[TEXAS]. BACKUS, Electus (1804-1862). Autograph manuscript. Diary of a journey from San Antonio to El Paso, 17 April 1857 to 23 June 1857. 48 pp., 8vo, neatly sewn with string, with two autograph sketches in the text.
RATTLESNAKES, TEXAS LIONS, AND HENRY SKILLMAN: A RUGGED TREK ACROSS THE WILDS OF ANTE-BELLUM WEST TEXAS, OVER THE FAMOUS SAN ANTONIO-EL PASO ROAD
Electus Backus, a veteran of the Seminole and Mexcian Wars, kept this journal as he tagged along with an El Paso-bound expedition that included soldiers, Indian agents, a botanist, a Catholic priest, and a tenderfoot physician from Philadelphia. "This is the Doctor's first campaign & he is learning many things he never dreamed of in Philadelphia" (22 May). On 21 May he approaches the San Pedro River (later renamed Devil's River). It "is the most remarkable place I have seen in Texas. It has an air of wildness, of rudeness, peculiar to itself..." But great dangers lurked amid this beauty: "We saw today the graves of 4 men killed by Comanches" (22 May).
Meanwhile the Philadelphia doctor was toughening up and Scott watched him tie a string around a snake's neck and deposit it in his bag--alive. An Irish soldier seeing this shouted, "Howly St. Patrick," and got as far away from the medicine man as he could. As for the young priest, Backus writes that he "is a keen sportsman, 'aint particular about Sundays' & is game to the backbone." The roughest contingent in the troupe were the hard-cursing teamsters: "Coarse vulgarity & brutality are their characteristics."
On the last leg of the trip Backus crosses paths with an important Texas pioneer. "During the night Mr. Skillman arrived from San Antonio in 8 days; he had travelled as far in 8 days as we had in 40 days. He brought a mail" (15 June). In 1851, Skillman won the government contract for the San Antonio to Santa Fe mail run. In July 1857, just weeks after this journal ends, Skillman and his new partners George Giddings and James Birch opened the first transcontinental mail and passenger service, the so-called "San-San" line from San Antonio to San Diego (one-way fare, including meals: $200).
Backus reaches El Paso on 23 June. Near the end he summed up his feelings about the wild, west Texas terrain, and its future possibilities: "What a desert! What a prospect before us! Hills & mountains of bare rocks, plains of sand & gravel heated like a furnace, the beds of all streams a dry & heated bed of cobblestones! The purpose for which this country was created are not yet developed...but like all the works of the Great Architect, it was created for some wise & useful purpose...destined to render our whole country & people more happy & more united" (11 June).