Authors: Don Worcester
Isaac looked intently from one to the other, stroking his beard thoughtfully. “You sure that's what you want, Candy?” he asked. She blushed in shame but nodded her head. “Well, since your mother is no longer here to object,” he said, “I won't.” Ellis felt a great wave of relief sweep over him. “By the way, daughter,” Isaac added, ââdon't think you two are the first who have done this.” Ellis felt like hugging him.
The Panic of 1819 hit Western farmers hard, for by the end of the year there was no money from unsold crops to pay mortgages or other debts. Shortly before the slump began, Isaac had sold several ox-teams and a dozen cattle on credit to raise money to pay his mortgage. He was unable to collect more than the first payments, for the purchasers' funds, like those of everyone else, had dried up. Isaac's face became set in a worried cast, and he looked like a man who was trying desperately to claw his way out of powerful quicksand that was slowly sucking him under.
Troubled by his expression, Candace asked one day, “Papa, are you worried about something, or aren't you feeling well?”
He gazed at her sadly. “I wanted to leave you a good farm,” he told her, “but there's no money to be had and the bankers won't wait. By next year they'll foreclose and turn us out.” He suddenly looked old and careworn.
“Don't worry about it, Papa,” Candace said, hugging him. “We'll get along somehow.” Ellis looked at Isaac, saddened to see him so forlorn.
“That's right,” he said, trying to sound cheerful. “Arkansas has just been made a territory. There's lots of good grass there and woods enough so there's plenty of mast for hogs. I've seen it. Let's pack up and take the cattle and hogs there. We can squat on some good land and buy it when things get better. You've been workin' too hard at farmin' anyway. Raisin' stock ain't that much work.”
Isaac's face brightened a little. “I guess we don't have much choice,” he said. “We're lucky there's somewhere to go. At least we've got enough clothes and tools and stock to get us by for a few years. Maybe by then things will be better and I can collect what's owed me.”
In the spring of 1820, they loaded Isaac's big farm wagon, hitched two ox teams to it, and headed west. Candace rode in the wagon while Isaac walked beside the plodding oxen, goad in hand. On horseback, Ellis and two farm youths they'd hired drove the herd of about fifty beef cattle and more than twenty hogs. After a day or two of travel, the animals followed the wagon without trying to turn aside frequently. In a month of slow travel they reached the frontier town of Little Rock, where they rested a few days before continuing on to the southwest. Ellis was relieved to see that Isaac seemed excited about the move and was looking forward to raising cattle on the range.
In two more weeks they reached a little settlement of cabins, each with its own cornfield, where they stopped for a day. “Are there more settlers beyond here?” Ellis asked one of the men.
“Nope, leastwise not yet. This is kinda the end of the line,” he replied.
“We're lookin' for a place where both cattle and hogs will do well,” Ellis said. “Any suggestions?”
“ âBout thirty mile on you come to Smackover Crick. It's real fine country, and ain't nobody nearer than us.”
They chose a spot near the creek but high enough to be safe if it overflowed. With the help of the two farm boys they built a cabin with a stone chimney and a loft. Then they built a corral, a smokehouse for curing ham and bacon, and a henhouse for the chickens Candace had brought in a crate on the wagon. The two farm lads returned to Tennessee. With the oxen, Ellis plowed ten acres of bottomland and planted corn, sweet potatoes, and a few rows of cotton.
Each morning they turned the cows out to graze, keeping the calves penned, knowing the cows would return at night. Before the calves nursed each evening, Candace got a little milk from each cow for making butter and cheese. To have something to trade or sell, Ellis and Isaac trained the four largest steers as oxen.
In mid-February 1821, Ellis carefully helped Candace into the wagon and headed for the nameless settlement they'd visited, where there were women who could help deliver her first child. There was no road to follow, only the tracks they'd made coming. Ellis watched Candace anxiously, fearful that the jolting wagon might cause her to give birth before they had help. He was greatly relieved when they reached the little settlement, and friendly women shooed him away and took charge. He wiped the sweat from his brow on his sleeve. Don't know what I'd done, he thought.
Ellis busied himself helping the men prepare fields for planting, grateful to have something to keep him occupied. Finally, on the morning of March 5, he was told that Candace was in labor, and he worked harder than usual that day. Late in the afternoon one of the women came out and called to him. “You have a fine son,” she said. Candace named him Isaac.
Early in 1822, eight well-dressed horsemen with two pack mules rode up to the cabin from the east. Since it was late afternoon, Ellis invited them to make camp and gave them a ham from the smokehouse as an inducement. Starved for news of the rest of the country, he and Isaac visited with them while they ate.
“We're on the way to Texas for a look-see,” the leader explained. He looked to be in his thirties, and from his appearance it was clear that he earned his living by using his brains, not his muscles. “Now that Mexico is independent and Stephen F. Austin is advertising for colonÃsts, we figured we'd better see what the prospects are in Texas for making money in land.”
“Mexico independent!” Ellis exclaimed. “We hadn't heard that. Of course we don't get much news out here. When did it happen?”
“About a year ago an officer named Iturbide or something like that got together with some of the rebels. It took them the rest of the year to get all of the Spanish troops out of the country.”
“This Austin fellow you mentioned, who's he?” Ellis wanted to know.
“His father went to San Antonio a couple of years ago and got what they call an
contract to bring three hundred families to Texas. He died and left the contract to his son Stephen. Everyone who goes gets a lot of free land; the
gets thirty or forty thousand acres for each one hundred families he brings. Mexico is real generous with its land, which I can't say for the U.S. Anyway, we want to check on its quality.”
“I was there once over twenty years ago,” Ellis told him. “What I saw was damn fine land.”
When Ellis crawled into bed, Candace was already asleep. He lay on his back with both hands under his head, staring up in the dark. If he'd known Mexico would soon be independent, he'd have waited, but there'd been no way to foresee that. His thoughts went back to his days with Morelos and his moments with Magdalena, whom he'd earlier banished from his mind. That was all in the dimly remembered past, like it had been in a former life or had happened to someone else. He could look back on it now with detachment, like something he'd read about, not something that had happened to him.
Texas was another matter. He'd been promised a league of landâ4,428 acresâfor serving in the revolutionary army. He'd forgotten that, too; the rebel army had been defeated, so it hadn't been worth remembering. Now it came back to him, and he wondered if Mexico would make good on that promise. He thought of owning nearly forty-five hundred acres, and tried to figure just how long it would take to ride over them. Let's see, he thought, a section is six hundred forty acres, and that's a heap of land, a square mile. A league must be at least six sections. Imagine me owning all that. I'd be rich, at least in land.
When the horsemen rode on in the morning, Ellis and Isaac watched until they were out of sight. “Isaac,” Ellis said, “I was promised a league of land, nearly forty-five hundred acres, for fighting in the revolution. Let's go to Texas and try to collect. If they won't give it to me, we can go on to Austin's colony and get land there.”
“I like it fine here,” Isaac replied, “but forty-five hundred acres!” He whistled. “Let'sdo it. But first you go back to White County this summer and collect what's owed me. I'd go but for my rheumatism. Times are better now, and they should be able to pay, though they probably won't admit it. Otherwise, I'll never see my money, and we can use all you can pry loose from them.”
One morning that summer, Ellis kissed Candace goodbye and shook hands with Isaac, then rode off on his way to Tennessee. In his saddlebags was a letter from Isaac authorizing him to collect the debts. At Memphis he fell in with a distinguished-looking gentleman and his party, who were on their way to Columbia. His name, the man told him, was Sterling C. Robertson, and he lived in Nashville. Some of his friends had heard about a colony in Texas and were cuRÃous. Did Ellis know anything about it?
Ellis told him about his experiences in Texas and the Mexican Revolution. “I'm on my way to White County to collect some debts for my father-in-law,” he added. “Then we're all headin' for Texas to get the land they promised me for serving in the revolutionary army. Tell your friends Texas is worth lookin' into for sure.”
It took him three weeks to collect the money owned Isaac, but he refused to quit until he had it all, in cash, animals, guns, or tools. Then it took another week to sell or trade everything he didn't want to keep or couldn't take with him. By the time he left he had more than three hundred dollars in his saddlebags. Feeling satisfied with himself, he rode steadily, eager to get back and head for Texas.
When he finally reached the cabin and dismounted, Candace ran out to him. “What took you so long?” she asked, her voice trembling.
“Collecting the money was like pulling teeth. I came as fast I could. What's wrong?”
“It's Papa. He's so sick and I didn't know what do.” The tears fell. Ellis put his arms around her and she pressed her head against his chest.
“I'm sorry,” he mumbled, and hurried in to see Isaac, who lay on the bed staring at the ceiling. His face was gaunt, his breathing labored. He weakly held out his hand, and Ellis gently squeezed it.
“I'm glad you're back,” Isaac said, his voice barely audible. “I didn't want to leave without saying goodbye. Did you have any luck?”
“It wasn't easy, but I got it all,” Ellis assured him. The sense of satisfaction he'd felt had left him. Isaac half-smiled and closed his eyes. He didn't open them again. They buried him near the cabin, and Ellis rolled a big boulder from the creek for a headstone.
A few months later, in January 1823, Ellis hired two youths from the little settlement to herd the cattle and hogs, then loaded the wagon with all their possessions. Before he helped Candace and little Isaac into the wagon, they walked to the grave, and Ellis removed his battered hat. “Goodbye, old friend,” he said. “I wish you could have come with us.” Candace wept.
They traveled slowly south into Louisiana, and in February ferried the wagon and animals across the Red River at Natchitoches. “This is familiar country,” Ellis told Candace as the oxen plodded on to Gaines Ferry at the Sabine. “I don't know why, but I'm as excited about getting back to Texas as I was comin' here with Nolan. And I was just a kid then.”
They traveled on through the growing settlement at Ayish Bayou to Nacogdoches. Ellis pointed to the Old Stone Fort. “I was a prisoner there a long time ago,” he told Candace.
“That was after they killed Nolan.”
“I wonder you wanted to come back here,” she said.
Luis Procela, a small, wrinkled old Tejano, in the cubbyhole that served as his office. “
,” he said, rising to his feet, “what can I do for you?”
“I served under Morelos in the revolution,” Ellis told him. “I was promised a league of land, and I've come to get it. What do I have to do?”
“All you need do is find some unclaimed land and have it surveyed. I'll send in your papers, and after they verily your service, your title will eventually get here. Things move slowâwe're so far away they forget we exist, so it may take a year or two. But no one else can claim the land.”
“Any suggestions where to look?” Ellis asked. Procela's wrinkled brow became all furrows.
“Almost anywhere to the south or west it's mostly unclaimed,” he replied. “You might look out west toward the Neches, around Mound Prairie. No one has filed there, and the land is excellent. The Indians used to have cornfields there. People believe they built those mounds, but I wouldn't know about that.” He gave Ellis directions. “It's under thirty miles,” he added.
They saw the largest mound from several miles away across the prairie; it was oval-shaped and nearly thirty feet high. Nearby were two smaller mounds, and a mile and a half beyond them was the Neches. Lines of trees marked the courses of several streams that crossed the prairie to the river. Ellis was thrilled.
“What do you think, Candy? I only wish your father could have seen it. Look at the grass! ”
She wrinkled her tiny nose. “Except for those little piles of dirt, it's kind of flat. Aren't there any mountains out here? I've never lived where I couldn't see mountains. It just doesn't seem right.”
Ellis chuckled. “You'll get used to it, and those mounds will look bigger each year.” He picked up Isaac, who stood beside Candace holding her hand, and they climbed the largest mound to gaze around. “Just look,” Ellis said. “About as far as you can see will all be ours: In the morning I'll put the boys to cutting logs for the cabin, then go to town and arrange for a survey before someone beats us to it.”
With little to do but watch his livestock grow and increase, Ellis often spent two or three days at a time in Nacogdoches, getting accustomed to the feeling of being a big land owner. He followed events in Mexico as best he could, questioning newcomers who arrived almost daily and reading the newspapers they brought, no matter how old. The
received reports and occasionally newspapers from Mexico City that officials in San Antonio sent with a courier every month or two. Even though the reports were several months old by the time they reached Nacogdoches, Ellis welcomed them. Much of the news was about Emperor AgustÃn Iturbide. When Ellis first heard that Mexico had an emperor, he spat in disgust. Morelos and the other martyrs hadn't given their lives to take Mexico away from one king only to give it to another.