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Dr. Gideon Lincecum - Texas Naturalist

When Jason and I first set out to write the Texas State Cemetery book, we first told ourselves we had to limit the amount of people included and the amount we wrote about each person. That led to a lot of hard decisions as there are many noted and fascinating Texans we had to leave out, or not write enough about. One of those people, someone who is particularly fascinating to me, is Gideon Lincecum. Lincecum was a frontiersman and naturalist in Georgia, Mississippi, Texas and Mexico in the mid- to late-1800s. A true naturalist, Lincecum was curious about everything and corresponded with the great naturalist societies of the day on a huge variety of subjects. He even had a paper presented to the Linnean Society in London by Charles Darwin. The paper was on the behavior of the red harvester ant (see pic of a harvester ant nest below), familiar to any Texan who lives outside the city.

There are a lot of reasons why we didn't write a great deal about him, space was the main concern of course. The book entries are thumbnails and it's hard to delve too far into someone's life without leaving a lot out. I would like to write a little more about him, because on the surface he's a likable enough figure. However, there’s no avoiding it, he was a bitter opponent of the Union and vehement defender of slavery. I don’t mean to slander a man after he is dead, but with just a little effort you can find books about Lincecum on the internet and you can hear his views in his own words. Despite that, and it takes a lot to overlook the racial philosophy he espouses, Lincecum typified the frontiersman in so much of his life. He had one advantage over most; he was literate and had an insatiable curiosity about everything in the world around him. He studied Native Americans and wrote an exhaustive history of what he called the “Chata” in Mississippi. They are known as the Choctaw today. He grew to respect and even revere the Choctaw’s traditions and witnessed the beginning of the Choctaw Trail of Tears when they were forcibly removed from their ancestral land to Oklahoma. He wrote a book called “Chata Traditions” which was mostly a series of interviews with a Choctaw elder.

He constantly sought the frontier and moved to Texas in 1848 and settled in a place called Long Point, just north of Brenham. He started a plantation called Mount Olympus because it’s spot on high ground and his seeming love of Greek mythology. He had two sons named Leonidas and Lysander. While living in Texas he made collections of native flora and fauna and gave large, valuable collections to the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences and the Smithsonian Institution. He kept correspondence with many natural philosophers around the country and even in England. His collected papers were donated to the University of Texas, along with a large collection of flora.

After the Civil War, in 1868, he and his widowed daughter and her children moved to Tuxpan, Mexico on the densely forested coast of the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a little known fact of Civil War history that some Confederates, fearful of Union prosecution, fled to Mexico, led by General Joseph Shelby. The colony didn’t last very long, but Lincecum stayed there until 1873. He ran a banana plantation, a sugarcane plantation and continued his work in natural philosophy. He studied the old ruins of El Tajin, a massive pyramidal structure (sketched below in 1836) 35 miles south of Tuxpan. By this time, Lincecum was about 75 years old. He went to the big sites, but he also investigated small sites and used surprisingly sophisticated archaeological techniques to uncover ancient human remains, arrowheads and other artifacts. He also observed as what he called “bravo ants” (probably Army Ants) invaded his house and proceeded to eat all the other insects inside while he took notes. The invasion was fascinating for him no doubt, but probably a headache for anyone else living inside. I’m going to quote him here from his autobiography about his expedition to the ruins of El Tajin.

"The way through the thickets is difficult to find and it is hard to secure a guide, for it is said there are so many lions and tigers about the old ruins, that they are afraid to stay there all night. Tradition makes the lions kill several men, who had gone there in search of treasure. I shall take my gun and will be glad to meet a lion or tiger either." – Adventures of a Frontier Naturalist: The Life and Times of Gideon Lincecum, edited by Jerry Bryan Lincecum and Edward Hake Phillips

Maybe not lions and tigers, but panthers and jaguars certainly. I get the feeling that had he been a younger man, Lincecum would have gone further into South America or Australia or some other untamed place after Mexico became old hat. As it was, he moved back to Texas in 1873 and started to work on his autobiography, a series of letters to a magazine recalling his life experiences. Those letters are what Lincecum and Phillips used to create Gideon Lincecum’s autobiography. He died in 1874 after a long illness. 

 

- Will Erwin