Always for the Underdog
Louisiana’s Neutral Strip, an area of pine forests, squats between the
Calcasieu and Sabine Rivers on the border of East Texas. Early in its
history, the region developed a reputation as a harsh frontier where
grit and tenacity became indispensable tools of survival. During the
Louisiana Purchase, bureaucrats from both Spain and the United States
squabbled over the exact boundary line between the two rival powers.
Both governments removed militia from the contested land to avoid war.
Intensifying its reputation, the region served as an official buffer
zone. Without the security of a military presence, residents quickly
realized they would need to protect and govern themselves. Soon,
tight-knit communities formed, and residents developed a reliance on
self, kin, and neighbor.
In the early 1900s, the timber boom sliced through the forests of East
Texas and the former Neutral Strip, disrupting these dense communities.
Mill towns sprang up, and the promise of money lured land speculators,
timber workers, unionists, and a host of other characters, such as the
outlaw Leather Britches Smith. The entrenched local residents soon
confronted not only these new community members but also a dynamic
cultural moment that struck a defining blow in the making of the region.
That moment continues to shape the place’s cultural consciousness, and
people fashion a lore connected to this time.
In a fascinating exploration of the region, Keagan LeJeune unveils the
legend of Leather Britches, paralleling the stages of the outlaw’s life
to the Neutral Strip’s formation. LeJeune retells each stage of Smith’s
life: his notorious past, his audacious deeds of robbery and even
generosity, his rumored connection to a local union strike—the Grabow
War—significant in the annals of labor history, and his eventual death.
As the outlaw’s life vividly unfolds, the book also reveals the area’s
history and cultural landscape. Often using the particulars of one small
town as a representative example, the book explores how the region
remembers and reinterprets the past in order to navigate a world
Drawing from newspapers, court records, and a decade of interviews and
observation, LeJeune offers a penetrating examination of the interplay
between legend and place, exploring Smith’s own life, this unique
historical moment, and the place’s mysterious landscape. The book also
considers how contemporary festivals and other forms of cultural
heritage employ the legend as a cultural recourse. To stay vibrant and
meaningful, culture constantly re-makes itself; here, the outlaw
occupies a vital role in the re-creation.
“LeJeune uses a very unusual approach blending historical records and
accounts, oral histories, historiography, and folkloric methods to tell
the story of the Sabine Strip between Louisiana and Texas, and the
legend of an outlaw named ‘Leather Britches Smith.’ He displays a wealth
of information about western central Louisiana and the historiography of
the region.” —Gary D. Joiner, author of Through the Howling
Wilderness: The 1864 Red River Campaign and Union Failure in the West
“This book reminds us that Louisiana west of the Mississippi was part of
the western frontier. Few know that Pat Garrett grew up in Louisiana and
that Jim Bowie was from there. Leather Britches Smith is destined to
take a place in the pantheon of western characters. Always for the
Underdog will be of interest to all those who are fascinated with the
American outlaw-hero.” —Barry Ancelet, author of Cajun and Creole
“Based on my experience teaching introductory folklore college courses,
I know that students have trouble understanding what a legend is.
LeJeune’s book would make an excellent text because he takes the reader
step by step through the evolution of the Leather Britches legend, in a
clear and simple way that beginning students would easily grasp.” —Lee
Winniford, author of Following Old Fencelines