Breadline Banker

Part of the fun of writing a weekly Texas history blog is discovering a story that jumps up unexpectedly. While researching Panna Maria, the oldest permanent Polish settlement in the United States, I read an account claiming that an Irishman named John Twohig (love that name) in 1854 sold the original 238 acres for the town site to the Polish colonists “at an inflated price,” only the first of many unfortunate experiences to befall the struggling immigrants. I had to find out who the Irishman was that gouged the Poles.

In addition to an article on the Texas State Historical Association site, I found a story published by the University of Incarnate Word, and a piece printed in 1913 in the Invincible, A Magazine of History that disclosed a very different character from the fellow who gouged a bunch of impoverished Polish immigrants. John Twohig ran away from his Cork County Ireland home at fifteen and apprenticed on a British merchant ship sailing between New Orleans and Boston. Lured by the financial prospects of Texas, Twohig carried a stock of goods to San Antonio in 1830 and opened a mercantile business. He took part in the Siege of Bexar, the two-month-long fight in the fall of 1835 that resulted in Texans driving the Mexicans out of San Antonio. There is no record of him joining the forces in the Alamo before it fell in March 1836. However, in September 1842 when Twohig heard that the Mexican army was on its way to occupy the city for a second time that year, he invited the poor to take what they wanted from his store. Then he blew up the building to keep the Mexicans from getting the gunpowder and other supplies. Apparently in retaliation for the act, Twohig was captured with about fifty other San Antonians and marched to Perote Castle, the dreaded prison near Vera Cruz. In July 1843, Twohig and about a dozen prisoners dug a tunnel and escaped. One account says he walked through Vera Cruz to the docks disguised as a peddler and boarded a ship for New Orleans.

When Twohig returned to San Antonio in 1844, he reopened his mercantile business and began operating an extensive trade with Mexico. He purchased land on a crossing of the Rio Grande, which lay only142 miles from San Antonio. In 1850 he surveyed the land, laid out a new town, and named it Eagle Pass. Twohig was forty-seven in 1853 when he married Bettie

1841 Twohig House

1841 Twohig House

Calvert of Seguin and began enlarging his home on the San Antonio River. The couple built several guesthouses along the river and held lavish dinners for such notables as Sam Houston, Ulysses S. Grant, and their good friend Robert E. Lee. On February 18, 1861, as Texas prepared to secede from the Union, Lee had dinner with the Twohigs and wrote the following day thanking them for their hospitality and expressing regret that he had to leave under such sad circumstances.

A devout Catholic, Twohig was known for giving money to anyone in need, especially the Brothers of the Society of Mary who came from France to start a school. In addition to financial help, Twohig advised the Brothers to build their St. Mary’s Institute on the San Antonio River. The school developed into St. Mary’s University. He served as godfather for two or three generations of children, several of whom recalled receiving a gold piece every time they saw him. Pensioners knew that they could go to his bank at closing time every Saturday afternoon, and Twohig would always draw from his own pocket a gift of money. The Sisters of Charity built an orphanage in San Antonio and relied on Twohig for support. An eccentric jokester, he often “fined” his wealthy friends who would later receive a note from the orphanage thanking them for their gift. He became known as the “Breadline Banker” because on Saturdays the poor women of San Antonio gathered at his house to receive loaves of bread, which arrived by the barrel. Twohig’s sister Miss Kate had moved from a convent in New York to live with the couple. Bettie Twohig and Miss Kate passed out the loaves of bread, keeping track of how much bread they distributed by dropping beans or matches into a tumbler. After Bettie Twohig died, Miss Kate stayed with her brother, maintained his house, and continued distributing the bread.

By 1870 when Twohig had moved exclusively into banking, with connections all over the United States and London, he was ranked as one of the 100 wealthiest men in Texas. His real property was estimated at $90,000 and personal property estimated at an additional $50,000. At the time of his death in 1891, his estate was valued at half a million. He left his house to his sister Kate until her death and the remainder to the Catholic Church. Miss Kate continued after her brother’s death to give away the bread.

The Twohig house, which sat across the San Antonio River from his bank, deteriorated over the years. In 1941, the Witte Museum moved each stone of the Twohig house to its campus and carefully reconstructed it for use as staff offices and for special events.

Reconstructed Twohig House on Witte Museum Campus

Reconstructed Twohig House on Witte Museum Campus

Chasing down the story of John Twohig has proved to be an interesting rabbit trail. It’s time to get back to checking on those Polish immigrants.

Myra Invites You!




Internet Radio Interview

Thursday, June 19, from 9 to 9:30am (CST)


Myra talks about Stein House, her award-winning historical novel

Tough Talk with Tony Gambone

click: Listen Live

(Be patient—it takes a few seconds to load)Texas Assoc of Authors Winner[16]


Saturday, June 21, from 1 to 6pm

Malvern Book Store

613 W. 29th


Book Signing for Stein House


Myra will read from Stein House at 1:15

Hope to see you there

Margaret Hallett, Legendary Pioneer Texan

The story that places Margaret Leatherbury Hallett in early Texas merits being called a “legend” because not every part of her saga meets the truth test.  Born on Christmas Day 1787, she was the youngest daughter of a prominent Virginia family and probably the feistiest.

At eighteen she fell in love with John Hallett, a merchant seaman—not exactly the pedigree her parents planned for their daughter.  One account says that John was the youngest son of a gentleman from Worcester, England.  At an early age, he joined the Royal Navy, but when an officer threatened him, he jumped overboard, and swam to a nearby American ship. Allowed to stay on board, he was brought to the United States and adopted by a merchant seaman.  Either Margaret’s family did not know his history or they did not care, because it is said that when they insisted that she could do better than a seaman, she said “I would rather marry John Hallett and be the beginning of a new family than remain single and be the tail-end of an old one.” Whereupon she left for the Chesapeake Bay area, and a chaplain married the couple onboard ship.

Margaret and John lived in Baltimore for several years, and after John fought in the War of 1812 against his former countrymen, one of the accounts says that he and Margaret joined a wagon train of homesteaders heading west.  The West to which this story refers was still part of Spain’s colonial empire and the Mexicans were involved in a war for independence from Spain (1810 to 1821), which makes it unlikely that homesteaders were heading to that region.  It is far more likely that John took his wife aboard a ship that sailed through the Gulf of Mexico to the mouth of the Rio Grande.  Again, the legend needs checking because it says the couple settled in Matamoros, a Mexican port across the Rio Grande from present Brownsville.  The village where they settled was a commercial center used by area cattlemen that did not get named Matamoros for another ten years.  It’s still an amazing account since they opened a mercantile business in the Spanish Colonial village while the Mexicans in that area were fighting for their independence.  During that time, their first two sons were born in 1813 and 1815.

The family moved up to the community surrounding the Presidio La Bahía that was named Goliad in 1829 and opened a trading post.  A third son, Benjamin, and a daughter, Mary Jane, were born, but something happened to Benjamin when he was ten; some accounts say Indians carried him off, but no record of the incident survives.  In 1833 John acquired a league (4,428 acres) of land from the Stephen F. Austin Colony on the east bank of the Lavaca River in present Lavaca County.  The family continued operating the trading post at Goliad while John took workers with him to build a log cabin on their new property, dig a water well and protect the property with a moat around the cabin that was five feet wide and three feet deep. (The moat is never mentioned again in any of the accounts.) The family remained in Goliad and John continued to travel to their new land until his death, probably in early 1836.

After the fall of the Alamo on March 6, 1836, Margaret and her daughter Mary Jane fled in the Runaway Scrap with all the other families to escape Santa Anna’s advancing army.  Upon their return, they found their property destroyed and set about rebuilding and replanting.  The two oldest sons fought at San Jacinto on April 21 in the battle that won Texas independence from Mexico.  The oldest son, John, Jr., returned home after the war and was killed by Indians.  That same year, his brother William went to Matamoros to buy land, was accused of being a spy, and sent to prison where he died.

Margaret, a forty-nine-year-old widow and her daughter Mary Jane were the only survivors, and when a young man, Colatinus Ballard, rode into Goliad to let Margaret and Mary Jane know that settlers were moving onto the property they owned up on the Lavaca River, the two left immediately for their cabin.  Upon arriving they met two friendly Tonkawa Indians and their new neighbors who told stories of constant Comanche attacks.  Margaret called a meeting of the settlers and the two Tonkawas who agreed that they must go to San Antonio to seek help from Texas Rangers to rid the land of the raiding Comanches.  Margaret prepared food for the trip and issued instructions for the best route.  Within two weeks the Rangers had cleared the Comanches from the area.

As more settlers arrived, Margaret stocked her cabin with supplies and began operating a trading post, bartering coffee, sugar, and other merchandise with the Tonkawas and her new neighbors in exchange for hides and pelts.  She hauled the hides and pelts to nearby Gonzales to trade for corn, which she planted as a crop.  She also raised cattle and horses that carried her own brand.

As Margaret learned their language, the Tonkawas became good friends, warning her of impending Comanche attacks.  One legend says that some Tonkawas came into her trading post asking for free merchandise (same say whiskey).  When she refused, one of the Indians began to help himself, and Margaret hit the Indian on the head with a hatchet raising quit a knot.  When Chief Lolo came to investigate the incident, he was so impressed with Margaret’s independence that he named her “Brave Squaw” and made her an honorary member of the tribe.

Despite being a widow, Margaret never wore black, instead preferring brightly colored clothing.  She also wore a chatelaine bag, a purse like affair that hung by a chain from her waist.  Gossips claimed that she carried powder in that bag, and it was not the kind that required a puff.  Apparently no one had the nerve to ask what was in the bag.

Margaret donated land in 1838 near her trading post for a town, which was named Hallettsville in her honor.  She built a new house in the town and when the legislature of the Republic of Texas authorized a new county named La Baca (it later became Lavaca) Margaret opened her home for county and district court sessions.  When time came to select the county seat, the older town of Petersburg claimed the honor.  Some stories say that after two elections failed to secure Hallettsville as the county seat, Margaret Hallett sent an oxcart to Petersburg to retrieve the county records, and that seems to have settled the matter.

Although Mary Jane attended a private convent, Margaret gave the land in 1852 to establish the town’s first public school and helped organize the Alma Male and Female Institute.

Mary Jane married Colatinus Ballard, the young man who had ridden all the way to Goliad to warn Margaret that settlers were moving onto her league of land.  One of the stories claims that Ballard, a native Virginian, was the first cousin of Mary Todd Lincoln.

Margaret Leatherbury Hallett died in 1863 at the age of seventy-six and was buried on her league.  Her remains were later moved to Hallettsville City Memorial Park and a grave marker placed on the site that names her the city founder.

Margaret Leatherbury Hallett gave marker in City Memorial Park

Margaret Leatherbury Hallett grave marker in City Memorial Park

Black History Month–Part IV

Black women have received little attention for the critical role they have played in maintaining their families and contributing to their communities. After running across a brief reference to Rachel Whitfield (1814-1908) a “former slave who made it on her own as head of a household, subsistence farmer,” I began searching for more.  I found Rachel’s story in Women in Early Texas, an account written by 41NhJL7XncL._SX270_her granddaughter, Lela Jackson.  In 1852 Jim and Rachel Whitfield lived with their six children in Arkansas, Missouri.  Their master, a man named Whitfield sold Jim to a slave owner, and the family never saw him again.  Then, Rachel, age thirty-eight, and the children were put together on the auction block.  They were purchased by a man named Washington McLaughlin, and they began a months-long trip to Texas, sometimes on foot and others times in an oxcart.  They finally settled on a site with deep, rich soil on the north bank of the San Gabriel River in Williamson County.

The slaves cut thick brush and a variety of trees to clear the land, built cabins, and prepared the soil for planting.  Lela Jackson writes that McLaughlin “was not even-tempered and, at time, whipped the slaves.”  At other times he gave them passes, which were required to leave his land.  If they went out without a pass, they could be whipped for being out without permission.

Just before the Civil War soldiers rode into the plantation, took supplies, and then headed south.  One of the slaves heard McLaughlin read the “Proclamation of Freedom,” but he waited for several days until early one morning he gathered the slaves and angrily announced: “You are now free people.  You are free as I am.  You can go anywhere you want to. You can stay here if you wish, but I don’t need you.  I can do without you.”

They stood in silence, stunned, unsure of what freedom meant.  Finally the cook went to the kitchen and prepared breakfast for the McLaughlin family.  After the master had eaten, he told all the slaves to leave, not allowing them to eat or carry anything with them.

They slipped along the river, finding places to hide, unsure of their safety, listening for any strange noise.  Rachel’s oldest son Allen married that spring and helped Rachel and the younger children settle in a log cabin next to a creek.  They foraged for wild plums and berries, ate pecans and black walnuts, and got permission to milk a stray cow in exchange for raising its calf for its owner.  The milk, butter, and cream stayed fresh in a bucket they lowered into a well. They moved about as the seasons changed, picking cotton and vegetables for landowners.  They gathered prairie chicken eggs and trapped birds, squirrels, and possums.

They ironed clothing for white people using flat irons that they heated on a fire log in the yard.  Rachel made quilts and asked men to save their ten-cent Bull Durham tobacco sacks, which she ripped open, bleached and used to line her quilts.

The high point in their lives came on “pastoral days,” the Sundays when a preacher held worship services.  People came from miles around, and for those who could not read, the leader “lined” out the words. They also enjoyed baptizings in the creek, sing-songs, camp meetings, and dances.  When someone died, Rachel and her daughter, Demmie, prepared the body and laid it out on a board or a door that was balanced on chairs. Coffins were made from the plentiful local cedar and stained dark brown.  Rachel, who lived to ninety-three and all her children held the respect of both their black and white Williamson County neighbors.

JacketBlack Women in Texas History chronicles the lives of amazing black females from the days when they first arrived in Texas as both free and slave—during the Spanish Colonial Period—up to their present influence on Texas’ politics and education.  One of those women was Lulu Belle Madison White who graduated in 1928 from Prairie View College (present Prairie View A&M University) with a degree in English.  Before beginning a ten-year teaching career in Houston, White joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) where her husband had been active for several years.  She resigned from teaching after nine years and devoted the rest of her life to bring justice to the black community.  She was an amazing fund-raiser and organized new chapters of the NAACP throughout Texas.  Even before the Supreme Court in 1944 found that the white primary was unconstitutional, White had started organizing a “pay your poll tax and go out to vote” campaign.  She was the strongest advocate in Texas for using the black vote to force social change.  She argued: “we cannot sit idly by and expect things to come to us.  We must go out and get them.”LuluBelle

She sought to educate the black community by leading voter registration seminars, and she urged black churches to speak up about public issues without endorsing specific candidates.  She pressed white businesses to hire blacks, using boycotts, protest demonstrations, and letter-writing campaigns to influence the change.

In 1946 when the NAACP began its push for integrating the University of Texas, there was only one state-supported black college in Texas—Prairie View A&M—and it did not offer training for professional degrees. White not only persuaded Herman Marion Sweatt, a black mail carrier, to act as the plaintiff against the university, she raised money to pay his legal expenses.  Years later Sweatt claimed that it was White’s encouragement that helped him maintain his resolve.  When the state offered to open a separate black university with its own law school in Houston instead of integrating the University of Texas, White supported Sweatt’s rejection of the proposal on the basis that separate was not equal and only continued the status of Jim Crow.

The victory of Sweatt v. Painter before the Supreme Court in June 1951 opened the door for Brown v. Board of Education and the march toward dissolving the color line in education. A week before Lulu White’s unexpected death in 1957, the national NAACP established the Lulu White Freedom Fund in her honor.

Peter Pan, A Texas Girl

Growing up in Weatherford, twenty-five miles west of Fort Worth, Mary Virginia Martin was a mimic—dancing and acting like Dick

Mary Martin as Peter Pan

Mary Martin as Peter Pan

Powell’s co-star, Ruby Keeler and singing like the crooner Bing Crosby.  Martin’s mother, a violin teacher, had planned to have a son in 1913. Instead, her lively little girl became the family’s tomboy, romping and playing in the orchard and barn and riding ponies with her older sister Geraldine.  She claimed in her autobiography My Heart Belongs to have had an idyllic childhood, and that her photographic memory made it easy to memorize songs and remember the answers for school exams.  She performed her first solo in a fire hall and remembered soaking up the crowd’s admiration. Then, she sang with a trio of little girls dressed like bellhops on the town’s bandstand right outside the courthouse where her father used his powerful voice to present his law cases.  She realized her voice was powerful, too, because even without a microphone it rang out across the town square.

She enrolled in Ward-Belmont, a strict finishing school in Nashville, Tennessee, where entertaining the other girls with imitations of Fanny Brice was not enough to assuage her homesickness, especially for Benjamin Hagman.  She and Hagman convinced her mother, who was the family disciplinarian, to allow them to marry.  As it turned out, marriage and expecting her first child (Larry Hagman, future J.R. Ewing in Dallas) at seventeen was not the dream she had imagined.  Following her sister’s suggestion, she opened a dance school in nearby Mineral Wells and embarked on a series of choices that finally propelled her into stardom:  She divorced Hagman, left her son in Weatherford, and headed to California to study dance.  Over the next two years she became known as “Audition Mary” for never missing a chance to sing or dance for a job.  She took whatever work she could get including a stint at theaters in San Francisco and Los Angles singing “So Red Rose”—from the wings of the theaters.  After Oscar Hammerstein II, whom she did not recognize, heard her sing “Indian Love Call,” he told her she had something special.  Since she could not break into the film industry, she went to New York for a role in a play that never opened.  Finally, in Cole Porter’s production of Leave it to Me she captured the audiences with the song, “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.”

The media attention opened the door to Hollywood in 1939, and over the next three years she starred in ten movies.  Radio performances included Good News of 1940 and Kraft Music Hall. In 1940 she married Richard Halliday, an editor and producer at Paramount, who became her manager.  She won the New York Drama Critics Poll for her role as Venus in One Touch of Venus.  She contributed ideas for the songs and choreography for her role as Ensign Nellie Forbush in the 1949 Rodgers and Hammerstein hit South Pacific.  Over the next ten years, she performed on stage and television in Skin of Our Teeth and Annie Get Your Gun, however she said that her favorite role was that of Peter Pan that ran briefly on Broadway and then repeatedly on NBC-TV.

Star for "Recording" on Hollywood Walk of Fame.  She also has a star for "Radio."

Star for “Recording” on Hollywood Walk of Fame. She also has a star for “Radio.”

Martin claimed many awards including Tony Awards for Peter Pan, for her portrayal of Mary Rainer in The Sound of Music, and for her role as nurse Nellie Forbush in South Pacific. She was presented with a special Tony in 1948 “for spreading theatre to the rest of the country while the originals perform in New York,” and she received the annual Kennedy Center Honors in 1989 for career achievement.  Although she is credited with fifteen films and fourteen television performances, Martin said she preferred the “connection” she felt with a live theater audience.  She is credited with twenty-two stage productions.

Mary Martin died of cancer on November 3, 1990, and is buried in her hometown of Weatherford, Texas.

Peter Pan statue in Weatherford, TX

Peter Pan statue in Weatherford, TX

Susanna Dickinson: Alamo Survivor

Susanna Dickinson

Susanna Dickinson

Nothing tells the Texas story—the struggle for survival, the choices that bring personal tragedy, and the triumph of success—better than the life of Susanna Dickinson.  She was only fifteen in 1829 when she eloped in Hardeman County, Tennessee, with the dashing U.S. Army artillerist, Almeron Dickinson, a man almost twice her age.  Two years later they joined fifty-four other settlers on a schooner out of New Orleans that was headed for Texas.  They received a league of land (4,428 acres) in DeWitt’s Colony near present Lockhart. In the next three years Almeron acquired ten more lots in and around Gonzales.  Life appeared harmonious in those early years: Susanna may have taken in a boarder; Almeron plied his trade as a blacksmith and went into partnership in a hat factory; he joined a band of local settlers in hunting down marauding Indians; and their only child, Angelina Elizabeth, was born in December 1834.

Almeron Dickinson

Almeron Dickinson

A year later, as turmoil swept across Texas, Gonzales residents in the “Come and Take It” episode, refused the demands of Mexican soldiers to give up their cannon. Within days, Almeron offered his experience with cannons as volunteers marched to capture the Mexican seat of government in San Antonio de Bexar. In early December, Texans drove the Mexican forces from San Antonio, occupied the city, and set up a fortress in the Alamo, a crumbling former mission.

Susanna remained in Gonzales with year-old Angelina until a newly formed troop of Texans looted her house.  She fled to San Antonio to join Almeron in late December.  When the Mexican Army under General António López de Santa Anna arrived on February 23, 1836, legend says that Almeron swept Susanna and Angelina onto the back of his horse and raced with them to the protection of the Alamo fortress.

In her account of the final battle on March 6, Susanna said that Almeron, who commanded the artillery batteries, hid her and Angelina with the other women and children in the anteroom of the chapel.  As resistance failed, Almeron rushed back to his wife saying “Great God, Sue! The Mexicans are inside our walls!  All is lost!  If they spare you, love our child.”

Alamo, drawn in 1854

Alamo, drawn in 1854

When Mexican soldiers discovered Susanna and the other women and children, Col. Juan Almonte led them and the slaves to safety at the nearby home of Ramón Músquiz. The following day she and the other women and children were taken before General Santa Anna who gave each of them a blanket and two dollars in silver.  He offered to take Angelina to Mexico City to be educated.  When she refused to release the child, Santa Anna gave Susanna a letter that she was to deliver to General Sam Houston demanding immediate surrender.  To ensure her safe passage, Santa Anna sent a servant of one of his officers to accompany her. Joe, William Travis’ slave who had also been released, joined them as they made their way to Gonzales.

Susanna and Joe shared the news of the fall of the Alamo and tried to answer the pleading questions of the families whose men had taken part in the battle.  In anticipation of the approaching Mexican Army, General Houston ordered the families to evacuate immediately and head toward safety in Louisiana.  Susanna and Angelina joined the long struggle eastward in the rain, mud, and extreme cold in what became known as the “Runaway Scrape.”

Susanna was illiterate and did not leave written records, but she continued throughout her life to share her experiences. She claimed to have seen the bodies of Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie.  From the house to which she was taken after the fall of the Alamo, she could see the pyres of the dead being burned. For a period after the battle, all she could recall was that she wept for days.

With no means of support and no family, Susanna petitioned the congress of the new republic for financial assistance. Her plea was denied, along with those of the other survivors. Before the end of 1837 she married John Williams.  In less than a year his physical abuse prompted her to petition for and receive a divorce—the first granted in what became Harris County.

Near the time of her divorce, the Republic of Texas awarded a land bounty of 640 acres to survivors of the battle for Texas Independence, which allowed Susanna to support herself as a laundress and boarding house keeper.  In later years she and Angelina were awarded another 1,920 acres as descendants of a member of the Texas Republican Army.

In December 1838, she married Francis P. Herring, whom relatives claim died in 1843 from too much drink.  Some accounts claim that Pamela Mann who ran Houston’s gaudy Mansion House, which was known as a wild and rowdy place, invited Susanna to live in her hotel, perhaps even working as a prostitute.  Others insist that Susanna had proven housekeeping and cooking skills and would not have needed to resort to prostitution for her survival.

She may have even operated her own boarding house before marrying husband number four, Peter Bellows, in 1847. When Bellows divorced Susanna, he charged her with abandonment and prostitution, apparently referring to her residency in the Mansion House before their marriage. Susanna did not appear in court to challenge the claim because she had already moved to Lockhart where she opened a very successful boarding house.

Before leaving Houston, she had been baptized in Buffalo Bayou by a Baptist minister, Rufus C. Burleson, who praised her for nursing victims of a Houston cholera epidemic.  Years later Rev. Burleson wrote in his Memoirs, “she was nominally a member of the Episcopal Church…I found her a great bundle of untamed passions, devoted in her love and bitter in her hate…she was joyfully converted.  In less than two months her change was so complete as to be observed by all her neighbors…she was a zealous co-laborer of mine in every good work…whenever she did wrong especially in giving way to passion, she would confess and weep over it.”

After moving to Lockhart, she met her fifth and final husband, Joseph W. Hannig, a German immigrant, blacksmith, and skilled furniture maker.  Susanna sold her land in the old DeWitt Colony and used the proceeds to help Hannig become established in various businesses in Austin.  He operated a fine furniture making business, an undertaking parlor, and a mill before expanding into a second business in San Antonio.

Hannig Museum

Hannig Museum

Hannig built a home in 1869 for Susanna on Pine Street (present 5th Street) that is open as a museum today.  After several years Hannig expanded his business interests into real estate and served as city alderman.  They moved into a mansion in Hyde Park an area on the outskirts of Austin, and Susanna was able to employ several German servant girls with whom she became friends.  Hannig’s businesses allowed Susanna to be accepted into the social circles in Austin where she was constantly asked to recount her Alamo experience. Angelina died in 1869, and Susanna raised her four grandchildren, seeing that they were educated in Catholic schools and convents.

By the time of her death in 1883 Susanna Dickinson Hannig had become a wealthy and respected member of the Austin community.

Stein House is Published

For several weeks I have been blogging about the central coast of Texas where the first huge wave of German settlers landed in

Texas Historical Fiction

Texas Historical Fiction

December 1844 on a bare shell beach that developed into the thriving seaport of Indianola. The blog posts have been an introduction to the exciting history of the place where Stein House, my latest historical novel, opens in 1853 as Helga Heinrich and her four children sail into Indianola to begin their new life.  They are determined to overcome the memory and haunting legacy of Max, her husband and their papa, who drowned in a drunken leap from the dock as their ship pulled away from the German port.

Helga is anxious to be reunited with her sister Amelia, and she’s grateful her wealthy brother-in-law, Dr. Joseph Stein, fulfills his part of the bargain that brought the family to the new world, even without Max to run Dr. Stein’s mercantile store.  Helga takes charge of Stein’s massive boarding house overlooking the road to Texas’ interior and the fickle waves of Matagorda Bay.

A woman of strong passions, Helga operates Stein House for boarders of all stripes whose involvement in the rigors of a town on the edge of frontier influences and molds all their lives: the cruelties of yellow fever and slavery, the wrenching choices of Civil War and Reconstruction, murder, alcoholism, and the devastation wrought by the hurricane of 1886.

The following is an excerpt taken from the first chapter as Helga and her children walk with Amelia to their new home:

A crowd had gathered in front of an impressive white two-story building.  A sign over the door read Casimir House.

Amelia whispered, “Let’s cross to the other side.  It’s a slave auction.”

Helga’s breath caught, and she stood transfixed, staring at a black boy, not more than ten, chained by his ankle and wrist to a giant black man.  Both slaves had been oiled until their flesh shined like polished ebony, outlining every detail of their muscles.

“They look so strong.” Hermie spoke barely above a whisper. “Have you ever seen such muscles on a boy?’

Helga had not.  The child’s massive shoulders bulged under the faded, sleeveless shirt, his powerful arms hanging loosely at his sides, seemingly waiting for the next command.  She looked down at the round softness of Hermie and Paul.  How could she think their life was hard?  Yet in this new land she intended to see their lives improve.

Suddenly the crowd parted, and Helga recognized the top of Anna’s blonde head as the child stepped onto the porch and very lightly stroked the black, manacled hand of the boy.  The contact made the boy jump—the only indication of his fright.  The crowd burst into merry laughter as Anna examined her fingertip for color.

Helga pushed her way into the throng and took Anna firmly by the hand. “Please forgive her,” she whispered, her eyes riveted to the black child’s steady gaze.

The amused spectators patted Anna’s head and made comments about the lovely little German lass until the auctioneer began chanting excitedly.  Almost immediately, the bidding reached a fever pitch.

Gretchen said, “Is that man selling those people?”

“It’s legal.  A few locals use slaves as domestics.  Mostly, they’re sold to planters who take them upriver.”  Amelia kept her voice low.

Helga couldn’t speak.  She clutched Anna’s hand and stared at the boy, who continued to look into her stricken face, his eyes bold and defiant, so little remaining of the child within that fully developed body.

We must go.  You don’t want to see them taken away.” Amelia tugged at Helga’s arm.

“I’ve got to see where he goes,” Helga whispered.

A planter stepped forward wearing a big, broad-brimmed hat and a green satin vest that made his stomach bulge like he was about to strut at the head of a parade.  He paid an amazing $900 for the boy and $1,200 for the man.  The auctioneer nodded dismissively at the slaves, who trotted behind the planter in a rhythm that kept them from entangling their jangling chains.  With one smooth motion, both black bodies heaved themselves into the back of a wagon.  It creaked slowly away, the older slave glaring sullenly into the upturned faces, the boy continuing to stare over the crowd at Helga.

Amelia pulled at Helga’s arm.  “Come.  You can make yourself sick over something you can’t change.”

Anna tucked her finger protectively into the fold of her skirt.

You may order Stein House here to read the rest of the story of this family as they settle into the life of this bustling seaport that rivaled Galveston until two hurricanes finally created a ghost town.

Next week, I will return to my regular Texas history tales.