Book Review: Martin Varner, Texas Pioneer

Martin Varner book review published in STIRPES, Vol.49, No. 4, Page 33, Dec. 2009. The author, William Barr, Katy, TX, has granted permission to reprint this review.

“Sweet Mother Texas” by William Barr

“Mother of heroes, we come your children true,
Proclaiming our allegiance, our faith, our love for you.”

My theory is that most folks under Lone Star skies encounter these words from the state song only in Peter Bogdanovich’s “The Last Picture Show”. Unless they are of a certain vintage, contemporary Texans have a better chance of knowing the tune to the Agincourt Hymn than to “Texas, Our Texas”.

That said, it is a pleasure to recommend a biography-cum-genealogy of Martin Varner, a book authored by one of his descendants who does his folks proud and the rest of us a favor in assembling the facts about a family numbering among Austin’s “Old Three Hundred”.

Author Don Raney, an engineer by profession, developed an interest in family history more than forty
years ago leading up to his book and a post-retirement career in teaching genealogy classes for Richland College in Dallas. That his book had its origin in little family information, a disinterested many among his kinsman, and a charismatic, garrulous older relative with a rage to tell of his people makes the reading of Raney’s research all the more interesting.

The author marshalls an extensive array of detailed maps and primary and secondary sources in detailing Martin Varner‘s story. When it comes to Varner’s mortal wounding by Simon Gonzales, who as well murdered Stephen Austin Varner in the same incident, it’s to Raney’s credit that he includes multiple, somewhat contradictory versions of the tragedy.

Varner’s German forebears came to colonial Pennsylvania. In the wake of Lord Dunmore’s War, the Varner men placed their families in safety but returned of necessity to frontier farms in a war zone. Indian woes would pursue the family in their subsequent pioneering efforts in Ohio and Texas.

As a man in his late twenties, Martin Varner left the family farm in Warren County, Ohio for points south during the War of 1812. Flatboats carried him and some friends to the Arkansas and Missouri Territories, where they hunted buffalo and trapped beaver. This led to Varner joining the Jones Brothers’ abortive settlement along both sides of the Red River and his carving out a farm in present-day Choctaw County, Oklahoma.

By the time Varner married Elizabeth (“Betsey”) Inglish, another pioneer in the Wild West of their day, the Adam-Onis Treaty clarified the international border between Spanish Texas and the United States. When Federal troops from Fort Jessup subsequently burned the cabins and fields of the 200 settlers west of the Kiamichi River in the interest of re-settling the Choctaws, Varner and his neighbors attempted to ambush the soldiers in retaliation.

At this juncture, the Varners, after crossing the Red River, regathered in Jonesboro.They elected to follow Henry Jones into Stephen F. Austin’s Colony in 1821, “the seed colony of Texas”. The opportunity to acquire cheap cotton lands was too great to pass up, and Varner was clearing land and farming present-day Washington County by 1822.

By 1825, Martin Varner established a farm lower down the Brazos which in the twentieth century become the Varner-Hogg Plantation State Historic Site. From here he distilled the first spirituous liquor in Texas in 1829, a product from his cane fields. It was during this time of extending his wealth and raising a growing family that Varner participated in the Battle of Velasco in 1832.

Varner sold the property in 1834 to the Patton brothers after much improving it. The site of Varner’s log home appears to lie underneath the plantation house built by the brothers, a home alike restored and improved by the late Ima Hogg of Houston, aka “Miss Ima”.

An intriguing report from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department hints at Martin Varner choosing to build on the creek which bears his name with an eye towards attracting trade and developing a town in Brazoria County. Given his ill-fated patronage of the carpenter Simon Gonzalez, which dates from this period, the possibility exists that the Varners’ return to East Texas, with Gonzales in tow, was in part motivated by exposure to the profits to be made from trading posts and settlement development.

Clearly, the development of towns to facilitate agricultural expansion and stock raising was a goal of Varner’s nearest neighbor on the Brazos, Josiah Bell, and of Stephen F. Austin himself, the recipient of that that first bottle from Varner’s farm.

Guarding the baggage of General Houston’s army at Harrisburg, Varner, a man over fifty, played a role in the Texian victory at San Jacinto. Having first secured the safety of his family by seeing them east of the Trinity, he hastened in 1836 to join the war against Mexico securing the independence of the Lone Star republic. Around the time, the Varners and some of their relations had moved to the Sulphur River, near Fort Lyday in present-day Lamar County.

Indian trouble had earlier seen the removal of the Varners to the area around San Felipe (present-day Waller County) from their original settlement near what is now Independence. As a result of pressure from other tribes, they fled the area around Fort Lyday in 1841 to what is now Wood County, the Indian troubles there having been removed with the Texian victory over the woodland tribes at the Battle of the Neches in 1839. Another factor in heading south and east lay in a dispute with the Lydays involving land claims in the area about twelve miles south of present-day Quitman.

Whether Martin Varner and his only son met their deaths as a result of Gonzales resenting the garnishment of his tools for debt, or this factor was exacerbated by the latter encouraging Varner slaves to runaway to Mexico, it is beyond dispute that the Mexican carpenter also perished in the altercation of 1844. Joe, a slave of Martin Varner, assisted the fatally wounded patriarch in dispatching Gonzales with a knife after the carpenter had shot and killed the teenaged Stephen Austin Varner.

Most of Raney’s book consists of genealogy, located in the second section of pages. I think the book is worth reading by non-family members who appreciate not only Texas history, but the skillful telling of a family history which effectively draws on local and state history to make possible our understanding of lesser-known heroes.

Martin Varner was a hero of early Texas, and this literary work in heritage preservation neither understates nor overstates the case for such a claim.

William Barr of Katy, Texas holds the MA degree from the University of Texas and the MDiv degree from Yale University. He is an instructor of American History at San Jacinto College and writes for a Tennessee daily newspaper, the Paris Post-Intelligencer.

Don Raney, Martin Varner: Texas Pioneer; His Life Story and His Descendants (The Book Warren, San Diego, California, 2009), 430 pages. Copies may be purchased with a check payable to the author by mailing $25.00 plus $5.00 shipping and handling to Don Raney, 1506 Comanche Trail, Garland, TX 75043.

3 Responses

  1. Deason: After checking with the QPL today, they do not have the book, nor did I find it in our new books. Hopefully, we can get one whenever, we have Don as our guest speaker, possibly in April. Waiting on his response to e-mail and phone call.

    • Deason: It is comfirmed that Don Raney will be our guest speaker in April, and he will be bringing books to sell. Will be mailing copy of program to you if I have not already sent it, also, have newspaper and other news media script to be mailed out.

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