I grew up with guns. I can remember the longing with which I wished for my Daisy Red Ryder Carbine and my first .22 rifle, a Remington single-shot I was given when I was twelve or thirteen. The only guns I own now are a couple of black powder pistols. One is a replica of the 1851 Navy Colt. I have fired it six times. After cleaning it—black powder is really filthy stuff—I decided to forego shooting it ever again.
My other pistol is an authentic 1851 Navy Colt that likely saw service in the Civil War. It is damaged in a way that was common to those pistols. The ramrod and ramrod lever are missing and the ramrod mount is broken in a way that indicates that a load discharged and blew the barrel assembly off the pistol’s body. But the old Colt has a replacement barrel wedge that looks to have been made by a blacksmith and that might have rendered the pistol capable of being used—though the cylinder (and any supplementary cylinders) would have needed to be loaded and armed separately.
My 1851 Navy is one of two Colts my grandfather first showed me when I was a child. My brother has the other, a model 1860 Army Colt that is also missing the ramrod lever, though not the ramrod, itself. This one we think came back from the Civil War with my great, great grandfather. Granddaddy didn’t know much about it. About my model 1851 he always said that one of his brothers had found it under the house when they were boys. How Granddaddy came by it I don’t know. There’s a picture of the house in question here. It sits a long way back from the main road in a now obscure township called Scottsville some 12 miles east of Marshall, Texas. My mother’s family settled there in the 1830s. I’ve written about them here and here.
Granddaddy called these pistols horse pistols. They weren’t. The Walker Colts, designed like the Patersons for the Texas Rangers, were true horse pistols, meant to be carried in holsters mounted on a rider’s saddle. They were much larger and heavier than my family pistols, which, like the Patersons, are belt pistols. The comparatively lightweight five-shot Paterson Colts gave the early Rangers the means to fight the Comanches on almost equal footing. The Walkers were a not very practical replacement. They increased the Rangers’ fire power theoretically, but they were also heavy and unwieldy. The model 1851 and 1860 Colts (and their Confederate knockoffs) were the standard sidearms of both armies during the Civil War. I’ve always been rather proud to have these old weapons in my family.
I say these thing to point out 1) that I am not an effete liberal snob who has no connection with or knowledge of guns and 2) that my Texan credentials go back a long way. I am disturbed by a recent Mother Jones Story about the killing contests that are becoming popular in Texas and other states that presently celebrate guns. Here’s a view of the conclusion of one such contest as described by a witness who happened on it outside a West Texas sporting goods store.
The lot was packed with trucks full of dead coyotes, foxes and the occasional bobcat; one pickup had a cage welded to its bed, and it was crammed with carcasses. . . . Around back, participants in the West Texas Big Bobcat Contest were weighing their kill in a competition to see who had shot the biggest bobcat and the most coyotes, gray foxes and bobcats in a 23-hour period. Some $76,000 in prize money was at stake—more than $31,000 went to the team that bagged a 32 pound bobcat. Other jackpot winners were a four-man team that killed 63 foxes, a team that killed 8 bobcats, and another that killed 32 coyotes.
Note the apparent emphasis upon numbers killed, but that’s not all that’s disturbing about this report. I am particularly disturbed by quoted comments from Jeremy Harrison, billed as a fifth-generation rancher. “To those who are offended [by the hunting contests], he has simple advice: Butt out.”
“It’s none of their business. It has nothing to do with them,” . . . “It’s one of the best things about this beautiful state of Texas. We have 100 percent support from Texas and from the local people. If they don’t like it, they can just stay away from it.”
I dissent as a Texan from this view of the large scale slaughter of wild animals. I don’t hunt for sport, but I don’t want to ban the practice. Nor do I want to ban gun ownership. But it is one thing to use guns and quite another to make a fetish of guns and killing. It is one thing to hunt for sport and another to kill indiscriminately. The killing contests are not hunting, any more than the slaughter of wolves from helicopters and airplanes in the northwest is hunting. These unsportsmanlike practices ought to be an embarrassment to hunters, on a par with game ranches where deer, elk, and other captive animals are shot like fish in a barrel by urban cowboys out for a thrill.
I have no “agenda” about this apart from ordinary human values. I regret that some anti-hunting enthusiasts have sent hate mail to Mr. Harrison’s friend, Geoff Nemnich, but since Mr. Nemnich apparently sells videos glorifying hunting contests at Cabela’s stores he can hardly sustain the claim to innocence he makes when he asks rhetorically, “And I’m the barbarian?” Nemnich makes an additional claim at the end of the Mother Jones article. The hunting “[c]ontests are completely legal . . . Some may consider it ethically wrong, but hunting has been around forever, it’s who we are out in this part of the country.”
Nenmich doesn’t speak for me either, and I think my Texan credentials are likely as good as his. My great, great grandfather sat in the legislature of the Texas Republic. And while I’m at it maybe I should say that the folks who claim to represent a secessionist Texas republic today don’t speak for me. That same great, great grandfather voted for secession in 1861, went to the bloody war that his side lost, and sat again in the Texas legislature from 1879 until 1882, after the Ku Klux Klan undid reconstruction. Surely no sane person would wish to repeat that terrible history of bloody error.
Nor does Nemnich’s idea of “who we are in this part of the country” include me, and not just because I no longer live in Texas. I watched Texas and North Carolina, the places closest to my heart in my country, change during the 1970s and 1980s as they were impacted by in-migration from the rust belt of people who brought right-wing prejudices with them and supported the ascendancy of politicians like Jesse Helms and Phil Gramm. It’s tempting to characterize today’s killing contests as the favorite blood sport of a bunch of Johnny-come-latelies.
But those Johnny-come-latelies had a home prepared for them in southern-strategy red states long before 1964. The John Birch Society and the Klan were already there. I’ve written about this too. But now I am remembering how I watched the fences along roads between Abilene and Albuquerque during childhood journeys back and forth and sometimes tried to count the skins of coyotes and wolves strung up on the barbed wire. The ruination of the prairie and its animals, the awful rabbit drives of the dust bowl era and afterwards were not blood sport. They were a different kind of killing, a denouement to the long and terrible slaughter and removal of the aboriginal inhabitants of the North American continent.
All this is well known. Much of the removal, especially that east of the Mississippi, was accomplished by European introduced disease, pandemics that spread through Native American nations and the animals upon which they depended for survival from the east coast west. But much of the removal was accomplished by wholesale slaughter and enforced starvation visited upon humans and animals alike by the human predators we have lionized as pioneers, and by official policy enforced by the United States Army. I wouldn’t bring up this past, except that Harrison and Nemnich have framed today’s killing contests as political statements. Their claim of solidarity with Texas culture and the land suggests an identification with earlier generations of Texans that they seem to think manifests itself in these present day rituals of killing for it’s own sake.
I’d rather be identified with Sam Houston than with my great, great grandfather. As governor of Texas, Houston opposed secession and was driven out of office for his pains. I’d rather be associated with the ambivalence of Charles Goodnight after the closing of the frontier. Goodnight is perhaps the most renowned of the Legendary Texas cattlemen, though he was far from being a saint, as J. Frank Dobie portrays him. Goodnight’s career spanned the early history of the Texas Rangers, the Confederacy in whose army he served, and the short post-bellum history of trail herding. He was the first to raise buffalo as livestock on a ranch close to Quitaque in the southern Panhandle after the decimation of the great herds. He died in Arizona in 1929, having survived the Indian and Lincoln County wars, famine, drought, and financial ruin, far from Quitaque, farther still from the Palo Pinto County of his salad days.
Goodnight was not unfamiliar with killing, but when he died he had a reputation as a man of peace; so much so that Laura Vernon Hamner, Goodnight’s first biographer, entitled her fictionalized life The No-Gun Man of Texas. Larry McMurtry’s characters, Augustus McRae and Woodrow Call are based in part on Goodnight and his friend Oliver Loving. Call’s exclamation to a reporter towards the end of Lonesome Dove is a quotation from Goodnight as recalled by Dobie, who interviewed Goodnight not long before he died, reported that Goodnight claimed his life had mostly been a failure, and noted that someone had once asked the old cowman to comment on his reputation as a man of vision.
“Hell of a vision!” was Goodnight’s answer.