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 Texas : Features : Columns : "Letters from Central Texas"

Gideon Lincecum:
King of Texas’ Wild Frontier

by Clay Coppedge
No 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.
That 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.
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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.”
Lincecum 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.
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Let 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.”

Lincecum 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.

Lincecum 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.”

Charges 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 long afternoon.”

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 point.

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.”

Lincecum 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 be saved.

© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
August 24, 2008 Column
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