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Texas Trails: The Soldier, Painter, Writer and Rogue

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Aug. 30, 2012 - Truth isn't always stranger than fiction but it's true that some very strange fiction has its roots in some even stranger truths. Cormac McCarthy's novel "Blood Meridian" is so outlandishly violent that readers of a modern era might assume he just made it all up, which of course he did, since the book is a work of fiction.

But what's especially strange about "Blood Meridian" is that the book, dark and bloody as it is, is based on the grim escapades of a bloody sociopath/psychopath by the name John Glanton. Though it's hard to pinpoint the exact number of scalp hunters who plied that gruesome gruesome trade in the 19th Century, Glanton is the most infamous of them all. That we know of his exploits is due to another American original, Samuel Emery Chamberlain, who wrote about Glanton as part of his rollicking and ribald memoir: "My Confessions: Recollection of a Rogue."

Had there been such a thing as employment resumes back in the day, Chamberlain's work experience would have read something like this: soldier, scalp hunter, lover, author and artist. What one could do with such a work history today is open to conjecture, though politician or media celebrity would be strong possibilities.

Sam Chamberlain grew up in Boston but he left as a teenager and ended up in Texas in 1846 as a member of the Second Illinois Volunteer regiment. He joined the regular Army in San Antonio and became a part of the First U.S. Dragoons in the Mexican War. Along the way, he sketched his various adventures, in the boudoir, battlefield and beyond, to create some fairly striking watercolor illustrations and sketches.

Aside from the debt owed him by American literature, history owes Chamberlain some credit for his account of the Battle of Buena Vista, which he witnessed, wrote about and illustrated. Though historians have cast suspicion upon some of his claims and discredited others outright (he was in San Antonio when the Battle of Monterey took place) his account of Buena Vista is authentic.

For a time after Buena Vista, Chamberlain's Dragoon company was assigned to defend the peaceful Mexican population from the ravages of American volunteers who were showing up as replacements. This is about the time he deserted and hooked up with John Glanton. Chamberlain had first met Glanton in San Antonio when the latter nearly decapitated a man in a local saloon, then offered the patrons a choice: take up the fight of the dead man or drink with Glanton at the bar. The patrons quickly decided they were more thirsty than outraged.

Glanton, by most accounts, was bad to the bone from an early age. He served as a scout for James Fannin and barely missed the massacre at Goliad. After the Texas Revolution he served with Texas Ranger captain John C. Hays but apparently became interested in the bloodshed available to him through the Regulator-Moderator War in East Texas, where he is said to have killed fighters on either side of the conflict. He rode with Hays during the Mexican War but was eventually asked to leave the Army after he killed a fellow soldier.

Like the murderous hero of McCarthy's story, Glanton and his gang of scalp hunters set out across the land in search of Apache scalps, for which they would be paid $50 apiece but -- what the heck- a scalp is a scalp, right? They took scalps where they could find them, even from innocents. For a while, Chamberlain was part of this nefarious band of entrepreneurs. Members of the gang were so indiscreet in their killing that they sometimes killed each other. Chamberlain soon took his leave of Glanton and his gang.

Chamberlain headed back to New England and became a respected member of society there and worked over the decades on his memoir and his paintings. He also served with distinction during the Civil War for the elite 1st Massachusetts Cavalry.

Chamberlain's memoir stayed in the family for a hundred years or so but in 1956 was bought by Life magazine, which published the book in three parts with a heavy dose of editing and some occasional reality checks from Pulitzer Prize winning historian William Goetzmann. Despite some discrepancies and downright lies, Goetzmann defended the work as important because, even if Chamberlain didn't see and do everything he said he did, he did a lot.

As for Glanton, he was killed -- and scalped, of course -- in 1851.

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