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Looking Back

Daniel KerrConcerned about the future of West Texas’s past, several regional historians and archivists banded together to do something about it. 
As a result, they established the Excellence in West Texas History Fellowship Program which this spring awarded its inaugural grants of $40,000 to Megan Benson of Norman, Okla., and Daniel Kerr of Borger. 

Administered by the West Texas Collection at Angelo State University, the program seeks to encourage more research and analysis of the area’s past.

“Few regions,” said Suzanne Campbell, head of the West Texas Collection, “can match the colorful history of West Texas, which extends from the era of the conquistadors and the Comanche to the reign of the buffalo soldier and cowboy to the present of the roughneck and the entrepreneur.

“Just because something happened, however, doesn’t make it history,” Campbell said.  “Not until someone examines the available record and adds coherence to the past does it truly become history.  Our concern was that fewer and fewer people were retrieving the region’s rich heritage in spite of the numerous resources available to them.  We wanted to counter that trend.”

Funded by gifts from The CH Foundation of Lubbock, the Tucker Foundation of San Angelo and an anonymous donor, the fellowship program has been endorsed by virtually all of the public and private universities in West Texas.  The inaugural fellows were selected from more than 20 national applicants, representing such prestigious universities as Cornell, Kansas State, Texas Tech University and the University of Texas.

The fellows will receive $40,000 over a 12-month period to support their research and travel to various regional archives.  The goal is for the fellows to produce a manuscript for publication on West Texas historical topics.  The fellowship also includes $5,000 to assist an academic press with the publication of a book from the manuscript. 

Megan BensonBenson, who specializes in legal, Native American and environmental history, will be studying the legal history of Texas water law, focusing on the historical context of the “rule of capture,” which allows landowners in most cases to use unlimited groundwater from beneath their land regardless of how it might affect neighboring landowners.  While the study will cover the legal texts, the fellowship will allow Benson to use regional archives to determine how the law affected the ordinary circumstance of everyday people, particularly in the 20th century.

“I think there is nothing more important than water in West Texas history,” said Benson, who holds a doctorate in history from the University of Oklahoma.  “I wouldn’t be able to make these research trips if it weren’t for this fellowship, nor could I spend the time that a year affords for contemplation.  That’s a huge luxury for a researcher.  I’m just so humbled and so honored by the fellowship.”

Kerr will expand the research initiated in his doctoral dissertation, which tries to place the history of West Texas ranching into the broader evolutionary context of the Southern Plains.  His study tracing the Plains transition from bison to sheep to cattle finds the introduction of barbed wire as the critical moment in the environmental evolution because of the operational modifications it necessitated, including supplemental feeding of livestock rather than the free grazing the region once supported.  With the fellowship, Kerr will explore the operation of a broader cross-section of West Texas ranches, while further documenting the Hispano contributions to the region.

“Confidence is a big part of writing, but it’s not the only part,” said Kerr, who is a doctoral candidate in American studies at the University of Kansas.  “Having the money to carry a project through to print is sometimes as important as confidence.  Until the fellowship, I might have had a little more confidence than money.  Now, I have more of both to complete my work.”