one has ever taken to the field with a gun, camera or even a pair
of eyes and not wondered what it must have been like to see that particular
country when it was raw. Or maybe there is someone like that. It’s
just that I’ve never met that person and don’t think I want to. Instead,
I would prefer to meet Gideon Lincecum but my chances of meeting him
are zero; he died in 1874 at nearly 80 years of age.
If, as Russian novelist Mikhail Zoschenko once put it, “’Man is excellently
made and eagerly lives the kind of life that it being lived” then
Lincecum was what the Russian had in mind. The life Gideon Lincecum
so eagerly lived is the one a lot of us can’t help but think we would
have lived had we been in that time and in those places.
we have access to Gideon Lincecum’s writings about Texas is due primarily
to Jerry Bryan Lincecum and Edward Hake Phillips’ collection Adventures
of A Frontier Naturalist: The Life and Times of Gideon Lincecum
and a Lincecum biography by Lois Wood Burkhalter. Through Gideon Lincecum’s
words we get a sense of what it was like to see the state when it
was virtually pristine.
|Here’s how he
described first seeing the San Marcos River valley: “It was then in
a perfectly natural condition. Not a hacked tree or other sign of
human violence was to be encountered in any direction. The scar of
civilization had never marred the face of that paradise valley.”
is perhaps best remembered for a work he wrote on what he called the
Texas agricultural ant (better known today as the harvester ant or
red ant), which he shared with Charles Darwin. Darwin was impressed
enough that he facilitated the publication of Lincecum’s writings
on the ant. Lincecum corresponded with respected scientists in several
countries, was elected a corresponding member of the Philadelphia
Academy of Natural Sciences and wrote more than two dozen articles
for several scientific journals while also contributing thousands
of botanical specimens to the Smithsonian and British Museum.
the academics battle over his credentials and findings and his tendency
to be anthropomorphic. A lot of us just want to know what he saw when
he came to Texas. How did he react to
the bounty? Was he wise enough to realize that nothing he saw was
infinite, that it wouldn’t be like he first saw it forever? Was he
a wise and prudent hunter or a barbarian? And what would I have been
like in those regards? Would I have wanted to be like Lincecum?
Well, yes and no.
Yes, on why he came to Texas. He wrote:
“I was very desirous of making an excursion over the comparatively
unexplored regions of Texas. These partially
known and widely extended regions lay southwest and west over hundreds
of miles of unoccupied country. The buffalo, the bear, the deer, the
antelope, the peccary, the turkey, were all plentiful and were the
only inhabitants of that vast domain, except in the upper portions
of the water courses there were a few hairy beavers. I was very desirous
of seeing it.”
learned to hunt with his father’s old Army musket. The gun was left
by the French during the American Revolution, which tells us that
Lincecum quite literally “grew up with the country.” He tells us that
the marks of his knife on a tree was the “first sign ever made by
the white man on that hill where Columbus, Missouri now stands.”
By today’s standards it would be easy to consider Lincecum an indiscriminate
hunter. As a young man back in Mississippi he thought nothing of shooting
two ducks because he didn’t know what species they were. One was probably
be common mersanger. The other, well, no one has ever quite figured
out from Lincecum’s description what kind of duck it might have been.
He couldn’t figure it out either.
Among his earliest hunting companions were some Choctaw boys from
whom he learned the Choctaw language and more than a little about
how to hunt and survive on the land. Lincecum’s Indian name was Shappo
Tohobra, or White Hat.
Lincecum later wrote, in the Choctaw language, the tribe’s oral traditions
as dictated to him by an old Choctaw sage, and he wrote a biography
of chief Pushmataha. Together, those works give historians the most
extensive collection of Native American lore collected before 1830.
His contribution to history would have been significant even if it
they had not extended from there. That he carried an unbridled passion
to observe and learn to Texas is a part
of our historical good fortune.
also carried a passion and necessity for hunting. He was pretty good
at it, even if he did say so himself, and he did, in a “No brag, just
fact” kind of way. “I could get a deer anytime I wanted it, and had
it been the season for it, I could have roasted a turkey every night,”
he wrote of an early sojourn.
“With my good eyes, steady nerves, and unerring rifle, if the deer
was still and was in range and standing perfectly still, it was a
very rare thing for me to miss. If the deer was not still, and in
range, I didn’t shoot.
“Nothing could make me feel so much like a tacky, or bear so painfully
on my sympathies, as the idea of going into nature’s grand park and
banging away at the biggest part of the first deer that presents itself,
and perhaps wounding it, for it to run off and hide itself in some
dense thicket, to lie and sigh and groan away its joyous, active life
with its dying breath, with curses on the head of the senseless biped
who inflicted the profitless injury. Very few of my deer, or any other
game I shot, rotted in the woods; hence in my day-hunting I had but
little use for a dog.”
that Lincecum was too anthropomorphic to be taken seriously as a naturalist
didn’t bother him. He attributed to his trusty steed, Ned, qualities
that most of us have only seen from the likes of Trigger, Silver and
Mister Ed. But he loved the natural world about as much as any one
could. At one point he describes plunging into a “far-reaching sea
of grass and flowers, joyously full of delight.” He observes a large
drove of wild mustangs and marvels at the “many little bunches of
prairie hens flushed up from the deep grass in short range as I broke
through blooming prairie pea-vines and tangled grass and weeds that
While in search of more far-reaching seas of grass and flowers, he
makes it clear that he is not interested in meeting a lot of people
along the way. “Here I crossed a clear stream…I didn’t want to see
anybody or come in contact with any settlement,” he writes at one
When he saw cows – indicators of civilization – he always went in
another direction. Cows he could study back home in Washington County,
where he more or less settled. Later he writes, “I passed a very pretty
little stream of clear water, and I was glad to see that there were
no signs of people about it.”
sensed that there would be a time when “senseless bipeds” would come
to dominate the landscape and he knew that the end of unlimited hunting
and fishing in Texas as he knew it was
drawing to a close, even in the 1830s.
“I have myself caught every perch, right at spawning time, for three
or four miles, all full of eggs, in a single day. Hundreds of others
were doing the same thing. Next year there were but few perch in the
stream. I know now, that if we had let them alone until the spawning
was over there would have been plenty of perch the next season.
“My experience in this matter clearly demonstrates to my mind that
properly regulated game laws, strictly executed, would crowd the waters
again with fish, thick as I have often found them in new countries,
where the waters had not been fished at all.”
Lincecum had a darker side, especially by today’s standards. He was
adamantly pro-slavery, considered himself an atheist and advocated
sterilization – what he called the Texas Remedy – to rid society of
undesirables, which included criminals, politicians and even a few
members of his own profession of which, it is safe to say, he disagreed.
In the end, Lincecum knew that most of Texas
would be extensively settled, and that the natural world would suffer
as a result. He wrote in the Texas Almanac: “Now that all the world
and the rest of mankind are coming to Texas,
it behooves those who intend to remain here to look around them and
see what portions of nature’s wide-spread bounties can be saved from
the destructive tramp of immigration.”
We can only imagine how distressed Gideon Lincecum would be if he
could see how much of world and the rest of mankind is coming to Texas,
and what few portions of nature’s wide-spread bounties are left to
© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
24, 2008 Column