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East Texas Angels: Angelina and Maxine Johnston

By Louie Bond


In the beginning of the world there was only one woman, and this woman had two daughters.
– Hasinai creation story


Painting by Lance Hunter; Photo by Chase Fountain / TPWD

Angelina, depicted in a Lufkin mural, served as an interpreter and guide for Spanish priests and French explorers.

THE LITTLE TEJAS ANGEL

Any recounting of Texas women’s contributions to conservation has only one possible point of origin: Angelina. She’s known by simply one name, like a modern diva, but her fame comes from humbler roots and nobler causes. Today, her name (certainly not the name her mother gave her at birth) graces a county, a river and a national forest, and conjures up an almost dreamlike legend of friendship between welcoming native people and those who arrived seeking to share that homeland.

Angelina was a park ranger before parks existed, an interpreter of not only language but also the land. Angelina shared knowledge of natural resources, wildlife, weather and danger with those foreign to the deep woods of her homeland.

More than 300 years ago, the young Caddo woman grew up among the matriarchal Hasinai tribes in the woods of East Texas. The oldest women ran the homes and had authority over the men in the family; even mighty warriors and chiefs had to submit to the will of the women in their homes. She was headstrong and intelligent, free to learn and lead.

We first meet young Angelina, a daughter of the Hasinai, as Spain establishes the first East Texas mission, Nuestro Padre San Francisco de los Tejas, around the turn of the 18th century. Father Damian Massanet reportedly met an “Indian maiden with a bright intellect and possessing striking personal appearance” who wanted to learn his language, though he didn’t write of her in his journal.

With little to no documentation of these early encounters, it is unclear where or how young Angelina — nicknamed “the little Angel” by the missionaries — learned to speak Spanish. Some say she picked it up earlier in her life in Coahuila; some say that she was taught by Massanet and the other Spaniards.

Young Angelina was inspired by the story of the Lady in Blue, a legend passed down by the Hasinai, who lived the Neches and Angelina River valleys, where the longleaf pines grew tall. The Jumano Indians said a woman dressed in blue appeared to them in 1629 and spoke to them in their own language. The Lady in Blue, believed to be Spanish Conceptionist nun María de Jesús de Ágreda, told them about Christianity and instructed them to be baptized by the Franciscan missionaries.

It’s said that Angelina’s people who lived along the riverbank greeted the Spaniards with shouts of “Tayshas!” (meaning friend or ally) while weeping for joy, as was their custom. The missionaries were touched by their kindness and repeated the greeting back to them and other tribes, pronouncing it tey-has. That early greeting morphed into Tejas, and later, Texas.

While Angelina became skilled in their language, the missionaries could not master the tongue of the Hasinai, so Angelina’s talents as a translator were crucial for success in the area. However, the Spaniards did not respect the native culture and religion and eventually were kicked off the Caddo lands.

Angelina’s people didn’t lose their faith in strangers, however, and continued to welcome those who came there, especially the French. The Hasinai believed the French came to trade, not conquer or convert the natives; in fact, some members of Robert La Salle’s crew stayed behind to live with the friendly tribe. From these new residents of her village, Angelina added another language, French, to her considerable skills.

Needless to say, the Spanish and French were at odds about settling East Texas, so the Spanish returned there to set up more missions around 1715, including Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purísima de la Concepción. Angelina aided a new group of priests with interpretation. They wrote of her: “a sagacious woman, baptized and learned of the Spanish and Tejas languages.”

No matter the tale, Angelina is always portrayed as bold and fearless, bright and friendly, sensitive and caring, welcoming to strangers. In one common tale, a wounded French officer (who may have been abandoned) stumbles into her village, and Angelina tends to him. When he recovers under her care, she sends two of her children to guide him through (what is now known as) the Big Thicket to Natchitoches, Louisiana. He later married a Tejas-born Spanish woman and established a large trading fort.

There are a few later accounts of Angelina, taken from the diaries of explorers and missionaries from 1716-21. She is described as a wise leader of her people.

The welcoming nature and interpretive skills of Angelina paved the way for the emigration and Anglo settlement of Texas, which remained heavily influenced by the Spanish Catholic culture for many years. Perhaps that is why only one county in Texas is named for a woman: Angelina.


Photo courtesy of Lamar University

Maxine Johnston, a librarian at Lamar University, worked tirelessly for the protection of the biologically diverse Big Thicket in East Texas.

GODMOTHER OF THE BIG THICKET

Fast-forward to modern times in East Texas, and we find young Maxine Johnston, or Mickey. As a high school student, she wrote a paper on the folklore of the Big Thicket and was hooked for life on preserving the area. Perhaps it was the spell of Angelina, the Hasinai guide who welcomed the Spaniards and French to the area, that captured her imagination. After all, Angelina herself had been inspired by the Lady in Blue to help others on this sacred land.

Whatever was set in motion that day had staying power, as Johnston’s work earned her the nickname “the Godmother of the Big Thicket.” But as a teenager, she chose a rather nontraditional path for a budding conservationist. She first became a conserver of knowledge and books, a librarian.

Born in Arkansas and university educated in Texas, Johnston joined Lamar University’s Mary and John Gray Library in 1955, becoming director in 1980. During her tenure there, she created an archive documenting many aspects of the Big Thicket in 25 collections.

It was Johnston’s personal work on that preservation that elevated her to conservation hero status. She and like-minded folks created the Big Thicket Association in 1964; she served as president twice. Unlike a stereotypical librarian, Johnston had a bubbly, irrepressible personality and she used that charm to persuade politicians and opponents to help her efforts to preserve the Big Thicket. Johnston and her colleagues built a broad coalition to press for legislation to create a national park. Ultimately, President Gerald Ford signed a law in 1974 to establish the Big Thicket National Preserve, the first of its kind in the national park system.

Johnston, now 90 and recently spotted with purple hair at a tree planting event, credits “eternal vigilance” as the key to her success.

“OK, so you don’t win one battle,” she says. “Start over again and see if you can win on the next round. Try and preserve what’s unique and important about our world, whether it’s out there in the woods or on our library shelves.”


In honor of the ratification of the 19th amendment 100 years ago, we’ll spotlight 20 Wild Women of Texas Conservation during 2020.

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