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.

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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 had 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 not far from their home. Rebecca remembered that as the Indians bore down on them, her mother grabbed their arms and prayed loudly that they 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.

The following morning, they had stopped to rest when a company of Texas Rangers led by Albert Sidney Johnston surprised the Indians. In the 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 the 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.

After being raised by an aunt in Galveston, Rebecca attended Rutersville, a Methodist school between La Grange and Round Top. In 1848, she married Orceneth Fisher, a minister almost thirty years her senior, who was an editor of the Texas Wesleyan Banner.

Dr. Orceneth Fisher

Dr. Orceneth Fisher

Rebecca and Dr. Fisher served several churches before eventually settling in 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 Dr. 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.”

The Fishers returned to Texas in 1870 and settled in Austin where Dr. 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; Courtesy State Preservation Board, Photographed by: Eric Beggs

Rebecca Fisher; Courtesy State Preservation Board, Photographed by Eric Beggs

Rebecca Fisher was the only woman elected to the Texas Veterans Association. After its members, who had served from the time of the Texas Revolution, 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.