Among those brawling, restless borderers drawn to Texas like a trout going upstream during the tumultuous decade of the 1830s was a tall, ambitious and somewhat eccentrically skilled young man from Tennessee named John Salmon Ford. Like fellow adventurers, James Bowie, William Barrett Travis, and Sam Houston, his personal life was already fairly checkered, including one divorce. Unlike the first two, Ford would live through the tumultuous affair that was the Republic of Texas. Like Sam Houston, he would survive all the vicissitudes that an active life on the Texas frontier could throw at him, and die in bed at the ripe old age (for the 19th century) of 82. I assume he was mildly surprised by this happy chance. He had survived the usual accidents and epidemics of an age which predated antibiotics and germ theory in general, any but the crudest of surgeries, and routine vaccination for nothing but smallpox. He had also survived service in two wars and innumerable campaigns along the borders and against various hostile Indian tribes, several rounds of frontier exploration, election to public office, and as a newspaper editor in the days when public discourse was conducted metaphorically with a set of brass knuckles.
He arrived in Texas in 1836 at the age of 21, having missed Santa Anna’s campaign against the recalcitrant Texans, and Sam Houston’s momentous victory over him at San Jacinto by a bare month. That was about the last significant historical event in Texas that John S. Ford would miss. He would be in the thick of it for the next sixty years, and at the end of his life he would sit down and turn his pen to writing his memoirs, which would fairly double as a history of Texas in the 19th century.
Over that time, Ford embraced a variety of causes with vigorous if sometimes unwise enthusiasm: unionism, temperance, know-nothingism, and secession, and education for the deaf. But he began his career in Texas with a medical practice in the settlement of San Augustine. He had studied medicine in Tennessee, with a local doctor, and under the rather sketchy standards of the time was qualified to hang out a shingle. He spent eight years there, practicing medicine, teaching Sunday school, and riding as a volunteer ranger with a series of local companies… including one commanded by Jack Hays. He also taught himself law. One supposes that San Augustine was a small town, where residents had to double-up on various jobs. In 1844 he was elected to the Texas Legislature as a pro-annexation platform, and took himself off to Washington on the Brazos. He served a term, married (for the second time) and decided to give up medicine for the newspaper business, specifically a weekly paper called the Texas National Register.
Ford was very much a partisan of Sam Houston, the hero of San Jacinto, who was not all that popular in Austin; Ford leapt to his defense with gusto. He and his partner changed the name of the paper to The Texas Democrat, and campaigned persistently for such things as more and better schools, and effective defense of the frontier. It was for the time, a rather liberal newspaper… and Ford participated gleefully in every ruckus raised in a state where the political scene usually resembled the ‘tomcats in a sack’ model. But in late 1845, Ford’s wife fell ill and soon died, in spite of all he could do. Grief-stricken, he took himself off to join the company that his old ranging friend Jack Hays was raising … for Mexico was disputing with the United States over the Texas border. Ford eventually became the regimental adjutant, and from his practice of writing “rest in peace” or “RIP” below his signature on the required reports of casualties, the nickname of “Old Rip”, which followed him for the rest of his life.
But the peacetime business of running a newspaper had palled; Ford and his partner sold the newspaper, and he went off with an acquaintance, Major Robert Neighbors, to explore a route across the southwest to El Paso. Gold had been discovered in California that very year, and an overland route to California via Austin and El Paso would prove profitable. Then he raised a company of rangers to settle the hash of various outlaws and bandits in the Lower Rio Grande valley, before returning to newspapers and politics for a few years. But in the late 1850ies he went back to captaining a ranger company… in succession fighting against the Comanches, who had never left off raiding the north-western frontier, and a Mexican bandit named Cortina, who had made the Rio Grande valley practically a war zone. The Cortina “war” was settled just as the question of slavery and states’ rights fatally poisoned the 1860 presidential elections.
The election of a free-soil man like Lincoln sent pro-slavery states bolting for the exit; Texas being one of those, as much as Sam Houston and other unionists could do to hold fast. And Rip Ford was among those urging secession, confident above all that since Texas had gone it alone once before, it could be done again. He was one of those who organized the states’ secession convention. Upon secession from the Union being approved by a majority of Texas voters, he was commissioned as a colonel to raise a command and take over the Union Army’s forts and commands between Brownsville and El Paso. This had just been done when word arrived of the surrender of Ft. Sumter. Ford had just enough time to get married again before he was off into the field, fighting an assortment of enemies; the Yankees, renegade Indians, and Mexican outlaws. His command fought the very last land fight of the Civil War, in May of 1864 at Palmito Ranch, nearly a month after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
He was desperately ill for a considerable time after the death of the Confederate dream: no doubt that had something to do with it, but he was plagued by reoccurring bouts of malaria, first contracted during the Mexican War, and pneumonia brought on by the constant rigors and deprivation suffered during the war, for he had not spared himself any more than he had his men. Eventually, he recovered enough to continue involvement in state politics and writing for various publications. He himself was elected mayor of Brownsville, and state senator, and appointed as superintendent for the state institution for the deaf. He transformed it into a school rather than an asylum, and took enormous pride in the progress of its’ students and graduates, until reoccurring ill-health forced him to resign.
In 1884, he moved with his family to San Antonio, where he spent the last thirteen years of his life writing; articles, memoirs, news stories, contributing to a wide variety of publications, being interviewed by other history buffs, and throwing a conniption fit about the Texas Historical Association making no difference in its constitution between members and ‘lady members’. (He was against it, but eventually dropped his objection.) He had written his personal memoirs, and gotten a fair way into an ambitious, eye-witness history of Texas from 1836 to 1886, when he suffered a stroke, and died after lingering in a coma for several weeks.
Among modern historians, he and Winston Churchill shared a most unique facility for having made almost as much history as they wrote.