Heritage, Volume 04, Number 02, Fall 1986

BOOK REVIEW
Wild Horse Desert
The Heritage of South Texas, by Brian
Robertson, published by the Hidalgo
County Historical Museum and New
Standler Press, 1985. 320 pp. text, 16 pp.
photographs, plus a complete index and
bibliography.
In spite of the fact that residents, past
and present, might wonder at the description
of the Rio Grande Valley as a desert,
the title of Brian Robertson's book, Wild
Horse Desert, a regional history of sorts,
of the Rio Grande Valley, is superb. But
what is there in a title? Well, in this case,
plenty. The title suggests a lively and
imaginative work and, as the reader will
discover, the proof is in the reading.
Robertson roams across the Rio Grande
Valley and an ample portion of the surrounding
countryside, not with the unbridled
spirit of the wild mustang, but at a
comfortable lope designed to sustain the
reader's interest while exposing him to
450 years of history as high adventure. It
is quite an ambitious effort to write a history
that encompasses a vast region over a
long period of time and compress that history
into only 282 pages. Generally you
would expect the reader to flounder from
an over-consumption of characters,
events and dates but not in Wild Horse
Desert. Robertson goes quickly from one
entertaining event to another and gives
spirit to his history with a special brand of
humor presented in timely portions.
After a few chapters, the humor becomes
telegraphed by the events but not as a distraction.
It becomes part of a developing
rapport between writer and reader.
The book begins with Alonzo Alvarez
de Pifieda whom, because of his tendency
at exaggeration, Robertson calls the first
Texan. Pifieda supposedly languished
some forty days at the mouth of the Rio
Grande River, claiming it to be a goldencrusted
waterway. The reader is then
given an excellent summary of the exploits
of the Spanish explorer and conquistador,
Escandon, and his capabilities
in bringing peaceful settlement to the Rio

Grande Valley and northern portions of
Mexico; followed by issuance of Spanish
34

land titles, a source of problems and litigation
well into the 20th century. Never
losing pace, Robertson moves in quick sequence
through the adventures that
touched the region such as the Mexican
American War, cotton smuggling in the
era of the Confederacy and the most fascinating
period infecting the Wild Horse
Desert, the bandit raids and border problems
that brewed consistently from after
the Mexican American War until the end
of World War I. This is a period punctuated
by frequent incursions into Mexico
by the Texas Rangers precipitated, in
large part, by the activities of such Mexico
border bandits as Cheno Cortina and
Pancho Villa. Beginning in 1915, the incentive
for these activities was the plan of
San Diego that was a scheme by certain
insurrection groups in Mexico, helped by
the Germans, to take over the entire region
of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and
California that had been seized from
Mexico after the Mexican American War.
This was certainly far more than a humorous,
provincial event. It reached very
serious international proportions and was
a frustration to three Texas governors and
two presidents of the United States.
Robertson presents some new insights
into the entire conflict.
Robertson also deals with the fascinating
variety of travelers and permanent
settlers in the Wild Horse Desert mostly
giving them cameo appearances but rarely
indulging the reader's curiosity by fleshing
out their lives. The compensation for
brevity is a very poignant look at these
residents of the Wild Horse Desert,
whether temporary or permanent, such as
General U. S. Grant playing the role of
Desdemona in the play, "Othello", while
stationed in Corpus Christi during the
Civil War. Especially interesting are the
folkish vignettes such as an anecdote involving
Dr. A. M. Headley, a rather notorious
occupant of the Wild Horse Desert
in the late 1800s. " ... Headley was
standing in the back door of his drugstore
when a man walked up and fired a pistol
six times in Headley's direction. Headley
stood perfectly still until the would-be assassin,
obviously a poor shot, had emptied
his pistol. Headley then calmly
raised his own .45 and squeezed out one
very deadly bullet. Headley then returned

to his work, calmly filling a customer's

order. He was found 'not guilty' by the
Starr County district court."
The reader is also treated to a vision of
the economic trials of a region trying to
recognize the promises of bountiful production
made by previous residents and
passersby. The assets in this struggle to extract
itself from definition as a desert were
the railroads, crop irrigation,and the irrepressible
land speculators. Robertson
demonstrates the intensity of these economic
trials in the struggle between the
two towns of McAllen, east and west, to
outdo each other. The victory in this
struggle was finally won by East McAllen
when they showed the iniative to establish
a horse trough on the main street so
the cowboys could water their horses
while they were buying supplies or engaged
in other activities. This bold move
brought the demise of West McAllen
which finally declined and vanished
entirely.
The book ends in 1930 with a rocket's
red glare. A humorous event involving
the attempts to send, by rocket, mail between
Texas and Mexico. The leading
personality was the rocket's inventor,
Keith Rumbel, better identified by his
title of "Rocket Experimenter and Flight
Chairman". He and his supporters may be
forerunners to some present day NASA
officials as the attempt to launch rockets
ended up in various calamities but a humorous
conclusion with no injuries to
anyone involved except to one's pride.
In attempting to cover a great amount
of information in a limited number of
pages, people and historical statements
pop up as trail dust and then quickly
settle into oblivi6n with no further information
to the reader as to the background
for their appearance or their disappearance.
An example would be the mention
of the Conroe Gang and Captain Bill
Scott of the Texas Rangers. Neither are
identified except in a specific event involving
gun play. Since most of the Conroe
Gang was killed by Scott, maybe
there was no need to mention them
further.
Robertson maintains that his book
"is not for scholars and historians who
dabble in footnotes" and that he doesn't
"want to send a casual reader running for
cold towels." He has certainly honored

that commitment. As a matter of fact,

Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 04, Number 02, Fall 1986. Austin, Texas. The Portal to Texas History. http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45442/. Accessed April 19, 2014.