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EARLY TEXAS REPUBLIC ERA RANGER CAPTAIN GROUPING – LARGE OVAL PORTRAIT UNDER DOMED GLASS AND LARGE FRONTIER MADE SIDE KNIFE – A VERY SPECIAL OFFERING OF A RARE GROUPING:  Any image, artifact or document related to the early years of the Texas Republic have always been some of the most sought after genres of collectibles.  The comparatively small population, the hard Texas environment, and the many years of constant violent clashes along the frontier which destroyed family holdings, resulted in a very limited number of surviving examples.   

As with many of the early Texas personalities, while Captain Nelson Merrill was certainly instrumental in forming the Republic and eventually the State, which would become Texas, very little of his personal property in the way of tangible artifacts survived his passing into history.    This special pairing of a dramatic oval portrait of the Captain, measuring 23” high and 11” wide, and an imposing 15 ˝” long frontier-made side knife attributed to the Captain recently surfaced in a Central Texas estate, and may well be the only surviving mementoes of his life.    

Nelson Merrill was born in Connecticut on October 8, 1810, the son of Erastus Merrill and by 1818, the family had migrated west to Concord, Ohio.  By 1837, Nelson had arrived in “Tejas” where he purchased land and settled on Brushy Creek in what is now the City of Round Rock, Williamson County, Texas.   Merrill and his first wife, Rachael McKennan (m. 1840) built their first log home near Kenney’s Fort, the first settlement permanent settlement in Williamson County. 

In 1839, with Austin having just been selected as the capital of the Republic of Texas, Merrill raised a company of "rangers" from Bastrop to protect the infant city from hostile Indian depredations.  He was elected as the captain of the company and like many of the early Ranger Captains, he retained the title throughout the rest of his lifetime.  Today, Nelson Merrill is recognized in the state records as an official Texas Ranger and his gravesite features a marker honoring that service. 

In the complicated years following the Texas Revolution and the ensuring independence from Mexico, Merrill joined the forces supporting the Republic of the Rio Grande, an effort in northern Mexico to follow Texas and break away from the central government in Mexico City, and he was one of the adventurers who survived the famous Jordan retreat from Saltillo in 1840. 

In 1846, Capt. Merrill moved to the headspring of Wells Branch which flows into Walnut Creek, in Travis County, some sixteen miles north of the center of Austin. A post-office was established around 1851, and he was appointed postmaster, and the growing settlement was not surprisingly named Merrilltown.  Probably located in the same building, Merrill operated a store that not only provisioned his neighbors, but also served as a stagecoach stop.  He was involved with the construction of Congress Avenue, the first “main drag” in Austin, and he served as a Travis County Commissioner from 1852 to 1859.

By 1859, Merrilltown was one of the principal towns in Travis County, and included churches, a school and a hotel.  While natives still refer to community as Merrilltown, the area has been long since absorbed into the city limits of Austin.  There is also a road in the Wells Branch area where Merrilltown is located - "Merrilltown Road".

In the early 1870s, Merrill returned to Williamson County to live on the Brushy Creek land he purchased when he arrived in Texas some thirty years before.  Antria Smith, a French born stonemason, was contracted to build a distinctive two-story rock house on the plantation-style property for the cost of $1600 on what is now called Palm Valley Blvd. (Hwy 79).  A cupola topped the house, which was accessed by a spiral iron staircase imported from London.  From there, via telescope Merrill would monitor his laborers in the surrounding fields.  The home, known as the "Merrell Plantation", (note the misspelling of his last name on this title) is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and now serves as an upscale wedding and party venue.

Captain Nelson Merrill died at home on January 11, 1879 and is buried in Merrilltown Cemetery, Austin, Travis Co.

This portrait of Captain Merrill was produced using the Solar Enlargement, a method of artistic production popular from about 1860 to 1910.  In 1857, David Acheson Woodward of Baltimore, Maryland, patented the first widely successful photographic enlarging camera. He continued to make improvements to his solar camera in a series of patent renewals in the 1860s and 1870s.  These cameras were usually mounted on a studio roof and were designed to turn to follow the sun. They were large, heavy devices that used condensers to focus the light from the sun and a copying lens that projected a small negative onto a large sheet of sensitized photographic paper or canvas. 

Due to the expense of commissioning portraits from life, solar portraits involved a more efficient and cost effective way of producing images, wherein a photograph was projected onto a canvas using light, and the image was then traced and painted over in the medium of choice. The resulting image would have the realism of a photograph, but the handcrafted quality of an oil painting.  This method also allowed for several copies of an original photograph to be made to share with others, something not previously possible with the one-of photography techniques of the period. 

The image of Merrill measures 11” high and 7” wide, is mounted in an oval frame measuring 23” high and 11” wide, and is protected under an original curved face glass.  The image is clear and shows no damage.  An imposing portrait, the captain is captured in his middle age and wearing a dark blue uniform coat trimmed with a single star on each collar corner, and with gold braid on the edges of the collar, across the shoulders, along the front opening, and similar gold braid on each sleeve, probably as a badge of rank.  The reverse of the frame is covered in the standard brown paper glued around the edge.  At the top of this paper backing is hand written in pencil, “CAPT MERRILL”.      

Accompanying the portrait is a large, frontier made side knife, typical of the knives carried by men during the percussion arms era when they depended heavily on their edged weapons.  The knife measures 15 ˝” in overall length, with an impressive blade measuring 11” long and a full 2” across the base.  The double edged blade is well made, retains its original form, and the edges have several nicks significant to indicate the knife was well used as intended.  The knife is fitted with a simple, utilitarian wood grip fitted with an iron band just above the guard and a flat iron cap at the top over which the tang is peened to secure the grip.  The cross guard is oversized as you would expect on a fighting knife, made of iron and measuring 4” long, turned down on the ends so to be able to parry the incoming blade of an opponent.  

There are no maker marks or names on the knife, however the knife and the portrait have been together for some time.  I was able to track the sale of this set back through the original sale from a dealer and two subsequent auction sales, covering a considerable period of time.  At some point, while the knife and portrait were attributed to Capt. Merrill, he was incorrectly identified as having been a member of the 7TH Texas Mounted Rifles during the Civil War.  Since the captain would have been 50 years old at the start of the war, his service in the war was unlikely and no record of his service during the war can be found.  Nonetheless, this same identification listed Merrill as captain, and as having been from Austin – no doubt this same ranger captain described here.  It is far more likely that given his prior ranger service, he was one of the many rangers who remained in Texas during the war to defend the state’s vast frontier from depredations by the Indians. 

A binder of biographical information and photographs of Captain Merrill’s home and grave site accompany the sale of this grouping.   

This is a very special grouping, reflecting the hardiness and sense of adventure of the early settlers of Texas, and has the added value of preserving the image and weapon of one of the early, and well known, Texas Ranger Captains.  Simply put, you will not find another such as this.  (0348)  $2500

 

 
 
 
 
 
 

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