Cousin Amelia Williams of Milam County
By LONN TAYLOR
Sometimes the past is so close that you can almost touch it. In fact, sometimes you can touch it. I had an experience a few years ago that illustrates this perfectly. My wife and I drove over to Cameron, Texas, a county-seat town northeast of Austin, for a ceremony honoring my grandmother Taylor’s long deceased cousin Amelia Williams. It seems that a local foundation there, the Yoe Foundation, honors several distinguished Milam County natives each year with plaques at the Cameron High School, and it was Cousin Amelia’s turn.
Cousin Amelia was born in Milam County in 1876 and taught history at the University of Texas from 1925 to 1951. As I mentioned in a recent column about books, her dissertation, which she completed in 1931, was the first scholarly study of the Battle of the Alamo and for many years was the only source for the names of all of the men who died there. It was she who provided the list of 187 Alamo heroes that is carved on Pompeo Coppini’s imposing monument on Alamo Plaza. Of course no such list, even though it is carved in stone, can ever be final, and over the years other scholars have added to and even subtracted from Cousin Amelia’s roster of defenders. Some folks now claim that there were as many as 250 men behind the walls.
A recent writer on the subject, Thomas Ricks Lindley, a former U.S. Army criminal investigator turned Alamo buff, devoted an entire chapter of his book Alamo Traces (Lanham, Maryland: Republic of Texas Press, 2003) to a vehement attack on Cousin Amelia. He says that she purposely undercounted the number of defenders and accuses her of “misrepresentation, alteration, and fabrication of data.” He says she is wrong not only about the number of defenders but about the manner of Travis’s death, about Davy Crockett’s arrival at the Alamo, and about James Bowie’s children, and not only wrong but having willfully misrepresented the facts. I get the impression that if Cousin Amelia had been in the army, Lindley would have had her court-martialed and shot. Fortunately they were not contemporaries, Lindley being only fifteen when Cousin Amelia died in 1958.
I don’t remember Cousin Amelia as a willful misrepresenter or a fabricator of data at all. I remember her as a gentle, silver-haired, old lady who had been the co-editor, with Eugene Barker, of the Sam Houston papers and who told my father that someday she was going to write a biography of Sam Houston that would make her a lot of money because it would have a lot of sex in it. She died before she did that.
One of the people at the ceremony in Cameron was Todd Hansen, whose book, The Alamo Reader (Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania: The Stackpole Press, 2003), is an 800-page compilation of source material on the Alamo and a must for every Alamo historian. Unlike Lindley, he is an admirer of Cousin Amelia and told me some things about her that I did not know. Her father, Thomas Herbert Williams, came to Texas from South Carolina after the Civil War. He bought a 2,000-acre cotton plantation on Little River, married a local girl, and fathered five children who lived to adulthood. Cousin Amelia was the oldest. The others, all girls, were named Harriet Emily, South Carolina, Julia Emma, and Virginia Kentucky. Thomas Herbert died when Cousin Amelia was fourteen. His widow died eight years later, and Cousin Amelia was left at the age of twenty-two to manage the plantation and look after her little sisters. She wrote farm contracts, oversaw tenants, sold crops, cooked, sewed, gardened, put up preserves, killed hogs, and saw that all of her sisters finished high school and graduated from college. Somehow she found the time and energy to graduate from Southwest Texas State Normal College in 1910 and to teach in the rural schools of Milam County for fifteen years.
Finally, in 1925, she entered graduate school at the University of Texas and chose the Alamo as her dissertation topic. She searched the records of the General Land Office in Austin for the names of people who had been given land grants because a husband or father had been killed at the Alamo, and then she drove a Model T Ford all over Texas tracking down their descendants and persuading them to look into their attics for letters, diaries, and other documents that might contain information about the battle. She interviewed the grandchildren of Susanna Dickenson, one of the few Alamo survivors, who told her the stories their grandmother had told them about the siege and the final assault. She defended her dissertation and was awarded the doctorate in June, 1931, shortly after her fifty-fifth birthday. She went on to have a productive teaching and writing career at the University that lasted for another twenty years. Folks who are considering a second career in middle age might be encouraged by her example.
Part of the program that day in Cameron was to have a picnic lunch at the old Williams home place in the country with a few other relatives and the Hansens. Cousin Amelia never married but her three surviving nieces, ladies in their eighties, were there, along with some younger family members. The house, a rambling, two-story frame structure with upstairs and downstairs porches, is out in the middle of a pasture. It has not been occupied for forty years, but it is still furnished and the nieces maintain it for annual family reunions.
While we lunched on crustless ham salad and cheese sandwiches, one of the nieces told me that my grandmother Sue Border Taylor had visited the house often when she was a young woman. One Christmas week, she said, my grandmother and her cousins had written their names on a window pane in the parlor with a diamond ring that one of the cousins had been given as an engagement ring; they wanted to see of it was a real diamond. She gestured toward the window and I went over to look at it. Sure enough, there on the window pane were the words, “Sue Border and Amelia Williams, January 2, 1897.” I reached out my hand and traced the writing with my finger, and touched the past.
Lonn Taylor is a writer and historian who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Story filed under: West Texas Talk