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Saturday, May 29, 2010

William Gammell and the Battle of San Jacinto, Part II

Battle of San Jacinto
Henry Arthur McArdle, 1895
(Wikimedia Commons, in public domain)

William Gammell was one among hundreds of volunteers from the United States who sat poised on the other side of that field, anxiously awaiting to go into battle.  There were enough volunteers to fill two full regiments, which were organized to augment the Regular Texas Army. One volunteer company was called the Kentucky Rifles. They were raised in Cincinnati and northern Kentucky by Sidney Sherman, and were the only troops in the Texas army that wore formal uniforms.(1)

Private William Gammell served under Captain A.H. Wiley in the Second Regiment of Texas Volunteers Infantry Company. Colonel Sidney Sherman, commander of the Second Regiment,(2) led his troops into battle on that day, and they are said to be the first to utter the famous warcry, "Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!"(3)

After a small skirmish on April 20, both sides camped for the night. On the morning of April 21, 1836, General Houston held a council of war.  Most of his officers advised him that they should hold their position and wait for Santa Anna’s attack. That afternoon Houston announced his decision:  the Texas army would attack. The Mexican soldiers awoke from their afternoon siestas to the sound of shouting and gunfire. Santa Anna had failed to post sentries to monitor the Houston's army, camped only a thousand yards away, and hidden only by trees and a slight ridge.  Having the advantage of  surprise, 800 Texans charged across the open field and defeated the Mexican army of 1,400 men in just eighteen minutes:

At 4:30 p.m. on April 21, after scout Deaf Smith announced the burning of Vince's Bridge (cutting off the primary avenue of retreat for both armies), the main Texan battle line moved forward.  A fifer played the popular tune "Will you come to the bower I have shaded for you?"  General Houston personally led the infantry, posting the 2nd Volunteer Regiment [William Gammell’s regiment] of Colonel Sidney Sherman on his far left, with Colonel Edward Burleson's 1st Volunteer Regiment next in line.

Two small artillery pieces, the only ones they had, were positioned in the center, supported by four companies of infantry.  (The two artillery pieces were named "The Twin Sisters".  See the comments at the end of this post.)   A regiment of Texas regulars made up the right wing, and to the far right, sixty-two Texas cavalrymen planned to circle the Mexican left flank.  The charge began:

The Texan army moved quickly and silently across the high-grass plain, and then, when they were only a few dozen yards away, charged Santa Anna's camp shouting "Remember the Alamo!" and "Remember Goliad!",(4) only stopping a few yards from the Mexicans to open fire.  Confusion ensued. Santa Anna's army primarily consisted of professional soldiers, but they were trained to fight in ranks, exchanging volleys with their opponents.  Many were also ill-prepared and unarmed at the time of the sudden attack. General Manuel Fern├índez Castrill├│n desperately tried to mount a semblance of an organized resistance, but was soon shot down and killed. His panicked men fled, and Santa Anna's defensive line quickly collapsed… their training had left them ill-equipped to fight well-armed American frontiermen in hand-to-hand combat…Santa Anna's once-proud army had disintegrated into chaos. The battle only took 18 minutes.(5)

The Battle of San Jacinto, “one of the biggest military upsets in the hemisphere,” marked the end of the Texas Revolution.  Of the 1,400 Mexican soldiers, 600 were killed, and over 700 surrendered; of the 800 Texans, nine were killed or mortally wounded. Sam Houston was shot in the ankle. Santa Anna, found hiding in the grass and dressed as a common foot soldier, was captured the next day.(6)

For Mexico, the defeat resulted in the loss of nearly a million square miles of territory.  For the Texans, “their victory led to annexation into the United States and the United States' war with Mexico.  In the end, the United States would gain not only Texas, but also New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, California, Utah and parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado and Wyoming.”(7)
  3.   At Goliad, Texas, on March 27, 1836, 342 Texans were massacred, most of them lined up and shot at close range, after surrendering to the Mexican army.
  4. Three known survivors of the Goliad Massacre fought at San Jacinto.
  7.  See also Wikipedia articles: Mexican Texas, Republic of Texas, and Texas Revolution.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

William Gammell and the Battle of San Jacinto, Part I

Administrative map of Mexico (1835-1846)
Author - Semhur, 2008
(Wikimedia Commons, freely licensed GRDL)

The life of William Gammell, intertwined as it was with the history of Texas, is a fascinating story in itself that deserves to be told. William succeeded in carving out a comfortable life for himself completely from scratch on the harsh desert frontier. The story begins about 1831, soon after the death of his father. His brother James moved from New York City to his uncle’s farm near Toronto, where he became involved in the Canadian Rebellion. Just a few years later twenty-two-year-old William headed south to Mexican territory. William possessed no less a pioneering spirit and a longing for adventure than did his younger brother James. Reports of the brewing conflict between the Mexican government and the settlers from the United States must have captured his youthful exuberance and inspired him to enlist in the cause. Soon after his arrival in Texas in 1835, William became actively involved in the bloody conflict that would result in the creation of the Republic of Texas.

Spain had maintained control over Mexico for at least two hundred years, but by 1810 the indigenous population began to rebel and started regional revolts against its Spanish overlords. In 1821, after yet another revolt, Mexico finally declared its independence from Spain. In order to protect its sparsely populated northern territory from foreign aggression and hostile Indians, the newly formed government of Mexico began enticing settlers from the United States and Europe. New settlers were granted as much as 5,000 acres of land, and were exempted from taxes. This Federalist system granted “a liberal degree of autonomy to regional government. All that new settlers had to do was promise to become citizens, obey the laws, and worship as a Catholic.”(1)

New settlers came in droves and soon outnumbered the Mexican-born citizens.  By 1831 there were 20,000 colonists from the United States residing in the Texas portion of the Mexican state of Coahuila y Tejas.  They brought with them not only new energy and a new culture, but also their new political ideas, which would soon be met with strong resistance.  The animosity began with the Siete Leyes (Seven Laws) of 1835, enacted by Mexican President and General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna in order to strengthen and centralize the federal government of the young Republic of Mexico, whose very independence was being threatened.  Santa Anna abolished the right of Texans to govern themselves and to choose their own representatives.  The new laws were unpopular throughout Mexico, even among many Texas residents of Mexican ancestry.  The federal government began to forbid land titles to settlers from the United States, and to impose taxes and other hindrances to their prosperity.  United States citizens were not willing to give up their freedoms.  On the other hand,  Mexico was concerned that the United States would claim Mexican territory.(2)

Animosity turned to protest, then to revolt. The Battle of Gonzales (Oct 2, 1835) marked the first official skirmish of the Texas Revolution. On March 2, 1836, Texans signed a Declaration of Independence, and “a new nation was born in North America.” A temporary government was formed, and Sam Houston was named Commander-in-Chief of the Texas army.(3)

The Siege of the Alamo, the most famous battle in Texas history, had already begun by the end of February.  Texan forces had captured the city of San Antonio, and secured the Alamo,(4)  the town’s strongest fortification. Santa Anna’s forces marched on San Antonio and lay siege to the Alamo for twelve days before a final assault on March 6, 1836, when 1,800 Mexican troops stormed the walls. All 225 Texan fighters were killed or executed, and 600 Mexican soldiers died. “Remember the Alamo!” became the battle cry of William Gammell and his fellow soldiers at the Battle of San Jacinto.

In March 1836, things were not going well for Sam Houston and his Texas fighters. Having declared independence from the Mexican government, they were now running from Santa Anna’s army. Fearful citizens were abandoning their homes and running for their lives.

Houston’s men, in their eastward retreat from the Mexican army, could have escaped to refuge in Louisiana.  Instead, they turned southeast and marched to the edge of the coast, crossing Buffalo Bayou just outside of Harrisburg (now Houston), within a few miles of Santa Anna’s army. Santa Anna had marched 700 men to Harrisburg on his way to the coast, burning the town as he went. Confident that he had cornered General Houston’s army, Santa Anna decided to wait to attack on April 22.  He established a position close to where the San Jacinto River joins the Buffalo Bayou. Meanwhile, Houston’s army set up camp across a grassy field 1,000 yards away.(5)

San Jacinto Battle Map
(Wikimedia Commons - free art license)

Continued in the next post:  "William Gammell and the Battle of San Jacinto, Part II."
  1. See “Before the Battle”.
  2. See “Mexican Texas”, “Republic of Texas”, and “Texas Revolution” at
  3. See Timeline of Events, Texas Revolution.
  4. The Alamo, originally known as Mission San Antonio de Valero, is a former Roman Catholic mission and fortress compound, and now a museum, in San Antonio, Texas.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Wylie Family Moves to Michigan

Nothing has tended so much towards the rapid progress of the Western Country as the strong disposition to emigration among the Americans themselves. Even when doing well in the…eastern States they will break up their establishments and move westward with an alacrity and vigor no other people would do unless compelled by necessity…In this way it is that the Western States have advanced in population and prosperity with rapidity [unparalleled] in the history of mankind —Daniel Blowe, 1820 (1)

Obviously James Gammell possessed a “strong disposition to emigration,” but apparently the whole family was endowed with that same spirit.  His mother, Mrs. James H. Wylie, his stepfather, his brother Andrew, his sister, Margaret Jane Andrews, and his three half siblings, Henry (James H.), Frederick, and Mary Wylie, all joined him on the great western frontier of south central Michigan. Sometime after 1845, the Wylies settled in Hanover Township, Jackson County.

Hanover lies adjacent to the western border of Spring Arbor Township.  (The Wylies actually may have lived on property owned by James’ father-in-law, John Fitzgerald, who had a parcel of land in Hanover.(2)) By 1845 the Wylies had left Lowell, Massachusetts, and moved to Greenfield, another Massachusetts factory town, before moving to Michigan. They seemed to be seeking opportunities to make a better life for themselves and their family.  In his letters to his mother, James must have made the fertile farmland of Michigan sound extremely attractive.  Although James left Michigan in 1850, his mother lived in Hanover until at least 1854, the year that two of her granddaughters, Esther Gammell and Catherine Matilde Andrews, were born.  That same year, her grandson Orlin F. Gammell, living in nearby Spring Arbor, would have been eight years old.

Marion (May) Jenette Andrews
b. 1852 in Hanover, Michigan,
daughter of James B. Andrews and Margaret Jane Gammell
(Courtesy of Patricia Riddell Lococo)

As always, even in hard times, life goes on, and many important family events had occurred during James’ ordeal in Van Diemen’s Land.  One can only imagine Jean Wylie’s tears and constant prayers during James’ four years of captivity, as she vacillated between hope and despair, receiving little or no word about the fate of her son.  At the time of his arrival in New York (June 1842), James’ family was probably still living in Lowell, Massachusetts, except for William, who was in Texas, and Robert, who was supposedly in New York City.  His mother had given birth to a daughter, Mary Ann Wylie, born in October 1838, during the time that James was still imprisoned at Fort Henry. In 1842, four children were still living at home:  Henry (James H.) Wylie, age 10, Frederick Wylie age 7, Mary Wylie, age 3, and Andrew F. Gammell, age 13. James’ sister, Margaret Jane Gammell, had married Captain James B. Andrews in 1837, and they were living in Key West, Florida.  Over a period of fourteen years, Margaret Jane (known as Jane) gave birth to seven children.  Five of the babies died before the age of two.  Her two surviving daughters, Marion Jenette and Catherine Matilde, were both born while Jane was living in Hanover, Michigan with her mother.  Jane’s husband, James Andrews, left Key West and moved to Michigan in about 1852.  While in Hanover, James’ brother Andrew F. Gammell, age twenty-one, married his sixteen-year-old neighbor, Esther Van Patten.

The whole Wylie family, with the exception of son Henry (James H.) Wylie, had left Michigan and gone to Texas by 1859. Henry returned to Massachusetts, where he joined the Union Army, 1st Regiment, Massachusetts Heavy Artillery, and served in the Civil War.(3) The rest of the family, including Andrew Gammell and his sister Jane (Margaret Jane), moved to Houston, Texas, to join their brother William and his wife.  Jane’s husband, Captain Andrews, died in Texas in September 1858, and Jane remarried a year later.

NOTE: I am indebted to Patricia Riddell Lococo for all the information about the Wylie and Andrews families. Pat is a descendant of James Gammell’s sister, Margaret Jane Gammell Andrews.

  1. Blowe, Daniel, Emigrant’s Directory, 1820, p. 63. (Quoted by A. E. Parkins, pp. 175-76.)
  2. 1850 US Census, Hanover, Michigan: Jas H Wylie, farmer, value of real estate owned $1600. (Wylie could have purchased land to farm.)

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Fitzgeralds of Spring Arbor

Spring Arbor, Michigan
Replica of a typical cabin of the early 1830's

In the century preceding 1829, Detroit was “almost the only civilized spot in the vast area about the Great Lakes.”(1)   The land twelve miles west of the tiny hamlet of Ann Arbor marked the edge of civilization.  Beyond that point was a virgin wilderness known only to occasional government surveyors and soldiers, or adventure seekers and Indian traders.(2)  A few adventurous early pioneers sent reports east to friends and family about the rich natural resources and fertile land available in south central Michigan.  As word spread, the influx of settlers began. The Erie Canal, combined with the Lake Erie steamboats, plus the well-marked Detroit to Chicago trail, made southern Michigan easily and cheaply accessible to settlers from west central New York seeking to start a new life on the frontier.(3)  They could make the journey with all their possessions in about two weeks. In the early 1830’s the Michigan territorial legislature divided the land in the southern counties into eighty-acre parcels for sale at one dollar and twenty-five cents per acre.(4) John Fitzgerald, a farmer from Onondaga County, New York, his wife, Abigail, and their children were among the first wave of settlers to inhabit Jackson County in about 1832. On February 11, 1833, Fitzgerald purchased two parcels of government land: eighty acres in the southwest corner of Spring Arbor Township and the adjoining eighty acres in Concord Township.(5)  He successfully operated his land and became quite well to do in the process.(6)

John Fitzgerald’s daughter, Harriet, born in Onondaga County, New York, had lived in Spring Arbor since she was sixteen years old.  She met James Gemmell soon after he arrived in Michigan, and married him in the Jackson County Court House on September 29, 1843.(7)  Harriet was twenty-seven, and James was twenty-eight. Less than three years later Harriet gave birth to their son, Orlin Fitzgerald Gammell (b. 5 July 1846.)

Soon after Orlin’s second birthday, and five years after her marriage to James, Harriet died.  She was just thirty-two years old. Harriet, her parents, and her sister Maria were all buried in the Spring Arbor Cemetery.(8)  The inscription on her headstone reads: “HARRIET, wife of James Gemmell, and daughter of John and Abigail FITZGERALD, Died August 20, 1848, E. 32 yrs. 4 mo. 4 ds.”

My brother Mark Gammell and his family at Spring Arbor Cemetery.
Gravestones, from left to right:  John Fitzgerald, his wife Abigail,
and his daughters, Harriet and Maria.

John and Abigail reared Orlin after their daughter’s death. Later, after the death of his grandparents, Orlin lived with his uncle, John Fitzgerald, and his wife, Eliza, and their two daughters, Mary and Alta, on the Fitzgerald homestead in Spring Arbor. John, Jr., like his father before him, was a successful farmer and active member of the community.  He served as Justice of the Peace for eight years, Township Treasurer for three years, and was a member of Concord Masonic Lodge.(9)

Fifteen months after Harriet’s death James remarried: “James Gemmell, age 34, of Jackson, and Mrs. Editha A. Clark, [widow of James B. Clark](10)  age 34, of the same place on 15 November 1849 at Jackson by E. H. Hamlin, Pastor Baptist Church. Witnessess: Silas Every and George Sutton of Jackson.”(11)   In the 1850 Census, which was taken at least seven months after the marriage, James had gone west, and Edith is listed as Edith Campbell (likely a misspelling of Gemmell). She was living with two daughters, Mary A. Clark, age fourteen, and Amanda Clark, age ten.(12)

It is difficult to piece together the time line, but we do know that after 1843 James made several expeditions west, some as far as the Great Salt Lake Valley, returning each time to his family in Michigan.  In any case, James didn’t like to stay settled for long.  Sometime after his marriage to Editha (November 1849), he returned to the Salt Lake Valley, but didn’t return to Michigan for at least six years, if at all.(13)
  1. Parkins, A. E. (Almon Ernest), The Historical Geography of Detroit, Lansing, 1918, p. vi.
  2. Thomas, James M., Jackson City Directory and Business Advertiser for 1867-68, p. 2.
  3. Parkins, pp. 173-4.
  4. Terman, William J., Spring Arbor Township 1830-1980, Spring Arbor, 1980, p. 18.
  5. Terman, p. 27; Peck, Paul R., Early They Came, p.100. (See Section 31in southwest Spring Arbor Township, and adjoining Section 36 in southeast Concord Township.) Peck, Landsmen of Jackson County: An entry in this book records that John Fitzgerald purchased another 193.84 acres on the same day, Feb. 11, 1833. This parcel of land adjoined section 31 (Spring Arbor Township) to the south and was part of Hanover Township.) Sections 31 and 36 still belonged to the Fitzgerald family after 1887, when John Fitzgerald, Jr. died, and his widow, Eliza, continued to live in a lovely home in Concord and maintain the Fitzgerald estate.
  6. Portraits and Biographies of the Governors of Michigan…, pub. Chapman Bros., Chicago, 1890, pp. 496-97.
  7. Jackson County Marriages 1833-1870, p. 138.
  8. The Fitzgerald graves are located in Spring Arbor Cemetery, southwest corner and four or five rows east of the west fence [Spring Arbor Road (M60)].
  9. See Google Books: Portraits and Biographies of the Governors of Michigan...,, pub. Chapman Bros., Chicago, 1890, pp 496-97. (Biographical sketches of Mrs. Eliza M. Fitzgerald, her parents, and her husband.)
  10. Land Records Prior to 1850, Jackson County, Michigan, Vol. 4:  “On 1 April 1846 for the consideration of $40.00, James B. Clark and Edith A. Clark, his wife, both of Jackson to James G. McCraken of the same place, a convey of land in the village of Jackson.”
  11. Jackson County Marriages 1833-1870,  p. 138.
  12. Ten years later (1860 Census), she was still living with her two daughters (one was married), but she was listed as Edith Clark, having reclaimed the name of her first husband.
  13. Gemmell, Letter to Brigham Young, Aug. 20, 1856, from Brigham Young Papers, Church Archives.

Note:  Monday, May 10th,  the PBS series "American Experience" broadcast a documentary "Whaling Industry in America."  It was excellent.... a vivid portrayal of what James must have experienced on his voyage to New Bedford.   I hope it will be repeated.  (Check the PBS website.) 

Monday, May 3, 2010

Arrival in Jackson, Michigan

As far as we know, James never returned to Toronto. Because he had escaped from Van Diemen's Land, he never received a pardon, and could have been arrested had he crossed into Canada:

Not being permitted to return home [Toronto], I will leave my address in the west with James Marshall, Youngstown, N.Y. and send it to W. L. Mackenzie, 401 Houston Street, in this city, (formerly of Toronto) and will be happy to reply to any post paid inquiries respecting my late comrades.(1)

Before he left New York City, James had distributed a sort of business card, telling about his escape and probably indicating his forwarding address. When Benjamin Wait arrived in New York a month later (July 1842), he was shown Gemmell’s card:

After arriving, I found that a Mr. Gemmel had likewise made his happy exit from V.D.L., a month after our [Wait and Chandler] escape, but had arrived a month before us. He ascribes his good fortune to the liberty he obtained with the ticket of leave, which in a handsome card to the public, he attributes to the exertions of Mrs. Wait.(2)

James didn’t stay in New York City for long. As he stated in his Plebeian letter, he headed back to the frontier: “I intend to stop at Salina on my way to Niagara frontier, in the course of a few days, and endeavor to see the friends of prisoners from that neighborhood.” Patriots from Salina, Onondaga County, New York, were Nelson and Jeremiah Griggs, Gideon Goodrich, Jacob Paddock, and Hiram Sharpe. (Salina is near Syracuse and located on the Erie Canal.) One account suggests that James may have ventured into Canada as well, to London, Ontario, the home of Elijah Woodman, to visit Elijah’s wife and family.(3)

From upstate New York, James went immediately to Michigan to find his fellow Patriots, to deliver messages from Patriots still in captivity, and to respond to inquiries from their friends and family. He may have traveled on a canal boat from Syracuse to Buffalo, and then boarded a Lake Erie steamer to Detroit. He could have easily made the last leg of his journey to the town of Jackson on the newly completed Michigan Central Railroad.(4)  From his chosen home base in Michigan, James could continue to support of his fellow Patriots and the Patriot cause:

Deeming it not safe to go back to Canada, and at the same time wishing to be near at hand to help the cause and a worthy fellow patriot, he went to Michigan…and was successful in business, his gains going mostly to help the Patriot cause and those poor deserving fellow-Canadians exiled like himself.(5)

We don’t know how long James spent traveling on the frontier, but a letter he wrote to Mackenzie indicates that he was settled in Jackson, Michigan, by January 1843.(6)  A few months later, on June 1st and 8th, 1843, the Michigan State Gazette in Jackson reprinted the New York Plebeian version of James’ story, “Two Years in Van Diemen’s Land”.
  1. Gemmell, NY Plebeian, transcription, pp.11-12.
  2. Wait, p. 144, p. 9 (footnote #4,)  p. 120. Maria Wait sailed to England to obtain a pardon for her husband, but was denied an audience with the Queen.
  3. Scott, “A Frontier Spirit”, p. 65.
  4. Thomas, p.64. A railroad line from Detroit to Jackson began regular operation in December 1841.
  5. James Gemmell Obituary, The Dillon Tribune, April 9, 1881.
  6. James Gemmell, Letter to W.L. Mackenzie, January 24, 1843.