Raw Roots

Excavations for plantation artifacts - and the real truth - are unraveling the genteel gloss covering Texans' old notions about the slave era here

However, it should be pointed out that Miss Ima's own ancestry is a good deal more colorful -- and less genteel -- than tranquil Varner Hogg would indicate. Her grandfather, Joseph Lewis Hogg, a slave-owning farmer from Rusk, was shot by an adversary and later killed his assailant in a shoot-out on the town square in 1850.

Her father as a young man was shot in the back by an outlaw whom he had helped capture. A tall, beefy man who at one time weighed 360 pounds, Jim Hogg's size, name and propensity for cussing were made much of by his political opponents.

Miss Ima never married, nor did her brothers Will and Tom, who had inherited their father's rotund frame. Jim Hogg, however, did leave an unexpected gift to his children that lay under the ground at Varner Hogg: oil. The governor, who bought the plantation in 1906, died before oil was found. But he was so certain that there was oil in West Columbia that he decreed in his will that the place not be sold for 20 years after his death. Sure enough, in 1919, oil was discovered, and Miss Ima was on her way to a life of philanthropy.

"UH professor Ken Brown…went looking for a good dig -- and found the Jordan place.
"UH professor Ken Brown…went looking for a good dig -- and found the Jordan place.
Carol McDavid, Morris Richardson, Hazel Austin, Dorothy Cotton, Gini Raska and Julia Mack want to get to the truth.
Carol McDavid, Morris Richardson, Hazel Austin, Dorothy Cotton, Gini Raska and Julia Mack want to get to the truth.

The rough edges of Miss Ima's family history have been smoothed out a bit at the plantation. But the early history of Varner Hogg is hardly all moonlight and roses, either. Martin Varner, the first owner, was one of the less civilized members of Stephen F. Austin's Old 300. A hunter and Indian fighter from Virginia, one of his first acts was to build a distillery, and the bottle of rum he sent to leader Austin was the first bottle of spirits to be produced in Texas. He sold the plantation to Columbus Patton in 1834 and moved to East Texas. A Mexican neighbor shot and mortally wounded him there. Varner, with the help of his slave Joe, subdued his attacker, slashed the man's Achilles tendons, and threw him into a hog pen, where he was devoured alive.

"Kit" Patton, as he was known, operated the plantation, then known as the Patton place, until 1854, when his relatives had him declared insane and removed to a North Carolina asylum. The main evidence for his commitment appears to have been his relationship to a slave woman named Rachel, his mistress who lived with him in the main house for nearly 20 years. Local residents testified huffily in court about Patton's apparent infatuation with Rachel, who according to one observer, "had more control over him than I ever saw a lady have over her husband." A shop owner testified that Rachel bought "more fine dresses than any lady in the community" and bought "dry goods for herself to a larger amount than my wife bought."

In the remarkable WPA interview with former slave Ford, Rachel is described as a rather bossy woman who overreached her position, treating slaves and whites alike with disdain. "Iffen a bird fly up in de sky it mus' come down sometime," she said.

But the idea of an enslaved woman lording it over local shopkeepers delights Cora Fay Williams, 94, a slave descendant still living in a small frame house near Varner Hogg. "That Rachel," Williams cackles gleefully. "She sure gave them the blues."

Williams grew up in a cabin on the plantation after Miss Ima and her brothers inherited it. She remembers well the time when Tom Hogg would let the children of plantation workers have the run of the grounds and the house, even sliding down the banister in the main stairway.

What Miss Ima would have thought about the stories or the proposed changes to her legacy remains pure speculation, insists Hutchinson. "It's hard to project her values," he says, though, he observes, "I don't think Miss Ima was a racist. And she was way ahead of her time in many of the things she did, in culture and education. She sent a lot of people to college, including minority children."

David Warren, the first curator of Bayou Bend, who knew Miss Ima well, goes even further, however: "I don't think she would have wanted things frozen in time if there was a newer and better way to do things." Miss Ima clearly intended Varner Hogg as a tribute to her father, he says. "There was never really an attempt to accurately portray antebellum life." But he thinks that her curiosity and her interest in staying current with accepted historical thought meant that she was open to change.

Cary Cordova is not so sure. She has seen a letter Miss Ima received from a curator friend who said the slave mistress Rachel should probably not be mentioned at the plantation. "I feel that Miss Ima was probably in agreement with that sentiment," she says. But history is not static, she says, nor is it sacred. "This is an instance when history has to change to suit the needs of the present," she says.

Perhaps the future of the plantation, she says, could be guided by people like Jeanette Livingston and her daughter Stephanie, descendants of a slave there named Henry Garrett.

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