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William P. Who?

By retracing the footsteps of an unsung pioneer, students learn about everyday life in the 1840s

By Jennifer McCutchen

If you think that the 730-mile drive from El Paso to Houston is rough, you have nothing on a group of 14 ambitious 6th graders. On Jan. 4, students from California will embark on a three-week trek that will take them from El Paso to Houston in horse-drawn wagons. Collaborating with other students from schools around Texas throughout the trip, the young historians will retrace the route of William P. Huff, a Texas pioneer who made the trek from Houston to California in 1849 in search of gold. Huff’s 300,000-word diary — which provides a detailed daily account of his trip — was passed down to his great-great grandson, David Ewing Stewart of Van Vleck, who is also participating in the project. Each morning, students will read passages from Huff’s diary that relate to that day’s portion of the trip.

“[Huff] was inquisitive and open to views that did not mesh well with the ethos of the 19th century,” explains Bill Coate, a California school teacher who is leading the project. “Modern historiography has tended for some time to focus on the ‘ordinary’ characters from the past. Any diary written in 1849 is significant, but when it is composed by a person with Huff’s probing insights, we gain a fresh look at the past.”

Here’s a brief excerpt from the diary: “We reached Wild China water hole to day at 2 oclock in the afternoon. In this water hole there was a little mud as if to tantalize and increase our thirst from imaginary association of the fact that here had been water, but now naught but filthy mud. Our animals were suffering, and although we turned them out to graze, their thirst was such that they would not eat.”

As a joint venture between Madera Unified School District, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Texas Historical Commission, various county historical societies, schools and private ranchers, the wagon train will encompass many of the same sites detailed in Huff’s diary.

With the help of the TPWD, students will visit numerous state parks, and several private ranches have also opened their gates to the wagon train project.

“We are providing the logistical, on-the-ground support to help organize and oversee the project,” says Tom Harvey, chief of the News and Information Branch at TPWD.

After the trip, the students plan to turn their notes into a book titled “Following the Steps of William P. Huff.”

This project is allowing students to do history — not just study about it, says Coate. “They are permitted to examine the original record — the primary sources — and draw historical conclusions for themselves. They are coming to grips with the real thing, apart from someone else’s regurgitated version of it.”

The Huff Diary Wagon Train project will begin on Jan. 4 at the Spanish colonial Socorro Mission in El Paso. It is here that the 6th graders from the San Joaquin Valley in California will begin to retrace the return trail of Huff back toward his trip’s origin and his grave site in Houston. Nearly three weeks later, they will leave the wagons and horses behind as they present copies of the Huff diary to government officials in a ceremony on Jan. 25. The project will culminate at Huff’s grave in Houston on Jan. 27, when the diary will be returned to Stewart as part of a memorial service.

Coate concludes, “I expect that once they get a good dose of ‘seat knowledge’ to go with that ‘head knowledge,’ they will never read another book about pioneer life in quite the same way as they did before this project.”

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