Memories of a Pioneer Woman

Thanks to the stories that Elizabeth Owens told her daughters, we know about life in South Texas during some of its most turbulent times

Elizabeth was two years old in 1829 when her stepfather, James Quinn, moved the family from New Jersey to Texas as part of McGloin-McMullen’s Irish Colony. While the group of fifty-three families camped on Copano Bay near present Rockport, Elizabeth’s baby sister became the colonists’ first death, perhaps from cholera that spread through the settlers and followed them as they traveled inland to the old Spanish Mission Nuestra Señora del Refugio.

Elizabeth’s family remained near Refugio and began farming. She and her brother Thomas always carried lunch to James Quinn when he worked in his fields. One time, Elizabeth said a drunk Indian caught Thomas and terrified the children by saying the sweetest morsel ever known was a white man’s heart. Elizabeth ran for help, and her stepfather used an ax to strike the Indian more than once before he released the boy.

In 1835, the family acquired from the De León Colony a league of land (4,428 acres) outside Victoria. The following year, Elizabeth witnessed a Tancahua Indian Scalp Dance on Victoria’s Market Square in celebration of the tribe outwitting the Karankawas. Elizabeth explained that the warlike Karankawas had asked the peaceful Tancahuas for help attacking the aristocratic and refined Mexican family of Don Martín De León the empresario who had founded the colony. Instead of joining the attack, the Tancahuas cut the Karankawas’ bow strings, killed thirteen members of the tribe, and carried the scalps stuck atop their spears, to Mrs. De León as a gesture of their friendship. Mrs. De León expressed her gratitude with a huge feast for the Tancahua and that is when Elizabeth, a nine-year-old, witnessed the Scalp Dance.

When war clouds built up for Texas independence, James Quinn joined a company that made the twenty-five-mile trip to La Bahía, to defend the presidio from Mexican attack. Elizabeth and her mother went to a nearby home where the women molded bullets for their husbands. With the approach of the large Mexican Army, James Quinn and other men rushed home to move their families to safety. However, Quinn discovered that his oxen had roamed away, which meant the Quinns and two other families could not leave.

They listened to the sound of the cannons fifteen miles away during the battle between James Fannin’s troops and General Urrea’s Army. A man arrived on horseback carrying a message for Colonel Fannin, but when he heard the cannon fire, he stayed with the Quinns. Startled at nearby gunfire, the messenger rushed to his horse and galloped away only to be discovered and shot.

General Urrea’s army accepted Fannin’s surrender and reached Victoria with great fanfare, parading through the streets to the sound of their bugles and drums. A Mexican officer took possession of Quinns’ front room. Although their home was constructed of adobe and had only three rooms with dirt floors, it was one of the more comfortable houses in town. Elizabeth said that ironically, the officer’s presence saved the family. A group of Mexican soldiers banged on the door with their muskets, but when the wife of the Mexican officer opened the door, the startled Mexicans quickly withdrew.

Elizabeth says that Señora Alvarez, the woman known as “The Angle of Goliad,” because she saved several of the Texans before the massacre, was the wife of a Mexican colonel. Despite stories of his abandoning her when he heard that she had rescued some of the young Texans at Goliad, she came to Victoria with her husband. Seven men who escaped the massacre rushed into Victoria, unaware that it was occupied by Mexican troops. They attempted to enter the Quinn home, and when Elizabeth’s mother exclaimed that they would all be killed if the Texans were found there, the men ran back into the yard where Mexican soldiers killed three of them. The other four were imprisoned in one of the homes. Elizabeth’s mother bribed a guard to let her son Thomas take food each day to the prisoners. A new guard discovered the boy delivering food and choked him severely.

When the Mexicans moved the four Texan prisoners to Market Square for execution, Señora Alvarez threw herself in front of the Texans, spreading her huge skirts out before them and protesting that she too would be shot. That halted the execution, and the four men were released after Texas won its independence from Mexico.

Despite Santa Anna’s surrender, a rumor spread that the Mexican Army had reorganized and was heading to Victoria. The family loaded a small cart and began their journey northward with a Mr. Blanco and his son. They crossed a creek and the Lavaca River before they reached a ferry on the mile-wide, swift-running Navidad. When their turn came to board the ferry, it tipped and threw them into the water. Elizabeth grabbed a partially submerged tree and clung to it. Mr. Blanco’s son disappeared under the water, but Mr. Blanco spotted Elizabeth’s white cap and pulled her to safety. Mr. Blanco’s son became the only casualty.

Many times, impending Indian attacks or fears of a Mexican army sent the women and children to the protection of a blockhouse; other times they crossed the Navidad River, even spending the entire winter of 1836-37 away from Victoria.

When they returned home, the Quinns found their house reduced to ashes. It happened when Texan soldiers mistook a herd of deer on a hillside for the Mexican Army and ordered all the houses burned except those that surrounded the town square. They saved the houses on the square for the soldiers’ use. That winter the family lived in the church with other families. They hung partitions for privacy.

In 1840 Comanches, who felt betrayed by whites in an incident at San Antonio’s Council House, swept down across Texas in what became known as the Great Comanche Raid. When they reached Victoria, they killed several and terrorized the town before moving on down to the port of Linnville, which they completely destroyed.

At seventeen, Elizabeth married Richard Owens, a New York native who had arrived in time to serve in the Army of the Republic of Texas. He became a very successful building contractor, freighter, merchant, and mayor of Victoria. Elizabeth worked as a community leader and raised their twelve children.

During the Civil War, Elizabeth and her daughters sewed the regimental flag for Col. Robert Garland’s Sixth Texas Infantry. Using material from Richard Owens’ mercantile store, they selected red Merino wool for the background and white silk fringe for the border. A large blue

From Home Page of Co “K”, 6th TX Infantry reenactment group

shield with twelve white stars circling a larger star represented the Lone Star State. The regiments’ name showed in white silk letters.

Before Elizabeth McAnulty Owens died in 1905, she shared the stories of her life adventures with her daughters, and in 1936 they published Elizabeth-McAnulty-Owens, The Story of her Life.

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