From the beginning of Texas' war for independence, Rangers shouldered the fight against the Indians. The New Republic authorized funds for the establishment of an organization of gunmen, which became the Rangers, as well as a series of block houses to protect the frontier settlements. From these fortifications, a series of probes into North Texas were undertaken. In October 1837, Lieutenant Van Benthousen led his company of men from Little River Fort into North Texas, in search of stolen horses. A little over a month of riding took them near the confluence of the Trinity, Brazos and Red Rivers. In this high country, which the lieutenant described as “full of mesquite prairies and very well watered”, they encountered a large band of Keechi Indians. The battle that ensued is now called the Battle of Stone Houses because part of the fighting took place next to an Indian ceremonial ground which had rock formations that looked like teepees.
Photo from the book, Savage Frontier, by Stephen L. Moore
Thanks to the invaluable history written by Mr. Webb called The Texas Rangers, we have the lieutenant’s first-hand account. The story of the fight is related by Lieutenant Van Benthusen.
“I stood at the top of this mound until I saw about one hundred and fifty mount their horses and come towards us. I then ran down and stationed my men in a point of timber; the Indians immediately charged upon us, uttering the most savage yells. They soon surrounded our little party of eighteen men, and for about two hours a severe fire was kept up on both sides without ceasing, most of the time they were not farther than fifteen or twenty steps; they were led on by a chief who was most splendidly mounted; our men shot this forward chief down, when the savages ceased firing and fell back for some distance; I thought the battle was over; but I was mistaken, for in about fifteen minutes the Indians again advanced upon us, led by another chief. At this time I had lost but four men and six horses.
Presently we discovered a smoke rising around us, the Indians had made a ring of fire completely around our position, the fire was advancing rapidly, our only alternative was to leave our remaining horses and charge the savages on foot. The charge lasted about ten minutes; six more brave men fell in routing the Indians… We then commenced our retreat on foot.”
The retreat with the wounded men required seventeen days, ending at the Sabine on November 27, after an absence of fifty-eight days.
Map from the book, Savage Frontier, by Stephen L. Moore
The following narrative, related by one of the few survivors of the engagement known as the Stone House fight, furnishes a striking example of the trouble that may result from the reckless deed of one unscrupulous individual.
It was, I think, late in the summer of 1837, during the temporary truce growing out of my missionary labors, that Captain Eastland, then in command at Coleman's fort, led an expedition up the Colorado river to the mouth of Pecan bayou and out on the latter stream to its source.
The precise object of the expedition, if there was any, I know not, but my impression is, that during the temporary lull in the Indian wars, the rangers at the fort became restless; and, partly to give them exercise and employment, and partly to take advantage of the cessation of hostilities to explore the unknown territory with perhaps a view to future operations against its wild inhabitants, Captain Eastland planned the jaunt. Be that as it may, he evidently had no intention of making hostile demonstrations against the Indians, and, having reached the head of the bayou, gave the order to return. A part of the company, some eighteen or twenty men, refused to obey the order, and, bent on further adventures, set out in a northerly direction, going on till they reached the rock mounds known as the stone houses, in the vicinity of which there was quite a large Indian encampment, composed of several small tribes, who for safety had formed an alliance against the more powerful tribes. Among the Indians were some Delawares, who went out to the white men's camp, and while there a lone warrior was seen approaching from the direction of the encampment.
Felix McClusky, the wild Irishman before mentioned, at once gave chase to the lone Indian. The Delawares tried to stop him, and, when he came within hailing distance, his victim made signs that he was a friendly Indian; but McClusky, heedless of signs or consequences, ran onto the savage and killed him, taking his scalp and rifling his pockets. The Delawares, thereupon, warned the men that the murdered Indian was of a friendly tribe, and his comrades would certainly avenge his death. Some of the men began to upbraid McClusky for his ruthless deed. Exhibiting a chunk of tobacco extracted from his victim's pocket, he recklessly swore that he "would kill any Injun for that much tobacco."
The Delawares made haste to withdraw themselves from the men's camp, and, true to their prediction, the little party was soon confronted by a hundred warriors clamoring for the man who had killed their comrade. McClusky wasn't hero enough to give himself up to save the lives he had imperiled, and, of course, his companions would not give him over to the hands of the fiends, who would have tortured him to death by slow degrees, so there was nothing for it but to make the best defense possible.
Entrenching themselves in a ravine, they held their assailants at bay till the Indians at length set the grass on fire and, sending some of their party around to cut off retreat, awaited the result.
The only hope of escape then lay in cutting their way through the enemy's lines. This they attempted to do, only five succeeding, two of them being wounded. But for the reckless bravado of the Irishman they might have hunted and explored the country unmolested. As is usually the case, the innocent had to suffer, McClusky being one of those two who escaped.
He was afterward killed in a drunken brawl.
As previously stated, the truce was short-lived, and the war was waged with relentless vigor. Though murders along the Colorado were less numerous in 1837-8 than those committed in other sections, a number of good men went down before the aim of the Comanches, among them Joseph Rodgers, who was run down and killed between Coleman's fort and Hornsby's station, and James Eagleston, who was shot down in his own dooryard in the town of Bastrop. The descendants of both of these men live in Bastrop county.
I have sometimes thought that their might have lurked in the minds of the Comanches some lingering respect for the treaty I was instrumental in negotiating, that accounted for the comparative exemption of the Colorado "tribe" from the fiendish work going on all around them. It may have been, however, altogether owing to less conscientious motives. Having cleaned out most of the horses in that section, they directed their expeditions further down into the interior, where there were better opportunities for booty. They made a raid into the town of Bastrop in broad daylight, running off about fifty head of horses, with which they escaped to the mountains where they were safe from pursuit.
I can not just say when it was, but I think in the winter of 1837 or 1838, that Colonel Karnes, who was stationed at San Antonio, sent in for Captain Eastland to take his men out there, as the Indians were proposing to come in for a treaty, and Colonel Karnes, suspicious that it was a ruse, wanted to be prepared for any treacherous movement. Thinking it might have a good effect on my red friends, Captain Eastland invited me to go along as spokesman. Owing to the scarcity of money, the blacksmith business was not very remunerative, and one of the rangers, Isam M. Booth, offering to give me his time if I would take his place, I once more cast my lot with the Texas rangers.
We went on out to San Antonio and struck camp, to wait for the Indians to come in. Several days elapsed and, nothing having been seen or heard of them, Captain Eastland, concluding that we were on a false scent, announced his intention of returning to Fort Coleman. On the day preceding that set for breaking camp I went into San Antonio, wearing a cloak with a gay lining in it, which so struck the fancy of a Mexican resident that he offered me a good mule for it. I accepted the offer and, returning to camp with my prize, Francisco, a Mexican boy who was with us, warned me that the animal had probably been stolen, and pretty soon there would come a claimant who would prove it away from me, that being a practice among them. Determined to outwit them for once, I sought Captain Eastland and, explaining the situation to him, asked leave to depart at once, and await the company at some point between that and home.
My request being granted, I saddled up my mule and, leaving my horse with the boys to bring on, struck out for home. At the Salado I spent the night with a couple of men who were improving a place there. The next morning I proceeded leisurely on my way, expecting the company to overtake me before night.
I kept on to the Cibolo, and still they did not come. I camped over night, and the next morning again took up the homeward route. I let my mule take his own gait, which was extremely moderate, and about sundown reached the Guadalupe. In the meantime a cold norther had come on and, there being no timber on the west bank of the river, I thought to cross over to the east side, which was heavily timbered, and make another lonely camp. The ford was an ugly one at any time, the current being very swift. Failing to observe that there had been a rise in to river, I plunged in, and almost instantly my mule was swept off its feet, and away we went down the stream. I managed to disengage myself from the saddle, dropping my gun in so doing, and losing my blankets, which I had thrown across the front of the saddle to protect my legs against the cold wind. I hung onto the bridle, and, being a good swimmer, finally succeeded in getting my mule out on the same side we went in. Having lost my gun and got my powder all wet, there was nothing with which to strike a fire. We had no matches in those days, the usual method being to take a bit of rag and rub powder into it and ram it into a gun (empty) and fire it out, the flash igniting the powdered rag. Sometimes we took out the flint from the lock of the gun, and with a steel, made for the purpose, or, in the absence of that, a knife, struck sparks into a rag or some other inflammable substance, into which powder had been poured. But my gun being gone, I was left without any of these resources, and not a dry thread on me, the wind fast approaching the freezing point, and no shelter from it. By this time it was getting dark, and I was shaking with cold.
In this extremity I bethought me of one of Davy Crockett's stories. Stripping the wet trappings from the mule, I tethered him to a bush and set to work vigorously pulling the dry sedge grass, which was everywhere waist high. I mowed the grass in great armfuls, piling it against the windward side of a clump of bushes till I had quite a respectable sized haystack. By the time this was done my blood was warmed Up, and spreading my wet saddle blanket over the windward side of the heap, I wrung the water out of my clothes, crawled into my hay mow and was so warm and cozy that I soon fell asleep. When I awoke it was getting light. I pushed the grass aside and peered out. There stood the poor mule, all drawn up, shivering in the cold wind, which was sweeping, unobstructed, across the prairie. I kept my bed till the sun got up, when I crawled out. I had gone supperless to bed, and had nothing to breakfast on. I thought I might be able to recover my gun, knowing that its weight would not permit it to float. I went down to the river to look for it, and there it lay, under about six feet of water. There was nothing in the way of a drag obtainable, so I reluctantly abandoned it. With handfuls of grass I rubbed down my mule, and saddling him, took the back track, wondering whatever could be keeping the company back.
When I got back to the cabin on the Salado, where I had so lately passed the night, I was amazed to find it plundered and deserted, with horse tracks all around it. Further on the road was torn up and trampled, evidently the result of a skirmish. Near by lay a blood-stained blanket. Unable to even conjecture what it all meant, I kept on towards San Antonio, meeting with no solution of the mystery until within a few miles of town, where I came to a Mexican rancho, and was then told that the Comanches had been on a raid, killing a Mexican vaquero and running off a drove of horses, after which they had met up with the rangers, who had started back to the Colorado. The Indians were in such numbers that, while a portion of them kept the rangers engaged, a detail got off with the horses. For some reason the rangers did not pursue them. So far from coming in for a treaty, the red devils had come in on a raid.
My hosts of the Salado, who had fled to town, there much surprised to see me, as, indeed, were all my company. The two men with whom I had stayed over night said I had been gone less than half an hour when the yelling demons charged down on their cabin from the direction in which I had gone, and, inasmuch as I was mounted on a slow steed, they were sure that I had been run down and killed, and had so reported in town.
I have often thought that within the short space of thirty-six hours I made three very narrow escapes from death in as many different forms. Had the Indians come upon me out on the open prairie mounted on a mule, they must certainly have killed me unless my identity as Wahqua had stood me a good turn. Then I had a fine chance to drown in the Guadalupe, and lastly to freeze.
So ended the second attempt at treating with the Comanches, and, fearing that there might be need of our services at home, we at once started on our return. When we got back to the Guadalupe the river had fallen so as to admit of fording. My gun was in a deep hole, however, and, on my offering a dollar for its recovery, one of the men dived down and brought it up, little the worse for its baptism. Without delay or further mishap we reached the fort, where I remained till the rangers were disbanded, some time in 1838.
Looking back through the long vista of sixty years and recalling the hard road we old pioneers had to travel, it seems almost miraculous that any are left to tell the tale.
The old Tumlinson rangers were made up of citizens of Bastrop county, among them being Joseph Rodgers, who was first lieutenant; James Edmunston, Jimmie Curtice, Hugh M. Childers, John Williams, Joe Berry, Jim Hamilton, Oliver Buckman, orderly sergeant; Calvin Barker, Felix W. Goff, Ganey Crosby, familiarly known as "Choctaw Tom;" Joe Weeks and many others whose names I do not now recall. To the best of my knowledge they have all passed off the stage. Captain Tumlinson died over on the Brazos; Joseph Rodgers was killed by Indians between Coleman's fort and Hornsby's; Petty, second lieutenant, after tearing up his commission during the runaway scrape, as formerly related, disappeared from view - he had probably had enough of military glory; John Williams was killed by Indians, in Reuben Hornsby's corn field, with Howell Haggett; Joe Berry was one of the unfortunate Mier expedition, and was murdered by the Mexicans while lying helpless in bed with a broken leg; Joe Weeks was killed in a private difficulty; James Edmunston came to California during the great gold excitement of '49 and was, up to a few years ago, living in the northern part of the state. Ganey Crosby was a nephew of Colonel Ganey of revolutionary fame, not an honor of which "Choctaw Tom" cared to boast, however, seeing that Colonel Ganey was one of the tories who gave General Marion so much to do in South Carolina. Ganey Crosby was one of the detachment left at Bastrop to guard the crossing while the families were fleeing for their lives. After we started on, it will probably be remembered, Major Williamson left us, taking with him old Jimmie Curtice and Crosby. They fell in with the army and were detailed to guard the baggage; but, knowing that a battle was imminent, they left the baggage to its fate and rushed on and participated in the glory of San Jacinto.
Nor must I pass over Conrad Rohrer, who, though not a member of any company, was always on hand for a fight. I first fell in with him at Gonzales in the fall of '35, when we were organizing for the war of independence. I have several times mentioned him in the course of these sketches, the first time when he delivered the stinging rebuke to a weak-kneed member of a squad sent to dislodge a picket force before the battle of Concepcion mission, and which is so good that I venture to repeat it.
"Boys," whispered weak knees, "if that's a big force of them they'll whop us."
"Shet up, d----n you," responded Rohrer; "don't you say they'll wip us; you're wipped already."
For reasons previously given I was not "in" at the taking of San Antonio a few weeks later, but was told that Rohrer was the man who climbed the church tower and triumphantly unfurled the Texas flag therefrom. Having a wagon and team, he was employed in moving the army supplies, and, after the occupation of San Antonio by the Texans, was sent over to Bastrop, where he was said to have taken the shells of which I have previously spoken. When Captain Tumlinson was ordered up on Brushy to build the old fort of his name, Rohrer went along to haul our supplies, and when Mrs. Hibbons came into camp after having made her escape from the Indians and besought us to rescue her child, he was on hand for the chase.
In his capacity as treasurer he followed the fortunes of the Texas army to San Jacinto, and was appointed wagon-master.
When the army was in retreat to San Jacinto, General Houston issued an order for work oxen to be taken wherever found. Rohrer - "General" Rohrer the boys called him - took a yoke of cattle belonging to an old woman - Mrs. M. - who had a farm on the Brazos. The teams were all hitched up ready to start, when up rode Madame with knife and pistol belted on.
Spurring up to Rohrer she commanded him to unhitch her oxen. Rohrer referred her to General Houston. The General being pointed out to her, the old woman rode up to him and demanded her property. Houston attempted to explain the exigencies of the case, but the Amazon swore she would have them, emphasizing her determination with oaths that took all the wind out of the General's sail, though he was accounted a proficient in the art of swearing. Throwing up his hands he exclaimed: "Take them, my dear woman, take them. For God Almighty's sake take them." Back she went to Rohrer, and, upon his refusal to unhitch the cattle, herself dismounted and released them, retiring in triumph, having vanquished both General Houston and General Rohrer, the only time either of them was ever whipped.
One night when the two armies lay on opposite sides of Buffalo bayou, Rohrer, with two or three others as daredevil as himself, swam the bayou and, surprising the pickets, fired on them, chasing then some way toward their camp and getting away with several horses. After the battle he returned to Bastrop and was shot down in Tom Moore's dooryard by an Indian in hiding in a fence corner.
Colonel Coleman's company was mostly made up of adventurers. When he built the fort a few men who had families took refuge therein and did ranging service, though not regularly enlisted; of these were Isaac Castner and ---- Wolfenberger. Thomas Blair, I think, joined the company after Captain Andrews took command. Eastland's men, like Coleman's, were a miscellaneous collection, Jim Manor being one of the few who settled in the vicinity. There was a noted individual in Coleman's company, Corporal Blish, who furnished no end of fun for the boys. He was a genuine down-east Yankee, with his peculiar twang scarcely more intelligible to us southerners than the Virginia dialect would have been in Connecticut. The corporal one day killed a fine fat raccoon while out on a hunt, and dressing it neatly hung it up outside his camp to freeze over night, thereby destroying the disagreeable flavor attached to an adult male raccoon. During the night the guard stole the coon, roasted and ate it, piling the bones up before Blish's camp.
The old fellow had stood the teasing of the boys quite patiently, but that was the last feather, and if he could have found the thief there would have been trouble. Corporal Blish was afterward killed by an angry steer, which had been lassoed and tied up. Blish unwittingly got within the length of the animal's cable and was gored before he could get out of the way.
In Eastland's company was one Roberts, a Kentucky colonel. The colonel had been engaged in the Santa Fe trade, a commerce carried on between Independence, Mo. and Santa Fe, New Mexico, dating back to 1821-22. The distance was about 800 miles, but the isolated position of Santa Fe enabled the traders to put tariff enough on their goods to make a handsome profit. As the route lay entirely through the Indian country, traders traveled in companies. In the summer of '35, Colonel Roberts, in company with several other parties, having made a successful trip, started on their homeward journey with the proceeds of their sales, all in gold and silver coin. They had gotten out about 300 miles when they discovered that they were being shadowed by Indians. Suspecting that plunder was the object of their pursuit and that, to accomplish it without risk to themselves, the crafty Native tribespeople would attempt to stampede the horses and thus compel them to abandon their wagons, the traders directed all their energies to the safety of their teams.
They were out on the open prairie where natural protection there was none, so, selecting the best position accessible, they halted for the night, drawing their wagons round in a circle, lapping the tongues over the wheels of the forward wagons and securing them there with chains. With the darkness came the hooting, yelling savages. The white men stationed themselves around the corral formed by the wagons, and with their guns kept the assailants at a safe distance, in the meantime trying to prevent the animals from breaking out. In this way they repelled several charges. The Indians at length withdrew and the men turned their efforts toward the quieting of the rearing, snorting horses, which were just beginning to recover from their fright, when:
"At once there rose so wild a yell
As all the fiends from Heaven that fell
Had pealed the banner cry of Hell."
Mingled with unearthly shrieks and yells came rasping, nerve-torturing sounds made by drawing bow-strings one across another. The horses goaded to frenzy could no longer be restrained; they leaped over the barriers and dashed away in the darkness, followed by the victorious savages, leaving the traders with their treasure-laden wagons hundreds of miles away from a human habitation. There was no hope of succor, as it was too late in the season for outbound traders and they knew there were none coming on behind, and to remain would be to die of starvation. As it was 500 miles to Independence, the nearest white settlement, there was no alternative but to turn back to the Rio Grande. This course being decided on they lost no time in getting away. In addition to their guns and the ammunition necessary to procure food along the journey, they took each a blanket, a canteen of water and what grub they could carry. Some of the men, however, could not resist the temptation to slip a few of the shining doubloons into their pockets. Their small stock of provision was soon exhausted, and they then had to depend on what they could kill. Jack rabbits being the main source of supply, such small game made heavy drafts on the ammunition; bullets and shot giving out several days before they reached a settlement. There being nothing else between them and starvation, those yellow doubloons were chopped up with butcher knives and used for shot. Gold was then worth no more than lead, nor even so much, as lead would have been easier to cut. Some time in the future those little slugs may be found and create a great mining excitement.
Arriving at Taos, stripped of everything, bare-footed and half famished, having suffered for water as well as food, their exasperation knew no bounds when they found the Indian population bedecked from head to foot with gold and silver coin, which, strung on cords, was braided into their hair, encircled their necks and arms and dangled from the fringe on their clothing.
Colonel Roberts worked his way down the Rio Grande and over into Texas, attaching himself to the ranging service to get a little stake to take him home. He bore the unmistakable stamp of a gentleman and doubtless had means, though for the time being unobtainable. He served his time out and went his way.
Prom Peter Wade, another of Eastland's men, I heard the full particulars of the African insurrection in Virginia in 1833. Wade's aunt and her husband were the owners of Nat Turner, the leader, who was an African preacher. Turner's influence with the slaves was unbounded, and his prior irreproachable conduct had also won for him the confidence of the white people, so that he enjoyed unusual liberty. But he had become imbued with the idea that he was destined like Moses, to lead his people from bondage. Having obtained access to a distillery, of which there were many in those days, Nat Turner and four associates, toned up their enthusiasm to the required pitch and started out on their mission of deliverance, Wade's uncle, aunt, and three little children being the first victims. Their numbers being constantly augmented, the Africans kept up their fiendish work three days before the terror stricken whites rallied in sufficient numbers to overpower them; about fifty white people of all ages and sexes in the meantime being murdered. Some of the Africans were shot down, others captured and hung, and some who were not actually concerned in the killing, were only flogged. Nat Turner made his escape and remained at large several weeks, finally being discovered by other Africans, who, having become cowed by the punishment meted out to the murderers, hastened to report. He was speedily overtaken and soon after hung.
For our service in the ranging companies we were given 1,280 acres of land, or rather certificates for that amount, for each twelve months' service. I got three certificates for a trifle over two years' service, both the men whose terms I served out giving me the full amount. No one cared anything for land those days. I gave one of my certificates for 1280 acres for a horse which the Indians relieved me of in less than a week. I never located any of them, nor the headright to which, under the Mexican colonization law, I was entitled.
In 1838 the land office was opened and speculators began flocking into the country, accompanied by surveyors, who at once began an aggressive movement upon the hunting grounds of the wild tribes, thereby provoking them to a more determined resistance to the encroachments of the settlers. Then, too, the Mexican government egged them on, furnishing them with arms and ammunition. It was the same old story of the troubles of the frontiersmen everywhere and destined to the same finale - the survival of the fittest.
True, the Indian mode of indiscriminate warfare was barbarous, but there were not wanting white men to follow their example. Extermination was the motto on both sides. That was President Lamar's avowed policy and Colonel Moore carried it out when he attacked their camp over on the Red fork of the Colorado in 1843. There was a man in Bastrop county whose family had been slaughtered by the Cherokees in the United States, for which he swore eternal vengeance on Indians in toto. He came to Texas and never let an opportunity pass to get a scalp, regardless of the consequences it might entail on others. He was several times apprehended for killing friendly Indians, but could never be convicted.
After the rangers were disbanded, the settlers, left to take care of themselves, organized scouting parties to patrol the frontier, taking it by turns.
One such patrol was preparing to go out prom Bastrop when a little Jew, Kleberg, who had lately arrived and opened a store, willing to take his share of the responsibility, asked to be allowed to accompany us. We anticipated sport in breaking him in, but we had more than we bargained for. On the first day out, Kleberg espied a polecat ambling leisurely along, its mottled brush waving gracefully in the wind. "What a beautiful little cat," he exclaimed. "Yes," one of the boys assented, thinking only to play a joke upon the unsophisticated Israelite, "and they are easily tamed."
Before any of us could interpose, Kleberg made a dash to capture the prize, and he got it, at least the most prominent part of it. The boys roared with laughter, but they soon found the laugh wasn't all on their side, as we couldn't put the mortified victim out of camp and could hardly stay in it with him.