Last week, Captain Leander H. McNelly spoke to you through his own words of 143 years ago. McNelly’s official report of the Palo Alto Prairie War wasn’t the only rendition of what happened that day. Texas Ranger Private William Crump Callicott was born on 8 November 1852 at Pattison, then Austin County, now Waller County. William’s middle name was chosen to honor William E. Crump, Speaker of the House of Representatives, first legislature on 16 February 1846. William’s mother and her first husband, Jacob Pevehouse, migrated to Texas as part of Stephen F. Austin’s first colony (1824). Pevehouse settled near San Felipe de Austin. Pevehouse was killed in an accident while working on the roof of his home. His widow then married James Callicott, but she died in 1854 leaving four children in the care of her second husband.
Bill Callicott served under Captain John R. Waller, Major John B. Jones, and Captain Leander H. McNelly. Callicott served with the Rangers until 30 November 1875, when he was mustered out with an honorable discharge. He passed away in Houston, Texas on 10 June 1926; on the date of his passing, hardly anyone knew who Bill Callicott was, or what he’d seen as part of the Frontier and Special Forces Battalions, Texas Rangers.
Bill Callicott’s story, as told to author Walter Prescott Webb before his death, provides a keen insight into how Leander H. McNelly commanded his company of rangers. Callicott’s version of the story differs somewhat from that of his captain, particularly as to the disposition of Mexican prisoners, but it does coincide with McNelly’s account in most other respects. In any case, this is how Private William Crump Callicott (shown right) remembered the Red Raid in June 1875.
In the early spring of 1875, Captain McNelly had orders to organize a company of forty rangers to go down to the Rio Grande and deal with Mexican cow thieves and bandits that were coming from Mexico into Texas, killing people and driving cattle to Mexico. Captain McNelly had orders to deal with these bandits and thieves in the same way Major Jones dealt with the Indians —kill those on this side of the river and take no prisoners. The Captain said he knew how to obey such orders and as soon as he got his company in shape, he made for the Rio Grande.
We had not been there but a little while until we heard of a band of Mexicans who had come over after cattle. At the time we heard this, only thirty men were in camp, the rest being out on a scout. Captain McNelly called for twenty-two volunteers, which he readily got. Among them was Barry Smith, the youngest fellow in the company. Old Man Smith, who was with us, went to the Captain and asked him to let some other boy take his boy’s place; he said that Barry was his only child and if anything happened to him, his mother would die of grief. The Captain told him that any of the Rangers would be glad to take Barry’s place and he told Barry that if he wished, he could stay in camp with his father.
Barry said, “Captain, we have been out here some time and haven’t had a fight yet and I would like to go if you will let me. If I get killed it will be no worse than for some of the other boys to get killed.” The Captain told him that was the way he liked to hear a fellow talk and to go ahead and get ready to start …
Another Ranger we had with us was Old Jesus Sandoval. He was a Mexican who had a ranch on this side of the river. Several years before we went out there, he and a white man caught four Mexican cow thieves and hung them all to one tree. After that, the Mexicans on the other side swore they would kill him on the first chance. Jesus had not slept in his own house for over ten years because he was afraid of being killed. He knew the country well on this side of the river, knew all the Mexicans for miles around, and so the Captain let him join us, paying him the same that he did us … forty dollars a month. He gave him the same kinds of arms we used, a Colt .45 and a needle gun, and Jesus was proud of these weapons and made a fine Ranger. The way he helped us in handling spies will be told later.
When on the Mexican border, Captain McNelly used wagons instead of pack mules such as Major Jones used on the northern frontier after Indians. We did not need pack mules as we could buy grub from the ranches. Captain McNelly left seven or eight men, including a corporal, with the wagons while the rest of us tied what little we had cooked to our saddles and started out to find the bandits.
We hadn’t been out but a day or two before we caught the first Mexican bandit spy. Captain McNelly marched his company so that it was hard for any prowling Mexicans to escape him. Two or three men marched on each side of the company in the direction we were going and looked out for bandits and spies, and if they came across a Mexican that looked suspicious, they would bring him into the company for Old Jesus to identify.
Jesus would talk to the Mexican a little, and then tell Tom Sullivan, our interpreter, who was raised among the Mexicans in Brownsville, what the Mexican was. If the Mexican proved to be a citizen, we let him go at once; and if he proved to be a bandit spy one of us would take charge of him and march along until we saw a suitable tree. The Captain would take Tom, the bandit, and four or five of the boys over to the tree. Old Jesus would put a rope over the bandit’s neck, throw it over a limb, pull him up and let him down on the ground until he would consent to tell all he knew. As far as we knew, this treatment always brought out the truth.
After the Captain had all the information he wanted he would let Jesus have charge of the spy. Jesus would make a regular hangman’s knot and place the loop over the bandit’s head, throw the end of the rope over the limb and make the bandit get on Old Jesus’ paint horse and stand up on the saddle. Jesus would then make the loose end of the rope fast, get behind his horse, hit him a hard lick, and the horse would jump from under the spy, breaking his neck instantly. Now, Captain McNelly didn’t like this kind of killing, but Jesus did. He said if we turned a spy loose, he would spread the news among the bandits and we would never catch them. We caught several spies on that scout before we overhauled the bandits with the cattle, and Jesus dealt with all of them alike, showing no partiality —he always made them a present of six feet of rope.
The last spy we caught was on 11 June, Friday after twelve o’clock. The Captain turned him over to me to guard. He rode along with me until we stopped to get supper on a little creek. I had him tied with a rope so that he could not get away. I fixed a little supper for him and gave him some jerked beef and bread that he could eat and good strong coffee, knowing that would be about the last meal he would have a chance to eat. I gave him some cigarettes to smoke. He enjoyed it all.
It was beginning to get late in the evening, all had supper, and our horses had grazed for about two hours. As the sun was getting low, the Captain, Tom Sullivan, and two of the boys came over to where I was sitting down with the bandit smoking. The Captain said, “Well Bill, we will relieve you; we will take charge of this prisoner. Did you give him plenty to eat?” I told him he had all he could digest on six feet of rope.
They took him out to a little motte about two hundred yards from where we were. Jesus took along his old paint horse and he used for trap-door gallows and I knew it was checking up time for the Mexican bandit spy. We at the camp could see all that was going on out there. They did not stay out there but a little while when the Captain and the boys came back to us … all except Jesus and the bandit. The Captain said he could stand death in any other form better than hanging. After Jesus had completed his job he came back to us and said, “He all right —he come back no more.” By that time it was sundown.
We now prepared to go on after the bandits. The spy had told us all he knew, that seventeen Mexicans and one white man were driving two hundred fifty head of cattle in the direction of Palo Alto Prairie. He evidently told the truth. We planned to overhaul them in the night.
I had on the only white shirt in the crowd. The Captain came to me and said, “Bill, from what the spy says we will likely overhaul the bandits tonight and in the dark it will be a hard matter to tell our men from them if we get mixed up. I want your white shirt, but I will give you another when we get to a place where I can buy one.” I told him the shirt made no difference to me, that the weather was warm, and my undershirt was all I needed. I pulled off the shirt and the Captain tore it up and died a piece around the left arm of each man. Barry Smith, the boy that was killed the next day, still had the piece of white tied to his arm.
After all was ready the Captain ordered us in line. He rode out front of us and said, “Boys, from what the bandit told me, we are likely to overhaul them tonight, and when we do, I will order you all into a line of battle, and when I order you to charge them, I want you to charge them in line. Do not get ahead of each other and get mixed up with the bandits for if you do you are apt to kill one another instead of the bandits. Don’t pay any attention to the cattle. The spy tells me that there are seventeen Mexicans and one white man and that they are Cortina’s picked men, and Cortina says they can cope with any Rangers or regulars. If we can overhaul them in an open country, we will teach them a lesson they will never forget. If they should stampede, pick you out the one that is nearest you and keep after him. Get as close to him as you can before you shoot. It makes no difference in what direction he goes, stay with him to the finish. That is all I have to say. Ready … form in two’s! Forward, march!
Old Jesus took the lead and we rode all night in the direction which the spy told the Captain Palo Alto Prairie lay, and we got to the prairie about sun up. As luck would have it, we did not overhaul them in the night. If we had, we could not have wiped them out.
At the prairie we found their trail leading across it towards the Rio Grande. We followed it at a fast trot and lope, not wanting to overspeed our horses that had been under the saddle for twenty-four hours with but little rest and little to eat. We hadn’t followed the trail farther than a mile or two before we come in sight of the bandits. The Captain knew we had them right where he wanted to overhaul them, and he kept getting faster and faster. The bandits saw us, but thought, so the one that got away told after he got back to Mexico, that we were regulars and that they could stand us off.
The bandits came to a big lagoon running out from the bay. It was about one hundred fifty yards wide with mud and water from knee deep to belly deep. They rounded up the cattle on this side of the lagoon, and then went over to the other side and dismounted in a line of battle. When we came to the lagoon, Captain McNelly ordered us in a line of battle about four feet apart and ordered us not to fire until we got out of the mud and water. The bandits opened fire on us from behind their horses, using their saddles for gun rests.
As we were crossing the lagoon, the Captain happened to look off to the right and saw a skirt of timber about two miles away. He told Lieutenant Robinson to keep on across the lagoon and not to fire a shot until he got to where the mud and water were shallow enough to make a charge, and that he would take Jesus and six of the boys and keep the Mexicans cut off from the timber. The Captain took the right wing, going angling toward the timber. The bandits kept firing at us, but their bullets would pass over our heads, between us, or hit the mud and water before us. By the time we got out of the deepest mud and water the Mexicans, seeing that their bullets had no effect, mounted and away they went toward the skirt of timber. When they found themselves cut off by Captain McNelly and his men, they rallied and stopped, opening fire on Captain McNelly’s squad. The Captain and his men killed one or two of them and the rest broke out full tilt across Palo Alto Prairie with Lieutenant Robinson and the rest of us behind them, and Captain McNelly on the side.
Soon we were all running in line of battle in case the Mexicans should turn to right or left or scatter in any way. We had the bandits straight ahead of us going toward the Rio Grande. There was not a tree in sight, only now and then a little bunch of Spanish daggers.
When we came within gun range Lieutenant Robinson shouted out “Go for them, boys! Go for them!” Every man slapped spurs to his horse, giving him all the speed he had. I rammed both spurs to Old Ball who opened up his throttle with such an unexpected lunge that he went from under my hat and came near going from under me. We soon got up with them and the battle opened right. As fast as we overhauled one, we would shoot him or his horse. The last one we killed was riding the best horse in the bandit’s crowd and kept away ahead of any of the rest. The Captain and three or four of us were after him. We killed his horse from under him near a little Spanish dagger thicket and he ran into it on foot. The Captain ordered us to surround it, and then he dismounted, took his pistol out and started into the thicket. When he met the bandit they were about six or eight feet apart. The bandit had emptied his pistol and the Captain had only one ball left in his. The Mexican drew out his knife and with a grin on his face he started after the Captain saying, “Me got you now …” The Captain leveled his pistol and place his last shot between the bandit’s teeth —as if he had put it there with his fingers. The Captain called, “Come in boys,” and we dismounted and ran in to find the Captain standing over the bandit who had already checked up and breathed his last. The Captain took his knife and pistol … I untied his sash from around him, tying it around myself. It was the prettiest one I had ever seen, having the colors of Mexico; red, white, and green.
Having put an end to the last bandit, we mounted our horses and started back over the trail of the dead. It was then about two o’clock in the evening. As we passed by I happened to come upon a dead bandit lying in the grass flat on his back with his hands and leg lying out straight from his body. He was shot through the head and I don’t think he moved a muscle after he fell from his horse. His eyes were glared wide open, gazing at the hot June sun. His shaggy black beard was blood stained and the blow flies were swarming over his face after blood and brains. Just back of his head, in the grass, lay a fine Mexican hat, bottom up. The high June sun was getting mighty hot on my head as I hadn’t had a hat on since the first charge that morning. So, I eased down off Old Ball, picked up that hat, pulled up some grass, wiped off what blood I could, and put it on. Glad to get it. I then got on Old Ball and overtook the Captain and the boys. The Captain said, “Where did you get your Mexican hat?” I told him I got it off a dead bandit. He said, “It’s a good one. With that hat and sash, you could pass for a Mexican bandit in the dark anywhere.”
While we were going back over the trail and locating bandits, Jesus and two Mexican ranchmen who had joined us during the fight began to gather them up. When they found one, they would fasten a rope around his neck, wrap the loose end around the pommel of the saddle and strike a lope to the road that was near the bandit trail. They put them all in one pile, Jack Ellis, the white man, included.
Near upon the end of the trail, we came upon Spencer J. Adams sitting on his horse, Sorrel Top, so called because his mane and tail were white. Adams had pulled off his shirt and had it wrapped around Sorrel Top’s neck to protect a bullet wound from the flies. Adams was looking intently into a rush pond nearby.
“What are you watching in that pond, Adams?” asked the Captain.
“I’m watching that bandit,” said Adams. “This morning when the fight started by the lagoon, you all got ahead of me and Berry Smith and some of you shot the bandit off his horse and you thought he was dead. Barry and I saw him crawl into that Spanish dagger thicket you see there near the edge of the pond. We ran up to a thicket to shoot him again, but just as we got there he shot and killed Barry and shot at me and Sorrel Top. Later, after Barry was dead, this bandit crawled out and got Barry’s pistol. A little while ago he crawled out to this pond of water. He’s out in the middle of it—you can see the rush grass move when he crawls along. I think you broke his leg for has not been on his feet today.”
When Spencer told us this, the Captain said, “You boys surround this pond but don’t get opposite one another. Use your guns but not your pistols, and if Adams hasn’t let this bandit die on his hands, we will soon wake him up.”
The Captain did not do any shooting, but when the rush grass would move he would point to the spot and tell the nearest of us to shoot. We had fired several shots without waking him up when finally, one of the boys hit him. He floundered and kicked and sometimes his feet would go above the top of the rush grass. When he quieted down, the Captain said, “That will do —that shot checked him up. Ride in, Jesus, and bring him out.” Our inspection showed that the bandit had been hit in many places. The Captain told Jesus to take him to the other bandits and come back as soon as he could.
That made sixteen Mexican bandits and one white bandit, Jack Ellis, that we killed. One Mexican got away. We shot him off his horse and left him for dead, but he crawled out to where some Mexicans were cutting hay and hid in the hay.
When Jesus got back to us, after taking in the pond bandit, we were all together except Barry Smith. We found him lying in four feet of the thicket, stiff dead. He was only sixteen years old, had no experience, and got too close to the bandit without seeing him. The Captain had me tie Barry on the back of my horse and send two Mexican ranchers back over the trail to get whatever they could in the way of horses, saddles, and bridles. He told them to kill any horse that was badly wounded, as he did not want them to stay out on the prairie and suffer.
I suppose a thinking person would conclude that all of this sounds just a bit barbaric. Perhaps. Did ranchers in the Rio Grande Valley have a right to live their lives in peace, without threat of bandits from Mexico? What were the grievances of the Mexicans? There were several, actually, mostly stemming from the Texas Revolution and the Treaty of Hidalgo, which assigned the official border with the United States along the Rio Grande. The treaty, of course, had nothing whatever to do with hard working folks whose lives and property became targets of opportunity for gangs of armed thugs.
Something had to be done about the murder, rape, arson, and the cattle rustling —and something was done about it. Such depredations didn’t end with Captain McNelly, but his efforts sent an important signal across the border that Texans would not put up with these mid-19th Century terrorists. In my view, we should stand in awe of those who had the courage to meet this threat mano a mano. It wasn’t pretty, but warfare seldom is.
Someone had to stand up … men like Leander H. McNelly and William Crump Callicott did exactly that. They were, after all, Texas Rangers.
Spanish dagger, or Yucca gloriosa, is a plant native to the southern regions of North America. It goes by a number of alternate common names including Mound Lily Yucca, Soft-tipped Yucca, Spanish Bayonet, Spanish Dagger, and Sea Islands Yucca. This member of the Yucca genus produces broad, blade-like leaves from a central stem. New growth occurs at the end of the stem, creating a tight ball of leaves, and older leaves tend to die off and drop away as the plant grows.