A Texas Camel Story

Texans make a lot of extravagant claims. Sometimes they are true; like the story about having camels in Texas. Jefferson Davis, Secretary of War (1853-1857) under President Franklin Pierce, convinced Congress to appropriate $30,000 to buy and import camels for military use as beasts of burden. Davis claimed that camels were well-suited to the desert-like conditions of the West because they carried tremendous loads, traveled long distances without water and would forage on any plant.

Gwinn Heap Illustration for Jeff Davis report to Senate 1857. National Archives

On May 13, 1856, citizens of the thriving seaport of Indianola on the Texas Gulf Coast turned out in droves to watch thirty-two adult camels and one calf wildly rearing, breaking halters, kicking, and crying as three Arabs and two Turk handlers made a valiant effort to control the beasts. Before the day ended the camels regained their land legs and amid the tingling of bells hanging from their saddles, they plodded docilely toward the corral constructed by the War Department.

A horseback rider rode ahead of the camels shouting to get horses and mules out of the way since the sight and smell of the strange beasts sent both horses and mules into frightened frenzies causing runaway wagons and tossed riders. The townspeople followed the parade thoroughly enjoying the commotion.

Some accounts claim that the War Department ran out of wood for building the corral and resorted to stacking up the plentiful prickly pear cactus for fencing. The camels ate the prickly pear.

Major H.C. Wayne, who purchased the camels and accompanied them to Texas, reported to Secretary Davis that Indianolans voiced skepticism about camels being stronger than their mules and oxen. In sort of a PR stunt, Major Wayne directed one of the handlers to take a camel to the Quartermaster’s forage house for four bales of hay. Major Wayne mingled among the crowd listening to the derisive comments of those certain the kneeling camel could not rise under the burden of two bales weighing 613 pounds. Then two more bales were added for an incredible 1,256 pounds. To the astonishment of the onlookers, the camel rose on command and easily walked away.

After three weeks of exercising to prepare the camels for the 200-mile trek to Camp Verde on the western frontier of Texas, the procession moved majestically across the prairie.

A Victoria woman along the route gathered some of the camel hair and knitted socks for President Franklin Pierce. He sent a thank you letter but did not mention wearing the things.

The experiment proved so successful that an additional forty-one camels arrived in 1857. The beasts carried supplies for a team surveying a wagon road from New Mexico to the Colorado River and on to California. They hauled supplies in the first expedition to explore and map

1859, Thomas Lovell, Big Bend Expedition
Courtesy Abell-Hanger Foundation & Permian Basin Petroleum Museum

the Big Bend on the Texas/Mexican border.

A Methodist circuit rider, John Wesley Devilbiss, wrote that he was conducting a brush arbor camp meeting south of Camp Verde when six camels walked into the meeting carrying wives and children of Camp Verde military officers. At the end of the day, the visitors climbed aboard the docile beasts and plodded away.

When Texas seceded from the Union, Federal troops abandoned the western frontier and the camels were left to roam. The Confederates used some camels to pack cotton bales to Mexico where international ships waited to barter for guns and medical supplies. One camel carried all the baggage for an entire infantry company.

Although the camels fulfilled all expectations as beasts of burden, they were eventually sold. Some were purchased by circuses and others roamed the West until they died out. They never gained acceptance because they smelled terrible, they frightened horses and mules, and their handlers, who preferred the more docile mules, hated them.

Circus Camels 189?
University of North Texas Libraries

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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.

Sam Houston and the Ladies

Before he became the hero of the Battle of San Jacinto and the first president of the Republic of Texas, Sam Houston was the darling of all the ladies, except for one, Anna Raguet. The well-educated Miss Raguet was fourteen in 1833 when she moved with her father from

Anna Raguet

Cincinnati to Nacogdoches, which was still part of the Mexican state of Coahuila y Tejas. Marquis James, Houston’s biographer says in The Raven that Anna’s father Henry Raguet was a merchant and landowner. He provided the best house in Nacogdoches for his family where they entertained extensively. Anna, the apple of her father’s eye, played the French harp in the parlor and translated Spanish, especially for the young men in the area who wanted to improve their correspondence with the Texas Mexican government. And like the forty-year-old Sam Houston enjoyed the company of the charming Miss Anna.

When Houston met Anna Raguet he was a Texas newcomer with plenty of baggage. Under circumstances that were never made public, his bride Eliza Allen had left him in 1829, and he had resigned as governor of Tennessee. On top of that mystery, he had returned to his former life with the Cherokees and married a Cherokee woman who had refused to come with him to Texas. In addition to his lady problems, Houston was known, even among his beloved Cherokees, as “the Big Drunk.”

Sam Houston, 1849-1853 by artist Thomas Flintoff

To clear the way for a serious courtship, Houston hired a divorce lawyer who failed to get the decree because divorce was against Mexican the law. Even as Houston began his law practice, hobnobbed with Nacogdoches society, and became deeply involved with the political faction seeking Texas independence from Mexico, he pursued his courtship of Anna through letters and his gentlemanly manners.

Although she did not always encourage his entreaties, she did tie his sword sash and snipped a lock of his hair before he left Nacogdoches for the Texas War for Independence. He continued a one-sided correspondence with Anna during the war. After the Battle of San Jacinto, as his surgeon probed his badly injured ankle for fragments of bone and mangled flesh, Houston propped himself against a tree, weaving a garland of leaves. He addressed a card “To Miss Anna Raguet, Nacogdoches, Texas: These are laurels I send you from the battlefield of San Jacinto. Thine. Houston.”

Houston was the hero of the day after San Jacinto and easily won election as the first president of the Republic of Texas. In the midst of the challenges of organizing a new government, he did not return to Nacogdoches for several months. Instead, he worked out of a shack on the banks of the Brazos River in the temporary capital of Columbia and continued his courtship of Anna Raguet by mail. She had ignored the laurel of leaves and card sent from the battlefield of San Jacinto. To avoid gossip that would surely reach her in Nacogdoches, Houston refrained from socials engagements as much as possible and stayed away from alcohol.

Houston’s biographer claims that Dr. Robert Irion, a gentlemanly young physician who had practiced medicine in Nacogdoches and had been elected to the First Congress of the Republic, accepted Houston’s appointment as his Secretary of State. Dr. Irion worked closely with President Houston and had even listened to Houston’s worries about the scarcity of mail from Miss Anna. When Irion went home to Nacogdoches on a short leave, he carried Houston’s letters to Anna.

In early 1837 Houston wrote Irion: “Salute all my friends and don’t forget the Fairest of the Fair!!!” Again Houston wrote: “Write … .and tell me how matters move on and how the Peerless Miss Anna is and does! I have written her so often that I fear she has found me troublesome, and … .I pray you to make my apology and … .salute her with my … .very sincere respects.” While Houston waited for letters that did not come, he received regular reports that Miss Anna was nearing the steps of the altar, although no one seemed to know who the fortunate fellow might be.

Ignoring the laws of the Republic of Texas that required an Act of Congress to secure a divorce, President Houston empowered a judge to quietly hear the case in his chambers and issue the decree. The version of the divorce story that Anna Raguet received was apparently all it took to settle any doubts she may have harbored. The one-sided romance came to an end.

Dr. Robert Irion, upon hearing the news, promptly persuaded Miss Anna Raguet to marry him. The nuptials took place in March or April of 1840. The couple had five children, and they named their first son Sam Houston Irion.

Houston’s Cherokee wife died in 1838 and two years later Sam Houston married his third wife, twenty-one-year-old Margaret Moffette Lea. They had eight children, the youngest born just two years before Houston’s death in 1863.

Margaret Lea Houston

Oil Man Who Gave Away Millions

If you are driving south from Austin on US 183, you know when you’ve arrived in Luling. Even if you’re the passenger and your eyes are closed, you’ll recognize Luling. It stinks. Yes, oil pumping stations (pump jacks) operate all over town—even in the heart of the city. Nobody in

Pumpjack

Pumpjack in downtown Luling

Luling minds the odor. They say it is the smell of money. In fact the residents appreciate the oil so much that all nine of the pumping stations are decorated. You’ll see Uncle Sam, a girl eating a watermelon slice (yes, it’s also watermelon country), a grasshopper, Tony the Tiger—you get the idea.

The story of Luling’s oil business dates back to 1919 when the little town of 1,500 with a railroad running parallel to its dusty main street and wooden sidewalks was struggling to recover from the effects of WWI. Edgar B. Davis a loud-talking, over-sized bachelor from Massachusetts with a strong Yankee accent showed up. The residents welcomed the jovial fellow who had already made a million in the shoe business and over $3 million in the rubber business.

Edgar B. Davis

He had come to Luling because his brother Oscar asked him to look into a $75,000 investment he had made in oil leases that weren’t producing.

Against the advice of everyone, including geologists, Davis bought his brother’s interest, ordered the drilling to go from 1,700 to 3,000 feet, and promptly drilled six dry wells in a row. Almost broke and deeply in debt, Davis drove out to the seventh well site on August 9, 1922. Suddenly, black gold shot straight up in the air announcing the arrival of Rafael Rios No. 1. Within two years the field produced 43,000 barrels of oil a day.

In 1926 Davis sold his leases to Magnolia Petroleum Company for $12 million (half in cash), an oil deal considered the largest in Texas up to that time. If that were the end of the story, it would just be another ho-hum tale of a rich man almost going broke and rebounding into even more wealth. This is no ordinary story. Although Edgar B. Davis did not belong to a church, he held a strong belief that Providence guided his life. He planned a “thank offering” for his friends, associates and employees. He bought forty wooded acres on the north side of town and built an athletic clubhouse for blacks. South of town, on the banks of the San Marcos River, he bought 100 acres and laid out a golf course and clubhouse facilities for whites. He fully endowed both sites. Then, he hosted a barbecue, strung Japanese lanterns, built polished, outdoor dance floors, imported bands, and brought in singers from the New York Metropolitan Opera. Estimates of attendance ranged up to 35,000. The food reportedly cost $10,000 and included all the accouterments, even Havana cigars.

Next, the man who believed that he was an instrument of God gave bonuses to his employees of 25 to 100 percent of their total salary—an estimated $5 million. But he wasn’t done. With the firm belief that he had been “directed” to deliver Luling and the surrounding counties from the oppressive one-crop cotton economy, Davis purchased 1,200 acres west of town and established the Luling Foundation. This experimental farm continues to conduct research in all facets of farming including experimental and management programs in cooperation with Texas A & M University.

When I visited Luling to research this story, I heard several strange tales about Edgar B. Davis. Perhaps the strangest came from an older gentlemen who reported that Davis continued to wildcat and eventually found himself in such financial straits that the bank was about to foreclose on his home. In a series of mysterious late-night raids, his house was burned to the ground. When I questioned why anyone in the whole region had reason to burn Davis’ home, the old gentlemen said. “I guess folks figured if Edgar B. Davis couldn’t keep his home, nobody else was going to get it.”

Before Davis died in 1951 at age 78, he rebuilt his fortune. He was buried on the grounds of his destroyed home. Today the Seton Edgar B. Davis Hospital, which opened in 1966, operates on the home site of the man who believed that the more one gives, the more one has.

Edgar B. Davis grave on the grounds of his home and current hospital.

TEXAS TALES, STORIES THAT SHAPED A LANDSCAPE AND A PEOPLE––Prepublication Notice

These tales trace the Texas story from Cabeza de Vaca who trekked barefoot across the country recording the first accounts of Indian life to empresarios like Stephen F. Austin and Don Martín DeLeón who brought settlers into Mexican Texas. Visionaries—like Padre José Nicolás Ballí, the Singer family, and Sam Robertson—who tried and failed to develop Padre Island into the wonderland that it is today. There are legendary characters like Sally Skull who had five husbands and may have killed some of them, and Josiah Wilbarger who was scalped and lived another ten years to tell his tale. Stories of Shanghai Pierce, cattleman extraordinaire, who had no qualms about rounding up other folks calves and Tol Barret who drilled Texas’ first oil well over thirty years before Spindletop changed the world. Power brokers saved Galveston by building a seawall and raising the level of the island, and Miriam Ferguson, better known as “Ma,” became the first female Texas governor after her husband was impeached. The Sanctified Sisters got rich running the only commune for women and millionaire oilman Edgar B. Davis gave away his money as fast as he made it. All these characters—early-day adventurers, Civil War heroes, and latter day artists and musicians—create the patchwork called Texas.

Texas Tales will be available in softcover or e-book on Amazon about mid-April.

If you want a signed copy for someone who likes Texas stories, contact me at mcilvain.myra@gmail.com.

 

Law West of the Pecos

As the railroad spread westward across Texas, the common saying was, “West of the Pecos there is no law; west of El Paso there is no God.” Texas Rangers were called in to quell the criminal element that followed the railroad crews through the desolate Chihuahuan Desert. The

Judge Roy Bean

Judge Roy Bean

rangers had to haul prisoners to the county seat at Fort Stockton—a 400-mile round trip—and they needed a local justice of the peace in Vinegaroon, a town just west of the Pecos River. It was August 1882 and Roy Bean, who had left his wife and four children in San Antonio earlier that year, won the appointment. He kept the job with only two off years––when he lost elections––until 1902.

Bean’s training in the law consisted of a talent for avoiding it. He was in his early twenties when he made a quick exit from the law in Chihuahua, Mexico. He made a jail break in San Diego and avoided being hanged in San Gabriel, California. He prospered for a time in the saloon business with his older brother in Mesilla, New Mexico.

After the Civil War, he settled in a part of San Antonio that became known as Beanville. He married in 1866 and spent several years in various jobs—a firewood business until he was caught cutting his neighbor’s timber; a dairy business until he began watering down the milk; and a butcher shop that sold meat from cattle rustled from nearby ranches. When he opened a saloon, a rival barkeeper was so eager to see him out of the business, that she bought out his entire operation for $900, all the money he needed to head west and set up his own tent saloon along the new railroad construction in Vinegarroon.

With his new position as justice of the peace, Bean acquired an 1879 edition of the Revised Statues of Texas and undertook his first action—he shot up the saloon shack of a Jewish competitor. His tent saloon served as a part-time courtroom where his jurors were selected from an array of his best bar customers. When an Irishman named O’Rourke killed a Chinese railroad laborer, a mob of O’Rourke supporters surrounded Bean’s court and threatened to lynch him if he didn’t free O’Rourke. After looking through his law book, Bean announced that homicide was killing of a human being; however, he could find no law against killing a Chinaman. He dismissed the case.

As railroad construction moved westward, Bean followed the line to a town that became known as Langtry, which Bean claimed he named for the English actress Emilie Charlotte (Lillie) Langtry with whom he fell in love after seeing her picture in a newspaper. In truth, the town, sitting on a bluff above the Rio Grande, was named for George Langtry an engineer and foreman who supervised the Chinese immigrants who constructed the railroad.

Apparently, Bean’s reputation preceded him because the landowner sold to the railroad on the condition that no part of the land could be sold or leased to Bean. O’Rourke, the gentlemen who had been acquitted, suggested Bean establish his saloon on the railroad right-of-way because that land was not covered in the railroad sales contract.

Lillie Langtry

Lillie Langtry

Bean built his saloon, which he named The Jersey Lilly in honor of Lillie Langtry who was born on Jersey, one of the islands in the English Channel. He claimed to know Miss Lillie and wrote to her several times inviting her to visit his town. When his saloon burned, he built a new home and called it an opera house where he insisted Miss Lillie would come to perform. Her visit actually came ten months after Bean’s death.

Bean’s creative court decisions in The Jersey Lilly included the time he fined a corpse $40 for carrying a concealed weapon. It just so happened that in addition to his gun, the dead man had $40 in his pocket, which paid for his burial and court costs. Bean was known as “the hanging judge,” despite never hanging anybody. Whereas horse thieves were hanged in other jurisdictions, in Bean’s court, they were let go if the horses were returned to their owners. Since there was no jail, all cases ended with fines, which Bean kept, refusing to send the money to the state. Usually, the fine consisted of the amount of money found in the prisoner’s pockets.old_langtry_tx

Although a justice of the peace was not authorized to grant divorces, Bean did it anyway, charging $10 for the service. He charged $5 for performing a wedding and ended each ceremony with “and may God have mercy on your souls.” Bean was noted for his colorful language such as, “It is the judgment of this court that you are hereby tried and convicted of illegally and unlawfully committing certain grave offenses against the peace and dignity of the State of Texas, particularly in my bailiwick,” and then he added, “I fine you two dollars; then get the hell out of here and never show yourself in this court again. That’s my rulin’.” He also maintained tight control of the language used in his courtroom, even threatened a lawyer with hanging for using “profane language” when the lawyer referred to the “habeas corpus” of his client.

When Bean heard that railroad tycoon Jay Gould was on a train heading toward Langtry, Bean used a danger signal to flag down the train. Thinking the bridge over the Pecos River was out, the train stopped, and Bean entertained Gould and his daughter at The Jersey Lilly during a two-hour visit. The delay sent tremors through the New York Stock Exchange when reports circulated that Gould had been killed in a train wreck.

While the trains stopped to take on water, passengers poured into The Jersey Lilly where Bean served them quickly and then became very slow giving them their change. When the warning whistle blew announcing the train’s departure, the rush was on with passengers demanding their money and Bean eventually issuing a fine in the amount of their change. His reputation grew as the passengers ran cursing back to the waiting train, and future travelers could not resist stopping to visit the ramshackle saloon and its infamous proprietor.

Prizefighting became illegal in most of the Southwest and in Mexico, which prompted Bean to open a side business promoting fights on a sandbar in the middle of the Rio Grande. In 1898, when promoters could not find a place to hold the world championship title prizefight between Bob Fitzsimmons and Peter Maher, Bean welcomed the event to Langtry. An excursion train arrived with 200 spectators on February 22, and Bean entertained them for a time in The Jersey Lilly before leading them to a bridge he had constructed to reach the makeshift ring. The Texas Rangers watched helplessly from a bluff on the Texas side of the river while Fitzsimmons beat Maher in 95 seconds. The fans and sportswriters enjoyed a few more drinks at The Jersey Lilly before the train carried them back to El Paso to spread the news throughout the United States.

Books, movies, TV shows and Roy Bean himself spread the legend of Judge Roy Bean, “the law west of the Pecos,” with tales true and tainted. Despite failing health, Bean went on a drinking binge in Del Rio in March 1903 and died in his bed the following morning. The Texas Department of Public Transportation has restored The Jersey Lilly Saloon in Langtry and created a Visitors Center just south of US Hwy. 90.1280px-jerseylilly