Huff Wagon Train
Authenticating the Diary: Preliminary Research

by William Coate

There was nothing in the early life of William P. Huff to suggest that he was going to be different. There was no hint that he would incur the wrath of his contemporaries by never quite finding his niche. At first blush, he appeared to be a typical young lad from a typical frontier family. A closer look, however, would have revealed an uncommonness lying just below the surface; an uncommonness which would manifest itself during this adult life and puzzle his peers.

William was born in 1811 in Georgia to George and May Pruitt Huff. Sometime after that, the Huff family moved to Woodville, Mississippi, where George made a reputation as a mechanic. Such was the elder Huff’s mechanical prowess that he caught the attention of Impresario Stephen F. Austin, who was organizing his colony in Texas.

In 1824, the elder Huff joined Austin in San Felipe. There were grist mills, cotton gins, and saw mills to build on the Brazos. When in 1825 William, his brother John, and his mother joined their father and husband in Texas, there was every reason to expect that William would adopt the ethos of frontier America, put his shoulder to the wheel, and work to improve his economic lot in life. Such expectations, however, were not always fulfilled.

As he grew to manhood, William sought out the political leaders of Texas. His acquaintance with Austin developed into friendship. He nurtured relationships with Jim Bowie, William B. Travis and later Sam Houston. As the turmoil between Anglo Texas and Mexico heightened, Huff was there at San Felipe to record the seeds of rebellion.

He was an eye witness to the convention of 1835 which named Henry Smith as the first provisional governor of Texas. With sympathy he watched Smith grapple with the centrifugal forces which tore at the body politic of the incipient Republic. After the disasters at the Alamo and Goliad, Huff joined the other residents of San Felipe in the “Runaway Scrape,” but not before setting fire to his mercantile store to prevent the “Napoleon of the West” from obtaining succor at his expense.

When the battle of San Jacinto removed the threat of Santa Anna, William Huff returned to San Felipe. His fascination with geology and paleontology led him to the banks of the Brazos and to a degree of notoriety. There by the river’s edge, he uncovered several mastodon and prehistoric bison bones. Huff took this, the first recognized discovery of Pleistocene vertebrates in Texas, to New Orleans for exhibition, where he caused a stir among the scientific community. Reports of Huff’s findings were circulated in several European journals. Accounts were also carried in the American Journal of Science and Arts. Eventually the Huff Collection made its way to the British Museum in London, where it is housed today.

In the 1840’s, William married Mary Morton, a daughter of another of the “Old Three Hundred.” In the latter part of that decade, Huff moved his young family from San Felipe to Richmond, Texas, where he obtained employment as the editor of the Richmond Recorder. It was from this vantage point that William learned of the discovery of gold in California and decides to join the westward bound Argonauts to the land of Ophir. On April 22, 1849, Huff bid his family good-bye, and with three companions he launched a 2000 mile journey that would take him to the gold laden hills of California.

William P. Huff returned from California in 1853 with nothing to show for his three and one half year experiment—at least nothing of interest to the average 19th century mind. He brought back no gold, no money, no treasure, nothing of any value except this field notes taken on his trip west. These notes were later copied and amplified in two leather bound ledger books, which then provided in eloquent terms an account of his journey to California.

This, the Gold Rush Diary of William P. Huff became his only legacy, for he died penniless in 1886 at the home of a daughter, Martha Huff Ewing. When William was laid to rest in Houston so were his journals, all 300,000 words. Both the man and his books then awaited a very special resurrection.

Not only was 1986 the centenary of the death of William P. Huff, it was also the sesquicentenary of Texas Independence. Celebrations of this 150th birthday proliferated. Almost every county had one, and Matagorda County was no exception. It was during these sesquicentenary festivities in Van Vleck, Texas, that a history teacher from Madera, California, with several of his students, were privileged to join in the official observances. While Texas was remembering its heroes, David Ewing Stewart remembered the work of his ancestor, William P. Huff.

Stewart retrieved the two old ledger books which his great-great grandfather has written and he had inherited. Stewart shared the Huff journal with the California school teacher, who, when he saw them, almost went into cardiac arrest. Here was the journal of a ‘49er who had traveled from Richmond, Texas to Mariposa, California, just forty miles from Madera. The manuscript was written in a beautiful hand, and although the leather binding had begun to deteriorate, the musty pages held fast to their dignity, as they prepared to shout the eloquent memoirs of this forgotten man.

A reading of the journal revealed that after Huff and his three companions left Richmond in April of 1849, they traveled to Austin and spent the next fourteen days gathering recruits for the proposed overland journey. After adding six men to the company, the party moved on to Fredericksburg where they awaited the arrival of General William Worth, who as assigned the task of building a wagon road from San Antonio to El Paso del Norte (present day Juarez, Mexico).

As Huff waited, he persuaded twelve more Argonauts to join his outfit, making his company twenty-two men strong. Growing weary of waiting for the military escort of General Worth, and fearing the cholera epidemic that was raging in San Antonio, the Huff Company, with William as its captain, set out for California.

The company headed out in a northwesterly direction, crossing the Llano, The san Saba, and the Concho Rivers. From the headwaters of the Concho, the company moved west, crossing the dry Texas plains and moving to Horsehead Crossing on the Pecos River. Upon reaching the Pecos, Huff meandered its waters north until he reached Delaware Creek. From there he turned west, where he caught up with the Persifor F. Smith Company.

Together this combined group followed the trail from Cornudas del Alamo (Thorn’s Well), Cottonwood Springs, Cerro Alto, and into Hueco Tanks. Here the assembled companies suffered the loss of scores of horses and mules to the night time stealth of Indians. Huff’s losses were severe. He was left completely stranded and was forced to hire his wagon hauled to Socorro, a tiny hamlet on the Rio Grande, some twenty miles south of El Paso del Norte.

After an eight month hiatus in Socorro, Huff resumed his journey on February 28, 1850. This time his company was somewhat larger and included the first and second provisional governors of Texas, Henry Smith and Judge James W. Robinson. The Socorro Company, as it was called, left the Rio Grande and traveled to Graham’s route, following north through Corralitos and Janos, Mexico, until they reached Cooke’s wagon road near Guadalupe Pass (Mexico). From that point, the Texas Argonauts traveled to Tucson and then on to the Pima Indian villages on the Gila River. At this point, they found Kearny’s route and followed it to California. Soon they were at work in the Southern Mother Lode near Mariposa, California.

The historical value of Huff’s account is obvious. First it is a southern trail diary; this fact alone makes it rare. As Patricia A. Etter points out, in her book, An American Odyssey, hundreds of diaries detailing travel on the California and Oregon Trails exist either in manuscript or published form, but fewer than sixty southern trail diaries have emerged. This fact, in and of itself, puts the Huff journal in a rare categories of overland accounts.

In addition, the Huff journal connects all the important southern trails: the Upper Emigrant Trail (Major Robert Neighbors’ return route from El Paso del Norte to San Antonio in 1849), Graham’s route, Cooke’s wagon road, and Kearny’s route. Furthermore, his is a journal that was composed by a man who rivals J. Goldsborough Bruff for keenness of observation and breadth of interest.

Finally, in the Huff journal we find some of the most exciting exploits ever told by a ‘49er. Huff records finding human bones in the desert and reburying them. He told of comrades dying of thirst. Indian attacks and a murder at a fandango in Socorro are likewise recorded. He tells of an Apache prisoner held by the Mexicans in the silver mines of Janos. Indeed, what has surfaced in the Huff diary is perhaps the single most significant overland account ever to come from the southern trails in 1849.

After that 1986 meeting between Stewart and Bill Coate, the California teacher, the former loaned the latter the Huff journal to use in an interstate history project. Coate, in turn, contacted several teachers along Huff’s route to California. Pat Henley from Austin, Blanche Corwin from Socorro, and Dr. John Hosmer from Tucson jumped at the chance to provide their students with this unprecedented opportunity to do historical research on such a document as Huff’s diary.

The teachers collaborated on developing lesson plans and brought copies of the diary into the classroom. The goal was to have young students of history researching and validating the Huff diary. Hence, a division of labor ensued, and history classes in Austin, El Paso, Tucson and Madera went to work in September of 1986.

The first step was to turn to the professional historian. Dr. Thomas Andrews, Executive Director of the Historical Society of Southern California, provided a beginning bibliography and samples of the literature on the southern trails. Among the numerous volumes given to the students was The Road to California, authored by Dr. Harlan Hague. This work was shared with the “Huff Historians,” and it provided an invaluable overview of trail blazing in the Southwest. Dr. Hague met with Coate and a group of his students to encourage them and offer timely advice. All the while, Dr. Andrews continued to lend support and much needed direction.

It was through Dr. Hague that the Huff Historians were led to a work by Patricia Etter, Manuscripts Librarian at the University of Arizona. Ms. Etter’s publication, An American Odyssey, contained not only a fascinating account of another pioneer traveling the southern trail in 1849, but an appendix which included every known extant journal coming from the southern trails in 1849. Now the young historians could check Huff’s account against those written by other Argonauts coming from the same region at approximately the same time.

Then came the blockbuster! Dr. Hague, who was editing the unpublished diaries of R. Beeching and David D. Demarest, provided the students with copies of transcriptions of those works. The comparisons were breathtaking. Beeching and Demarest traveled with the Persifor F. Smith Company and left Fredericksburg seventeen days in advance of Huff’s company. They too traveled the Upper Emigrant Trail and recorded many of the same people and places found in the Huff Diary.

Beginning with their July 8, 1849 entries, Huff, Beeching and Demarest all parallel each other, for the Huff company had caught up with the Persifor F. Smith company on the west side of the Pecos River. Each man recorded the loss of horses and mules at Hueco Tanks, and all recorded the attempt to recover that loss.

In addition, much of the same local news of that area was preserved by Huff, Beeching and Demarest. For instance, an Indian attack on El Paso and an attempt by a Major Stein to seek recompense from the Native Americans are mentioned in all three diaries.

Further, the sale of Ponce’s ranch to the Santa Fe Trader, Benjamin Coons, are found in Huff, Beeching and Demarest. Reading the Beeching and Demarest diaries and comparing them with the Huff journal enhanced the conviction that the Huff diary was source material for a significant segment of the southern trail.

By mid-June 1987, the students’ work was done and a celebration of this unprecedented collaboration was planned. Representatives of each participating class prepared to bring their research results to Madera, California, near the site of Huff’s mining activity in Mariposa. They symbolically followed his trail as closely as possible, and as they neared the gold fields of Madera County, they left their modern conveyances to board a wagon train for a two-day journey to downtown Madera. The end of the trail for these Huff Historians was a grand welcome, complete with an ice cream social on the courthouse lawn. Host families took charge of the visitors and provided a place of rest and relaxation, while the young scholars prepared for the activities of the next day.

On June 19, 1987 the Austin, Socorro, Tucson and Madera students participated in a trial which was held in the Superior Courtroom of the Madera County Courthouse Museum. There the students, class by class, relying on the results of their research, argued for the validity and significance of the gold rush diary of William P. Huff. They jury consisted of the above noted scholars of the westward movement, Dr. Andres, Dr. Hague and Patricia Etter. In addition, Milton Kato, a member of the California Department of Education’s Social Studies Curriculum Committee joined the jury.

At the conclusion of the presentation, it was the unanimous verdict of the jury that the students had acquitted themselves admirably. They had established the authenticity of the Huff journal as well as its significance to the historiography of the gold rush. The jury recommended that the diary be published with all deliberate speed.

In the case of the Gold Rush Diary of William P. Huff, “all deliberate speed” was relative. Although the students and teachers had established a firm foundation for the authenticity of the diary, there was more work yet to be done. What about Huff the man? To what extent could his life’s story be documented? To a large extent, the answer to these questions came from Mrs. Deborah Stewart, wife of David Ewing Stewart.

During the 1986-87 school year, while the students in Arizona, Texas and California were investigating the Huff diary, Mrs. Stewart was recovering source material on the man. She combed the archives of Fort Bend County, Matagorda County and Harris County. She visited the archives of Southern Methodist University and corresponded with distant relatives in search of documents that would lay bare the life of William P. Huff.

Mrs. Stewart’s sleuthing was so successful that it became apparent that publishing the diary of 1987 would have been premature. She showed that more historical spadework was possible; therefore, the Huff project was continued into the next year, and the next, and the next. Each archival discovery led to new documents and a postponement of the publication date.

Then in the 1992-93 school year, a new twist in the Huff diary research presented itself. The genesis for the idea came from Todd Beherns, a high school teacher in Southern California. Todd had become an expert on overland travel to California by exploring the trails with his students in a four-wheel drive jeep. Using topographical maps and following diaries, Beherns allowed his students to step beyond the printed page and into “hands-on” history.

This it was that in 1992, Bill Coate, who was teaching a 6th grade class at James Monroe School in Madera, California and now five years removed from that first group encounter with the Huff diary, made a bold move. The Madera teacher decided to follow Behern’s example and put his students on Huff’s trail, or al least a part of it. It was thought that by doing so, the students could find fresh opportunities for researching the Huff diary.

Coate obtained two wagons from fellow teacher, Ed Gwartney, and David Ewing Stewart agreed to supply the mules and outriders. On the 2nd of January, the Madera teacher, 12 sixth grade students, and a group of adult assistants headed for Nogales, Arizona. There they met the Stewarts and two cowboys and began what turned out to be a 26 day trek that followed Huff’s route across Arizona and California.

On their journey, the students carefully compared Huff’s journal with their own observations. Life Huff, they followed the Santa Cruz River north, stopping at the ruins at Calabasas, the Tubac Mission, and the Tumacacori Presidio. When they reached the San Javier Mission, the Huff historians turned west toward Pichacho Peak. They followed the Gila River to the Yuma Crossing and into California. On January 28, 1993 twenty-six days after they began, the students and their adult traveling companions arrived back in Madera.

Much was learned from this wagon train experience. Reading the Huff diary and then actually following his wagon ruts allowed tests of authenticity that went beyond archival research. A time/distance relationship test was performed, and Huff met the muster every time. Numerous landmarks and their distance from each other authenticated Huff’s description of them. At the end of the trail, the Madera teacher was convinced more than ever that the Huff journal demanded the attention of a somewhat skeptical historical community.

More than a decade passed since that 1993 wagon train trek, and still the Huff diary had not been published, although Coate’s classes from year to year continued to work on the 300,000 word document. Finally, in 2002, the decision was made to bring the Huff diary out of the darkness and into the light; the California teacher, after 16 years of research, was ready to publish the diary, with one caveat. He needed one more wagon train test, this time tracing the Texas portion of Huff’s route. That trip will take place in January 2005 and will end on the steps of the state capitol in Austin where a proclamation will be made that William P. Huff, a forgotten Texas pioneer, deserves his place in history as a diligent, thorough observer and recorder of one of the most dynamic demographic movements in the history of the Lone Star State.

In addition to the proclamation, the student historians will unveil this volume, the first in the Gold Rush Diary of William P. Huff series. Subsequent volumes will include Huff’s sojourn in Socorro, his journey across Northern Mexico and Arizona to California.


Credits:

This educational project is a partnership venture of Madera Unified School District, Madera, California; the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department; the Texas Historical Commission; and the many generous and gracious communities along the route.

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