Returning Texas History to Texas — Donating the Bull Family Collection

By Sylvia Smith Talkington, guest contributor

Texas General Land Office
Save Texas History

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The Texas General Land Office Archives is dedicated to preserving Texans’ historical documents, including everything from maps by world-famous cartographers to everyday letters from Texas’ earliest colonists. In 2023, the GLO received a collection of 11 letters relating to Pleasant Marshall Bull, a settler in Austin’s Colony at Bolivar.

Sylvia Smith Talkington, of Littleton, Colorado, worked with GLO staff to donate and digitize the collection of letters in memory of her mother, Lola C. Smith Crites, who worked diligently to collect, verify, and compile the letters into A Lot of Bull, a genealogy book filled with transcriptions and genealogical information.

Every one of us is part of history, much of which is lost for good.

If someone did find a reason to put our genealogy on paper for future reference, it has too often been set aside, forgotten, misplaced, or left languishing in hidden and obscure locations. Many genealogies become unreadable from weather, infestation, flood, or fire, while others disappear due to disinterest or perceived indifference.

Pleasant Marshall Bull was one of the lucky ones whose ancestors cared. His wasn’t a household name, yet his Tennessee-to-Texas story is a classic chronicle of westward migration. My mother, Lola C. Smith Crites, brought his history back to life beginning with the arrival of a letter from Texas sometime in 1971.

“Dear Mrs. Smith, I have your name and address from the Bean family. My great, great grandfather was a brother to Pleasant Marshall Bull. I’m trying to find someone who will take ownership of all the Bull personal papers, letters, deeds, and wills as you are a direct descendent. No one wanted them. I have spent many years sorting and organizing. I’m eighty you know and haven’t been well. I would like very much for you to have these things.

I’ve been interviewing families and descendants here in Texas and transcribing or recording their oral histories from direct sources. Others I’ve been writing to. Yours affectionately Mrs. Ona Bull Easley.

This letter began not only a fifteen-year correspondence and long-distance friendship, but also an unfolding story of pioneer families from Tennessee whose sons, like Pleasant Marshall Bull, answered the call to settle in Texas.

The papers my mother received characterized Pleasant Marshall Bull as young and restless, much like his childhood friends David Crockett and Daniel Boone. They boasted and dared one another to see who would lead the way. Bull’s departure to Texas was apparently precipitated by what some might call a “love triangle” situation.

He was in Austin’s Colony by July 1831 and had good things to report about the “fine country” when he wrote home to Tennessee, noting that “Honeybees are spread all over the forest” and “a young man is entitled to choose his land — four thousand four hundred acres.”[1] By March 1832, Bull desperately wanted his parents to join him in Texas, asking them to “Let [him] know whether you can come to this country or not…a gunsmith of your character would do well here.”[2] In the months before the outbreak of the Texas Revolution, Bull wrote to family in Alabama expressing his “sentiments” regarding the building tensions. He firmly stated that “Was every man in Texas to submit I would not — my interest — my life and my all I will risk before I will submit.”[3]

Pleasant Bull to Russell Scrogin, 20 August 1835, Bull Family Collection, BFC 000004, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

Research

Mom became engrossed in the wealth of information. To trace the previously lost histories and lineages, she spent one day a week at the Denver Public Library in a dark room scrolling through microfiche and microfilm. Her research in eighteenth century public records and robust correspondence with those who could provide primary sources produced copies of wills, ship manifests, birth and death certificates, marriages, and letters.

[left] From left to right, Lola Crites Smith (author’s mother), Ethel Mary Brinlee Crites (author’s grandmother), Sylvia Smith Talkington (author). [right] From left to right, Walter C. Crites (author’s grandfather), Lola C. Crites (author’s mother), Ethel M. Brinlee Crites (author’s grandmother).

Staff at The Latter-Day Saints (Mormon) archives in Salt Lake City took her under their tutelage, and she learned the rudiments of genealogical research and proper genealogical reporting and formatting. By 1986 she published A Lot of Bull, telling the story of Pleasant Marshall Bull and other early Texas settlers. It’s hard to imagine that there were no personal computers at the time she began, much less the internet for searching. Long-distance phone calls were expensive. All correspondence took place by letter. That meant writing to someone and waiting for a reply that most often took at least two weeks. It would take anywhere from a month to six months to be able to validate a date, location, or person to sort out if a particular name, lineage, or ancestry was accurate.

[left] Cover, Lola C. Crites Smith, A Lot of Bull, Bull Family Collection, BFC 000012, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX. [right] Table of contents for A Lot of Bull.

I was busy raising a family and working during those years, interested in her research, but not really engaged. She wrote every week with updates and progress. Mom was a rigorous researcher with strict rules for provenance. If she could not locate at least three verifiable sources, she rejected it and noted sound documentation as to the reason. I believe this strategy led to a more accurate and factual authentication process. Imagine the accuracy that might now be possible with genetic testing. She was always searching for more information believing it might be discoverable. Any time she came to a dead end, she assigned the person, family, or event to the “Bull Pen,” an addendum to the book, hoping one day someone somewhere would have more information to continue to flesh out the story.

Lola was more than a dedicated genealogist. At eighteen she was paralyzed in an automobile accident, spending the next fifty years wheelchair bound. Throughout her life she was a writer, authoring stories for newspapers about people and places. She was a member of the Daughters of the Confederacy and the Daughters of the Republic of Texas.

Like her ancestors, she was undaunted by life’s challenges, believing she could accomplish anything. She was bedbound the last three years of her genealogy work; though she still corresponded with contributors and used a Morrow personal computer. Unfortunately, we’ve been unable to recover much of the data from the original 6” floppy discs. Donation of the letters collection and digitization of A Lot Of Bull will bring to life what the floppy discs contained.

Lola C. Crites Smith included a letter to her family members in her book updating her research progress and requesting any additional resources or information that they might have.

Family and faith were the heart of her life, just as they were for those ancestors who left their Tennessee origins to come to Texas. Writing A Lot of Bull was her greatest achievement. I believe she would be pleased to know that the book will now be digitized so that others, even beyond Texas, can have access to history that took place back when.

When she passed in 1990, Dad assumed responsibility for fulfilling book requests until his death in 2002. The collection then came to live with me, tucked away in a basement and storage shed and surviving four moves and an apartment fire.

John Callie Smith and Lola C. Crites Smith (author’s parents)

Completely by chance, I was in San Antonio for work in 2011 and attended a weekend of celebrations at the 175th anniversary of the battle at the Alamo on March 5. I met the Crockett, Bowie, and Bean descendants. Additionally, I stopped to visit with the Alamo historian and archivist, who were curious about the letters I described. We continued to correspond, and they counseled me about how to preserve the letters in archival Mylar sleeves.

My work took me to Texas often between 2011 and 2015. I carried a well-worn and tabbed copy of A Lot of Bull every trip and used it as a guide to visit landmarks, cemeteries, and locations described within. The sites of land grants, homesteads, battles, feuds, cattle ranches, and settlements where marriages took place linked Texas pioneer families and founding fathers.

It was when a 2022 article from Texas Highways magazine appeared on my newsfeed that I contacted the Texas historian who was the subject of the article. I located the Bull collection in a crawl space at my son’s home and examined notes from my travel, A Lot of Bull, and all the documents, letters, and photos in a large storage tub. Do you ever have a premonition about something you know you are supposed to do? I realized then and there that these letters do not belong in my closet. They belong to the people of Texas.

I sent copies of the Bull book to contacts at the Texas General Land Office in Austin. This struck up a conversation that continued through 2022 into 2023 about what to do with a collection of letters from Pleasant Marshall Bull. We are pleased that eleven letters were accepted for donation and look forward to opening the way for the people of Texas to have access to a piece of their history.

Over this past year, the support of my family, especially my oldest daughter, Nordyka (who follows in her grandmother’s love of history and family and has picked up the care of the genealogy) has been essential to my research and work. We are deeply thankful that our donation can honor Mom’s dedication to preserving and sharing the stories of Texas at its birth.

Researchers can find the Bull Family Collection in the General Land Office’s online land grant database by entering the search term “Bull” in the Class field. The GLO has also prepared a TARO finding aid to assist with accessing the collection. Links to each document appear below.

  1. BFC 000001 — March 20, 1832 — Letter from Pleasant Bull to John Bull
  2. BFC 000002 — Jan. 1, 1834 — Letter from Pleasant Bull to family
  3. BFC 000003 — July 15, 1834 — Letter from Pleasant Bull to John Bull
  4. BFC 000004 — August 20, 1835 — Letter from Pleasant Bull to Russell Scrogin
  5. BFC 000005 — Dec. 24, 1835 — Letter from Pleasant Bull to parents
  6. BFC 000006 — Oct. 3, 1848 — Letter from Sarah Jane Thompson to Elisha Rufus Bull
  7. BFC 000007 — January 28, 1855 — Letter from Marion B. Martin to Elisha Rufus Bull
  8. BFC 000008 — March 25, 1855 — Letter from Marion B. Martin to Elisha Rufus Bull
  9. BFC 000009 — August 1, 1858 — Letter from Marion B. Martin to Elisha Rufus Bull
  10. BFC 000010 — July 19, 18XX — Letter from Sarah Jane Thompson to Elisha Rufus Bull
  11. BFC 000011 — February 6, 1897 — Letter from Land Commissioner Andrew J. Baker to Texas State Representative W.L. McGaughey
  12. BFC 000012A Lot of Bull Manuscript
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[1] Lola Constant Crites, A Lot of Bull, 44, Pleasant Bull to John Bull, 15 July 1831, Bull Family Collection, BFC 000012, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

[2] Pleasant Bull to John Bull, 20 March 1832, Bull Family Collection, BFC 000001, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

[3] Pleasant Bull to Russell Scrogin, 20 August 1835, Bull Family Collection, BFC 000004, Archives and Records Program, Texas General Land Office, Austin, TX.

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Texas General Land Office
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