Texas’ first printer couldn’t catch a break

On Feb. 16, 1817, a Boston teenager with a hand-cranked press produced the first printed words in Texas history – the long-winded manifesto of a doomed expedition.

On his way to free Mexico from Spanish tyranny, Francisco Xavier Mina docked at an American port to take on provisions. He also picked up a printer for his British-made press, an adventurous 16-year-old named Samuel Bangs.

During a short stopover at Galveston Island, the youth put his employer’s high-minded ideas on paper. The ink had hardly dried on the rambling manifesto, when Mina ordered his tiny fleet to weigh anchor. But the would-be liberators no sooner landed on the coast of Mexico than the Spaniards cut them to pieces.

The terrified tagalong survived the bloodbath but feared each day might be his last as one by one his companions were put to death. Bangs was informed at last that his life had been spared because the practical authorities needed his expertise. No one knew how to operate the captured printing contraption.

While still technically a prisoner, the American opened a primitive shop in Monterrey and became the first printer ever in the Mexican city. Bangs adapted to his new environment by accepting baptism in the Catholic Church and changing his name to Jose Manuel Bangs.

In 1821 he was given a measure of freedom and appointed official government printer with a salary of 18 pesos a month. Forced to provide his own food, shelter and clothing on the miserly wage, he soon decided he had been better off in chains.

Later that same year, Bangs naively presumed that the overthrow of the Spanish regime would result in his release. However, in spite of their proclamations promising liberty for all, the victorious revolutionaries refused to turn him loose.

But Bangs would not take no for an answer and month after month politely petitioned for a pardon. In 1823, after six and a half years in Mexican custody, he finally obtained permission to leave the country.

Red carpets and brass bands were in short supply for Bangs’ Boston homecoming. His mother had given her missing son up for dead and moved away, and his sister had died leaving her estate, including Bangs’ inheritance, to a conniving husband, who gave him a shoulder colder than the Massachusetts winter.

Bangs sued his stingy brother-in-law, winning only a fraction of what was rightfully his. He managed to locate his mother, but the reunion turned out to be a heartbreaking disappointment.

Writing off his relatives and his native New England, Bangs married a childhood sweetheart, the one person who had waited for him, and settled in New York City. But life in the Manhattan anthill eventually made him homesick for, of all places, sunny Mexico.

Like an ex-convict asking the warden for his old cell, Bangs begged his former captors to take him back. Although undoubtedly mystified by the foreigner’s change of heart, the Mexicans granted the unusual request and allowed him to return with his wife and first child in the spring of 1827.

Three years later, as a citizen in good standing of his adopted country, Bangs secured a large grant along the Colorado River in provincial Texas. He quit his job and homesteaded the land only to discover he had been stuck with a contested title.

A clever attorney cleared the legal logjam, but Bangs paid dearly for his services. By the time he settled with the shyster, all he had left was one of the original four leagues of river-front property.

Struggling along with a small newspaper in Victoria, a wary Bangs watched the Lone Star Revolution with mixed emotions. Understanding the passions on both sides, he was paralyzed by indecision and sat out the conflict.

While Texans celebrated their San Jacinto triumph, the grieving editor buried his wife, a victim of a yellow fever epidemic. Depositing his two boys in a boarding school back east, the widower began a new life.

From his brief visit 20 years earlier, Bangs vaguely remembered Galveston as “a piece of the prairie that had quarreled with the mainland and dissolved the partnership.” He found to his surprise that the pirate outpost had been replaced by a real town, the largest in the new Republic, and the gypsy printer launched the island’s original newspaper.

But no matter how hard he worked, Bangs could not make a success of the Galveston paper nor any of his later enterprises including a hotel at Point Isabel. A blue-collar printer at heart rather than a bottom-line businessman, he was never on speaking terms with profit.

After a ship sank with all his worldly possessions and he nearly lost his life in a stagecoach encounter with Indians, Samuel Bangs left Texas for good. The first printer in Lone Star history spent his last years toiling in impoverished obscurity as an ordinary pressman in Kentucky.

“Texas Entertainers: Lone Stars in Profile” is full of talented Texans who deserve a curtain call. Order your copy by mailing a check for $24.00 to Bartee Haile, P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393.

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