and around the old chuck wagon getting our bread and meat and black
|While an English
teacher’s red pen would dart around that long, incomplete sentence
like a fly over a cow pattie trying to decide where to land first,
in those 106 words Van Dolen painted a vivid picture of what it was
like to be a Texas cowboy in the 1870s.
Meanwhile, back at the chuck wagon, the old waddy demonstrates he
had a sense of humor:
“Those were the days when the doctor didn’t operate on us. We did
all the operatin’ ourselves.”
After that laugh, he went on:
“When we had a herd of cattle
we old trail drivers had to sleep with all our clothes on and our
saddled in case of a stampede. We had many obstacles in those days
with the horse
thieves, desperadoes and fence cutters, but some of them died with
their boots on and some of them went to the pen.”
fondly remembering the past, Van Dolen clearly appreciated the present.
Beyond that, he obviously took pride in the part he’d played in making
Texas what it had become:
“Now you see that it is the old pioneer cattlemen and the old trail
drivers that have made Texas what it
is today. My dear old friend George, we have lived to see all this
wilderness turn into a prosperous farming country.
“When we old boys ride now over the state highways we can see fine
farm houses and barns and we can see fine high schools and churches
where in the early days of Texas they
were far and wide apart. All us old trail drivers that have passed
three score years and ten will soon be with the old boys that have
passed over the last long trail and we will all round up in glory.
Yours truly, R. Van Dohlen.”
for posterity, other than that short letter, this old timer did not
leave an easily followed set of tracks. He’s not mentioned in Saunder’s
1044-page book, which originally came out in two volumes, and a search
of a Web site featuring hundreds of digitized newspapers reveals no
articles about him or even an obituary. Neither does an online search
turn up the location of his grave site.
Further confusing the hunt for any biographical information, the headline
atop Van Dolen’s letter reads simply “R. Van Dolen.” But sharp-eyed
readers will have noted that the letter’s signature includes an “h”
in the author’s last name. It’s probably a typographical error, but
then again, the headline could be the boo-boo.
One thing’s for sure. Being past 70 in 1928, it wouldn’t have been
too many years later that the author of that long-forgotten letter
made that last round-up he had envisioned.
© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" February
24, 2011 column