Open range cattle rancher, frontier law enforcer, illegal hide trader, Methodist circuit preacher and veteran of both the Texas-Indian Wars and the Civil War – Santiago Tafolla’s life was a wild journey spanning the quintessentially Texan iconography of the 19th century. The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University has recently acquired his hand-written memoirs, along with an assortment of related maps and photographs. The documents offer a rare glimpse into the Tejano experience of 19th century Texas, and will soon be available online.
“We don’t have a lot of Tejano materials,” says David Coleman, director of the Wittliff Collections. “Across the Southwest, the Mexican-American experience is significant. In Texas, though, [documents] tends to focus on the Texans. We hope that [the Tafolla papers] will serve as a real foundation piece to build on, representing a Tejano or Mexican-American experience. ”
Tafolla was born in 1837 in Santa Fe, which was then Mexican territory. His parents died when he was young, and in a Dickensian turn of events he was sent to live with a cruel older brother who treated him more or less as a mule. In 1848—the year of the U.S. takeover of Santa Fe—11-year-old Tafolla and a cousin ran away. They nearly starved to death in the mountains until a passing American caravan rescued them. Thus began Tafolla’s travels across the United States, during which he witnessed “a wedding reception at Mormon Town, Texas; skirmishes between rowdy recruits from St. Louis and a Black crew on a Mississippi steamboat; and the Sunday afternoon going-ons at the residences of foreign ministers in Washington, D.C.,” according to the introduction to the published memoirs. His brief stint in the Confederate army was cut short by the threats of his Anglo comrades to lynch the “greasers.” He and a few other Tejanos deserted their regiment and escaped to Mexico.
“This is the only known written account of a Mexican-American who served in the Civil War, and that’s dramatically significant,” Coleman says. After the war, Tafolla returned to Central Texas and traded livestock in the oft-romanticized early days of the Texas cattle industry. The journal ends with Tafolla’s swearing-in as justice of the peace in Bandera County in 1876—the year of the last great Comanche raid in the region. Tafolla died before he could complete the memoirs, which unfortunately leaves out his religious awakening and the subsequent 35 years he spent as a Methodist circuit preacher.
The manuscript was passed down through Tafolla’s descendants as a family heirloom. His grandson attempted to have a transcription published in the 1960s, but faced a lack of interest in early Mexican-American literature. It was finally published in 2009 as A Life Crossing Borders: Memoir of a Mexican-American Civil War Soldier, by Houston’s Arte Publico Press, in an edition edited by Santiago’s great-grandchildren, including Carmen Tafolla, the current poet laureate of San Antonio.
Wittliff archivists plan to digitize the manuscript for online access within the year. Because the pages are so fragile, the public will have limited access to the original documents.