Susanna Dickinson / The Alamo Story

The story of the Alamo and Santa Anna’s victory at the Battle of the Alamo in 1836 is probably the most publicized story of Texas’ fight for independence. The Alamo story is also the story of a woman by the name of Susanna Dickinson who survived this epic battle. Susanna Dickinson was among the women inside the Alamo mission during this March 1836 battle and it is from her memoirs that the world learned of just how this battle unfolded. In fact, Susanna Dickinson had the distinction of being one of only two survivors among the Alamo’s Texan defenders.

Susanna Dickinson, public domain photo

Susanna Dickinson was present at the Alamo with her husband, Captain Almaron Dickinson. The Dickinson’s had relocated to Texas from Tennessee in 1831. Captain Dickinson was among many Texans who felt war with Mexico was inevitable. After their expulsion of the Spaniards from the North American continent during the early 1820’s, the Mexican rulers were trying to consolidate their possessions into a central government. This decision from Mexico City made war with the Anglo Texans a matter of not if but when.

After the Alamo defenders were defeated, Susanna Dickinson was personally interviewed by Santa Anna. In an effort to send a warning to the Texians to the east, Susanna Dickinson was allowed to go home to Gonzales to tell the story of what occurred at the Alamo. Santa Anna wanted Dickinson to tell her fellow Texians that Santa Anna’s army was too big to fight against.

Susanna Dickinson Home and Museum

The result of allowing Susanna Dickinson to go free did indeed initially work in Santa Anna’s favor. Sam Houston ordered Texian settlers and his 400 man force to further east to avoid the Mexican army. The retreat of course was only the beginning of what would become the legendary war for Texas independence which would end at the Battle of San Jacinto and the defeat and capture of Santa Anna himself. Santa Anna’s ploy probably did more than anything to galvanize the resistance against Mexican rule and fostered the creation of the famed battle cry, “Remember the Alamo“.

The story of Susanna Dickinson is significant in the fact that this woman was able to survive the Battle of the Alamo to relate it’s details for posterity. Because Susanna Dickinson survived and was allowed to return home, we have detailed knowledge today of what took place in San Antonio during early March of 1836.

During her life after the Alamo and the Texas War of Independence, Susanna Dickinson married several times before her last marriage to a merchant named J.W. Hannig. She was married to Hannig until her death in 1883 and is buried in Austin Texas. It is the house built for her by Hannig that sits today in Austin Texas as the Susanna Dickinson Museum. Susanna Dickinson’s historical significance was a simple product of fate. She essentially was used as a messenger for Santa Anna and this splendid museum in Austin Texas is dedicated to telling her story. The museum has many programs for both adults and children and features a library of over 500 books.

Susanna Dickinson Home on Fifth Street in the heart of Austin Texas

The Susanna Dickinson home and museum is next door to another Austin Texas historic tourist attraction, the O Henry Museum. This museum of course tells of the somewhat strange life of O Henry who at one time resided in Austin.

Today’s Austin Texas tourist will find the Susanna Dickinson Museum right in the heart, as you can see from the photos, of Austin Texas at 411 East Fifth Street.

There are two other very good Austin Texas stops to put on your trip planner, also in the downtown area of Austin. These are the Driskill Hotel which is an 1800’s architectural and historic masterpiece as well as one of Austin’s most popular hotels. The other is the Texas state capital building, just a few blocks north of the Driskill, which was built in the 1880’s with revenue received from selling over 3 million Texas Panhandle acres for what would become the famed XIT Ranch.

You may also enjoy our trips Into History article…The Resting Place of the Alamo Defenders

(Article copyright Trips Into History. Photos of Susanna Dickinson Museum are from author’s private collection. Photo of Susanna Dickinson is from the public domain)

Historic Hotels of America

 

The National Hotel, Nevada City California

Some of the best representations of the 1800’s are the historic hotels of America that are spread all over the United States. Many if not most of these hotels are still in operation and are very popular with tourists. Restored and refurbished, these historic landmarks offer the vacationer and traveler a comfortable and historic experience. As an added advantage, most of these hotels, because of their age, are located in the town center and make sightseeing very convenient.

A few examples of hotels with a lot of history attached to them include the National Hotel in Nevada City California. The hotel is also referred to as the National Exchange Hotel. This hotel takes you back to the days of the California Gold Rush of the 1850’s. The hotel also happens to be located in one of the most scenic areas of the Sierra Nevada foothills, north of Auburn and Grass Valley California.

The National Hotel opened for business in 1856. Historians will point out that the National Hotel in Nevada City California is one of the oldest continuously operated hotels west of the Rocky Mountains. The hotel burned somewhat in a fire in 1863 but reopened shortly after. The national Hotel is on the National Register of Historic Places as well as being a California Historical Landmark. Another must stop when you are visiting Nevada City is the Nevada Theater which is the oldest continuously running theater in California and featured many famous 19th century performers such as Mark Twain. Nevada City is about a one hour drive east of Sacramento.and about two and one-half hour drive from San Francisco.

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The Holbrooke Hotel, Grass Valley California

Another historic old gold mining town not far from Nevada City is Grass Valley California. Grass Valley turned out to be the site of one of the larger gold strikes. Grass Valley is also the site of the Empire Mine State Historical Park. The Empire Mine has been recognized as the largest and richest gold mine in California. The Empire Mine operated for 106 years, from 1850 to 1956. It produced a total of 5.8 million ounces of gold. Hikers will be please to find an abundance of trails at the Empire Mine State Park which covers some 845 acres.

Today, when you visit Grass Valley you’ll no doubt see the Holbrooke Hotel located at 212 W. Main Street. This is another historic hotel of America. The Holbrook was originally built in 1862 and at that time was given the name Exchange Hotel. The name reportedly was given due to it’s close proximity to the Gold Exchange. A couple by the name of Holbrooke purchased the hotel in 1879 and thus it’s current name as the Holbrooke Hotel. Although Mr. Holbrooke passed away in 1884, his wife Ellen operated the business until 1908.

The hotel building itself was fairly neglected through the 1900’s until interest arose in the 1970’s and a project started to restore the building and it’s former hotel rooms. This was completed and the Holbrooke opened in 1982. Rooms were added to the original hotel when the adjacent building was purchased. The Holbrooke Hotel during the 19th century was visited by many prominent figures of the era such as Ulysses S. Grant, Mark Twain, Bret Harte, James Garfield and others. The Holbrooke Hotel is an excellent place to stay while visiting Grass Valley and it also features a very good restaurant. Grass Valley California is located about 4 miles southwest of Nevada City on Hwy 49/20.

driskill hotel in austin texas

The Driskill Hotel, Austin Texas

Our next historic hotel of America is far from the California gold country. The Driskill Hotel located in downtown Austin Texas at 604 Brazos Street is arguably the most famous hotel in the state. The Driskill was built in 1886 and is well known for it’s beautiful architecture. The hotel was built by Jesse Driskill, a very wealthy Texas cattleman who set out to construct the best hotel south of St. Louis. The tale that goes along with the Driskill is that due to economics, Jesse had to close the hotel just after one year and reportedly lost the hotel shortly afterwards in a poker game. At least that’s the story handed down. After that, the Driskill went through many different ownerships but remained ab absolute gem of a hotel. The Driskill was also used at one time in the 1880”s as the Texas state capital while the current capital building was being constructed.

Today, the Driskill Hotel is one of Austin’s premiere hotels as well as an historic landmark. The Driskill was made a National Historic Landmark in 1969. The hotel is the venue of many Austin events. Early in his career, former President Lyndon B. Johnson used the Driskill as his headquarters during his campaigns for Congress. When you visit Austin Texas and see the Driskill Hotel be sure to go inside because the interior is absolutely stunning, especially the large staircase from the lower lobby. Both the exterior and interior of this famous hotel exude 19th century elegance.

You will also be interested in the Trips Into History articles on Old Town Sacramento California and the La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe New Mexico, an old Harvey House hotel.

There are a great many historic hotels all around the U.S. and many if not most are still in operation with their original name. Most are on either state or national historic registers or both. We will be featuring more historic hotels of America in future articles on Trips Into History. I hope you have an opportunity to visit one of these excellent hotels.

History of Shipping / Wapama

steam schooner wapama

Steam schooner Wapama in dry dock at Point Richmond, CA

The history of shipping along the California coast is a colorful subject. At this writing there is a old and historic steamer schooner in dry dock at Point Richmond California, across the bay from San Francisco. The steam schooner Wapama (sometimes referred to as the “Tongass”) is a National Historic Landmark and brings us back to the day when the west coast lumber industry was booming. Timber products were in great demand and the northwest Pacific coast has plenty of trees. Oregon lumber was in great demand and the west coast of America offered a lot of opportunities for steamship concerns. There were a total of about 225 steam schooners built especially for the lumber trade and the Wapama has the distinction of being the last one still surviving.

The Wapama is a wooden hull vessel made from Douglas fir . The Douglas fir tree was  popular with shipbuilders of the era. The ship was built in 1915 and was in service until 1947. During the early 1900’s, both shipping and railroad companies transported quite a lot of lumber in northern California and Oregon. The vessel Wapama was originally built for the steamship company of Charles R. McCormick, a former lumberman. The McCormick Steamship Company was in business between 1903 and 1040. McCormick initially had several investors with an interest in a fleet of vessels. In 1921, he acquired everyone’s interests and issued stock. McCormick managed the company successfully and with his profits was able to enlarge his fleet of steamers. The Wapama plied the ocean regularly between California and Oregon. The vessel has a length of 216 feet and a beam of 40 feet. It’s gross tonnage is 951. The Wapama is best noted for it’s high superstructure on the stern and a high forecastle on the bow. The Wapama had one main hatch for loading. The ship could carry an enormous amount of board feet lumber in addition to about 60 passengers. This steam vessel was powered by water tube boilers burning diesel fuel.  The engine was triple expansion with 800 horse power.

wapama steamer

Current deteriorated condition of steamship Wapama

The Wapama was sold to the National Park Service in 1977. This was for inclusion in it’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area. In the history of ships, the Wapama was a unique artifact. The old ship had been on display in San Francisco at it’s Maritime Museum at Fishermans Wharf.  In 1979, due to it’s deteriorating hull condition, the Wapama was put on a barge to avoid it’s possible sinking. Today, as mentioned above, the Wapama sits in dry dock at Point Richmond and is not open to visitors. The photos on this page show just how far the wood hull has deteriorated over the years. You can get good views of the steamer on the road passing it’s dry dock.

While the vessel is quite old and in obvious need of restoration, viewing it yourself is an impressive experience. In 2011, the National Park Service announced that the Wapama would be dismantled but as of this date it has not been. What eventually happens to this historic steamer is still officially undecided. The cost of restoration would be quite costly. There has been a lot of concern voiced by people in favor of preservation but the economics will probably prevent that from occurring. The idea of perhaps saving it’s engine has also been suggested.

The Wapama certainly is a big piece of west coast history and it would be a good thing if somehow the vessel could be saved and made into an historical exhibit. If that is not possible, something from the ship, such as the engine, needs to be preserved for future generations. I think that destroying what is the last of a fleet of over 200 unique vessels would not serve very well. The ship has been condemned but historians have continued to make arguments against the NPS directive. If you feel strongly about this yourself I would suggest you contact the NPS by phone or email to express your support for saving the Wapama.

Two additional articles we’ve published which you’ll find interesting are the GP Griffith Lake Erie Disaster and the Mosquito Fleet of Puget Sound.

 

(Photos are from author’s private collection)

Belle Starr

 

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Belle Starr with pistol in 1880's

Carthage Missouri was a violent place during the American Civil War. Carthage is a locale today where interested people and history buffs can learn about Belle Starr, “The Bandit Queen“, her family and the circumstances of how a young lady from an upstanding and influential family could turn into one of the most notorious females of the frontier west. The Carthage Civil War Museum located at 205 South Grant Street offers a lot of history as to just how violent the Civil War was not only in that town but pretty much all over Missouri. Also, make a note to visit the Powers Museum at 1617 Oak Street in Carthage. The Powers Museum presents rotating exhibits on local and Missouri history..   You can even see a wax figure of Belle Starr on her horse at the Historical Wax West Museum in Colorado Springs Colorado.

In many ways Belle Starr was a product of the American Civil War. Amazingly, her story is about a young woman, who after being born and raised in a prosperous and influential family, turned into probably the most infamous female outlaw of the latter 1800’s. A young lady who received a private school education and learned to play the piano quite well would spend her later days in the company of murderers, horse thieves and cattle rustlers. How and why this all came about is an interesting story.

The Civil War in Missouri was extremely violent. Missouri had a mixture of both Union and Confederate supporters and partisan violence was widespread. This was the time of Quantrill’s Raiders, a band of pro Southern guerrilla fighters who killed many and destroyed more than one town. William Quantrill‘s raiding and pillaging became so bad and so bloody that the Confederacy publicly disavowed the group. Quantrill of course continued on until finally he was killed by Union troops. It was in this atmosphere that Belle Starr, real name Myra Maebelle Shirley, came of age.

battle of carthage photo

Image of Battle of Carthage Missouri, 1861

The Shirley family originally came to Missouri from Virginia. The family like many in Missouri were southern sympathizers. In fact, the very young Myra Maebelle was suspected as being a Confederate spy/messenger. She was smart enough not to be caught carrying messages so there were never any charges. Most Belle Starr historians point to the time when Starr’s younger brother Bud was killed in the war, as a Confederate,  as the time of her transition. The story is that Belle and her father went to retrieve the body and an enraged Belle grabbed her brothers gun and tried to shoot the Union soldiers present. Fortunately, the gun caps had been removed and nothing occurred however it was an omen of things to come.

The Shirley family decided to resettle in Texas and did so just to the east of Dallas. Belle’s father set up a farm and cattle operation. His farm was also well known as a safe haven for southern sympathizers. It was while living with her family in Texas that a second, even larger transitional event, occurred. The excellent book, High Spirited Women of the West, by author Anne Seagraves, gives a good description of what transpired. It seems that the Shirley farm was visited by none other than Cole Younger and his gang. During the visit, both Belle and Younger became close and, to the chagrin of her father, Belle rode off with Younger. Never again would Belle’s life be the same.

fort smith arkansas

Gallows at Fort Smith Arkansas

Eventually, Belle Starr would have a daughter by Younger who later ended up in the Minnesota penitentiary as a result of the botched Northfield Minnesota bank robbery attempt with his friend Jesse James. The relationship was over but there would be several times after his release from prison that Younger would pay a visit to Belle.

As a side note, Belle Starr was not the only female to enter a life of crime because of infatuation, love or whatever it may have been. You may be interested in reading another short article we’ve published about Pearl Hart, the female outlaw stagecoach robber.

Our article about Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok is also a very interesting story.

The person we know as Belle Starr would marry several times in her life. Throughout, she kept the surname of Starr even though she married several times and had even more affairs. Unfortunately, the spouses she chose wouldn’t be all that different than the likes of Cole Younger. All of their job descriptions could be summed up as stagecoach robbing, horse stealing, bank robbery, cattle rustling, gun play and general theft. These were the people Belle would chose to surround herself with and sometimes marry. The former private school student and piano player would go ahead and buy pearl handled revolvers.

Belle would go on to have another child, a son. Due to Belle Starr’s hectic life, unfortunately, or possibly fortunately for the children, there would be several times that the children would be taken care of by their loving grandparents, the Shirleys down in Texas.

judge issac parker

"The Hanging Judge", Issac Parker

There was one period that Belle Starr and her current husband Sam Starr were arrested for horse stealing. This was 1883 and both were tried by Judge Issac Parker, the “Hanging Judge” at Fort Smith Arkansas. Both were convicted and given nine month sentences which were fairly light in relation to the crime and the judge who tried the case. Belle was released early and Sam served his full sentence. When Sam was released, he returned to their ranch at Younger’s Bend. Youngers Bend of course was named as such by Belle who still felt close to Cole Younger. The couple stayed out of trouble for a while but the lure of horse theft lured them back into the world of crime.

Some interesting facts about Belle Starr and her offspring. The only time she went to prison was for the 1883 horse theft conviction. her son Ed who had grown up being sent back and forth to live with Belle, relatives and family friends grew up to be a deputy marshal married to a Cherokee schoolteacher. In 1886 he was shot to death during a quarrel with a saloon keeper. Belle’s daughter, Pearl, had a daughter Flossie who she put up for adoption. She later turned to prostitution and ended up as a madame with a house she ran for twenty-three years. She was known as Pearl Starr.

Belle Starr herself was killed on February 3, 1889 at 41 years of age near Eufaula Oklahoma. The exact circumstances were never uncovered, in fact some even suspected her son Ed, however lawmen had a fairly good guess as to what happened. Pearl’s husband at the time, Jim July Starr, was convinced by Belle to turn himself in at Fort Smith for the charge against him of larceny. She convinced Starr that the charges were so weak that an acquittal was eminent. Belle Starr was to accompany him halfway to the Fort and Jim would continue on alone. As Belle turned around to head back to Youngers Bend, a neighbor heard a loud shot gun blast. Belle Starr was later found dead by a shotgun blast to her back. Whoever the murderer was then shot Belle twice more with her own pistol. While just about everyone suspected, Edgar Watson, a neighbor of Belle and the man who claimed he heard the blast. The relationship between Belle and Watson was never good and he was eventually tried but was acquitted. The question of who killed Belle Starr has never been conclusively answered.

cole younger

Cole Younger as a young man

Jim July Starr, who Belle had been escorting halfway to Fort Smith Arkansas in 1883, was himself killed in 1890 by a young deputy who the story says was convinced that Jim July had murdered Belle Starr and was avenging her death. Probably one of the strangest of all tales coming out of the Belle Starr story concerns the outlaw and ex-convict Cole Younger. Younger was released from his latest incarceration in 1901 and became, of all things, a tombstone salesman. He somehow received a full pardon at which time he put together the Cole Younger-Frank James Wild West Show. Frank James of course being the older brother of murdered Jesse James. Apparently the world wide success that Buffalo Bill Cody attained with his Wild West influenced people from all walks of life.

Belle Starr’s life story, as was the case with the James and Younger families just to name a few, was influenced more than anything by the Civil War and the violence, bloodshed and partisan animosity resulting from it. This animosity lasted for years. The crime sprees of the James, Youngers and Starrs lasted for years after the Civil War. Many people contend that these crime sprees were in fact a continuation of that war, just more on a personal level.