Manifest Destiny Marches Across West Texas

The end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, fulfilled the dreams of manifest destiny for many citizens and politicians as the United States acquired the land belonging to Mexico that stretched all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The following year, gold was discovered in California and the rush was on. Forts had to be constructed to protect the advancing surge of settlers whom the Apache and Comanche were not happy to see crossing their hunting grounds and their route into Mexico.

Henry Skillman received a contract in 1850 to carry mail from San Antonio to El Paso. On that first mail run Skillman used a Concord coach pulled by six mules and a company of eighteen well-armed men including Big Foot Wallace (Watch for Wallace’s story in next week’s blog). They established a stage stand in Limpia Canyon at the base of the Davis Mountains, and E. B. Webster, possibly the first white man in the area, remained at the site as the master of the stage station. The mail continued to go through, extending the route to Santa Fe and adding passenger service.

Historic Fort Davis

Historic Fort Davis

In 1854, Jefferson Davis the Secretary of War ordered a line of military posts along that southern route. The commander of the department of Texas selected Limpia Creek northeast of the mail station because of its “pure water and salubrious climate.” The string of forts stretched from San Antonio to El Paso, and Fort Davis became the name for both the town that grew up around the mail station and the new post. Settlers and adventurers by the thousands chose the southern route to avoid the snow and mountain terrain of the northern trails.

When Texas seceded from the Union prior to the Civil War, federal troops abandoned Fort Davis. The Confederates occupied it for only a year and then retreated to San Antonio after failing to take New Mexico.

When the federal troops returned in 1867, the garrison consisted mainly of white officers and black enlisted men of the Ninth and

10th Cavalry, Fort Davis

10th Cavalry, Fort Davis

Tenth U.S. Cavalry regiments and the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth U.S. Infantry regiments who were given the respectful title of Buffalo Soldiers by the Comanches. In a series of Apache raids the Buffalo Soldiers of Fort Davis fought several battles before the Apaches retreated to Mexico, and the fort settled into a quiet routine of protecting the cattlemen who began moving into the area.

The fort was abandoned in 1891, but the nearby town of Fort Davis, the highest town in Texas at 5,050 feet, began attracting wealthy Gulf Coast residents eager to escape the summer heat, and it developed into a tourist haven. When the

Restored Enlisted Barracks

Restored Enlisted Barracks

Kansas City, Mexico and Orient Railway proposed building a line through Fort Davis, the citizens refused, claiming the railroad would attract low-class people.

Congress designated Fort Davis as a national historic site in 1963. The adobe and stone buildings have been restored to their 1880 appearance

Fort Davis Panorama

Fort Davis Panorama

Politics and Salt Did Not Mix

Travelers driving east from El Paso may find it difficult to imagine the longtime controversies that took place in the shadow of the

Guadalupe Peak

Guadalupe Peak

majestic Guadalupe Peak rising from the desert floor. The tallest mountain in Texas soars 8,751 feet above its western flank where an ancient salt flat sprawled across 2,000 acres. The salt and gypsum formed dunes that flowed from three-

Dunes in the Salt Flat

Dunes in the Salt Flat

to sixty-feet above the desert landscape. This treasure, lying about 100 miles east of present El Paso, was so important for the region’s Native Americans that for centuries they viewed it as a sacred place where they secured salt for tanning hides, for use as a condiment, and as a preservative. Things began to change when the Spanish discovered the site in 1692 and the villages, such as San Elizario that developed along the Rio Grande near present El Paso, viewed the Salt Flats as common land to be used by all the peoples of the region. The Indians, especially the Apaches, did not welcome the intruders who defied Indian attack to gather the precious resource. Even after the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended Mexican-American War and drew Mexico’s boundary with Texas at the Rio Grande, the Tejano farmers and ranchers supplemented their meager incomes by selling the salt as far away as the rich mining regions in Northern Mexico where it was used in smelting the silver.

More problems arose after the Civil War when El Paso came under the control of prominent Republicans who tried to claim the Salt Flat and charge a fee for Mexican Americans to gather the salt that had been free for many generations. Meantime, Charles H. Howard, a Democrat, arrived in El Paso in 1872 with the intention of turning the Republican stronghold into a Democratic electorate. Howard was successful for a time, got himself appointed district attorney and worked against the Republicans and the “Anti-Salt Ring.” Then, Howard changed course, filed on the salt deposits in the name of his father-in-law, which infuriated the El Paso area Hispanics who felt besieged by the Republicans and the Democrats. When Howard had the sheriff arrest local Tejano men to keep them from collecting the salt, a group of enraged local citizens held Howard prisoner until he agreed to relinquish all rights to the salt deposits.

Eventually in frustration over the attempted control of their community and their economic future, the Tejano people of San Elizario, closed all the county government and replaced it with committees (community juntas). The Anglos, who numbered less than 100 out of a population of 5,000, called on the governor who sent a detachment of Texas Rangers. When the Rangers arrived in the company of Howard, a two-day siege occurred ending with the surrender of the Texas Rangers, the first time in its history that a company of Rangers surrendered to a mob. Howard and the ranger sergeant and two others were executed. The disarmed Rangers were sent out of town, the Tejano leaders fled to Mexico, and residents looted the buildings. Twelve people were killed and fifty were wounded. No one was ever charged with a crime.

San Elizario paid a hefty price for its demands: the county seat was removed to El Paso, the 9th Cavalry of Buffalo Soldiers re-established Fort Bliss to patrol the border and watch the local Mexican population, the railroad bypassed San Elizario, the population declined, and the Mexican Americans lost their political influence in the area.

By the 1930s, floods had deposited silt across much of the flats and salt gathering came to a halt. Today the ghost town of Salt Flats, which consists of a scattering of mostly deserted buildings, edges the highway. Scattered vegetation grows where silt covered the old salt beds, but barren white stretches still offer a glimpse of the precious early-day resource.

El Paso Mission Trail

My long-range plans call for finding a book publisher interested in my Texas history blogs. With that goal in mind, I’m expanding my Texas coverage with a series of West Texas and Panhandle stories. This blog post was to be about the founding of the oldest Spanish mission in Texas and the first thanksgiving in the United States, both of which I thought had occurred near El Paso, a city on the far western edge of Texas. Immediately, I uncovered a wide range of stories that I have decided to share.

We often think of Spanish activity in Texas getting underway when the Frenchman René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de LaSalle landed on the Texas coast in 1685. Concern that the French might have an eye on Texas prompted the government of New Spain to construct six missions in East Texas to Christianize the Indians and to serve as a buffer against encroachment from the French in neighboring Louisiana. In fact Spanish explorers started coming into Texas at present-day El Paso in the early 1580s, a century before the East Texas missions were built.

King Phillip II of Spain made Don Juan de Oñate the governor of New Mexico, before the territory

Don Juan de Onate

Don Juan de Onate

had been conquered. In search of riches, adventure, and political power Oñate personally financed an expedition, or entrada, meant to “pacify” the natives in New Mexico. He assembled 400 soldiers, 130 families and thousands of head of cattle, sheep, and other livestock. In early 1598 Oñate led his entourage on what he thought was a shortcut across the Chihuahuan Desert in Northern Mexico in search of a pass through the mountains into New Mexico. In late April, after four days of walking without food or water, the desperate travelers reached the Rio Grande where Oñate claimed all the surrounding land for King Phillip II of Spain. A few days later, they met native people who called themselves Manos, “peaceful one.” The friendly Indians led the Spanish to the place where the Rio Grande cut through the mountains forming El Paso del Rio del Norte—the pass of the north—the Spanish entryway to the West. The Mansos, who wore very little clothing, provided fresh fish for the Spanish and received clothing in return. Oñate invited the Mansos to be guests at a feast on January 26, 1598, celebrating the travelers’ amazing survival. The huge display of wild game and other food stuffs from the expeditions’ supplies created a feast of thanksgiving, which seems to be the second to be celebrated in the present United States. The first thanksgiving is claimed by St. Augustine, Florida, where on September 8, 1565, the Spanish explorer Pedro Menendez held a feast of thanksgiving with the Timucua.

The entrada moved on into New Mexico, but when scouting parties failed to find gold and silver,

Acoma Pueblo

Acoma Pueblo

Oñate’s troops began demanding payments from the Pueblo population. The Acoma pueblo refused to comply and in 1599 the Acoma Wars ended with Oñate’s orders to kill 800 people, enslave another 500, and cut off the left foot of all men older than twenty-five. Numbers of amputees vary from twenty-four to eighty. The young women were sent into slavery. Oñate continued his exploratory travels as far as present Kansas, returned to found the town of Santa Fe, and was finally called back to Mexico City in 1606 to answer for his conduct. Although he was tried and convicted of cruelty to the Spanish colonists and to the natives, he was later cleared of all charges.

His treatment of the native peoples set the pattern of Spanish cruelty that continued until the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 when the natives rebelled against their overlords. The Pueblos drove out the soldiers and the Spanish authorities, killed twenty-one Franciscan priests, and sacked mission churches. More than 400 Spanish colonists and 346 native people were killed, which sent hundreds of Indians and Spanish fleeing for their lives to the south. The Tigua (Tiwa) people were among the refugees who reached safety at the Paso del Norte. In order to serve the displaced population, Franciscan friars established the first mission and pueblo in Texas, Corpus Christi de la Isleta, in 1682 on the south bank of the Rio Grande. That same year Nuestra Señora de la

Ysleta Mission

Ysleta Mission

Concepción del Socorro was established for other native people who had fled from the Pueblo Revolt. Over the years, the Rio Grande flooded many times, changing course, and moving the communities that grew up around the missions to both sides of the river, even isolating them for a time on an island between two channels of the Rio Grande.

Socorro Mission

Socorro Mission

Despite the construction of the Spanish missions, the Indians from New Mexico brought their own way of life with them, and continued to control the political and economic activities of the new mission communities. The Franciscan friars were allowed authority only over the Indians’ spiritual life.

Into this mix of missions, native peoples, and Spanish settlers, San Elizario settlement was established, and the Presidio de San Elizario was built in 1789 to protect the area missions and the travelers on the Camino Real (Royal Highway) that ran from Mexico City through Paso del Norte to Santa Fe. While it was never a mission, the presidio boasted a chapel to serve the military personnel.

San Elizario Chapel

San Elizario Chapel

Today’s Ysleta church was completed in 1907 and the Isleta community was annexed into El Paso in 1955. The present Socorro Mission was completed in 1840, replacing the 17th-century structure destroyed by Rio Grande floods. The current church retains many of its original decorative elements, including the original beams, or vigas, which were salvaged from the old flooded church. Both missions and the San Elizario Chapel are on the El Paso Mission Trail.

El Paso Mission Trail

El Paso Mission Trail

A Woman Before Her Time

Jane McManus Storm Cazneau was born in Troy, New York, in 1807, but after a failed marriage and being named in Aaron Burr’s divorce, she came to Texas in 1832 with her brother

Jane McManus Storm Cazneau from Ancestory.com

Jane McManus Storm Cazneau from Ancestory.com

Robert McManus in an attempt to improve the family’s shrinking fortune. Although she received a contract from the Mexican government to settle families in Stephen F. Austin’s colony, she apparently lacked the funds to get the enterprise off the ground. The German colonists that she landed in Matagorda refused to go farther inland and that seemed to be the end of that adventure. It was not, however, the end of Jane’s land speculation and her interest in the future of Texas. She was a prolific writer, and one of the causes she trumpeted in her columns for East Coast publications was Texas independence from Mexico. She also tried to sway U.S. public opinion in favor of annexing the Republic of Texas.

During the Mexican-American War, Jane served as the first female war correspondent and the only journalist to issue reports from behind enemy lines. She was sent to Mexico as an unofficial representative of the New York Sun editor Moses Beach’s secret peace mission, which was endorsed by President James Polk. Her expansionist interests showed clearly as she began promoting the annexation of Mexico as a way to bring peace.

Jane married William Leslie Cazneau, Texas politician and entrepreneur in 1849, and lived with him for a time in Eagle Pass, a town on the Rio Grande that Cazneau founded in order to open a trade depot and investigate mining potential. She wrote of her experiences in Eagle Pass; or Life on the Border, and she continued to write editorials.

William Cazneau was appointed special agent to the Dominican Republic in 1855, and the Cazneaus settled there on their estate, Esmeralda. Jane continued writing her columns and books that advocated her expansionist philosophy, and the couple invested heavily in property all over the Caribbean.

texashistory.untSome writers, including Linda Hudson, author of Jane’s biography, Mistress of Manifest Destiny, credit Jane with being the first writer to use the term “manifest destiny” in one of her columns. It has been difficult to trace her use of the term since her editorials were handwritten, often unsigned, and she also used the pen names Storm, Cora or Corinne Montgomery. Nevertheless she was such a strong advocate of manifest destiny that she bought into the New York Morning Star in order to use the publication to editorialize for the expansion of the south and of slavery into Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua. She was not in favor of the South seceding from the Union because she believed that the division would weaken the United States and slow its expansion. She also stood to lose on her land investments if slavery and its spread to the Caribbean came to an end.

Her influence was widespread; she socialized and corresponded with James Polk, James Buchanan, Jefferson Davis, and Horace Greeley. Former Republic of Texas President, Mirabeau B. Lamar dedicated his 1857 book of poems, Verse Memorials, to Jane Cazneau.

The Cazneaus fled to another of their properties in Jamaica in 1863 following the destruction of their estate after Spain returned to the Dominican Republic. However, after Spain left the island, the Cazneaus returned and assisted President Andrew Johnson in his efforts to acquire a coaling station at Samaná and President Grant’s effort to annex the Dominican Republic.

William Cazneau died in 1876, and two years later Jane, the woman who often used the pin name Storm, was lost in a storm while sailing from New York to Santo Domingo.

New London School Explosion

My mother did not usually share horrible stories, but she often talked about the New London School explosion that occurred on March 18, 1937. As I read more about that day, I realized that despite it being classified as the third deadliest disaster in Texas, after the 1900 Galveston Hurricane and the 1947 Texas City Disaster, it has never received the attention it deserves.

The Great Depression was in full swing, but the East Texas oilfield, discovered on October 5, 1930, was and still is the largest and most prolific oil reservoir in the contiguous forty-eight states. New London,

New London High School constructed in 1932

New London High School constructed in 1932

located in the heart of this 140,000-acre field, was flush with money, and had celebrated the construction in 1932 of its $1 million steel and concrete school. The football team was proudly called the London Wildcats (for the oil prospector know as a “wildcatter”). Instead of using the architect’s plan for a boiler and steam distribution system, the school board elected to install seventy-two gas heaters throughout the building.

On January 18, 1937, the school board decided to save approximately $300 a month on its natural gas contract by tapping into a residue gas line. Natural gas at that time was seen as a waste product of oil, and it was burned or “flared off.” It was a common practice in the oilfield towns for homes, businesses, and churches to tap into the “raw” gas lines to save the cost of regular gas delivery. The quality of the “raw” gas varied sometimes even from hour to hour, and it was odorless and colorless. No one was aware that gas had been leaking from a faulty connection at the school and collecting under the building in a 253-foot long crawlspace. Student complaints of headaches had been ignored. Parents were holding a PTA meeting in a building about 100 feet from the main structure.

Wrecked New London School

Wrecked New London School

Between 3:05 and 3:20 PM, an instructor of manual training began operating an electric sander. It is believed the sander’s switch caused the spark that ignited the gas. The explosion was heard for miles. Witnesses reported that the walls of the school bulged, the roof lifted up and then crashed down, collapsing the main wing of the building and burying the victims in a mass of brick, steel, and concrete. A two-ton concrete block was thrown into a nearby car.

Two-ton concrete block thrown into a nearby car.

Two-ton concrete block thrown into a nearby car.

News spread over telephone and Western Union lines. Parents and residents of the town used their bare hands to claw through the rubble, and oilfield workers with cutting torches and heavy-duty equipment worked feverishly throughout the night in a steady rain. Within seventeen hours, all the victims were found and the debris was removed. Governor James Allred sent Texas Rangers, the highway patrol, and Texas National Guard. A hospital in nearby Tyler that was scheduled to open the following day, began treating the survivors. Doctors, nurses, and embalmers hurried to the scene; Boy Scouts and airmen from a nearby airfield rushed to help.

Numbers vary from 500 to 600 people in the school; about 130 escaped serious injury. Approximately 298 to 319 died, but the number was never clearly determined because many of the students were in families of itinerant oilfield workers who may have collected their children’s bodies and taken them to their

Trucks used to transport the coffins

Trucks used to transport the coffins

hometowns for burial. Most of the bodies were burned beyond recognition, or blown to pieces.

Assistance and condolences came from all over the world, including from the German Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, who sent a telegram paying his respects. A copy is on display at the London Museum.

Among the throng of reporters that descended on the scene was twenty-year-old Walter Cronkite who was sent by United Press on his first major disaster assignment. In later years, after having covered World War II and the Nuremberg trials, Cronkite said “I did nothing in my studies nor in my life to prepare me for the story of the magnitude of that New London tragedy, nor has any story since that awful day equaled it.”

The aftermath of the tragedy resulted in the Texas Legislature passing a law, which quickly spread worldwide, requiring that malodorants, strong-smelling odors, be mixed with gas creating the telltale odor as a warning of danger. The legislature also enacted what is known today as the Texas Engineering Practice Act, which means that only licensed engineers can install natural gas connections.

Although more than seventy lawsuits against the school district and the gasoline company were filed, only a few came to trial, and they were dismissed for lack of evidence. No school officials were found to be liable. The superintendent of schools, who lost one of his own children in the explosion, was forced to resign as rumors spread that he would be lynched.

Classes resumed in ten days in tents and makeshift buildings, and the thirty surviving seniors graduated that year. In 1939 a new school was completed behind the site of the destroyed building, and a Texas

Cenotaph designed by sculptor Matchett Herring Coe

Cenotaph designed by sculptor Matchett Herring Coe

pink granite cenotaph commemorating the disaster was erected in front of the new school.

New school and cenotaph completed in 1939

New school and cenotaph completed in 1939

 

Post, Founded By a Cereal Magnate

C. W. Post was an inventor. His imagination ran the gamut—designing better farm implements, improving digestion with breakfast foods, creating a model town, and making rain by

C.W. Post

C.W. Post

detonating dynamite—a genius that lived before folks talked about bipolar, instead they called him peculiar.

Born in 1854, Post grew up in Illinois, attended two years of college at the future University of Illinois, and at seventeen dropped out of school to work as a salesman and manufacturer of agricultural machines. He married at twenty, had a daughter, Marjorie Merriweather Post, and during the next fifteen years he secured patents on farm equipment such as cultivators, a sulky plow, a harrow, and a haystacker. The periods of intense work,

Post and daughter, Marjorie Merriweather Post

Post and daughter, Marjorie Merriweather Post

followed with bouts of depression, led in 1885 to Post suffering his first nervous breakdown.

Leaving his stressful manufacturing occupation, Post moved his family to Fort Worth in 1886 where he bought a 200-acre ranch, began a real estate development company that laid out streets, built homes, and constructed a woolen mill and a paper mill. A second breakdown came in 1891, followed by extensive travel in search of a cure. Post entered a sanitarium in Battle Creek, Michigan, run by John Harvey Kellogg, a medical doctor who used holistic treatments that focused on nutrition, enemas, and exercise. Dr. Kellogg, along with his brother, invented corn flakes as a breakfast cereal. Following Dr. Kellogg’s regime, Post soon recuperated, and because he decided that coffee was poison, he devised a breakfast cereal drink called Postum. In 1897 he created Grape Nuts cereal and in 1904 he called his new corn flakes Elijah’s Manna until the religious community complained. The name soon became Post Toasties.

Post and his wife, after living apart for several years, divorced the same year that Post Toasties hit the market, and Post remarried before the year was out. His breakfast foods business was raking in millions. Advised by his doctor to move to a drier climate, Post bought 225,000 acres of ranchland and platted his vision of a model town in the Texas Panhandle at the foot of the Llano Estacado, or Caprock, one of the largest mesas or tablelands on the North American Continent.

Caprock Escarpment or Llano Estacado

Caprock Escarpment or Llano Estacado

Calling his new town Post City, he threw himself into his new business, the Double U Company (meaning double utopia), which was charged with fulfilling his grand plan—a place where ordinary families could find a home or a farm site at a reasonable price and borrow with little money down at low monthly rates. Although Post hired a manager for the enterprise, he directed every minute detail of the new town from his homes in Michigan and later in California, racing madly back to Post to solve each problem. Until 1910 when the Santa Fe Railroad arrived, the nearest railhead lay eighty miles away, which meant bouncing over unpaved ruts in mule-drawn hacks to reach his flourishing village. Since the new town had to be built from scratch on the semi-arid plains, Post purchased two-dozen freight wagons and mules to haul the supplies for building the infrastructure and constructing every home and business. Post sent plans for the houses, mostly bungalows, which he favored, and for the aesthetics, including shade trees planted thirty feet apart on each side of the highway for two miles leading in and out of town. He built a school, churches, and a department store. He took great pride in the hotel, insisting that Postum and Grape Nuts be served at every breakfast. He tried,

Algerita Hotel

Algerita Hotel

unsuccessfully, to force the workmen whom he hired from the surrounding ranches to eat his special breakfast diet. He paid excellent wages, but he expected the same level of perfection from those who worked for him as he demanded of himself.

Parks sprouted around town, Bermuda grass covered the lawns, and orchards began producing fruit. Determined to keep out the bad element, Post hired someone to see that his model community did not serve alcohol in any establishment, and if a business did not follow the guidelines, it was shut down immediately. Brothels, of course, were not permitted.

Street Scene, Post 1920s

Street Scene, Post 1920s

Two big problems plagued the place—water and weather. Post had wells and reservoirs dug, hauled and piped water from the top of the Caprock, all without sufficient success to meet the needs of the growing community. Stories he had read of the rainstorms that occurred after major battles in the Napoleonic Wars and the tales that Civil War veterans told of rain following heavy cannon fire, led to his rainmaking experiments. In 1910 he tried attaching two pounds of dynamite to a kite and igniting it, then decided that was too dangerous. He placed four-pound dynamite charges along the rim of the Caprock and detonated one every four minutes for several hours. In 1912, Post exploded 24,000 pounds of dynamite and a little rain fell after that battle, as Post called each effort to force rain from the clouds. Success was intermittent—sometimes light rain fell, other times it did not. He had almost instant rain after he placed 3,000 pounds of dynamite in 1,500 sticks; however, critics said Post held his experiments during the time of the year when rain usually fell.

By 1914 Post was again suffering from overwork, exhaustion, and abdominal pains. He remained at his California home, claiming to wean his town from his constant attention. The public realized for the first time that Post was not well when he cancelled a speech in New York that he was scheduled to deliver denouncing President Woodrow Wilson’s income tax law. In March, a private railroad car raced from California to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, where Post had surgery for acute appendicitis. The surgery was called successful, but after Post returned to his California home, his health did not improve. Believing he had stomach cancer, Post committed suicide on May 9, 1914, some accounts say from a gunshot wound.

Marjorie Merriweather Post, his twenty-seven-year-old daughter, inherited his businesses and his vast fortune—one of the largest of the early twentieth century. She used her business acumen, which she had learned at the side of her father, to expand his enterprises into the General Foods Corporation, becoming the wealthiest woman in America. She lived the lavish life of a socialite, an art collector, and an internationally recognized philanthropist.

Marjorie Merriweather Post, Heiress

Marjorie Merriweather Post, Heiress

Breadline Banker

Part of the fun of writing a weekly Texas history blog is discovering a story that jumps up unexpectedly. While researching Panna Maria, the oldest permanent Polish settlement in the United States, I read an account claiming that an Irishman named John Twohig (love that name) in 1854 sold the original 238 acres for the town site to the Polish colonists “at an inflated price,” only the first of many unfortunate experiences to befall the struggling immigrants. I had to find out who the Irishman was that gouged the Poles.

In addition to an article on the Texas State Historical Association site, I found a story published by the University of Incarnate Word, and a piece printed in 1913 in the Invincible, A Magazine of History that disclosed a very different character from the fellow who gouged a bunch of impoverished Polish immigrants. John Twohig ran away from his Cork County Ireland home at fifteen and apprenticed on a British merchant ship sailing between New Orleans and Boston. Lured by the financial prospects of Texas, Twohig carried a stock of goods to San Antonio in 1830 and opened a mercantile business. He took part in the Siege of Bexar, the two-month-long fight in the fall of 1835 that resulted in Texans driving the Mexicans out of San Antonio. There is no record of him joining the forces in the Alamo before it fell in March 1836. However, in September 1842 when Twohig heard that the Mexican army was on its way to occupy the city for a second time that year, he invited the poor to take what they wanted from his store. Then he blew up the building to keep the Mexicans from getting the gunpowder and other supplies. Apparently in retaliation for the act, Twohig was captured with about fifty other San Antonians and marched to Perote Castle, the dreaded prison near Vera Cruz. In July 1843, Twohig and about a dozen prisoners dug a tunnel and escaped. One account says he walked through Vera Cruz to the docks disguised as a peddler and boarded a ship for New Orleans.

When Twohig returned to San Antonio in 1844, he reopened his mercantile business and began operating an extensive trade with Mexico. He purchased land on a crossing of the Rio Grande, which lay only142 miles from San Antonio. In 1850 he surveyed the land, laid out a new town, and named it Eagle Pass. Twohig was forty-seven in 1853 when he married Bettie

1841 Twohig House

1841 Twohig House

Calvert of Seguin and began enlarging his home on the San Antonio River. The couple built several guesthouses along the river and held lavish dinners for such notables as Sam Houston, Ulysses S. Grant, and their good friend Robert E. Lee. On February 18, 1861, as Texas prepared to secede from the Union, Lee had dinner with the Twohigs and wrote the following day thanking them for their hospitality and expressing regret that he had to leave under such sad circumstances.

A devout Catholic, Twohig was known for giving money to anyone in need, especially the Brothers of the Society of Mary who came from France to start a school. In addition to financial help, Twohig advised the Brothers to build their St. Mary’s Institute on the San Antonio River. The school developed into St. Mary’s University. He served as godfather for two or three generations of children, several of whom recalled receiving a gold piece every time they saw him. Pensioners knew that they could go to his bank at closing time every Saturday afternoon, and Twohig would always draw from his own pocket a gift of money. The Sisters of Charity built an orphanage in San Antonio and relied on Twohig for support. An eccentric jokester, he often “fined” his wealthy friends who would later receive a note from the orphanage thanking them for their gift. He became known as the “Breadline Banker” because on Saturdays the poor women of San Antonio gathered at his house to receive loaves of bread, which arrived by the barrel. Twohig’s sister Miss Kate had moved from a convent in New York to live with the couple. Bettie Twohig and Miss Kate passed out the loaves of bread, keeping track of how much bread they distributed by dropping beans or matches into a tumbler. After Bettie Twohig died, Miss Kate stayed with her brother, maintained his house, and continued distributing the bread.

By 1870 when Twohig had moved exclusively into banking, with connections all over the United States and London, he was ranked as one of the 100 wealthiest men in Texas. His real property was estimated at $90,000 and personal property estimated at an additional $50,000. At the time of his death in 1891, his estate was valued at half a million. He left his house to his sister Kate until her death and the remainder to the Catholic Church. Miss Kate continued after her brother’s death to give away the bread.

The Twohig house, which sat across the San Antonio River from his bank, deteriorated over the years. In 1941, the Witte Museum moved each stone of the Twohig house to its campus and carefully reconstructed it for use as staff offices and for special events.

Reconstructed Twohig House on Witte Museum Campus

Reconstructed Twohig House on Witte Museum Campus

Chasing down the story of John Twohig has proved to be an interesting rabbit trail. It’s time to get back to checking on those Polish immigrants.