Bigfoot Wallace

cropped-texas-star.jpgBy the time William Alexander Anderson-Wallace arrived in Texas (c. 1836), he was barely 19-years old.  This may seem a bit young for someone seeking his fortune and adventure in a wild and dangerous place, but it wasn’t young back then.  Frontier youngsters grew up fast in those days, which meant that they developed the skills necessary for their survival early in life.  It was either that, or they didn’t survive.

Wallace was born in 1817 in Lexington, Virginia.  Located in the Shenandoah Valley, a place where native Americans claim is so beautiful that each star in the sky focuses its shining energy toward it.  This may have been the genesis of the valley’s name, for Shenandoah means simply “Clear-eyed daughter of the stars.”  The Virginia colony’s lieutenant governor, Alexander Spotswood, who was a skilled explorer and surveyor, discovered the Shenandoah Valley in 1716.  Within fifteen or so years, the Scots-Irish and German settlers from Pennsylvania began moving into the Valley, establishing themselves along a well-worn Indian path that was called the Great Wagon Road [1].

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Young William Wallace

William was the son of Alexander Wallace and Jane Blair who operated a fruit orchard (or several) outside present-day Lexington.  Wallace was a descendant of famed Scottish nobleman William Wallace; as a Scot, we may presume that the clan instinct was strong within the family.  It may have been that by the time William was coming of age, the Valley was filling up with people or that all the good land had already been taken —but if this was true at all, then it would have been a motivating factor for William’s brother, who left for Texas in 1834-35.  What prompted William to go to Texas was vengeance: William’s brother and a cousin were among the men slaughtered at Goliad.

Wallace was, by the standards applied to his time, a giant of a man. He was around 6’ 2” tall and weighed 240 or so pounds without a lot of body fat.  By the time he arrived in Texas, the Revolution was already concluded. Initially settling in La Grange. While living in La Grange, Wallace was once mistaken as a local Indian thief whom everyone called “big foot.” Neighbors accused Wallace of breaking into and ransacking someone else’s  home, but after finding Wallace’s footprint considerably smaller than the 14-inch imprint of the Indian’s, the case against him was dismissed.  It was after this that everyone began calling him Bigfoot and the nickname stuck.  While in La Grange, Wallace tried his hand at farming, but farming is hard work and it takes skill and patience to become a successful farmer.

Wallace had neither patience nor skill, so in the Spring of 1840 he removed himself to the new town called Austin, although calling it a town may be an exaggeration: A small settlement seems more appropriate.  In 1840, it was common to see buffalo meandering down the main avenue.  But Austin was growing, and people were streaming in to this (then) frontier town. People was the one thing that Wallace was happy to do without.  The continual influx of people prompted him to move further south to San Antonio de Béxar, which in those days was a dangerous place [2].

Of William A. Wallace, it has been said that few people witnessed as many stirring incidents or survived more hardships and perils than the frontiersman everyone called Bigfoot.  At a time when Texas was known for colorful, tough, and often ruthless characters, Bigfoot Wallace fit right in.  History records that Wallace participated in more than his fair-share of early Texas conflicts. In 1840, the Battle of Plum Creek; In 1842, the invasion of Mexican General Adrian Woll, the Somervell Raid, and the Mier Expedition.

On 5 March 1842, General Rafael Vásquez led seven-hundred Mexican soldiers into San Antonio.  Their sudden arrival threw the residents of this frontier town into a panic.  Vásquez’ soon withdrew, however, but in his short time in San Antonio, Vásquez managed to stir the hornets nest.  In the minds of the Texians, it was an insult that must not be tolerated.  Sam Houston, only recently reelected to the presidency, realized that Texas could not afford another war.  But then, a larger force under General Adrian Woll repeated Vásquez’ feat on 11 September. Houston could see no alternative but to authorize retaliatory action.

Brigadier General Somervell was authorized to organize a raid into Mexico. In order to do that, he would have to rely on men who were —a bit rowdy.  Beyond this, Somervell’s force was denied adequate supply for action of any kind, much less a raid into enemy territory.  To solve the supply problem, the rowdies sacked the nearby town of Laredo. Somervell was appalled, arrested those responsible, and ordered all the misbegotten materials returned to their rightful owners.  Most of Somervell’s men understood this decision, but around 200 did not.  They voted to quit the army and return to Texas.

Nevertheless, General Somervell continued his operations but with the passage of time, he too grew dubious about his chances for success. The supply situation had not improved. It was impossible for Somervell to take food from border Mexicans when they too were starving.  Finally, Somervell ordered a retreat back into Texas —a decision that outraged his Texian army, among them Bigfoot Wallace.

Five of Somervell’s eight captains took votes among their men to determine whether to quit the expedition.  Three-hundred men voted to continue south and Somervell be damned. It is likely that the bulk of these men were bent more on plunder than they were achieving satisfaction over General Woll’s insult.  The men elected Colonel William S. Fisher [3] as their new leader.  His men may not have understood that Fisher had visions of creating his own country out of the swath of northern Mexico —delusions of grandeur, perhaps.

Fisher led his men deep into Mexico.  On 24 December, Fisher seized the town of Mier and, taking the Alcalde as a hostage, ordered the townspeople to bring him sufficient stores for 1,200 men. He actually had less than a third of that number, but it didn’t matter.  Rather than bringing him stores, they sent word to the Mexican authorities that Mier was under attack by hombres del Norte.  General Pedro de Ampudiaresponded.  The battle that followed was far costlier for the Mexicans than it was the Texians, but the fact was that Fisher had led his men too far into Mexico and there was no way to extract his men.  He ultimately surrendered his Texians to Ampudia.

Pedro Ampudia was a no-nonsense commander.  Had he known that Fisher was leading an unauthorized army, he no doubt would have had them shot on the spot.  As it was, he thought Fisher was part of an organized, lawful army, and he treated them according to the articles of war.  Unhappily for Fisher and his men, authorities in Mexico City realized that the Mier Expedition was not authorized and ordered these men marched to the capital city for trial.  They were no longer considered prisoners of war; they were pirates and bandits.  They would be treated as such.

On 10 February two-hundred-nine Texians arrived under guard at Hacienda del Salado.  Texians began planning their escape almost immediately, but the Mexicans learned of this planning and separated Fisher and his senior staff from the rest of the prisoners and sent them on toward Mexico City.  The next morning, the Texians effected a surprise break, overwhelming their guards and immediately headed back toward the Rio Grande.  The heat of the desert defeated these men, many of them approaching madness.  What saved them from wasting away in the desert was a well-mounted Mexican army. The Texians were chained and marched to Saltillo and placed under the command of General Francisco Mejia. Antonio López de Santa Anna ordered these men executed, but General Mejia refused to participate in a mass murder.

In Mexico City, British and American diplomats protested Santa Anna’s order and he was eventually persuaded to execute one man in ten, their fate to be decided by the so-called Black Bean lottery.  Back in Salado, Colonel Domingo Huerta prepared a jar filled with 159 white beans, and 17 black beans.  Huerta ordered the officers of choose first; he had placed all the black beans at the top of the jar.  Whoever selected a black bean would be shot the next morning.  Captain William Eastland, fourth in line, was the first to choose a black bean.

Bigfoot Wallace, standing close to the scene of the drawing, decided that the black beans were larger than the white beans.  When it was his turn to draw a bean, he fingered the tokens carefully and chose a white bean.  As a survivor, he and the others would be sentenced to imprisonment at Perote, east of Mexico City.  Many of these men died in captivity from wounds, disease, or starvation.  The last of these men were released on 16 September 1844.  Wallace’s experiences while in prison did nothing to improve his low opinion of Mexicans.  Generally speaking, Texans are pretty good at forgiving those who trespass against them; they are much less adept at forgetting.

After his release from prison, Wallace joined with other Texans in the Mexican-American War (1846-48), serving as a Texas Ranger under Captain John Coffee “Jack” Hays.  It did not work out well for any Mexican, whether soldier or civilian, who encountered Bigfoot Wallace during this turbulent period.

In the 1850s, Wallace earned a reputation as a fierce Indian fighter while commanding a company of Texas Rangers.  Everyone knows that the Texas Rangers were expert horsemen, expert shots, and not to be trifled with.  These were men who lived out of the saddle and survived on their skill and wits. They were known to dispense timely and often brutal justice.  In the minds of Texas Rangers, it made no sense having to face a mean son-of-a-bitch twice.  If that was true of white outlaws, it went double for Indians.  Two of the Texas Rangers’ toughest bastards were Creed Taylor and Bigfoot Wallace.

Bigfoot Wallace was a quiet, almost shy fellow in polite company, although he never married.  He didn’t talk much until he had something to say; he kept his own counsel.  In spite of his shy demeanor, years of fighting in desperate situations led him to barbarism when in combat or when riled.  As for his savagery, he no doubt learned this from the Comanche, who taught the Texas Rangers well.

El MuertosOf his savagery, it was Bigfoot Wallace who created the Texas legend of El Muertos —the headless horseman of South Texas.  It is a legend that continues even to this day as parents warn their children to behave if they do not wish to meet the headless horseman.

In 1850, a Mexican bandit known simply as Vidal began rustling cattle all over South Texas.  It wasn’t long before he had a high price on his head —Dead or Alive.  During that summer, Vidal took advantage of a Comanche raid that pulled most of the Rangers northwest to confront them.  In the meantime, sparse settlements were left unprotected.  Vidal, along with three of his men, wasted no time taking advantage of the situation and gathered up a considerable number of horses on the San Antonio River, heading southwest toward Mexico.

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Creed Taylor in later life

What Vidal didn’t know was that, among the stolen herd, were several prized mustangs belonging to Creed Taylor.  Taylor, one of the first to defend settlements against Indian attack had not, on this occasion, gone to confront the Comanche.  Taylor’s ranch lay directly west of San Antonio in the thickest bandit territory, not far from the headwaters of the Nueces River.  The location of Taylor’s ranch made it a prime target for rustlers.  When he discovered that his prized horses were missing, Taylor decided he’d had enough. He quickly called on his long-time friend Bigfoot Wallace and a nearby rancher by the name of Flores and the three resolved to track down Vidal and deal with him permanently.

Both Wallace and Taylor were expert trackers, so it didn’t take them long to discover where Vidal and his men were located.  They waited until the early hours when the bandits were sleeping. Catching them unaware, Taylor and Wallace made quick work of the thieves.  Taylor reckoned that just killing them wasn’t enough on account there were other bandits. Maybe it was time to set an example that would help deter future bandits.  Remember, in those days stealing a horse was a crime equal to murder. No matter how brutal the Texas Rangers were in tracking down and dealing with these bandits, nothing seemed to forestall their thieving behavior.

In a dramatic (if not grizzly) example of frontier justice, Wallace beheaded Vidal and then lashed him firmly into a saddle on the back of a wild mustang.  Tying the bandit’s hands to the pommel and securing the torso to hold him upright, Bigfoot then attached Vidal’s head and sombrero to the saddle with a long strip of rawhide.  The then turned the bucking horse loose to wander the Texas prairie with its ghastly burden on its back.  It wasn’t long before stories began to circulate about the headless horseman seen in remote bandit country.  The apparition seemed to spook almost everyone.  Even today there are people who swear they’ve seen the headless horseman galloping through the mesquite west of San Antonio.

Because of Wallace’s expertise as a tracker, he was frequently called upon to help capture runaway slaves trying to find their way to Mexico.  There was no animus attached to this activity; he was simply paid for returning another man’s property.

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An older Bigfoot Wallace

For several years, Wallace drove a mail hack from San Antonio to El Paso. He was pitted against hostile bands on more than a few occasions.  In one of these, having lost his mules to Indian attack, Wallace walked the rest of the way to El Paso.

During the American Civil War, Wallace helped to guard the frontier against Comanche raiders.  Afterwards, he was content to settle down on a small ranch along the Medina River near Castroville, granted to him by the State of Texas for his many years of service. In his later years, Wallace lived in Frio County in South Texas at a place subsequently named after him and today known as Bigfoot, Texas.  Wallace’s biographer was John Duval, a man who helped to cement Wallace’s reputation as a Texas folk legend.

Mr. Wallace died on 7 January 1899.  He is buried at the State Cemetery in Austin.

Sources:

  1. Duval, John. The adventures of Bigfoot Wallace: Texas Ranger and Hunter, 1871
  2. Texas Historical Society, The Handbook of Texas

Endnotes:

[1] Today, the Great Wagon Road is called the Lee Highway (US 11).

[2] The crime rate in San Antonio today is 7.41 per 1,000 residents.  It has a resident population of 1.5 million people.  This year, there have been 124 murders, 1,279 rapes, 2,303 robberies, 7,083 assaults, 11,632 burglaries, and 6,176 auto thefts. All-in-all, Bigfoot Wallace probably lived in a relatively safe place back then.

[3] Fisher was tall, well-built, and intelligent.  After serving as Secretary of War for one year, he was appointed a lieutenant colonel of frontier cavalry.  Fisher was fearless (and perhaps also foolhardy).  He was present at the Council House Fight that prompted a war with Buffalo Hump.

About Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.
This entry was posted in History. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Bigfoot Wallace

  1. Kid says:

    Very interesting. Heck of a life.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Andy says:

    Bigfoot – not the guy one would want chasing you. Interesting bio and description of early South Texas.

    Liked by 1 person

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