Cabeza de Vaca Walks Across Texas

Six years after the conquest of Mexico, Charles I of Spain sent an expedition to colonize all the Gulf Coast from Florida to present Tampico, Mexico. We know the details of this adventure because Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca kept extensive notes, which he used for publication in 1542 of his Relación (Account) and an expanded version in 1555.

Cabeza de Vaca
Texas State Historical Association

de Vaca served as the treasurer and first lieutenant of the 600-man expedition under the leadership of Pánfilo de Narváez. Six ships sailed from Spain in June 1527, and after desertions in Santa Domingo and a terrible hurricane in Cuba, the Spaniards spent the winter re-outfitting the expedition. About 500 Spaniards and five ships struck out again in April. Available maps of the Gulf of Mexico were so inaccurate that when they reached Florida’s west coast, Narváez, believing they were within thirty to forty miles of Mexico—a miscalculation of about 1,500 miles—ignored protests from Cabeza de Vaca and others and put ashore with an exploring party of 300 men and forty horses.

Route of the Cabeza de Vaca Expedition

After slogging along the coast for a month, suffering from Indian attack and food shortage, they realized that they must return to the sea for their travel. The lone carpenter guided the construction of five rafts using deerskin and hollowed-out pieces of wood as bellows. They melted stirrups and bridle bits to cast primitive saws and axes for felling trees and shaping crude planks that they caulked with pine resins and palmetto fibers. They fashioned sails out of their shirts and trousers and wove rigging from horse manes and tails. They tanned the skin from the legs of horses to form bags for carrying fresh water. They fed themselves by killing a horse every third day. On September 22, 1528, they loaded fifty men on each raft and set out along the Gulf, remaining within sight of the shore.

Soon after passing the mouth of the Mississippi River, strong winds separated the rafts, eventually driving all ashore between Galveston Island and Matagorda Peninsula. About ninety Spaniards and at least one African slave named Estevanico landed two rafts on a beach Cabeza de Vaca soon named la Isla de Malhado (the Isle of Misfortune). His description leads scholars to believe they were just below present Galveston on Follets Island.

The exhausted and starving men were terrified to see six-foot giants towering over them. Using sign language, the Indians who occupied the islands along the coast, indicated that they would return the following day with food. Cabeza de Vaca wrote that the next morning, after taking their fill of food and water, the Spaniards tried launching their rafts only to have them capsize and drown three men before tossing the others back onto the shore. When the Indians saw the terrific loss of men and all their possessions, Cabeza de Vaca said the Spaniards were stunned when these “crude and untutored people, who were like brutes,” sat down with the survivors and cried, weeping and wailing for half an hour.

Still believing they were close to their destination, four strong swimmers went ahead with an Indian guide. Over the winter Cabeza de Vaca observed the Indians, noting that when a child died the entire village mourned the loss for a full year. He observed this same sensitivity toward everyone in their society except for the elderly, whom they viewed as useless, occupying space and eating food that the children needed. He also wrote that during the first winter, five Spaniards became stranded on the mainland. As they reached starvation they began eating one another until only one man was left. The natives were revolted by the cannibalism and horrified that the Spaniards were so disrespectful of their dead that the survivors feared the Indians were going to kill them all. By spring 1529, exposure, dysentery, and starvation had decimated the wayfarers. Only Cabeza de Vaca and fourteen others survived.

Cabeza de Vaca set out alone to explore inland and became seriously ill. When he did not return as expected, he was given up for dead, and twelve of the survivors decided to move on down the coast toward Mexico. Two men refused to go because they could not swim and feared crossing the waterways along the coast.

Meantime, Cabeza de Vaca recovered from his illness, and for almost four years he traded with the Indians, carrying seashells and sea snails to interior tribes, which they used to cut mesquite beans, in exchange for bison skins and red ochre, a dye prized for body paint by the coastal Indians. The natives gave him food in exchange for what they believed were his healing powers. He blew his breath on the injured or afflicted parts of the body and incorporated prayers and the Catholic practice of crossing himself, which he reported almost always made those receiving the treatment feel better. Each winter he returned to Malhado to check on the two survivors who steadfastly refused to leave.

In 1532, when one of the men on Malhado died, the survivor Lope de Oviedo, agreed to journey down the coast after Cabeza de Vaca promised to carry him on his back if they had to swim across streams. At Matagorda Bay, a tribe Cabeza de Vaca called Quevenes threatened to kill them, which caused Oviedo to turn back with a group of native women and disappear. Despite their threats, the Indians told Cabeza de Vaca of “three Christians like him” and agreed to take him across the bay. Upon reaching the other side, he traveled to the “River of Nuts,” present Guadalupe and found three of his former companions being held as slaves, the other nine having died as they made their way along the coast.

For the next eighteen months, the four endured slavery under the Coahuiltecans, always planning to escape at their first opportunity. During their captivity, they heard stories of the fate of their expedition. Some had died of exposure and hunger; others succumbed to violence among themselves or from natives, and some of the survivors resorted to eating the flesh of their companions. In late summer 1534, they slipped away separately and headed toward the Rio Grande. Despite the odds, they soon met again and joined friendly Indians southwest of Corpus Christi Bay, where they remained for the next eight months.

They crossed the Rio Grande into Mexico near present Falcon Dam Reservoir, but upon hearing of hostile Indians along the Gulf coast, turned back across northern Mexico to the Gulf of California and the Pacific Ocean. Four men out of the original 300 reached Mexico City in July 1536, almost eight years after setting foot on the Florida Gulf coast.

Estevanico by Granger
Texas State Historical Association

Two of the men married wealthy widows of Conquistadores and remained in Mexico. Estevanico was sold or loaned to serve as a scout for an advance expedition of Coronado’s entrada. Stories as to his fate. One account says he was killed by Zuni Indians in present western New Mexico. Other accounts claim that he and friends feigned his death and he escaped to freedom.

Cabeza de Vaca had not completed his service to the crown. He was assigned the governorship of present-day Paraguay in Central South America. His experience in Texas, despite mistreatment and slavery, had made him a champion of the native people. When he tried to initiate policies that would help the local tribes—removing Indian slaves from cruel masters and placing them with kinder owners, instituting restrictions against holding Indian women as concubines, and adding modest taxes, settlers determined to exploit the native population removed him from office and sent him back to Spain in chains.

During his six-year trial, conviction, and his subsequent pardon, Cabeza de Vaca wrote Relación (Account), his detailed description of his Texas experiences as a merchant, doctor, ethnologist, historian, and observer of plants and animals. He recorded Native American’s incest taboos, dietary habits—spiders, ant eggs, worms, lizards, and poisonous vipers—when nothing else was available, and methods used for insect repellent. He even recorded his profound distaste for sodomy among the hunting and gathering culture. His description of the buffalo was the first written account of those wild creatures.

Cabeza de Vaca died about 1559, but his extraordinary adventures and his detailed documentation have earned him the title of Texas’ first historian. He performed one other amazing task as he and the other castaways walked barefoot across Texas and Mexico. His description of removing an arrowhead lodged in the chest just above an Indian’s heart earned Cabeza de Vaca fame as the “Patron Saint” of the Texas Surgical Society.

Cabeza de Vaca surgery
Texas State Historical Association

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Sorting Truth from Legend

When an old story comes from many sources, it is difficult to glean the exact details. In this case, we know a man was scalped and lived to tell about it

Josiah Wilbarger

Farmers like Josiah Wilbarger and his wife who settled the west accepted the ever-present danger of Indians hostile to white encroachment into their homelands. Surveyors mapping the land grants for the early colonists faced an even greater threat because the Indians feared and hated surveyors, calling their compass “the thing that steals the land.”

In addition to farming his land, part of an 1832 grant, which lay a few miles east of the present city of Austin, Josiah Wilbarger worked as a surveyor. Most accounts say that in August 1833 Wilbarger and his four friends were on a surveying trip and stopped near Pond Spring to have lunch.

The attack came suddenly when a large band of Indians swooped down with rifles and bows, killing one man, shooting another in the hip, and hitting Wilbarger in the calf of his leg.

Men scrambling to mount their horses, saw Wilbarger take an arrow to his neck. Convinced Wilbarger did not survive, his friends raced several miles to the protection of the Reuben Hornsby home. They planned to return the next morning for the bodies after the Indians finished their scalping ritual.

That night Mrs. Hornsby dreamed of Wilbarger sitting under a tree seriously injured. She woke her husband who dismissed her as overreacting to all the excitement. Mrs. Hornsby dreamed a second time, even recognizing the site where Hornsby lay naked.

It’s not clear when the men returned for Wilbarger. Some say Mrs. Hornsby insisted they leave immediately; other versions claim the men waited until morning. Either way, Mrs. Hornsby provided a blanket saying, “Take this to make a stretcher. He’s not dead but he can’t ride.”

They found him as Mrs. Hornsby claimed, scalped and near death. Placing his naked body on the blanket, they carried him back to Mrs. Hornsby who applied poultices of wheat bread and bear grease.

When Wilbarger grew stronger, he told of how the arrow in his neck paralyzed him, making him unable to feel pain as the Indians hovered about believing he was dead. One of the Indians carved around Wilbarger’s scalp. When he gripped the hair to it snatch it off, the ripping sounded like a mighty clap of thunder.

Woodcut attributed to William Sydney Porter, better known as O. Henry

Feigning death, Wilbarger waited until the Indians finished all the scalping rituals and left. Some stories say Wilbarger pulled the arrow from his neck and passed out. When he awoke, he blazed with fever and crawled to the nearby spring to cool his pain-racked body. He started crawling toward the Hornsby house but made it only as far as the tree where he passed out again.

Upon waking he saw his sister who lived in Missouri come toward him saying for him not to worry, help was on the way. She walked away toward the Hornsby house.

Several months later, word came that his sister died the day before the Indian attack. The family buried her on the day her image appeared to Wilbarger.

A hole about the size of a large silver dollar in Wilbarger’s scalp never healed. He wore silk bandages his wife cut from her wedding dress to protect his head for the next eleven years. He died at his home on April 11, 1844, after striking his head on a low beam in his cotton gin.

John Wesley Wilbarger, Josiah’s brother, is among the many tellers of this tale. A Methodist minister and sometime surveyor, John Wesley spent twenty years collecting accounts of Indian atrocities from sources he claimed were always reliable. In 1889 he published Indian Depredation in Texas, a 672-page piece of Texana filled with 250 separate stories of attacks and counterattacks.

The book came out at a time when academics started telling a more balanced account of Indian culture and motives. John Wesley Wilbarger, however, painted Indians as unredeemable savages.

An interesting aside related to John Wesley Wilbarger’s book is the thirty-four woodcut illustrations recently attributed to Austin resident William Sydney Porter, better known as O. Henry.

Campaign to Open the West

After the Civil War, views differed about what should be done about the Southern Plains Indian’s often-vicious determination to keep their hunting grounds free of white settlement. The Texas government wanted to see the Indians exterminated, while the federal government planned to move them to two reservations established in Indian Territory (present Oklahoma).

Two turbulent chapters in history came together in the 1870s to subdue and contain what the white man called the “Indian threat.” The first transition followed the completion in 1869 of the Transcontinental Railroad, which opened the east coast and European markets to commercial shipment of buffalo hides from the Great Plains. An avalanche of professional buffalo hunters swarmed onto the Southern Plains where tens of millions of buffalo grazed on the rich grassland. The second upheaval, the Red River War, began in 1874 as a campaign of the United States Army to forcibly move the Comanche, Kiowa, Southern Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes to the reservations in Indian Territory.

Bison sustained the life of the nomadic tribes who used every part of the buffalo for survival. Hides provided housing and clothing; brains soften the buffalo skin; bones could be scraped into brushes and awls; hair made excellent ropes, stuffing, and yarn; sinew served as thread and bowstrings; and dung became fuel. Every part of the animal, even the nose gristle, fetus, and hump contributed to the Indian diet.

Indians hunted with bows and spears, killing only the number of bison they needed for survival, whereas a good buffalo hunter made a stand downwind from a herd and could shoot as many as 100 in a morning and 1,000 to 2,000 in a three-month season.

The teams varied in size from one hunter and two skinners to large organizations of hunters, skinners, gun cleaners, cartridge reloaders, cooks, wranglers, and wagons for transporting equipment and supplies. After skinning a beast, which weighed up to 2500 pounds and stood

Buffalo hunters used a tripod to steady their aim.

six feet tall at its shaggy shoulders, the men ate the delicacies—hump and tongue. They hauled hides and bones to the railroad and left the carcass to rot on the prairie. This careless slaughter almost completely exterminated the buffalo

Buffalo hides waiting for shipment to the railroad.

and observing the demise of their livelihood infuriated the Indians.

Charged with harassing the agile bands of Indians until they gave up and moved to the reservations, several army columns crisscrossed the Texas Panhandle searching for the Indians as they moved entire families to various campsites. When the army units discovered a group of Indians, few casualties resulted, but the army destroyed the supplies and horses, slowly reducing the size and force of the roaming Indian population.

In retaliation for the army’s tactics of search and destroy, coupled with Indian anger over the destruction of the buffalo, in June 1874, Comanche Chief Quanah Parker and a spiritual leader named Isa-tai led 250 warriors in an attack on Adobe Walls, a small outpost of buffalo hunters in the Texas Panhandle. The hunters, using large caliber buffalo guns, held off their attackers, but the violence surprised government officials. As the warriors continued raiding along the frontier, President Grant’s administration authorized the Army to use whatever means necessary to subdue the Southern Plains Indians.

With firm directions from Washington, the Red River War began with a fury as five army columns swarmed across the Texas Panhandle from different directions. Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie’s scouts found a large village of Comanche, Kiowa, and Cheyenne hidden in their winter quarters on the floor of Palo Duro Canyon, a 6,000-foot-deep gorge stretching almost three hundred miles across the Texas Panhandle.

Palo Duro Canyon

At dawn on September 28, 1874, Mackenzie’s troops hurtled down the steep cliff wall, surprising the Indians who tried to protect their squaws and pack animals as they fled from the persistent army fire. Nightfall found four Indians dead, 450 lodges burned to the ground, and the winter supply of buffalo meat destroyed. The army rounded up 1,400 horses, shared some with their guides, and shot the remaining.

MacKenzie Raid at Palo Duro Canyon

Out of food and housing, without their horses, and facing winter, the Indians had no choice but to walk to the Fort Sill reservation.

The Red River War ended the following June when Quanah Parker and his band of Comanches—the last of the southwestern Indians––surrendered at Fort Sill. The almost complete devastation of the buffalo and the persistent military attacks successfully ended the Indian presence on the High Plains and opened settlement to white farmers and ranchers.

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

Elizabeth McAnulty Owens, Pioneer Reminiscences

Thanks to the stories that Elizabeth Owens told her daughters, we know about life in Victoria, headquarters for the De León Colony, $T2eC16ZHJHYE9nzpecDNBQVfNGLq1w~~60_12during some of its most turbulent times.

Elizabeth McAnulty was two years old when her mother and stepfather, Margaret and James Quinn, moved the family from New Jersey to Texas in 1829 as part of McMullen-McGloin 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 moved inland to the old Spanish Mission Nuestra Señora del Refugio.

Drawing of Nuestra Señora Del Refugio Mission by Howell, 2005

Drawing of Nuestra Señora Del Refugio Mission by Howell, 2005

After a year, most of the families moved to the colony land at San Patricio on the Nueces River, but Elizabeth’s family remained and began farming near Refugio.  It was the custom for Elizabeth and her brother Thomas to take lunch to her stepfather who was working in the field.  Elizabeth recounted the story of a drunk Indian who caught Thomas and must have 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.

When Elizabeth was eight, James Quinn acquired a league of land (4,428 acres) in the De León Colony just outside Victoria. The following year, in February 1836 Elizabeth witnessed a Tancahua Indian Scalp Dance on Market Square in Victoria.  The peaceful Tancahuas had been approached by the warlike Carancahuas (generally called Karankawas) asking for help with an attack on the aristocratic and refined Mexican family of Don Martín De León the empresario who had founded the colony.  For some reason the Carancahuas especially hated the empresario’s wife.  The Tancahuas met the Carancahuas and instead of joining the attack, they cut the Carancahua’s bow strings, killed thirteen members of the tribe, and took 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.

As war clouds for Texas independence built up, James Quinn joined a company that made the twenty-five-mile trip to La Bahía, to help defend the presidio from Mexican attack. Elizabeth went with her mother to a nearby home where the women molded bullets for their husbands.  As the large Mexican Army approached Goliad, the settlement around Presidio La Bahía, James Quinn and other men returned to Victoria to move their families to safety. James Quinn discovered his oxen had roamed away in his absence, leaving only the Quinns and two other families who supported independence.

Elizabeth said that during the battle between James Fannin’s troops down on Coleto Creek (fifteen miles away) and General Urrea’s Army, they could hear the sound of the cannons.  A man arrived on horseback with a message for Colonel Fannin.  When he heard the cannon fire, he stayed with the Quinns.  While he told the family his story, Elizabeth sat on the hearth holding a candle in the chimney so the light could not be seen.  When a shot rang out, the messenger apparently thought they were under attack because he rushed out to his horse and rode quickly away in the darkness.  He did not get far before he was discovered and shot.

General Urrea’s army, having just accepted Fannin’s surrender, reached Victoria with great fanfare, parading through the streets to the sound of their bugles and drums. A Mexican officer took possession of the Quinn’s 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 for that time. The officer’s presence afforded protection for the family when a group of Mexican soldiers banged on the door with their muskets because when the Mexican officer’s wife opened the door, the startled Mexicans quickly withdrew.

Elizabeth tells another story about Señora Alvarez, the woman known as “The Angle of Goliad,” who had saved several of the Texans before the massacre.  It seems she was the wife of a Mexican colonel, and despite stories of his abandoning her when he heard that she had rescued some of the young Texans at Goliad, she arrived with her husband in Victoria. Seven men who had escaped the massacre rushed into Victoria, apparently 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 the guards to let her son Thomas take food each day to the prisoners.  On a day when the boy encountered the new guard he was choked severely for delivering the food.

Elizabeth said that when the four Texan prisoners were brought to the Market Square to the executed, Señora Alvarez threw herself in front of the Texans, spreading her huge skirts out before them and protesting that she would also be shot if they were killed.  After Santa Anna surrendered, the four men were released.

Despite Santa Anna’s surrender, a rumor spread that the Mexican Army had reorganized and was heading to Victoria.  All residents were ordered to flee. 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 was too heavily loaded and tipped the family and all their possessions into the water. Elizabeth grabbed a partially submerge tree and clung for her life. Mr. Blanco’s son disappeared under the water, but Mr. Blanco spotted the white sunbonnet that Elizabeth was wearing and managed to pull her to safety.  All the party was saved except for Mr. Blanco’s son.

There were several more scares of Indian attacks or Mexican invasion as Mexico refused to accept that Texas has won its independence. Many times the women and children were moved to a block house that offered better protection; other times they crossed the Navidad River, even spending the entire winter of 1836-37 away from Victoria. Upon returning in 1837 to Victoria, the Quinns found their home reduced to ashes. Texan soldiers had spotted a herd of deer on a hillside, and thinking they were the Mexican Army, the Texans ordered all the houses burned except those that surrounded the town square. The houses on the square were saved for the soldiers’ use. The Quinns spent the winter in the church with other families who hung partitions for privacy.

In 1840 Comanches who felt betrayed by whites in an incident at San Antonio’s Council House that resulted in the death of most of the Comanche leaders, swept down across Texas is 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.

When Elizabeth was seventeen, she married Richard Owens, a New York native who arrived in time to serve in the Army of the Republic of Texas.  Among other lucrative endeavors, he became a very successful building contractor, freighter, merchant, and mayor of Victoria. Elizabeth worked as a community leader while raising 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, their flag had a background of red Merino wool bordered in a white silk fringe, featuring a large blue shield with twelve white stars circling a larger star representing the Lone Star State.  The regiments name showed in white silk letters.

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

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

Elizabeth McAnulty Owens died in 1905, but she had shared the stories of her life adventures with her daughters, and they used their notes to write Elizabeth-McAnulty-Owens, The Story of her Life, which was published in 1936.