Webb’s Recollections of Boyhood on Plains \(When Walter Prescott Webb received the honorary degree of doctor of Taws from the University of Chicago, from which he bad returned in his youth without his PhD, and when the American Council of Learned Societies awarded him $10,000, friends and admirers of Webb hardly noticed; a worthy man’s due. But when he delivered his presidential address to the American Historical Association in Washington, the last official act at the end of his academic service, and when he chose to speak, furthermore, on history as his personal high adventure, we leapt for a copy; we excerpt it here. The complete address will appear soon in a volume entitled An Honest Preface and Other Essays, Houghton Mifflin & The opening I shall enter lies in the field of personal experience, of adventure into that great wilderness of the past, that wild country wherein one can be lost for days or weeks or months, in exploration as exciting as any known to argonauts or conquistadores; and the lovely feature about this delirious experience is that the historical explorer moves among the dangers and hardships with complete immunity until finally he comes out in print, in point-blank range of the critics It would be highly gratifying if I could say that from a very early age I wanted to be a historian, and that I bent every effort to this purpose. Nothing could be further from the truth …. What I wanted to be was a writer, and I wanted to write, not for the few but for the many, never for the specialist who doesn’t read much anyway. I wanted to write so that people could understand me; I wanted to persuade them, lure them along from sentence to paragraph, make them see patterns of truth in the kaleidoscope of the past, exercise upon them the marvelous magic of words as conveyors of thought. With this ambition to write I entered college, very late and with little preparation, and here my past caught up with me. I convinced several English professors that I could not punctuate, and they convinced me that I could not write. For years I did not touch pen to paper. In my junior year I registered for a course called Institutional History, taught by a Canadianborn and European-trained scholar, Lindley Miller Keasbey. What he taught was not history, nor economics, nor anthropology, nor philosophy, but a good deal of all of these and more. He swept me off my feet, gave me a method of thinking and a point of view which has entered into all that I have done. His patterns were clear, concise, and exciting. I took all his courses and decided that I would become a teacher of institutional history, beginning in the high schools. But when I surveyed the field, as a wiser person would have done earlier, I found that there was no such thing as institutional history except in the University of Texas. Then I learned that this man was so unorthodox that he was not welcomed to teach in any standard department. To provide a place for him, the authorities allowed him to set up an independent department and his former colleagues were dismayed when their best students flocked to him by the hundreds. The authorities finally solved that problem and restored harmony by firing him. And that I was, a specialist in a non-existent field of learning. But on the record institutional history does look like history, enough like it to fool one school board. Thus I became a history teacher with only two elementary courses in the subject. Now, since I was making a living teaching history, I decided it would be wise to learn something about it, and I began taking advanced courses, and finally took the B.A. degree at about the age most take the PhD. In the meantime I had made something of a reputation as a high school teacher of history, and had written an article on the subject, and that made me an expert. In 1918 I was invited to come to The University of Texas to conduct a course in the teaching of history so that it would not be given by a methodologist. THE TIME HAD COME to start work on the M. A. It was nec essary to choose a subject, and here good fortune attended me. A series of Mexican revolutions had made the Texas border a turbulent place; James E. Ferguson as governor had made all Texas turbulent. Ferguson increased the Ranger force, and the Rangers went to the border to commit crimes almost as numerous and quite as heinous as Pancho Villa bandits. These crimes were exposed in a legislative investigation led by J. T. Canales. The exposure made exciting headlines in all the papers. I read those headlines and asked myself an important question: Has anyone written the history of the Texas Rangers? The answer was no. I chose that subject and was off on the first lap of the great adventure, to write the history of the oldest institution of its kind in the world. The story led west, to the frontier, to vicarious adventure of the body, and to real adventure of the mind. Though I was not aware of it then, I had found my field …. It was my’ first work with sources, the faded letters and reports of a handful of men standing between the people and their enemies, men better with a gun than with a pen …. I went to all the places where things had happened. I sought out the old men, still living then, who had fought Cornanches and Apaches, killed Sam Bass at Round Rock, and broken up deadly feuds inherited from the more deadly reconstruction. With a captain and a private I visited every Ranger camp on the Mexican border where there were still elements of danger; I carried a -commission and had the exhilirating experience of wearing a Colt revolver in places where it might have been useful. At night by the campfires I listened to the tales told by men who could talk without notes. Though the desire to write had been suppressed, it had not been killed. One day I sat down and wrote an article sketching the early history of the Texas Rangers, and for the first time an editor paid me the compliment of writing a check in my favor. This was a landmark, the beginning of a long and happy relationship between me and editors …. It was during these same years that the oil boom broke in West Texas. It began in my home town of Ranger, a village of one thousand which became a brawling mass of ten thousand in six months. Law and order broke d o w n, the criminal element rushed in to gamble, murder, and rob. Then the Rangers came to run out the criminals and restore local government to the demoralized citizens. This was a formula repeated in town after town as the boom spread. The genuine boom was followed by a bogus one, run by speculators who floated stock promotions to fleece the gullible public. One of these bogus companies with headquarters in Fort Worth founded a magazine and decided to do a series of articles on the services the Texas Rangers had rendered in cleaning up the oil towns. The editor addressed a letter to the University asking who was qualified to write the story. The letter found its way to my desk, and I began to tell the story of my Rangers at two cents a word. This pleasant arrangement was interrupted by a United States marshal and judge who had quaint ideas about the uses of the mail. Though I did not realize it at the time, as I tell this story Texas does seem to have been an exciting place. I shall always be grateful to this crooked oil company because in writing articles for it I stumbled on one of the few original ideas I ever had. As a matter of fact up until that time I had never had one. UPI Photo Walter Webb THIS IDEA CAME TO ME on a dark winter night when a heavy rain was rattling on the roof of the small back room where I was trying to write an article for the oil magazine. By this time I knew a great deal about the Texas Rangers, their dependence on horses and their love for the Colt revolver; I knew the nature of their enemies, primarily the Cornanches, and I knew the kind of society they represented and defended. I was ready for that moment of synthesis that comes after long hours of aimless research to give understanding and animation to inert knowledge. What I saw that night was that when Stephen F. Austin brought his colonists to Texas, he brought them to the edge of one environment, the eastern woodland, and to the border of another environment, the Great Plains. The Texas Rangers were called into existence and kept in existence primarily to defend the settlements against Indians on horseback, I n.d i a n s equipped with weapons that could be used on horseback. These Texans fresh from the forests had no such weapons, for theirs had been developed in the woods and were not suited for horsemen. While the conflict between the Rangers and the Comanches was at its height, Samuel Colt invented the revolver, the ideal weapon for a man on horseback. It took a year to gather the proof of what I knew that night, though I sensed then that something very important happened when the American people emerged from the woodland and undertook to live on the plains. In that transition the Texans were the forerunners, the Rangers the spearhead of the advance, and the revolver an adaptation to the needs of a new situation. The excitement of that moment was probably the greatest creative sensation I have ever known. With the roar of the rain in my ears, I went to the front of the house to tell the most sympathetic listener I have known that I had come upon something really important, that I was no longer an imitator, parroting what I read or what some professor had said. This idea that something happened when the Americans came out of the woods and undertook to live on the plains freed me from authority, and set me out on an independent course of inquiry. One question I asked over and over, of myself and of others: What else happened? What other changes took place in the manner of living when thousands of westbound people emerged from a humid, broken woodland to live on the level, semi-arid plains where there was never enough water and practically no wood? This question attended me in all my reading, and led straight to the books I needed …. Without design, I was now on the way to becoming a western historian. I was excellently prepared because I had never had a course in that field, and therefore could view it without preconceived notions or borrowed points of view …. Slight as the demands were, I was ill prepared to meet them. My idea of the compelling unity of the American West had now become an obsession. That unity was exemplified in the geology, the geography, the climate, vegetation, animal life and Indian life, all background forces operating with telling effect on those people who in the nineteenth century crawled out of the salubrious eastern woodland to live in this harsh land. To the problem of understanding this Western environment in. all its aspects, I applied the technique learned from Keasbey. This technique consisted of taking an environment, in this case the Great Plains, as a unit, and superimposing layer after layer of its components with geology as the foundation and the latest human culture, literature, as the final product, the flower growing out of the compost of lidman effort and physical forces. There was a compelling logic in the plan for him who would follow it, but to plough through such unknown fields as geology, climatology, botany, anthropology, to arrive finally at the sixteenth centurywhen men began to make a record of their puny efforts, many failures and few successes in order to write the heroic and tragic history of the American West, was no small task. But it was high adventure. I have never worked so hard or with such exaltation as in those days when I carved out of the books piece after piece and found that they all fit together to form a harmonious pattern which I knew beforehand was there. IN THE GREAT PLAINS I had I chosen an environment simple in structure whose force was so compelling as to influence profoundly whatever touched it …. I was also … examining for meaning a familiar land which I had known as a child. A friend asked me once when I began preparation to write The Great Plains. I answered that I began at the age of four when my father left the humid East and set his family down in West Texas, on the very edge of the open, arid country which stretched north and west farther than a boy could imagine. There I touched the hem of the garment of the real frontier; there I tasted alkali. I was not the first man, or boy; but the first men, Indian fighters, buffalo hunters, trail drivers, half-reformed outlaws, and Oklahoma boomers were all around, full of memories and eloquent in relating them to small boys. There I saw the crops burned by drought, eaten by grasshoppers, and destroyed by hail. I felt the searing winds come furnace-hot from the desert to destroy in a day the hopes of a year, and I saw a trail herd blinded and crazy from thirst completely out of control of horse-weary cowboys with faces so drawn they looked like death masks. In. the hard-packed yard and on the encircling red-stone hills was the geology, in the pasture the desert botany and all the wild animals of the plains save the buffalo. The Indians, the fierce Comanches, had so recently departed, leaving memories so vivid and tales so harrowing that their red ghosts, lurking in every mott and hollow, drove me home all prickly with fear when I ventured too far. The whole Great Plains was there in microcosm, and the book I wrote was but an extension and explanation of what I had known first hand in miniature, in a sense an autobiography with scholarly trimmings. The Great Plains was published in 1931, and no more need be said about it except that it
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