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The Scottish American History Club Newsletter
January 1996


Scottish Stonecutters Build Texas Capital

The capital building in Austin Texas was built by Scottish stone cutters from Aberdeen. The complete story is told in The Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio. These stone cutters first came to Texas as the result of a labor dispute. The state capital building in Austin had burned in 1881, and construction was under way in 1882 on a new structure of pink Texas granite. The unusual building material was donated by George Washington Lacy, but the granite had to be cut, finished and imported 45 miles from the quarry near Marble Falls.

Governor John Ireland had signed a contract with the State Penitentiary Board for 500 convicts to work the quarries and construct a railroad from the quarries. Controversy arose over the use of convict labor, and the Granite Cutter’s International Union boycotted the capital project.

To bypass the boycott, Superintendent Gus Willse sent to Aberdeen, Scotland, for stonemasons who were considered the best in the world. After difficulties with federal alien contract laws, 62 Scots accepted the offer of $4.00 per day and arrived in Texas.

With the exception of cut-stone moving equipment, blasting powder and a few hand drills and wedges, they took the stone from the quarry, cut it to size and shaped it for construction with tools rarely measuring more than eight inches. The granite generally was cut by the use of wedges. To make a uniform break, a line of holes was drilled no deeper than four inches and no farther apart than ten inches. Two metal shims with a small wedge between were placed in each hole. Workmen hit each wedge in serial order driving all into the stone at approximately the same rate. Under this consistent pressure, the stone would crack. Granite of almost any size could be split in this manner, but sheets less than one inch thick seldom were worked. Nor was stone at the quarry commonly wedged apart in thicknesses of more than six feet. Blocks were moved to sheds and worked by hand into their finished shapes.

The granite was “bankered” up to a height convenient for the standing stone cutter. The cutter set to work with hand patent bush and striking hammers, folding rule, steel square, chalk, plumb, straight edges and bull sets. With these seemingly crude tools, the workers were capable of cutting stone with a tolerance of 1/640 of an inch. In most cases cutters worked alone, a single stone taking from several hours to weeks, depending on its complexity. After 6 years of work, the new capital was occupied in September, 1888.

The simple tools used by these world-renown craftsmen from Aberdeen are on display in The Institute of Texan Cultures.

More information can be found at the Texas Capital, State Preservation Board and Wikipedia.

Davy Crockett
*Someone You Should Know*

“Like Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett (1786-1836) typifies the resourceful freedom-loving frontiersman. His legendary figure has grown with the years to the folk hero class.

Davy Crockett was born in a log cabin in eastern Tennessee on August 17, 1786. His Scottish-born father was a Revolutionary War veteran who had moved on to the Tennessee frontier..

His formal education amounted to about 100 days of private tutoring. He fought in the Creek Indian Wars (1813-1815). After serving two terms in the state legislature, he ran for the U.S. Congress where he served three terms. During his first two years in Washington, he incurred the enmity of President Andrew Jackson and the new Democratic party. It was Jackson’s opposition that ended Crockett’s career in Congress during the election of 1835.

Stories in the popular press of the day pictured Davy Crockett as a shrewd, yarn-spinning eccentric and rough Indian-fighting frontiersman. Actually, he engaged in several successful business ventures, and he delivered his speeches in Congress in the fairly conventional English of the times.

He wrote an autobiography in 1834 which added to the Crockett legend. His book played up his frontier life and minimized his political career. His writing was full of the realism of pioneer times. It was a style probably never seen before, and it was well received by the reading public of that time.

But the most dramatic event of his life came after his biography was written. Following his defeat in Congress, he headed west to join the American forces in Texas. In the gallant defense of the Alamo, Crockett died March 6, 1836, when the defenders were killed to the last man by a Mexican army under General Santa Anna.” (Written by James C. Thomson.)

John McGregor

John McGregor was a piper and died during the siege of the Alamo in 1836. His Scottish ancestry has been a source of debate, but researchers insist that McGregor was born at Dull, near Aberfeldy, and immigrated first to Canada’s Prince Edward Island in 1808. It is said that the Clan Gregory Society believe he may have been a direct descendant of Rob Roy himself.

At the Alamo, McGregor and Davy Crockett held musical competitions, McGregor on the bagpipes and Crockett on fiddle. It was reported to have been “a strange and dreadful sound.”

Alexander Mackenzie

The first white man to cross Canada was Alexander Mackenzie who had emigrated from Scotland to Canada. As a fur trader, his first expedition was down the river which now bears his name. His second trip was from Fort Chipewyan across the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.

Dallas, Texas
Named for a Great Scot

The Dallas family has a long distinguished record in Scotland and America. For several hundred years this family had been active in Scottish public life. The first Dallas arrived in Britain in 1066 with William the Conqueror. The name evolved from De Dolyas to Dolas and then to Dallas about the early 17th century.

Alexander Dallas was the patriarch of the American family and exerted a profound influence on early America. He arrived in Philadelphia in 1783 where he planned to practice law. He might well have been president but, tired of politics, he declined to run. Though foreign-born, he would have qualified to be president, because he arrived in America before the constitution was adopted barring foreigners from the presidency.

The middle son, George Mifflin Dallas, for whom Dallas, Texas, was named, served as a member of the delegation negotiating the end of the War of 1812. He was 21 years of age. He was later elected to the U. S. Senate and served as president of that body. He later served as ambassador to both the United Kingdom and Russia.

George Dallas was Vice President in the James Knox Polk administration when the issue of “Manifest Destiny” surfaced. He along with the President believed that America was destined to expand its borders across the frontier to the Pacific. This meant the annexation of Texas, the purchase of California from Mexico, and the settlement of boundary disputes with Britain over the Oregon Territory. These things were all accomplished in a span of four years during the term of President James Knox Polk and George Mifflin Dallas. Two Great Scots!

Pictured: George Mifflin Dallas

Little Known Facts of Illinois

John Kinzie, son of John McKinzie was the first permanent white settler in the city of Chicago.

John Clark, known as “Father Clark”, born near Inverness, Scotland, was the first Protestant minister to preach in the wilderness area of Illinois.

Joseph Duncan, as a state senator, introduced the first bill to establish a system of free schools in Illinois. He later served three terms in Congress and was also governor of this state.

Stephen Forbes was the first school teacher in Chicago (1830). One of his students would later become General David Hunter of Civil War fame.

Blackburn University in Carlinville, Il., is named for Rev. Gideon Blackburn whose parents were Ulster-Scots.

Matthew Duncan published the first newspaper in Illinois in 1815.

Of the 102 counties in Illinois, 25 bear Scottish names.

First Footing

It is said that in olden days in Scotland there was a ritual visit to friends and neighbors on the first day of each new year. Shortbread was often taken as a gift of food and there was usually a drink from the family bottle. The first visitor, or the “first foot” was the person who brought good luck to the house for the coming year. The person chosen of course was very important. It was usually someone with a dark complexion and never someone with red hair. The person should not be a woman, should not be cross-eyed, flat-footed, and the eyebrows must not meet “across the nose”.

In the early days of the Illinois St. Andrew’s Society, the President would have an open house at his home and all members were invited to attend. Dr. John McGill, for instance, opened his palatial home on Drexel Avenue to all members on New Year’s Day. The complexities of modern society and the size of our organization no longer makes such events practical. However, the President of the Illinois St. Andrew Society, Alexander D. Kerr, Jr., wishes all three thousand families on our mailing list a safe and profitable New Year!

Capt. Peter MacMillan

The Western British American, a newspaper once published in Chicago reported on April 16, 1898, that Peter MacMillan was visiting Chicago. Capt. MacMillan, the story says “is a Scotchman, 73 years of age who has given his life to mechanical work. MacMillan had joined the British Navy when he was 17 and spent ten years at different posts around the world. When Sumpter was fired on he was working in a machine shop in Edinburgh. He threw up his position and started at once for the United States, where he obtained a position in the navy yard at Philadelphia.” It was under his direction that “the first ironclad in the United States Navy was fitted out.”


The first white man to cross Australia from south
to north was John McDowall Stuart.
Calgary, Canada was named by Scottish emigrants from the village
at Calgary Bay on the Isle of Mull.
James Bruce, a Scotsman discovered the source of the Blue Nile.
In 1774, George Bogle, a Scotsman, led the first expedition to
make contact with the Grand Lama of Tibet.
The province of Western Australia was founded by a Scot, James Stirling.
He named the state capital, Perth, after his friend and patron, Lord Perth.
Brisbane in Queensland got its name from Sir Thomas Brisbane,
a Scottish governor of New South Wales.

From the Editor

A few weeks ago, Mary and I attended a convention in San Antonio, Texas. Looking for Scottish stories, we visited the Alamo, used bookstores, and The Institute of Texan Cultures. The Institute has an entire section dedicated to Scots. We found nothing in the way of used books about Chicago, but we encourage those of you who travel to keep looking for books for the history library.

You will also notice a slight change in our title. Two libraries called and suggested we include Scottish in our heading. It makes for easier filing, they said. Our thanks to those of you who have mailed in your subscriptions to help with the mailing costs.

Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois Saint Andrew Society
Scottish-American History Club
2800 Des Plaines Avenue
North Riverside, IL 60546