Heritage, 2009, Volume 3 Page: 25
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For Louise O'Connor, the desire to document a culture that she knew would soon be extinct
was the driving force behind her book about ranching life in the Texas Coastal Bend.
Recording How History "Got Lived"
grew up in
a family of
" _ in the Coastal
of Texas for
Her ancestor, Tom, an Irish immigrant, be-
gan building his ranch in 1836, acquiring land
piece by piece. By 1876, he owned 500,000
acres, which have been passed down through
the years, with members of the seventh gen-
eration now beginning their stewardship of
the O'Connor land. Here, O'Connor talks
about her work documenting the ranch hands
who worked on her family's land.
In 1970, I began photographing the
people and the work activities around the
O'Connor ranches. My project of docu-
menting ranch life went through several
stages, including a five-year period when I
had no idea of what form my efforts would
take. Then one morning I began talking
to some of the older ranch hands about
members of my family. Very shortly into
that first interview, I found the direction
I was seeking. The vivid recollections of
these old timers, plus those of many more,
steered me toward documenting a way of
life I knew would soon be extinct. The de-
sire to know what these people did, and
why they did it, and how they responded
to those experiences provided me with a
completely new and unique perspective
to what otherwise might have been just
another family history. My conversations
with them inspired my book, Cryin' for
Daylight, which records the lives and times
of the Coastal Bend ranching culture.
The Coastal Bend region is tri-ethnic.
Mexican, black, and European/Irish de-
scendants make up the majority of people
who settled and continued to ranch this
area from Spanish times to the present.
This ethnic and racial combination of cow
people in relatively equal numbers is just
another peculiarity of the Coastal Bend
ranching culture. The inhabitants of this
blended community today speak a lan-
guage born of the black dialect, Spanish
idiom, and white Southern regionalism.
Our families came to the Coastal Bend
throughout the 19th century in organized
groups, as solitary pioneers, or as slaves. At
times they came in great waves, and for as
many reasons as there were individuals.
Religious freedom, economic opportunity,
and the desire for land topped the list of
reasons they arrived.
Probably because tale-telling was such a
part of the ethnic and ranching cultures
they occupied, the men and women I in-
terviewed were extremely articulate in
expressing the texture of their lives, and
they wrote their own story. They enabled
me to present a feeling about a particular
time and place among a certain group of
people. Many of the cowhands, ranchers,
cooks, and ancillary workers on the ranch-
es were from families who had been here
doing the same jobs and work as their an-
cestors. Many I interviewed had never left
the county in which they were born. Hav-
ing enjoyed their lives and work in spite
of hardships, my colleagues in this oral
history project were eager to share their
experiences of a way of ranch life that no
longer existed. My interest and motiva-
tion came from the realization that, to my
knowledge, no one had ever before let a
group of ranch people tell their story-in
their own words.
Oral history preserves how history "got
lived," and it is all too easy to present only
HERITAGE Volume 3 2009
the good side of a time and place, so I
pushed very hard on my colleagues to tell
me the whole story. With some hesitan-
cy, they did. They revealed the hard life
of many blacks in the era, the problems
of non-liberated women, as well as many
stories of murder and mayhem, and end-
less political shenanigans. Long dead, the
wild and crazy characters in the area were
finally able to be revealed. I often jokingly
accused the men and women I spoke with
of making up many of the wild tales they
told me, but after interviewing groups of
individuals who had no contact with one
another and getting the same stories, I
knew they were true.
My time with these people was the most
joyful time of my life. My cousin, Nancy
O'Connor, and I worked together for five
years, and every day was exciting and fun,
although more than once we had to stop
the car on the way home and have a good
cry about the sadder side of their lives.
Without their voices a dying and com-
pletely unique culture would have been
lost forever. Their lives were about a time
and place long gone, and my time with
them will forever be precious.
On the ranching tradition, from Cryin'
"This life is drifting away from us. It's
changed immensely. I don't know how you
stop it, or if it can be stopped. Not many peo-
ple do this work anymore, and others don't
have the same feelings I do...It's a lonesome
business now." Dennis Williams, foreman
"When I was a cowhand, I thought I had
the world in a jug. I'd crawl on my hands
and knees to work cattle one more time-to
ride just one more bad horse with the T-C
brand on him." Clayton Isaiah, top hand,
O'Connor Ranches, 1927-1983
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Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, 2009, Volume 3, periodical, 2009; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth254214/m1/25/: accessed January 23, 2018), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Foundation.