Barilla Springs Station

Michael has a BA in History & American Studies and an MSc in American History from the University of Edinburgh. He comes from a proud military family and has spent most of his career as an educator in the Middle East and Asia. His passion is travel, and he seizes any opportunity to share his experiences in the most immersive way possible, whether at sea or on the land.

Part of our in-depth series exploring the forts of Comancheria

Story 1

Ca. May 5, 1861; Balmorhea, Texas: After taking care of some company business at Fort Stockton, George H. Giddings boarded one of his own coaches and, with Parker Burnham at the reins, headed west for El Paso. About three miles east of Barilla Springs (sometimes spelled Varela Springs) Station, midway between Forts Stockton and Davis, an Apache war party swept down on them. Arrows and musket balls peppered the coach while Burnham lashed the mules into a run. Guard Jim Spears, on top of the coach, and Giddings and the other passengers inside opened fire on the charging warriors.

Burnham recognized the Indians as Mescaleros from Chief Nicolas's band, having seen the chief once at Fort Davis. As Burnham whipped the mules to go faster, an arrow stabbed his hip and another sliced into his neck. He handed Spears the reins and collapsed into the storage boot beneath the driver's seat. The mules thundered along, nearly upending the coach as it took the curve on the upslope to Barilla Springs. Three mules were hit with arrows and the team slowed, but the stage's occupants were good shots too, and they knocked at least four of the pursuing warriors off their ponies.

When the coach pulled into Barilla Springs Station, the keepers swung the gate closed behind it. The passengers and station hands battled the Indians from behind the corral walls. Facing fortified walls, the Mescaleros soon gave up.

Burnham's companions held him down and extracted the two arrows. He soon recovered, but he left Giddings's employ a short time later for what he figured was safer service in the Confederate cavalry.

Story 2

July 7, 1866; Balmorhea: On 1 July 1866 conductor Tom Davis led one of Bethel Coopwood's east-bound stages out from El Paso with four passengers. Davis was relatively inexperienced in west Texas and was aided by only two Mexican guides--it was a recipe for trouble. Davis passed Fort Davis safely, but on 7 July, on his way down Limpia Canyon, he saw a white flag wave and foolishly stopped. It was Mescalero leader Espejo with about 100 warriors.

It took only a few seconds for Davis to realize his mistake. Bullets started flying, and Davis whipped his mules forward in a race to the next station, Barilla Springs. He knew the station was abandoned, but its walls offered defensive cover. If he and his companions could reach it, they might stand a chance. The bouncing stage careened for miles across the prairie. The coach had just reached the station when its pole snapped, bringing the outfit to a jolting halt. The men scrambled for the station just as the Indians galloped up the hill behind them. The defenders' fire was enough to drive the Indians away from the building, but not to end the battle. For the next twelve hours, the station remained under siege, during which time all the mules were killed or stolen and Davis was shot in the leg. When the sun went down, the fighting slackened.

With his mules gone and with no way to repair the coach, Davis told the rest of the party to slip away and make for Fort Stockton. He himself would stay behind and continue firing as a distraction, When it was completely dark, the others left Davis behind. The six walked to Comanche Springs, where Robert Keating, driving the westbound stage, found them and took them east to safety.

Keating and his companions continued their journey, expecting to have to fight their way through to Fort Davis. When they warily approached Barilla Springs Station, they found the Indians gone. Presumably, the Apaches discovered sometime during the night that only one man opposed them. Keating described what he found of Davis: "He had shot himself as the Indians were coming to scalp him. We found the top of his head and part of his body and buried it."

The coach had been destroyed but the mail, surprisingly, was left intact. Keating retrieved the mail and transferred it to another east-bound stage. After the incident, Bethel Coopwood doubled the guards on his stages and hoped for the best.

Join the discussion

Further reading

Recent Comments