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PIONEER DAYS WHEN STURDY MEN LAID STRONG FOUNDATIONS AND TEXAS WAS IN ITS MAKING
By S. R. Lesesne
Dr. Benjamin Harris Neal, a native of Warwickshire, England, and now a citizen of Colorado County, Texas, was 89 years old on his last birthday, in November last. For one of his age, his mental and physical organism is remarkably well preserved.
He graduated from Guys Medical College, England, and land in Galveston in 1855.
From that date until now he has been a reader and friend of The News. Naturally, Dr. Neal has not always agreed with The News in all of its editorials and policies, but, being a man of culture and education, he has not been so bound in the narrow thoughts and prejudices that he would demand for himself a privilege he would withhold from an editor, a newspaper or magazine--the right to formulate, advocate and defend with legitimate arguments their views and policies upon all public issues and questions.
Comes to Find Uncle
It is interesting to hear Dr. Neal tell how he happened to become a Texan, and some of his experiences and ___ incidents connected therewith. He had several uncles, one of them being a runabout adventurer. In 1849, when the gold fever was raging in California, this runabout uncle, representing himself and his brothers, left England on a fortune hunt in a vessel heavily laden with a cargo of gold-washing implements, bound for the golden shores of the Pacific slope. After six years had passed without letter, message or any tidings whatever from him, his brothers sent his nephew, Dr. Neal, who had finished his education, in search of him.
Landing in Galveston, says Dr. Neal, I called upon the British consul and rerated[sic] to him the facts and purpose of my visit in America. He took me and introduced me to Dr. Ashbel Smith, whom the consul said could tell me more about boats and the best way to go to California than an other man in Texas. I made known to Dr. Smith the object of my mission, and he was quick to manifest an interest in it, and tendered me any assistance he could render me in the matter.
Too Green for the West.
I told him it was my intention to go to San Francisco to learn, if possible, if my uncle had ever reached California, and where he was or what had been his fate. He said I was entirely too young and green to go out there among the rough outlaws and lawless people that were flocking there in search of gold; that he knew parties to whome he would write, and get them to gather the information I desired, if it could be had.
Galveston in 1855
When I left England, I had no just conception of Texas, nor of the people and the conditions that would greet me on my arrival. I expected to see well dressed people and find a thoroughly organized city, with fine streets and handsome homes and elegant public building, such as I had been accustomed to seeing in my mother country.
The Gulf of Mexico was not yet rid of Pirates, and a large part of the population of Galveston was made up of Cubans. The city was a mere spot on a low, sandy island, with streets of deep sand, no sidewalks, and the houses made largely of floatsam[sic] and jetsam. I thought it was the most desolate place I had every seen.
If you could have seen the style in which I was dressed you would readily understand why Dr. Smith thought I was too green to go to California. I was rigged out in the finest of toggery, and when I would make my appearance upon the street, in an office or other place of business, I was an object of curiosity, if not of bewilderment. Take a mental picture of my habiliments and contrast them with those of the rough and rugged, but honest, generous and kind-hearted Texans among whome I had to mingle, and you will understand how my appearance upon the streets attracted the attention of men, women and children.
I wore a silk beaver, sixteen inches high; a fine broadcloth Prince Albert suit, fine calfskin boots, a snow-white boiled shirt, a towering standing linen collar and a silk necktie. My dress was as common in England as the coonskin cap, hickory shirt, buckskin pants and yellow moccasins in Texas.
I gave the old silk beaver to an old darky preacher who lives in Colorado County and he still wears it.
The Tremont hotel, at which I boarded, was an old frame building, with two rooms above and two below, and was run by a Cuban lady. When I went there to secure board she ment[sic] me at the stairsteps, and she was smoking a very large and long cigar that was as black as my hat.
After a sojourn of three months in Galveston, I went to Brazoria County to visit my wifes uncle, William Lee. I made my home there until the outbreak of the civil war, practicing medicine and teaching private school. At that time Anthony Winston, who was state senator, and other planters, employed me to teach and prepare their children for entering the high school at Independence. As I remember, this was the only high school in Texas.
Irish Dig Ditches
When I went to Brazoria there were more English, Irish and Scotch than any other people. The English came as teachers and scattered among the planters. The Irish were employed as ditchers, and the Scotch and Welch as mechanics. The wages of mechanics was $5 per day. A blacksmith would go from plantation to plantation, doing such work as he could find.
There was not a buggy in Texas when I came. The ladies rode on horseback or on homemade cane cats. The wheels where sawed from large cottonwood trees. These vehicles were generally pulled by mules.
While staying in Galveston I became acquainted with General Houston in the home of A. Smith, and we remained fast friends until his death. I also met Governor Pease and many of the other noted Texans shortly after my arrival. I found them to be great men who could be easily approached. When I established my home in Brazoria County the country lying beyond Independence was regarded as a vast wilderness.
Rents State Capitol.
I went from Galveston to West Columbia and rented for my dwelling the old building which the government of the republic of Texas had used for its capitol. I lived in it three years, paying as rent $5 per month. While this now seems to be a remarkably cheap rent to pay for the use of a state capitol, this fact is not without interest in that it also recalls the simplicity of democracy and the facility with which it can meet, face and overcome dangers and emergencies, with an empty treasury and no national credit, while menaced with domestic dissensions and foreign foes.
One of my children was born in this old capitol building and two died in it. Two that died were laid to rest under the grand old live oaks under whose friendly shades the congress of the republic sometimes held its sessions. Many of the Texas soldiers were also buried under these oaks.
On a log on the bank of the Brazos River I have often sat with Gail Borden, of condensed milk fame, and discussed the future of Texas. He favored annexation and I contended that it should remain a republic under the protection of England. I used to discuss and argue the same question with A. Smith and also with General Houston sometimes. The three were always against my contentions on this subject.
Partners on Subscription.
Gail Borden and myself used to be partners in subscribing for The Galveston News. The price was $5 a year and each of us paid $2.50.
Texas was then full of meat and the old settlers could frequently kill deer and turkeys from their yards and galleries. They never sold beef when one was killed, they divided it among the neighbors, only selling the hide, and using the tallow for making candles. The business houses of R. & D. G. Mills of Galveston and T. W. House of Houston were the two great financial and mercantile establishments of Texas--one of these cities was then a sand mound and the other a mud hole. When I came to Texas lots on Market street in Galveston were staked out in water. Many of the ladies were wearing russet shoes made out of dressed deer skins.
A Hunting Camp Long Ago
Many of the big planters along the Brazos and Old Caney--Colonel Thorpe, Captains Rugeley and Dunkins, Major Bowe and others--used to take their wagons and go on a camp hunt in the bottoms along these streams on Friday afternoons. Saturday night they would return, bringing large supplies of deer and bear meat for feeding their slaves. I guess I have seen as many as a thousand wild hogs in one day in the cane brakes and bottoms along Caney Creek. I once stood in the old capitol at Columbia and killed seven sandhill cranes at one shot. In these eventful years our daily menu consisted very largely of corn bread, beef and game.
The community nearly always celebrated the historic fourth of July with a fish fry or by starting a camp meeting, either of which was regarded as an important and highly enjoyable neighborhood function. They were usually held at either Cedar Lake, between the Brazos and Bernard rivers, or at Live Oak Lake, on Caney. Everybody attended and the camp meeting would last several days. While those old-timers had their trials and tribulations, they always managed to fine some time for getting some real pleasure and enjoyment out of life. The moss hung from the branches of the large trees on the banks and around the margins of these lake in such great folds that, whether riding or walking, you had to push it out of your way before you could pass through these jungles. It was in these places where the deer, bear and wild hogs sought safety when they were being chased and it was not a difficult matter for skilled hunters to keep the campers abundantly supplied with the meant of one or of all three of these animals.
Texas was more democratic then than now and everybody who was upright and honorable in conduct was given a welcome at these meetings.
Served in Whartons Company
I went from my home in the old statehouse as a private in the army of the confederacy. I became a member of the company of which John A. Wharton was elected captain and Clint Terry first lieutenant. Afterward I was transferred to the medical department and assigned to duty in the regiment of which Joseph Bates was colonel. After the close of the war I removed to Colorado County. I found our institutions upturned and conditions oppressively demoralized and distressing. The provost marshal disfranchised me because I had not been reconstructed to suit him.
For many years I was very much dissatisfied with the misrule to which we had to submit, but there was no escaping the inevitable, and by degrees I became satisfied. Knowing the country in pioneer days, and seeing it pass through wars and trials and privations of various kinds with its unsurpassed recuperative endowments, my fascination for it has never waned, but has grown with the coming and going of the years.
Dr, Neal reared a large family and now has living eight children, thirty-five grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. In closing this article, incidentally it might be remarked that this noble old partriarch who lingers among us to tell us of pioneer days in Texas is perhaps the only native of England or other European country who has enjoyed the unique distinction of coming to America and using the capitol building of any republic on the American continent three years as his dwelling place.
The Galveston Daily News, Monday, June 25, 1917
For further information on Dr. Neal, check his obituary.
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