Mason County News
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The Way It Was
Wednesday, January 23, 2013 • Posted January 23, 2013

Last week’s paper had an article on the front page that noted January 19 was the anniversary of Robert E Lee’s birth and that in 1861 he was in residence at Fort Mason on that date. That made me start thinking about some of the antiques that relate to that very specific time and the history of our own area. First I went to a book that was published in 1874 to commemorate General Lee’s life shortly after his death, titled the Personal Reminiscences of Gen. Robert E Lee. On page 137 the book quotes a letter he wrote from Fort Mason to his son on January 23,1861 about his grave concerns about the divisions facing the country on the eve of the Civil War, “If the Union is dissolved, ...I shall return to my native State and share the miseries of my people, and save in defense will draw my sword on none.” Three weeks later he received his orders to return to Washington, which began his personal journey into the Civil War.

Another document that I have on display is a receipt for $800.00 of “funds appropriated for the sustenance of the Army” signed at Fort Mason on January 20, 1861. This is an original paper signed at Fort Mason during a time when Robert E Lee was stationed at our fort as commander, though it is signed by another officer. I am often in awe that we can have and hold a piece of paper from over 150 years ago that relates directly to our heritage and history, and am challenged to try to imagine the life and experiences of the people who first held that same paper. While this receipt does not specify what nature or form those funds that were received took, commonly in this area of the southwest most such dollars would be in the form of Seated Liberty silver dollars from the New Orleans mint, since that was the closest federal institution for money, although that is a very different pattern than most people associate with silver dollars.

The history of the New Orleans mint in the years of 1860 and 1861 is particularly interesting as the nation slid into division and war. Louisiana seceded from the union in the winter of 1861 and the New Orleans mint was instructed to ship all silver, dies for coins and as much equipment as reasonable to Philadelphia in late 1860. In that very different time such messages often took weeks or even months between sending and receiving, and the New Orleans mint did run a few coins in 1861 before being disassembled, but the silver dollars that are generally available from that period were from the previous year, and those did circulate throughout the southwest. If you would like to see and hold a silver dollar or other silver coin from just before the Civil War come in and see our display.

The final artifact that I want to talk about today involves the mapping of Texas and the frontier in those last years before secession. After the Mexican American War, in the early 1850’s the federal government sent two teams of topographical engineers and surveyors to examine and set the new boundary between the two countries, with Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California all becoming territories or states of America. The groups travelled the entire southwest border region from the tip of Texas all the way to San Diego, collecting animals and plants of the desert and surveying the entire boundary, and their findings were published for Congress in 1857. The primary boundary survey was completed by William Emory and his map and illustrated description of the desert and its wildlife and plants are recognized as one of the primary original sources in the exploration of this area. The map that accompanied the documents was the most accurate of its time and corrected some distinct distance and topographical errors from previous mapping. At the start of the Civil War no other map of the southwest was as complete or correct in its depictions of Texas and the southwest. The other boundary survey that took place during that time was headed by John Bartlett, and while his narrative book about his travels does contain a map, it is not as well known or as detailed; however, he did mention travelling directly through what would become Mason County and in my next article I will share some of those descriptions of our area from before settlement and Fort Mason was here on the hill.

I have shared a brief description and history of a few antiques that relate directly to our heritage. If you would like to stop by and see them for yourself and hold a piece of history from 150 years ago, come in to Red Door Antiques on Friday or Saturday and I will be glad to show you an artifact from the past. It is always fun to enjoy the things that our ancestors used and handled, and the real fun comes from trying to understand and feel how things were many years ago and remember ... the way it was.

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