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Historical Blacksmithing in Texas

Historical Blacksmiths in Texas

by Richard Boswell

Texas is old in ways different from the rest of The United States, just as it is different today. Today we see the benefits of a modern petroleum industry that relies on steel to do everything. The economy it creates made the modern growth possible. There is so much new growth, new construction, and urban sprawl that it is easy to overlook what the blacksmith once contributed.

In our lifetimes the commonly found blacksmith has disappeared to be replaced with welding and machine shops. When the farm equipment breaks we load the gear on a trailer and haul it into town and have the dealer fix it. Many farms are now graveyards of obsolete rusting equipment, all replaced by newer, bigger, higher capacity machines. "Cheaper to replace than fix" is today's theme.

Several books about the Texas Revolution can be found at Eakin Press including "The Magnificient Barbarians: Little Told Tales of the Texas Revolution" By Bill and Marjorie K. Walraven.

Let's talk about some of the smiths who built Texas when steel was harder to come by.

One of the most well known is Noah Smithwick who dictated his life's story to his daughter when he was ninety years old and blind. The Handbook of Texas has a good summary which relates that he was born in South Carolina, raised in Tennessee, and got to Texas in 1827. And soon he became infamous by helping a fellow Texan out:

"On July 9, 1830, he applied for a league of land in Stephen F. Austin's colony, saying he had immigrated from Tennessee in 1827, was twenty-two years old, and a gunsmith, but he sold his headright before locating it. A friend, Hiram Friley from Gonzales, sought refuge in San Felipe after killing the alcalde. San Felipe authorities ordered him chained with leg irons, but Smithwick provided a file and a gun so he might escape. Tracked down, Friley was shot, and Smithwick's gun implicated him The authorities tried him, declared him "a bad citizen," and on December 7, 1830, banished him from Austin's colony and Texas, providing an escort to the Sabine."

He came back though, and was involved in most of the significant battles of the revolution, and repaired the "Come and Take It" cannon of Gonzales.

Another interesting fact about Noah is that he was one of the first producers of the Bowie Knife which Jim Bowie gave and sold to his friends.

Afterward he became one of the first Texas Rangers and is reknown for his bravery.

He left Texas as a Union sympathizer in 1861 after establishing several successful saw and grist mills. After his death in Santa Ana, California, on October 21, 1899, his daughter polished the manuscript he had dictated and had it published in Austin during 1900 as "The Evolution of a State, or Recollections of Old Texas Days". This book is available on-line at Southwestern Classics On-line.

John Sowell was another revolutionary blacksmith in early Texas, particularly at Gonzales which became the focal point early in the Revolution. He was one of the "Immortal Eighteen".

"Sowell's shop was described as "….the principal blacksmith and woodworking shop town….a very busy place….fires were kept burning day and night…." Sowell had improvised "rude work benches" where he and others "….repaired rifles, molded bullets, turned out lances and cannon balls." The story was told of how "Old Man Sowell," as he was often called, knew that ammunition for the cannon was scarce and he picked up iron scraps" around his shop and told the boys that when he heard the cannon discharge he would come running" to reload it with his scraps."

The "Come and Take It" cannon is famous but not without some controversy concerning its authenticity.

Another important smith to note is Noah Byars in whose shop the Republic of Texas was birthed in 1836. The Handbook of Texas has his story.

He was born in South Carolina, lived in Georgia, and came to Texas in 1835 where he established a gunsmith and blacksmith shop at Washington-on-the-Brazos. In 1836 Sam Houston appointed Byars armorer and blacksmith of the Texas army. He also served as sergeant-at-arms to the Texas Senate from 1837 to 1841 and as armorer and blacksmith to the Indians. In 1841 he began a new career as a famous Baptist minister.

Noah T. Byars is quoted in "Texian Iliad, A Military History of the Texas Revolution", 1835-1836 by Stephen L. Hardin who said

"Back at Gonzales, confidence was high as the call "On to Béxar" sounded throughout the Mexican camp. A majority of the men were not devotees of poetry, yet all could appreciate the sentiment of N. T. Byars's verse:

Boys, rub your steels and pick your flints, Me thinks I hear some friendly hints That we from Texas shall be driven— Our lands to Spanish soldiers given. "

Noah's autobiography is on Rootsweb where the author questions the actual use of the building called Texas Independence Hall, about whether it had been in use as a shop, or simply a building that he owned. Eventually the building was disassembled in 1842 and Noah took the logs to build a cabin in the Dresden settlement in Navarro County. This later became part of Pioneer Village in Corsicana so it is no longer on the original site.

In another article by Elreeta Crain Weathers there is a note stating

"1836, March 1 - The Washington-on-the-Brazos unfinished blacksmith shop of Noah T. Byars and his partner Peter M. Mercer was rented for the Convention of 1836 which wrote the Texas Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the Republic of Texas and established an interim government. The blacksmith shop was the only building in Washington-on-the-Brazos large enough for the convention and was leased by businessmen in Washington for that purpose--but they never paid the rent."

Apparently, Noah's business skills may have been slim or perhaps he was caught up in the fever of the moment. On the other hand, the $170 for 3 months rent may have been too much for the new government to pay.

Noah even had two tombstones which could be attributed to his two careers, but in fact was due to too much paint by football hooligans.

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