Tejano Privilege

by Michelle Haas

Does the title of this email have you all fired up? After all, it’s 2020 and our fists are balled up daily.

For now, it’s still my goal to write more hopeful things. But y’all know me…I’ll be off on an historical tirade soon enough. It’s in my blood. I’m overdue.

This story IS about Tejano privilege, though. But not in the parlance of 2020. It’s about a beautiful Texas privilege…Privilege Creek in Bandera County, and the incredible man who built a life there.

At the end of July, I was in San Antonio for some (non-virus) medical appointments. Then a little hurricane landed here on Padre Island & left my neighborhood without power for two days, so I stayed inland a little longer.  My friend David (fellow history nerd & re-enactor) asked if I’d like to go take in some scenery up on Highway 16. Trees, hills, winding roads…a perfect day. So we headed toward Bandera. Between Pipe Creek and Bandera, though, David turned off onto a recently graded but unpaved road. 

“This ain’t Bandera, mister. Is this the part where you skin me and make moccasins from my hide?” I asked.

It was an honest question because I believe the skinning type would answer honestly. At least I’d know what would become of my hide. I was informed that David had a historical destination in mind and that I’m not much suitable for footwear anyway. Still unsure if I’m offended by that statement. As we rambled down the road, along a stretch that runs parallel to the creek for which it was named, David spoke with admiration of a Tejano man with a name you don’t hear much these days – Policarpo. Jose Policarpo Rodriguez, or Polly for short. He and his settlement were the cause of the detour. Polly had converted from lapsed Catholic to Methodist preacher after the Civil War. “Such a thing as a Protestant Mexican was unknown then,” he wrote in his memoirs. Rodriguez had flatly disowned his cousin for becoming Protestant, but saw his intolerance reflected back at him by his family when he made the conversion himself.

One of his own brothers volunteered to go out to Polly’s place and beat the tar out of him for the crime of converting. His own wife refused to share the dinner table with him for a year, and kept his children from him for fear he’d gone insane. Customers for his livestock stayed away.

Although he was shunned by damn near everyone, Policarpo stood by his choice and his faith. He became licensed to preach and traveled to border towns and parts of Mexico, spreading the gospel. Back at Privilege Creek, he built a schoolhouse and a chapel. A cemetery was established. People saw that he was happy, sober and quite sane. They accepted his choice and some switched to Team Protestant. Polly, Texas was a thriving little settlement with Polly and his faith at its core.

David took me to Polly’s gravesite. His headstone has a lot to say because his hands were rarely idle. Rodriguez was born in Zaragoza, Mexico, but he was Tejano through and through – a devoted child of the limestone hills around San Antonio. His family emigrated to the Republic of Texas, settling at Bexar in 1841. When his age was scarcely in the double digits, Polly apprenticed with a gunsmith. As a teen, he worked with surveying teams braving the privations of the Hill Country frontier.

His experience as a woodsman landed him a gig as a guide for the Whiting & Smith Expedition in 1849. Their objectives: survey possible fort locations and find a passable road between the Gulf of Mexico and El Paso. Polly’s brushes with Indians, his knowledge of native plants and game, and his innate ability to locate water, made him a prize for the Army engineers leading the party. When you travel I-10 from San Antonio to El Paso, you’re traveling the road Polly helped survey.

Lt. Whiting, one of the leaders of the expedition, wrote of Polly in his diary: “This boy, Policarpo, is one of the most valuable members of my party – a patient and untiring hunter, an unerring trailer, with all the instinct of the Indian combined with the practical part of surveying…moreover, a capital hand with the mules. I don’t know of any person whom I would rather have in the woods.”

With such ringing endorsements under his belt, the young Rodriguez was sought after by the Army and was long in their employ. Based at Camp Verde, during the Camel Corps experiment, in 1855 Polly sallied forth one day to hunt up some wayward dromedaries and ended up at Privilege Creek. It was love at first sight. He had found the valley where he wanted to live out his life.

So he secured 360 acres and built a home there. Colloquially called The Fort because it resembled a fortification, the house was surrounded by a high stone wall and had portholes in its walls to provide for home defense. Folks from all around would flock to The Fort when rumors of Indian incursion surfaced because it was safe and sound. There was solace at Polly’s place.

Policarpo earned the position of lead guide for the U.S. Army and may have remained there until his dotage had the Civil War not interfered. He was offered a commission in the Union Army but declined. He received a similar offer from the C.S.A. but refused it. He opted to serve Texas as a private in the Bandera Home Guards, keeping the homefront safe from Indian depredations.

After the Civil War, Polly grew his Bandera County holdings into a working ranch that encompassed about 4,000 acres. He raised and traded livestock of all kinds, and made the Hill Country soil work for him, providing for his family and making a tidy sum each year for his troubles.Shortly thereafter, he commenced the conversion I mentioned earlier.

Although Policarpo’s life was full of adventure and action, it was his faith that sustained him. David and I arrived at Polly’s chapel as the sun began to set. It’s small – maybe 1,000 square feet – but imposing just the same, out in the middle of nowhere such as it is. Built in 1882 out of rough hewn Hill Country limestone, the chapel served the residents of the settlement, who once numbered 300 souls. Policarpo preached there for the last three decades of his life.

An account written by one of Sam Maverick’s grandsons recalled that Rodriguez would rise with the sun each morning, step out onto the porch, and belt out hymns across the valley at the top of his lungs. One can only imagine the joyful noises that were made inside his chapel. 

Polly married twice and fathered 9 children, the last of whom was born when he was in his 80s. By all accounts, he led a happy and industrious life out in those hills. He was generous with his time and his treasure. He died in 1914 at the age of 85. Texas is a better place for having known Policarpo. 

Making our way back to the highway, David and I crossed Privilege Creek. The sun had dipped below the horizon, putting a shine on the sky with the finest pink hues you ever saw. I hopped out to reflect on the sky reflecting on the creek. That’s a whole lot of reflecting. What I mean to say is, I thought a minute about how happy a place this was and what it must have felt like to hear Polly’s voice lifted in praise across the valley.

As if cued by my musings, the frogs of Privilege Creek began their evening serenade. Little frogs danced across the surface of the water. Others clicked and clacked at random. Ultimately, they put together a froggy harmony from the clacking chaos. A privilege, indeed, to have been introduced to this place and to Polly. And it’s my privilege to introduce him to you.

God & Texas,
Michelle M. Haas
Copano Bay Press

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