Saturday Snippet: A young German-American in Mexico during the Civil War


August Santleben was a babe in arms when his family emigrated to the USA in 1845.  He grew up in Texas, and became a freighter.  He later wrote an account of his adventures in Texas and elsewhere, titled “A Texas Pioneer:  Early Staging and Overland Freighting Days on the Frontiers of Texas and Mexico“.

It’s an excellent book, describing many of the details of life in pioneer and Old West days that are often obscured by popular Western fiction.

Here’s his account of leaving home during the Civil War, and making a living in Mexico for a couple of years before enlisting as a soldier.  (Readers of my Western novel “Gold on the Hoof“, third in my Ames Archives series, will recognize some of the towns and localities he describes – his book was one of the sources of information I used when I wrote mine.)

I FELT no misgivings regarding my future prospects when I left home in September, 1862, with the determination to seek my fortune in the world that I believed was waiting for me somewhere. I was young, healthy, and vigorous, with a mind strengthened by independent thoughts that had sustained me in many responsible positions and I felt that I could earn a competency by my own exertions. With such confidence in myself, a good horse, and a few dollars in my pocket, I parted from the loved ones at home with no definite idea with reference to the date of my return.

My route on horse-back to Eagle Pass took me through the town of D’Hanis, where I was joined by Joe Carle, the father of Carle Bros., who now conduct a mercantile establishment on West Commerce Street, in San Antonio. He was a merchant in D’Hanis and we had previously arranged to go to Mexico together, where he had business to attend to, but as he was engaged to his present wife he returned home after an absence of a few weeks. In the meantime I became acquainted with Billy Egg, a young man who had fled from east Texas to avoid serving in the army. He was stopping with his brother, Thomas Egg, a married man, who lived in Piedras Negras, and I secured board with the family.

A few days afterwards I, and two other men, accompanied Thomas Egg thirty miles up the Rio Grande to a bottom where there was a growth of willow trees, which he proposed to cut into lengths suitable for rafters, called vieges in Spanish. They were used by the Mexicans as a sub-structure for the flat roofs of their houses, which were built of adobies or sun-dried brick, 4 x 10 x 18 inches, made of mud. The rafters most in demand were twenty-five feet long, with a diameter of twelve inches at the butt and six inches at the small end. These could be readily sold in Piedras Negras at one dollar and a half each, on account of their scarcity because of the difficulty in hauling them.

When constructing a roof for a house the Mexicans placed these rafters on top of the adobe walls, about two feet apart, and the entire space was then closely covered over with split boards, about two feet long, that reached from one rafter to the next. A mortar of mud, made from a particular kind of dirt, was thoroughly mixed with dry grass until it could be handled. This was spread in a continuous layer about four inches thick near the eaves and much thicker in the middle, so as to give a slope to the roof. After becoming thoroughly dry a second layer of about the same thickness was put on, and it was followed by a third when ready to receive it. The finishing course was a layer of cement about four inches thick, composed of earth and lime, which only the Mexicans know how to mix, and the roof with its slope from the center was made smooth by dragging over it the edge of a board. Such roofs last a long time, and I remember one that was shown me in Paras, Mexico, which had received no repairs in thirty years, that was then in perfect condition.

Our party cut about one hundred and eighty of such rafters, and as we had planned to secure them in a raft and float them down the river, we carried them to the nearest point on our shoulders, a distance of three hundred yards. When we were about ready to start our raft the Mexican authorities interfered, under the impression that it could be used for smuggling purposes, and they prohibited its completion. We then changed our plans, and were compelled to employ Mexican carts to haul our rafters to Piedras Negras, which was expensive, consequently we realized only a small sum above our outlay.

I was next employed under a contract to make two dozen American ox-yokes at one dollar and a half apiece, for Semon de la Penia, who had a wagon-shop in Piedras Negras. He had removed recently from San Antonio, to which place his family afterwards returned. I worked in his shop and used his tools until I finished the yokes, and perhaps they were the first that had ever been made in that town.

Soon after completing my job, in November, 1862, I visited Matamoras on horse-back, in company with Thomas B. McManus, John Heinemann and Billy Egg. We traveled down the Mexican side of the Rio Grande a distance of four hundred and fifty miles. My only object in going was to see the country, but my trip was not satisfactory, because after spending all my money I was compelled to work in a cotton-yard, and after a short stay I was ready to return to Piedras Negras. I was without means, but fortunately I fell in with a theatrical troop, and secured employment with them as door-keeper. We left Matamoras in December, 1862, and on the way up the river the company gave performances at Camargo, Renosa, Renosa San Antonio, Roma, Mier, Laredo, and finally at Piedras Negras, where I left them.

With a part of my earnings I purchased a mule and cart, paying seventy-five dollars for the outfit, and engaged in hauling water from the Rio Grande, which I sold at 25 cents a barrel. Considering the amount of capital invested it was the best paying business in which I ever engaged, and it was my constant occupation until I was offered employment that gave me an opportunity to see the country, then I hired a man to drive the cart during my absence.

Messrs. Herman and Gilbeau, cotton-brokers in Piedras Negras, wanted to visit San Luis Potosi on business. As the distance was five hundred and fifty miles over an unsafe road an escort was necessary, and they hired me and a Mexican to serve in that capacity. They traveled in an ambulance with four mules driven by a Mexican and the escort accompanied them on horse-back all the way. A brief sketch of our route and the prominent places of interest is worthy of notice in a section of country where the greater part was a desolate wilderness, but as it is described elsewhere as far as Monterey in another connection, the reader’s attention will be directed to a few places of importance beyond that city:

The city of Saltillo is situated in the State of Coahuila, seventy-five miles southwest of Monterey, on the north slope of a ridge that crosses the whole valley, and it is in sight after passing the hacienda of San Gregario. It was then a well-built town of substantial houses, with good paved streets, and a beautiful Alameda. A number of factories were established there, and they contributed greatly to the prosperity of the place by giving employment to the inhabitants. Several of them manufactured unbleached cotton goods exclusively, and others turned out woolen goods. They also had the reputation of turning out the finest of the well-known hand-made Mexican blankets that were admired for their excellent quality and workmanship, not only in the republic but in Europe and the United States, where they were sold for from thirty to fifty dollars apiece.

The road from Saltillo to San Luis Potosi passed through San Cristobal, and the Hacienda de Guadalupe, to the right of the Catorce mountain, which rises two thousand feet above the surrounding plain. When within twenty-five miles of San Luis Potosi the beautiful city appears and distance adds enchantment to the view which becomes more attractive the nearer it is approached. Stately domes and numerous lofty towers give prominence to the substantial buildings that crowd upon its narrow streets. These, when entered, are found to be interesting on account of the way they are laid out and because of their superior construction and cleanliness. Among its public buildings is a splendid city hall and five or six magnificent churches adorned with carvings and sculpture that rival any in Mexico, the most superb of which is the cathedral.

In 1862 San Luis Potosi was one of the most enterprising cities in the republic, independent of its mining interests, that at one time attracted great attention. The San Pedro mine was once the most prominent in Mexico, on account of the single piece of pure gold taken out of it, that is said to have been the largest solid lump of gold ever found in Mexico or any part of the world. It was sent to Spain as a present to the King, and in return for that act of generosity, the King contributed a beautiful and costly clock to the city as a gift for its cathedral, which I suppose strikes the hours now as it did in 1862 when I was there. The noted San Pedro mine, which was near the city, was abandoned many years before my visit on account of water that flooded the interior and caused it to cave. So far the evil has not been remedied, but perhaps scientific skill will overcome the difficulties eventually and make its wealth accessible.

After reaching our destination my employers ascertained that a lot of silver bullion that was due them had not been delivered. The treasure was expected from the mines of Real de Catorce, distant about one hundred and forty miles, and it was essential that it should be secured with as little delay as possible. For that purpose I and the two Mexicans of our party were sent with four pack-mules, under the orders of Angel Hernandez, a resident of San Luis Potosi. We arrived at the smelting works of the Catorce mines about eight o’clock in the evening.

The city of Real de Catorce is situated on top of a high range of mountains, and the only approach was up a narrow winding path cut in the side of the ragged acclivity that could only be ascended on foot or the back of mules. This and another similar trail were dug out of the perpendicular face of the precipice, and each with its windings was about two miles in length. Its name Catorce, “fourteen,” was given it because this canyon was first inhabited by a band of fourteen robbers.

The population of the town then numbered in the neighborhood of six thousand people. The public buildings and houses were substantially built of stone, and the streets, though narrow, were paved, and cleanliness was enforced. No vehicles of any kind could be seen in the place, and it was said that none had ever been introduced, but the deficiency was supplied by pack animals. The inhabitants derived their support from the rich mines situated in a canyon of the mountains which rise above the plateau on which the city is built. The ore was very rich and the mines were owned by Santos de la Masa, who worked them according to very primitive methods.

The ore was conveyed from the mines to the foot of the mountain in hampers on the backs of burros. Each burden weighed one hundred and fifty pounds, and they traveled in a slow pace, as they wound down the trail leading from the mine, in a continuous line, and returned unloaded, in a snail-like pace, along an equally narrow trail up another route.

The reducing works of the Catorce mines were situated near a stream that ran along the base of the mountain where the ore was worked both by smelting and by patio, or cold amalgamation process. The first method was used for the hard, and the last for the soft ores that were taken from the mine. There were several circular depressions, each about two feet in depth and seventy-five feet in circumference, with its bottom sloping from the center to the outer rim. These were cut in the solid rock and cemented, and each was enclosed around the edges by a strong fence about eight feet in height.

The soft ore was first ground on steel mills to the fineness of sand; and the powder was then placed in one of the circular excavations to the thickness of eighteen inches. It was then saturated with water, and a quantity of quick-silver was added. A number of wild mules was then turned into the enclosure until there was not enough room for them to turn round and the gate was closed. The mules were then driven around the circle as rapidly as possible by men with whips who were stationed at intervals on the fence. When the animals were completely fagged out others equally wild relieved them and each time more water was added. When the pulverized ore was reduced to the consistency of mud, it was washed clean, and nothing but the silver amalgam remained that was deposited in grooves, made for that purpose in the cement floor. This was gathered and smelted in a furnace from which the silver was run into bars.

The process was similar to the common practice in olden times, when grain was tramped out by horses on a barn floor, and it was equally successful. The owner of the mine raised large numbers of mules on his ranch expressly for the purpose, and when sufficiently tamed they were placed on the market. This description is given with the belief that the methods then in use have been discarded since the introduction of stamp mills and other improved machinery.

A much harder ore was taken from the same mine, called milling ore, which was carried direct to a furnace. The furnace was built in the side of a hill and resembled a lime-kiln, with an opening in the top to receive the ore. A peculiar kind of wood was used for smelting the ore that produced an intense heat which was kept up until a sluggish stream of silver flowed out below into molds that turned out bars of uniform size.

We remained at the smelting works three days, during which time I made several visits to the town of Catorce. I rode up the mountain on a donkey and the round trip cost me twenty-five cents. I had a good time frolicing, dancing, and seeing everything that was worth the trouble. Felix Barrera, of San Antonio, who was known to me, was working in the mine, but I did not see him, although I became acquainted with his brother who lived in the town.

We loaded our pack-mules with eight bars of silver bullion, valued at eight thousand dollars, and returned safely to San Luis Potosi with our valuable cargo, but I do not know what disposition was made of it, although I am confident that it was left there. Before our departure the Mexican ambulance driver was discharged on account of drunkenness, and his duties were assigned to me. I knew all about driving oxen and a pair of horses, and I assumed the task without hesitation. Though it was my first attempt at driving four-in-hand, I succeeded admirably and my employers complimented my skill when we arrived at Piedras Negras, about the latter part of February, 1863, after an absence of twenty-five days.

I next offered my services to Messrs. Rinehold Becker and George Enderle, merchants of Piedras Negras, who were preparing to visit Monterey for the purpose of replenishing their stock of goods. My recent experience was a sufficient recommendation and they employed me to drive their ambulance.

My expertness in handling horses was not put to a test on the journey until we passed over a stretch of road that was full of stumps. Although I exerted all my skill I gave my passengers frequent jolts and they were rather free with their criticism when commenting on my carelessness. Finally they concluded to take a more conservative view of the situation by turning their mishaps to some account, and decided that every time a wheel struck a stump they would console themselves by taking a drink. As we had a long jaunt ahead of us the encounters with stumps and the bottle were frequent, consequently my employers were well loaded when we reached an open country. We returned from Monterey in March and I was again out of a job. Mr. Enderle has been dead a number of years; he was a brother-in-law of Mr. John Fries, who for many years was a merchant in San Antonio, where his son, Fred Fries, is now City Clerk. Mr. Becker is now living in said city, where, until a few years ago, he was in active business.

I was not disposed to remain idle and I undertook to dig a well for John Heinemann, in April, for a stipulated price. I had never had any experience in that line of work, and my ignorance was perceptible when I struck water because of its crookedness the mouth of the well was hid from view when at the bottom. After it was finished it answered every purpose on account of its abundant supply of water. It was the first well that was ever dug in Piedras Negras, and the owner made it pay by selling water at the well for twelve and a half cents per barrel. It did not interfere with my water business, which had been prosecuted during my absence, and it was continued by hired help for some time afterwards.

I was again free, but in May I found employment with the firm of Messrs. F. Groos & Co., in Piedras Negras, who placed me in charge of their cotton yard under Gustave Groos, a brother of Mr. F. Groos, now a banker in San Antonio. I commenced working for them at a salary of seventy-five dollars per month, and held the position until the following October. Strong influences were then brought to bear which made me give up my situation and dispose of my water business, but when doing so I acted contrary to my inclinations. I was led away from all my former occupations, and was influenced to engage in the trade of war, which was repulsive to me.

I was not much concerned on account of the Civil War that was raging in the United States, and I was content so long as Texas was free from its ravages. I did not know much about it, but before that time many men from the Southern States had entered Mexico on account of the troubles there. Some were refugees who fled from the country because of their opposition to secession and sympathy for the Union cause, but many were skulkers seeking to avoid military service, and a large number were deserters from the Confederate army. Among the former was Joe Christ, who was devoted to the Union cause. He was a good old friend of my father’s, and he, more than any one else, persuaded me to close up my business and go with him to Brownsville.

The country along the west side of the Rio Grande was then infested by outlaws, and one of the most notorious was Abram Garcia, who first appeared there in 1860. He was personally known to Louis Hastings, now living in San Antonio, who is acquainted with his career, but through other sources I became familiar with the many depredations he committed between Laredo and Matamoras.

He was commonly known as Caballero Blanco, or the White-horseman, on account of the white horse he always rode, and the people in that region feared him very much, particularly in the towns of Mier, Roma, Renosa Vico, Renosa San Antonio and Camargo. He had the reputation of being a very brave man, but the cruelties he perpetrated on those who fell into his hands indicated that he was influenced by a brutal nature. He took special delight in humiliating the victims that were overpowered by his gang and robbed, by forcing them to dance at the muzzle of a six-shooter and then maltreated them by whipping them cruelly with a quirt before they were finally dismissed.

When passing through the territory in which he operated, Mr. Christ and myself observed a continual watchfulness, but nothing was seen that excited suspicion, though we came in contact with a party of unfortunate Mexicans who had been subjected to his unmerciful treatment. They had come from Saltillo or Monterey with a lot of superior horses, some fine Mexican blankets, saddles, and other things that were intended for the Texas market, when they encountered Caballero Blanco near the river, at Roma. The property, which was valuable, was all taken from them, and the entire party of six men, after being forced to dance, were horribly beaten, but one more severely than the others. Their condition was such that it was necessary to convey them to Renosa San Antonio for medical treatment, and Mr. Sanders, a merchant of Roma, a particular friend of theirs, was summoned to their bed-side.

After seeing the evidence of his deviltry, our party, like every one else, was fearful of meeting Caballero Blanco, and we kept constantly on the watch until our destination was reached. As I left Mexico a few months later and did not return for several years, I heard no mention of him, nor do I know what became of him.

Persons who violate the law in Mexico are quickly arrested, and generally the penalties are impartially enforced; but some people think otherwise, and many stories have been published which convey a different impression.

I recall an unusual incident which came to my knowledge that happened at Mier, near the Rio Grande, when I and my three companions, Tom Egg, John Heinemann, and Bill McFarland, were stopping there. The third day after our arrival four other Texans put up at the little meson where we were quartered. The next morning the new-comers led their horses to water and when returning from the river they observed a Mexican woman moving slowly in the trail before them. A large jar that held about four gallons was gracefully poised on her head, without any support from her hands, which contained water that she had procured at the river and she was carrying it to her home half a mile distant.

One of the young men in the party was an excellent marksman with a pistol, and he wanted to show his skill by breaking the jar with a bullet. His aim was accurate, the vessel was broken, and the poor woman received an unexpected shower-bath. It was a mean thing for him to do, and perhaps he feared the consequences or else his offer to compensate the woman for her loss by paying her a dollar, showed that he regretted his thoughtless act.

She communicated the circumstances to her friends, who complained to the Alcalde of the place, and in a short time eight armed men appeared before the meson and conveyed the young gentleman to jail. Until then no one in my party knew what had happened, and then Messrs. Heinemann, Egg, and McFarland, accompanied by the prisoner’s three friends, followed him and the guard, but I remained in camp.

Heinemann, who had married in a prominent Mexican family in Laredo, could speak Spanish fluently and he undertook to defend the young Texan. He proved by the testimony of his friends that the prisoner was an expert with a pistol, who could shoot an egg off a man’s head at any reasonable distance, and that the woman’s life was in no danger when he fired at the jar.

But for Heineman’s influence it is probable that some sort of punishment would have been meted out to the young man, and he was fortunate in escaping so easily, because then Americans were looked upon with less favor than now. Possibly when he returned to Texas he made himself a hero by telling incredible stories about Mexico, like others have done, but they only deceive the ignorant.

After arriving in Brownsville, Mr. Christ exerted his influence over me and in compliance with his earnest solicitations I enlisted in the United States army, in December, 1863, as a private in Captain Braubach’s company of scouts.

I can’t help but note the work ethic Mr. Santleben displayed, even at the age of seventeen, when he left home.  I wonder how many of our relatively pampered youth would be willing to work as hard as he did to make a living for himself – particularly at exhausting, demanding manual labor – and become established in life?


1 comment

  1. Interesting read. Thank you for it.
    As for the work ethic: I am 64 and have never been particularly afraid of work. I started mowing lawns and such at 12 years old to make my spending money. That being said, I, like you, marvel at the accomplishments of our antecedents and particularly their willingness to strike out into the unknown at the same age as I was mowing lawns. Puts it into perspective doesn't it?
    As I recall, Fredrick Russell Burnham left home @ 13 to chase down a thief that stole his favorite horse. Caught him and got his horse back too. Yes, they were tougher people than we.
    They conquered a continent.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *