By Dale Fry
For over 100 years, the presence of Babyhead Mountain, a rugged hill lying some nine and a half miles north of Llano, has given foreboding testimony to one of the most gruesome—and controversial—incidents to have ever occurred in Llano County. It was here that a search party discovered the dismembered body of a missing child, her head impaled on a stick near the summit of the hill.
The century-long reigning oral account of the atrocity has, curiously, divulged only that the hill received its name after the discovery there of the child; that the bloody head had belonged to a tiny girl; and that people in general believed that the barbarous act was yet another Indian depredation perpetrated to convince the Whites they were not welcome in Indian territory. Time has produced, in addition, conflicting dates to no one’s satisfaction as to when the incident occurred.
This scant information has left many people mystified as to how such a monstrous deed could have helped but leave in its wake an abundance of details. In turn, it has veiled the crime in mystery over the years and produced a number of questions: Who was the girl? Who were her parents? Where did they live? Who discovered the body? What exact year did the horror occur? Where is her grave?
Twelve years, however, "new" oral history surfaced that answers most of these questions, revealing the fact that many of the old timers in that area knew these details and passed them on to family members and friends. And, to add even more controversy to the pot, as recently as a few weeks ago, yet "newer" history emerged that points to a conspiracy among Whites. Thus the perplexing questions arise: If these "new" details are true, why did they not wind up in the incomplete and traditionally accepted account? And if the conspiracy angle, which contradicts the traditional version, is valid, why have the facts of the conspiracy remained in limbo all these years?
The "new" oral history not only answers most of the questions, it also establishes a later date for the incident.
In the late John E. Conner’s book, A Great While Ago,--published just twelve years ago in 1983 (Eakin Publications, Inc.,Austin)--Conner wrote an account of the Babyhead tragedy, drawn from oral reports he heard when he was a child.
Conner, an esteemed professor of history at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi for over 25 years, was born in Llano county in 1883 and grew up in the Pontotoc/Field Creek area not far from Babyhead Mountain "as the crow files."
The late professor wrote that when he was a small boy he heard "many stories of Indian raids…the mobbing, the maiming, the murders.."and added,"…such were the topics of conversations.
In another place, Conner penned, "The Indians who were in the Packsaddle Mountain battle were sometimes held responsible for the death of Bill Buster’s daughter. At least Buster’s house was near the point where Pecan (Pecum) Creek enters the Llano River, just below the place where San Fernando Creek runs into it. The child had been captured and carried away. A few days later the remains of a small child were found near the top of a peak in the Colorado Hills (today called Babyhead Mountain) not far from the point where the town of Cherokee was later established. The head of the baby was all that could be distinguished of the body. Bill Wyckoff of Pontotoc found an Indian pipe near the place where the Buster baby had been captured. He gave it to the D.R.T. (Daughters of the Republic of Texas) and I saw it once in their museum when it was in the Old Land Office Building on the Capitol Grounds in Austin."(Capitalizations are Conner’s.)
It is a documented fact that the Battle at Packsaddle Mountain took place on August 15, 1873. So, then, Conner’s claim that the locals held the same Indians responsible for the death of the Buster child would place the date of the Babyhead Mountain tragedy sometime after August, 1873.
This date, however, contradicts the claims of other historians, who have placed the date much earlier. In his book, Canyon of the Eagles, (Taylor Publishing Company, Dallas, 1991), C.L. Yarbrough states that the baby was killed in 1855. The Handbook of Texas, c1952, claims that "(Babyhead Mountain) was named about 1850." Yet other historians have figured the same date, about 1850, basing their conclusions primarily on the alleged time frame in which settlers established a community and cemetery in the area and named them both after the infamous hill of death.. In addition, a state historical marker erected in 1991 at what is known today as Babyhead Cemetery, lists the incident as occurring "in 1850’s."
Llano historian and author Alline Elliott, however, recently corroborated Conner’s date of the baby’s death with oral accounts she heard from her late husband Sidney. She says that according to these oral transmissions, the hill, the community and the cemetery could not have received their names "Babyhead" before 1873.
"My husband Sidney told me that when he was 14 or 15 he worked for Bill Wyckoff on Mr. Wyckoff’s farm," Alline says. "The farm was at Field Creek about 15 miles southwest of Babyhead Mountain. Mr. Wyckoff told my husband the story of the baby, and said that when he (Wyckoff) was 17, he and "Lib" Pankey (a Field Creek/Pontotoc resident) went with Bill Buster to search for Buster’s baby. I’ve read Mr. Wyckoff’s obituary, and he was born in 1856. that would make him 17 in 1873, the same year that Conner said in his book that the baby was killed.
"My husband also told me a story that his father, Bill Elliott, told him. Bill said that his parents told him that when he (Bill) was born (at Babyhead in 1888), the local people had called the hill Babyhead Mountain for only 15 years. That makes it 1873 when the baby was killed, just like Conner said in his book."
Reaching into her prodigious memory, Alline suddenly produces the baby’s name. "Her name was Mary Elizabeth. Mrs. Helen Terry of Richland Springs was a relative of Bill Wyckoff’s, and she told me that was the baby’s name, that she had heard it with her own ears, from relative." Alline adds, "Mary Pickett, Mr. Wyckoff’s great-great-granddaughter, told me the same thing, and that the baby’s parents called her Beth. Mary Pickett is still alive and lives here in Llano. I never learned the name of the baby’s mother."
Nor indeed has anyone else. That portion of the Babyhead mystery remains to this day. In addition, no one has ever located the child’s burial site.
One of the statements Conner made in his book has led Llano historian, Goldie S. Conley, to doubt the accuracy of Conner’s memory, since he was almost 100 years old when he wrote the history of the area. Goldie did the research for the state historical marker at Babyhead Cemetery and authored a book, Cherokee Creek Country (Eakins Publications, Inc., Austin,1988).
In a recent telephone conversation with Enchanted Rock Magazine, Goldie cited Conner’s claim that searchers found the baby’s remains (in 1873) "not far from the point where the town of Cherokee was later established." (Cherokee is located in San Saba County about eight miles north of Babyhead Mountain.) She said she questions Conner’s statement, "because in 1858 there was a settlement there large enough to warrant the establishment of a post office."
She conceded, however, that Conner’s statement could also well be true-- depending upon how one interprets the history of Cherokee post offices. According to the San Saba Historical Commission’s San Saba County History published in 1983, the first Cherokee post office did indeed form in 1858, but "changed locations five times before permanent settlement…(then) in 1878 David Seth Hanna laid out the present site of Cherokee…"
Thus Conner’s claim that the Babyhead incident occurred in 1873 "not far from…where…Cherokee was later established (in 1878) could be true.
But as conflicting as these accounts may be, they pale in comparison with the claims of Llano resident Ned Cook. A few weeks ago, Cook, 45, whose ancestors lived in the area during the time of the incident, presented an entirely different version of the famous tale.
"When I was 14, my Uncle David Webster told me that his father, M.L. Webster, told him that a local "mob" of wealthy and powerful ranchers killed the little girl and blamed it on the Indians. They came to M.L.’s father (my great-grandfather, Nathaniel Webster), who lived in Cherokee at the time and was considered an important and influential man, and told him they were going to massacre a whole family of homesteaders. They gave him three reasons why and asked him to participate in it.
"Number one, they considered this particular family poor white trash and they were therefore expendable. I never heard the name of the family. Number two, there had been frequent raids by the Comanches, and ranchers and homesteaders alike wanted the U.S. Cavalry to dispatch a unit in the area for protection. (The government had dismantled some of the area forts and didn’t regard the Comanche problem as warranting a Cavalry unit here.) And number three, they wanted to discourage more settlers from coming in and staking homestead claims on their lands. There was a big disagreement over land claims at that time.
"So the "mob" thought up an incident of such horrible magnitude that it would show there was a serious Indian problem in the area, and the army would bring the Cavalry in. And at the same time it would solve the problems with the homesteaders. My great-grandfather Webster was an honorable man and told them he wanted no part of it."
Cook says he doesn’t know the exact year the "mob" killed the child, or why they did not massacre the whole family as they originally planned, but that the incident had to have occurred sometime after 1867 or 1868, because "my great-grandfather was in the Cherokee/Babyhead area at that time, and he told family members that just a few years later he heard that the little girl had been killed."
Cook says no one ever suspected the "mob" of "reputable" citizens, because they quickly spread the rumor that the Indians had committed the heinous deed.
As in the traditionally accepted version of the incident, no documented proof exists to substantiate this version. But if it is indeed true that a conspiracy resulted in the unthinkable slaughter, it could well explain the conspicuous absence of--and the mysterious aura of silence surrounding -- the details. As far as the "mob" was concerned, it was enough that people believed the Indians murdered and mutilated a local child. The victim was, after all, of poor white trash extract, and neither her name nor her parents" names were of any importance. All that mattered to this self-serving "mob" was that they accomplish their ends.
But history reveals-- if this version is true-- that the only objective they achieved was to come out scott free of blame for the crime. Ironically, even after the bloody butchery of an innocent child (at the hands of savage Indians, of course), the U.S. Army never dispatched a Cavalry unit to the area, Cook says. Whether the incident discouraged the flow of settlers into the area is not known, but it would seem obvious that it did not. This whole region eventually developed into what it is today, and that development, needless to say, required the influx of people.
This startling version could also explain why even those who had knowledge of the details were so close-mouthed about them. Fear of the ruthless power which the "mob" represented was more than enough to guarantee the silence of even the most notorious of gossipers.
Even the significance of Bill Wyckoff’s discovery of the Indian pipe at the site of the girl’s kidnapping could easily figure into this version. It could be that the "mob" planted the object there to cast suspicion on the Comanches.
It is possible that we may someday solve the mystery of Babyhead Mountain. But during the process of digging out historical data in an effort to come up with the "truth," it is all too easy to fail to see the real, heart-rending truth -- that a valuable life met an undeserved end there on that rocky, remote hill today known as Babyhead Mountain.