Sam Robertson: My Own Summation of His Career
This Space page was written by Allan Harl Thomas
by his brother, R. E. Robertson
To me, there is nothing which lends more interest to the career of my brother, Sam Robertson, or more nearly accounts for his dauntless character, than the remarkable succession of unusual experiences all through his life, the number of people of various types whom he knew and met under unusual circumstances, and the interest he took in “just folks,” all of which seemed to enable him to read below the surface and judge the character of the individual. I shall, therefore, endeavor to recount a few of these, some of which came under my own personal observation, some recounted through family channels, and others obtained in many different ways.
1. At the close of the Civil War, in which my father had served as an officer in the Confederate Army, the persecutions of which many of the southern soldiers were compelled to endure made it impossible for him to get on his feet, causing him to move to Nebraska City, Nebraska. Misfortune followed him thereafter he managed to get a fresh start, and he lost everything he had in the sinking of a steamboat, followed by the hard times of the 1870s. He then moved to a ranch in Otoe County, Nebraska, which was still a wild country. I remember hearing my mother tell of the visits of Indians to their ranch home, though no violence was recounted, and the times of privation through which they lived. Our father grazed cattle on the plains of that section, and although Sam was just a very small child, he rode the range with his father and helped him herd the cattle. On one occasion, something stampeded the herd. The father endeavored to head them off, but his horse stepped in a gopher or prairie dog hole, crippling the horse. His father heard the galloping of a pony and looked up to see Sam passing him on his little Indian pony, and called to him, “Hold his head up, Son!” The boy, who could not have been over seven years old, kept on and was able to head off the herd.
2. Misfortune continuing to beset the family, our father decided it would be necessary to return to Missouri. Placing our mother, little sister, Merry, and the two baby boys, Frank and Will, the former about two years old and the latter a baby in arms, on a steamboat on the Missouri River en route to the old river town of Miami, Saline County, our father and Sam, now between seven and eight, struck out across the country with such livestock and household goods as they had. His father drove the team to the wagon, Sam riding his pony and leading five or six head of mules. Over roads that were poor, bridges almost non-existent, they made their way. The boy carried on day after day, but I have heard our father say that, when night came, the little fellow would be so utterly exhausted that he could not get to sleep, but his father would hold him in his arms until nature came to the rescue.
The family settled for some time in Saline County, Missouri, in that section somewhere between Miami and Marshall, just where I am unable to remember, but believe near the old settlement of Fairville. Sam helped his father on the farm, getting such an education as he could, being tutored by his mother and grandmother, both of whom had been schoolteachers, the latter continuing to teach for many years.
3. Following three or four years of more or less successful farming, mostly less successful, I fear, our father secured a position as bookkeeper in Carrollton, Missouri, where he resided with his family until 1881, when he procured a position as cashier of a bank at Norborne, Missouri in 1882. Moving with his family to that town, at which time Sam was just about 15 years old. During all these years of adversity, Sam worked at any job he could get, usually farm work in those years, although I remember hearing of his work as a railroad “train news butcher” on trains operating out of St. Louis.
4. He went to school for a time in an academy at Richmond, Missouri. During the time when he was in school there, the building caught fire, and Sam crawled up under the eaves and fought the fire with such assistance as he could get from the “bucket brigade.” The smoke to which he was exposed injured his eyes and he was unable to recover from this injury for several years, during which time he failed in his effort to gain appointment as an Annapolis Naval Cadet due to his impaired vision. One of his teachers at Richmond was a man by the name of James E. Dunn, who, when I was an older boy, became the pastor of the Christian Church at Norborne. He was a great admirer of Sam, and I have heard him speak appreciatively of him, though they had been separated for a number of years.
5. While still a boy in his early teens, there was quite a disastrous fire in the business district at Norborne, destroying a store building which was next door to the bank where our father was employed. Again, Sam was the most active member of the “bucket brigade,” fighting the fire on the roof of the bank building, which was saved largely through his exertions and those of another man.
6. Among the most unusual acquaintances of his life was General Alexander M. Doniphan, whom he knew in Richmond while in school there. General Doniphan, having been the commander of Missouri troops in the Mexican War in their march to Santa Fe, thence to Chihuahua, whence they marched to join the troops of General Zachary Taylor.
7. Another acquaintance at Richmond was David Whitmer, one of the early adherents to Mormonism under the leadership of Joseph Smith.
8. In Butte, Montana, where Sam was employed in the building of railroad yards in 1889, he found it necessary at times to pass down through the work train section at night. One night, one of the workmen, thinking it would be fun to frighten him by holding him up, jumped out from behind a car and ordered: “Hands up!” But the results were rather embarrassing to him, as Sam blacked both of his eyes before realizing that it was one of his own men. I have heard this story from Charles Hobbs, who was with Sam on this job and many others in the West and Southwest.
9. About 1890, when Sam was working on a job in Washington Territory, his employers got into some sort of controversies which ended up in court. They tried to influence Sam to give certain testimony favorable to their viewpoint, but when he told them that he could not consistently do so, they sent him across the Puget Sound into the Olympic Mountains, with a deaf and dumb Indian guide, until the settlement of the case.
10. When I worked for Sam on the Mississippi River, first in 1895, the prices for moving material on levee construction were distressingly low, which meant long hours and untiring labor. I wonder yet when he found time for sleep. On one occasion, he was blasting stumps in the borrow pit near the barn at the base of the levee. A defective fuse caused one blast to go off instantaneously, blowing him into the air where he was met with dirt, pieces of stump, etc., and finally landing him on his hands and knees, fortunately in some soft dirt. At that time, Sam was still suffering the results of damage to his stomach from alkali water in the West. His experience in the blasting caused severe stomach hemorrhages and cramping of such severity that it took several strong men to hold him, and from which we feared he would die before morning. He was delirious after the most severe cramping had passed, and in his delirium, talked of a place in the West where he had done some irrigation survey work in former years. One of the men assisting us was an Irishman named Pat Cain, who owned a small “shanty” outfit of a few teams, and who had worked in the west himself. He said he could recognize the place described by Sam in his delirium. Notwithstanding the sufferings of the night, when the morning came, Sam remembered a business call of some kind which he thought demanded his attention, and though unable to mount his horse and hardly able to walk, he called for the corral boss to saddle “Old Buckskin” and bring him around. He had some of the Negroes lift him into the saddle and away he went.
11. Appended hereto is an account of the sinking of the steamer, “Joe Peers,” in November 1895, written by Lee Cummins, Clerk of the steamer, who was also the son of its captain.
12. I have referred under No. 10 to prevailing prices for work on the Mississippi River levees in the 1890s. Some of the ground was quite marshy, which made it impossible for teams to work with wheel scrapers. Much of this was put in with what was known as “station men.” Laborers, who knew the game, would take a contract to put in a “station,” which would be 100 feet of running levee, and this would be done with wheelbarrows. In some instances, the levees would be from 20 to 30 feet high, and these laborers would push their heavily loaded barrows up the inclines they built. For this, they were paid by the cubic yard of dump filled in. These station contracts were quite sought after by hoboes who would come down from the North in the fall and work until spring. One man that I remember was Gus Hires, a Swede, whom I have mentioned elsewhere. In the winter of 1895, rains had set in and the river was rising. Completion of work in short time was essential. Sam had pieces of tent fly cut up to protect the mules as well as he could. He equipped his laborers with yellow slickers, and work proceeded. These were perilous times.
13. During the middle of January 1896, I was summoned to come home to the deathbed, as it proved, of my father. The family had hoped that the return of the youngest son would buoy our father up and perhaps result in his recovery, but it did not so prove. A few days later, Sam and another brother, Frank Selden, Jr., who was employed on the Arkansas side of the Mississippi River a few miles below Sam’s camp, were also sent for. When waiting for their train at a little station in Mississippi, the brothers engaged in conversation with an elderly lady who was also waiting for her train. On inquiry, she told them that she was from Gaines’ Landing, Arkansas. Sam then told her that our father had been very ill for quite some time during the Civil War with swamp fever at Gaines’ Landing. The lady asked the name, and when Sam told her, she said, “Young man, I nursed your father back to life.” She was the daughter of Mr. Gaines of Gaines’ Landing, and when Sam got home, he was able to tell his father of the meeting.
14. One of the most affecting scenes of my entire life, which I almost hesitate to put on paper, was that between our father and Sam at this time. Sam, kneeling at the bedside of his stricken father; the latter threw his arms around his oldest son and begged his forgiveness for “robbing him of his childhood” as he expressed it. His father said, “I was so anxious to make a man of you.” That the father succeeded in making a man of his boy has been amply evidenced through many years.
15. In Alabama in 1897, times on construction work were still “tight,” and prices extremely low. The General Contractor on the line had a beautiful black saddle horse. At that time, Sam used a mule for his saddle horse called “Bug House.” Bug House was a raw-boned and rangy animal, and his shoulders could not stand up under the galling rubbing of a horse collar when he was hitched to a wheel scrape, but he was a good saddle animal. Sam cut the end out of an oat sack, hung it over Bug House’s head and shoulders to hide his collar sores, put a saddle on him and rode him wherever he had to go with no evidence of self-consciousness on Sam’s part at the appearance of his saddle animal. In fact, the General Contractor had pictures taken of himself on his fine saddler and Sam on Bug House, labeling old Bug House as the only saddler in Alabama that could keep up with the black horse. We also had another mule of the same type as Bug House (except as a saddler). We called him “Jim Blue,” and I well recall that this critter kicked the eternal daylights out of the writer hereof one night in the corral.
16. I have referred elsewhere to Henry Mack, a wheeler dumper in Alabama, and to “Little Joe,” the former following Mr. Sammy to Mississippi, thence to the T. & B. V. Railroad work in Texas, and whom I last saw in the Lower Rio Grande Valley in 1938, 41 years after I first knew him.
17. Sam told me one day in Alabama, “Emmet, you are the worst mule skinner I ever saw,” and then, as an afterthought, added, “except me.” I don’t know how bad he was, but I was terrible.
18. Ones of Sam’s acquaintances on the T. & B. V. Railroad work in Texas was Melvin A. Traylor, whom I also knew, but less intimately. Traylor was a young lawyer, City Attorney of Hillsboro, who quit the law to enter the banking business. He began first in two small Texas towns, thence to East St. Louis, and at the time of his death, was president of one of the largest banks in Chicago, the First National, as I recall.
19. After completion of the T. & B. V., Sam secured contracts for track-laying, etc., for S. T. L. B. & M., which took him to the Lower Rio Grande Valley. For a time, he was encamped on the celebrated King Ranch, making the acquaintance with Mrs. King, widow of its founder, and with her son-in-law, Robert Kleberg. When Sam was with the A. E. F. in France, he was assigned a saddle animal which he found had the King Ranch Brand, and he promptly named the horse “Don Ricardo,” for Robert Kleberg’s son, Richard, I believe.
20. After completion of the Brownsville Road (St. L. B. & M.) his activities took him from time to time to old Mexico. He formed an acquaintance with Senor Limantour, of Porfirio Diaz’ cabinet, and he also became acquainted with Francisco Madero, who overthrew Diaz, and was himself assassinated. He also met Madero’s sister. At the end of World War I, he went for a short rest down to the towns. A carriage drew up to the sidewalk and a lady called to him. It was the sister of Madero, above-mentioned. She invited him out to her villa, where he met several influential Mexicans whom he had known in earlier days. Francisco Madero, by the way, either gave or sold to Sam a street railway franchise at Matamoros.
21. The following extract from a book entitled “Gringo Builder” by James L. Allhands, tells of an experience on the construction of the Brownsville Road: “In the building of a railroad, there are plenty of days when things do not go smoothly, and wrecks sometimes come to plague construction men. So it was on February 17, 1904. At 11:20 that morning, Robert J. Kleberg phoned from his ranch headquarters apprising Chief Engineer Jonah at Corpus Christi of the first wreck ever to occur on the Brownsville Railroad. Locomotive 023 and seven of its heavily loaded cars had passed safely over Santa Gertrudis Bridge on Mile 26, but the next nine cars, containing ties, rails and bridge timers, had piled up in a tangled, broken mass at the bottom of the creek bed. It carried out three bents at the bridge. On account of the shortage of timber, caps had been substituted for stringers, and it was first thought that this substitution was responsible for the wreck, but as none of the caps were found to be broken, it was decided that spread rails had been the cause.
Taking Engine Four at Robstown, F. P. Read and Sam Robertson started for the scene of the wreck. That day’s work climaxed when, as they approached Kingsville, their engine ran into a cocked switch, which derailed the engine, tender, and two cars, catapulting Robertson to the ground with a compound fracture of his right leg and several broken ribs. His physical condition was bad, and he was obliged to spend months as a cripple on crutches, but his financial condition was worse. For 17 days, while lying in a Corpus Christi hospital, he imagined himself constructing his railroad, after which, this dynamo of energy could be restrained no longer. On a stretcher, with his leg in splints, he was placed on a flat car and taken down the line. Here, in the familiar background of “the front,” scarcely able to hobble around on crutches, he soon became an expert in their use, and was able to catch a train running eight or nine miles per hour, and once on top, would hop from car to car. He trained his faithful white cow pony to lie down so he could mount, and after planks had been placed, the pony would nimbly and cleverly walk up on a flat car for shuttling up and down the line. It was November before Robertson was able to do without crutches and dissolve partnership with his equine companion.”
Another extract from the same book reads as follows:
“Let me tell you about a praiseworthy incident of this crutch period that looms large. While he was a hero, he has likely forgotten all about it. One day, soon after the track had reached the brush and barrenness of the lonely site of Harlingen, one of his Negro brakeman had cut loose a box and flat car, loaded with steel rails, and these wild cars bore down fast on the camp outfit of the concrete gang, occupied by the George E. Badge family, This heavily loaded flat, striking the old camp cars with great velocity, would have cause the steel rails to shift forward through the wooden cars with disastrous results to the occupants. Just at that propitious moment, Robertson came plodding along on his old horse, and sensing the situation in a split second, knew that these runaways must be stopped. He galloped up to the boxcar, spilled his crutches and somehow scrambled aboard and succeeded in setting the hand brake before the crash. This was just another day at the “front” for him. There were but a few witnesses, and for this act, he got no mention or Carnegie hero prize, and aside from giving his crew some very positive instructions, the incident was forgotten.”
22. I have told elsewhere about his encounter with General Luis de las Rosa, who had been a meat contractor in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, while the construction work was in progress, and whom he met, but fortunately unrecognized, while doing some confidential work for the U, S. Army in northern Mexico in pre-World I days.
23. I have also told of his acquaintances with little Salamon Lerma, and their brush with Mexican bandits.
24. I have mentioned Red Morrow as one of his old co-workers who, while overage, colored his hair red and followed Sam into the Army and went overseas with him. James Allhands, in the book above-mentioned, states that another co-worker on his same job by the name of Spider McCarty also followed him overseas.
25. A personal friend of mine in Idaho and Montana days, by the name of Lieutenant George A. Kenrick, a native of St. Paul, also met Sam at Camp Aldershot, England, and tried to get a transfer to Robertson’s regiment from his own, the 18h Engineers. Kenrick was one of the finest men I ever knew.
Mrs. Sam Robertson gave this biography of her husband, Sam A. Robertson, written by his brother R. E. Robertson, to the Rio Grande Valley Historical Society in October 1950.
SAM ROBERTSON*MY OWN SUMMATION OF HIS CAREER by his brother, R. E. Robertson, Col. Sam Robertson File and Scrapbook Dolph Briscoe Center for American History. The University of Texas at Austin. Austin, Texas