Saturday Sampler: Texas Dames by Carmen Goldthwaite

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In our mission to connect readers, writers, and books, Caleb and Linda Pirtle has launched a new series featuring writing samples from some of the best authors in the marketplace today. Saturday’s Sampler features Texas Dames: Sassy and Savvy Women Throughout Lone Star History by Carmen Goldthwaite. If you’re looking for a great historical nonfiction that reads like vignettes from a novel, this is the book you want to read. As one reviewer said: Her stories about outstanding women in the early years of Texas have been gathered into one volume to give a reader a view of the trials and tribulations of women working to make the frontier a livable place. And to give women equal rights as men.

The Story

These are the Texas Dames, women who sallied forth to run sprawling ranches, build towns, helm major banks and shape Lone Star history. These “Dames” broke gender and racial barriers in every facet of life.

Some led the way as heroines, while others slid headlong into notoriety, but nearly all exhibited similar strands of courage and determination to wrest a country, a state and a region from the wilds. From Angelina of the Hasinai, interpreter for the Spanish, and sharpshooter Sally Scull to Dr. Claudia Potter, America’s first female anesthesiologist, and Birdie Harwood, first female mayor in the United States, historian Carmen Goldthwaite has been profiling Texas women and their accomplishments in her popular “Texas Dames” column.

Here are their stories, from early Tejas to the twentieth century.

Thoughts from Carmen Goldthwaite

Carmen Goldthwaite
Carmen Goldthwaite

In researching the story or stories of Juana Pedrasa Leaton, her life and times lent much to the history and folklore of far west Texas.

  • She purchased land from the Ronquillo Land Grant in 1832 as a 21-year-old widow.
  • She married a “comanchero,” Ben Leaton, an outlaw in league with Apaches that stole and traded horses, mules, guns, ammunition and trade goods.

Juana and Ben Leaton, Courtesy of Marfa Public Library for my book, TEXAS RANCH WOMEN: THREE CENTURIES OF METTLE AND MOXIE

  • She restored an old mission and named it Fort Leaton, which became Leaton’s trading headquarters and the site of festivities and feuds.
  • In later years, her land purchase and subsequent ownership would showcase the differences of Spanish law, which favored her, and English law that did not.
  • Her land sprawled along not just the Rio Grande out near present-day Presidio but the famed Chihuahua Trail or “Silver Trail” that roamed north with loads of silver ore from the famed mines.
  • When she and her children were booted off her land, her boys grew up in Mexico but feuded with the Anglo family occupants over the title and previous killings for more than  75 years, according to the tales.
Juana and Ben Leaton
Juana and Ben Leaton

Juana’s life and times that I’ve featured in both Texas Dames: Sassy and Savvy Women Throughout Lone Star History and Texas Ranch Women: Three Centuries of Mettle and Moxie sprawls across not only a grand landscape but also through significant historical epochs.

Today, let’s talk about one aspect of life around Fort Leaton that I only mentioned in passing in the books: the “silver trail” and its significance not only to the Presidio region but to the burgeoning growth of German emigrants who would settle in much of Western Texas.

First off, let’s recognize the “Chihuahua Trails” or “silver trails” that snaked out of Chihuahua, Mexico, north across the Rio Grande. One crossed the river near present day Presidio. That trail, the story goes, ran through or close to Juana’s land, so close she could see the dust curtains rising and would spur her help into a frenzy of preparations for a welcoming feast for drivers and officers alike. It’s where she restored the old mission and called it Fort Leaton for her husband.

This story of Juana’s land takes place in the 1840’s and 1850’s. In 1830, a couple of years before Juana bought her land, the “silver trail” route crossed through present day El Paso, then known as El Paseo del Norte, and north to Santa Fe.

Up to 200 carts in a silver train rolled over these routes, crossing the Chihuahuan Desert. Rough country. Commerce in Santa Fe beckoned. And then, in the Leaton era, San Antonio. After Texas joined the United States, trade with the United States opened up, U. S. Army protection helped in some of the rough spots and silver grew as the coin of the realm. Miners and traders swapped ore and goods. Soldiers escorted the trains through Apache and Comanche territory.

It’s an interesting tale how silver mining began. It’s said that Capt. Diego del Castillo discovered silver outcroppings in the hill country east of Chihuahua, Mexico. He tried to mine but Indian raids drove him off. This was 1652, two centuries before the peak of activity at Fort Leaton.

When the 18th Century bowed in, three outlaws in hiding in the area known as Santa Eulalia, in Mexico, camped in a ravine. To cook, they built “a rousing fire”; their outdoor grill built of stones and rocks. The blaze warmed the rocks and a “shining white metal trickled out.” They had found what would become a mother lode and set to mining.

With the mine prosperous and the areas’ major employer, these former bandidos sought forgiveness for their misdeeds, and presumably acceptance and respectability in the town. They sent word to the local priest that if he would absolve their sins, they would provide enough silver to build the “grandest cathedral in New Spain.” The priest accepted. The mines produced millions of dollars of silver ore throughout the 1700’s and 1800s.

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