Tales of Fort Leaton

The Chihuahuan Desert hugging the Rio Grande in far West Texas was a killing field for Spanish explorers, Apaches, Comanches, white scalp hunters, and freighters daring to travel between San Antonio and

Fort Leaton

Fort Leaton

Fort Leaton

Fort Leaton

Ciudad Chihuahua. Apache and Comanche raids into Mexico—killing hundreds, stealing thousands of livestock, and capturing women and children—resulted by 1835 in the Mexican states of Chihuahua and Sonora offering bounties for each scalp of $100 for braves; $50 for squaws; and $25 for children under fourteen. Once the scalp dried out, it was difficult to tell whether it had belonged to an Indian, a Mexican, or a white person, which encouraged wholesale slaughter of all stripes of travelers who dared enter the region. The financial panic of 1837 left miners in Northern Mexico and pioneers moving west in need of money. Scalp hunting brought in more than most men could make in a year.

The Indian raids decreased during the Mexican-American War (1846-48) as U.S. soldiers chased Indians when they weren’t busy fighting the Mexicans. However, after the war, the Indian attacks increased and the price per scalp inflated to $200—a quicker profit than heading to the California gold fields.

Fort Leaton

Fort Leaton

In 1848, after the Rio Grande was settled as the international boundary between Texas and Mexico, Ben Leaton, a freighter who had been augmenting his income by working as a scalp hunter, realized that a trading post on the Rio Grande would be a prime location on the Chihuahua Trail. Jefferson Morgenthaler, author of The River Has Never Divided Us, writes that Ben Leaton selected a site for a trading post three miles downriver from Presidio del Norte (present Presidio).  By bribing the alcalde (mayor) and former alcalde of Presidio, he produced forged deeds to the land where Mexican peasants had farmed for generations.

Leaton, at the point of a gun, ran the Mexican farmers off of a tract of farmland that was five miles long and over a mile wide. Their protests to Mexican authorities went unheeded because the land was no longer part of Mexico. Then, he set about building a fortification that would serve as his home, trading post, and corral. Leaton built his L-shaped, forty-room fortress with eighteen-inch thick adobe walls that paralleled the river for 200 feet, forming a stockade at the base of the L. Walls and parapets enclosed the structure. Giant wooden doors, topped by a small cannon, opened to admit teams and wagons to the fortress that became known as Fort Leaton, the only fortification between Eagle Pass and El Paso. While Fort Davis was being built eighty miles to the north, the U.S. Army used Fort Leaton as its headquarters and continued to use the site as an outpost for its military patrols.

Interior, Fort Leaton

Interior, Fort Leaton

Morgenthaler writes that the first group of Texans to reach the new trading post was a 70-man expedition in October 1848, under the leadership of the famed Texas Ranger Jack Hays who was charged with opening a trading route between San Antonio and Chihuahua. Using an inaccurate map and an incompetent guide, the entourage had gotten lost and reached Fort Leaton half-starved. Leaton welcomed them while they rested and regained their strength. Although they returned to San Antonio without completing the expedition, the Chihuahua Trail soon opened to a steady stream of freighters.

No record survives of any Indian attacks on Fort Leaton, which may be explained by accusations that Ben Leaton traded rifles, bullets, swords, tobacco, and whiskey to the Apaches and Comanches in exchange for livestock, church ornaments, housewares, and captives from Mexico. Leaton also served as a welcoming host, for a hefty price, to traders heading to Mexico and forty-niners on their way to the gold fields of California.

Leaton died in 1851 before charges could be brought by the Inspector of the Military Colonies of Chihuahua of “a thousand abuses, and of so hurtful a nature, that he keeps an open treaty with the Apache Indians . . . .” His widow married Edward Hall who continued operating the trading post. Hall borrowed money in 1864 from Leaton’s scalp hunting partner John Burgess. When Hall defaulted on the debt, he was murdered, and Burgess’ family moved into the fort. Then, Leaton’s son murdered Burgess in 1875. The Burgess’ family remained at Fort Leaton until 1926.

A private citizen bought the fort and donated it to Presidio County; however, inadequate funding kept the old structure from being properly maintained. Finally another private citizen bought the structure, donated it to the state and it was restored and designated in 1968 as Fort Leaton State Historic Site.

Candelilla

Candelilla See attached blog above by aneyefortexas

Sitting among the lechuguilla, ocotillo, creosote bush and candelilla of the Chihuahuan Desert, it welcomes visitors seven days a week, except Christmas.

Ocotillo

Ocotillo, See the attached blog above by aneyefortexas

The Mystery of Millie Durkin

She was eighteen months old on October 13, 1864, when a Kiowa warrior entered a blazing ranch house and found Millie Durkin crawling out from under a bed after the raiding party had killed her mother and baby brother.

Over the next eighteen years Millie’s grandmother, Elizabeth Carter Clifton led a determined search for the child who had been living on Elizabeth’s ranch with her widowed mother and siblings when 700 Kiowa and Comanche warriors tore through Young County in the infamous Elm Creek Raid.

Elizabeth Carter Clifton

Elizabeth Carter Clifton

Elizabeth Carter Clifton had known tragedy long before the Indian raid. She was sixteen in 1842 when she married a free black man in Alabama. (He may have been a mulatto whose mother was Irish.) They moved with his family to Texas where they eventually settled on a ranch near Fort Belknap, ninety miles west of Fort Worth. Elizabeth was illiterate and epileptic, but those drawbacks did not keep her from working on the ranch with her husband and father-in-law and operating a boarding house. After both men were mysteriously murdered, only Elizabeth’s fourteen-year-old daughter Susanna and young son Joe inherited the ranch. Elizabeth continued managing the ranch and boarding house for her children, and soon both she and Susanna married. Even after her second husband of eight months disappeared, Elizabeth went right on operating the ranch. The boarding house prospered, especially after the Butterfield Overland Mail Route made a stop at nearby Fort Belknap. In 1862 she married her third husband, one of her ranch hands, who was murdered within eighteen months.

And then her life was shattered by the horror of the Elm Creek Indian Raid. The men had gone to Weatherford for supplies, leaving three women at the ranch: Elizabeth, Susanna and Mary Johnson, wife of Britt Johnson, a free slave who worked for Elizabeth. When the women heard the shrieks of the approaching warriors, Susanna grabbed a gun, ran into the yard, and fought until she was overpowered, stripped and mutilated as Elizabeth was forced to watch. T. R. Fehrenbach says in Lone Star that two braves quarreled over who had captured Britt Johnson’s oldest son; they settled the argument amiably by killing him. They murdered Susanna’s baby boy before they threw the survivors—Elizabeth, thirteen-year-old Joe, granddaughters (Lottie, age five and Millie), and Mary Johnson and her two children—on horses. They rode away in separate groups that continued marauding and looting throughout the Elm Creek Valley. Joe was not well and when he could not keep up with the pace of his captors, they killed him. The raid resulted in eleven settlers killed, eleven homes damaged or destroyed, and seven women and children carried off.

Elizabeth was held for over a year in northwest Kansas. Although accounts differ over who actually won Elizabeth’s freedom, Fehrenbach writes that Britt Johnson, who had spent all that year searching for his wife and two surviving children, found Elizabeth. She begged Johnson to help ransom all the captives and promised to pay from her considerable land and cattle holdings whatever it took to gain their freedom. Johnson made four trips into Comanchería, paying “two dollars and a half” to ransom his wife and eventually rescuing all the captives except little Millie.

Still convinced that Millie was alive, Elizabeth was taken to a mission in Kansas where for the next ten months she nursed, fed, and cared for other released captives, all the time demanding better care for those in her charge and begging for more to be done to find all those still being held by the Indians.

Granddaughter Lottie. See the tattoo of her forehead.

Granddaughter Lottie. See the tattoo of her forehead.

When Elizabeth finally reached home in 1866, almost two years after her capture, she was reunited with her granddaughter Lottie whose Comanche captors had tattooed her arms and forehead. Elizabeth married her fourth husband, a farmer who still had four small children. They moved with Lottie to the land her mother had inherited from Elizabeth’s first husband. Elizabeth never gave up her search for little Millie, contacting the Office of Indian Affairs only a few years before her death in 1882, asking them to investigate rumors that Millie was living with a Kiowa woman.

In 1930 George Hunt, a Kiowa historian, began seeking the white relatives of his mother-in-law, Saintohoodi Goombi, who knew she had been captured by Kiowas when she was eighteen months old. Several elderly men, including one who had been a young warrior on the raid, confirmed the story of the capture of a toddler.

Other stories reveal that Elizabeth had described Millie to government officials as one-quarter African descent with dark skin, hair, and eyes. Mrs. Goombi had fair skin and blue eyes, which convinced many that she was not the missing Millie, but the child of another family who never knew their baby daughter was alive.

Mrs. Goombi had been well received by her Kiowa family and lived a happy life with no memory of her white childhood. She had nine children and many grandchildren and great grandchildren. She lived in Oklahoma with her daughter Lillian Hunt until her death in 1934 and apparently never met any of Elizabeth’s or Lottie’s descendants. Fehrenbach writes that when the Governor of Texas asked Mrs. Goombi “what the state might do for her, she answered, ‘Nothing.’”

Saintohoodi Goombi

Saintohoodi Goombi

He Came to Texas Seeking Revenge

It’s hard to know what’s truth and what’s myth about the adventures of William Alexander Anderson Wallace. He was a nineteen-year-old working in his father’s Virginia fruit orchard in 1835 when he heard that his brother and a cousin had been killed in the Goliad Massacre during the Texas War for Independence from Mexico. That was all the six foot two inch, 240-pound fellow needed to send him to Texas to “take pay out of the Mexicans.” He arrived after Texas had won independence and become a republic, but he wasn’t ready to stop fighting. He tried settling on a farm near La Grange, but the life didn’t suit him. According to his own account, which he embroidered to suit his audience, it was while living on the edge of frontier that he woke to discover that Comanches had raided in the night, taking all his horses except for one old gray mare that had been staked away from the other animals. Wallace jumped on the old horse in pursuit of the Indians. He dismounted in a hickory grove and crawled near their camp where the band of forty-two Indians had started eating his horses. Tying off his pant legs and his shirtsleeves, he filled his clothing with the hickory nuts until his body bulged into a new grotesque size. He claimed to have crawled (how did he manage that?) near the camp, shot one of the Indians, and then stood to his bulging height. The startled Indians quickly regained their composure and began firing arrow after arrow into his hickory nut armor. When Wallace continued standing the Comanches ran for the hills. Now, the story takes on a new level of interest. Wallace untied his clothing, and the hickory nuts tumbled out three inches deep on the ground. He brought his wagon, gathered the nuts, which the arrows had already cracked, and took them home to feed his pigs.

He soon ventured west to the new Texas capital of Austin, which was being carved out of the hills and cedar trees in hostile Indian country. In fact, it was Wallace’s encounter with an Indian who was a lot bigger

Bigfoot Wallace

Bigfoot Wallace

than Wallace that earned him the life-long nickname of “Bigfoot.” He claimed to have earned two hundred dollars a month hewing logs for the new buildings being quickly constructed for the capital. He and a partner went out into Comanche Territory, cut cedar and other logs and floated them down the Colorado River to the new town. During one of his absences, a neighbor discovered that his house had been ransacked and huge moccasin tracks led from his house to Wallace’s home. Since Wallace wore moccasin, the neighbor stormed over accusing Wallace of the robbery. It seems there was a Waco Indian, much taller and much heavier than Wallace who also wore moccasins. Everyone called him Chief Bigfoot because his foot measured over fourteen inches and his big toe protruded even further. To calm the neighbor, Wallace took him home and placed his own foot in the giant prints to prove that Wallace was not the guilty party. Wallace’s roommate, William Fox, thought the encounter so funny that he began calling Wallace “Bigfoot,” a moniker that lasted the rest of his life. Ironically, the next year Chief Bigfoot killed and scalped William Fox. Wallace tried to take revenge, but the giant Indian survived Wallace’s attack.

After Bigfoot Wallace saw the last buffalo run down Austin’s Congress Avenue, he decided the capital was getting to crowded and moved on to San Antonio, which lay on the extreme edge of civilization. He joined local residents in their fight against encroaching Indians and Mexicans who, having not accepted Texas independence, made forays into the new country as far north as San Antonio. In 1842, after another Mexican raid of San Antonio, Bigfoot Wallace joined the Somervell and Mier expeditions, which were intended to put a stop to the Mexican incursions. Some of the volunteers turned back, deciding their Texas force was not large enough to counter the power of the Mexican Army. Bigfoot Wallace was among the 300 who determined to continue into Mexico. A strong Mexican force at Mier promptly defeated them and began marching them to Perote Prison in Vera Cruz. The prisoners tried escaping into the Mexican desert, but were quickly found and under orders from Santa Anna, were sentenced to a firing squad. Army officials convinced Santa Anna to execute only every tenth man, and to accomplish that plan, seventeen black beans were placed in a jar of white beans. The unlucky seventeen who drew a black bean were quickly shot. Bigfoot Wallace drew a gray bean, and the Mexican officer decided to classify Wallace as one of the lucky white bean drawers. Instead of a quick death, he and the other fortunate men were marched to Perote Prison where they remained in dungeons for two years before being released.

Bigfoot Wallace and his Gun

Bigfoot Wallace and his Gun

Bigfoot Wallace had not gotten the urge to fight out of his system. Upon returning to San Antonio he joined Jack Hayes’ Texas Rangers in the Mexican-American War and when it ended in 1848, he served as a captain of his own ranger company, fighting border bandits and Indians. They were known for forcing confessions, hanging those they believed were guilty, and leaving the dangling bodies as a warning to other outlaws. One of his ranger buddies, Creed Taylor, complained of constantly loosing his stock to bandits and Indian raids. When a Mexican raider known as Vidal and his gang stole a bunch of Taylor’s horses, Bigfoot and his rangers went after the Vidal gang. They found them asleep and by the time the fracas ended, all the bandits were dead. That’s when Bigfoot and his rangers decided to make an example of Vidal. They beheaded him, stuffed his head in his sombrero and secured it to his saddle pummel. They tied Vidal’s body in his saddle, mounted it on one of the stolen horses, and sent the horse off in a run. The vision on a dark night of a body swaying wildly on the back of the galloping black stallion with the gruesome head hanging in plain sight, may not have stopped horse thieves, but it scared so many people that as late as 1900, people from Mexico to New Mexico to Texas were claiming to have seen El Muerto: The Texas Headless Horseman.

Bigfoot Wallace’s next encounter with danger came when he began freighting mail over the 600-mile route from San Antonio to El Paso. A month of hard riding was required to get through the Texas desert and cross the old Comanche Trail leading into Mexico. Although killing or wounding the fearless fighter would have been a feather for any warrior, Bigfoot managed to make the trips, suffering only one badly shot up mail coach. He claimed that on one occasion he lost his mules to Indians and had to walk all the way to El Paso. Just before reaching town, he stopped at a Mexican house, where he ate twenty-seven eggs, then went on into town and had a “full meal.”

The Civil War brought new challenges for Bigfoot Wallace. He did not agree with secession, but refused to abandon his own people. Instead, he spent the war guarding the frontier settlements against Comanche raids.

Bigfoot Wallace never married, and he spent his later years in Frio County in a village he founded named Bigfoot. He welcomed visitors and delighted in regaling them with

Replica of Wallace home in Bigfoort

Replica of Wallace home in Bigfoort

his stories of life on the Texas frontier. He told his friend and novelist John C. Duval in The Adventures of Bigfoot Wallace, the Texas Ranger and Hunter that he believed his account (with the Mexicans) had been settled. Soon after his death on January 7, 1899, the Texas legislature appropriated money to move his body to the State Cemetery in Austin.

The Adventures of Bigfoot Wallace, the Texas Ranger and Hunter by John C. Duval

The Adventures of Bigfoot Wallace, the Texas Ranger and Hunter by John C. Duval

Manifest Destiny Marches Across West Texas

The end of the Mexican-American War in 1848, fulfilled the dreams of manifest destiny for many citizens and politicians as the United States acquired the land belonging to Mexico that stretched all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The following year, gold was discovered in California and the rush was on. Forts had to be constructed to protect the advancing surge of settlers whom the Apache and Comanche were not happy to see crossing their hunting grounds and their route into Mexico.

Henry Skillman received a contract in 1850 to carry mail from San Antonio to El Paso. On that first mail run Skillman used a Concord coach pulled by six mules and a company of eighteen well-armed men including Big Foot Wallace (Watch for Wallace’s story in next week’s blog). They established a stage stand in Limpia Canyon at the base of the Davis Mountains, and E. B. Webster, possibly the first white man in the area, remained at the site as the master of the stage station. The mail continued to go through, extending the route to Santa Fe and adding passenger service.

Historic Fort Davis

Historic Fort Davis

In 1854, Jefferson Davis the Secretary of War ordered a line of military posts along that southern route. The commander of the department of Texas selected Limpia Creek northeast of the mail station because of its “pure water and salubrious climate.” The string of forts stretched from San Antonio to El Paso, and Fort Davis became the name for both the town that grew up around the mail station and the new post. Settlers and adventurers by the thousands chose the southern route to avoid the snow and mountain terrain of the northern trails.

When Texas seceded from the Union prior to the Civil War, federal troops abandoned Fort Davis. The Confederates occupied it for only a year and then retreated to San Antonio after failing to take New Mexico.

When the federal troops returned in 1867, the garrison consisted mainly of white officers and black enlisted men of the Ninth and

10th Cavalry, Fort Davis

10th Cavalry, Fort Davis

Tenth U.S. Cavalry regiments and the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth U.S. Infantry regiments who were given the respectful title of Buffalo Soldiers by the Comanches. In a series of Apache raids the Buffalo Soldiers of Fort Davis fought several battles before the Apaches retreated to Mexico, and the fort settled into a quiet routine of protecting the cattlemen who began moving into the area.

The fort was abandoned in 1891, but the nearby town of Fort Davis, the highest town in Texas at 5,050 feet, began attracting wealthy Gulf Coast residents eager to escape the summer heat, and it developed into a tourist haven. When the

Restored Enlisted Barracks

Restored Enlisted Barracks

Kansas City, Mexico and Orient Railway proposed building a line through Fort Davis, the citizens refused, claiming the railroad would attract low-class people.

Congress designated Fort Davis as a national historic site in 1963. The adobe and stone buildings have been restored to their 1880 appearance

Fort Davis Panorama

Fort Davis Panorama

Clash of Cultures

Over two years ago, I posted “Heartbreak on the Texas Frontier,” the story of nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker, her younger brother, and other family members who were taken prisoner by the Comanches on May 19, 1836. I recounted the tragedy of Cynthia Ann’s life after she was “rescued” in 1860 and returned to her white family. No one understood that she had adopted the ways of the Comanches, married a chief, bore three children, and was happy in her nomadic life. Cynthia Ann eventually died of influenza brought on by self-starvation.

While Cynthia Ann’s story was sensationalized, followed by people all over this country, a less well-known tragedy was taking place—the

Fort Parker in 1936

Fort Parker in 1936

recounting of which played a significant role in understanding the culture and psyche of the Comanche. On that May morning in 1836, when the Comanche raiding party swooped down on Fort Parker, Rachel Parker Plummer was seventeen, expecting her second child, and caring for her fourteen-month-old son James Pratt Plummer. Her husband Luther, her father James Parker, and eight other family members were working in the field about a mile from the fort. In her book Rachel Plummer’s Narrative of Twenty One Months Servitude as a Prisoner Among the Comanche Indians, Rachel wrote that “one minute the fields (in front of the fort) were clear, and the next moment, more Indians than I dreamed possible were in front of the fort.” Her Uncle Benjamin Parker, not really believing the white flag carried by the Indians was to be trusted, walked out to meet the Indians, hoping to give the women and children in the fort time to run out through the back entrance. Rachel had delayed leaving with the others because she feared she could not carry her son and keep up with them.

It only took the sound of their whooping to realize the Indians were coming into the fort. As she ran carrying her son, she saw her Uncle Benjamin being stabbed with lances. Rachel said, “a large sulky Indian picked up a hoe and knocked me down.” He dragged her by her long red hair until she finally managed to get up on her feet. A Comanche squaw on a horse had taken little James Pratt. She saw her grandfather tortured and killed and her grandmother raped, speared, and left for dead. The Comanches rode away from Fort Parker with three children—Cynthia Ann, her brother John, and Rachel’s son—and two women— Rachel and Elizabeth Kellogg (who was returned three months later when Sam Houston paid the $150 ransom).

Rachel wrote that four Indians found a bottle of her father’s pulverized arsenic and thinking it was white paint, dissolved the powder with their saliva and smeared it all over their faces and bodies. All four died, probably in agony.

That first night, the war party held a ritual dance dangling the scalps of the slain men before the captives. They beat and kicked the women and children. When the children cried, they “were soon hushed by blows I had no idea they could survive.” The women were stripped naked and bound so tightly that their arms bled. Then they were repeatedly raped while the children watched. Rachel wrote, “To undertake to narrate their barbarous treatment would only add to my present distress, for it is with feelings of the deepest mortification that I think of it, much less to speak or write of it.”

The next morning, all the captives were strapped to their horses and for the next five days the Comanches rode hard, denying them food and allowing only small amounts of water. On the sixth day, the Indians divided them, with Rachel and baby James going with a separate group of Comanches. However, as soon as the Indians realized James had been weaned, they ripped him from Rachel’s arms, and she never saw him again.

They rode for weeks into the high plains above the timberline. She described a journey through the snows of the Rocky Mountains where she rarely had anything on her feet and very little covering her body. Her job as a slave was to tend the horses, and to prepare buffalo skins. If she failed to meet her quota, she was beaten. The work entailed scraping the flesh off the skin, applying lime to absorb the grease, and rubbing the buffalo brains on the skin until it was softened.

At the time of the raid Rachel was four-months pregnant and gave birth the following October to a second son. Her master thought the baby kept Rachel from her work and when he was seven weeks old, several men held Rachel while another man strangled the baby. When he still showed signs of life, they tied a rope around his neck and dragged him behind a horse until he was “literally torn to pieces.”

Rachel continued to write about the country and the animals and plants that she saw as the tribe traveled. She noted Comanche folkways, the nightly dances, the worship of pet crows, and taboos. She learned the language and listened to plans for attacks. Eventually she lost all hope of being rescued, and finding that she was unable to kill herself, she decided to provoke the Indians to do it for her. When her young mistress ordered her to get a tool from the lodge, Rachel refused. The mistress ran screaming at Rachel, and instead of cowering in fear, she fought back, threw the girl on the ground, and beat her on the head with a buffalo bone. All the time she fought, Rachel expected a spear to be driven into her body. Instead, a crowd gathered and began screaming, but making no effort to stop Rachel from beating the girl. When it was clear Rachel had won the fight, she picked up the girl, carried her back to camp, and washed the blood from her face. The girl’s mother was furious and threatened to burn Rachel, which she had done in the past. But this time Rachel fought back. The two struggled so furiously around the fire that both were badly burned. They continued to fight until they burst through the side of the tipi. Again, the men watched and did not interfere even as Rachel won. When the council met to discuss the fight, all three women gave their account. Rachel was told she must replace the lodge pole she had broken. Sensing a new place in the community, Rachel refused unless the younger woman helped her. The council agreed. Rachel discovered that the Comanches respected those who fought back, who defended themselves, who did not cower in the face of danger.

Once Rachel realized she would not be killed, she decided her only hope lay in finding someone to buy her. Eventually she met Comancheros, Mexicans who traded with the Comanches. To her surprise, when the Comanchero asked to buy Rachel, her master agreed. The Comancheros who ransomed Rachel was working for William and Mary Donoho, a wealthy couple in Santa Fe who had given them instructions to pay any price to ransom white women. The Donohos and the citizens of Santa Fe warmly welcomed Rachel, however, a Pueblo Indian uprising caused the Donohos, in fear for their lives, to take Rachel with them as they fled Santa Fe. They traveled to their home in Independence, Missouri—a two-month journey of 800 miles across the heart of Comanche territory. Upon her arrival, Rachel was reunited with a family member who immediately set out in the cold winter weather on the 1,000-mile trip to her father James Parker’s home. They arrived in Huntsville on February 19, 1838.

Rachel was reunited with her husband who, unlike many men whose wives had been abused by the Indians, welcomed her home. She soon was pregnant with her third child. Near the end of her pregnancy, the family was forced to flee to Houston to escape vigilantes who were threatening her father. The trip in the dead of winter must have been more than Rachel Plummer’s body could tolerate. Soon after reaching Houston, her son, Wilson P. Plummer, was born on January 4, 1839. Rachel died the following March 19 and her son died two days later.

Rachel’s book has served historians well. It was among the vast resources used by S.C. Gwynne in Empire of the Summer Moon, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Gwynne’s account is a must read for anyone wishing to understand the culture of the powerful Comanche Tribe. Gwynne deftly employs the raid on Parker’s Fort and the subsequent events, to weave the fascinating tale of the power and decline of the great Comanche Warriors.

From Indian Captive to Texas Leader

Rebecca Jane Gilleland was seven when Comanches swooped down on her family, killed both parents, and took as captives Rebecca and her six-year-old brother William. Born in Philadelphia in 1831, Rebecca settled with her family near present Refugio about 1837. When Rebecca recounted her experiences to the Galveston Daily News in 1913, she said it was late afternoon when the Comanches surprised the family as they walked near their home. Rebecca remembered that as the Indians bore down on them, her mother grabbed the children’s arms and was praying loudly that her children would be saved when they “were baptized in her blood.” Rebecca’s father was struck down as he ran to the house for his gun.

The chief’s wife scooped Rebecca onto her horse and at first threatened to cut off their hands and feet if she and William didn’t stop crying. However, Rebecca believed the woman kept the other Indians from harming her and soon began to stroke Rebecca’s blonde hair.

Apparently it was the following morning, when they stopped to rest, that a company of Texas Rangers led by Albert Sidney Johnston surprised the Indians. In the melee, hand to hand combat, William’s body was pierced with a lance and Rebecca took a sharp blow to her temple. The Rangers chased after the Indians, leaving the terrified children behind.  Rebecca said William roused from unconsciousness as she carried him to hide in nearby brush. It was only after the Rangers returned, and Rebecca heard them calling her name that she and William emerged from their hiding place.

They stayed with William C. Blair, a Presbyterian minister in Victoria, until an aunt in Galveston came to get them. Rebecca attended school in Galveston and then was sent to Rutersville, a Methodist school between La Grange and Round Top where she met Orceneth Fisher, a minister almost thirty years her senior, who was working at the time as an editor of the Texas Wesleyan Banner.

After their marriage in 1848, Rebecca and Fisher served several churches in East Texas before taking a rugged stagecoach trip to California where they found a reign of lawlessness.  When the crusading San Francisco newspaper editor, James King, was murdered, Fisher was asked to preach the funeral sermon. While in the middle of his sermon, word arrived that a gang had hanged the men accused of King’s murderer.

The Fishers moved, under the protection of army troops, to Oregon where he organized the Methodist Episcopal Church South. On the eve of the Civil War, a mob of 300 stormed a camp meeting and threatened to hang Fisher, apparently for his perceived southern sympathies. Rebecca said of the experience that she grabbed the leader “by the collar and held him fast.  He looked into my eyes and turned away without speaking. I will never forget the vicious expression of his countenance.” She also claimed that her husband quieted the mob with his calm demeanor and assurances that he came with a message of peace and love. During those tumultuous years, while the Fishers raised their six children and expanded the work of Methodism, Rebecca became know as the “woman who quelled the mob.”

After returning to Texas in 1870 and settling in Austin, Orceneth Fisher served two terms as chaplain for the Texas legislature before his death in 1880. Rebecca’s brother William was a highly regarded poet whose work appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers before his death in 1894.

Rebecca Fisher was the only woman elected to the Texas Veterans Association, and after its members who had served from the time of the Texas Revolution to annexation, all passed away, the work of the organization was taken over by the Daughters of the Republic of Texas (DRT) of which Rebecca Fisher was a charter member. She worked with Clara Driscoll and others to save the Alamo from destruction, and for several years she offered the opening prayer for the Texas legislature. Her portrait was the first of a woman to be hung in the Senate chamber at the Texas capitol. At her death in 1926 at the age of ninety-four, the body of the woman known by many as “the Mother of Texas” lay in state in the Senate chamber, the locale of her funeral service.

Portrait by Texas artist Royston Nave, which was the first of a woman to hang in the Texas Senate Chamber.

Portrait by Texas artist Royston Nave, which was the first of a woman to hang in the Texas Senate Chamber.

War Clouds Gather Over Indianola

Indianola was a southern town with a seaport’s connection to the broader cosmopolitan world of commerce, business

Indianola Port in 1860

Indianola Port in 1860

cooperation, and a diverse blend of residents newly arrived from all over Europe.  The soil—gritty shell beaches cut by a crisscross of shallow bayous and lakes—did not lend itself to cotton growing.  The vast slave plantations thrived much further east and north in the rich bottomlands of East Texas.  The slaves sold on the front porch of the Casimir House, an elegant hotel and social center that used slaves to serve its guests, generally were taken inland by planters who came to Indianola to purchase supplies.  Most of the blacks in Indianola were free—having bought their freedom or been freed by generous owners.  They worked the docks and they operated pig farms out on Powderhorn Lake.  Unlike most southern towns, the residents of Indianola accepted the presence of free blacks, and they were allowed to go about their business without interference.

As secession talk grew, and a few agitators arrived from the north, Indianola residents expressed confidence that Southern saber rattling would force the North to back off.  However, after a newly arrived gentleman was forced onto an outbound ship following accusations of being an abolitionist, the city appointed a “vigilance committee,” a patrol to maintain order in the town.

During the fall of 1860 merchants continued to thrive, and talk of Lincoln’s possible election caused little concern and no apparent disruption in the cooperation between northern business people pouring into the port and local shipbuilders producing steamers at a brisk pace. The newspaper editor touted the rosy financial picture, expecting it to continue indefinitely.

News trickling in of Lincoln’s election stirred patriotism for the former Republic of Texas.  Caution was thrown aside as newspapers across the state called for secession instead of living under the evils of Lincoln’s “Black Republicanism.”

On the night of November 21, a well-advertised mass meeting took place at the courthouse, preceded by a parade.  Sam McBride, who owned one of the shipyards on Powder Horn Bayou, led the parade, carrying a flag emblazoned with a Lone Star, the symbol of the former Republic of Texas.  Sewn by local women for the event, the flag drew such wild applause it drowned out the band’s rousing march music. Participants carried twenty-eight poles topped by huge, transparent pieces of glass with candle or kerosene lamps illuminating phrases like The Issue is Upon Us; Who is not for us is Against us; The Time Has Come; States’ Right; Millions in Number, One in Sentiment; and The North has Broken the Symbols of Union.

The crowd filled the courthouse to overflowing. Judge J.J. Holt gave a rousing speech saying they must take decisive action.  Then he appointed a committee to draft resolutions representing the views of Indianola citizens.  While the crowd waited for the resolutions to be written, the band played the French national anthem, a stark symbol of revolution.  After another loud and emotion-laced speech, the committee returned with support of a secession convention and demands for Texas to reclaim its right to retake the powers it delegated to the federal government when it accepted statehood.  The dye was cast.

Civil War wood engraving by Thomas Nast is titled Union Troops in the Streets of Indianola, Texas.  It was published in the New York Illustrated News, April 6, 1861.  From the collection of the Calhoun County Museum, Port Lavaca, Texas

Civil War wood engraving by Thomas Nast is titled Union Troops in the Streets of Indianola, Texas. It was published in the New York Illustrated News, April 6, 1861. From the collection of the Calhoun County Museum, Port Lavaca, Texas

Even before the war officially began, United States military personnel that had manned the posts along the western edge of Texas settlement to protect colonists from Indian attack, began marching through the streets of Indianola to the docks where federal ships waited to carry them away.  Families living on the edge of Texas’ western frontier were left to protect themselves from the Comanches who soon took advantage of the opportunity to reclaim some of their hunting grounds.

Most Germans and other European immigrants that settled in Texas did not want the South to secede.  First, most of the new arrivals did not have land suitable for cotton or sugar cane production and did not need slave labor.  Second, they felt a loyalty to the United States, the country that had just welcomed them to its shores.  Finally, most immigrants did not believe in slavery, having come from countries where peasants worked for such meager livelihoods, that they yearned for the opportunities that freedom offered.  But, like other Unionists such as Sam Houston and Robert E. Lee, they felt a loyalty to their new home and did not leave the South.

Indianola merchants soon realized that they had been wrong in their belief that they could continue business as usual.  The federal government quickly began a blockade of all the Gulf Coast, which resulted in the nightly adventure of blockade runners moving into the Gulf with cotton bound for trade with European, especially British, ships eager to take the Confederacy’s “white gold” in exchange for essential Winchester rifles, medical supplies, clothing, and ammunition.  The dangerous blockade routes through bayous and backwater canals that were used to transport the valuable cotton could no longer sustain the commercial traffic.  Business in Indianola and in the towns it supplied in western Texas came to a sudden halt.

Invasion and occupation will be the topic of next week’s blog post.