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Saturday, June 18, 2022

Mirabeau Lamar's Caravan of Folly


President Mirabeau Lamar

President Mirabeau Lamar had a vision for his new country - The Republic of Texas.  Unlike his predecessor Sam Houston who favored annexation with the United States, Lamar envisioned a separate independent republic. His fellow Texans or Texians - as he liked to call them - would become a cultured society free from Mexican influence and Indians, whom he wanted expelled.  In addition, his republic would have extended borders, including the entire length of the Rio Grande.  Within its borders, portions of present day New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Oklahoma and Kansas would be included.  Texas, however, didn’t have the manpower, military and money to stake such an extensive claim.  Though defeated, Mexico refused to recognize the Texas Republic and still considered it a Mexican state in rebellion.  Nevertheless, the town of Santa Fe, New Mexico and its trade riches beckoned to a cash-strapped Texas that had no established trade routes.

The Santa Fe Trail was a lucrative commercial pipeline between St. Louis and Santa Fe.  For years, teamsters drove ox and mule carts filled with fabrics, tools, and knives to Santa Fe in exchange for silver coins, wool, processed gold, and most important to a continued westward expansion - mules.  Texas merchants were more than eager to tap into Santa Fe’s wealth by redirecting the Santa Fe Trail toward Texas and its ports on the Gulf Coast.

Lamar, who wanted to occupy Santa Fe, saw opportunity through a Kentucky-born adventurer and trader who resided in Santa Fe, William D. Darden.  Via an offshore shipwreck, he entered Texas and met with Lamar.  Impressed with Darden’s enthusiasm, Lamar appointed him a commissioner in a planned Texas expedition to Santa Fe - a sort of front man for Texas interests.  Two other Santa Fe residents were appointed commissioners as well, John Rowland and William Workman.  Darden carried back instructions for the new commissioners and a rambling speech written by Lamar for the citizens of Santa Fe, explaining the benefits of a Texas government.  Unimpressed, the debt-ridden Texas Congress refused to approve the expedition, forcing Lamar to issue a call for volunteers. Five companies of infantry and one artillery battery were raised to protect an ox-drawn wagon train of twenty-one wagons carrying goods for sale and 321 teamsters, merchants, and more Lamar-appointed commissioners.  Altogether, the crude caravans merchandise totaled $200,000. 

The expedition’s commissioners were prominent Texans, including Colonel William G. Cooke, J. Antonio Navarro and Dr. Richard Brenham.  Navarro, a highly respected Hispanic community leader, spoke fluent Spanish and could possibly influence Santa Fe’s Hispanic residents.  “My participation,” said Navarro, “would serve…to avoid a crisis among my fellow citizens.”  One of the more curious members of the expedition was British immigrant and respected jurist Thomas Falconer who had offered his services to Lamar in developing Texas’ fledgling judicial system.  Sensing a grand adventure ahead, he went along as an observer and chronicler.  He would soon wish he had stayed in England. 

The expedition did not get off to an auspicious start.  On June 19, 1841, its members, officially dubbed the “Santa Fe Pioneers,” set out from Kenny’s Fort on Brushy Creek, twenty miles north of Austin near present day Round Rock.  Since no one in the expedition had ever traveled to Santa Fe from Austin, the expedition had to rely on a dubious Mexican guide who eventually deserted them.  In addition to a poor sense of direction, supplies were lacking.  Only two days into their journey, the Santa Fe party had to send back wagons for more food.  After mistaking the Wichita River, near present day Wichita Falls, for the Red River and lacking reliable maps, a company was sent out to find the elusive Red River that would lead the party into New Mexico.    The rudderless expedition was plagued by terrain, infighting, thirst, soaring temperatures, and Kiowas, who stole Falconer’s horse.  To avoid starvation, the party consumed dogs, horses, lizards, and snakes.  The hapless Falconer had his eyebrows and hair singed off when his campfire suddenly became a raging wildfire.  On August 20, 1841, a guide arrived to lead the expedition into New Mexico.

After three hellish months, the expedition’s main party reached Laguna Colorada near present day Tucumcari.  On October 5, party member Captain William G. Lewis, in cahoots with New Mexico’s Governor Manuel Armijo, turned traitor and talked the expedition into surrendering to Mexican forces in New Mexico.  Thinking the New Mexicans would be overjoyed to see them, the Texans quickly found out they were anything but.  The expedition straggled into Santa Fe, only to be made prisoners by 1,500 Mexican troops and then forced to march 2,000 miles to Mexico City where they were imprisoned.  To make matters worse, the President of Mexico was none other than Santa Anna, the vanquished commander of Mexico’s army at San Jacinto.  Freed from captivity, the wily Santa Anna had regained power and a fresh hatred for the Texans who defeated him.  He especially wanted to punish Navarro; whom he considered a traitor to be sentenced to death.  Fortunately, the United States stepped in and negotiated the prisoners release in April 1842.  Falconer was released at the request of the British ambassador to Mexico.  Navarro was not released and forced to spend another three years in prison.  Sympathetic Mexican citizens helped Navarro escape before he made his way back to Texas.  Falconer made his way back to England and never came back. Though a failure, the Santa Fe Expedition led to a renewed U.S. interest in Texas and statehood for the struggling republic.

Saturday, April 23, 2022

Spymaster of the Pecos


Mule-Driven Freight Wagon Leaving San Antonio

During the summer of 1862, the Trans-Pecos Region of Texas was left wide open to Union occupation.  After the Confederacy’s disastrous retreat from New Mexico, fifteen-hundred troops from California, under the command of Brigadier General James H. Carlton, occupied El Paso del Norte (now modern day El Paso) and the surrounding area.  The lack of manpower, limited supplies, hostile Indians, and a tortuous climate kept Carlton’s men – the California Column - from invading the Texas interior.  Nevertheless, a threat existed – made worse by Union threats along the Texas coast and overland from Louisiana.  After Major General Nathaniel Banks occupied Brownsville in 1863, he encouraged Carlton to advance into Texas and join him.  The Confederate Commander of the Department of Texas, the flamboyant Major General John Bankhead Magruder, needed a close eye on West Texas.  A number of Texas residents in the region, with Confederate sympathies, offered their services.  Among them was a former scout for the U.S. Army – John Skillman.

Born in New Jersey, Skillman grew up in Kentucky before coming to Texas.  He served as a scout, interpreter, and mail contractor for the Butterfield Overland Mail.  In 1851, the U.S. Postmaster General awarded him the first contract for mail delivery between Santa Fe and San Antonio.  To secure his mail delivery from marauding Comanches and Apaches, Skillman deployed armed, 18 man escorts for his mule-driven freight wagons.  Utilizing canvas-topped farm wagons and charging a flat twenty-five dollar fee, he also offered passenger service along the same route.   Waterman L. Ormsby, a reporter for the New York Herald, offered a colorful, albeit inflated, description of Skillman.  He wrote that Skillman “carries several revolvers and Bowie knives, dresses in buckskin, and has a sandy head of hair and a beard.  He loves hard work and adventures, and hates ‘injuns’ and knows the country about here pretty well.”

Needless to say, Skillman’s previous occupations made him uniquely qualified for setting up a Confederate intelligence network in the Trans-Pecos Region.  To avoid Carlton’s troopers, he set up his base of operations in the Mexican border town of Presidio Del Norte (now present day Ojinaga).  Across the Rio Grande in Texas, intelligence was gathered in the town of La Junta (now present day Presidio) through cryptic letters and clandestine meetings with informants.  To avoid detection, Skillman traveled the backcountry, using little known trails and river crossings. In addition to collecting intelligence, he planted misinformation among Carlton’s troops, leading to a widespread fear of a rebel attack.

In January, 1864, Magruder summoned Skillman to his Houston headquarters for instructions. The instructions were to compile a map of the Trans-Pecos Region for a possible Confederate advance when, or if, the needed troops became available.  In addition, he was to continue his observations of Carlton’s troops for any movements toward the east.  “I have no doubt that they will come sooner or later,” said Magruder, “probably this Spring [1864].”

To finance Skillman’s operations, cotton was provided to be sold in Mexico for $500 in specie.  To assist him in his mapping, Skillman recruited a company of 10 men, mostly associates from Skillman’s stagecoach days.  On April 3, 1864, they set out from San Antonio for Presidio del Norte in Mexico.  They set up camp at Spencer’s Ranch near the Rio Grande border. In addition to gathering data on the surrounding region, the company demanded custom duties from Mexican wagon trains carrying salt harvested from Lake Cordona in Texas.   

Carlton was aware of Skillman’s operations through his own informants, mainly Hispanic residents that hated the Anglo Texans.  On April 13, 1864, a scouting party of twenty-five troopers, led by Captain Albert A. French, departed San Elizario in search of any rebel activity.  Following mule and horse tracks, they discovered Skillman’s camp at Spencer’s Ranch amidst a brush thicket.  Early on the morning of the 15th, French attacked Skillman’s sleepy camp.  Two of the Texans were killed, including Skillman.  Four were taken prisoner, while the rest escaped across the border to Mexico.  Though Skillman’s death dealt a severe setback to Confederate intelligence operations, information on Carlton’s activities continued to filter out of the Trans-Pecos.  Luckily for Magruder, Carlton’s troops never left the Trans-Pecos.

Monday, December 13, 2021

Wagons, Buffaloes and Red-Haired Kiowas


Lone Wolf

Under the terms of the 1867 Medicine Lodge Treaty, the Southern Plains Indians (Comanches, Kiowas, Arapahos, and Southern Cheyenne) exchanged their homes in the buffalo-laden Plains for reservations in the Southwest Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma).  In return, the U. S.  Government would provide rations, annuities, farming implements, and security from outlaws and unscrupulous merchants – everything needed to become sedentary farmers.  In addition, the Indians were allowed to hunt buffalo outside the reservations, provided the herds were large enough.  U. S. officials, however, provided very little, if any, from their side of the treaty.  Bootleg whiskey traders, such as “Slippery Jack” Gallagher, peddled their wares within the reservations or from backcountry inns called “Whiskey Ranches.”  Desperadoes stole horses from reservation corrals while buffalo hunters decimated the buffalo herds to the point of extinction.  Hungry and their patience worn thin, many Indians began leaving the reservations during the early 1870’s for the Panhandle Plains in the East.   The reservations, managed by peaceful, non-violent Quakers, could do little to pacify the hot-tempered Kiowas and Comanches.  Instead, the Indians used the reservations for bases to conduct raids into North Texas and the Panhandle.  The Indians traveled in small, fast-moving war parties that were almost impossible to chase down.  Farms and ranches were raided for horses, cattle and, depending on their age - children.  The scalped corpses of teamsters, surveyors and settlers littered the countryside.   Because of the slaughter of the buffalo herds, buffalo hunters faced a gruesome death if caught by the Indians.  Knowing what awaited them, the hunters carried vials of cyanide to be taken before capture.   

General Phil Sheridan, who favored a scorched earth policy toward the recalcitrant Indians, planned an advance of five troop columns into the Texas Panhandle to corral them.  On August 11, 1874, Colonel Nelson Miles led the column heading south from Fort Dodge, Kansas.  To supply his troops, Miles depended on a remote U. S. Army post, in present-day Woodward County, Oklahoma, with the generic name of Camp Supply.  So remote in fact, it later became the site of Oklahoma’s first insane asylum.  Sheridan had established the post to supply his winter operations against the Southern Plains Indians in Texas and the Indian Territory.  Dangerously over-extended in the drought-ridden Panhandle, Miles’ column needed water and provisions.  From his camp at Sweetwater Creek in the Panhandle, he dispatched Captain Wyllys Lyman with a military escort and 36 empty supply wagons to rendezvous with an ox-drawn supply column from Camp Supply.   On September 7, he met up with the train at Commission Creek – 48 miles from Camp Supply.  After transferring the supplies to his wagons, he headed back with an additional 104 men that had accompanied the supply column.  Sensing an ambush, Lyman assembled the wagons into a double column with fifty men per wagon marching on either side.  At Oasis Creek, Lyman was met by Lt. Frank D. Baldwin, three army scouts, and a Kiowa prisoner on their way to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas carrying dispatches from General Miles.   Curiously, their prisoner was not Kiowa, but a young red-haired White man dressed in Kiowa garb.  According to the prisoner, he had been abducted by the Kiowas when he was a child.  Given the name Tehan (Texan) by his captors, he was raised to be a warrior and had participated in several raids as a sort of warrior apprentice.  Baldwin captured him before he could alert a nearby Kiowa camp he was guarding.  

“What are you doing here?” He asked.  “Are you living with the Indians?” 

“Yes,” Tehan replied.  “They treat me good.”

Whether it was from relief or protection from skeptical Whites, Tehan assumed the role of liberated captive rather than defiant Indian warrior.  Feeling he might be useful to Miles, Baldwin left him with Lyman. 

On September 9, 1874, the Kiowas discovered their warrior missing and set out after him.  Along the way, they discovered Lyman’s wagons and the hapless Tehan among them.  From a ridge, they took potshots at the wagons until forced away by a cavalry company escorting the train.  After 12 miles, seventy mounted Kiowa warriors attacked the train about a mile from the Washita River.  Lyman circled his wagons before being overrun - fighting them off until sundown.  Trenches were dug during the night for additional protection.  Water was obtained from a small pond or buffalo wallow 400 yards away.  For four days, the Kiowas laid siege to Lyman’s wagons.  A courier was dispatched to get help from Camp Supply.  On September 10, Scout William F. Schmalsle rode out after dark through the Indian line toward Camp Supply.  Hotly pursued, he steered his horse into a buffalo herd, causing them to bolt and block off his pursuers.  The Kiowas also got help too - from Tehan; who turned on his captors and somehow managed to escape during all the commotion.  Now wearing a White man’s uniform, Tehan told his fellow Kiowas to fortify the wallow against Lyman’s thirsty soldiers.  Denied their water source, the soldiers opened cans of fruit in the wagons and drank the juice.  After reaching Camp Supply two days later, Schmalsle obtained 58 cavalrymen before heading back to Lyman.  They reached the train on September 14.  With a larger cavalry force, Lyman was able to rejoin Miles. Thirteen of Lyman’s men received the Medal of Honor.  Casualties included two men killed and three wounded.

By September 12, the siege started to fall apart; the Kiowas spotted a column of U. S. troops under Major William R. Price in the distant.  They slowly began to drift from the scene.  Among their leaders present at the siege were Lone Wolf, Satanta, Big Tree, Big Bow and the Kiowas influential shaman -  Maman-ti or “Owl Prophet.”  They decided to keep moving west to the Palo Duro region, but were discouraged by messages dispatched from fellow Kiowas living on the reservation to return or face annihilation.  Thinking they would receive a more sympathetic ear from the troops stationed there, many of them headed east for the Arapahoe and Cheyenne reservation.  Instead they were herded back to the Kiowa reservation, without their horses and with Satanta and Big Tree in chains.  In violation of his parole for a previous raid, Satanta was sent back to Huntsville Penitentiary where he jumped to his death from an upper story window.  The unreserved Kiowas, under Lone Wolf, made their way to Palo Duro Canyon until hunted down by U. S. troops under Captain Ranald S. Mackenzie . 

No tangible records exist on the mysterious Tehan.  According to Rev. J. J. Methvin, a missionary at the Wichita Agency, Tehan was killed by Big Bow in order to cover up his crimes during a raid into Texas.  Big Bow, on the other hand, claimed Tehan died of thirst during a retreat from U. S. cavalrymen.  Tehan’s foster sister, Red Dress, stated he went to live with the Comanche and later the Mescalero Apaches.  Twenty years would pass before Tehan resurfaced, not as a Kiowa warrior, but as a somber Presbyterian minister from Buffalo, New York named Joseph K. Griffis.  The good reverend claimed to be Tehan and that he had drifted east to learn more about the White man’s ways.  He joined the Salvation Army, which set him on the path toward the ministry.  Years later, Oklahoma journalists tried to investigate Tehan, but came up short as to his actual origin and whereabouts.  The trail for answers ran cold.

After eight months of warfare, the Comanches and Kiowas were forced back on to the reservations.  With the exception of a small herd saved by Texas cattle baron Charles Goodnight, the vast buffalo herds in the Texas Panhandle disappeared - to be replaced with cattle and wheatfields.

Saturday, November 13, 2021

Ector's Charge

Battle Flag of Ector's Brigade

On the evening of December 30, 1862, Union Brigadier General Joshua Sill grew nervous.  Large numbers of rebel troops could be heard in the darkness marching toward his corps’ right flank; a march, perhaps, to outflank the Union Army of the Cumberland prior to launching an attack.  Erring on the side of caution, Sill rode to division headquarters to warn his division commander, Brigadier General Philip H. Sheridan.  Afterwards, both of them preceded to the corps headquarters at the Gresham House, a log cabin just off the Wilkinson Turnpike near Murfreesboro, Tennessee.  They found their corps commander, Major General Alexander M. McCook, sleeping on a bed of hay, exhausted from a winter march in mud and freezing rain.  Unlike his subordinates, he was confident the rebels across the river would not attack.  Besides, Union troops were going to attack the Confederate right flank in the morning, thus preventing any rebel attack on the Union right.  “I am only to hold my line, and wait for orders from headquarters,” he told them.  The matter was dropped.  Complacent in their confidence, McCook and his troops were about to endure the most terrifying ordeal in their lives.  Less than a mile from his position, 12,000 Confederate troops were amassed for an all out assault the following morning.  Spearheading the assault was a brigade of battle-hardened Texans under Brigadier General Matthew Ector. 

A lawyer by profession, Ector was born in Putnam County, Georgia on February 28, 1822.  He moved to Henderson, Texas in 1850 where he practiced law, edited the Henderson “Democrat” newspaper and served in the Texas State Legislature for a single term.   When the war began, Ector enlisted as a private then later became adjutant to General Joseph L. Hogg.  He was later elected colonel of the 14th Texas Cavalry.  In August, 1862, he was promoted to brigadier general after his regiment distinguished itself at the Battle of Richmond during Major General Braxton Bragg’s invasion of Kentucky.

Ector’s Brigade consisted of four brigades of dismounted Texas cavalry and a battery under Captain James P. Douglas.  Most of the men had enlisted in cavalry regiments from North Central and East Texas, serving in Arkansas and the Indian Territory.  Under the mercurial command of Major General Earl Van Dorn, they rode for the Tennessee border to join the Army of Mississippi under the command of Major General P. G. T. Beauregard.  Before crossing the Mississippi, they were ordered to give up their horses upon payment for their value and convert to infantrymen.  Their destination was Corinth, Mississippi - a disease-ridden railroad junction and Beauregard’s army headquarters.   After Beauregard’s ignominious retreat from Corinth, he was replaced with Bragg; who renamed the army - the Army of Tennessee.  Supporting butternut jackets, homespun shirts and slouch hats, the Texans were originally armed with their own weapons from home – mostly crudely-made Bowie knives and short-range shotguns that were eventually replaced with Enfield or Belgian rifles acquired through capture or blockade runners..

Placed under the command of Tennessean Major General John P. McCown, Ector’s Brigade marched into Kentucky in an unsuccessful attempt to bring the Bluegrass State into the Confederacy.  After the Battle of Perryville, they retreated back into East Tennessee.  Failing in Kentucky, Bragg settled for an occupation of Middle Tennessee and the crucial railroad town of Chattanooga.  From Knoxville, Bragg marched his 35,000 troops to Murfreesboro, setting up a defensive line along Stone’s River under two corps commanders – Major General William J. Hardee and Major General Leonidas Polk.   Both were outspoken opponents of Bragg.  McCown’s division was under Hardee and assigned the far left end of Bragg’s line.   

Across the river, the 42,000 man Army of the Cumberland, under Major General William S. Rosecrans, approached Murfreesboro after a 34 mile march from Nashville.  By December 30, both armies faced each other from north to south along the banks of Stone’s River.  Yanks and rebels slept in cold mud covered with a rain-drenched blanket or no blanket at all.  No campfires were allowed; their sole comfort was their respective army bands serenading them through the night.  The song “Home Sweet Home” was a special favorite.  Bragg and Rosecrans planned to attack the right flank of the opposing army, cutting off its supply line and escape path.  Planning to attack at dawn, the rebels would beat Rosecrans to the punch.  If all went well, the Union right would be jackknifed into the Union left, forcing them into the river.  With the Ector’s Brigade in the middle, seven brigades under McCown and Major General Patrick Cleburne would initiate the assault.  In front of them were the Union brigades of Brigadier General Edward N. Kirk, a lawyer in civilian life, and German-born revolutionary Brigadier General August Willich, who once served in the Prussian Army and edited a Communist newspaper. 

Commands were passed down to McCown’s field officers, “Be quiet - get your men in line - see that their guns are in working order - no talking or laughing.” Whiskey, for warmth or fortitude, was also passed around the ranks.  At 6:00 AM, the order was given, “Forward, march!”

Union pickets saw them first - a ghostly line of gray emerging from the morning fog.  Fleeing to the rear, they spread the alarm, “They’re coming!”  Advancing at the double-quick, the Texans overran the 34th Illinois first along with an Ohio battery under Captain Warren P. Edgarton.  To make matters worse for the Yanks, their field of fire was blocked by innumerable cedar trees.  “It seemed that the whole Confederate Army burst out of a piece of wood immediately on the front,” recalled a Union private.  Both brigades collapsed, sending a wave of terrified artillery horses and panicked Union troops, bereft of their muskets, fleeing to the rear.  Lt. Tunnel of the 14th Texas recalled the panic, “Many of the Yanks were either killed or retreated in their nightclothes.  We found a caisson with the horses still attached lodged against a tree and other evidence of their confusion.”  Both Kirk and Willich were taken prisoner. Sheridan, who was still suspicious of a Confederate attack, kept his men in line and at arms through the night.  Together with Brigadier General James S. Negley, they stalled the rebels along their lines; a site of gnarled cedars and rocky outcroppings the combatants referred to as “The Slaughter Pen.”  General Sill was killed after a bullet struck him square in the face.  Ector continued his advance, losing men along the way from bullets and canister shot.  After three miles, the exhausted Texans were halted by an impenetrable blue line of infantry and artillery along the Nashville Turnpike; their dead left in piles after several fruitless attempts to capture the Union’s Chicago Board of Trade Battery.  One of the Texans recalled, “The artillery opened up on us and it seemed that the heavens and the earth were coming together.”  A group of Texans waived a white handkerchief to surrender.  One of them told his captors, “I am tired of this foolishness and I want to see it stopped.”  The charge stopped for the night, leaving a long trail of dead and wounded.  Ector’s Brigade suffered 343 casualties.  One colonel, J. C. Burks, was killed during the charge.

For three grueling miles, Ector’s Brigade and the Army of Tennessee pushed Rosecran’s army into near destruction.  Union resolve, diminished numbers and low ammunition turned the tide.  An assault on the Union left the following day by Major General John Breckinridge met with disaster.  Bragg decided to retreat to Shelbyville.  Both sides suffered 24,000 casualties - three thousand lay dead on the field.  Ector’s Brigade served with the Army of Tennessee until the end of the war, suffering heavy casualties at the Battle of Allatoona.  They surrendered at Meridian, Mississippi on May 4, 1865.  Ector returned to his law practice in Henderson with a new wife, Sallie P. Chew, and without a leg, amputated from a wound suffered during the Atlanta campaign.  He was buried in Marshall Texas after his death in 1879.  Ector County in West Texas was named after him.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Tejano on a Tightrope


Juan Seguin

Juan Nepomuceno Seguin was born on October 27, 1806, in San Antonio, to a prominent Tejano family that served Spain, Mexico and the Republic of Texas.  In his youth, Seguin helped run the post office with his father, who was San Antonio’s postmaster.  He married Maria Gertrudis Flores de Abrego in 1825 with whom he had ten children.  A fascination with politics led to service on a number of electoral boards before becoming Alcalde (mayor) of San Antonio in 1833 and later the political head of Bexar province. 

Seguin’s father, Erasmo, was a close ally of Stephen F. Austin’s colony.  The alliance between Erasmo and Austin eventually included Juan before the outbreak of the Texas Revolution.  In 1829, Mexico’s government was in factional turmoil with Centralists, who favored a strong central government, pitted against Federalists, who favored strong local governments.  Out of the tumult emerged a Mexican army officer and politician with an amazing charisma that concealed an extreme ruthlessness.  A Federalist at first, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was elected president then suspended Mexico’s constitution in favor of a dictatorship. 

At that time, Texas was adjoined to the Mexican state of Coahuila.  Texas’ growing Anglo population favored an independent state under less control from Mexicos Centralist government.  Opposed to Santa Anna’s rule, Seguin sided with the rebellious Texans.  Stephen F. Austin commissioned him a captain in charge of supplying food and provisions.  Seguin raised a company of 37 men.   In 1835, he assisted Texas forces in capturing his hometown from Mexican forces under General Martin Perfecto de Cos.  Forced to leave San Antonio with his 500 men, Cos marched to Laredo where he met Santa Anna’s army of 6,000 marching in the opposite direction - toward San Antonio.  Seguin joined the Alamo defenders with the hope reinforcements would arrive.  Before the Alamo was encircled, Seguin was dispatched as a courier to seek help from Sam Houston.  After learning the Alamo had fallen, Seguin organized a company of Hispanics to act as a rearguard for Houston’s nascent army.  His company was the only Hispanic company that fought at the Battle of San Jacinto. 

After Santa Anna’s defeat, Seguin was promoted to Lt. Colonel and ordered to San Antonio, where he accepted the surrender of the Mexican forces that occupied the town.  On February 25, 1837, he ordered the collection and burial of the Alamo defenders’ ashes almost a year after the battle.  Despite Santa Anna’s surrender and the ensuing Treaty of Velasco that granted Texas’ independence, the Mexican government refused to accept the treaty and continued making armed incursions into Texas.  Sequin’s regiment was woefully short of supplies, complaining they were “on foot, naked and barefoot.”  Unable to obtain supplies from the Texas army’s quartermaster, he had to confiscate supplies and horses from San Antonio residents which alienated him from his fellow Tejanos.  Nevertheless, Seguin’s regiment was invaluable in collecting intelligence and maintaining communication between Mexico and the Republic of Texas, especially since many Anglo-Texans did not speak Spanish.  During the fall of 1837, Seguin was elected a senator of the newly created Texas Congress. 

Although he represented San Antonio, he represented the interests of all Hispanics in the Republic of Texas as well.   The challenge for Sequin was representing a district that Anglo-Texas settlements distrusted because of its Hispanic population, while many of his constituents were neutral during the Revolution and had a flagging regard for their new government.   

In 1840, Seguin resigned from the Texas Senate to assist General Antonio Canales in an abortive attempt to set up a Federalist nation along the Rio Grande - the Republic of the Rio Grande.  He mortgaged his property to help fund Canales’ efforts, which abruptly ended when Canales signed an armistice with the Mexican government.  Now in debt, Seguin engaged in land speculation and smuggling to recoup his losses. 

To encourage Texas colonists to stay in Texas after its independence and promote settlement, the Texas Congress adopted the headright system to award land grants; a system rife with fraud and corruption.  Abused by Anglo settlers who wanted their land and Comanche attacks, many Tejanos sold their land grants for far less their value to unscrupulous speculators.  Though he engaged in the trading of land grants, no hard evidence exists of any criminal activity. 

Seguin was elected Alcalde again in 1841, but under accusations he betrayed a failed Texan expedition to conquer New Mexico by notifying Mexican authorities.  In addition, he faced a growing threat from Anglo squatters within San Antonio’s corporate boundaries who wanted to displace Hispanic business owners.  Matters only grew worse when Mexican troops under General Rafael Vasquez briefly occupied San Antonio.  Though Vasquez’s occupation lasted only three days and was simply a plundering expedition, he managed to sow distrust among the Anglo Texans, who now considered Sequin a traitor.  Hounded by the squatters and fearing for the safety of his family, Seguin resigned as alcalde and fled to Mexico, writing later he was “a victim to the wickedness of a few men whose imposture was favored by their origin and recent domination over the country.”  With no means to support his family, he took the drastic step of joining the Mexican Army. 

Despite Seguin’s support of the Texas Revolution, Mexican authorities recognized his popularity with Tejanos, who had fled Texas from vengeful Anglo settlers who considered them enemies.  Taking advantage of his popularity and leadership skills, they gave him command of a Tejano unit called the “Defensores de Bexar” (Bexar Defenders) assigned to the command of General Adrian Woll.   The French born Woll had fought under Santa Anna and retreated with the Mexican Army after San Jacinto.  In 1842, he invaded Texas along with Seguin’s “Defensores.”  Seguin was given no official military title.  He and his command served primarily as scouts and forgers. On September 11, 1842, Woll’s army of 1,400 occupied San Antonio for a week before retreating back to Mexico.  Under Seguin’s supervision, 200 Tejano families, fearing Anglo retribution, left with Woll for the safety of Mexico.  One Texas Ranger declared killing Sequin and his followers “would be doing God a service.”  Seguin continued serving in the Mexican Army during the War with Mexico, participating in the Battle of Buena Vista. 

After a six year exile, Seguin returned to a Texas annexed by the United States with the blessing of his one true Anglo friend - Sam Houston.  He settled with his family at his father’s ranch near present-day Floresville in Wilson County.  He later served as Bexar County Justice of the Peace and an election precinct chairman.  In 1852, Seguin participated in the establishment of the Democratic Party in San Antonio.  In his later years, he moved to Nuevo Laredo to be near his son.  Seguin died there at the age of 87 on August 27, 1890.  On July 4, 1976, his remains were transferred from Nuevo Laredo to the town named in his honor - Seguin.  Considered a traitor by Texans and Mexicans, Seguin provided invaluable service to the Republic of Texas, sound leadership for a developing San Antonio and an important intermediary between Tejano and Texan.           





Sunday, June 6, 2021

Ships of the Desert


During the early 1800’s, patrolling the vast, arid landscapes of West Texas and the Southwest Territories was difficult at best.  Railroads in the Southwest didn't exist back then.  Unlike the East, the Southwest didn’t have the rivers for steamboats.  To maintain operations at U.S. forts, everything had to be hauled in with mules, wagons and stagecoaches.   Maintaining ample supplies of feed for horses and mules was vital since forage was scarce.  What was needed was a cost effective way, for the U.S. Army, to traverse the Southwest without the gallons of water and sacks of grain needed for horses and mules.  The answer came from across the Atlantic Ocean in the Middle East.

In 1855, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis urged Congress to appropriate money for the purchase of camels to be used in Texas.  After $30,000 was appropriated by Congress, Major H. C. Wayne boarded the navy supply ship USS Supply for a buying trip along the North African and Middle Eastern coasts.  On May 13, 1856, Supply arrived at Indianola, Texas with a cargo of 33 camels, along with 3 Arabs and 2 Turks to handle them.  Since camel saddles were not available or even seen in the United States, Supply brought them along as well.  Wayne lead the first camel caravan from Indianola to Camp Verde in Kerr County, Texas, followed by a second, consisting of 41 camels.  At Camp Verde, he helped train U.S. Army personnel in the use and care of camels, a talent he had acquired during his trip to the Middle East.  The first camel driver hired by the U.S. Army was an Ottoman Turk named Hadji Ali.  Brought over on USS Supply, he became one the first Muslims to set foot in Texas.  Because no one in Texas could properly pronounce his name, much less spell it, he was referred to as “Hi Jolly.”  Ali served with the U.S. Army as a camel driver and later handled mules as well.  He also hauled supplies for miners using camels he had purchased for his own use.  Ali died in 1902 and is buried at Quartzite, Arizona under a stone pyramid topped with a copper camel.    

Among the camels’ duties were carrying supplies during long reconnaissance missions in Southwest Texas, carrying survey equipment across the New Mexico Territory to the California border, and hauling supplies and mail to the U.S. forts.   The camels proved their worth by carrying up to 600 pounds, traveling miles without water, and ate almost any plant protruding from the ground, incuding cactus.  In one remarkable instance, a camel was bitten by a rattlesnake and showed no effects from it.  The problem, however, was their incompatibility with horses and mules – they frightened the hell out of them.   Naturally, mule drivers preferred the more docile, smaller-sized mules over the more ill-tempered camels.   They also emitted a strange, obnoxious odor and would spit on you when angered.  In the end, they just couldn’t fit in with a frontier culture geared around horses, mules, wagons, and livery stables.

The camel experiment went bust during the Civil War.  Those that fell into Confederate hands were used to haul cotton to Brownsville where it was sent across the Mexican border for arms.  One even carried camp equipment for a Confederate Missouri Infantry company.  A camel named “Old Douglas” served with the 43rd Mississippi Infantry.  After the war, those still alive were auctioned off.  Some ended up in traveling circuses.  Eventually they all died off from old age, neglect, slaughter or being left in the wild to roam the Southwest desert.  In 1902, while working cattle in the Arizona desert, a group of cowboys came across a dead camel.  Wrapped around its neck in a poignant embrace was the deceased “Hi Jolly.”        

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Unce Ben's Place

 Benjamin Dowell

In Old El Paso, tempered justice and politics were seldom practiced with a public courtroom and debate hall.  It was often practiced with bare knuckles and revolvers, usually with deadly consequences.  A visitor at the town saloon experienced El Paso justice firsthand by trying to break up a saloon fight.  The saloonkeeper calmly informed him “when you see anything of that kind going on in El Paso, don’t interfere.  It is not considered good manners here.”  Though gentle in manner, the saloonkeeper presented a wise, authoritative figure enhanced by his unusual white hair and long beard.  Affectionately referred to as “Uncle Ben,” Benjamin Dowell brought a rough sense of growth and order to a remote corner of Texas.   


In the late 1840’s, El Paso, Texas was a small, unincorporated community north of the Rio Grande across from El Paso del Norte, now present day Juarez.  Often referred to as Franklin, its most dominate establishment was a collection of white adobe buildings referred to as the Ponce Ranch, established by a wealthy El Paso del Norte merchant, Juan Maria Ponce De Leon.  The living quarters were surrounded by high walls for protection against Indian raids, ocassionally breached when the Indians shot their arrows over the walls.  Among the ranch employees was Ben Dowell, a former U.S. cavalryman who had spent eight months in Mexico City as a prisoner of war.  Conditions were poor at best; the prison diet consisted of tortillas purchased through donations from the prison guards, who were just as poor as the prisoners they guarded.  In his late twenties, he came out of prison with white hair and a fluency in Spanish.  After the Mexican War, he returned to his home state of Kentucky, divorced his wife, and headed for Texas.  In dire need of employment, Dowell got a job at the Ponce Ranch tending the ranch’s vineyards.  He also married, for the second and final time, an illiterate Tigua Indian woman named Juana Marquez.  Stricken with “gold fever,”he headed for California, briefly settling in Los Angeles and working as a carpenter with a fellow West Texan, Bill Ford.  Even by El Paso standards, Los Angeles was too violent to raise a family,  Dowell decided to return to Texas.


In 1850, Dowell opened El Paso’s first saloon in one of the Ponce Ranch buildings. De Leon sold his ranch to a local freighter before Dowell purchased it in 1853.  Like many frontier Texas towns,  Dowell’s Saloon served many functions, such as a billiard hall, post office, grocery store, and courthouse.  High stakes poker was played with silver coins and thousands won or lost in a single hand.   Food was brought to the players if games lasted through the night.  Overseeing it all was Ben Dowell.  


Like all frontier saloons, gunfights were bound to happen.  In 1855, Dowell himself became involved in a shooting.  The theft of $2,300 from the town custom house and a horse from Dowell’s residence brought accusations against William McElroy and three others.  Dowell called out McElroy directly for the theft, something McElroy didn’t take well after he had a few drinks.  In San Elizario, a town southeast of EI Paso, McElroy spilled his intentions to kill Ben Dowell to the town’s saloonkeeper, Bill Ford - Dowell’s California buddy.  Ford sent a message by courier on a swift horse to his friend, warning him of McElroy.  Dowell was ready; he felled McMcElroy with a shotgun blast after the would-be assassin entered his saloon.  Later, another gunslinger was dispatched after taking potshots at El Paso legislator Jeff Hall in front of Dowell’s Saloon.  Armed vigilantes cornered him behind a hotel before showering him with bullets. There were no probations or lengthy jail sentences, law was enforced through the barrel of a gun.


The Civil War brought further disruption.  In 1861, Texas seceded from the Union.  A Confederate flag flew over Dowell’s establishment, leaving no doubt as to which side he supported.  A failed Confederate invasion of New Mexico led to occupation by Union troops, forcing residents to flee to San Antonio or across the river to El Paso del Norte.  The saloon’s fixtures and billiard tables were taken across the river and used in an El Paso del Norte bar. After leaving his family in Mexico, Dowell served as a Confederate recruiting officer in Galveston.


After the war, former Confederates had their property confiscated, forcing them to stroke politicians or seek redress from courts of law to get it back.  In McDowell’s case, it didn’t hurt if those politicians were in the same Masonic order or were friends before the war.  Dowell got his property back while El Paso’s started to grow.  Dowell’s Saloon added two more functions - stagecoach stopover and livery for travelers heading from San Antonio to San Diego, a sort of latter-day Buc-ee’s.   


Unlike the war, the violence never subsided.  Reconstruction politics became the new flashpoint.  Democratic politicians were replaced with Republicans who favored the Union side during the war.  The Republican Party had two factions:  Radicals, who favored a progressive approach, such as equal rights for former slaves, and Conservatives, who favored the opposite.  In 1868, customs collector W. W. Mills, the son-in-law of Texas Governor A. J Hamilton, was El Paso’s Conservative representative at the constitutional convention in Austin.  During his absence, Albert Fountain took over Republican interests in El Paso.   On the local ticket for state senator, Mills ran against the radical Fountain - Mills lost.  With the new office came the power to appoint friends and relatives to judicial and law enforcement posts.  Frank Williams, an El Paso lawyer and friend of Mills, lost his chance at a judgeship when Fountain appointed Gaylord Clarke instead.  To assuage his disappointment, Williams began drinking heavily at Dowell’s Saloon.  In addition, he showed scant respect for the new judge when pleading his cases and vowed vengeance against Fountain and his cronies.  Things only grew worse from there.


On December 6, 1870, while Williams was drinking, Albert Fountain approached him at Dowell’s Saloon to discuss Williams’ less than respectful attitude.  In response, Williams pulled out his pistol and shot Fountain three times, hitting him in the left arm, scalp and almost his heart before the bullet deflected off his pocket watch.  Williams fled to his house to reload while Fountain gathered a posse, Judge Clarke included.  They surrounded Williams’ abode and began breaking in the door.  Williams emerged from the doorway with a double-barreled shotgun, shooting Clarke dead.  Fountain killed Williams with one rifle shot, ending the dispute.


In 1872, El Paso decided it needed a city government.  Ben Dowell was elected its first mayor.  His saloon became the first city hall.  Among the new city’s vexing problems were tax collections, clean water, and stray dogs.  Dowell’s main problem was more of an international one - the Rio Grande.  After a severe flood in 1864, the river changed course, leaving three hundred acres of Mexican land now in the United States.  Mexico wanted that land back. Mayor Dowell felt the matter should be resolved by the United States and Mexico instead of locally.  The matter was not resolved until a century later when President John F. Kennedy and Mexico’s President Adolfo Lopez Mateos agreed to give 630 acres back to Mexico and Mexico would give 193 acres to the United States.  As a result, 5,500 El Pasoans had to move to other parts of the city.            


After being a mayor, Dowell was a county commissioner and city alderman while still tending his bar.  He died unexpectedly in 1880.  The saloon continued operating after his widow leased it out to Frank Manning and his brothers, all well known gunfighters.  El Paso had become a city but it was still under the cloud of its wild frontier past.