I HAVE OBSESSED over a letter that has lingered in my mother’s family for a good long while. It was written by a young mapmaker from his convalescent bed in Austin, Texas, in the spring of 1847, during a time when revolts convulsed human communities around the globe and wars redrew national borderlines across North America. Humans were on the move.
We are surveying now already 3 weeks. We worked towards the Guadalupe through hilly country to a well known point and went back to the Blanco River. Here we had a nice but poor camp. Camping in a canyon on the highest point where both rivers meet, we could see far into the country. But no water and grass. Besides that, it was really cold.
I have read and reread this letter—forty-four pages long—for half my life, searching for some understanding of his world, and my world, and the space between them. I picture the author, his feet, torn up from rock and thorn, propped up on pillows. I imagine his physical body similar to my grandfather’s, lanky and lean, though he came two generations before the gentle old man I spent mild Christmases with in San Antonio as a child.
I have to force myself to picture him as a young man, because he was, once. Back in Kindelbrück, Prussia, he was the youngest of ten siblings, coming of age during the revolutions that reeled through Europe. By his early twenties the young surveyor was fed up: bracing for the coming second revolution, disappointed in the oppressive government, fed up with the stagnant economy, chafing at the religion of his land.
Everyone killed a deer. Two stayed to hide them and we four went farther down to the selected campsite. Thinking that all the shooting was done, nobody reloaded the rifles, putting it off at the camp.
Everywhere in Deutschland, there was talk of Texas. Literal milk. Literal honey. Freedom of religion. Freedom from religion. And land. Vast stretches of land. All for the taking, it seemed. When noblemen hoping to populate the New World with Germans offered passage, my young ancestor and scores of other disgruntled Prussians were ready. In the fall of 1845, in the Port of Bremerhaven, he boarded the three-masted wooden sailing ship Franziska. Her crew hoisted her sails and caught the winds that led them westward for the ten-week journey. Thirteen days before his ship slipped into Galveston port in early 1846, Texas was admitted as the twenty-eighth American state.
My great-great-grandfather left the German Empire as Karl Wilhelm Pressler and christened himself Charles William in the new land. He flirted with farming but found the ground as inhospitable as the settlers around him, who didn’t hide their disdain for the so-called Dutchmen. Americans, he wrote home to his family across the sea, butchered the English language, sprinkled superlatives where they were not deserved, and cursed foreigners—though of course all the people he was writing about had foreign blood. “God damned the Dutchmen,” he wrote, “that’s what you hear every day.” And, he added, the “milk is rather expensive and the honey not to get in all places.”
Desperate for a steady income, he enlisted in the army and prepared to head to Chihuahua to join the war against Mexico. But on the late August day he was to depart, he met Jacob De Cordova, a Jewish Jamaican who would forgive the young man his poor English and hire him to do what he had been trained back home to do: survey land. The wealthy land agent had amassed a million acres from a government keen to colonize the land with white bodies, driven by the same impulse of German nobility. All that was needed was the labor of surveyors to help impose the idea of plots and property onto the land, to enact that ancient alchemy of turning something as imaginary as a border into an ironclad reality. To erase the millennia-old idea of territories without ownership. And so for twenty dollars a month plus room and board, my great-great-grandfather was hired to draw the lines on paper that would define this disputed place.
I marveled when I first learned that my ancestor was one of the first cartographers of Texas. It felt like I had descended from greatness. Like I was derived from someone whose mark was still imprinted upon the world. I felt all that again years later when I stood before his original 1879 Map of the State of Texas, a grand piece of parchment more than eight feet by eight feet, laid flat in a climate-controlled drawer of the Texas General Land Office in Austin. I was with my brother, my father, and my mother, who held a special honor as the great-granddaughter of the mapmaker. A kind docent explained, over the loud thrum of the air conditioning, the elaborate preservation efforts made on behalf of the historic document. Like an archipelago vanishing amid a rising sea, the map was still disintegrating around the edges, but they’d saved what they could.
There were dozens of other maps. I’ve seen Pressler’s name in the corners of maps of newly born counties that still bear the names of their mid-nineteenth-century newcomers: Bee and Montgomery, Van Zandt and Victoria. To survey for all those maps, great and small, he rode on horseback, traversing rivers high or dry, setting up camps in the heat and cold, depending on the season. The day’s work done imagining, and then measuring and marking, straight lines across the open landscape, he and his survey crew were on their way back to camp that cold day early in 1847.
All of a sudden we were attacked by 30-40 Wichita-Indians, naked with bow and arrows and tomahawks. War-paint on face and body. The nearest one from us four was caught with a lasso and killed instantly with a tomahawk.
My young ancestor chopped down grand oak trees—after their Mexican guide yelled, “Treebee! Treebee!”—to feast on honey that gummied his beard. He shot bison and mountain lions indiscriminately, perhaps out of fear, but also for food and fun, because there were so many of them, what difference could it make?
One turned around, the only one who’s gun was still loaded, was hit by three arrows in the back, fell over and was killed with his own gun.
He swooned in the attics of strangers who had granted him refuge when the malarial fever laid him low.
The third of us got 2 arrow heads in his chest. [He] turned around but 6 Indians killed him right away.
After each surveying sojourn, he’d return to his room in Austin.
I was all by myself.
There he was, on the leading flange where the newcomers’ desires to colonize were colliding with the desires of all who had inhabited the land for thousands of years. There he was, on North America’s divide between fertile east and arid west, where the limestone cliffs of the Balcones Escarpment marked the remnants of a collision 300 million years earlier that lifted up the land right around the time Homo sapiens were coming into themselves as a species halfway around the world.
I was encircled by the Indians but I had a good horse—took a pointed angle and came through the circle without a scratch, followed now by the Indians who were trying to cut me off from the settlement.
The first time I heard this story of the attack and the escape, when I was a kid, I felt my body shimmer, as though it were at risk of vanishing. Now a whisper slip of skepticism sneaks in when I read my great-great-grandfather’s letter. What was lost in translation? What was this “pointed angle” that left him unscathed through thirty or forty skilled warriors who’d managed to kill all their other foes but him? And what do I do with my unsettled rage, which simmers? I hold no bitterness toward the hopeful kid my ancestor once was, broke and bent on a better life, but at the brutality of a world that both defined and rewarded its heroes by granting them the power to rewrite landscapes. To tell the story afterward.
The land has its own stories. The bend in the Blanco River blocked Pressler’s escape with its steepness at one place but allowed him to emerge to the far bank farther down, altering his life and the generations that would follow him. In that war-torn territory, the soil received quick transfusions of liquid iron from the bloodshed above, which fed junipers and cedars like the ones that my great-great-grandfather, who had lost both his horse and his shoes in the flight, finally found shelter beneath.
What tales were told around the Wichita campfire that night? Celebratory stories about one more successful defense waged by heroes against those who refused to stop invading their homeland? Expressions of hope that their forced removal might yet cease? That the brute force of men with guns and empty promises would forever leave the territories of the Wichita—Lipan Apache, Comanche, Tonkawa, Karankawa, Jumanos, Tāp Pīlam Coahuiltecan, the bottomless list? Did they speculate in the firelight that the pale men who came from the east would one day set down the three seemingly innocent objects they carried into the places of their people?
Reading my great-great-grandfather’s letter, I’ve come to see how those three objects, brought onto Wichita lands, changed everything.
There were Gunter’s chains, sixty-six feet long, a hundred links crafted in iron. When stretched taut, those chains could produce, point to point, a measurement of place as solid and definitive as metal itself.
There were writing instruments that could impress ink onto the pressed, dried pulp of plants and scribe the measurements the chain revealed. In the act, rivers stopped flowing, fences sprung up in military formation—all became trespass. What sorcery, when a quill stroke of ink can reconfigure worlds.
And there was a final item, small enough to be clutched in one hand. A circular metal object with a needle that spun in communication with the earth’s iron core, illuminating the pointed angles of my ancestors’ destiny. They called it the compass. But the Native peoples had a name for it too.
They called it “the thing that steals the land.”