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School Wagon Train To Retrace Gold Rush History
EL PASO, Texas – In January, dozens of students from Texas and California will board horse-drawn wagons to retrace the route of gold rush adventurer William P. Huff, whose 300,000-word diary shares the most detailed account available of the less-known southern gold rush trail, recounting Huff’s mid-1800’s trip from near Houston to near Fresno, California.
The three-week wagon train could be the adventure of a lifetime for the students, who will share their experiences afterward by publishing a book. The educational project is a partnership venture of Madera Unified School District, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the Texas Historical Commission, various county historical societies, schools and private ranchers.
On Jan. 4, 14 California sixth graders from the San Joaquin Valley will begin their journey at the Spanish Colonial Socorro Mission in El Paso and start retracing Huff’s trail in reverse back toward his point of origin. Groups of 14 students from various Texas schools will also each join the wagon train temporarily at several points.
On Jan. 23, the students will visit Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site in Central Texas. On Jan. 25 at the Texas capitol building, they will present a book about their experience to government officials in a ceremony on the south steps.*
"We want to provide students with the opportunity to ‘do’ history—not just study about it," said Bill Coate, the California schoolteacher who is leading the project. "We want to establish historical empathy among the students, allowing them to answer for themselves the question, ‘What was life really like for Texas gold seekers?’" Finally, we want to allow the students to add to the body of historical knowledge by resurrecting the memory of a relatively unknown Texas pioneer, thus giving the Texas Argonauts [gold rush pioneers] their rightful place in history."
Each morning on the trail, the students will conduct readings from Huff’s diary covering the upcoming day’s travel. They will discuss diary segments in terms of content and vocabulary. But the readings will also prepare the students to closely compare what they are about to see with what Huff wrote more than 150 years ago.
The students will help harness the mules and look to the wagons, learn to drive the mules, help pitch camp every night and generally experience as much of authentic 1800’s pioneer life as possible. Students will take notes along the way, and each day will record their thoughts on a tape recorder.
During the trail ride, students in California and Texas will be able to follow the journey online and will be invited to pose questions to the kids on the trail via the TPWD Web site (http://tpwd.texas.gov/expltx/eft/huff/).
At the end of the trail, students will return to their classes and collaborate via e-mail to compose a book about their experiences titled "Following the Steps of William P. Huff," which will be published in hardcover and online.
William P. Huff was one of Stephen F. Austin’s Old Three Hundred original settlers who came to San Felipe, Texas in 1824, where he and his father opened a general store.
Huff lived through the Texas Revolution and became good friends with many of the luminaries of Texas history. He was connected not only with Austin but also with William B. Travis, Jim Bowie, and Sam Houston.
When Houston ordered San Felipe burned during the Runaway Scrape, Huff set fire to his own store and rode off to do his part in the struggle against the invading Mexican army.
After Texas declared independence, Huff became a newspaper editor in Richmond and was on the job when he learned that gold had been discovered in California.
Huff decided to join the mad rush for the land of Ophir and headed overland for California. After months of trials and tribulations on the trail, Huff made it to Mariposa (near the border of today’s Yosemite National Park), where he mined for gold for three years.
Huff never struck gold, and he was penniless when he returned home in 1853. The only thing he had to show for his efforts were two worn, leather bound ledger books in which he had kept a daily account of his trip.
During the Civil War, Huff did not join the Confederate Army. For this reason he was permitted to become a judge in Fort Bend County during Reconstruction.
In 1886, Huff died and was buried in Houston. His only legacy was his gold rush journal, which was passed down from generation to generation. It is currently the property of Huff’s great-great grandson, David Ewing Stewart of Van Vleck.
Stewart loaned the diary to Coate, who has turned the aging manuscript into an interstate history project. Coate first learned of the diary in 1986 while in Matagorda County at a historical education event, where Stewart approached Coate and showed him the diary. Since then, Coate has been researching the diary and using parts of it for history class projects. In 1993, he began staging student wagon trains along the diary route. The Texas project is his most ambitious yet.
"Texas Argonauts have been sadly neglected in the historiography of the California gold rush due to the paucity of diaries coming from the southern trails," Coate explained. "While overland accounts of travel over the Oregon/California Trail are abundant, fewer than 60 journals from the southern trails exist. Thus, most accounts of the California gold rush, including those in textbooks, focus on travel from Missouri along the Platte River to Sutter’s Fort," he said.
State parks and historic sites on the wagon train route include Fort McKavett State Historic Site, Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site ** and Hueco Tanks State Historic Site near El Paso, where Huff lost his mules in a nighttime raid by Native American Indians, according to his diary notes.
Several private ranches are opening their gates to the wagon train, partly through the efforts of TPWD, whose biologists and game wardens are well known by most ranchers in rural Texas.
The El Paso County Historical Commission, Crane County Historical Commission, Menard County Historical Commission and similar groups are also aiding the wagon train project, with coordinating support from the Texas Historical Commission, the state agency for historic preservation.
* Correction, Jan. 3, 2005: The original version of this news release incorrectly listed Enchanted Rock State Natural Area among the state parks and historic sites along the route. The correct site is Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site. (Return to corrected item.)
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