The Texas Highsmith Family

Lone Star 001Even under the best of circumstances, whether by land or sea, the passage into Texas was an arduous undertaking in the early times.  Families making the overland trip knew that they would face a plethora of challenges, so they prepared themselves as best they could to address them.  They, first of all, selected a wagon to hold their goods, the most common of which was the Conestoga design.  The wagon originated in Pennsylvania during the early 18th century.  It was constructed with an upward curve flooring to help prevent the shifting of cargo.  It measured 18 feet long, 11 feet high, and 4 feet wide.  The wagon could carry up to 12,000 pounds, its overall weight would dictate the number of draft animals needed to pull it.  In most cases, four oxen were needed to pull the wagon over rough terrain and through wet or soggy soil.

Generally, several wagons (representing one wagon for each family) would travel together for security and mutual assistance.  The pioneers packed the basics, just items that they would need and could not purchase or make for themselves along the way.  Such items might include tools, blankets, jerky and bacon, salted pork, sugar, flour, ammunition, firearms, durable clothing, sewing essentials, cookware, leather needed for the care of the wagon or its animals, and some quantity of animal feed in case forage was unavailable.

Conastoga WagonThe family groups would also take their livestock, cows, horses, hogs, and caged chickens.  To help manage the control of accompanying animals, and to help provide additional security, and muscle (needed for such things as changing or repairing a wagon wheel), additional men would be invited to accompany them.  Mostly traveling as single men, perhaps in advance of deciding to relocate their own families, these additional hands would help the pioneers control their in-transit livestock and in addition to providing extra rifles for security, they hunted game to help feed the group.

This was the situation that confronted the family of Zadock Woods in 1822.  Zadock Woods had relocated his family from Vermont to the Missouri Territory in 1801, one of the first white (non-Hispanic) families to move into what was then called Upper Louisiana.  He quickly established Wood’s Fort near present-day Troy, Missouri, which was famous for its inn, tavern, and stagecoach layover.  During the War of 1812, Woods’ Fort was a principle line of defense, at one point commanded by Lieutenant Zachary Taylor.  During that war, Zadock Woods fought under Andrew Jackson in Alabama and at New Orleans.

Woods lost a great deal of money in a failed business venture with his long-time friend, Moses Austin.  Austin had relocated to Spanish Missouri in 1798 to expand his interest in mining near modern-day Potosi, where he established the first Anglo-American settlement west of the Mississippi River.  An aggressive investor, willing to take risks, Austin gained control of all smelting operations in Missouri and in the process, established important relationships with such men as William Henry Harrison, who after the Louisiana Purchase, appointed Austin as a justice of the common court in Saint Genevieve.  The shenanigans of James Wilkinson and Aaron Burr, the War of 1812, and America’s subsequent economic depression, Austin sought to diversify his financial portfolio by creating the Bank of Saint Louis.  The bank failed in 1819, which financially ruined Austin and left him deep in debt.

After the Adams-Onis Treaty clarified Spanish title to Texas, Austin traveled to San Antonio in 1820 seeking Spain’s permission to relocate Americans into Texas to help settle the area.  There were several circumstances that made Austin’s idea plausible.  Economic conditions in the United States were horrible.  A lack of money made banks and other lending houses hesitant to offer loans.  Second, land acquisition in the United States was a “cash in hand” transaction.  Most people didn’t have the ready cash to purchase land.  Third, when compared to Texas, land in the United States was expensive.  In 1815, the cost of an acre of land was $1.25.  Twelve-hundred dollars for a 1,000-acre allotment was a high price to pay in those days.  Austin believed that he could sell land in Texas at much more reasonable prices —around sixty-cents an acre, payable in six years.  For less than $3,000, a migrating family could purchase 4,500 acres.

AUSTIN MMoses Austin didn’t live to realize his dream; he passed away in 1821 in the middle of negotiations with the new government of Mexico; his efforts fell to his son and heir, Stephen, who successfully gained permission from the Mexican government to settle East Texas with Anglo-American families.  Zadock Woods[1] and his family became one of the first 300 settlers to relocate to Texas, arriving there in 1823.  Accompanying the Woods party (traveling with several families) was Ahijah Highsmith, who was traveling without his wife and children (whom he left in Missouri for a future journey), and his much-younger brother Samuel, aged 19-years.

Ahijah Highsmith (1776-1845) was born in North Carolina but relocated to Spanish Missouri in 1798-99 where he met, courted, and married Deborah Turner, the daughter of Winslow Turner of Massachusetts.  Together, they raised six children:  Elizabeth (b. 1817), Benjamin Franklin (b. 1817), Jesse (b. 1819), Winslow Turner (b. 1821), Mary (b. 1825), and William (b. 1826).  Samuel Highsmith was born in Boone County, Kentucky in 1804.  During the War of 1812, Samuel moved with his parents and siblings to Missouri, where they settled on the lower Cuivre River in present-day Lincoln County.

The Highsmith brothers liked what they saw in Texas, possibly imagining all the possibilities associated with becoming landowners and getting in on the ground floor, so to speak.  Since only families could migrate to Texas in the earliest days, the Highsmith’s were ineligible for a land grant.  They returned to Missouri, where Samuel married Teresa Williams Turner, Deborah’s half-sister, and then together, in short order, the two families returned to Texas.  For a time, the Highsmith brothers and their families lived with friends (likely, the Woods family) along the extreme western edge of the Austin colony.  Indian violence, however, soon forced these settlers back to Rabb’s Mill, and then further south to the vicinity of Columbus and Old Caney, Texas.  There, the Highsmith’s found refuge at the homestead of Aylett C. Buckner[2].

When Indian depredations subsided, Ahijah returned with his family to the Austin Colony; Samuel and his wife relocated to the Green De Witt colony and received a labor of land in Gonzalez, now in Guadalupe County, in 1829.

In 1830, 15-year-old Benjamin Highsmith traveled to San Antonio de Béxar in the company of William B. Travis, James Bowie, Benjamin McCulloch, his Uncle Sam, George C. Kimball, and his grandfather Winslow Turner.  Ben joined the militia company of Strap Buckner and fought in the Battle of Velasco[3] on 26 June 1832.

In late 1832, Ahijah Highsmith and his family resettled in Bastrop.  Ben Highsmith continued living in Bastrop for the next fifty years.  Samuel fought in the Battle of Gonzalez in October 1835, and at the Siege of San Antonio de Béxar in December.  Then 19-year old Ben served as one of Colonel William B. Travis’ messengers from the Alamo.  When the Alamo fell to Antonio Lopez de Santa Ana on 6 March 1836, Samuel joined up with Sam Houston’s army at Gonzalez but left the ranks to protect his family[4] during the so-called Runaway Scrape.  During this retreat, Ahijah and Sam’s father-in-law passed away.  There is no record to explain the circumstances of Winslow Turner’s death, but it was a very stressful time in Texas and a heart attack would be plausible.

Some historians place Samuel Highsmith at the Battle of San Jacinto as one of the sixteen soldiers sent to capture Santa Anna.  Family records indicate that Samuel captured Santa Anna’s saddle from which spoons were made from the silver and El Presidente’s uniform coat.  Having turned the uniform apparel over to the Texas government, Santa Anna’s coat was lost in the Capitol fire of 1881.

Following Texas Independence, Samuel Highsmith and his family lived in Texana before receiving a land grant in present-day Jackson County.  He and his brother-in-law Abram Clare went into the hog raising business.  Unfortunately, the Army of the Republic of Texas was camped nearby and consumed all of Highsmith’s stock.  He is also said to have provided horses and mules under contract for the Texan Santa Fe Expedition[5].

Samuel Highsmith again served as a volunteer during the so-called Córdova Rebellion[6] in 1838 and was chosen as one of three arbitrators to distribute the spoils captured from Córdova’s property.  Samuel also served as a volunteer under Texas Ranger Captain Edward Burleson in the Battle of Brushy Creek[7].

Samuel moved his family to Bastrop in 1840.  He owned six town lots, one slave, two horses, and fifteen head of cattle.  He also owned 2,214 acres of land in Gonzales County and 630 acres in Travis County.

In August 1840, Samuel took part in the Battle of Plum Creek[8] and served under Captain John Coffee Hays when Mexican General Rafael Vásquez seized San Antonio in 1842.  Hays dispatched Samuel to Seguin and the Guadalupe River settlements to warn them of the invasion and to gather volunteers.  Highsmith then returned to the Texas Army gathering outside San Antonio, where he served as a private in Captain James Gillespie’s company until Vásquez returned to Mexico.

Between 1843 and 1844, Samuel served as sergeant at arms for the Texas House of Representatives at Washington-on-the-Brazos, and in August 1845 he was deputized to carry “special and extra mail” between Bastrop and La Grange.  He moved to Austin in the winter of 1845–46 and was soon thereafter commissioned a captain in the Texas Rangers.

Texas RangersDuring the Mexican American War, Samuel commanded Company K of Colonel William C. Young’s Third Regiment of Texas Mounted Volunteers.  During the war, among the Mexican enemy, the Texas Rangers were known as Los Diablos Tejanos.ˆ At the end of the company’s service, Sam recruited and then commanded Company D of Colonel John Coffee Hays’ First Regiment of Texas Mounted Volunteers in 1847.  Hays’ Regiment won a notable battle over Waco Indians on the Llano River in August 1847, and then in 1848, Samuel was elected to serve as captain of a company in Colonel Peter H. Bell’s regiment, which was assigned to frontier defense.  In April, Highsmith won a victory over Waco Indians on the Pedernales River in present-day Blanco County.  Samuel killed Chief Big Water in hand-to-hand combat.

After the Mexican-American War Captain Highsmith was posted in San Antonio in command of one of the two ranger companies detailed to garrison the town.  In August 1848 Samuel was selected to command the guard company detailed to protect Texas commissioners in the opening of a road from San Antonio to El Paso.  Then, again serving under Hays’s command, he and thirty-five men of his company marched from San Antonio for the Rio Grande. “We encountered an exceedingly rugged and dry country,” he reported to Colonel Bell, “which caused great inconvenience to my men and great injury to their horses.”

By 18 October 1848, as Highsmith’s rangers approached Presidio del Norte, the company was near starvation.  He reported, “Our only food consisting of mustangs and our pack mules.”  The party started for home on November 25 and arrived in San Antonio after an equally arduous journey.

With the completion of this mission, Highsmith submitted his resignation from ranger service, intending to return to private life.  The trip had greatly weakened him, however, and he died of influenza on January 10, 1849.  His funeral was held at the Presbyterian Church near the corner of Commerce and Presa streets in San Antonio, and in accordance with his wishes, he was buried in an unmarked grave thought to be near that of Colonel Benjamin R. Milam in Market Plaza.

Samuel and Teresa Highsmith parented seven children, including Henry Albert and Malcijah Benjamin Highsmith.

Sources:

  1. Edwards, C., The Highsmith Men, Texas Rangers, 2012
  2. Jenkins, J. H., Recollections of Early Texas, 1958, 1973
  3. Nance, J. M.  After San Jacinto: The Texas-Mexican Frontier, 1836-1841.  Austin: University of Texas Press, 1963

Endnotes:

[1] Woods’ land grant was located in Matagorda County, but the family settled further up the Colorado River in Fayette County near present-day West Point.  He called his reinforced homestead Woods’ Fort, which was used by early colonists as a refuge from Indian attacks between 1828-1842.  The Woods family were fighters.  In 1832, Woods’ son Leander was killed in the Battle of Velasco.  Zadock mustered under Captain Michael Goheen and Colonel John H. Moore in the Battle of Gonzales, the Battle of Concepcion, and the Grass Fight in 1835.  In the next spring, Woods housed Tennessee volunteers under Daniel Cloud, who in February made their way to fight at the Alamo. Zadock’s wife Minerva died on 28 March 1839 and was buried on the Woods property.  In 1842, Zadock and his sons Norman and Henry enlisted for service under Captain Nicholas M. Dawson to confront the forces of Mexican General Adrian Woll at Salado Creek, outside San Antonio.  Zadock was killed in the Dawson massacre, Norman was taken as a prisoner of war, and Henry escaped.  Zadock Woods was originally buried in the mass grave at Salado Creek but was later reinterred at Monument Hill.  At the time of his death, Zadock was 69 years old.

[2] Buckner was known as “Old Strap” owing to his size and strength.  He was a red-headed Irishman who first traveled to Texas in 1812 as a member of the Gutierrez-Magee Expedition with additional trips in 1816 and 1819.  In 1823, Strap was around 29 years of age.  As part of the original 300, Buckner received one sitio of land, equaling around 4,338 acres, and two labors of land, equaling 177-acres each, which suggested that he engaged in ranching and agricultural production.

[3] The Battle of Velasco was the first lethal battle leading to the Texas Revolution.  Henry Smith and John Austin commanded Texians who had gone to Brazoria to secure a cannon for use against the Mexican forces at Anahuac, then commanded by the accomplished Mexican General Domingo de Ugartechea.  The opposing forces were evenly matched with from 100-150 Texians facing from 100-200 Mexican regulars.  Seven Texians were killed (including Leander Woods), three died later of wounds of a total of sixteen wounded in action.

[4] Samuel’s wife and son were part of the withdrawal known as the runaway scrape.  Malcijah Benjamin Highsmith (1827-1893), Samuel’s son, served as a sergeant in his father’s Company K, 3rd Regiment of Texas Mounted Volunteers during the Mexican-American War.  In 1850, Malcijah was commissioned a second lieutenant in Captain John S. Ford’s company of Texas Rangers, distinguishing himself in a fight with Comanches near San Antonio de Viejo.  Returning to his farm in 1850, Malcijah served as a captain in the Civil War commanding the Bishop Cavalry Company under Colonel William H. Parson’s 12th Texas Cavalry.  After the war, he returned to Bastrop, where he died on 4 May 1893.

[5] The purpose of the expedition was to secure the Republic of Texas’ claims to parts of northern New Mexico for Texas in 1841.

[6] The Córdova Rebellion was an uprising instigated near Nacogdoches, Texas by Alcalde Vincente Córdova and others.  Córdova supported the Texas Revolution when it supported a return to the Constitution of 1824, but after independence, Córdova opposed the new republic with help from Cherokee Indians.

[7] Texas Rangers and militia opposed Comanche raiders; this was a running battle between present-day Cottonwood and Boggy Creek, culminating north of Brushy Creek.

[8] The Battle of Plum Creek came as a Comanche reaction to the so-called Council House Fight in 1840.  Two hundred Texas Rangers, militia, and allied Tonkawa Indians opposed 1,000 Comanche under Chief Buffalo Hump.

About Mustang

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

1 Response to The Texas Highsmith Family

  1. Andy says:

    A lot going on in this article.

    I had no idea the Highsmith family played such an extensive role in this interesting period of Texas history.

    Like

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