Space Page written by Allan Harl Thomas
- There is an extensive series of articles on Col. Sam A. Robertson's career, "Sam Robertson: Valley Builder and Straight Shooter" by Norman Rozeff written for the Valley Star in 2016. And there are several brief biographies written regarding Col. Sam A. Robertson by family members. Sam's younger brother, and family historian Robert Emmit Robertson compiled a "Timeline" in 1938. Brother, Frank S. Robertson wrote in a cover letter for a bio he wrote in 1927 for a Mr. J. C. Nagle of Dallas "...This is the only photo I have of him and it is not very good, but if I had asked him for another one he would not have given it to me, so I'm sending it along." But none are more insightful than this letter, by his second wife, Maria (Seidler) Robertson (1896 - 1985). Note that there is only one half of one paragraph dedicated to Col. Sam's service in France. This conspicuously affirms his self-effacing modesty and genuine humility. Presently we are unaware if this letter was ever used for publication in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The draft letter is found in a self-published work, "The Robertson Family- Pioneers", compiled by Sam's nieces, Merry Robertson Thomas and her sister, Kate Robertson Smith
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Fort Worth, Texas
I have your letter of September 28th. 1932, addressed to my husband, Colonel Sam A. Robertson, asking for a biographical sketch of his life. As he seems disinclined to answer, I shall do my best to give you the necessary data, but it is not possible to touch upon more than a brief summary of his fifty-eight years of active life in a short space.
His father, Frank S. Robertson, was born in Kentucky but went to Missouri as a young man. His mother was born in Missouri, and both of his parents were of Scotch-Irish descent. During the Confederate war, his father was successively: Captain, Colonel of Cavalry, Major and Lieutenant Colonel of Infantry. Sam's grandfather, Richard C. Robertson, was a private soldier in his son's, Colonel Frank S. Robertson's command. Both father and son served the entire duration of the war with the Missouri troops, surrendering at Shreveport, Louisiana, in 1865. At the time of the surrender in 1865, they had served four and one-half years with the Missouri troops.
After the surrender, they were loaded on a boat, "The Old Kentucky", and sent down Red River as prisoners of war for the return to Missouri. The boat sank near Coushatta, Louisiana. Richard Robertson was drowned, but Colonel Frank and his faithful Negro servant got away and made their way back to Missouri.
Finally, Colonel Frank Robertson drifted out of Missouri and its troubles to Nebraska, taking his wife and young son, Sam, as well as other members of his family and a few friends with him.
Sam Robertson was born July 7th, 1867. When less than seven years old, Sam was taken by his young Uncle, Ethelbert Lewis, a cowman to his cow camp in Western Nebraska, and Lewis kept the boy with him over a year. During the "grasshopper plague," they trailed the herd from Western Nebraska to Central Missouri, swimming all the rivers as they came to them, except the Missouri river, with their horses and cattle.
|Catherine Ann Merry (Lewis) Robertson|
Sam's early education was very meager. The principal schooling he received was obtained through tutoring by his mother and grandmother, both of whom were well-educated women. However, he did spend two or three years in the lower grades of the Missouri public schools, but being too restless to sit still in school, he drifted out into the world, working as a train newsboy, laborer on railroad construction work, ax man, chain-man, and rod-man on railroad engineering parties all over the West, Northwest, Southwest, and Pacific States and Territories.
Colonel Sam worked under very high-class engineers, who introduced him to study. A Mr. Gibson, a very high-class civil engineer, took great pains to instruct him in mathematics, physics, and the rudiments of civil engineering and surveying. Sam soon rose to a topographer, level man, transit-man and finally to full charge of a railroad location party when less than twenty-one years old. His superiors said that he had a natural instinct for direction and was a natural pathfinder. This natural faculty helped him along, but his knowledge of men helped him most of all.
He worked for Union Pacific. Montana Union, Portland and Puget Sound, Sante Fe and other railroads. He also worked irrigation surveys in Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Southern California. His work and wanderings carried him in his young days over Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, Colorado, Montana, the Dakotas, Washington, Oregon, Nevada. California, and Arizona.
After he had returned to Missouri and visited with the family for a few days, he decided to see the South. He traveled down the coast of Florida, Jacksonville to Palm Beach and Miami, much of the way on foot with a U.S mail carrier. This was long before the railroad was built to that region.
The railroad company for which he worked in 1893, went into bankruptcy. And could not pay his salary for some eight or nine months of work. His savings were in a Denver bank, and he found himself out of a job in Northern Utah in the fall of 1893 with less than five dollars in his pocket. He started wandering over the country in search of a job in the panic of that year, which is said to have been worse than the present "depression of 1932." After thousands of miles, wandering from the Crow's Nest country of Canada to Mexico, and then East, he found an occasional short survey of some kind from surveying in Colorado to a line of levels to be run in California. He walked one hundred and fifty miles to this job in California and carried his level on his back, even though it was to last only ten days. But for which he was paid one hundred and fifty dollars. Then he found a job as a laborer on a railroad section at one dollar and a half per day.
Sometime later, he secured engineering work in the Cherokee Strip in Oklahoma shortly after the Strip was opened for settlement in the fall of 1892, and acquired a one hundred and sixty acre homestead; but after eight or ten weeks of homesteading and keeping watch on his claim, he became restless and dissatisfied with farm life. He gave his farm to an old friend and caught a freight train for Texas; thence to Arkansas and Mississippi.
When he arrived in Mississippi, he found work on the Mississippi River levees as a foreman and superintendent for a contractor. In 1895 he became a levee contractor on his own account. For the next five years, he was a levee and railroad contractor in Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia. Tennessee, Alabama, Oklahoma, and Texas.
During this time, his previous experience on irrigation work in the West caused him to become interested in rice irrigation canals. Between 1897 and 1902, he built seven or eight large rice irrigation canals in Louisiana and Texas. He was serving as promoter, engineer, and contractor. This irrigation construction work was carried on while he continued to do railroad contracting work throughout the South.
On the only great fete day of all construction workers, St. Patrick's Day, March 17, 1902, he married Miss Adele Wedegartner, a young German girl who lived with her widowed mother and little brother on a Piney Woods homestead near an irrigation canal, which he was building. Sam and Adele lived happily together for many years in his construction camps making their home in a railroad boxcar, that had been converted into comfortable living quarters.
Railroad construction was pushed forward mile by mile and day by day and in the fall of 1903, having finished the Trinity and Brazos Railroad from Clebourne to Mexia, Texas, and the Del Rio Canal at Del Rio, Texas he came with equipment, Irish foreman. train and bridgemen, Negro and Mexican laborers to Robstown, Texas. He had accepted the contract for the bridging, track laying of the grading for the Brownsville and Mexico Railroad, now known as the Missouri Pacific, from Robstown to Brownsville, and Harlingen to Sam Fordice
He started from Robstown with the construction in November 1903, and he and his wife lived in a house built on a flat car. They had a diminutive Negro servant, known as "Boll Weevil," who later served with him in the United States Army in France during the World War. His crew on the railroad construction work were a well-disciplined mob of "Wild Irishmen," Mexicans and Negroes, many of whom later served with him in France. Several of them were able to enlist for army service by dying their grey hair red and swearing that they were less than forty-five years old. Few men have the gift to attract the undying love and affection of this class of men to such an extent as Sam Robertson.
In February 1904, when the railroad had reached a point near Ricardo, Sam was riding on a construction train which was wrecked, causing him to suffer a compound fracture of his right leg and the fracture of two ribs. He was forced to place himself in a doctor's care at Corpus Christi for two weeks, but the restlessness he was subject to became more of an affliction than broken bones. He was soon back at the front of the railroad construction, and with the assistance of crutches and a faithful white horse called, Caballo Blanco, that would lie down to let him mount, he finished his railroad contract into Brownsville and Sam Fordice.
When this point of steel had reached Lyford in April 1904, a spring rain caused the Ebony and Mesquite trees, and millions of wildflowers to bloom and wild turkeys, deer, and Mexican pheasants were seen along the railroad right of way. Mrs. Robertson said that the Rio Grande Valley was the most beautiful spot on earth and that they must cease their wanderings, and make a home in this beautiful valley, then only a vast wilderness, with not a house in sight of the track for over one hundred and thirty miles.
In June, the point of steel had reached the town of Bessie, now San Benito, and Messrs. (James) Landrum and (Oliver) Hicks, whose families owned thousands of acres of jungle land around Bessie, visited the construction train and made the acquaintance of Sam Robertson, who was still on crutches and about "broke." These gentlemen made a verbal contract with Sam Robertson to sell him, on credit, a vast tract of land around Bessie. Robertson was to find the capital to build canals from the Rio Grande, develop and colonize the lands and build a city. He immediately started assembling engineering data and continued to do so until over two hundred miles of canals, some ninety miles San Benito and Rio Grande Valley Railroad, a sugar mill, ice and canning plants were built, and thousands of acres of land had been cleared and in addition, thousands of pioneer Valley settlers were located in the little city of Bessie, or San Benito, and on surrounding farms.
During the early stages of development in this area, sugar was the principal crop. Lacking experience and technical knowledge, the planters met with many difficult problems. There were technical difficulties in the mill also. There were certain chemicals in the can juices which had not been encountered in the cane growing countries of the world, and the sugar chemists could not cause crystallization of the sugar. So, between the federal tariff and the unsolved technical troubles, the sugar business of the Rio Grande Valley failed, causing a loss to the Valley of between seven and ten million dollars, which disaster headed Sam Robertson and his various enterprises towards bankruptcy, but he struggled on for a few years. Incidentally, one of the chemists, who was with the San Benito Sugar mill from 1912 to 1914, is credited with having been very instrumental in making a great success of the sugar industry in Russia. The Russians shipped 420.000 tons of beet sugar in 1930.
When the sugar business at San Benito collapsed, cotton, vegetables, and citrus fruits were tried with some success. Lack of markets, and inexperience, however, ruined most of the farmers, who eventually could not pay land notes and water charges for irrigation. The bandit troubles of 1915 and 1916 completed the financial collapse of Sam Robertson but did not dampen his enthusiasm or break his spirit.
|"Boy Soldier" by Robert Runyon|
In 1915, he made the acquaintance and gained the love and friendship of a little Mexican boy, Salamon Lerma, one of Pancho Villa's boy soldiers. who when serving under General Lopez, charged the earthworks of Matamoras. Mexico which were defended by machine guns in the hands of foreign gunners. These were for the most part English, Americans, and Italians. General Lopez charged with his boy's cavalry and was repulsed. Little Salamon, severely wounded. was taken across the border by kind Americans, and placed in a Brownsville hospital, where he was properly cared for and later discharged. Little Salamon was only eleven years old. Wandering out into the brush country adjoining San Benito, he found work as a goat herder on a small goat "ranchito".
In the fall of 1915, when Sam Robertson was building an automobile road to the coast, he and little Salamon met and became great friends. Sometime later, while driving through the brush country with his old Ford car, five bandits attacked him. He took refuge in a clump of Ebony trees and stood his enemies off with his rifle and pistol fire. Little Salamon, herding goats nearby, heard the firing and, crawled through the brush to investigate. He saw his friend's, "Vieja", Sam's old Ford. and took in the situation at a glance realizing that his friend's greatest need was water and cartridges. Crawling out of the bush, little Salamon went to his employer's "jacal", got a canteen of water and forty or fifty cartridges, and gliding through the brush like a snake. returned to his friend. With plenty of water and cartridges, Sam held out until dark.
|"Jacal" by Robert Runyon|
Sam was headed from San Benito to Buena Vista Ranch near the bay, and after Sam was due and nothing heard from him an investigation was started. On the telephone line between the bay and town they had a phone in the Buena Vista Ranch house, and soon Harold Jeffords. the ranch foreman, and U.S. Deputy Mars and six cow hands started a search along the trail. About the same time Captain Lincoln Kilbourne, E. Company, 26th U.S. infantry, started by auto from San Benito with a small detachment of soldiers and three or four civilians for guides. The Infantry and Mr. Jeffords arrived about the same time. The soldiers of E. Company were so pleased with little Salamon's qualities as a soldier and his resourcefulness, that the Company adopted him as the mascot. He stayed with the Company until they went to France with the First Division in 1917, at which time Salamon was fifteen years old.
Mess Sergeant, Joe Hoefley, now of San Benito, encouraged by some of the officers of the Company, nailed little Salamon up in a box and carried him on the transport when the 26th Infantry was embarking at Hoboken for France in 1917. When they reached France, he was smuggled off the transport in the same way, and he stayed with Company E until they went into the trenches near the Toul Sector. From the trench location of the Company's kitchen. little Salamon carried hot Irish stew and coffee to his dear friends in the trenches. But he was slightly wounded and with the complication of pneumonia. the little fellow died in a hospital in France and is now buried with his American comrades in Romaigne Cemetery. This little Mexican hero was only one of the many friends Sam Robertson greatly loved, friends whom most men would have never seen or noticed along the pathway of life.
Following the Columbus Raid in 1916. when Pancho Villa crossed into New Mexico, Sam Robertson went into Mexico on one pretext or another but in reality as an undercover agent for the army to report on what was going on between the agents of the German Imperial Government, the "Carrancistas", and other Mexican factions. He traveled all over Mexico with the exception of the five states of Chihuahua, Zacatecas, Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Yucatan. Although he could not speak a dozen words of their language, he possessed the ability to make friends with the most uneducated class of Mexican Indians. This ability, together with a great deal of sheer luck, enabled him to get out of many dangerous situations.
|Pancho Villa (José Francisco Doroteo Arango Arámbula)|
In March of 1917, he and his partner, Tom Jones, a Welchman, accompanied by two Mexican servants, were traveling in the State of Jalisco near Maria San Simon, when they got into a mix up with bandits. Tom Jones and the Mexicans were killed, but good luck intervened again for Sam, for although he suffered severe injuries, he managed to escape with his life. The bandits knew no mercy in torturing Sam, dragging him by the neck with a rawhide lariat until the skin was burned from his neck by the rope, and with unbounded cruelty, they kicked him about the ribs, which later resulted in the formation of an abscess. Some of the bandits, mounted on horseback, were dragging him when the lariat broke, and several of his tormentors fell over him. dropping a large machete, which fell on Sam's hand. He quickly grasped it and fought them off, knocking the captain from his horse. Just as the captain was about to fire at him with a pistol, he swung into the saddle of the captain's horse, making his escape through the dense jungle. Guided by the Colema Volcano (Volcán de Colima), he reached the railroad at Colima, where he took refuge in a log train, and then finally reached Manzanillo on the Pacific Coast in safety. There he met a German schooner captain, who was taking a group of Chinese to the cotton country in lower California, and he gave Sam passage to Mazatlan. Upon arrival there, Dr. Rene. a Frenchman treated his many wounds. and Mr. Douglass, a Scotch-Mexican, gave him further assistance. A train crew of the S.P.R.R. brought him to Nogales, Arizona. and Mr. (Epes) Randolph, president of the railroad, sent him to Tuscon, Arizona, where he could rest a short time before the long journey home to San Benito.
|Meta and Adele at the Robertson Home- still standing in San Benito|
While Sam Robertson was in Mexico his wife was greatly disturbed. She knew that he had gone for the purpose of espionage. and it made her ashamed, for before relations were severed with Germany in January 1917, she and her people had deeply sympathized with Germany in her war against France, England, and Russia. Mrs. Robertson and her mother were German. She had a sister who had been severely wounded as a nurse in an advanced dressing station in the German Army. and whose husband had already been killed in action. She also had twenty-nine first cousins in the German Army and Navy. several of whom had already been killed when America declared war. Nevertheless. Mrs. Robertson and her mother were American citizens, and when relations were broken with Germany. they knew that it meant war. When this occurred. she wired Sam. while he was still in Mexico that, since a war with Germany was inevitable. for God's sake to come home and get into a uniform.
In discussing the prospect of the United States becoming involved in a war with Germany, his wife and her mother had always said that if war came, Sam would have to serve, although he was over fifty. No one must say or make the unfair accusation that his German family kept him out, and besides that, it was an engineer's war. Sam's experience and training were outstanding qualifications. He knew what to do and just how to take care of himself and his men in the open country and in all kinds of weather. Frail eighteen-year-old youngsters must not be drafted while he, a healthy outdoorsman, remained at home.
Sam returned from Mexico in the latter part of March 1917, and immediately "got busy", as he expressed it, to break into the army. Some of his influential army friends were successful in having his age and physical difficulties waived, and soon he was in France. His military services are a matter of record in the Adjutant General's office. He was a Major, 16th Engineers; a Major and Lieutenant Colonel on the staff of directors of Light railways; on the staff of Chief Engineer, 1st Army: Colonel, commanding 22nd Engineers. He had reached the retirement age but is still a Colonel Auxiliary, U.S, Army. I attach a copy of the citation issued by General Pershing in France and _____ by order of the president. Also, a copy of the citation from Colonel Spaulding, Chief Engineer, First Army, and an extract from an article by Colonel ______, (Harry Burgess 1872–1933) at present governor of the Panama Canal Zone.
|The Major Looks Things Over-Is-sur-Tille, France in the fall of 1917.|
What pleases me, his wife. the most are the letters he receives from all parts of the country from former enlisted men expressing their esteem and respect for him. Only a few days ago a former Canadian soldier called and had breakfast with us. Slim, the old soldier who had been attached to his command in France for a short time. As the man was traveling about he came to San Benito to see his old Major. Sam was delighted to see his old friend but there was no work in the country, and he had to move on. When Sam offered him a loan of five dollars upon his departure he refused, saying he would be glad to accept two dollars, but he could never be able to repay the larger amount. Few people realize the close affection existing between enlisted men and real officers.
When the war was over, Sam came home broke in August of 1919. and immediately went to work for Mr.B. F. Yoakum and associates of New York as chief engineer and constructor of oil refineries at Amarilla Texas: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Shreveport, Louisiana, and Windsor, Ontario, Canada. He continued this work until February 1921 after which he went to Mexico, returning home to San Benito in the fall of 1921
At this time a sad aftermath of the war occurred. His poor wife and her mother, who had listened for almost four years to the silly, lying propaganda concerning German atrocities, until they had begun to imagine it was true. This so grieved them and shattered their nerves they became ill, the old mother dying in October and Mrs. Robertson in November of 1921. Both were casualties of war as surely as those killed on the field of battle, for they at heart the truest of Americans, were killed by their country's propaganda.
In 1922, when the excitement of the Klu Klux Klan was boiling over, Sam was at home in San Benito. The sheriff. many of his friends and many prominent citizens were members of the organization. However, most of his comrades who were in the World War, could not qualify as members because they were not one hundred percent Americans as per the Klu Klux formula, nor could his most loved superior officer because he was a Catholic. Sam denounced the organization in bitter language as unamerican, and unchristian.
The next he knew, he was nominated to run for sheriff. After a hectic and very bitter campaign, he was nominated, much to the surprise by the Democratic party but with only a small vote. and he felt that he would be defeated in the general election.
About this time. he was suffering from a mild form of diabetes. and his doctor sent him to Toronto, Canada to see a famous specialist. For Sam, the sheriff's campaign was forgotten. In Toronto, he met two doctors, friends whom he had formerly known overseas. The three of them planned a trip together to England and France, but as his friends were detained at the last minute, he proceeded to Europe alone. When he arrived in Bremen, Germany, he received a cable from his brother announcing that he had been elected sheriff and would have to be home within sixty days to qualify for the office.
During his trip, he visited many places in Germany. While in Dresden, he was given a dinner by fourteen men, who had been prisoners of war in France following the Armistice, who had worked under his direction repairing roads and railroads. Everywhere he went in Germany and Austria the Austrian and German soldiers recognized him as an American soldier by his victory button and D.S.M. pin and they treated him as a comrade.
In Vienna, he made the acquaintance of his present wife. Fraulein Maria Seidler. Being a man of action, he decided to marry Miss Seidler and have it over with quickly. Through the American Military Attache in Vienna, he proved his good character and reliability, and with the aid of a Presbyterian minister, a hasty marriage with Miss Seidler was arranged. and he immediately started for home with his wife, arriving in time to qualify as sheriff.
The jump from musical Vienna to the home of the sheriff of a Mexican border country, to say the least, was somewhat of a shock to his wife. He served as sheriff for three years, resigning at the end of that time. During his term of office, he was generally considered quite a hard-boiled sheriff. He found it necessary to arrest many old friends, including former employees. The greatest pleasure he derived from the sheriff's office was the fact that he made so many friends among those whom he had to place under arrest, and whom, in many instances. he was instrumental in sending to the penitentiary. He met men all up and down the border, and far into the interior of Mexico, who introduced themselves as former jail prisoners of his. In the last few months, two Mexicans have paid him small sums he had loaned them from six to eight years ago when they were being sent to the penitentiary. Whenever these men met him, they invariably greeted him as an old friend. They still tell him that they know he tried to treat all alike, the Mexicans, the Negroes, the poor, and the rich.
|Sheriff Robertson on the left with Baby Trapper|
After resigning as sheriff in 1926, he promoted and built a toll road along the beach of the Gulf of Mexico from the mouth of the Rio Grande to Aransas Pass, and a toll bridge over Boca Chica Pass from the mainland to Brazos Island; installed an auto ferry from the northern tip of Brazos Island, crossing Brazos De Santiago Pass to the southern tip of Padre Island.
He installed a car ferry over Aransas Pass from Port Aransas to Harbor Island: _____ an old railroad track from Harbor island to Aransas Pass City; built flat cars on which to haul autos; made two locomotives by putting on Ford trucks and used these Ford locomotives to haul the automobile loaded train. He also 'promoted and built the Don Patricio Causeway, eighteen thousand feet long over Laguna Madre from the northern tip of Padre Island and to a point near Flower Bluff, seventeen miles southeast of Corpus Christi. At the same time, he acquired for himself and Mr. W.E. Callahan, seventy-nine thousand acres on Padre Island. All this construction constituted what was known as Ocean Beach drive.
|Don Patricio Causeway|
In 1928, Robertson and Callahan sold their land on Padre Island, including ferries, causeways, and railroad lines to Messrs. Jones Brothers. and Parker multimillionaire oil and glass men of Kansas City. These gentlemen expected to improve these properties by building great hotels like those in Miami, Florida, and a sand asphaltum highway above high tide along the Gulf shore; improve the causeways and bridges; building a causeway to the mainland from Padre Island to Dixie Ranch; and constructing a high suspension bridge over Brazos De Santiago Pass. They expected to spend their first five million dollars on construction in 1929. Mr. Parker, who was the partner in charge of the development. died in 1929, and the stock market crash came on, and plans of these men were indefinitely deferred.
However, recently the State Highway Commission has become interested in putting through the ocean drive down Padre Island and connecting it's two ends with the mainland by causeways. At a recent (1932) meeting in Corpus Christi, the South Texas Chambers of Commerce pledged themselves to get behind the project and push it. Mr. Albert Jones says that if the State doesn't do the work, his firm will, as soon as the financial depression eases up. Sam is a young man of many plans and projects, and I expect to see his ocean drive project completed in the next ten years.
After selling out Padre island and the Ocean Beach drive. he took a position as an inspection engineer with a British concern, representing a large number of British investors who held bonds and securities on property in the Rocky Mountains, Pacific States, and Western Canada and Mexico. He made inspections and reports on their properties. He was engaged in this from 1928 through 1930. traveling from Southern Mexico to Northern British Columbia.
|Sam and Frank Robertson "surveying" Boca Chica|
|Del Mar on Brazos Island,|
In 1931, he had to repossess some property on Brazos Island. including the toll bridge over Boca Chica Pass, which is now closed. He has built the village of Del Mar on Brazos Island, which is a little seaside resort, consisting of some thirty-four houses and a restaurant. The resort seems to promise to become a year-round resort. Summer visitors from South Texas and winter tourists from the North have kept the village full for the past one and one-half years.
Sam Robertson's principal hobby is to work through the American Lyons <sic> and the schools to encourage school boys to do manual labor, and to learn Spanish, making them more efficient Valley citizens, and promoting respect for manual labor among students. Sam will leave in a short time with two of these prize-winning high school boys for a four thousand mile automobile trip through Mexico. Each of these boys performed more than seventeen hundred hours of labor, besides making high scholastic grades. Colonel Sam's young friends say that he is a pretty young guy yet, even if he is past sixty-five years of age.
- Mrs. Sam A. Robertson
|Del Mar Resort, Boca Chica Beach, Brazos de Santiago|
|Frank, Will, Sam, and Emmit Robertson|
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