A Man of Remarkable Common Sense

Bonham Daily Favorite, May 8, 1994

As Fannin County began to move out of the dark, destructive years of the Indian wars, the early settlers who regretted their decisions to settle in this troubled region, began with some sense of relief to set about organizing their lives and their communities.  Sam Erwin was one of those who envisioned a bright future for the inhabitants of the Red River Valley and his faith was rewarded as he saw more and more newcomers take up residence on the town lots he had surveyed for the growing community of Honey Grove.

The 1850 census of Honey Grove shows Erwin as a prosperous surveyor.  About this time he took on a new endeavor when he was appointed the first Postmaster of the new village.

Of his four children, two sons and two daughters, three had left home by the 1840's to start lives of their own.  Andrew J., the youngest, still resided with his parents as the century reached the midpoint.

At Erwin's death in 1854 a former neighbor who had known him since his arrival on Blue Prairie in 1839 had these words to say about his long time friend, "He was a man of remarkable common sense.  He had much knowledge on the frontier, and had added largely to his store of knowledge by observation.  He was thoroughly honest and generous to a fault. Few men did more toward the early settlement of the county than he. He was the common man's friend and general adviser of all in quest of homes, and his own home was always open to friends and strangers alike."

In two generations Sam Erwin was to see his family cross the unguarded frontiers and stretch the family lines from the Atlantic to the Pacific.  As previously noted this remarkable family was to make an impact through three generations.

By the mid 1840's the eldest children had established lives of their own. Two of these plus the young Andrew were to remain in Texas content to plant the family roots firmly In the soil of their adopted homeland.

It remained for the oldest child, daughter Louisiana, to continue the family’s westward push. In the early 1840's a young, handsome physician, named John Strentsel, came to the Fannin County frontier in search of a place where he could practice his profession, John Strentsel's background is unknown and he left little record of his existence in Fannin County.

By 1843 he had paid court to the oldest Erwin daughter and as that year drew to a close the two were united in marriage on December 31st.  The newlyweds were given a parcel of land just west of the newly risen settlement of Honey Grove.

John and Louisiana maintained their home for the next five years as he struggled to establish a medical practice.  By late 1848 or early 1849 the family grew with the birth of a daughter Louisa.

In 1849 word reached Fannin County of the discovery at Sutter's Mill in California and here as in most of the nation a current of excitement and expectation ran through many a conversation centered around the possibilities of striking it rich in the gold fields out west.

The general perception about the California 49er gold strike centers around the headlong rush to the west involving thousands of ill prepared men, a few con artists and others of a shadier reputation.

​It is not usually known that entire wagon trains made up of family units actually joined the stampede.  Such an enterprise was organized in the Red River Valley in the Spring of 1849.

The wagon train, often called the Clarksville train, was the result of efforts by a Captain Griffith and a Mr. Shackleford to establish a southern route to the California gold fields.  Originally the train was expected to be composed mostly of entire families, but according to a late account by J. L. P. Smith, the guide for the company, the final complement was 107 men and seven adult women along with a few children.

As the train moved westward through the valley several hardy souls joined the company.  Dr. and Mrs. Strentzel and their daughter joined up at Bonham.  Friend and family alike tried to dissuade the young couple from making the trip.  Trail guide Smith spoke highly of Dr. Strentzel's reputation among his patients and friends, "He practices his profession very successfully and the poorest man called upon him with as much assurance as the man with thousands would.  He knew the doctor never hesitated to go money or no money. He used all his patients alike - rich and poor, the white and the black; he was always ready to do his best for suffering humanity wherever he found it."

​Smith also recorded that Strentzel signed on as the train doctor and it was supposed by the members of the company that they would certainly need his services and would expect to pay for the same.  Smith indicated that whenever Strentzel was needed he rendered his services cheerfully and refused to take any money even for the medicine he administered.

As the wagon train journeyed through north Texas the trip remained relatively uneventful until they arrived near the headwaters of the Brazos River in New Mexico.  There the train was attacked by a large band of Indians estimated at nearly 500 warriors.  The battle raged for several hours, but because the train organizers had been carefully armed the wagons with a large variety of weaponry including some small canon, the members of the company soon had the upper hand and drove off the attacking parties.

Smith wrote admiringly of Louisiana Erwin Strentzel's actions during the attack.  "I passed by her wagon during all the excitement. There she stood on the wagon tongue with her baby under he left arm and a United States dragon pistol in her right hand, cool and collected.  Never in my life have I seen flight more plainly delineated on any countenance.  In passing I made some remark to her.  She said, 'This is not the first time I have been in danger.'  Dr. and Mrs. Strentzel were a noble couple.:

Their wagon party suffered no loss of life and very few wounds.  After reorganization they again resumed their trek.  In a few short weeks the train faced the most serious of their crises.  The unskilled train guides led the company across a southern California alkaline desert where they became lost and soon ran out of water.  Some of the party died of thirst.  Louisiana Strentzel later remarked that as they faced what seemed to be certain death she remembered and longed for a cool drink from the cold spring that ran near their home on Blue Prairie.

Fannin County Museum of History


One Main Street, Bonham, Texas