Several months ago Greg Lalire, editor of Wild West Magazine, asked me to write an article about the murderous East Texas desperado Cullen Baker. I also was privileged to provide two short features, "9 Western Film Stars From Texas" and a list with descriptions of "Books and Videos About Frontier Texas." Furthermore, Johnny D. Boggs, a gifted and prolific Western author whose work has earned him six prestigious Spur Awards from the Western Writers of America, included a review of my most recent book, Sam Houston: A Study in Leadership. Best of all, Johnny interviewed me for the magazine,"Bill O'Neal Talks Texas," emphasizing my role as State Historian of Texas.
|Johnny D. Boggs|
These five features are in the October 2016 issue of Wild West, which is still on the magazine racks. There was room in the issue for only half of the original interview, so the entire interview comprises the remainder of this blog. I'm deeply grateful, of course, to Greg Lalire and to Johnny D. Boggs.
Longtime Western historian Bill O'Neal keeps very busy. Appointed Texas State Historian by Governor Rick Perry in 2012, O'Neal has taught at Panola College in Carthage since 1970 and blogs weekly (lonestarhistorian.blogspot.com and lonestarhistorian2.blogspot.com) about his revelations regarding Texas history. He has written more than 40 books, including Sam Houston: A Study in Leadership (2016) and the forthcoming Frontier Forts of West Texas, for Arcadia Publishing. O'Neal recently made room in his packed schedule to speak with Wild West.
What led you to write about Sam Houston?
In 2012, shortly after being appointed State Historian, I was asked to present a lecture at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin and was assigned the topic "Leadership Qualities of Sam Houston." I've been fascinated by "Old Sam Jacinto" all of my life, and I lectured about him for more than 30 years in my Texas history classes at Panola College. So it was a pleasure to develop my ideas about Houston as a leader, and the audience response was so strong that I used the topic on other occasions. It was a particular thrill to deliver the keynote at the San Jacinto Monument on San Jacinto Day 2014. This was a subject that needed to be developed into a book.
What were his best qualities and worst flaws?
In combat Houston exhibited raw physical courage. He led from the front and suffered severe wounds leading charges at Horseshoe Bend and at San Jacinto. Sheer physical size is an asset for a military leader, and with his imposing physique Houston commanded instant respect from other soldiers. He was an extraordinary orator, a useful gift in both military and political leadership. Houston held powerful convictions, and he readily assumed responsibility for his actions. Although he made friends easily, when crossed, he would excoriate his adversaries ruthlessly, thus developing bitter enemies. And he drank heavily, a trait noticed by the public and proclaimed by his enemies.
What prompted your book on west Texas forts?
Texas has seen more combat, civilian as well as military, than any other state or territory. The U.S. Army built more forts in Texas than in any other state, but by the time we became a state, the conflicts between Anglo settlers and American Indians had ended in east Texas, and the military frontier had shifted westward. Many of these forts have been wonderfully preserved, while others are in ruins. But at all of these sites the 19th-century ghosts may be felt. In Texas the Army learned to utilize cavalry against horseback warriors, and "forts" were not fortified - they were military towns, bases from which to launch patrols and pursuits. The U.S. Camel Corps operated in Texas, and so did all four regiments of buffalo soldiers. There is a rich story to tell, and these photogenic old outposts (the book will feature some 200 photos) provide a great starting point for a writer.
Do you have a favorite West Texas outpost?
I've been traveling to these old forts for almost 60 years, and I love 'em all. But for 20 years I conducted a "Traveling Texas" history course twice per summer, covering 2,100 miles and including camping in Big Bend and the David Mountains. The students reacted most to sprawling Fort Davis, a regimental post superbly restored and maintained by the National Park Service. John Wayne, John Ford and their "cavalry trilogy" would have been right at home at Fort Davis.
What does being the State Historian mean to you?
I was astounded when notified of my appointment. I'm in my second term now. I'm pretty much allowed to freelance, so I function as an ambassador for Texas history. I speak at historical events and for every type of group in the Lone Star State. It's been one of the most delightful and meaningful gigs in my career as a historian.
So does being State Historian open any doors?
My official status has opened many historical doors, including ones to the basements or attics of museums, where I get to see and handle great stuff not on public display.
Does any particular historic Texas figure stand out for you?
Old Sam Jacinto, of course. He is the iconic Texas figure of the 19th century, which is saying a lot, considering the ranchers, gunfighters, soldiers, war chiefs and other colorful types of that era.
What drew you to a career in Western history?
I fell in love with the Old West watching Western movies when I was growing up. I started reading history books about the real-life characters and events that were part of these films. By the time I was in college, I had a list of places that I needed to visit, and I've been attacking that list for more than half a century. And since there was not a book on the Arizona Rangers, I wrote one. I've written many other books I wanted to read, and fewer than half of my books have been about Texas.