The Guardsmen

There was a time in America when lawmen made people nervous —not because they had anything to hide (maybe they did), but  because, for the most part, old west lawmen were no one to trifle with.  The fact was that some of these lawmen switched back and forth from “good guy” to outlaw, and even those who remained true to the law would just as soon shoot you than look at you.  No one with an ounce of brains wanted to challenge their authority.  On the other hand, they had to be tough hombres just to stay alive —and not all of them did.

Being a lawman in the old west was a dangerous line of work.  The most successful lawmen of all were those who were tougher, meaner, and faster with a side arm than anyone they came up against —neither did they “play fair.”  It was a different time.  Sheriffs, deputies, marshals, and constables didn’t hand out speeding tickets, or respond to domestic violence complaints.  No —if one of these fellows knocked on your door or shouted for you to come outside for a chat, there was a good chance that you were guilty of something far more serious.

Three of these hombres come to mind, and while few of these tough gunslingers lived past their 50thbirthday—these three men did.  In their own time, they were known as The Three Guardsmen.  They were tough as nails.  Their names were William Matthew “Bill” Tilghman (born 1854), Chris Madsen (born 1851), and Henry Andrew “Heck” Thomas (born 1850).

Bill Tilghman

Bill was born in Fort Dodge, Iowa—the third of six children of William Matthew Tilghman, Sr., and Amanda Shepherd.  Bill was a child when his family relocated to Kansas and settled on a farm near Atchison. He was still living in Kansas when, at the age of 17-years, he began hunting buffalo and supplying meat to railroad workers of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe.  In the space of one year, Tilghman is said to have killed over 3,000 of these animals.  According to Tilghman in later life, “It was an all-time record.”  While on the plain, he also killed two Cheyanne warriors who confronted him.

Tilghman allegedly became a lawman in 1874, signing on as a deputy to Sheriff Charlie Bassett in Ford County.  Bassett was Ford County’s first sheriff, elected in 1873, but there is no record of a Deputy Tilghman.

In 1877, Tilghman married a sixteen-year-old widow by the name of Flora Kendall Jefferson.  It wasn’t a blissful marriage, but it did produce four children.  At about the same time, Bill met Henry Garris and together they opened a saloon they called The Crystal Palacein Dodge City. They sold the saloon a year later … the reasons for doing so may have been related to Tilghman’s legal problems.

Bill Tilghman 001Tilghman began to wear a star on his vest in 1878—hired as a deputy to Bat Masterson. Masterson had been elected sheriff of Ford County, replacing Bassett (who was then promptly hired to serve Masterson as Under-Sheriff).  Not even a month had gone by when Tilghman was charged with being an accessory to an attempted train robbery.  Owing to the fact that there was no solid evidence connecting Tilghman to any crime, these charges were dropped.  A few months later, Masterson once more arrested Tilghman, this time charging him with horse theft, but this charge, also deemed spurious, was dropped.  But the fact was that Tilghman was having significant financial difficulties, probably a result of his adventure with the Crystal Palace. Masterson ended up auctioning off Tilghman’s home in order to pay a judgment against him.  Flora must not have been pleased.

On 6 November 1883, Pat Sughrue became Ford County Sheriff and Tilghman was hired as one of his deputies. By this time, Tilghman owned another saloon in Dodge City called the Oasis.  He sold this saloon to this brother in 1884, at about the same time as Bill was appointed City Marshal.  Two years later, Tilghman relinquished his badge [1] to work a ranch he’d purchased.  A massive blizzard in that winter wiped out the livestock on many area ranches, including Tilghman’s [2].

What now follows is a narrative written by W. R. (Bat) Masterson in 1907 concerning two related incidents involving Bill Tilghman:

“In the summer of 1888, a County-seat war broke out in one of the northern-tier counties in the State of Kansas and Tilghman was sent for by one of the interested parties to come up there and try to straighten the matter out. Tilghman went and took with him a young fellow by the name of Ed Prather, whom he had every reason to believe he could rely upon in case of an emergency.  Prather, however, proved to be a traitor, and one day attempted to assassinate Tilghman, but the latter was too quick for him and Prather was buried the next day.”

After Prather was killed, local authorities convened an inquest into the circumstances of his death. Prather’s death was ruled “justifiable homicide.”  But as to the Gray County War, violence continued until January 1889.  The citizens of Ingalls and Cimarron Kansas went to war over the placement of the Gray County seat [3].  Several Dodge City gunfighters were involved in the squabble, which is probably the result of each side hiring gunslingers to intimidate the opposing parties.  In one gunfight between opposing sides, one man was killed, and five others wounded.  Tilghman was involved in the fracas but received no more than a twisted ankle for his trouble.  Cimarron became the county seat of Gray County, Kansas.

In April, the first Oklahoma land rush took place.  Guthrie, Oklahoma, which did not exist on 22 April, had a population of 15,000 on the very next day.  One of these new land-owners was Bill Tilghman, who purchased a lot on Oklahoma Avenue.  After constructing a commercial building on the property, he rented it out to help re-establish himself as a cattle rancher.  Tilghman remained in Oklahoma for the balance of his life.

Another land rush was held on 22 September 1891, which enabled Tilghman to establish his ranch. At this time, Oklahoma (also referred to as the Indian Territories) suffered depredations from several outlaw gangs, notably Bill Doolin’s Wild Bunch.  In May 1892, Tilghman was appointed a Deputy US Marshall for the Oklahoma territory, joining with other marshals such as Heck Thomas, Chris Madsen, Frank Canton, and Bud Ledbetter.  Thus, the war began between the lawmen and the Oklahoma outlaws. Another land rush was conducted on 16 September 1893, and from this the new town of Perry, Oklahoma was created. Tilghman was hired as city marshal on 2 October, and he hired Heck Thomas as his assistant—all the while, both men retained their federal commissions.  Once Tilghman and Thomas established law and order in Perry, they went on the trail of the Doolin Gang.

Bill Tilghman was good at two things: law enforcement and self-promotion.  A 1915 dime pamphlet accompanied his motion picture titled The Passing of the Oklahoma Outlaws. According to Chris Madsen in 1937, “Tilghman was a little inclined to be romantic.”

Romantic or not, the Wild bunch (also called the Oklahoma Long Riders, Oklahombres, the Doolin-Dalton Gang, and Doolin Gang) were dangerous desperadoes and killers.  Its members terrorized Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma by robbing banks, stores, holding up trains, and shooting down lawmen and innocent bystanders.  At various times, the Doolin gang involved such men as Tulsa Jack Blake, Dynamite Dick Clifton, Arkansas Tom Jones (Roy Daugherty), Bill Dalton, Bill Doolin, Bitter Creek Newcomb (aka Slaughter Kid), Charlie Pierce, Little Bill Raidler, Red Buck Waightman, Little Dick West, and Oliver Yantis.  Two young girls, known as Cattle Annie and Little Britches were Wild Bunch groupies, often informing gang members of the nearby presence of lawmen.

The Wild Bunch was conceived following the Dalton Gang’s botched train robbery near Adair, Oklahoma on 15 July 1892, during which two guards and two bystanders (both medical doctors) received gunshot wounds.  No other western outlaw gang met a more violent end than the Wild Bunch; only two of its eleven members survived into the 20thcentury, but all of them met violent deaths in gun battles with lawmen.

Chris Madsen’s posse killed Tulsa Jack on 14 April 1895, Newcomb and Pierce were killed on 2 May, and on 6 September, Tilghman and two others tracked down Little Bill.  Ordered to surrender, Raidler opened fire on the lawmen but Tilghman ended the fight with a blast from a shotgun.  Little Bill was seriously wounded but survived to spend ten years in a territorial prison.

On 15 January 1896, Tilghman single-handedly captured Bill Doolin.  Tilghman tracked Doolin to a health resort in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Entering the bathhouse, Tilghman spotted Doolin seated in a waiting area.  Doolin failed to recognize Tilghman, who immediately attacked Doolin and wrestled him to the floor.  With Doolin in custody, Tilghman notified US Marshal E. D. Nix by telegraph in Guthrie, “I have him.  Will be there tomorrow.  Tilghman.”

The remainder of the gang was soon killed or captured.  Red Buck Waightman was killed by a posse on 4 March 1896, Dynamite Dick was rounded up a short time later.  Doolin, meanwhile, escaped from jail on 5 July and took refuge in Lawson, Oklahoma with his wife.  Because he was allowed to escape, Oklahoma officials refused to pay Tilghman any of the reward money.  Heck Thomas tracked Doolin down forty-five days later, and killed him with a blast from a shotgun.  Doolin was buried in Guthrie, Oklahoma, his grave adjacent to that of the outlaw Elmer McCurdy.  The last two members of the Doolin gang were accounted for when Dynamite Dick was killed on 7 November 1897, and Little Dick West was killed on 8 April 1898.  It was after this that Tilghman, Thomas, and Madsen became known as the three guardsmen of Oklahoma.

In 1899, Tilghman established the Oakland Stock Farm, which raised thoroughbred horses.  One of these won the 1894 Kentucky Derby.  By now, Tilghman was both popular and prosperous, and he easily won election as Sheriff of Lincoln County, Oklahoma in 1900. Flora passed away at the young age of 39-years on 12 October 1900; she and Bill were living apart at the time. Tilghman remarried in 1903, the well-educated and much-younger Zoe Agnes Stratton (1880-1964).  Bill and Zoe had three children together, all sons.

By 1904, Bill Tilghman was politically well-connected, and even though active in the Democratic Party, was able to receive the friendship of Theodore Roosevelt.  Bat Masterson, then a journalist writing for the New York Morning Telegraph, introduced Tilghman to Roosevelt in July 1904.  With these kinds of connections, Tilghman easily won election to the Oklahoma senate in 1910.  He subsequently worked as the Chief of Police in Oklahoma City (1911-1913) and in this capacity, helped to rid the city of much of its criminal element.

Seeking to capitalize on their experiences as lawmen, Tilghman, Nix, and Madsen formed a cinema graphic company they called Eagle Films in 1915.  Nix served as president, Tilghman as vice president and treasurer, and Madsen served as secretary.  Filming began on The Passing of the Oklahoma Outlawsalmost immediately.  The film ran for about 95-minutes, of which only 13-minutes remain viewable today. Modern academics generally regard the film as “popular disinformation.”

In 1924, aged 70, Bill Tilghman went to Cromwell, Oklahoma as a special investigator.  He was looking into the corruption of a federal prohibition agent named Wiley Lynn [4].  He confronted Lynn on 31 October as Lynn was drunkenly discharging his firearm.  With the help of a bystander, Tilghman disarmed Lynn and took him into custody.  Lynn, however, had a second firearm, with which he shot Tilghman several times. Tilghman died the following day. Lynn was later acquitted of murder after pleading self-defense … but he too was shot and killed in 1932.

Chris Madsen(1851-1944)

Chris Madsen 001Born in Denmark as Christen Madsen Rørmose on 25 February, Chris was a well-educated young man who turned toward a criminal life before emigrating to the United States in 1876.  He was several times convicted of forgery and fraud.  He claimed to have served in the Danish Army and French Foreign Legion, but neither of these assertions appear to be true.  What is true is that soon after arriving in the United States, Madsen enlisted in the US Army, serving fifteen years with the US Fifth Cavalry.  In 1883, Madsen was assigned as a scout and guide leading President Chester A. Arthur through Yellowstone.

After Quartermaster Sergeant Madsen was discharged from the Army in 1891, he became a deputy US Marshal under William Grimes in the Oklahoma territory.  Over time, along with Tilghman and Thomas, Madsen contributed to the apprehension or death of 300 outlaws —and it was after the destruction of the Wild Bunch that these men became collectively known as The Three Guardsmen.

At the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898, Madsen volunteered for service with the 1stUS Volunteer Cavalry (also known as The Rough Riders), serving under Colonel Leonard Wood and Lieutenant Colonel Theodore Roosevelt.

In 1911, he was appointed US Marshal for the State of Oklahoma, which was granted statehood in 1907. He later served as the Chief of Police for Oklahoma City (he was then in his 60’s).  When the United States became involved in World War I, Madsen offered to volunteer his services.  His age resulted in the Army’s rejection.  From 1918-22, he served as a special investigator for the governor of Oklahoma.

Madsen eventually settled in Guthrie, Oklahoma. He was married to Margaret Bell Morris and together, they had two children.  Margaret passed away in 1898, Madsen lived to the age of 93, passing away in 1944.

Heck Thomas

Heck ThomasHenry Andrew “Heck” Thomas was born in Oxford, Georgia on 3 January 1850, the youngest of five children of Lovick Pierce Thomas I [5], and Martha Ann Fullwood (née Bedell).

At the beginning of the American Civil War, Heck Thomas accompanied his father and uncle, Edward Lloyd Thomas, to the battlefields in Virginia.  Both men were serving officers of the Georgia infantry; Heck would serve the regiment as a courier.  On 1 September 1862, at the death of Union General Philip Kearney at the Battle of Chantilly, confederate soldiers began to strip his body of coat, boots, pocket watch, and other items of value.  General A. P. Hill ordered Kearney’s belongings returned, and Robert E. Lee ordered that all of his personal items, including his horse, be delivered to Kearney’s widow, Agnes.  Heck Thomas was entrusted with the safekeeping of Kearney’s horse and personal accoutrements until these articles were delivered to his widow under a flag of truce. According to Heck:

“One evening, while the right was going on or, rather, just before dark, a soldier came to the rear where Uncle Ed’s baggage and the darkies and I were, leading a black horse, with saddle and bridle.  He also brought a sword.  Just after this, Stonewall Jackson crossed over into Maryland and captured the city of Frederick; that was after taking Harper’s Ferry and about 14,000 federal prisoners.  These prisoners were held by Uncle Ed’s brigade while the army was fighting the Battle of Sharpsburg.  We could hear the cannon from Harper’s Ferry.  While we were at Harper’s Ferry, General Lee sent an order to Uncle Ed for the horse and equipment.  I carried them forward and it was one of the proudest minutes in my life when I found myself under the observation of General Robert E. Lee.  Then General Lee sent the horse and everything through the lines, under a flag of truce, to General Kearney’s widow.  I had ridden the horse and cared for him up to that time, and I hated to part with him.”

In 1863, Heck contracted typhoid fever [6] and returned to his family in Athens. When he’d recovered, he began working as a clerk in his brother’s dry-goods store in Atlanta.  He later accepted an appointment to work as an Atlanta police officer.  In 1871, Heck Thomas married Isabel Gray.

Thomas and his family migrated to Texas in 1875.  With the help of a cousin, Thomas obtained a job as a railroad guard.  In time, he became a railroad detective and later went to work for the Fort Worth Detective Association.  While in this capacity, Heck Thomas was appointed Deputy US Marshal and assigned to Fort Smith, Arkansas, where he worked for US District Judge Isaac C. Parker.

In 1889, Thomas was teamed up with Deputy US Marshals Chris Madsen and Bill Tilghman.  Over the next ten years, these three men were credited with the apprehension or killing of more than 300 desperadoes.  According to Emmett Dalton, years after his release from prison, Heck Thomas was one of the primary reasons the Dalton Gang chose to commit two simultaneous bank robberies in Coffeyville, Kansas.  Knowing that Thomas was relentless in his pursuit of outlaws, the Dalton Gang decided to make one big score and leave the territory. It didn’t work out that way, however. The Dalton Gang was wiped out in the Coffeyville robberies.  Emmet Dalton was the only survivor.

In August 1896, Heck Thomas led the posse that tracked down and killed Bill Doolin.  Doolin had been previously captured by Bill Tilghman but escaped from jail on 5 July 1896.

By 1902, much of Oklahoma had been settled.  Thomas was sent to Lawton, Oklahoma, where he was elected as the town’s first Chief of Police.  He served in this position for seven years, when his health began to fail.  Heck Thomas died on 14 August 1912, a victim of Bright’s disease.


[1] He retained his commission as a deputy sheriff, however.

[2] The blizzard lasted for most of the winter, impacting the entire central and northern plain of the United States.  Theodore Roosevelt’s ranch in the Dakota territory was similarly affected.

[3] Such conflicts in the old west were, if not common, certainly frequent. These conflicts arose out of the financial advantages of having a county seat located in one’s own town.

[4] A factually based and highly entertaining film of this incident was produced in 1999 as a “made for TV” movie written and directed by John Harrison.  It was titledYou know My Nameand starred Sam Elliot, Arliss Howard, R. Lee Ermey, and Carolyn McCormick.

[5] L. P. Thomas (1812-1878) served as quartermaster of the 4thBattalion, 42ndGeorgia Infantry in 1861-1862, transferring to the 35thRegiment of Georgia Infantry in 1862.  Within the regiment, he was known as the fighting quartermaster, accorded special mention when Captain Thomas, seeing that his regiment was short of officers, voluntarily joined the fight as an infantry officer until he was wounded.

[6] Typhoid is a bacterial infection affecting the blood and abdomen and is accompanied by severe headaches, skin rash, and confusion.  Typhoid is caused by ingesting human feces in food or drinking water.


Posted in History, Justice | 4 Comments

The Texas Cherokee War

texaslonestarTexas independence was never a simple matter of people refusing to conform to Mexican law.  It was, in fact, very complex, unsettling, highly contentious, lasting several years, and, I suspect, many sleepless nights among those who worked tirelessly to effect it.  It was a transition from the Spanish Empire to New Spain, to Mexican independence, to Mexican Empire, to a federalist republic, to state/provincial autonomy, and then finally, Texas Revolution.  The story of Texas is one involving human struggle, chastisement, disappointment, mixed loyalties, double-crosses, treason, the consolidation of a new Republic, and death —but even then, the story was far from over.

This story is about the Cherokee War in Texas, but before getting to that, a review of the sequence of events that led to war with the Cherokee nation.  None of the men who participated in the developing revolution in Texas suddenly appeared on the Texas scene to defend against angry Mexican soldiers.  One could argue that the timing of events after 1821 was pure chance, but each of these had significant consequences.

Facts with a bearing on these events include:

  • France and Spain controlled vast territories in the Americas
  • Most of these territories were exchanged, transferred, sold, or simply seized
  • New Spain was part of the Spanish Empire that extended from the Isthmus of Panama to the border of the present-day United States, and from North and Central America to East Asia
  • The people living in these territories for thousands of years were never a serious consideration
  • Texas was a relatively unsettled province of New Spain
  • Spain’s intention to do something about its “unsettled territory” is what initiated American immigration to Texas
  • The United States became interested in Texas before the Adams-Onis Treaty in 1819 [1].

Jose Bernardo Gutierrez de Lara From Public Domain

In 1810, the territories of New Spain north of the Isthmus of Panama sought independence from the Spanish Empire; most people remember this in history as the Mexican War of Independence.  What many people do not know is that a number of Americans fought on the side of Mexico against Spain in a filibuster known as the Gutierrez-Magee Expedition [2], led by (self-appointed) General Jose Bernardo Gutiérrez de Lara [3] and Augustus Magee [4].  After Magee’s death in 1813, Samuel Kemper [5] replaced him.  Initially, the expedition gained a series of victories against Spain’s military forces commanded by Governor Manuel Maria de Salcedo and Governor Simón de Herrera y Leyva.  After Salcedo and Herrera surrendered their forces to Gutiérrez on 1 April 1813, Gutiérrez had both men executed.  Five days later, Gutiérrez declared the independent Republic of Texas, published a new constitution, and declared himself President of the new republic. It wasn’t long after this that Kemper became disillusioned with Gutiérrez’ leadership; he and his American fighters returned to the United States.  This first republic came to an end on 18 August 1813 when the Spanish army crushed Gutiérrez and his remaining forces [6].

Mexico and all of its provinces gained independence from Spain in 1821.  It was during Mexico’s political transition that Stephen Austin led the first American settlers to Tejas, their right to immigrate having been guaranteed by the Spanish Royal governor.  After Spain ratified Mexican independence, Austin traveled to Mexico City to secure the support of the new government for his colonists.  Austin’s ill-treatment while in Mexico led to significant animosity between Mexican authorities and the newly arrived Tejas settlers [7].

In 1830, due to the controversy involving illegal slavery in Tejas, Mexican President Anastasio Bustamanteoutlawed any further American immigration to Texas.  Angered by the Mexican government’s interference in state matters, Texian impresarios held the Convention of 1832 —the first formal step of what would become the Texas Revolution.  At this stage, however, we might argue that Texas had already entered into the avenue leading to war [8].

Stephen F. Austin died from illness on 27 December 1836 while serving as the Republic of Texas Secretary of State.  By the time President Sam Houston moved the capital of Texas to a city named in his honor, five towns had already served in this capacity.  Houston’s replacement was Mirabeau B. Lamar [9] (who was never a friend of Houston); he promptly moved the capital to the newly constructed town of Austin in 1839.  This was not a minor issue, as it pointed to the fact that early Texas politics was divided into two factions: nationalists (led by Lamar), and Unionists (led by Houston).

President Lamar advocated the continued independence of Texas, expulsion of all Indians, and the expansion of Texas to the Pacific Ocean. Houston wanted Texas to become part of the United States, peaceful relations with the Indians, and had no expansionist ambitions whatsoever.

Whether Texians liked it or not, Indian populations did have an impact on Texas politics.  The main Indian opposition to the Texas Republic came from the Comanche, manifested by numerous raids on settlements, the capture, and rape of female pioneers, torture killings, and trafficking in white captives.  Houston’s administration sought peace with the Indians, Lamar favored their complete eradication —even to the extent of ordering the Texas Rangers to invade the Comancheria.  After peace talks ended in the massacre of 34 Indian leaders in San Antonio [10], the Comanche reciprocated by launching a massive raid, consisting of from 500 to 700 warriors that extended from the edge of the Comancheria to the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

Meanwhile, adding to the Republic’s problems, Mexico, in refusing to recognize Texas independence, launched several military incursions into Texas.  Mexican and Indian attacks intensified the conflicts between political factions but too did a number of domestic disturbances, which were mostly land feuds involving several Texas counties.  It was up to a very small legislature to manage these disasters and a president with limited powers.  The Texian Congress had fourteen senators and twenty-nine representatives in the House.

In those days, no person could vote or hold public office who was not a citizen of Texas, and citizenship also became a contentious issue. Not all inhabitants of Texas were granted citizenship; the Constitution of 1836 established major differences according to ethnicity: All persons living in Texas on the day of the Texas Declaration of Independence were citizens of the Republic, excepting Africans, descendants of Africans, and Indians.  New immigrants could become citizens after residing in Texas for six months, and upon taking a loyalty oath.  Black persons brought to Texas as slaves were to remain slaves —not even their owner could free them without the permission of Congress.

Having thus clarified the attitudes of early Texas politicians toward non-white citizens, we now turn to the title of this post.  The Cherokee War of 1839 was the culmination of friction involving, on one side, Cherokee, Kickapoo, and Shawnee Indians living in Northeast Texas and their white Texian neighbors.  According to Spanish law, these Indians had obtained “squatters’ rights” to their land, confirmed by the so-called Consultation [11].  On 23 February 1836, Sam Houston [12] offered a treaty to the Cherokee and their associated bands, giving them title to the lands between the Angelina and Sabine rivers, northwest of the old San Antonio road.  In 1837, the Texas Congress declared this treaty null and void.

In 1838, citizens of Nacogdoches uncovered an insurrection against the Republic of Texas.  Known as the Cordova Rebellion, it initially appeared to be an isolated incident by local malcontents, but on closer examination, investigators determined that the rebellion was actually a far-reaching conspiracy.  Before 1836, Texians worried about repression by the Mexican government, particularly since the population of Texian towns was more or less balanced among Anglo-Americans and Tejanos.  Most Tejanos remained loyal to Mexico [13].  After the revolution, thousands of Americans made their way to Texas, which made these townships more populated with whites than with Tejanos.  The older residents (Tejanos) resented this intrusion and, as loyal Mexicans, conspired with local Indians (principally Cherokee), to make a treaty with Mexico for a combined attack on Texas [14].  Sam Houston was aware of these treasonous attitudes as early as 1836 but took no action to address it.


Thomas Jefferson Rusk From Public Domain

On 4th August, a party of several of citizens of Nacogdoches were searching for stolen horses when they were abruptly fired upon by a large party of Hispanics. Suspecting an illegal assembly of people, they returned to Nacogdoches to report their discovery.  Being informed on 7thAugust that at least 100 Mexicans led by Cordova were encamped on the Angelina River, Thomas J. Rusk [15] activated the town militia and sent word to nearby settlements for reinforcements.  On 8thAugust, President Houston issued a proclamation that prohibited unlawful assemblies, the reprehensible use of firearms, and ordered all illegally formed citizens to return to their homes.

Senor Cordova issued his own proclamation on 10 August, stating that he (and others) could no longer bear injury and white usurpations of their rights.  They had taken up arms, were ready to die in the defense of those rights and asked only that their families not be harmed.  On this same day, Rusk learned that local Indians had joined Cordova.  The number of insurrectionists now numbered four hundred.

Believing that Cordova and his band were moving toward Cherokee lands, Rusk ordered Major Henry Augustine [16] and 150 militia to follow and keep them under surveillance.  Then, ignoring President Houston’s order that he not cross the Angelina River, Rusk led his remaining troops against the Cherokee village of Chief Diwali Bowles [17], the ranking Cherokee living in Texas.  En route, Rusk learned that the rebellious forces had been overtaken near Seguin and defeated.  Local Indians disavowed any knowledge of the upheaval, so Rusk returned to Nacogdoches.  In fact, Cordova did not seek shelter among the Cherokee.


Cherokee Chief Diwali Bowles From Texas State Library

President Houston trusted Chief Bowl’s loyalty; Rusk did not.  Because of Houston’s long-standing relationship with the Indians, there was nothing that President Houston could say that the Texians found credible in this regard.  In October 1838, Rusk led 230 militia in the pursuit of a band of Kickapoo [18].  Ultimately, Rusk destroyed their village, killed eleven warriors, including one Cherokee, and identified Mexican spies who were living among the Indians. Sporadic Indian raids continued through the end of 1838 and the Spring of 1839.  Lamar was elected President of Texas, assuming office in December 1838.

The insurrectionists who managed to elude capture went into hiding [19].  In May 1839, a letter was discovered, allegedly in the handwriting of Cordova, that outlined plans by the Mexican government to enlist Indians against Texian settlers.  Lamar, supported by overwhelming popular opinion, decided to expel the East Texas Indians.  In July, Kelsey Douglas [20] was placed in command of approximately 500 troops.  His three subordinate commanders were Colonel Edward Burleson, Captain Willis Landrum, and Thomas Rusk.

Lamar ordered Douglas to remove the Indians to Arkansas territory.  Douglas established his camp at Council Creek, six miles south of the primary village of Chief Bowles and on 12 July, sent a commission to negotiate with the Cherokee for their removal from Texas.  Bowles agreed to relocate providing that Texas guarantee the profit from their crops and the costs of removal, but after two days of wrangling, Bowles ultimately refused to sign the agreement because of the clause that required their physical removal under armed supervision.  On 14 July, Douglas’ representatives informed Bowles that if they refused to sign the agreement, soldiers would march on their village; anyone willing to sign the treaty and avoid violence should display a white flag. Meanwhile, Landrum was sent across the Neches River to block any possible reinforcements.  The balance of Douglas’ forces marched on the Village on 15 July.

The Battle of Neches took place a few miles west of Tyler, in present-day Henderson County. By sundown, three Texians had been killed and five were wounded.  Indian losses were eighteen killed.  The Cherokee eventually fled the village and Douglas camped for the night.  On the next day, James Carter’s scouting party engaged the Cherokee near the headwaters of the Neches River, now in Van Zandt County.  Initially, the Indians sought cover in an abandoned hut and surrounding cornfield, but after Rusk and Burleson reinforced Carter, the Indians abandoned their positions. A firefight lasting thirty minutes pushed the Cherokee into the bottomland where Bowles and a number of his warriors were killed.

On 21 July, the Texian militia marched toward the headwaters of the Sabine River along the same route taken by the fleeing Indians, destroying numerous huts and fields along the way.  The next day, several villages and more than 200 acres of corn were burned.  This sort of destruction continued throughout the pursuit of the Cherokee, which did not end until 24 July.  Most of the Indians fled to Cherokee lands outside Texas, but by the time the battle ended, more than one-hundred Indians had been killed or wounded.

During the winter of 1839-1840, a small group of Cherokee under Chief Egg and John Bowles, the son of Chief Bowles, attempted to reach Mexico by skirting the fringe of white settlements.  Edward Burleson, who was then on a campaign against the Plains Indians, intercepted the Cherokees and attacked them near the mouth of the San Saba River on 25 December 1839.  Egg, Bowles and several warriors were killed, and twenty-seven women and children were captured.

This was the last significant action involving Texas Cherokee Indians.


  1. Everett, D. The Texas Cherokees: A People Between Two Fires, 1819-1840. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman. 1990.
  2. Sibley, M. M. The Texas Cherokee War of 1839, East Texas Historical Journal, Vol. 3, Stephen F. Austin State University, 1965.
  3. The Handbook of Texas, online, The Cherokee War.


[1] The Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819 ceded Florida to the United States and defined the border between the United States and New Spain, settling an on-going border dispute between the United States, Great Britain, and Spain.  The treaty is also significant because it came to fruition during the Latin-American wars of independence.  Florida had become a burden to Spain because it could not afford to establish populated settlements there, nor defend its territorial rights. Also settled was the dispute between the US and Spain concerning the border of Spanish Texas along the Sabine River, thus establishing a clear boundary between Texas and Louisiana.

[2] A filibuster (also freebooter) is someone who engages in an unauthorized military expedition into a foreign country to foment or support a revolution.  The term is used to describe citizens of the United States who fomented insurrection in Latin America (Texas, California, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Columbia), but may also apply to operations for US government approved, but publicly denied military incursions.

[3] Gutiérrez was obsessed with the idea of separating Mexico from Spain.  He recruited 21 men in Tejas, 130 Americans from the area around Nacogdoches and the Sabine River border area of Louisiana, and a number of Indians, marshaling a force of about 450 armed insurrectionists.

[4] Magee was an 1809 graduate of the US Military Academy with service under Major General James Wilkinson and Major General Zachary Taylor.  He resigned his army commission to recruit American soldiers to join with him in the Gutiérrez invasion of Mexico.  Magee’s death involves some controversy, as some sources attribute his demise to consumption or malaria, others claim he was poisoned by his men because of his stern treatment toward them.

[5] Kemper was born in Fauquier County, Virginia.  In 1801, Samuel, Reuben, and Nathan Kemper moved to southwestern Mississippi and West Florida where he was in constant trouble with Spanish authorities.  Kemper and his brothers led an abortive rebellion in West Florida in 1804.  He died from malaria while living in Louisiana in 1814.

[6] New Spain’s harsh reprisals against rebels in Tejas created a deep distrust of Spanish/Mexican authorities and several survivors of the Battle of Medina would later become leaders of the Texas Revolution in 1836.

[7] Austin’s settlement plan was thrown into turmoil by Mexico’s independence from Spain.  The new “rump” Congress refused to recognize the Spanish land grant.  Austin eventually persuaded the government to approve the grant made to his father, Moses Austin.  When Emperor Iturbide abdicated in 1823, the law recognizing the land grant was annulled. Austin again convinced the ruling legislature to grant him an empresario contract.  In 1824, the Mexican congress permitted individual states to decide their own immigration policies.  In March 1825, the State of Coahuila y Tejas approved a law that continued the system of impresarios.

[8] At this stage in the play, Texians far outnumbered Mexicans living in Texas.

[9] Lamar served as Vice President under Houston.  During the Houston administration, Lamar returned to his homeland in Georgia for nearly all of 1837.  Returning to Texas late that year, he founded the Philosophical Society of Texas and became aware that his campaign for the presidency was already long underway, sponsored chiefly by political opponents of Sam Houston.  By law, Houston could not succeed himself as president, so when the two other candidates (quite remarkably) committed suicide, Lamar’s election as President of Texas was assured.  When Lamar assumed office as president, Texas was in an unsettled situation.  Only the USA recognized Texas independence, Mexico was threatening re-conquest, the Indians were rampaging against Texians, the treasury was empty, the currency was worthless, and there were no commercial treaties.

[10] The Council House Fight, 1840.

[11] A meeting of Texas representatives in pre-revolutionary Texas, attended by those who opposed the revolution, in 1835.  The meeting had no official authority as a legislative body, was not representative of all Texians, there were no representatives from any of the embattled areas of Texas, and there was no complete agreement on any of its deliberations.

[12] Sam Houston had lived with the Cherokee for a number of years; his Indian policy seemed to favor them over his Texian constituency.  Many people believed that Houston was himself more red than white.

[13] Psychologically, Tejanos have continued to remain loyal to Mexico, even to the present day.

[14] The treaty called for a war of extermination, Indians would be granted title to their land in return for the allegiance.  Vicente Cordova, a wealthy Tejano, a resident of Nacogdoches, a former mayor, judge, and member of the town council, became the principal point of contact between the insurrectionists and the government of Mexico.

[15] Rusk was a lawyer, soldier, and statesman who migrated to Texas in 1835 while pursuing the men who embezzled him out of a sizeable sum of money.  During the battle of San Jacinto, Rusk found himself perilously surrounded by Mexican forces.  The man who rescued his party was the colonel of cavalry named Mirabeau B. Lamar.  He did not catch the thieves but decided to remain at Nacogdoches.  Learning of the despotism of the Mexican government, Rusk joined the Texian Independence movement.  He was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and served as Texas Secretary of War in 1836.

[16] A pioneer, soldier and public official, founder of St. Augustine, Texas, and Texas senator.  In 1838, Augustine received an arrow wound that resulted in the amputation of his leg at the knee.

[17] Also known as Bowl, Bowles, Duwali, and Bold Hunter.

[18] The Kickapoo are an Algonquian-speaking tribe indigenous to Mexico and the southern portion of the United States.

[19] Cordova eventually made his way to Mexico.  Thirty-three members of the rebellion, all with Spanish surnames, were arrested and indicted for treason.  The capture of two Mexican agents produced additional evidence of an extensive Indian-Mexican conspiracy/alliance against Texas.

[20] Douglas was a merchant, a Texas congressman representing Nacogdoches, and militia officer. He died in 1840.  The town of Douglas, Texas is named in his honor.

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At Goliad, 1836

(Continued from last week)

FANNIN 001One of the first things that General Sam Houston did after being reinstated was ordering Fannin to withdraw his men and stores fromPresidio La Bahia at Goliad to the town at Victoria.  He might have complied with Houston’s order were it not for a few logistical problems.  He had neither the wagons or the oxen needed to transport his heavy cannons.  Fannin had dispatched Captain Horton to collect them from Victoria, which in those days was probably between 30 and 40 miles. When Horton finally arrived back in Goliad on 16 March 1836, he had with him a number of wagons for cannon and stores, and twenty yokes of oxen.

Word of the Battle of Refugio reached Fannin on 17 March, brought to him by Hugh Frazer, who had managed to escape capture.  Meanwhile, General Urrea [1] was reading Fannin’s mail.  Mexican scouts were regularly picking off Fannin’s couriers and had a good idea what Fannin might do next.  Fannin, on the other hand, had no idea what Urrea was up to.  He could not estimate his strength and did not know the dispositions of Urrea’s forces —although, on 17 March, two of Captain Horton’s scouts discovered the approach of Colonel Juan Morales’ with two battalions (about 500 men) from the Alamo.  Morales’ men were combat veterans.

Fannin finally ordered a withdrawal from Fort Defiance on 18 March.  It wasn’t a hasty retreat, it wasn’t very organized, and it wasn’t uncontested. Fannin and his men were caught up in a series of minor skirmishes with General Urrea’s advance units.  Believing that Urrea was planning to besiege the fort, Fannin kept his garrison on alert for most of the night and attempted no withdrawal under the cover of darkness.  Urrea’s approach and that of Morales’ regiment caused Fannin and his men to lose their focus. No one had even bothered to feed the livestock that night.  Fannin began his formal withdrawal from Fort Defiance the next day —at about 9 a.m. The area was blanketed by a heavy fog. In his train were nine cannons of various weight and caliber, and 1,000 muskets.  Absent from the train was food and water.

General Urrea 001

General Jose de Urrea

General Urrea was unaware of Fannin’s withdrawal until around 11 a.m.  Fannin’s progress was painfully slow.  At around the same time that Urrea became aware of the retrograde, Fannin decided to halt the train to feed the oxen.  Captains Shackelford, Duval, and Westover protested: this was no time for dallying about.  Fannin’s response to this good counsel was arrogant dismissiveness.  He was not afraid of Urrea, he said.  A good commander doesn’t underestimate his enemy.

When General Urrea set off in pursuit, he mustered around 80-cavalry and an infantry battalion (about 350 men).  Urrea’s mounted scouts soon reported Fannin’s location and the approximate size of his force. Urrea was surprised; he’d imagined that Fannin had more men.  This news prompted Urrea to send one of his infantry companies back to Goliad, but he at the same time called up his artillery.

Captain Horton’s cavalry, numbering around 30-men, served as Fannin’s advance guard and flank security.  The rear guard was under the command of Captain Ehrenberg.  No one in his company noticed the approach of Mexican cavalry.  Fannin sent Horton to scout Coleto Creek, about two miles ahead.  No sooner had Horton disappeared from sight, Mexican cavalry emerged from a wooded area in the rear. The cavalry commander ordered a squadron forward to prevent Fannin from reaching the wood surrounding Coleto Creek.

While maneuvering his column into a moving square formation, wagons placed at each corner, Fannin established a line of skirmishers supported by artillery. The Mexicans had caught Fannin in a shallow depression, some six feet below the surrounding landscape.  Fannin urged his men forward to a more defensible higher ground around 500 yards ahead.  But then the ammunition wagon broke down.  Fannin picked this time to call a council of war.  General Urrea, seeing an advantage, attacked.

The situation for the Texians was dire.  Fannin had little water; his men were in an open prairie with grass high enough to diminish the vision of sharpshooters.  The hollow square formation was three ranks deep; each man received three or four loaded muskets, bayonets, rifles, and pistols were abundant. There was no shortage of ammunition.

General Urrea ordered massed battalions against all sides of the moving square, which was no longer moving.  Fannin’s defenders included around 300 men; Urrea’s initial attack involved around 350 men. After the arrival of reinforcements, Urrea fielded between 700 and 1,000 men.  The battle raged until after sunset on 19 March.  The Texians made good use of what they had.  At the end of the day, Fannin had lost 7 killed, 60 wounded, 40 of those severely, including Fannin himself.

Urrea withdrew his force after sunset.  He was out of ammunition and he’d lost a good number of his force killed or wounded.  Fannin’s men had acquitted themselves well, and they knew it.  They were motivated but also anxious for Horton’s return with reinforcements.  The men would not be reinforced because Captain Horton was unable to cut through the Mexican lines.  Colonel Ward’s battalion, which was withdrawing from Refugio, through Goliad toward Victoria, was exhausted.  General Urrea ignored them.  He knew where they were going, and he had plenty of time to overtake them.

During the night, Fannin and his men paid a heavy price for their failure to take with them adequate stores of water.  The men needed water to drink, the medics needed it to treat the men’s wounds, and water was needed to swab out the cannons after each salvo.

A darkened camp made treating the wounded next to impossible; the pathetic cries of the wounded worked against Texian morale.  Fannin’s officers petitioned him to avoid another battle, suggesting they could make away in the dark.  The men refused, however.  They would not leave their wounded friends behind.  Fannin’s only other option was to dig trenches and await the next attack.

1836 ArtilleryThe next morning, Fannin’s men faced a renewed enemy.  They were facing well-rested fresh soldiers.  Everyone had adequate ammunition.  Urrea had placed his artillery on surrounding slopes overlooking Fannin’s position.  General Urrea was grouped for battle at 6:15 a.m.  It only took two salvos from Mexican artillery to convince Fannin to seek terms of surrender.  The men asked to be treated as prisoners of war; they wanted medical treatment for their wounded friends; they wanted, in time, to be paroled back to the United States.

General Urrea met with Fannin and made it clear to him that he was not able to accept these terms of surrender.  He was bound under orders to accept no terms beyond unconditional surrender.  General Urrea also made it clear to Fannin that at the order of the Mexican Congress and Presidenté-General Antonio López de Santa Anna, he and his men would be executed. All that Urrea could do, and what he would do, is write a letter to General Santa Anna asking for mercy. With this understanding, Fannin surrendered his men “subject to the disposition of the supreme government.” Whether Fannin explained this to his men, we cannot know.  What we do know is that Fannin and his men were executed under the laws of Mexico at the time, and no one tricked the Texians into surrendering;

After Fannin surrendered, General Urrea continued his advance into Victoria.  True to his word, Urrea wrote to General Santa Anna recommending clemency for Fannin’s garrison.  Santa Anna responded a week later, ordering Colonel José Nicolás de la Portilla [2], in command at Goliad, to execute Fannin’s men as pirates. Accordingly, Fannin’s entire command, along with William Ward’s Georgia Battalion, was shot on Palm Sunday, 27 March 1836.  Not everyone died, however [3].

Today, Texans remember James Fannin as a hero of the Texas revolution.  I do not share this view.  Fannin may have died heroically, but he was no hero.  He was also unqualified to serve in any military capacity above the rank of private.  Fannin’s poor leadership not only failed his men, but his lackluster performance also failed the purpose for which they died.

Santa Anna c 1852

Antonio López de Santa Anna c.1850

From the time the earliest Americans made their way to Texas, around 1811, people living in Texas were no stranger to violence inflicted upon them by native Americans, outlaws, and renegades.  What did shock them in 1836 was the savagery of Hispanic society.  Texians were stunned in the aftermath of the Alamo, but no one was prepared for the mass execution of Fannin and his men at Goliad.  Whether Presidenté-General Antonio López de Santa Anna [4] (shown right) was a monster by ordering the mass murder of Fannin and his men, it was a fate experienced by other rebels at the time.  It was also a fate promised well in advance, couched in simple terms, so that even the simplest mind could understand it.

I do not believe it is possible for soldiers to kill others on the field of battle unless, or until, they learn to hate their enemy.  This is usually achieved after witnessing the death or injury of their brothers-in-arms.  Fear, by itself, isn’t enough.  In 1836, owing to the events at the Alamo and at Goliad, Texians who fought at San Jacinto in April so hated the Mexican forces that they behaved as men deprived of their senses.  It was a bloodletting of unbelievable scope; Mexican soldiers suffered the consequences of obeying the orders of their general.


  1. Costeloe, M. P. The Central Republic in Mexico, 1835-1846. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993
  2. Green, S. C. The Mexican Republic: The First Decade 1823-1832.  Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburg Press, 1987
  3. Lord, W. A Time to Stand.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1961
  4. Roberts, R. and James S. Olson. A Line in the Sand: The Alamo in Blood and Memory, New York: Touchstone Publishing, 2002
  5. Bancroft, H. H. History of the North American States and Texas, San Francisco, 1886
  6. Davenport, H. “Men of Goliad,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly, July 1939
  7. Jenkins, J. H. The Papers of the Texas revolution(1835-1836) Austin: Presidia Press, 1973
  8. Pruett, J. L. with E. B. Cole. Goliad Massacre: A Tragedy of the Texas Revolution.  Austin: Eakin Press, 1985
  9. Fehrenbach, T. R. Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans Open Road Media. Kindle Edition


[1] José de Urrea (1797-1849) was a competent career military officer with service in the Spanish and Mexican armies.  Urrea, while remaining a staunch federalist, always performed his duty with vigor and distinction.  He easily defeated small groups of Texian forces in conflicts at San Patricio, Refugio, and Coleto.  General Urrea also fought during the Mexican-American War.  He was ultimately defeated by cholera, which took his life on 1 August 1849.

[2] Colonel Portilla lived an eventful life until 1873. He supported the French intervention of Maximilian between 1856-1867, served as Mexico’s equivalent of Secretary of the Navy in 1867, but after the fall of Maximilian, Portilla was expelled from Mexico.

[3] Twenty-eight prisoners escaped by feigning death. Three of the 28 participated in the Battle of San Jacinto.  The “Angel of Goliad” was a Mexican lady whose merciful heart and courage induced General Urrea’s officers to disobey the orders of Antonio López de Santa Anna to shoot (kill) all of Fannin’s men.  She was the wife of Captain Telesforo Alavez, Captain of the 6thCompany of General Urrea’s cavalry.  She was known as Pacheta Alevesco, a rendering of Panchita Alavez,  She saved twenty more of Fannin’s men, including Ben F. Hughes, a fifteen-year-old orderly in Captain Horton’s cavalry.

[4] Santa Anna was the president who would not go away.  He served as Mexico’s president 1833-1835, 1839, 1841-1842, 1843-1844, 1847, and 1853-1855.  He was vice president 1837-1839.

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The Matamoros Campaign


James Walker Fannin

James Walker Fannin Jr. (d. March 27, 1836) is not one of my favorite characters in Texas history.  In fairness to Fannin, however, he was a 32-year old colonel with comparatively no experience as a senior field officer.  What happened to him and his men at Goliad, Texas on 27 March 1836 might have been avoided had Fannin demonstrated even a modicum of level-headedness in the crisis, had he been able to make a timely decision, had he not placed himself (and his men) in a very bad situation.

Fannin was born in either 1804-05 in Georgia.  His father, a veteran of the War of 1812, never married Fannin’s mother.  Her name was Walker, and Jim Fannin was raised by his mother’s family.  Beyond this, we have little knowledge of his early years.

Jim Fannin enrolled in the U. S. Military Academy as James W. Walker in July 1819; he resigned in 1821.  There are two stories surrounding his failure to graduate.  In the first, Walker-Fannin was asked to resign due to academic deficiency, tardiness, and protracted absences from class.  In the second, Fannin was called back to Georgia due to an illness in the family.  Both of these possibilities could be true.

In 1829, Fannin married a woman named Minerva Fort.  A daughter was born on 17 July of that year.  A second child came along in 1832.  While working as a merchant in Columbus, Georgia, Fannin joined the local militia.  He appears to have been quite active in his youth: store clerk, member of the temperance league, a local judge, and the illegal transportation of slaves.

In 1834, Fannin settled his family at Velasco, where some sources say he purchased a plantation.  Today, there is no record of this purchase.  Nevertheless, Fannin did work as a managing partner in a slave-trading syndicate.  Within a year, Fannin managed to embroil himself in the growing Texian resistance to Mexican centralism.  On 20 August 1835, he was appointed by the Committee of Safety and Correspondence of Columbia, Texas to use his influence to encourage a territory-wide consultation. On 27 August, Fannin wrote to a US Army officer in Georgia requesting financial aid for Texas and even solicited for officers suitable for command billets in the Texian Army.  In the next month, Fannin himself became a volunteer and gave money to help fund an expedition to capture the Mexican ship Veracruzana, which was docked at Copano.  When the expedition failed to materialize, he traveled to Gonzalez where, as a captain of the Brazos Guards, he participated in the Battle of Gonzalez on 2 October 1835.

Four days later, Fannin was one of a committee that urged Stephen F. Austin to bring all possible aid to Gonzalez.  Austin responded by bringing the entire Texian army (around 500 men), which then moved on to Béxar.  Austin dispatched Jim Bowie and Fannin as scouts to determine the situation between Gonzalez and Béxar, additionally tasking them to secure additional supplies.

On 27 October, Bowie and Fannin established an encampment in a wooded bend adjacent to the San Antonio River near the Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Acuña.  With them were four companies of men serving under Andrew Briscoe [1], Robert Coleman [2], Valentine Bennet [3], and Michael Goheen [4].  Bowie posted pickets for security around the camp.  General Martin Perfecto de Cos [5], commanding around 750 men, fortified the plazas around the town and earlier in the day, the Bowie-Fannin expedition had a short engagement with Mexican scouts.  A few salvos from Cos’ cannon failed to inflict any casualties on the Texians.

General Cos decided to attack the Texians on the next day, sending Colonel Domingo de Ugartecheaout with 275 men and two cannons before dawn. The Mexican cavalry assaulted the Texian pickets in the early morning fog and then formed a skirmish line on the west bank of the river.  Lieutenant Colonel Jose Maria Mendoza led a smaller infantry force across a stream to attack the Texians from the east. Mexican volleys crashed through the trees above the Texians.  Bowie moved Coleman’s company to meet Mendoza’s advance.  One man fell mortally wounded.  Accurate Texian fires repelled three separate Mexican attacks and one of their cannons was captured.  Ugartechea’s cavalry formed a protective screen of the infantry’s withdrawal. When Austin heard the firefight, he quickly dispatched troops to reinforce Bowie-Fannin.  His arrival did little more than hurry the Mexican withdrawal. Mexican losses were fourteen killed and thirty-nine wounded.  The Texians lost one man killed and another wounded.

On 10 November, Fannin was ordered to cut a Mexican supply route between Laredo and San Antonio.  It was a mission he could not complete because no one was interested in joining an expedition under his leadership.  Three days later, Sam Houston offered Fannin the position of Inspector-General of the Texian Army.  He instead began working for the Provisional Government’s General Council as a recruiter for the regular army.  On 5 December, the General Council of Texas acted on Fannin’s advice by establishing an auxiliary corps of volunteers.

Houston commissioned Fannin as a colonel in the regular army on 7 December and he was authorized to enlist reinforcements on 10 December.  Fannin was also authorized to contract for war supplies during the siege of Béxar, but since Béxar surrendered on 9 December, all the supplies he might have collected were held over for future operations.

On 9 January 1836, Fannin initiated a recruiting effort for volunteers to serve in an expedition being planned against the Mexican city of Matamoros.  According to some (me included), this was a hare-brained scheme that was doomed to fail at the outset of planning.  Others argue that the expedition was a reflection of the greed and avarice of Texian land speculators.  Sam Houston referred to it as Matamoros fever.

In the spring of 1835 at Monclova, the federalist governor and legislature of Coahuila y Tejas illegally sold 1,600 leagues of public land in Texas to help raise money to finance opposition to Antonio López de Santa Anna’s centralist forces.  Among the buyers were more than a few Texas empresarios seeking to enrich themselves through land speculation.  These men included Ben Smith, Green DeWitt, Ben Milam, Tom Chambers, Haden Edwards, James Grant [6], Frank Johnson, Samuel M. Williams [7], and John Mason.  News that Santa Anna was en route to Monclova with an army hastily sent these men back to Texas.

When the General Council was formed in October 1835, Sam Houston proposed that the Consultation should investigate and declare void all suspicious grants made by the state of Coahuila y Tejas since 1833.  Sam Houston believed that such a move would demonstrate to both Texians and General Santa Anna that his northward march was more than a march against piratas. Houston’s proposal drew loud protests from the interested parties, and they countered by trying to organize a Mexican federalist revolution to be fought largely by American volunteers. The suggestion was typical of the “freebooter” mentality of the time.  To this end, Valentin Gomez Faríasand José Antonio Mexiawent to New Orleans and John Mason organized a group calling themselves the “Friends of Texas.”

Thomas McKinney stood opposed to both Governor Henry Smith [8] and General Houston; it was he that shaped the policy of the General Council of the provisional government.  He expected compensation for his contributions through the Monclova land sales scheme.

The General Council was the split over the issue of whether to remain loyal to the Constitution of 1824 and support Mexican liberals, or whether to seek complete independence for Texas.  At the core of this argument was whether to validate or annul the Monclova land sales scheme, and whether to form an expedition to Matamoros and, in doing so, inducing Tampico to join the revolution.  These issues brought quarrel to crisis because the debate permeated the General Council, the entire Texian army, including all of its senior field commanders.  At that moment when Texas needed cohesion, the provisional council ended up with two opposing governors and an army leadership that didn’t quite know whose orders to follow.  The Matamoros Expedition was part of this mishmash and it eventually led to the fall of the Texas Provisional Government and nearly destroyed the Texas army in 1836.

The port of Matamoros, at the mouth of the Rio Grande, was an important source of revenue and, if seized, could be used to help pay for the cost of the war [9].  More than this, the city also commanded a strategic position for blocking Santa Anna’s movement and, potentially, for launching an expedition into Mexico’s interior. The idea of a Matamoros expedition probably originated with Mexican federalists in Tamaulipas y Coahuila, who were hoping to form an opposition government under General Mexia.  Mexia had led a successful operation against the centralists at Matamoros in 1832, although there is a reason to believe that Santa Anna himself devised this scheme, hoping to divide Coahuila and Texas, and transforming a regional conflict into a national one.  Nevertheless, it was Philip Dimmitt who first publicized the notion.

Dimmitt commanded the Texian garrison at La Bahia (Goliad) beginning in October 1835.  A member of De Leon’s colony, Dimmitt had many contacts among Anglo and Hispanic citizens in the area of Victoria, Refugio, and San Patricio —including John Linn, Fernando De Leon, James Power, and Placido Benavides, and it was Dimmitt who provided the bulk of intelligence to the General Council concerning Mexican military movements.  Dimmitt was initially convinced that a Texian maneuver against the centralists at Matamoros would receive popular support within the De Leon colony.  Dimmitt was seeking to garner support from Mexican liberals willing to stand up in support the Constitution of 1824, including General Mexia, General Jose de Urrea, Antonio Canales, and Antonio Zapata, Dimmitt suggested that General Lorenzo de Zavala lead the expedition and communicated his plan to Stephen F. Austin (then Commander-in-Chief of the Texian army).  Austin, with no military background at all, considered the plan feasible.  He agreed with Dimmitt that such an expedition had to be led by a Mexican federalist.  Austin’s immediate concern, however, was the increasingly hostile centralist forces under General Cos at Béxar.

General Mexía, meanwhile, was planning an attack on Tampico and General Zavala, who declined Dimmitt’s invitation because of ill-health, emphasized that success at Matamoros would depend on General Mexía’s successes at Tampico.

Dimmitt continued his planning against Matamoros, which by November, gained the full support of the provisional government’s General Council.  On 31 October, Dimmitt’s plan for an expedition against Fort Lipantitlán, a Mexican fort three miles from San Patricio, was well-executed by Ira Westover and produced a victory for the Texians. The operation removed the only remaining fortified centralist position between Béxar and Matamoros.  By mid-November, however, Dimmitt began to doubt the ability of federalists in Mexico to sustain a joint venture with Texians. He wrote to Austin stating that an assault on Matamoros would just as likely be opposed as supported by the citizens of northern Mexico.  It was a concern that stemmed from his understanding of centralist plans and movements, and from his interaction with Dr. James Grant and José María Viesca.  Additionally, General Mexía’s defeat in Tampico convinced Dimmitt, Austin, and Houston that a similar fate might await the planned Matamoros expedition.

Eventually, Dimmitt gave up the idea of a war in support of the Constitution of 1824.  The only real solution for Texas was independence.  He no longer trusted Mexican liberals who vowed their full support of the Texian cause but were indisposed to offering tangible assistance.  Dimmitt also realized that Texas independence would antagonize those Texians who claimed constitutional loyalty —who were actually heavily invested northern Mexico land speculation, and who, on this basis alone, supported liberal federation. These were the men who wanted the Matamoros operation to proceed.

Despite his misgivings, Dimmitt continued to emphasize the advantages of occupying Matamoros; it was, after all, a viable plan.  He also continued paying lip service to Mexican federalists, who gave him every assurance that they would rally behind their liberal leaders: General Mexia, José María Gonzalez, and Juan Pedro Miracle.  Dimmitt communicated his ideas and concerns to the General Council on 2 December. On 17 December, without any further consultation, an inspired Governor Smith ordered Houston to undertake the project. Then, without any additional coordination with Smith or Houston, Lieutenant Governor James W. Robinson, and military council chairman Wyatt Hanks directed Brigadier General Edward Burleson to organize an expedition to Matamoros.  Two issues stand out: first, there were enclaves within the General Council, each with its own agenda, and second, someone was cleverly playing one side (of the Council) against the other.

The expedition wouldn’t have been an easy undertaking under the most favorable of conditions because following the siege of Béxar, most Texian volunteers packed up and went home. They believed the war was over —and anyway, it was time to think about the next spring’s crops.  Added to this, both Austin and Burleson departed Texas as commissioners to the United States.  Francis (Frank) Johnson was named to command the remaining volunteers at Béxar, mostly men from the United States who without activity were becoming troublesome: a campaign against Matamoros would give them something to do.

Sam Houston implemented Smith’s orders on the same day he received them.  By written dispatch, he directed Jim Bowie, who he then believed was at Goliad, to recruit a force of sufficient numbers and proceed to Matamoros, seize it, and hold it.  In addition, Bowie was instructed to secure the port at Cópano, from which the expedition would proceed [10].  On the following day, Houston ordered David Macomb, Almanzon Huston, and John Wharton to proceed to New Orleans as agents to purchase supplies and send them to Cópano. He also ordered James C. Neill to assume command at Béxar, and he ordered William “Buck” Travis and James Fannin to begin recruiting more volunteers.

Independently, meanwhile, Frank Johnson had begun organizing volunteers at Béxar and with Grant [11], his partner in the Monclova land deals, was able to convince the remaining Béxar volunteers to support an expedition to Matamoros.  Johnson then traveled to San Felipe to obtain formal approval from the General Council for his scheme —as well as funds, munitions, and the authority to commission field officers.  Johnson, completely bamboozled by Mexican liberals, was convinced that they would support the Matamoros campaign.  He told James Robinson, “You may rely on all going well if we are not interfered with by the officers of the regular army.”  Johnson did not want any interference from Sam Houston, who commanded the regular army, and he was well-aware that Dimmitt had voiced reservations about an expedition to Matamoros.  Knowing also that Dimmitt was loyal to Houston, Johnson and Grant sought to convince Robinson to remove Dimmitt from command at Goliad.

Disagreements between Governor Smith and the General Council heated up as Smith, who began to have doubts about Johnson’s and Grant’s motives, objected to their assignment to positions of military leadership [12].  Smith also voiced doubts about the “glowing” reports from the Mexican interior, which gave too much in the way of reassurance that Mexican liberals were ready to support the Texians in Matamoros.  Neither Zavala or Viesca had committed to either plan of action: confronting the centralists, or Texas independence.

With Johnson in San Filipe, Grant began an enlistment campaign at San Patricio.  He successfully recruited most of the San Antonio Grays (mustered from New Orleans), commanded by William Cooke, the Mobile (Alabama) Grays, under David Burke, the Kentucky Mustangs (consisting of the US Independent Cavalry and Louisville volunteers), under Ben Lawrence and James Tarlton, infantry companies under H. R. A. Wigginton and Thomas Lewellen, and an artillery company under Thomas K. Pearson [13].  Having moved to Goliad, Grant claimed superior rank over Dimmitt [14] and with that authority, commandeered additional stores of arms and horses.  Initially, Dimmitt was not inclined to hand them over and for a few long minutes, it looked as if these two groups would open fire.  When the anger finally receded, Dimmitt discharged all his men, resigned his commission and proceeded to Gonzalez.

Houston, meanwhile, was fully aware that General Santa Anna was moving a substantial army into the area.  He was also aware of the ill-feelings within the General Council.  In an effort to avoid what he feared would be a military disaster in Matamoros, Houston urged Governor Smith to convince the Council to cancel their authorization for the expedition.  Houston cited Dr. Grant’s stripping of men and material at the Alamo at Béxar, which left Neill with no supplies and only 104 men, many of whom were sick or wounded from the Siege of Béxar.

On 7 January, Fannin requested that Lieutenant Governor Robinson suspend his military commission until April so that he could concentrate on his duties as an agent of the General Council for the Matamoros expedition.  Then, on 10 January, having received Houston’s advice and misgivings about the Matamoros operation, and realizing finally that the Council had usurped his authority, Governor Smith made an attempt to dissolve the Council.  The council responded by impeaching Smith and appointing Robinson to replace him [15].  On 14 January, Robinson and the General Council overrode Smith’s opposition and authorized Johnson to proceed to Matamoros.

In fact, by commissioning Fannin as their agent, the Council had already committed to the Matamoros expedition.  Whether they realized it or not, the council had created two independent military commands, which thoroughly muddied the chain of command.  Technically, the Matamoros adventure now had two military leaders: Houston and Johnson.  In San Patricio, in Johnson’s absence, Grant proclaimed himself as Acting Commander-in-Chief of the Federal Volunteer Army.

James Fannin was thereafter drawn into the battle between two governors and the general council; he, in turn, involved William Ward [16], who commanded the Georgia Battalion and served as Fannin’s executive officer.  Thereafter, Fannin and Ward were barely on speaking terms.  With Governor Smith defying the General Council’s authority to impeach him, Texas was left without an effective executive at the worst possible moment in time: January and February 1836.

During his northward movement, General Santa Anna received regular updates from his spies about the movement of Texian volunteers and the inner-workings of the General Council. He knew that a party of Texians were en route to Matamoros, and it wasn’t difficult to deduce the direction of their advance.  On 15 January, Santa Anna ordered General Urrea to proceed to Matamoros, take possession of the port, and purge Texas of all foreign piratas [17].  Urrea immediately moved north with a force of 1,500 well-trained soldiers.

On 17 January, in response to an urgent dispatch from Neill at the Alamo asking for reinforcement, Sam Houston dispatched Bowie, who was with him at the time, with about twenty men.  Bowie’s instructions were to consult with Neill and, if practicable, destroy the Alamo and retreat with all artillery to Gonzalez.  Houston also sent a courier to Dimmitt in Gonzalez with orders to raise a relief force that might be dispatched to Béxar —and/or should Dimmitt find the Alamo abandoned, to return to Gonzalez.

James Grant continued his march to Refugio with about 35 men where he intended to meet up with Frank Johnson, resupply his force from Cópano, and muster arriving reinforcements.  Sam Houston, believing that Fannin and Ward were en route to Cópano and Refugio with a substantial number of troops and supplies, proceeded to Refugio in the company of two-hundred of Grant’s volunteers. Historians believe that it was likely that Houston intended to confront Grant and stop the expedition.  From Houston’s own journal, we learn that Houston had no confidence in the assurances Mexican liberals —that he could not rely on them to render their promised support.  Houston arrived at Refugio on 21 January; neither Fannin nor Ward was there.  They weren’t at Copano, either.

At Cópano, Grant’s contingent was reinforced by the arrival of companies under John Chenoweth and Francis Thornton; he marched them straightaway to Refugio.  Upon their arrival, Houston ordered Thornton and 35 regulars to proceed to Goliad to relieve Wyatt.  He emphasized to Thornton that it was imperative that Goliad remain in the hands of the Texans to protect the port at Cópano, and maintain a supply route to Béxar.  Once relieved by Thornton, Wyatt led his few men to Refugio.

While waiting for the arrival of Fannin and Ward, Houston met with Johnson, recently arrived from San Felipe. Houston was shocked and angered by Johnson’s written authorization from the General Council to implement a Matamoros expedition.  He was shocked because he knew the operation would likely fail: a handful of men could not seize a city of 1,200 citizens, particularly in light of the fact that the march would take 22 days, and because the volunteers had insufficient supplies to sustain them.  He was angered because the Council had usurped his authority as Commanding General of the Texian Army.

After making an eloquent appeal to Johnson’s command, several hundred volunteers agreed to remain in Refugio to await further men and supplies.  Undaunted by Houston’s warnings, Johnson and Grant assembled sixty men and proceeded to San Patricio, convinced that they would be reinforced by Mexican liberals.  Houston then realized that the Council’s authorization of Johnson’s command rendered his own commission useless.  He returned to San Filipe and met with Smith.  On 28 January, Houston stepped down as Commanding General and returned to the United States.

With Houston gone, James Fannin became the ranking field officer.  He had been able to recruit a sizeable force for his own expedition to Matamoros.  On 24 January, he sailed from Velasco, arriving at Cópano on 2 February with around 200 men, which included Ward’s Georgia Battalion.  The much-needed supplies had yet to arrive, so Fannin confiscated stores from whatever was available at Cópano.  On 5 February, he marched to Refugio —the starting point for the Matamoros campaign.  He too was optimistic about receiving support from Mexican Federalists.  In a letter to Robinson, Fannin assured him that the liberals were arriving from all quarters in Mexico.  We don’t know where Fannin obtained his information, but it wasn’t true.

Two days earlier, Johnson informed Fannin that reinforcements from Tamaulipas and Nuevo León, which were massing under Gonzales, Canales, and Francisco Fernandez “will prove amply sufficient.”  He further stated that Grant with twenty Texians had taken Fort Lipantitlán—capturing twenty-six Mexican soldiers and fifty horses. He might have noted that Westover had previously taken the fort on 31 October; he might have deduced from this that taking a Mexican fort is one thing, holding on to it is another matter; and he might have reasoned that Santa Anna’s army appeared to be omnipresent in South Texas.

In any case, Johnson was inspired by Grant’s achievement and, he urged Fannin to move quickly against Matamoros.  Pending Fannin’s arrival at Matamoros, Johnson planned to “engage Santa Anna’s partisans from Rio Grande City to Reynosa, cut off any reinforcement he may wish to send, and leave you thus to take possession of Matamoros and even Tampico if necessary.”

Urrea JoseJohnson had over-estimated the support actually available to him from Mexican liberals and under-estimated the strength and determination of General Santa Anna.  Johnson and Grant also discounted General Urrea’s ability to squelch their concerted efforts, which Urrea demonstrated during his pursuit of the rebels under José María  Gonzalez. Emphasizing that the colonists were seeking Texas independence from Mexico, Urrea urged Mexican townsmen to remain loyal to the Constitution of 1824 (even though Santa Anna had long superseded it).  Urrea employed the “carrot and stick” approach: execute some rebels, incorporate others into his division once they reaffirmed their loyalty to Mexico.

General Urrea (shown at right) arrived in Matamoros on 31 January 1836.

At Refugio on 7 February, Fannin finally realized that the facts did not support Johnson’s optimism.  In a dispatch from Robert Morris at San Patricio, which included a communiqué from Plácido Benavides [18], Fannin learned that José Gonzalez’s force was destroyed, that the Centralist garrison at Matamoros numbered well over a thousand Mexican soldiers under General Urrea, and that Santa Anna was en route to Goliad and Béxar to suppress the Texian rebellion.

Fannin sent William Cook to reinforce Robert Morris at San Patricio.  Not long after Cook’s arrival, he notified Fannin by courier that Morris has been misinformed; Grant had received reassurance from General Fernández that federalist forces would support him.  Morris was kind enough to add that he had resigned his Texian commission to accept another in command a regiment in the Mexican Federalist Army [19].  Santa Anna was (very cleverly) manipulating Johnson and Grant through Fernandez [20] and others who had joined the centralist regime.

Johnson and Grant departed San Patricio leaving Morris in charge of the artillery.  Since Morris no longer held a Texian commission, Fannin dispatched Captain Burr H. Duval with a squadron of men, wagons, and oxen to recover it.  Fannin then withdrew to Goliad on February 12, leaving King’s company at Refugio and Chenoweth’s company at Cópano.

On 16 February, Fannin demonstrated that he had finally come to terms with his circumstances.  He dispatched a message to Robinson informing him that, according to an informant by the name of J. H. Kuykendall, that the Mexican army had crossed into Texas with three divisions.  He informed Robinson that he planned to relocate to Béxar.  He closed saying, “No aid need be expected from Mexicans.”  Fannin afterward came to terms with his lack of leadership ability and experience.  He pressed the council to relieve him of the burden of command, urging them to name another to replace him.  With Houston’s departure, however, there was no one to name as a replacement.  Fannin, like it or not, at the age of 32-years, was the senior-most Texian officer. Psychologically, Fannin was paralyzed by his circumstances, by his lack of experience, and his lack of leadership ability.  He simply could not decide what next to do —and his time was running out.

San Antonio River Goliad 001

San Antonio River near Goliad

Appeals from Travis at the Alamo, delivered to him by Jim Bonham, prompted Fannin to organize a relief march of more than 300 men and four pieces of artillery on 25 February 1836.  Moving heavy cannon was no easy task, and after some delay, Fannin led his man from Goliad on 28 February.  The distance between Goliad and Béxar was about 90 miles.  Fannin and his men had barely crossed the San Antonio River, some four miles from Goliad when the relief expedition broke down.  Wagons transporting the cannon were too light for the weight.  As a consequence, the expedition camped that night within sight of Goliad.  Fannin’s men were poorly armed, had little food, some men were marching in bare feet [21], and to make matters worse, the oxen had wandered off sometime after dark.  Fannin and his men returned to Fort Defiance the next day.

Down south, Johnson and Grant were unaware that General Urrea’s scouts were monitoring their activities as they raided the countryside for needed supplies.  Johnson and his 34-man company collected over one-hundred horses —all of them belonging to local ranchers.  In fact, some of Urrea’s scouts were vaqueros employed by the same ranches Johnson and Grant were plundering.

Grant, operating further south with 26-men (including Morris and Benavides), had located some number of horses at the Camargo Ranch.  Grant was oblivious to the fact that elements of Urrea’s division were operating nearby.

Using poor weather to conceal his movements, General Urrea surrounded San Patricio. He launched a surprise attack against Johnson and his mean early in the morning of 27 February, thoroughly defeating them.  Johnson escaped to Refugio —his men not faring quite as well.  Those who weren’t killed were escorted to the prison at Matamoros.  Urrea then began to track down the remaining Texians.  On 2 March, elements of Urrea’s force defeated Grant at Agua Dulce Creek, 26-miles below San Patricio.  Only six of Grant’s men escaped to Goliad —Grant was not one of them.

Fannin continued to press for a replacement even as late as 1 March —a week after refusing Bonham’s final plea for reinforcement.  On 4 March, Sam Houston was reappointed to command all regular, volunteer, and militia forces in Texas.  The Alamo fell on 6 March.

On 15 March, General Urrea captured 33 men fighting under Captain Amon B. King at Refugio.  King and his men had infuriated local Mexicans by burning local ranches and indiscriminately shooting eight Mexicans while they were seated around a campfire.  Once Urrea had captured these men, local Mexicans demanded justice.  After a court-martial adjudging King and fourteen others guilty of depredations, General Urrea had them shot, while setting free others who were either colonists or Mexicans.  Following the Battle of Refugio, Urrea moved his force toward Goliad.

Continued next week


  1. Costeloe, M. P. The Central Republic in Mexico, 1835-1846. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993
  2. Green, S. C. The Mexican Republic: The First Decade 1823-1832.  Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburg Press, 1987
  3. Lord, W. A Time to Stand.  Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1961
  4. Roberts, R. and James S. Olson. A Line in the Sand: The Alamo in Blood and Memory, New York: Touchstone Publishing, 2002
  5. Bancroft, H. H. History of the North American States and Texas, San Francisco, 1886
  6. Davenport, H. “Men of Goliad,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly, July 1939
  7. Jenkins, J. H. The Papers of the Texas revolution(1835-1836) Austin: Presidia Press, 1973
  8. Pruett, J. L. with E. B. Cole. Goliad Massacre: A Tragedy of the Texas Revolution.  Austin: Eakin Press, 1985
  9. Fehrenbach, T. R. Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans Open Road Media. Kindle Edition


[1] Originally from Mississippi, Briscoe commanded the Liberty Volunteers at Concepcion, participated in the siege of Béxar, and commanded Company A of the regular infantry. Briscoe joined the fight against Mexican tyranny after having been arrested for (a) complaining about the irregular collection of custom duties from his business in Anahuac, and for attempting to trade with the DeWitt colony untaxed goods.

[2] Coleman was an Indian fighter from Kentucky who moved to Texas in 1831, settling in present-day Bastrop County.  He served as one of the early Texas Rangers defending the Texian colonies from Indian depredation, and in 1835 commanded the Mina Volunteers.  Coleman, openly critical of Sam Houston’s leadership at the Battle of San Jacinto, was unceremoniously discharged from army service in 1837.  He drowned that year while bathing in the Brazos River near Velasco.

[3] Bennet was born in Massachusetts in 1780 and raised as a Puritan.  He fought in the War of 1812, lived for a time in New York, Louisiana, and Ohio.  Shortly after his marriage in 1817, his wife passed away and he set out for Texas. Settling in Velasco, he played a leading role in the battle there and was severely wounded in the face and hip. In 1834, he moved to Gonzalez and was one of the 18-men who defied Colonel Ugartechea at the Battle of Gonzalez.

[4] Captain Michael Roup Goheen (1807-50) was born in Pennsylvania to Edward Francis Goheen and Christiann Roup.  He married Dorinda Slade Moody, with whom he had ten children.  Goheen passed away, aged 42-years in Texas.  We do not know more about him than this.

[5] Brother-in-law to Antonio López de Santa Anna.

[6] James Grant was a Scottish-born physician, entrepreneur, and self-styled military leader during the Texas Revolution.  His family was involved with the East India Company and he eventually joined the company as a ship’s surgeon.  In 1825, Grant was assigned as a medical officer with the British diplomatic mission in Mexico, where he also acted as a British spy in Texas under the direction of Henry Ward.  When Ward was recalled because of the failed Fredonia Rebellion, Grant remained in Mexico where he believed he could make a fortune in land speculation.

[7] Williams and Thomas F. McKinney formed McKinney, Williams, and Company, which was then the largest commission-merchant enterprise in Texas.  They helped finance the Texas Revolution and provided vessels to transport men and material to Texas to aid in the revolution.

[8] Henry Smith, Provisional Governor of Texas (b. 1788-d. 1851) was a Kentuckian, businessman, and politician who moved to Texas in 1827 where he worked his land, taught school, and surveyed lands.  Elected as a delegate in 1835, Smith favored Texas Independence (as opposed to statehood within the Mexican Republic).

[9] This only made sense if Texians supported the Centralist regime of Antonio López de Santa Anna and supported the federalists of Mexico, who advocated autonomous states within the Republic of Mexico.  Not everyone did.

[10] Bowie never received this order because he had already left Goliad en route to Béxar.

[11] Grant also had large landholdings in Coahuila, which at this time, had fallen under Santa Anna’s control.  He had a financial interest in promoting an expedition to the Rio Grande.

[12] Smith believed that Johnson and Grant were conspiring to join Mexican liberals to establish a Republic of Northern Mexico independent of both Mexico and Texas.  They were doing exactly that, and well-known to Austin, Houston, and Dimmitt.

[13] These companies probably numbered no more than 35 to 40 men each.  Today’s infantry companies range anywhere from 150-250 well-trained, highly disciplined warriors.

[14] Grant throwing his weight around didn’t sit well with Dimmitt.  The garrison at Goliad belonged neither to the regular army or to Austin’s volunteers; they were a group of independent volunteers who had not only seized Goliad from the Mexicans but also garrisoned it.  The supplies stored there had been obtained by this independent group.  The antics of Johnson and Grant created cohesion problems in the Texian military.

[15] At this point, with Smith’s refusal to step-down, Texas had two provisional governors —and essentially, no central leadership.

[16] “Peg Leg Ward” (1807-1872) was born in Dublin, Ireland and immigrated to the USA in 1828. In 1835, he joined the New Orleans Grays in time to participate in the Siege of Béxar. In the assault, Ward lost his leg and eventually returned to New Orleans for a prosthetic.  He then served as a recruiter for General Thomas Green’s brigade, and upon returning to Texas he served as a commander of the Georgia Battalion, Green’s Brigade.  Ward survived the massacre at Goliad.

[17] Referring to Anglo-Texans as pirates wasn’t simply a matter of offering up an epithet to white people; there are legitimate reasons for referring to them as such.  In history, there are clear and understandable reasons why some Mexican might refer to Anglo-settlers as such.  The Spanish word Piratas evolves from “freebooter,” also “filibuster.”  It refers to an irregular military adventurer, particularly one who engages in unauthorized military expeditions into a foreign country to foment or support a revolution.  In English, the word filibuster translates to Buccaneer in French.  Buccaneer translates to pirate.  There have been a number of American filibusters who went to Spanish Mexico to cause trouble: Philip Nolan was the first.  You may remember him from the fictional story, “Man without a Country.” It was not difficult for Antonio López de Santa Annato to regard those involved with the Matamoros expedition as pirates—particularly since most of them were not Anglo-settlers at all.  They were adventurers who went to Texas to make their fortune…

[18] Benavides was a native of Reynosa who served as secretary to Fernando De León at the De León colony.  He married into the De León family and received a league of land through this familial relationship.  He served as the mayor of Victoria on two occasions and served as a captain of the local militia.  After the battle of Gonzalez, Benavides joined the Texian rebellion against the Centralist regime in Mexico.  He warned Fannin through Robert Morris that General Santa Anna planned to lure Texians to Matamoros where he could ambush them.  It was this message that caused Fannin to withdraw from Refugio.

[19] In effect, he accepted a commission in an organization that didn’t exist.

[20] General Urrea would not have been able to “press on” were it not for the supplies provided by Fernández.

[21] The Texas winter of 1836 was particularly cold.


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Jim Bowie: The Man Behind the Legend

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Artist’s rendition of James Bowie, date unknown. Taken from the public domain

Was Jim Bowie a hero of Texas, or a man who was simply trapped by his circumstances?  Was he a killer, or simply a man of his time who was willing and able to defend himself in a scrape?  Was he a fraudster, a man lacking in integrity to the point where he would trick property from honest men, or was he simply a bit more clever than the average land speculator?  Was he a man who fell deeply in love with the woman he married, or was he an opportunist who simply manipulated his way into an influential (and very wealthy) Mexican family?

James Bowie (10 March 1796 – 6 March 1836) died at the famous Battle of the Alamo, an engagement where between 185 to 260 men attempted to hold off a Mexican force of more than 1,800 infantry, cavalry, and artillery.  There is some disagreement over how long the battle lasted.  Some historians say that the fighting lasted from between 60-90 minutes.  These are mostly Mexican historians who have never taken an objective view of this battle.  Others, with expertise in matters of Texas history, argue that the battle lasted for around four hours.  Given the numbers of Mexican dead, a four-hour timeline makes sense.  The defenders of the Alamo had absolutely no chance of surviving the onslaught of the vastly superior forces under General Antonio López de Santa Anna [1], but they certainly acquitted themselves well, inflicting between 600 to 800 dead and an additional 500 wounded.

Jim Bowie was a legend, long before he ever went to Texas.  He was a fighter, a frontiersman, a land-speculator, and some might even argue that Bowie was a killer and a thief.  It would not have been wise to offer such an opinion to Jim Bowie’s face, however, but a man might mutter such things in a low tone of voice out of Bowie’s range of hearing.  An honest appraisal of Jim Bowie leads us to conclude that he was simply a man of his time. He was capable of acting before thinking.  He was rash and bold in his youth.  He was capable of the love of a good woman.  He was, in the context of the times, seeking advantages in life at a very dangerous time and place.

Bowie was born in Logan County, Kentucky but spent most of his developing years in Louisiana.  Jim was the ninth of ten children born to Reason (also, Rezin) and the former Elve Ap-Catesby-Jones.  Reason served during the American Revolution and, having suffered serious wounds, was released from duty.  In 1782, he married the young woman who helped nurse him back to health. Reason and Elve first settled in Georgia, later moving to Kentucky, and finally settling in Louisiana.  Reason was not a wealthy man, but he did own several head of cattle, seven horses and a stud, and eight negro slaves.  He owned property in both Spanish Louisiana and Spanish Missouri, establishing residences at several Louisiana locations. In 1812, the family lived in Opelousas.

The Bowie’s were a frontier family. His children helped their father clear the land so that it was suitable for farming.  Elve taught the children to read and write.  All of the Bowie children could speak English, French, and Spanish fluently.  Reason taught his male children how to shoot the rifle and pistol; he taught them how to use a knife in their own defense.  As a result of these attentions, all of Reason’s children were fearless, even to the extent of being able to capture live alligators.

Jim Bowie answered Andrew Jackson’s plea for volunteers to fight in the War of 1812.  Both Jim and his brother Rezin enlisted in the Louisiana militia late in 1814 but arrived in New Orleans too late to participate in the actual fighting. After mustering out, Jim settled in Rapides Parish where he worked in a lumber operation sawing planks, floating them down the bayou, and selling them.  In 1819, Bowie joined the Long Expedition [2] in an effort to liberate Texas from Spanish rule.  The extent of Jim Bowie’s participation in the expedition is unknown, but he returned to Louisiana before the filibuster was repelled by the Spanish army.

In those days, Louisiana was a vast territory first explored by the Spaniard Pánfilo de Narvaez early in 1528.  Hernando de Soto led a second expedition in 1542, but then Spanish interest in the land faded away.  In the late 17thcentury, France embarked on several exploratory missions, and it was they who established a series of settlements on the Mississippi River and Gulf Coast.  Through these, France laid its claim to a huge swath of North American territory that extended from the Gulf of Mexico into Canada.  Robert Cavalier de La Salle named the region Louisiana in honor of King Louis XVI of France.

The first permanent settlement was established at Fort Maurepas (near present-day Biloxi, Mississippi) in 1699; a second at La Balise (Seamark).  In 1722, a royal ordinance transferred the Illinois governance from Canada to Louisiana —a document that may have provided the broadest definition of Louisiana and all land claimed by France south of the Great Lakes between the Rocky and Allegheny Mountains.  Within a few decades, however, trade conflicts developed between Louisiana and Canada, which led to a better-defined boundary between French colonies.  The settlement at Natchitoches (along the Red River) was established in 1714, its purpose to affect trade with Spanish Texas via the Old San Antonio Road, and also to block Spanish advances into Louisiana.

Before Reason passed away (around 1820), he divided his wealth between Jim and Rezin Bowie, which included ten slaves and some number of horses and cattle.  For the next seven years, Jim and Rezin engaged in land speculation. They worked to develop several large estates in Lafourche Parish and in Opelousas.  It was a time of rapidly expanding human population in Louisiana and the Bowie brothers wanted to take advantage of rising land prices.  Without the capital needed to purchase large tracts, they entered into a partnership with the pirate Jean Lafitte in 1818 to raise money.

By this time, the United States had outlawed the importation of African slaves.  To help institute this prohibition, most southern states allowed anyone who informed on a slave trader to receive half of what the imported slaves might earn at auction.  This brings us back to Bowie and his business relationship with Jean Lafitte.  Bowie made several trips to Lafitte’s compound on Galveston Island.  On each trip, he bought smuggled slaves and took them to a customs house to inform on his own actions.  When the customs officials offered the slaves for auction, Bowie purchased them and received a kickback equal to half the price he’d paid.  He could then legally transport these slaves and resell them at market value in New Orleans.  The scheme earned the Bowie brothers $65,000.00 … which they then used for land speculation purposes.

In 1825, Jim and Rezin brought in their younger brother Stephen to purchase the Acadia Plantation near Thibodaux. Within two years, they had established the first steam mill in Louisiana, used in grinding sugar cane. It was a model operation, and in 1831 they sold it and 65 slaves for $90,000.00.  They used this money to purchase a plantation in Arkansas.

Between 1825 and 1831, Jim and John Bowie were involved in a major court case involving land speculation.  When the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory in 1803, it guaranteed all former land-grant claims.  For the next twenty years, efforts were made to establish a clear understanding of land ownership in Louisiana.  In May 1824, Congress authorized the superior courts of each jurisdiction to hear suits from those claiming that they had been overlooked.

In 1827, the Arkansas Superior Court received 126 claims from residents who insisted that they had purchased land from the Bowie brothers—land that had been part of the Spanish land grant system. The court did confirm most of those claims, but the court’s decisions were reversed in 1831.  Further research seemed to suggest that the land had never belonged to the Bowies.  The U. S. Supreme Court upheld the reversal in 1833.  Outraged, land buyers threatened to sue the Bowies, but the documents needed to prove the swindle mysteriously disappeared and no lawsuit was possible.

Bowie’s rise to fame and the beginning of his legend began in 1827 with the so-called Sandbar Fight, which in those times, were a normal occurrence.  Duels were primarily a matter of competing financial interests, allegations of vote tampering, bad loans, and a few issues involving the honor of local women.  Over time, public fist fights and the exchange of gunfire were increasingly common. Some of these feuds ended without resolution because, although duels were intended, they occasionally ended as shouting matches.  In a few such confrontations, one or both of the aggrieved parties failed to show up. The sandbar fight, however, was the real thing.

Members of two affluent families, headed by Samuel L. Wells III and Dr. Thomas H. Maddox, both of Alexandria, Louisiana (who were related), agreed to meet at a neutral site to resolve their differences.  They selected a sandy shoal in the middle of the Mississippi River because its location was outside the jurisdiction of local law enforcement and less likely to subject the participants to legal action [3].  Wells and Maddox were the primary duelists, and each had designated seconds: Major George McWhorter seconded Wells and Colonel Robert A. Crain seconded Maddox. Both families brought along their friends and families.  Friends of Wells included Dr. Richard Cuny, Jim Bowie, General Samuel Cuny, and Jefferson Wells.  Friends of Maddox included Dr. James Denny, Alfred and Carey Blanchard, and Major Norris Wright [4].  Except for Dr. Denny and Dr. Cuny, everyone else was a known brawler.  In addition to the family friends, other observers included two local plantation owners, two additional medical doctors, a guide, and several unarmed slaves.

At noon on Wednesday, 19 September 1827, the dueling parties met at the sandbar just outside Natchez, Mississippi. Seventeen men were armed.  The Wells party was the first to arrive by small boat from the Louisiana shore.  Maddox and his group arrived on horseback from a nearby Mississippi plantation house.  Formal rules were adopted with a delay between exchanges of fire.  Witnesses wisely kept their distance from the combatants.  Wells and Maddox each fired two volleys, neither was injured, and they resolved the duel with handshakes.

After the duel, the Wells party prepared to celebrate their survival with a few friendly nips of whiskey.  These men were unarmed, except for Wells’ second, Dr. Cuny, who properly stored the dueling weapons.  As the Wells party approached the Maddox group, they were confronted by Colonel Crain, who was holding loaded pistols in each hand.  Crain’s demeanor appeared threatening.  The Wells group quickly formed a perimeter in order to defend themselves against hostile acts.  General Cuny, who had previously fought with Crain, called out to him, “Colonel Crain, this is a good time to settle our difficulty.”  Crain raised a pistol and fired at Cuny, missing him and hitting Jim Bowie, who received a wound to his hip.  Bowie fell to the ground.  Cuny and Crain then exchanged gunfire, Crain receiving a flesh wound, and Cuny being mortally wounded in the chest.

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An artist’s rendition of the Sandbar Fight. Date of rendition unknown. Taken from the public domain.

Bowie struggled to his feet, drew his knife [5], and charged Crain.  Crain struck Bowie in the head with his empty pistol.  The blow was forceful enough to break the pistol and send Bowie to his knees.  Major Wright drew out his pistol and fired at the disabled Bowie but missed his target. Wright then unsheathed his cane-sword and stabbed Bowie in the chest.

Bowie’s breast bone deflected the blade. As Wright attempted to withdraw his sword, Bowie reached up, grabbed his shirt, and pulled him down onto the blade of his knife.  Wright died quickly, but Bowie was again shot and stabbed by another member of the Maddox group.  As Bowie struggled to his feet, both Alfred and Carey Blanchard fired their weapons and Bowie was hit for the third time, in the arm.  Bowies spun around and with his knife sliced into Alfred Blanchard’s arm. Carey fired at Bowie a second time but missed.  The Blanchard brothers fled, Alfred being shot in the arm by Jefferson Wells and Carey being targeted by Major McWorter without effect.

The brawl, which only lasted around 90-seconds, left Samuel Cuny and Norris Wright dead, Alfred Blanchard and Jim Bowie were seriously wounded, the unarmed Dr. Denny received wounds to his hand and thigh, and Crain ended the affair with a flesh wound.  It was a mystery to the attending medical doctors how Bowie could have survived his several wounds [6].

What we know of this incident, made famous in tale and myth, comes to us through eight eye-witnesses, each of whom had a different opinion of what happened.  A battle of editorials then ensued, Wells claiming that Cuny’s death was no more than pre-meditated murder, Cain writing that his shooting of Bowie was justified in self-defense (only Bowie wasn’t carrying a firearm).  Bowie himself never spoke to the press about what happened on the sandbar.  Within a month, however, Sam Wells died from a fever.  With his death, it may not have mattered what actually happened on the Sandbar, except perhaps to Bowie, who emerged from the brawl as the most seriously wounded “witness.”  In the aftermath of the sandbar fight, a Natchez grand jury met to consider whether criminal charges should be brought.  Jim Bowie was never called as a witness and no indictments were ever returned. Nevertheless, press reports of the incident helped to propel Jim Bowie into the national limelight.

If the sandbar fight propelled Bowie into the national limelight, his role in the Texas Revolution cemented his place in Texas history.  Following his recovery from serious wounds in 1827, Bowie relocated to Texas in 1828, settling near San Antonio.  At this time, the Constitution of 1824 banned any religion other than Roman Catholicism. Catholic affiliation gave citizens of Mexico preference in receiving land.  Bowie was baptized into the Catholic faith at San Antonio on 28 April 1828, sponsored by Alcalde Juan Martin de Veramendi [7] and his wife, Josefa Navarro.

For the next 18 months, Bowie traveled through Louisiana and Mississippi.  He took up official residence in Texas in January 1830.  Back in Texas, he presented Stephen F. Austin with a letter of introduction from Thomas F. McKinney, who was one of the original three-hundred Texian colonists.  In the next month, Bowie took an oath of allegiance to Mexico, and as a citizen, returned to San Antonio [8].  Bowie’s fluency in Spanish helped install him within the largely Hispanic community. It was during this period that Bowie and Veramendi formed a business partnership.  Bowie intended to establish cotton and wool mills in Saltillo, then the provincial capital of Coahuila y Tejas.  He purchased eleven leagues [9] of land in his own name and convinced others to purchase land and turn it over to him.  Overall, Bowie ended up with 700,000 acres.  In 1834, the government of Mexico passed laws that prohibited this kind of speculation, but Bowie’s property holdings remained intact.

On 25 April 1831, Jim Bowie married 19-year old Maria Ursula de Veramendi, youngest daughter of Juan Martin. Bowie agreed to pay his bride a dowry of $15,000.00 (today around $353,000) in property or cash within two years of the marriage.  The newly-weds built a house in San Antonio near Mission San José.  Eventually, Jim and Ursula moved into the Veramendi Palace. Bowie and his wife produced two children: Marie Elve (b. 20 March 1832) and James Veramendi Bowie (b. 18 July 1833). From every account, Bowie was very much in love with Ursula and the marriage seemed to have guaranteed financial stability for the couple’s future.

Bowie and Juan Veramendi were engaged in several business interests.  One of these involved organizing an expedition to locate the mythical San Saba silver mine.  While on this expedition, a Comanche war party attacked the Bowie Party.  Jim Bowie played a courageous role in repelling the attack, which helped to solidify his reputation within Texas.

In the 1830s, Mexico (having only achieved independence from Spain in 1821) was in the throes of political upheaval. The national congress and national leaders debated the kind of government that best suited Mexican culture. There were competing ideologies, of course.  One group favored federalism, another centralization.

Antonio López de Santa Anna was a politician of the first order, which means that he was not to be trusted.  In 1832, Santa Anna led an insurrection against El Presidenté Anastasio Bustamante y Oseguera.  Elected to the presidency in 1833, Santa Anna was at first a staunch federalist who supported the Constitution of 1824, but then he came to the realization that under a centralist regime, he could exercise far greater power.  Having learned important lessons from the experiences of Agustin de Iturbide [10], he may not have wanted to declare himself the Emperor of Mexico, but he was most assuredly going down the path of totalitarianism.

During this time, several of Mexico’s provinces rebelled against the centralist regime.  The centralist response to this unhappiness was to employ the army to squelch every instance of rebellion.  It was Santa Anna’s policy to execute everyone associated with rebellious acts against the authority of the centralist state.  Coahuila y Tejas was one of the provinces in rebellion.  In Texas, many (but not all) Anglo-settlers (citizens of Mexico) valued their rights as citizens; they believed that Santa Anna had overstepped his authority as President of Mexico, generally, but particularly so as it related to Anglo settlements in Texas.

Long before the Texian revolt, however, reverberations among Mexican and Texian citizens alike caused Santa Anna to increase a military presence in Texas, particularly within the town of Béxar, which was one of two choke points of the two primary routes to the interior of Mexico.  The military commander in Nacogdoches, José de las Piedras, even went so far as to demand that all residents within his jurisdiction surrender their firearms.

In 1832, Bowie participated with a group of Texians who marched against Piedras, intending to present to him their demands that he countermand his order.  En route, the Texians were attacked by a squadron of Mexican cavalry. The Texians returned fire, signaling the beginning of the Battle of Nacogdoches.  In a second engagement, Piedras lost 33 men and this prompted Piedras to withdraw his force from Nacogdoches.  Bowie and 18 other Texians ambushed the retreating soldiers, capturing most and marched them back to town.  Piedras escaped.

Bowie was elected as a delegate to the Texas Convention of 1833, which resulted in a formal request that Texas be separated from Coahuila and become its own state within the Mexican federation.

Several months later, cholera struck Texas.  Fearing for the safety of his wife and children, Bowie sent them, along with his father-in-law, his wife, and one of their sons to the family estate in Monclova. He could not know that in doing this, he sealed their fate.  In September, cholera took hold in Monclova.  The entire family died from this disease.  Bowie did not hear of this devastating event until November 1833; he afterward took to drink and slovenly appearance.

In 1834, Bowie received two appointments. He was elected to command a unit of Texas Rangers [11], which entitled him to the rank of colonel, and he was appointed to serve as a land commissioner tasked with promoting Anglo settlements in the lands allocated to John T. Mason.  His appointment ended in 1835 when Santa Anna abolished the government of Coahuila y Tejas and ordered the arrest of all Texians doing business in Monclova —including Bowie.  Bowie quickly returned to the Anglo settlements.

Santa Anna’s dictatorial behavior caused Texians to agitate for war.  Bowie began working with William B. (Buck) Travis, who headed the so-called War Party of Texas, to gain the support of Texians and local Indian tribes to rebel against the centralist regime.  Santa Anna responded to these efforts by increasing his military footprint in Texas.

The armed revolution began in Texas on 2 October 1835 with the Battle of Gonzalez.  Stephen F. Austin, the father of Texas, raised 500 men to march against the Mexican Army in San Antonio de Béxar.  Austin had no military background and his army consisted of undisciplined citizen-militia.  The term Texian Army is often used to describe this militia force.  Austin asked Colonel Bowie and Lieutenant Colonel James W. Fannin to scout the area around the Mission San Francisco de la Espada and San Jose y San Miguel de Aguayoto to locate supplies that would be useful to the volunteer force.  The scouting force mustered 92 men, many of whom were members of the New Orleans Grays, recently arrived from the United States.  After establishing a good defensive position near Mission Concepción, Bowie and Fannin sent word to Austin requesting that he join them there.

The morning of 28 October arrived with an overcast sky and ground fog.  General Domingo Ugartechea used these conditions to launch an assault against Bowie and Fannin.  Ugartechea’s arsenal included 300 infantry, cavalry, and two field cannons.  He was able to advance to within about 200-yards of the Mission, but the Texians were well-protected from Mexican gunfire.  As the Mexican force paused to reload and aim their field artillery, Texian sharpshooters mounted a bluff and began picking off Ugartechea’s soldiers.  The Mexicans were demoralized when Bowie led a cavalry charge and seized one of the cannons.  This bold stroke caused Ugartechea to withdraw his force.  Mexican losses included ten killed; the Texians lost one man.  Among the Texians, Bowie was viewed as a born leader.

Within an hour of the Battle of Concepción, Austin arrived with the rest of the Texian Army to begin a siege of Béxar.  General Martin Perfecto de Cós, headquartered at the Alamo, exercised overall command of the Mexican force.  Two days later, Bowie resigned from Austin’s force because he was not offered a regular commission and because he disliked having to confine himself to minor tasks.

Texas declared itself an independent state on 3 November 1835.  Henry Smith of Brazoria was elected the provisional governor.  Austin, finally coming to grips with the fact that he was unsuitable to serve in a military capacity, resigned.  Sam Houston was appointed to command the Texian Army.  Edward Burleson was appointed to command the force in Béxar.  Jim Bowie appeared before the governing council to argue why they should offer him a regular commission.  He spoke for over an hour.  Bowie’s request was refused, however.  The likely reason for this refusal was lingering animosity over Bowie’s previous involvement with Texas land speculation.  Sam Houston did offer Bowie a commission on his staff, but Bowie turned it down —opting instead to enlist as a private soldier under James Fannin.

Bowie distinguished himself again on 26 November 1835.  Returning to San Antonio de Béxar, Bowie led sixty mounted men to intercept a Mexican mule train, which the Texians believed contained a valuable cargo.  Actually, General Cós had dispatched 187-men to cut grass for forage.  On their return to Béxar, and observing the approaching Texians, the Mexicans picked up their pace.  They weren’t fast enough.  Bowie’s force overtook them, and a fight ensued.  The Texians suffered two wounded men, but inflicted 50 casualties among the Mexicans and successfully captured many horses and mules.  This was the so-called Grass Fight.

Soon after Bowie departed Béxar to intercept the Mexican cargo train, Old Ben Milam and Frank Johnson led an assault on San Antonio.  The Texians suffered several casualties in heavy fighting, and Milam was killed, but the Mexicans lost far more to death, desertion, and combat wounds.  These losses prompted General Cós to surrender Béxar to the Texians.  With Cós’ withdrawal, many of the Texian volunteers believed that the war was over and returned to their homes.

In January 1836, Bowie again appeared before the provisional council and requested their permission to raise a regiment of men.  Once again, the council turned him down, saying, “… he was not an officer of the government, nor army. [12]

When word reached Sam Houston that Santa Anna was leading a large force to San Antonio, Bowie offered to lead a force of volunteers to defend the Alamo.  Houston dispatched him to Béxar with 30 men and they arrived on 19 January. The Alamo was garrisoned by 104 Texian volunteers.  They had few weapons, a few cannons, but very little equipment and even less gunpowder. Houston knew that the garrison was insufficient to hold out against a large Mexican force and he had given Bowie authority to remove the cannon and destroy the Alamo.  Commanding the garrison at this time was James C. Neill, a former US Army artillery officer.  Neill advised Bowie that the garrison didn’t have sufficient wagons and oxen available to move the cannon, but he also didn’t want to destroy the mission.

On 26 January, Lieutenant Colonel Jim Bonham, who was serving under Bowie, organized a rally which passed a resolution to hold the Alamo.  The signatures of Bonham and Bowie appear on the resolution as its first and second signatories.

Bowie 004

An artist’s rendition of Jim Bowie at the Alamo. Taken from the public domain.

Jim Bowie’s fluency in Spanish and his family connections stood him in good stead with the predominantly Hispanic population of Béxar.  He constantly received intelligence about Santa Anna’s movements.  What Bowie was told was that Santa Anna was marching with 4,500 troops.  It was an exaggeration.  At most, Santa Anna commanded fewer than 3,000 troops, only 1,800 of which accompanied him to Béxar.  Bowie wrote several letters to the provincial government asking for reinforcements and supplies.  The government was not in a position to send either: Houston wanted to conserve these resources for a battle of his choosing and the Texians were critically short of both men and material —Governor Smith was not going to waste men or supplies by sending them to the Alamo.  At this point, the fate of its garrison was already sealed.

Former congressman and frontiersman David Crockett arrived in Béxar on 3 February with thirty Tennesseans.  A week later, Colonel Neill was called home due to a serious illness within his family and Buck Travis was appointed to command the garrison.  Bowie was older than Travis, had a well-known reputation, and, owing to his commission as a Texas Ranger, considered himself a colonel.  Travis, on the other hand, was young, inexperienced, arrogant, and a lieutenant colonel.  Bowie refused to answer to Travis.  Frustrated, Travis called an election to determine which of them should command the garrison.  The Texians overwhelmingly chose Bowie, who had demonstrated time and again his courage and coolness under fire.  Travis was disgusted, but two days later the men agreed to allow Bowie and Travis a joint command.  Bowie would command the volunteers, and Travis would command the regular force and volunteer cavalry.

Travis believed that he had time to shore up the Alamo; that the earliest Santa Anna’s force could arrive was mid-March 1836.  Santa Anna’s force appeared on 23 February.  The townsfolk panicked and began leaving Béxar in droves.

Travis ordered all Texian forces inside the Alamo.  Bowie worked overtime gathering provisions, including cattle to sustain the garrison. Fearing for the safety of his dead wife’s relatives, Bowie invited them into the protection of the Alamo … including Gertrudis Navarro, Juana Navarro Alsbury, and her 18-month old child. Bowie also brought in several black servants from the Veramendi household.  Throughout these many activities, Bowie became increasingly ill.  Available medical doctors were unable to say what the problem was.

William B. Travis and the Alamo garrison flew the lawful flag of Mexico above them.  It was a tri-color green, white, and red standard, modified with the letters 1824 sewn into the white strip.  These numbers represented the Constitution adopted by Mexico in 1824. This is what the men of the Alamo were fighting for.  Travis could not have known that fellow Texians had declared Texas an independent state of Mexico, or that they might be serving under a different standard.

Upon Santa Anna’ arrival at Béxar on 23 February, he established his headquarters at Mission San Fernando.  The next day, he dispatched a rider to the Alamo demanding its unconditional surrender.  Travis responded to this demand by firing a shot from one of his cannons.  Antonio López de Santa Anna was not at all pleased. He responded by raising a blood-red flag over the Cathedral.  This was the “no quarter” flag Santa Anna had used before.  It signified that the rebels would be butchered, even if they did surrender or were captured.

The siege began on 24 February.  The Alamo’s defenders could see the blood-red flag flying in the distance, but there could be no question of surrendering. This too was a point of honor among these Texians.  They started something, and they intended to see it through or die trying.  Still, no one wants to die and Bowie and Travis continued sending out couriers with pleas for reinforcement and provisions.

On 25 February, 32 additional men arrived at the Alamo —and while Bowie and Travis were glad to receive them, it wasn’t going to be enough.

On 26 February, Bowie was confined to his bed.  His illness getting the better of him, Bowie appointed Travis sole commander of the Garrison.  According to the biographer Clifford Hopewell, even though Bowie was suffering from his affliction, he continued to crawl out of bed every day around noon, dress, and present himself to the officers and men of the Alamo.  He wanted his men to know that he was still with them.

Thirty-five years later, a reporter would identify another man who served at the Alamo: one of the deserters was a man named Louis Moses Rose.  According to Rose’s account, when Travis realized that the Mexican army would certainly prevail, Travis drew a line in the sand.  Those who intended to remain and fight were asked to cross the line.  Revisionist historians claim that the “line in the sand” is a myth, but Alamo survivor Susanna Dickinson was an eye-witness to the event. According to Rose, at Bowie’s request, Crockett and others carried Bowie and his cot across the line.  Rose was the only man who refused to cross the line and he was sent on his way out of the Alamo.

Jim Bowie perished along with the rest of the Alamo on 6 March 1836.  Most of the noncombatants at the Alamo, including Bowie’s in-laws, survived.  Santa Anna ordered the Alcalde Francisco Antonio Ruiz to confirm the identities of the remains of Bowie, Travis, and Crockett.  Susanna Dickinson also identified their remains.  At first, Santa Anna ordered that Bowie’s remains be properly buried, but he later had Bowie’s remains tossed into the funeral pyre.  In any case, according to the testimony of Susanna Dickinson, when she was led through the Alamo to identify remains, she discovered Bowie’s body on his cot with dead Mexican soldiers surrounding him.

In 1837, Juan Seguin returned to the Alamo and gathered the remaining ashes from the funeral pyre.  He placed these ashes in a coffin and had it inscribed with the names of Bowie, Travis, and Crockett.  These ashes are still at rest within the Cathedral San Fernando.

When finally notified of her son’s death, Elve Bowie calmly stated, “I’ll wager no wounds were found in his back.” From every account we have of the Battle of the Alamo, Mrs. Bowie was right.

Alamo 1846


  1. Davis, W. C. Three Roads to the Alamo: The Lives and Fortunes of David Crockett, James Bowie, and William Barrett Travis.  New York: Harper-Collins, 1998.
  2. Early Life in the Southwest: The Bowies. DeBows Review, October 1862.
  3. Hopewell, C. James Bowie: Texas Fighting Man: A Biography. Austin: Eakin Press, 1994
  4. The Handbook of Texas Online, James Bowie, William Williamson, Texas State Historical Association, June 2010
  5. Groneman, B. Alamo Defenders, A Genealogy: The People and Their Words.  Austin: Eakin Press, 1990
  6. Groneman, B. Eyewitness to the Alamo.  Plano: Republic of Texas Press, 1996


[1] It would be a reasonable question to ask: if the Alamo was indefensible, then why would these men expose themselves to certain death?  It is a question that seems to run through several of these Old West Tales.  There was a principle at work here, and it was a different time —when matters of honor were more important than life— and then, given the result of the Texas Revolution, we have to observe that these men did not die in vain.

[2] James Long formed a filibuster to fight against the Spanish army in Mexico, which then included the province of Coahuila y Tejas, and was joined by Jean Lafitte and Ben Milam.  Initially successful in establishing a republic in Texas (also called the Long Republic), the effort failed within a year as Spanish forces concentrated their efforts to drive the interlopers out of Texas.

[3] Dueling was a common phenomenon in the southern and western states through the end of the American Civil War.  Duels presented a quicker way of settling disputes outside courts.  Beyond arguments over tangible items, most were fought over issues of personal honor.

[4] Norris Wright, short in stature, was known for his violent temper and a man who never walked away from a fight.  He was also the Sheriff of Rapides Parish, Louisiana.

[5] The seriously wounded Bowie thereafter prominently displayed a large sheath knife. The so-called Bowie Knife became quite popular in his day and continued well into the 20thcentury. Originally fashioned by the blacksmith James Black for Bowie in 1830, the knife was improved several times by Jim and Rezin Bowie over many years.  The knife that added to Jim’s reputation as a rugged frontiersman is officially described as “a large sheath knife with a concave clip point, sharp false edge cut from both sides, and a cross-guard to protect the user’s hands.”

[6] Physically, Jim Bowie was a big man for those times, when most men stood 5’8-9” tall.  Bowie stood well over 6’2” and probably weighed 210 pounds.

[7] Juan Martin de Veramendi served as vice governor and governor of Coahuila y Tejas.  He was born in San Fernando de Béxar, which suggests that he was a descendant of the hidalgos (upper class) who emigrated to Texas from the Canary Islands.  Ursula was the youngest of his seven children. Juan’s career included service as a customs collector, member of the national congress, Béxar governing council (Ayuntamiento), and mayor (Alcalde).  He was also an astute businessman and the owner of a large estate.  Veramendi supported Anglo settlement in Texas.  He died, along with his wife, a son, and Bowie’s wife and two children as a result of a cholera epidemic in 1833.

[8] Then known simply as Béxar, which had a population of around 2,500 people.

[9] At this time in Mexico, a league was the distance a man could walk in an hour.

[10] Emperor of Mexico, 1822 to 1827, as Agustin I.

[11] The Texas Rangers, as an organization, were not officially organized until 1835, but Stephen F. Austin had founded the group as a frontier protection force.  Bowie commanded a group of these volunteers.

[12] James Bowie Texas Fighting Man, Clifford Hopewell, 1994.

Posted in History | 6 Comments

El Sordo

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Deaf Smith Photograph by Billy Hathorn

Erasmus Smith was born on 19 April 1787 in Duchess County, New York.  When he was aged ten or eleven, his parents moved to Natchez, Mississippi … then known as the Mississippi Territory.

Natchez is located in the far southwest corner of the present-day state of Mississippi, a city established in 1716 as Fort Rosalie.  After the United States acquired the territory from the British (following the American Revolution), Natchez served as the capital of the territory (later serving as the capital of Mississippi until the establishment of Jackson, in 1822).  It’s strategic location helped Natchez to develop as a major center for trade and commerce.  In particular, Natchez was instrumental in developing the Old Southwest during the first half of the nineteenth century, serving as the southern terminus of the Natchez Trace [1], and the northern limit being in Nashville. In Natchez, one would expect to find the rugged captains and crews of the flatboats and keelboats, which transported goods up and down the Mississippi River.  The Natchez Trace also played an important role in the War of 1812.

As a child, Smith suffered a disease that left him deaf.  I have no way of knowing the extent of his deafness; I doubt it was complete, otherwise he would not have been able to communicate so effectively with others during his lifetime —it does appear as though he earned an exceptional reputation as a frontiersman, scout, spy, and Texas Ranger— and did so in his own life time.

In any case, Smith first ventured to Texas in 1817.  We aren’t sure what he was doing in Texas at that time.  What we do know is that in 1822, he married a Mexican widow named Guadalupe Ruiz Durán.  Together, they had four children, three of whom (all daughters) survived to adulthood.

Three years later, Smith and a few others settled in the DeWitt colony, about one mile west of present-day Gonzalez, Texas.  It was the first settlement in the colony, and one of the first established west of the Colorado River.  We also know that, like most Texians, Smith was divided in his thoughts about Mexican politics.  One may recall that at this time, Anglo-settlers were citizens of Mexico, and, human beings being political animals, there was no shortage of opinion within the settlements.

Mexico, having only recently achieved its independence from Spain, had entered into a period of great debate over the issue of whether to establish a federalist or centralist government.  It is often the little things that nudge people in one direction or another.  In Smith’s case, he one day encountered a Mexican soldier, a sentry, who refused to allow him passage into San Antonio de Béxar.  Insulted and perturbed, Smith promptly joined the Texian Army under Stephen F. Austin —which at the time, had laid siege to San Antonio (following the Battle of Gonzalez).

Smith was evidently a clever man who had the ability of fluent Spanish, which causes me to imagine that Smith wasn’t entirely deaf.  As everyone called him Deaf Smith (also El Sordo), his condition, combined with the fact that he was a man of few words, may have left others with an impression that he was handicapped.  The assumption would have made him a perfect spy.

Smith had learned from soldiers assigned to General Martin Perfecto de Cos, who was in command of the Mexican garrison at Béxar, that they were unhappy with their present circumstances, or as it was then said, “disaffected to the cause which they were serving.”  Smith communicated this information to Charles Stewart [2], who was then serving Texas as a de facto Secretary of State.  Stewart promptly passed this valuable information to Austin along with his assurances that any information he might receive from Smith was likely to be indisputable.

After visiting with the influential Richard Royall, who found Smith to be importantly useful to the Texian cause, Smith returned to Austin’s army and participated in the Battle of Concepción [3].  Smith was responsible for the discovery of a Mexican supply train, which was the genesis of the so-called Grass Fight.

During the siege of Béxar, Smith guided Colonel Francis Johnson’s men into town.  Smith was wounded on 8 December while standing atop the Veramendi [4] Palace —almost in the same instant that Ben Milam [5] was killed as he stood outside the home’s main entry.  Despite his wound, Smith remained with the Army.  He was later mentioned in dispatches for his vigilance and meritorious acts, and Texian Governor Henry Smith noted that “his services as a spy cannot be dispensed with.”

After recuperating, Deaf Smith rejoined the fight serving as a messenger for William B. Travis, who considered him the “bravest of the brave in the cause of Texas.”  It was Smith who carried Travis’ letter from the Alamo on 15 February 1836.  On 13 March, Sam Houston sent Smith and Henry Karnes back to Béxar to learn the status of the Alamo garrison.  When Smith returned to Gonzalez to give his report, he had with him Susanna Dickinson and her daughter, Angelina.  Susanna gave her testimony about what happened at the Alamo.

In Gonzalez, Smith was assigned to Colonel Karnes’ Cavalry Squadron, 1st Regiment,  commissioned a captain in charge of training recruits.  He was also active in gathering intelligence and performing special missions before, during, and after the Battle of San Jacinto.

At Harrisburg, Smith captured a Mexican courier with dispatches that revealed the strength and disposition of forces operating under General Antonio López de Santa Anna.  Before the Battle of San Jacinto, Houston ordered Smith to destroy a nearby bridge, which would deny any retreat of Mexican forces.  Having done so, Smith and his raiders rejoined the main body of Houston’s forces to participate in the Battle of San Jacinto.  After the battle, Smith captured General Cos, who had removed himself from the main battle site.  Later, after Santa Anna’s capture, Houston directed Smith to deliver Santa Anna’s order to General Vicente Filisola to withdraw his force from Texas.

Captain Smith continued to serve in the Texas Army under General Thomas Rusk.  On one scouting expedition, having been gone for two weeks, Smith was mistakenly reported as captured by Mexican forces.  Nevertheless, throughout his service to Texas (as with many other Texians), his family, living in Columbia, became destitute.  Realizing the plight of the Smith family, and owing to his invaluable service to Texas, the Congress granted to Smith the seized property of Ramón Músquiz in Béxar.  Smith declined the offer, however, and his family remained in Columbia.

Smith resigned from the Army in late 1836 but accepted a commission to serve as Captain of a company of Texas Rangers.  On 17 February 1837, Deaf Smith’s company defeated a superior force of the Mexican army at Laredo [6].  During this confrontation, two of Smith’s men were wounded, while inflicting heavier losses on the enemy.  Smith also captured forty horses.

Soon after this, Smith resigned from ranger service and returned home.  After relocating his family to Richmond, Texas, on 30 November 1837, Deaf Smith passed away.  He was just fifty years of age.  Sam Houston wrote of him, “My friend Deaf Smith, and my stay in darkest hour, is no more.  A man, more brave, and honest, never lived.  His soul is with God, but his fame and his family must command the care of his country.”


  1. Barr, A. Texans in Revolt: The Battle for San Antonio, 1835.  Austin, University of Texas Press, 1990.
  2. Nance, J. M. Attack and Counterattack: The Texas-Mexican Frontier, 1842.Austin, University of Texas Press, 1964
  3. The Writings of Sam Houston,1813-1863, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1938


[1] Maintained today as the Natchez Trace Parkway.

[2] Businessman, soldier, diplomat, politician, and delegate to the Convention of 1836.

[3] On 28 October 1835, the opening engagement in the Siege of Béxar.

[4] The home of Juan Martin de Veramendi, first mayor of Béxar, Vice Governor of Coahuila y Texas, and father-in-law to James Bowie. The entire Veramendi family died from cholera in 1833, including his daughter, the wife of Jim Bowie, and their two children.

[5] Benjamin Milam (1788-1835) is remembered as a hero of the Texas Revolution.  A frontiersman from Kentucky, Milam establish trade relationships with the Comanche in 1818, fought as a filibuster on the side of Mexico in the War of Independence, served in the Mexican army with the rank of colonel, obtained an empresario grant for colonization of Texas, and later joined the fight for the Republic of Texas.

[6] This incursion by the Mexican army occurred nearly a year after Santa Anna had surrendered his force at San Jacinto, which provided an early indication that Mexico would not abide by the agreement to end hostilities between Texas and Mexico.  Tejanos living in South Texas have never accepted Santa Anna’s defeat, even to this day.

Posted in History | 9 Comments

The Dickinson’s of the Alamo

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Painting of Almaron Dickinson by Mark Barnette

Almeron Dickinson didn’t fall in love until he was 29-years of age.  A Pennsylvanian by birth in the year 1800, he served in the United States Army and was trained in the art and science of artillery.  He eventually found his way to Bolivar, Tennessee, located in the southwest corner of the state.  In Tennessee, he met and fell in love with Miss Susanna Wilkerson, who was then just fifteen years of age.  We don’t know why the couple eloped —it may have had to do with her young age—but that’s what they did on 24 May 1829.

Two years later, the Dickerson’s joined a group of 54 Texas-bound settlers, traveling by ship from New Orleans to the coast of Texas.  Upon arrival in Texas, they proceeded overland to the location of the Green DeWitt colony, which was formed around the emerging town of Gonzalez.  Almeron received a league of land (4,428 acres) along the San Marcos River near present-day Lockhart, Texas.  Over the next few years, the Dickerson’s acquired ten lots around Gonzalez, which in those days was an affordable investment.  Almeron served the community as a blacksmith and formed a partnership with a local hat-maker.  As a member of the community, Almeron joined with others in forming a militia to defend against hostile Indians.  Their daughter Angelina was born in 1834.

As it happens, the DeWitt Colony was a prime target for raids by hostile Indians (Karankawa, Tonkawa, and Comanche) and, in fact, in July 1826, these hostiles utterly destroyed Gonzalez.  The town was rebuilt in the following year, even though Comanche continued to attack the settlement with some regularity.  DeWitt demanded the protection of the Mexican army, but available forces were insufficient for this purpose.  DeWitt then negotiated with the local Mexican military commander for the loan of a cannon so that local militia could at least defend themselves.  It was a six-pounder, good for little more than scaring horses.

Since 1830, the newly formed Mexican government wavered between federalist and centralist policies.  As the political pendulum swung sharply toward centralism in 1835, several Mexican states revolted.  In June, several Texian settlers used this unrest as an excuse to rebel against government-imposed customs duties.  Mexico’s federal government responded by sending more soldiers to Texas.  With no shortage of opinion among the Texians, the public was sharply divided on the issue of Mexico’s move toward a centralist regime.  Some communities supported the rebellion, others —including the residents of Gonzalez— declared loyalty to Mexican president Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.  Anxiety over the political future of Mexican Texas caused some communities to send delegates to a “consultation,” while others scrambled to form armed militias.

On 10 September, a Mexican soldier severely clubbed a resident of Gonzalez, which led to widespread outrage and protest.  It was then that Mexican authorities concluded that it would be unwise to leave these settlers in possession of a six-pound cannon. Colonel Domingo de Ugartechea, who then commanded all Mexican forces in Texas, sent a detail of six soldiers to retrieve the cannon.  By this time, the citizens of Gonzalez believed  Ugartechea was looking for an excuse to attack the settlement and eliminate their local militia.  They were quite naturally loath to return the cannon.  A town-meeting was held to decide what to do about Colonel Ugartechea’s demands.   Three of the town’s citizens voted to return it; everyone else agreed with the the mayor (alcalde), who wanted to retain possession of it.  Mayor Andrew Ponton believed that the issue of the cannon had become a point of honor.  Gonzalez residents decided to stand their ground.

Mayor Ponton correctly anticipated that Colonel Ugartechea would send additional troops to demand return of the cannon.  As soon as the first Mexican detachment was escorted from town, Ponton sent word to the nearby settlement of Mina requesting reinforcements.  A rumor surfaced, claiming that 300 Mexican soldiers were en route to Gonzalez.  Empresario Stephen F. Austin didn’t help matters by cautioning all Texians to remain watchful and on a firm defensive posture.  He warned the Texians that any unjustified acts of aggression on their part could hinder later support from the United States, if needed.

Although instructed to avoid violence if possible, Francisco de Castañeda departed San Antonio on 27 September with one-hundred dragoons.  His mission was to reclaim the cannon.  As these troops approached Gonzalez two-days later, they discovered that the citizens had removed all boats from the Guadalupe River, including the ferry. Eighteen armed Texians waited on the opposite side of the river.  Their captain, Albert Martin, informed Castañeda that he must remain on the western bank until Mayor Ponton returned to town.

Castañeda‘s arrival caused a flurry of activity inside the town.  One detail of residents buried the cannon as messengers traveled to nearby communities for their assistance.  More than 80-men responded to the call for reinforcement.  These new men demanded their right to choose their own leader (a typical practice of the day).  The chosen leaders were John Henry Moore (Fayette), Joseph Washington Elliot Wallace, (Columbus), and Edward Burleson (Columbus) to serve as captain, first and second lieutenant.

With no way to cross the river, Castañeda made camp on a high ground along the river bank.  On 30 September, he repeated his demand for return of the cannon; he was again rebuffed.  The Texians insisted on discussing the matter directly with Colonel Ugartechea. Castañeda promptly made his report to Ugartechea, adding that he felt the Texians were stalling.

In San Antonio, Colonel Ugartechea approached Dr. Launcelot Smither, a resident of Gonzalez who was visiting on business.  Smither was asked to help Castañeda in convincing the Texians to obey the instructions of lawful authority.  Smither returned to Gonzalez on 1 October and met with Captain Caldwell.  Smither assured Caldwell that the soldiers intended no harm if the settlers would peacefully relinquish the cannon.  Caldwell instructed Smither to bring Castañeda into town the following morning to discuss the issue further.  Meanwhile, Caldwell called a war council, which quickly voted to initiate a fight.  The Texians dug up the cannon, mounted it on cart wheels and, in the absence of ammunition, they gathered scraps of metal to use in place of cannon balls.  James Neill, with artillery experience during the War of 1812, was placed in charge of the cannon.  He gathered several men to assist him as cannoneers, including Almeron Dickinson. A local minister asked for God’s blessings.  While the Texians were planning their attack, Castañeda learned from an Indian scout that 140 men had gathered in Gonzalez and more men were expected to join the fray. This news prompted Castañeda to began looking for a suitable place to ford the river.

The Texians themselves began to cross the river to confront the Mexican force at around 7 pm.  As only half of the men were mounted on horseback, their progress was slow.  Once assembled on the west bank, the Texians tracked the Mexican soldiers to their encampment.  A thick fog rolled in around midnight, which caused further delay to these efforts.  The Texians finally arrived at the Mexican camp around 3 am. A barking dog alerted the soldiers, who began to fire.  The noise generated by rifle fire spooked the horses, which disrupted the Texian advance.  Moore ordered his men to conceal themselves in the thick underbrush until dawn.

Due to the darkness and fog, Castañeda had no clear idea how many men he was facing.  Proceeding with caution, he moved his men 300 yards further back to a nearby bluff.  Texians emerged from the trees at 6 am and began to fire on the Mexican soldiers.  Lieutenant Gregorio Pérez mounted a counter-attack with 40 dragoons.  The Texians fell back to their previous position in the trees and fired a volley of rifle shot, injuring one soldier.  Pérez returned to the bluff.

As the fog lifted around mid-day, Castañeda sent Smither to the Texians requesting a meeting.  Smither, who was now suspected of colluding with the enemy, was promptly arrested.  Eventually, Moore agreed to meet with Castañeda.  Moore explained that the Texians no longer recognized the centralist government of General Santa Anna. The Texians, Moore assured him, remained loyal to the Mexican Constitution of 1824.  Castañeda confided to Moore that he shared their support for federalism, but that he was honor bound to follow his orders.

comeandtakeitAfter Moore returned to his camp, the Texians raised a homemade white banner with an image of a cannon painted in black, centered, over the words “Come and take it.[1]”  The Texians then fired their misappropriated cannon at the Mexicans, injuring two more men. Realizing that he was outnumbered and outgunned, Castañeda led his troops back to San Antonio.  In fact, the dragoons were gone before the Texians had finished loading their cannon.

History might recall the Battle of Gonzalez as a minor skirmish were it not for its consequences.  A large number of Texians had taken up arms against the government of Mexico and had no intention of returning to their previously neutral stance. Two days later, Austin communicated to the Texas Committee on Public Safety, “War is declared.”  This suited General Santa Anna because he had already determined to crush the Texians, as they were now in a state of rebellion. Gonzalez became the rallying point of all Texian opposition to the centralist government.

As with the others in the DeWitt Colony, Almeron Dickinson was swept up in the euphoria of victory (over a Mexican company that chose not to draw blood), and Dickinson decided to join the march to San Antonio de Béxar.  He marched alongside 300 Texians who imagined themselves an army.  They served under the command of Stephen F. Austin … a man with no previous military experience. In San Antonio, General Martin Perfecto de Cos [2] and 650 regular army troops awaited the arrival of these Texians.  Cos fortified the town plaza west of the San Antonio River and established his headquarters in a run down former mission everyone called the Alamo [3].

By the time the Texians arrived along Salado Creek, east of San Antonio in mid-October 1835, their numbers had increased to around 400 men, including famed Jim Bowie, Juan Seguin, and James W. Fannin.  General Cos was reinforced by an additional 100 men.  In late October, the Texians began to disagree with one another about the stated intentions of General Sam Houston.  Houston wanted to delay any conflict with Mexico in order that his army could be properly trained, equipped, and reinforced.  Texians serving under Austin, however, weren’t having any of this “delay” business.  They continued their efforts to capture San Antonio.

On 27 October, Bowie and Fannin advanced with 90 or so men to Mission Nuestra Senora de la Purisima Concepcion de Acuna.  General Cos ordered Colonel Ugartechea to attack the Texians with 275 men.  The Texians successfully drove off this attack, inflicting more than 50 casualties and capturing one Mexican cannon.  Austin arrived shortly thereafter and urged a continuation of the assault into San Antonio, but he found little support for this plan by his officers.  Texian encampments along the San Antonio River, both north and south of the town, prompted General Cos to adopt a defensive posture within the crumbling Alamo.

The Texians were reinforced by a company of men from East Texas led by Thomas Rusk; their numbers now approached 600 men.  Yet, in spite of this increased strength, there was scant support for an assault on the town from among the Texian officers.  The men, frustrated by sitting around doing nothing, began to return to their homes in early November.

The larger conflict evolved into one of a series of minor skirmishes between Mexican patrols and Texian scouts.  The Texians were focused on capturing supplies and denying General Cos any additional reinforcements.  It was becoming a stalemate.  William Travis led a small force in the capture of 300 horses and mules found grazing along the Medina River on 8 November.  Colonel Ugartechea departed San Antonio with a squadron of cavalry to accompany reinforcements back to the Alamo.  Austin sent mounted troops to intercept him, but he was unsuccessful.  Unseasonably cold weather and diminishing supplies had a negative effect on men on both sides.

In mid-November, three companies of men (around 100 in total) arrived from the United States to reinforce the Texians.  Austin again planned an assault on San Antonio; his officers questioned the wisdom of such an undertaking.  Austin, in realizing his inadequacies as a military leader, accepted a diplomatic post in the United States and soon departed San Antonio.  The Texians elected Edward Burleson to replace Austin as their military commander.

Texian scout Erastus (Deaf) Smith [4] reported the approach of Mexican cavalry on 26 November.  Burleson ordered mounted troops to cut them off, which resulted in a series of attacks/counter-attacks.  Mexican troops finally withdrew from the field back to San Antonio. History records this as the “grass fight” because the Texians were able to capture Mexican supply animals which were laden with fodder for horses (rather than rumored gold).

It was the beginning of an unseasonably cold winter and Burleson was considering a withdrawal to Goliad when a Mexican officer surrendered to the Texians, telling them that the Mexican soldiers were demoralized.  Ben Milam and William Cooke saw this an an opportunity and, gathering 300 volunteers, obtained Burleson’s permission to attack the town of San Antonio.  Through aggressive scouting, Burleson’s force kept General Cos and his 570 men in a defensive posture.  Half of Cos’ force were stationed inside the town, and the other half inside the Alamo.

Distracting the Mexicans with artillery fire directed at the Alamo on 5 December, Milam and Francis (Frank) Johnson led a two-pronged attack into the town.  The Mexicans returned fire, forcing a halt to the Texian advance.  One Texian cannon was destroyed later in the day.  The next day, the Texians began digging trenches between houses as cover from well-aimed Mexican rifle fire.  When a sharpshooter’s bullet killed Milam, Johnson took charge, directing a renewed assault on 7 December. On the next day, Colonel Ugartechea returned with over 600 men, but only about 170 of these men were experienced field soldiers.  Burleson sent 100 men to reinforce Johnson.  Texians and Mexican were soon engaged in bloody hand-to-hand fighting.

General Cos ordered his dragoons to threaten the outlying Texian camps but found them too well defended.  That night, Cooke seized the home of a priest situated on the main plaza.  The bad news was that Cooke soon found himself cut off from the Texian force.  General Cos then decided to consolidate his force at the Alamo and ordered a withdrawal from the town.  It was at this time that four companies of Mexicans deserted.  This sudden loss of men prompted General Cos to request terms of surrender on the morning of 9 December.  Burleson accepted the general’s surrender, granting the Mexican force parole, while relieving them of most of their field equipment and weapons.  At the conclusion of this siege, 35 Texians had given up their lives.  The Mexicans had sustained losses of 150 dead and as many wounded.  It would appear that the Texians had more accurate rifles.  After the battle, most of the Texian volunteers returned to their homes; a few remained in town.  General Cos’ withdrawal left San Antonio in the hands of the Texians.

While Almeron was participating in the Siege of Béxar, Susanna remained in Gonzalez with Angelina, but after a newly formed troop of Texians looted her home in search of warm clothing and other supplies, she fled to join her husband.  She arrived in San Antonio in late December.

Texian war planners decided that the Alamo (while crumbling and far too large to defend with so few men) offered a strategic value that could not be ignored.  San Antonio de Béxar was situated at an important Texas crossroad, with two approaches from the Mexican Interior.  The first of these Atascosito Road extended from Matamoros through San Patricio, Goliad, Victoria, and into the Austin colony; the second was the Old San Antonio Road that crossed the Rio Grande at Paso de Francia, wound northeastward through San Antonio, Bastrop, Nacogdoches, San Augustine, and across the Sabine River into Louisiana.  Two fortifications blocked these routes: Presidio La Bahia at Goliad, and the Alamo in San Antonio.


Lieutenant Colonel Neill confers with Major Green in the Alamo. Drawing by Gary Zaboly

Placed in charge of the Alamo garrison was James Neill; James Fannin assumed command at Goliad.  Most Texian volunteers returned to their homes after General Cos withdrew his forces.  The Texians were being regularly augmented by newly arriving American volunteers.  These were the men who constituted a majority of troops at Goliad and Béxar.  Neill and Fannin agreed with the supposition that Mexican forces might be stopped at either of these crossroads and they dedicated themselves to that purpose.  Yet, neither of these men harbored any illusions about their likely success.  Without quick reinforcement, neither the Alamo or La Bahia could long withstand a siege.

There were twenty-one pieces of artillery (of various caliber) at the Alamo.  It was Neill’s artillery background that made him the ideal choice for this assignment. He began a series of working parties tasked to repair the crumbling mission.  Major Green Jameson served under Neill as chief engineer and it was he that installed most of the cannons on the breastworks of the Alamo.  Green may have been a bit too optimistic, however, when he told Sam Houston that his artillery could “…whip 10 to 1.”

Béxar was located quite some distance from the bulk of Texian settlements; resupply was always going to be a problem.  As early as 14 January, Neill advised Houston that his garrison was in a “torpid, defenseless condition.”  He sent another message to the provisional government informing them that, “Unless we are reinforced and victualled, we must become easy prey to the enemy, in case of an attack.”  Soon after, Houston began to question the wisdom of maintaining a garrison at the Alamo.  Despite this foreboding, Houston informed Governor Henry Smith on 17 January that James Bowie and a company of volunteers had departed for San Antonio.  He added, “I have ordered the fortification in the town of Béxar to be demolished, and, if you should think well of it, I will remove all the cannon and other munitions of war to Gonzalez and Copano, blow up the Alamo, and abandon the place, as it will be impossible to keep up the station with volunteers, the sooner I can be authorized, the better it will be for the country.”  Governor Smith did not think well of it.

Bowie and his volunteers arrived at the Alamo on 19 January. He was impressed with all the work accomplished by Neill to fortify the aging mission.  Neill convinced Bowie that the Alamo was the only viable post between the centralists and Texian settlements.  Apparently, Neill motivated Bowie to the task of defending the Alamo.  Bowie wrote to Smith, telling him, “No other man in the army could have kept these men at this post under the neglect they have experienced.”  A few days later, Bowie wrote again to Governor Smith, saying that both he and Neill had resolved to “die in these ditches” before surrendering the Alamo. Smith resolved to send additional troops and provisions to Béxar.

Committed to bolstering the mission garrison, Smith ordered Lieutenant Colonel William B. Travis to take his cavalry unit and report to Colonel Neill.  Only 30 horsemen responded to Smith’s summons; Travis pleaded with him, “I am unwilling to risk my reputation (which is ever dear to a soldier) by going off into the enemy’ s country with such little means, and with them so badly equipped.”  When Smith ignored Travis’ theater, Travis threatened to resign.  Eventually, however, Travis obeyed his orders and made his way to Béxar with thirty horsemen.

Reinforcements began to trickle into the Alamo.  Travis arrived on 3 February and, like Bowie, committed himself to Colonel Neill and the fortification.  On 8 February, David Crockett arrived with a group of Tennessee Volunteers.  On 14 February, Neill learned that members of his family were gravely ill and that he was desperately needed back in Bastrop.  Placing Travis in charge as acting post commander, Neill departed for home on that same day.  Travis’ appointment was no slight to Bowie, since he was a colonel of volunteers, while Travis held a regular commission.  It was Bowie’s men who objected to Travis most; they felt that the 26-year old lacked maturity and any proven ability in command.  And, perhaps, Travis was a bit too full of himself.  In any case, after animosity, Bowie and Travis agreed to co-command the Alamo garrison until Neill returned to duty: Bowie would command the volunteers, Travis the regulars.

Meanwhile, General Santa Anna’s centralist army had reached the Rio Grande.  Travis did not believe the Mexicans could reach Béxar until mid-March; he must have been red-faced when Santa Anna’s force arrived on 23 February.  Travis sent a dispatch to Governor Smith: “The enemy in large force is in sight.  We want men and provisions.  Send them to us.  We have 150 men and are determined to defend the garrison to the last.”

dickinson by mark barnett

Painting of Susanna Dickinson by Mark Barnette

After joining him in late December 1835, Almeron Dickinson found shelter for his wife and child inside the town of San Antonio de Béxar.  When General Santa Anna arrived at the head of his two-thousand-man army, Almeron, who was then holed up inside the Alamo, raced his horse into town, swept Susanna and Angelina on to the back of the horse, and galloped back to the protection of the mission.  Susanna and Angelina joined with other women and children already inside the Alamo.

The following day, General Santa Anna demanded the surrender of the garrison.  Travis replied with a shot from a cannon and the siege of the Alamo began almost immediately.  Travis took full command of the garrison that same day when Bowie, suffering what was then termed “typhoid pneumonia,” could no longer exercise his command.  In any case, both Travis and Bowie realized that their goose was cooked.

On 1 March, Lieutenant George C. Kimbell’s ranging company from Gonzalez made its way through the enemy cordon and into the Alamo. Garrison strength now consisted of between 185 to 260 combatants.  Travis was grateful for the reinforcements but realized that it was not likely the garrison could survive a 2,000-man army.  Knowledge of certain death is one thing, stress and depression are another matter.  Travis became increasingly frustrated with the lack of support from fellow Texians.  He condemned Fannin for not coming to aid him: “If my countrymen do not rally to my relief, I am determined to perish in the defense of this place, and my bones shall reproach my country for her neglect.”

On 5 March, the twelfth day of the siege, General Santa Anna announced his plan for an assault on the following day.  Mexican officers were stunned: the walls of the Alamo were crumbling, the rebels had sent no column to confront them, and it was only a matter of time before the garrison’s food stores would run out.  At that time, these officers believed, the garrison would surrender without further bloodshed.  These were reasonable objections to a costly assault, but Santa Anna ignored them.


Observing the two thousand Mexican soldiers streaming into Bexar, Crockett reportedly observed, “We’re going to need a few more men.”

Almeron Dickinson now served as captain of the artillery. Susanna recounted that her husband hid her and Angelina in the anteroom of the chapel building.  Santa Anna’s assault began at 5 am on Sunday, 13 March 1836.  Eighteen-hundred soldiers attacked from four different directions.  Dickinson’s gunners stood by their cannon.  As soon as the Mexicans had advanced within range, concentrated cannon and well-aimed rifle fire decimated the leading ranks.  After a short halt in progress, the Mexicans surged forward past the outer defenses.  Travis, standing on the north bastion (at about the same position as the present-day post office), was among the first to die.

Susanna Dickinson later testified that as resistance failed, Almeron rushed to his wife and said to her, “Great God, Sue!  The Mexicans are inside our walls!  All is lost!  If they spare you, love our child.”  He then returned to his duties and was never seen again.

The Mexican army overwhelmed the Texian defenders, forcing them to withdraw into the courtyard and into the dark rooms of the long barracks.  It was within these confines that some of the bloodiest hand-to-hand combat took place.  Jim Bowie, too ravaged by fever to rise from his bed, found no sympathy from the attacking Mexicans.

Ruthless combat lasted no more than 90-minutes (some estimate less than that); the chapel was the last to fall.  It is believed that no more than seven defenders survived the assault, and those were soon executed out-of-hand.  David Crockett is believed to have been in this final group of heroes. In any case, by 8 am every Texian was dead.  The official list of dead includes 189 men, but on-going research may increase the final tally to 260.  Of the Mexican dead, about six-hundred.

After the battle, Colonel Juan Almonte led the noncombatant women, children, and slaves out of the Alamo to the home of Ramón Músquiz.  The next day, the women were brought before General Santa Ana, who treated them with gallantry.  He pledged them safe passage through the lines and provided each with a blanket and two-dollars in silver coin.  Turning to Susanna Dickinson, he offered to take Angelina to Mexico City to be properly educated, but Susanna refused his offer.  Santa Anna then presented her with a letter that she was to deliver to Sam Houston demanding his immediate surrender.  Then, to assure her safe passage, Santa Anna assigned one of his officers to accompany her back to the Texian settlement.  William Travis’ slave Joe, who had also been spared, accompanied her back to Gonzalez.

Upon her arrival back in Gonzalez, Susanna shared the news of the fall of the Alamo. Anticipating the approach of the Mexican Army, Sam Houston ordered Texian families to immediately evacuate their settlements and head toward safety in Louisiana.  Susanna and Angelina joined the long struggle eastward in the rain, mud, and extreme cold in what became known as the Runaway Scrape.

Although illiterate, Susanna shared with others her life’s experiences.  With regard to what actually happened at the Alamo, she offered the following testimony:

  1. Before the final assault, there were very few battle casualties among the Texians.
  2. She confirmed the “line in the sand” incident where Travis gave defenders the choice of leaving the Alamo or defending it to the death.  Susanna claimed that this event actually occurred on 12 March (not earlier, as previously recounted).
  3. She did not see the body of her husband after the fall of the Alamo.
  4. Susanna did not see the actual battle. She said that in the final moments, one defender ran into the Chapel for safety, but was killed by Mexican soldiers.
  5. At the time of her discovery (and that of the other women and children), a Mexican officer intervened to protect these ladies from harm or depredation.
  6. She reported that one survivor of the battle was found hiding and identified him as a man named Warner.  Warner apparently begged for his life but was executed.  Note: There is no one named Warner on the list of Texian casualties, but Travis’ slave Joe verified this incident.
  7. At the request of Mexican officers, Susanna identified the bodies of the Alamo’s leaders.
  8. Susanna saw and identified the bodies of David Crockett and Jim Bowie.  Crockett’s body was lying between the Chapel and the long barrack.  Bowie’s body was found beside two dead Mexican soldiers.
  9. From the Músquiz home, Susanna could observe (and smell) the pyres of the dead being destroyed.
  10. When Santa Anna released her, Susanna and Angelina received an officer escort and a servant partway back to Gonzalez.
  11. Following the battle, she wept for several days.
  12. After traveling half-way to Gonzalez, Susanna and her escort encountered Deaf Smith, who took her the rest of the way to Gonzalez.

Other survivors of the battle included Enrique Esparza (the son of an Alamo defender named Gregorio Esparza).  Both Enrique and Travis’ slave “Joe” validated the portions of Susanna’s testimony for which they had first-hand knowledge.

After the battle, Susanna —a widow— had no further means of support, she petitioned the Texas Congress for financial assistance, but without an economy to sustain the new republic, her petition (along with other surviving family members) was denied. By the end of 1837, she married a man named John Williams.  Due to his physical abuse, she divorced him within a year, the first divorce granted in what eventually became Harris County.

In 1838, the Republic of Texas awarded her a land bounty of 640 acres, given similarly to all surviving family members of the Texas Revolution.  The land grant gave Susanna the ability to support herself as a laundress and the keeper of a boarding house.  In later years she and Angelina were awarded another 1,920 acres as descendants of a member of the Texas Republican Army.

susanna dickinson 002

Susanna Dickinson c.1865 from public domain Credit to Texas State Library

In December 1838, Susanna married Francis P. Herring. Herring drank himself to death in 1843. Her fourth husband was Peter Bellows, whom she married in 1847.  Bellows divorced Susanna shortly afterward, accusing her with abandonment and prostitution. Susanna did not appear in court to defend his claim because she had already moved to Lockhart, Texas where she operated a successful boarding house.

During these years, Susanna was well-known by Baptist minister Rufus C. Burleson.  In his memoirs, Burleson praised Susanna for helping to nurse victims of a cholera epidemic in Houston.  He said of her, “She was nominally Episcopalian, a bundle of untamed passions, devoted in her love, and bitter in her hate.”

Susanna met her fifth and final husband after moving to Lockhart.  Joseph W. Hannig was an immigrant from Germany, a blacksmith, and a skilled carpenter. Susanna sold her land in the old DeWitt colony and used the proceeds to help Hannig establish various business interests in Austin.  Hannig was a prodigious businessman; he operated a furniture-making factory, an undertaking parlor, and a mill.  He expanded these interests to San Antonio.

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Believed to be Angelina c.1859 Taken from the public domain

Angelina Dickinson, aged 17 and with the blessing of her mother married John Maynard Griffith, a farmer from Montgomery County. Although they had three children together, the marriage ended in divorce.  Leaving two of her children with her mother and another with an uncle, Angelina drifted to New Orleans and became a courtesan.  Before the Civil War, she became a frequent associate with Jim Britton, from Galveston.  Britton was a railroad man from Tennessee who served in the Confederacy as a military officer.  Historians believe that Angelina eventually married Oscar Holmes in 1864, with whom she had a fourth child, but when she died in Galveston in 1869 from uterine hemorrhaging, she was known as Em Britton.

Susanna died in 1883 and was buried in Austin, Texas.


  1. Barr, A. Texans in Revolt: The Battle for San Antonio, 1835.  Austin, University of Texas Press, 1990.
  2. Handbook of Texas Online, The Siege of Béxar, 2010.
  3. Tinkle, L.13 Days to Glory: The Siege of the Alamo.  College Station, Texas A&M University Press (1985)
  4. Hardin, S. L. Texian Iliad. Austin, University of Texas Press, 1994.


[1] This slogan was first used in 480 BC during the Battle of Thermopylae by King Leonidas signifying his last stand in defiance of the Persian Army.  It was used in 1778 at Fort Morris, Province of Georgia, during the American Revolution.

[2] Brother in law to General Santa Anna.

[3] San Antonio de Valero Mission was established in 1716, named in honor of Saint Anthony de Padua and the Duke of Valero, a Spanish Viceroy.  Not long after construction, a hurricane destroyed most of the existing buildings and the mission moved to its present site in 1724. The cornerstone of the chapel was laid on 8 May 1744.  By 1835, the mission was in a state of disrepair.

[4] Born in New York in 1787, Smith suffered a childhood disease that left him deaf.  He moved to Texas in 1822, settling near San Antonio, where he married a Mexican widow.  Smith served as a messenger for Travis and Houston and it was Smith who accompanied Susanna and Angelina Dickinson from the Alamo after the battle.

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A Western Dragoon

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James Henry Carleton (Image from public domain)

Owing to his participation in the civilization of the American West, I have mentioned James Henry Carleton on several occasions —usually as a backdrop to conflicts with American Indians— as a senior in the chain of command.  I thought for this week it would be interesting to take a closer look at this distinguished military officer.

Carleton was born in Lubec, Maine on 27 December 1814, the son of John and Abigail (Phelps) Carleton.  John was a sea captain, which suggests that Carleton was raised in a home where his father was frequently absent.  He was apparently well-educated, as he obtained a commission as a lieutenant of militia for the state of Maine at the age of 24-years.  As a lieutenant, he participated in the boundary dispute with Canada, known to history as the Aristook War (often referred to as the Pork & Beans War) of 1838.  It was a year-long American-British confrontation involving both military and civilian personnel over the international boundary between New Brunswick, Canada and the state of Maine.  Several British were captured, but no one was killed.  Black bears did injure two Canadians, however, a tidbit of information that begs the answer to “huh?”  In any case, the issue was resolved by the Ashburton-Webster Treaty of 1842, which gave most of the disputed area to Maine, giving a militarily vital area between lower Canada and the Atlantic colonies to Britain.  A “right of way” was also designed to allow British commercial interests a transit route through Maine.  It is still in use today.

Subsequently, Carleton received an appointment to second lieutenant in the First Dragoons on 18 October 1839 and attended military training at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania [1].  In the next year, Carleton married Henrietta Tracy Loring of Boston, Massachusetts.  Henrietta accompanied her husband to his duty assignment at Fort Gibson [2] in the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). She passed away at Fort Gibson in October 1841.

Carleton later served as assistant commissary of subsistence at Fort Leavenworth, accompanied Major Clifton Wharton’s expedition to the Pawnee Villages in Nebraska, and served as an officer on Col. Stephen Watts Kearny’s 1845 expedition to South Pass, and saw action in 1847 in the battle of Buena Vista during the Mexican-American War. During this later engagement, the US Army employed well-aimed artillery fires to repulse a much larger Mexican Army outside of Buena Vista, a small village in the state of Coahuila, seven miles south of Saltillo, Mexico.

Carleton remarried in 1848 to Sophia Garland Wolfe, a niece of General John Garland.  Carleton served under Garland in the New Mexico territory in the 1850s. In 1858, Carleton commanded Fort Tejon, California and the First Dragoons (later designed the US First Cavalry Regiment). In 1859, he was ordered to investigate the massacre at Mountain Meadows, an incident during which Mormons, disguised as Indians, murdered 120 western-bound emigrants from Arkansas.

At the outbreak of Civil War, California governor John L. Downey commissioned Carleton to Colonel and appointed to command the First Infantry, California Volunteers.  He was later commissioned to Brigadier General of the California Volunteers and commanded the state’s column [3] on its march to the Rio Grande.  He commanded the Southern District of California from January to April 1861.

In September 1862, Carleton was advanced to brevet Major General and ordered to relieve General Edward R. S. Canby as the officer commanding the Department of New Mexico.  One of his first acts in this assignment was to reissue Canby’s order establishing martial law in the Arizona territory.  Carleton never acted to set himself up as a military governor, but the policy of martial law was necessary in order to carry out policies leading to peace and prosperity throughout that territory —although it is said that many of his policies in this regard did antagonize the people living in Arizona and New Mexico.  Still, the United States was at war and it was Carleton’s duty to secure the territory against Confederate intrigue.

The objective of the California Column was to drive Confederate troops out of the federal territory of New Mexico.  A relatively small Confederate force (the Selby Brigade, from Texas) had initially pushed out Union forces and then organized civilians to assist the Confederacy against the interests of the United States.  The column consisted of both infantry and cavalry units.  En route, the California Column confronted the Apache leader Cochise at the Battle of Apache Pass.

After eliminating the Confederate threat in New Mexico, Carleton created a system of spies throughout New Mexico and along the border of Texas to keep him advised of any rebel scheming that might place his command in jeopardy.  Beyond this, Carleton was faced with subduing hostile Indians.  It was in this regard that he sent Colonel Christopher (Kit) Carson [4] against the Mescalero Apache with orders to “kill all Indian men” wherever found.  Relocation of these Apaches to the Bosque Redondo [5] was affected by February 1863.

General Carleton then began a campaign against the Navajo, ordering Carson (and others) to destroy all of these Indian’s crops in order to starve them into submission.  It was a strategy that brought immediate results. Eight-thousand Navajo surrendered and made the “long walk” to the reservation at Bosque Redondo.

Carleton envisioned turning these Indians into civilized Christian farmers while interned on the reservation, but the experiment ended up in failure.  Mescalero quietly escaped the reservation, even though facing death by saber or starvation.  Beyond this, the reservation at Bosque Redondo was an expense the US government didn’t need.  This consideration persuaded the government to release the Navajo back to their homelands.

In 1864, General Carleton sent Colonel Carson to chastise Kiowa, Comanche, and Kiowa-Apache (Plains Apache) Indians who were raiding wagon trains on the Great Plains. The major battle occurred at Adobe Walls on 25 November, and although the conflict resulted in only a few casualties, it was one of the largest engagements to occur on America’s Great Plains.

As might be expected, General Carleton’s tenure as a military governor became ensnared in territorial politics (casual reference here to the machinations in southeastern Arizona during the Cowboy War).  Carleton’s superiors had confidence in his ability, believing him to be an efficient and capable officer, but hostile criticism from among the political whiners of the time led to his reassignment in 1867.

After a long-overdue furlough from duty, he assumed command of the US Fourth Cavalry in Texas and served in this capacity until the summer of 1872.  Illness involving severe eczema led to his medical leave until December of that year.  While traveling aboard ship from New Orleans to the Texas coast, Carleton contracted bronchitis from which he never fully recovered.  After arriving in Texas, he further encountered pneumonia and, while hospitalized in San Antonio, passed away on 7 January 1873.  He was survived by his wife Sophia and three of his five children. General Carleton published several accounts of his military experiences.  His son Henry Guy Carleton was a noted journalist, playwright, and inventor.

Additional reading:

  1. Hunt, A. Major General James H. Carlton, 1814-1873: Western Frontier Dragoon. Glendale: Clark, 1958.
  2. Hutton, P. A., ed. Soldiers West: Biographies from the Military Frontier. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987.
  3. Keleher, W. A. Turmoil in New Mexico. Santa Fe: Rydal Press, 1952.
  4. Thompson, G. The Army and the Navajo. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1976.
  5. McDowell, D. The Beat of the Drum. Santa Ana: Graphic Publishers, 1993.


[1] Carlisle was the location of traditional Indian trails bordering Letort Creek in the mid-1700s and the point of departure for traders and settlers heading westward over the Allegheny Mountains.  In 1756, a brief military encampment preceded a more permanent settlement a year later during the so-called French and Indian Wars (Seven Years’ War).  After the American Revolution, Carlisle became the frontier gateway in Pennsylvania.  In 1794, Carlisle Barracks became the center of intense military activity with the outbreak of the Whiskey Rebellion.  The Barracks continues to serve as the US Army Training and Doctrine Command and the US Army War College.  It is the nation’s second oldest active military base.

[2] Fort Gibson was initially created on 21 April 1824 as an army cantonment.  It was part of a series of fortifications established to protect its western border after the Louisiana Purchase.  Fort Gibson assumed a primary role in the Indian Removal activities after 1830.  The fort is located near the present-day city, Fort Gibson, Oklahoma.

[3] The California Column was a force of Union volunteers sent to Arizona and New Mexico during the Civil War.  The command marched 900 miles from California, through Arizona and New Mexico territory, to the Rio Grande, and then east to El Paso, Texas.  The march took place between April and August 1862.

[4] An Indian fighter of some reputation, Carleton was first commissioned in the US Army in 1839.  He took part in the Mexican-American War, served in the US Dragoons in the American West, and participated in the 1844 expedition to the Pawnee and Oto.  In 1861, Carleton raised and was appointed Commanding Officer of the 1stCalifornia Infantry.  Later that year, he replaced Brigadier General George Wright as Commander, Military District of Southern California and the Department of New Mexico.  In April 1862, Carleton was promoted to Brigadier General and placed in command of the California Column.  Carleton’s resume included either leading or participating in the Apache Wars, Navaho Wars, and the Texas-Indian Wars.

[5] Known among the Indians (Apache, Navajo) as the long walk, the forced relocation involved approximately 400 miles.  The distance may have had a dire effect on the elderly and infirm, but it was not a particularly punishing distance for a healthy person.  Depending upon whose report one reads, between 200 and 300 Indians died along this trail which occurred over several segments.  Not every Indian broke the promises made to Carleton, but several bands did go back on their word and as a result, the entire tribe suffered consequences.

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Billy Dixon

and the Buffalo Wallow Fight

The Great Plains region of the United States and Canada is a broad expanse of flat and undulating land that includes such features as prairie, steppes, and grasslands. It begins just west of the Mississippi River tallgrass prairie region and ends just east of the Rocky Mountains.  Most of this region encompasses present-day Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota and parts of Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Wyoming, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas.

In the American southwest, the Great Plains includes what is known as the Llano Estacado (Staked Plains) in eastern New Mexico and northwest Texas.  It is one of the largest mesas on the North American continent, with an elevation from 3,000 to 5,000 feet above sea level … a slope of about ten feet per mile.  The Llano Estacado was once referred to as the Great American Desert; its northern boundary is the Canadian River, and on its southern side blends into the Edwards Plateau near Big Springs, Texas.  In total, the area of the Llano Estacado is 37,500 square miles … which is larger than thirteen of America’s states.

In 1541, Spanish explorer Francisco Coronado described the Llano Estacado in this way: “I reached some plains so vast, that I did not find their limit anywhere I went, although I traveled over them for more than 300 leagues with no more land marks than if we had been swallowed up by the sea.  There was not a stone, not a bit of rising ground, nor a tree, nor a shrub, nor anything to go by.”

Another fact concerning the Llano Estacado was of particular concern to migrating European-Americans: it was Indian country.  The Comanche expanded their territory to include the staked plains during the eighteenth century, displacing another native American tribe who were called Apache [1].  Llano Estacado was firmly within what became known as the Comancheria, an Indian stronghold until they were finally defeated by white Americans in the late 1800s.

The Great Plains region was also home to the American Bison, or buffalo, that inhabited this area in massive herds since around 9,000 BC.  The buffalo population living in the Great Plains region in the mid-18thCentury has been estimated as high as 60-millions; they also existed in areas as far north as New York, and as far south as Georgia.

Within the Great Plains were natural topographical depressions that held rainwater.  These would serve as temporary watering holes for wildlife, including the buffalo, known to have used these basins for drinking, bathing, and wallowing.  Gradually, the watering basins were transformed into wallowing holes and these were enlarged as the animals floundered, covering themselves in mud and dirt, and transporting these elements always with them.  Western pioneers simply called them Buffalo Wallows.

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This is a Kiowa drawing of the Buffalo Wallow Fight. The reproduction image is in the public domain.

The Buffalo Wallow fight was one of the more unusual engagements in the Red River War.  On 10 September 1874, a force of soldiers under Colonel Nelson A. Miles [2] were running low on rations.  Miles sent out two scouts and four enlisted men with dispatches from his encampment at McClellan Creek to notify others of his column that Captain Wyllys Lyman’s supply train was under siege by Indians on the upper Washita River.  The scouting party consisted of Scouts Billy Dixon and Amos Chapman, Army Sergeant Z. T. Woodhall, and Privates Peter Rath, John Harrington, and George W. Smith.  On the morning of 12 September, the detachment had reached the divide between Gageby Creek and the Washita River (in present-day Hemphill County, Texas) when they suddenly found themselves surrounded by as many as 125 Comanche and Kiowa warriors, some of whom had come from the siege of the Lyman Supply Train.

Billy Dixon, as previously reported, made a spectacular rifle shot while under siege at Adobe Walls in late June 1874.  Who, exactly, was Billy Dixon?  He was born in western Virginia on 25 September 1850.  Orphaned at age 12 years, he spent one year with an uncle in Missouri before setting out on his own at the tender age of 13.  At first, he worked as a woodcutter, but then transitioned to driving oxen and mules for a government contractor in Leavenworth, Kansas.

Because of his skill as a marksman, Dixon was hired as a scout for the railroads and scientific excursionists.  In 1869, he began hunting and trapping along the Saline River.  By the time of his Adobe Walls experience, he had scouted Texas as far south as the Salt Fork [3] of the Red River.  This was about the time the buffalo hunters moved into the Texas Panhandle.  Billy Dixon was familiar with the lands and tributaries along the Canadian River.

In any case, returning to the plight of the Woodhall Detachment, the Indians had burned off the prairie grass days before; there was no place to hide or take shelter.  Dixon suggested they dismount and form a perimeter.  Smith took charge of the horses but fell a moment later with a bullet through his lungs.  The shot spooked the horses and they ran off, carrying with them the detachment’s haversacks, canteens, coats, and blankets.  It was a celebratory moment for the mounted Indians, who encircled their intended victims and then engaged in a cat and mouse game, charging the Woodhall Detachment, firing at them, and then riding off again.

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Billy Dixon brings in Amos Chapman. Painting by Severino Baraldi, copyright Look & Learn dot com.

Harrington and Woodhall were soon hit, Chapman suffered a shattered knee from a bullet. As the Indians backed off to deliberate, Dixon (suffering a minor wound in the calf), spotted a buffalo wallow a few yards distant.  Encouraging the men to take cover in the depression, which extended about ten feet in diameter, the wounded Dixon helped the other wounded men to reach this shelter —all but Smith and Chapman, who lay bleeding on the ground.  Using their hands and knives, the soldiers began to improve the wallow by throwing up sandy loam along the perimeter.  Now, by intermittently returning fire, the men were able to keep the Indians away from Smith and Chapman.  On several occasions, Dixon attempted to reach Chapman but was forced back by well-aimed rifles and arrows.

Amos Chapman was well known to some of these Indians, as he had previously lived among them as a squaw man [4].  They taunted him by calling out, “We’ve got you now, Amos!”  Dixon finally reached Chapman in the afternoon and carried him back the safety of the wallow.  The fight carried on even as the soldiers suffered from their wounds and from thirst. Despite these troubles, the men kept the Indians a bay with accurate rifle fire.  What the Indians wanted most was Smith’s rifle, which lay next to him on the plain.  It was only the accurate rifle fire of Dixon and the soldiers that prevented the Indians from obtaining it.

The late afternoon brought forth a thunderstorm.  On the one hand, it was a relief to the parched men and served to break off the Indian encirclement, but it was what men back then called a blue-norther.  It brought a dramatic drop in temperature and, as the men were without their blankets, they now shivered in chilly conditions.  As the Indians backed off, Private Rath went to recover Smith’s rifle and found that he was still alive.  Dixon and Rath carried the trooper back to the wallow, where he died later in the night.

The Indians had completely withdrawn by nightfall and using crushed tumbleweeds, Dixon and Rath fashioned crude bedding for themselves and wounded companions.  Under cover of night, Rath went for help, but he was unable to locate the trail and eventually returned to the wallow.

On the following morning, the dawn was clear and there were no Indians in sight.  Dixon volunteered to get help and went off to find the trail, which was about a mile distant from the wallow.  It was not long after that that he sighted a column of cavalry and used his weapon to attract their attention.  It was a body of four companies of the 8th US Cavalry under the command of Major William R. Price, whose approach caused the Indians to withdraw from the Lyman Train and the buffalo wallow.

Major Price accompanied Dixon back to the wallow, but he was without an ambulance wagon to transport the wounded.  As Dixon and Price approached the wallow, the harried troopers mistook them for Indians and shot the horse out from under an assistant surgeon.  The angered doctor gave the men a cursory examination and announced that there was little he could do for them.  Major Price was low on rations and ammunition and could (or would) not detail a squadron to protect the men, but  Price’s troopers did share their hardtack and dried beef before Price moved on.  He promised to notify Colonel Miles of their predicament and send aid as soon as possible. Relief for the Woodhall Detachment did not arrive until after midnight on 13 September.

The remains of Private George Smith were wrapped in a blanket and buried in the wallow. Disabled survivors were taken to Camp Supply for treatment.  Amos Chapman’s leg was eventually amputated above the knee.  Sergeant Woodhall and Private Harrington recovered from their wounds and continued serving in the U. S. Army.  Subsequently, owing to their courage under fire and their dedication to one another, Colonel Miles recommended all six men for the Medal of Honor. Dixon received his award from Colonel Miles while encamped along Carson Creek near Adobe Walls; Smith’s family was presented his Medal of Honor posthumously.

Major Price was severely reprimanded by Colonel Miles for his failure to render proper aid to the Woodhall Detachment.

In the after-action report filed by Sergeant Woodhall, which included the written testimony of Dixon and Chapman, the six men had killed as many as two dozen Indians.  Chapman later recanted his story, claiming that they had killed no Indians at all.  Some years later, owing to the fact that Dixon and Chapman had served as civilian scouts, Congress revoked their medals of honor.  Dixon, however, refused to surrender his medal believing that he’d earned it.  Dixon’s medal of honor can be viewed today at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum.

dixon billy 001

Young Billy Dixon. A picture​ in the public domain.

Billy Dixon returned to a normal civilian life in 1883.  He built a home near the Adobe Walls site and served as a postmaster there for twenty years.  He also served as the first sheriff of the newly formed Hutchinson County, served as a state land commissioner, and as a justice of the peace.

In 1894, Billy Dixon married Olive King, a school teacher.  They lived at Dixon’s Adobe Walls homestead on the Turkey Creek Ranch.  For several years afterward, Olive King Dixon was the only woman living within Hutchinson County.  In 1902, the Dixons, with four children, moved to Plemons, Texas.  They moved again to Cimarron County, Oklahoma in 1906, where they had three more children.  Suffering from pneumonia, Billy Dixon passed away on 9 March 1913.  Over several years before his death, Olive had carefully recorded his recollections as a young man hunting buffalo and serving as a US Army scout.  After his death, she visited with then retired Lieutenant General Miles, who attested to all of Dixon’s accounts of the Red River War.  Olive King Dixon erected a granite marker at the Buffalo Wallow site in 1925 (22-miles southeast of the Canadian River).  Under the names of the six men who fought there, the memorial states simply, “who cleared the way for other men.”

In 1929, Dixon’s body was reinterred at Adobe Walls near where he stood when he first saw the Indians riding up the valley.  Dixon Creek in southern Hutchinson County was named in his honor.  Beyond this, the Historical Breechloading Small Arms Association of Lancashire, England, holds a shooting competition to commemorate Dixon’s incredible shot at Adobe Walls.  The competition is known as the Vintage Rifle Open Long-Range Championship, which is shot at a distance of 1,000 yards, using black powder cartridge rifles of that era.  It is a strongly contested event involving shooters from all across the United Kingdom.  Billy Dixon never attributed his shot to anything other than pure luck.

Olive King Dixon passed away in 1956.


[1] These Indians were first encountered by Spanish explorers; the name Apache has Spanish origins, from Apachu de Nabajo (Navajo), and the name has remained since the early 1600s; today, it is how Apaches refer to themselves.  There are several Apache bands, however, including Chiricahua, Jicarilla, Lipan, and Mescalero.

[2] Nelson Appleton Miles (1839-1925) served in the American Civil War, the Indian Wars, and the Spanish-American War.  He was the last Commanding General of the United States Army before that office was abolished and replaced by US Army Chief of Staff in 1903.

[3] A sandy-braided stream that runs 193 miles from the Llano Estacado southeastward across the Texas Panhandle into western Oklahoma.

[4] A disparaging term applied to white men by Indians.  It denoted a white man who was married to an Indian woman within an Indian camp.

Posted in History | 11 Comments

The Red River War

Kiowa 001

American Plains Indian (Image in public domain)

Long before the arrival of Anglo-American settlers, the people of the Great Plains had evolved into a nomadic form of existence.  Their pace of movement generally mirrored that of their primary food source, and because humans cannot exist without water, they never placed themselves too far from sources of water.  Beginning in the early 1800s, white settlers began to establish settlements in areas that were previously the exclusive domain of indigenous peoples.  They transformed the land into fields suitable for agriculture, hunted for meat, and set down roads connecting the various settlements.  These circumstances set into motion a series of attacks and counter-attacks between human beings who looked upon one another in the same way: they were the enemy, they were dangerous, and they were untrustworthy.  There could be no greater demonstration of a clash of cultures than interactions between westward-bound European-Americans and the American Indian.

Prior to the American Civil War, the United States Army was only sporadically involved in keeping the peace between these natural enemies.  Due to the size of the Army at that time, it could only man outlying fortifications in small numbers.  Many of these forward-deployed soldiers were infantry.  No matter how proficient these men were, they stood no chance at all in a major battle against the mounted Indian warrior.  Western military expeditions were few in their frequency and small in their size.  This meant that in terms of defense from Indian attack, for the most part, white settlements were on their own.  During the Civil War, the regular army almost completely withdrew from western territories and settlers formed volunteer militias to confront hostile Indians.

It wasn’t until after the Civil War that the U. S. Army began to reassert its control along the frontier.  In 1867, the US government brokered an agreement with Indian leaders to establish two reservations in the so-called Indian territories (Oklahoma): one reservation for the Comanche and Kiowa, another for the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho. The agreement, the Medicine Lodge Treaty (signed near Medicine Lodge, Kansas), provided that the US government would offer Indians housing, agricultural training, food, and other supplies.  In return, the Indians agreed to stop raiding white settlements.  Dozens of chiefs endorsed the treaty and a number of tribes moved onto the reservations.  There were two problems with the treaty, however.  First, several bands of Indians headed by influential war chiefs refused to attend the meeting at Medicine Lodge.  Second, the treaty was never ratified by the US Senate.

In 1870, a new technique for tanning buffalo hides increased the interest of hunters to engage in buffalo hunting commercially.  This was the first time whites targeted the buffalo for its hide.  It was also at this time that American politicians and army officers realized that by killing off the buffalo, they could also destroy the American Indian.  In 1870, the American Bison numbered in the tens of millions; in eight years, herds were nearly extinct.  The destruction of the buffalo was a disaster for the Plains Indians, both on and off the reservations.  Without the Buffalo, there was no longer any point in maintaining a nomadic existence —other than as a tradition, but tradition doesn’t feed hungry women and children.  It was in this way that the American Indian, with no means of self-support, became dependent upon the US government; they overwhelmingly remain so today.  In any case, by 1874, the Plains Indians were facing a serious crisis: fewer buffalo to feed their families, increasing numbers of white settlers, and a more capable, more aggressive army.

It was at this time when a spiritual leader named Isa-tai (White Eagle) emerged from among the Comanche. Claiming to have the power to render himself and others indestructible, he was able to rally a large number of Indians to participate in large raids.  Concurrently, a Kiowa war chief arose to a position of prominence within that tribe. His name was Gui-Pah-Gho (also known as Lone Wolf, the elder). Both Lone Wolf and Isa-tai were disposed to warfare. War is never a good thing; even the Indians realized that, but it was better than sitting around, doing nothing, watching their loved ones starve to death.

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The area known as Adobe Walls (public domain)

On 27 June 1874, Isa-tai and Comanche war chief Quanah Parker[1] led 250-300 warriors in an attack on a small outpost of buffalo hunters at a place called Adobe Walls, the site of another battle in 1864 when Adobe Walls was little more than the ruins of an old trading post.  When constructed in 1845, Adobe Walls served as a small military fort with a convenient whiskey hole.  Following a number of Indian attacks in the late 1840s, traders destroyed these structures and moved on.  In 1864, Adobe Walls became the site of one of the largest battles to take place on the Great Plains.  Even then, Adobe Walls consisted of only a few ruins.

In 1874, a group of businessmen (including one James Hanrahan) set up two stores near the old ruins in an attempt to rekindle the town of Adobe Walls.  The complex quickly grew to include a general store, saloon, blacksmith shop, a trading store where buffalo hides could be bartered for hardware goods, and a corral.  At various times, as many as 300 buffalo hunters visited Adobe Walls.  In late June 1874, Indians killed two hunters twenty or so miles down the Canadian River.  Two more were killed on the Salt Fork of Red River near present-day Clarendon, Texas.  It was a signal to anyone with two brain cells that the Indian were on the warpath.

From the perspective of the Comanche, Kiowa, and Southern Cheyenne, the post at Adobe Walls posed a major threat to their very existence.  That spring, the Indians held a sun dance; to encourage the path to war, Isa-tai promised victory and immunity from bullets.  Modern historians believe that as many as 300 warriors gathered to strike the white hunter, but some argue that the number of Indians could have exceeded 700 hostiles.

At the time of the Indian attack, Adobe Walls was only occupied by 28 men and a single woman. Among the men were the saloon owner, James Hanrahan, the twenty-year-old Bat Masterson, and marksman William Dixon.  The woman was Mrs. William Olds, wife of the camp cook.

At 0200 on 27 June, the ridgepole holding up the sod-covered roof of the saloon suddenly made a loud crackling sound.  Two men opined that it sounded like a rifle shot.  Hanrahan awakened the camp by firing his pistols into the air.  Once the men were awake, he set them to work inspecting and repairing the ridgepole.  It was then that the Indians launched their assault.

When it came, the Indian attack was sudden and swift; a combined force of Comanche, Cheyenne, and Kiowa swarmed across the plains.  They fully intended to erase the entire population of Adobe Walls.  Leading the raid were Isa-tai and Quanah Parker.  The initial attack nearly succeeded because the Indians were close enough to smash the windows and bang the doors with their war clubs and the butts of their rifles.  The fighting was intense, and the close-quarters battle rendered the hunter’s long guns useless.  Four of the white hunters were killed in the first assault; the whites had to rely upon their pistols and Henry or Winchester lever action rifles. Eventually, the initial attack was repulsed and from that point on, the hunters were able to keep the Indians at bay with their long-range Sharps rifles.

Nine men were stationed in Hanrahan’s Saloon (including Bat Masterson and William Dixon); eleven men were placed in the general store, and seven in the trading post.  The men set up barricades.  By noon, the hunters at Adobe Walls knew they were in a siege. Around 2 p.m., the Indians withdrew to surrounding hills.  Two hours later the hunters ventured out to bury their dead.  They discovered fifteen Indian bodies and buried those, as well.

On the second day, hunters again ventured outside to bury or drag away the corpses of dead horses, lest the smell of decomposition should have a poor effect on the living.  Hunters who were not dealing with dead animals used their long-distance rifles to keep the Indians beyond their range, which was more than a mile.

Early on the third day, fifteen warriors rode to a bluff overlooking Adobe Walls to assess their situation.  These Indians were about one mile away.  William Dixon leveled his Sharps .50-90[2] he had borrowed from Hanrahan and shot a warrior from atop his horse [3].  The death of that Indian had a demoralizing effect on the rest of the Indians, but so too did the wounding of Quanah Parker.  The Indians decamped that night and returned to their usual campground.  Later in the day, additional hunters began to straggle into Adobe Walls.

On the fifth day of the siege, Mr. William Olds (the cook) accidentally shot himself in the head when his rifle discharged as he was descending a ladder. By the sixth day, there were more than 100 hunters, any of whom would welcome another Indian attack.

Sometime in July, a white settler was killed while looking for wild plums along the bank of the Canadian River.  President Grant, realizing that his peace policy with the American Indian was a complete failure, authorized the Army to subdue the southern plains Indians with whatever force was necessary.  What would become necessary was a force that could effectively deal with 4,000 hostiles.

By the first part of August, a troop of cavalry arrived at Adobe Walls.  Masterson and Dixon [4] signed on as army scouts.  The cavalry departed the next day to join up with forces operating under Colonel Nelson Miles and the buffalo hunters drifted off to kill more animals. The Indians returned to Adobe Walls after the whites had abandoned it, but only to burn the buildings to the ground.  They thought of their battle a victory, but its primary effect was to reinforce the U. S. Army’s earlier conclusions that the Plains Indians had to be crushed.

That same month a second engagement was initiated by Kiowa near Lost Valley.  Led by Lone Wolf, Kiowa attacked a patrol of Texas Rangers.  Both sides experienced light casualties, but the incident did raise tensions along the frontier; Colonel Miles determined to put an end to Indians raids.

General Phillip Sheridan ordered five columns of troops to converge on the area of the Texas Panhandle, and more specifically, upon the upper tributaries of the Red River.  Sheridan intended to deny sanctuary to every Indian and attack him aggressively until either they agreed to surrender to reservation life, or all Indians were dead.

Colonel Ranald S. McKenzie commanded three of these columns.  He ordered the Tenth Cavalry, under Lieutenant Colonel John W. Davidson, to proceed west from Fort Sill.  Lieutenant Colonel George P. Buell, commanding the 11thInfantry Regiment, marched north from Fort Griffin.  McKenzie personally commanded the Fourth Cavalry, riding northward from Fort Concho.  The fourth column involved the Sixth Cavalry and Fifth US Infantry under Colonel Nelson A. Miles, converging southward from Fort Dodge.  The fifth column was the Eighth Cavalry, commanded by Major William R. Price, consisting of 225 officers and men, six Indian scouts, and two frontier guides from Fort Union, New Mexico.

In total, there were more than twenty engagements across the Texas Panhandle.  While the US Army searched for and intended to engage all hostiles, the Indians, who were traveling with women and children, attempted to avoid contact with the bluecoats. Logistically, the Army had a distinct advantage; they had plenty of supplies to sustain their forces.  The Indians were starving.  General Sheridan had no sympathy for the Indians; in his mind, all they had to do to end their suffering was surrender.  As the Red River War continued throughout the fall of 1874, increasing numbers of Indians were forced to give up their freedom and head for Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

As Indian scouts were advancing ahead of the Fourth Cavalry in early September, they were ambushed by a Comanche war party near the Staked Plains.  The scouts sent a runner back to inform McKenzie of the presence of these Comanche.

Palo Duro Canyon 001

Palo Duro Canyon today (public domain)

On 28 September, McKenzie’s scouts located a large village of Comanche, Kiowa, and Cheyenne in the upper Palo Duro Canyon.  At dawn, McKenzie’s troops launched an attack down a steep canyon wall.  The Indians were caught by surprise and did not have time to gather their horses or supplies before retreating.  There were only four Indians killed, but the loss of their lodges, horses, and food stores was devastating.  More than 450 lodges were destroyed.  McKenzie ordered most of the 1,400 horses –a symbol of wealth to the Comanche– shot in order to keep them out of the hands of the Indians.

The Battle of Palo Duro Canyon was typical of the Red River War.  Most encounters produced only a few casualties, but the Indians could not afford the loss of food or their ponies.  Without food or mobility, the Indians had little choice but to surrender.  The Red River War came to an end in June 1875 when Quanah Parker led his band to Fort Sill and surrendered to the white eyes. These were the last band of southwestern Plains Indians.  With the extermination of the buffalo and surrender of the Indians, the Texas Panhandle was open to settlement by farmers and ranchers.  The Red River War was the final defeat of the once powerful Comanche, Kiowa, and Southern Cheyenne tribes.  The Texas Indian Wars were finally concluded.


[1] Quanah Parker (1845-1911) was the son of Comanche war chief Peta Nocona and the kidnapped child, Cynthia Ann Parker. Quanah Parker emerged as a dominant figure during the Red River War.

[2] In those days, the rifle was referred to as a Sharps 2 ½ inch.

[3] US Army surveyors measured the distance of Dixon’s shot at 1,538 yards, nine-tenths of a mile.  Dixon never attributed his shot at anything other than “pure luck”.

[4] Billy Dixon was later awarded the Medal of Honor for his part in the Battle of Buffalo Wallow, which took place three months after the Second Battle of Adobe Walls.

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