Tuesday, August 12, 2003


The widow of my father's oldest brother lives on the Sabine River where Nichols Creek empties into it. Her name is Winnie Harden Bridges and she is now 81 years old. I call her Aunt Melvin and have since I was 4. I have no idea why, but I must have been persistent enough for it to stick, and now my siblings and my mother also call her Melvin.

Aunt Melvin is a Roman Catholic. It's an important part of how she sees herself, the world, and everything in between. I think my father was infatuated with her from the first time he met her, shortly before World War II. When he got back from the war, he lived with his oldest brother, Cliff and his new wife, Winnie.

Prior to his being killed in December 1952, my father converted to Catholicism and had all of us children baptised Catholic as well. I can't remember if my mother converted at this time, and neither can she. I've asked. After the death of my father, I lived with my maternal grandmother in East Texas who was a Pentecostal. I cannot bring myself to use the term "holy roller" because it fails to reflect the dignity my grandmother brought to her simple faith.

My grandmother was appalled at the idea that any of her family could embrace Catholicism. Thus began the competition between my Aunt Melvin and my grandmother for my soul which resulted in my being very conflicted about religion from the time I knew there were different churches until I became a Zen Buddhist Jewish Pentecostal Episcopalian several years ago. Suddenly, it all made sense, but that's another story saved for another time.

Anyways, I was talking to my Aunt Melvin and she asks in her simple Bayou drawl, "Raymond, are you going to move back here after you retire?"

"Sugah," says I, "it's hot as hell there most of the time, except when it's freezing. You have every variety of poisonous snake found in North America: rattlesnakes, copperheads, coral snakes and water mocassins. You have not only black widow spiders in abundance, but you also have the deadly brown recluse, and while not deadly, the tarantula is also plentiful. In late summer you have what we called "fuck bugs" that turn the sky black and ruin the finish on your car. Now the are mosquitos, always fierce and abundant, are spreading the West Nile virus. I don't know about you, but I find it disconcerting to see birds dropping dead around you, y'know? Oh, and the fire ants. Deadly fuckers. And wasps. And probably killer bees. And the worsest of them all, the state is populated in large part by redneck assholes. Who else but Texans could be taken in by an upper class, Connecticutt yankee pretending to be a Texan pretending to give a fuck about common people?

But my story is about Texas. The first record of any of my ancestors getting to Texas was a census taken by a Spanish commandante at a camp near what is now Liberty, Texas in 1807. The ancestors from my mother's mother's family, John Aaron Drake, his wife Chastity, and several of their children were among the first American settlers to make it into Texas. They had been in Louisiana for 20 years prior to the excursion into Texas. They went back to Louisiana the following year.

In the early 1830s, the next two branches of my family would enter Texas. One to the north to San Augustine, the other to southeast Texas, to what is now Jefferson and Orange counties.

The part that always amazes me is that they came, they liked the place and they stayed. Well, I don't know how much they liked the place, but they did stay. They made history, in that their story is the story of Texas. They were players, all of them.

My great-great-great-grandmother's brother, Alexander Horton, was Aide-de-Camp to General Sam Houston. His brother-in-law, my ggggrandfather, Colonel James Whitis Bulloch, a veteran of the war of 1812, led Texian volunteers who attacked and liberated Nacogdoches 4 years before the fall of the Alamo. This is my father's mother's mother's family.

My mother's mother's people, the Ashworths, fled South Carolina around 1803 to Louisiana. Fled being the operative word here. If I were to speculate as to their reason for abandoning South Carolina where my gggggrandfather, James Ashworth, had received a land grant from the English Crown in 1774, I'd probably guess it had something to do with James showing up in the record books as a Tory serving under British command during the American Revolution. Did you know there were over 100,000 Tory refugees who fled the Southern colonies alone following the American Revolution. That was by boat. Probably a lot more, like my family, just moved West. The new nation was not very forgiving to those who had opposed its quest for independence. There was a lot of revenge taking.

James Ashworth's problem was further complicated by the fact that he was a mixed blood, probably Indian and White, although family lore always claimed our swarthiness came from our "Portygee" roots and our Indian grandmother on the Perkins side of the family. I think the Indian Grandmother of our family mythology was Esther Perkins. In the stories of several of my kindred families, the Indian Grandmother is obviously one single character. In Richard Maxwell Brown's book, The South Carolina Regulators, James Ashwroth is described as dark and swarthy with black hair. It also goes on to say that he had a "t" branded in his hand for "breaking out of jail." Odd choice of letters, but I bet he preferred a simple "t" to "BOOJ."

James married Keziah Dial also of South Carolina. Family tradition says that Keziah was an Indian, but I discount this. That she was part Indian I'm pretty certain, but subtle evidence suggests that Keziah's family (who came to Louisiana with the Ashworths) were White identified. For example, Keziah's mother, Elizabeth Hill Dial, sued her sons for failing to support her after the death of their father. That was the action of someone who considered themselves White.

When the Ashworths left South Carolina, they were all White. By the time of the next census, 1810, over half had become "colored." In another 10 years, they were all "colored." My sister says they all just got darker from working in the fields. Good point, but there was something else going on as well.

In 1803, the South was beginning a downward spiral under the weight of racism and slavery. Slavery was not as heavily a race based system in the 18th century as it became in the 19th century. Despite the fact that its not taught in American history, there was a lot of enslavement of American Indians by the colonists. By 1800, this resulted in a lot of mixed blood populations. Indian and White. White and Black. Indian and Black. Indian and White and Black. The United States has the peculiar history of being about the only former European colony without a significant population of mestizos. You see, as slavery became more and more a Black thing, Southerners became busier and busier making all mixed bloods eligible for slavery by classifying anyone suspected of having Black blood, Black.

James Ashworth, having taken refuge in a Cherokee village in the northwestern part of the state, gathered his family up and moved to Louisiana. In total, about a dozen families joined James in the migration to Louisiana. They settled in Louisiana in an area called "the Neutral Zone." The Americans claimed Louisiana went as far as the Sabine. The Spanish who had just given Louisiana back to the French, claimed the Calcasieu River about 70 miles to the East of the Sabine as the border. The American and Spanish generals facing each other off decided between themselves to avoid war and just let the outlaws have the land between the rivers until it was worked out. The area quickly filled up with mixed-bloods and outlaws. I'm proud to count both amongst my ancestors.

By the early 1830s, these mixed bloods had coalesced into an identifiable subculture in the remote bayous of Louisiana. They had a reputation of being fierce and violent. Don Marler says this was to make them unattractive as candidates for slavery. They were also part of a larger western migration of small, isolated Indian groups and mixed blood groups moving west towards Texas. Word had gotten out that they were welcome in Texas. The Mexicans supposedly wanted a buffer to the Americans.

They were a formidable people: White identified, but not accepted as such by the dominant White culture. An Army of almost 200 men could be made up of first and second cousins. Probably for that reason, no one ever called the Ashworths or their cousins anything but White to their faces, in Texas and Louisiana, until after the Texas Revolution.

After Texas won its independence, it became a Southern nation and eventually state. Our old enemies from South Carolina were not in charge of the government. They immediately started their war against us, calling us "Niggers" and classifying us as Free Blacks. They denied us the bounty lands given to other Texans for their support in the Revolution, saying Blacks couldn't own property. We fought them in courts, we fought them with force. We could form a "posse" of 200 heavily armed first and second cousins in a relative short time.

In February 1839, Texas passed a law which gave mixed bloods now being called Free Blacks, two years to leave the republic, or risk being sold into slavery. By December, after petitions from the leading citizens of Jefferson County, the legislature passed the Ashworth Act, naming my family specifically as excepted from the harsh provisions of the act.