Two brothers answer call to arms in Texas

by BARTEE HAILE

Counting on letters of introduction to secure a place for him in the front lines of the Lone Star Revolution, Charles Drake Ferris kissed his pregnant wife goodbye on Nov. 18, 1835 and left Buffalo, New York for faraway Texas.

Returning home after a seven-year absence, Warren Angus Ferris was heartbroken to learn he had missed his younger brother by three weeks. Yet as much as he regretted not seeing Charles again, Warren understood the irresistible attraction of a wonderful adventure.

The older Ferris had just turned 18, when he set out in search of fame and fortune in 1828. Warren soon hooked up with the first expedition to the Rockies mounted by the American Fur Company. Relishing the role of trailblazing explorer, he recorded in exquisite detail his exciting experiences among the trappers and native tribes.

Charles wrote in a letter dated Feb. 22, 1836 that he had reached his destination after an uneventful Gulf cruise from New Orleans. He was due to depart any minute for San Antonio, where he planned to join in the heroic defense of the Alamo.

By the time Charles’ letter reached Buffalo, the folks back home thought they were reading his last words. Already aware Travis, Crockett, Bowie and their immortal comrades had fought to the death, the Ferris clan presumed he perished with them. When Charles suddenly appeared on their doorstep that summer, he was greeted like a loved one risen from the dead.

After the tears of joy dried, Charles explained he never made it to San Antonio. He was, however, right in the thick of the fighting at San Jacinto.

The fact that the original records did not support his claim by no means meant Charles was stretching the truth. Texans were too busy battling Santa Anna to bother with accurate record-keeping, a perfectly understandable oversight.

A Buffalo newspaper later published a first-hand account of Charles’ close call noting that he “narrowly escaped death. In the first charge of the enemy, he was attacked by a Mexican soldier, who attempted to bayonet him, seeing Ferris’ rifle had missed fire. At the charge made at him by the soldier, his horse sprang to one side and threw him, but fortunately falling on his feet, he killed the advancing foe with the butt of his gun.”

Together for the first time in eight years, the Ferris brothers turned Warren’s copious notes on his western odyssey into a major book. More than a century and a half later, “Life in the Rocky Mountains” is still considered an important source on the pioneer period in the American West.

Upon completion of their joint venture, Charles persuaded Warren to accompany him to liberated Texas. Warren had business down South, so the two agreed to meet in Kentucky for the last leg of their journey.

A poor choice of companions ultimately cost the younger Ferris dearly and changed the course of his life. Charles made the mistake of traveling from Buffalo to Louisville in the company of a fugitive forger. This innocent act of highway hospitality caused the authorities back East to suspect him of complicity in the con man’s crimes.

Meanwhile, Charles and Warren arrived safe and sound in the Republic of Texas. The former reenlisted in the army, while the latter became the surveyor of Nacogdoches County.

Warren stayed behind in Texas, when Charles went back to Buffalo in November 1837 for what was supposed to be a brief visit. But he was immediately arrested as a suspected accomplice of the wanted forger and forced to spend many months and all his money in clearing his name.

Charles never regained his financial footing nor resumed his new life in Texas. He bounced from job to job for more than a decade without accumulating enough cash to rejoin his brother.

Poverty stricken and in bad health, Charles wandered off to Canada in search of work. For many months his worried family heard not a word from him. Then in July 1851 they finally heard that he had been lost at sea, when his ship went down the previous Christmas.

Warren, on the other hand, enjoyed a long and productive life. He led explorations of the Sabine, Neches and Trinity rivers mapping the twists and turns of those tributaries. He also laid out the original townsite for Dallas and even found time for a little Indian fighting.

Warren Ferris eventually settled on White Rock Creek in present-day Dallas and supported his wife and 12 children on an 85-acre farm. A regular contributor to area newspapers and magazines, he was 63 at his death in 1873.

Charles Ferris would have lived a lot longer, too, if he had followed his brother’s example and stayed put in Texas.

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