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EVOLUTION OF A STATE


CHAPTER XI



Rangers return to frontier; Coleman's fort; Social event in Bastrop Co.; "The Color line;" Frontier clothing; Col. Coleman; Surprising a Comanche camp.

The settlers gradually regained confidence and by this time were pretty much all back in their homes. The Indians were committing many outrages, making it again necessary to garrison the frontier. As neither Captain Tomlinson nor his lieutenants reported for duty, Colonel Coleman was instructed to proceed up on Walnut creek, six miles below Austin, and build the Coleman fort, consisting of a cluster of log cabins enclosed with a heavy stockade. All of the Tomlinson rangers were ordered to report to Coleman, their term of enlistment (one year) not having expired. Bastrop county suffered more from Indians during the year 1836 than for any other year of its history. I could mention numbers of its best men who were killed during that time. The return of the rangers, however, checked hostile incursions for a time, and people began to scatter out from the forts, in which they had been compelled to take refuge, and settle down to the business of preparing for the next season's crops; few of them having made anything that year.

Mechanics were rather scarce in the frontier settlements and there was so much need of blacksmith work that I did not stop at the fort all the time, but worked in the settlements. It was while thus employed that I received an invitation down to old Sammie Craft's, below Bastrop, the occasion being the marriage of his stepdaughter, Candice Thompson, to David Holderman, Bastrop's principal merchant. Mr. Craft had a more commodious house than was ordinarily found in that section, having also a good "plank" floor, a luxury that most of the settlers were forced to forego. These advantages taken with the genial hospitality of the family, insured a full attendance at a social gathering within its walls.


Coleman's Fort -- Looking from Northwest: Colorado River
to the Right; Walnut Creek to the Left (by N. Donaldson)

This being an extraordinary occasion, all the elite in the country round were invited, and few regrets were sent. I being a pretty fair Arkansas fiddler had the entree of all social functions, where dancing was a feature. The bride needed not the aid of artificial lights to make her appear lovely, therefore the marriage ceremony was performed in broad daylight. I can't tell you just how the bride was dressed. The bridegroom, being a merchant, had on "store clothes," but that kind of apparel was not de rigueur. There were many homespun suits and the old reliable buckskin was also in evidence. Among the ladies, the rustle of silks was not wanting, if the styles were somewhat varied according to the period at which the wearer migrated thither.

The writer was resplendent in a brand new buckskin suit, consisting of hunting shirt, pantaloons and moccasins, all elaborately fringed. It was on this occasion that I first met the lady who afterwards became my wife, and I used to tell her that it was my picturesque attire that won me her favor.

There was neither gas nor kerosene to light the dancing room, but the tallow candles beamed on the assembly from highly polished tall brass candlesticks, such as now are carefully treasured as heirlooms by the descendants of old families.

Among the guests was the Rev. Hugh M. Childers, who, though a Methodist minister, was also an expert with a violin, and even "tripped the light fantastic." For an all around useful man he had few equals, always bearing his full share of anything that came along, from a prayer meeting to an Indian fight. A preacher who could only talk found himself out of a job in those parts.

Dr. Fentress also wielded the bow and, between us three, we kept the dance going all night. We were not versed in the giddy measures of the dances in vogue nowadays, but,

"Hornpipes, strathspeys, jigs and reels

Put life and mettle in our heels."

There were a couple of strangers present who attracted a good deal of attention - an elderly man with a professional handle to his name, and his son, a lad of twenty or thereabouts. They had money for which they were seeking investment. Both of them were well dressed, sporting gold watches and shirt studs, and the young man was cuttings a wide swath among the girls, laying us buckskin boys quite in the shade. But by and by old Aunt Celie, a mulatto woman who was looking on through the open door, beckoned to her young mistress, Miss Harriet Craft, and, taking her aside, said:

"Miss Ha'it, wet you in dar dancin' wid dat niggah fo?"

"Hush, Aunt Celie; that isn't a nigger," said Miss Craft.

"He is niggah, Miss Ha'it; he jes' as much niggah as I is. Look at his ha' and his eyes," urged the indignant old woman.

Commanding Aunt Celie to hold her peace, Miss Harriet returned to her guests, but the furtive glances bestowed upon the young stranger betrayed the doubt Aunt Celie's warning had awakened. Later developments proved the keenness of the old woman's perception. She was not easily deceived on the color line. Our host spared no pains to make the time pass pleasantly, himself going through the evolutions of a hornpipe to show us clumsier young fellows how they danced in his youth.

There was a bountiful feast, the table remaining spread and the coffee pot kept boiling all night, those who chose repairing to the dining room for refreshments at any time.

We literally, "danced all night to broad daylight and went home with the girls in the morning," the unsafe condition of the country rendering such escort absolutely indispensable. We didn't neglect to take our rifles along either.

We didn't always have boards to dance on. Sometimes there were puncheons (split timbers), and sometimes only the ground, but we enjoyed any respite from the wearing cares that beset US, and overlooked all minor discomforts.

My term of enlistment expiring about the beginning of 1837, I substituted a man who had a family, to which he was desirous of returning, and again took up my quarters in the fort. The weather was cold and wet and our men suffering for clothing. Buckskin was sufficient while the weather remained dry; but, a story my wife used to tell on Jimmie Manning will best illustrate the objection to which buckskin was open as a wet weather garment. Jimmie, who had not then been long in the country, was out with a surveying party when there came up a drenching rain, and before they could reach shelter the buckskin breeches of the party were thoroughly saturated. The widow Blakey's house opened its hospitable doors to receive the dripping, shivering surveyors. Mrs. Blakey had two grown up daughters and it could generally be depended on to find one or more visiting young ladies there, making it a favorite stopping place at all times, especially so on a rainy day.

The hero of the story being unacquainted with the vagaries of buckskin, on alighting from his horse and finding his feet enveloped in the slimy folds of his pantaloons, which had lengthened a foot or so and become as unmanageable as a jelly fish, took out his knife and cut off the extra length. Men didn't keep extra suits of clothing those days and, as there were no dry garments to offer the party, there was a rousing fire built in the great open fire place and the boys drew up in front of it to dry their clothing. When the fire began to make its influence felt, Jimmie's breeches began a retrograde movement, perceiving which he reached down and stretched them out again to the ill concealed amusement of the girls, who had witnessed the amputation. But the pantaloons were on the retreat, and by the time the buckskin reached its normal condition had put a safe distance between them and the tops of his shoes. Jimmie didn't wait for the rain to stop, but struck out for Bastrop to procure clothing of a more stable character.

The government bought a lot of United States army clothing, consisting of pantaloons and runabouts, which were sent up to Coleman for the rangers. As it was all rather under size, we agreed to distribute it by lots, an arrangement which was productive of some laughable results.

Isaac Casner, who tipped the beam at 200, got a suit that would have been a snug fit for a man of 140. As the old fellow couldn't begin to get into them he look them on his arm and went round among the boys trying to effect an exchange. We all liked Uncle Isaac and the largest suits in the lot were brought out. He tried them one after another, but like the "contraband's" song, "they didn't go half way round," and but for the ingenuity of Mrs. Casner the old man's suit would have been a total loss. Clothes were scarce, though, so Mrs. Casner ripped open the outside seams of the pantaloons and set in stripes to extend them to the necessary dimensions, also setting a stripe down each sleeve and in the center of the jacket, with a false front to expand it over his aldermanic proportions. A stranger would have taken him for commanding officer on account of his stripes.

Wolfenberger, who would have measured six feet barefooted, got a suit of which the bottoms of the pantaloons struck him about half way to his knees, the jacket failing to connect with them by full six inches, and his arms protruding a foot beyond the end of the sleeves. He presented a ludicrous appearance as, amid shouts of laughter, he stalked up and down like an animated scarecrow, trying to negotiate a trade. Failing in that, he pieced them out with strips of blanket and was quite as comfortable as the rest of us.

The Indians were not depredating in our beat, probably because they found better game elsewhere. In the meantime Coleman had been relieved of command and Captain Andrews appointed.

Coleman was not popular with the settlers, his men were allowed too much license in the way of foraging, and, when one of his inferior officers inhumanly murdered one of the enlisted mess, the settlers and the comrades of the victim preferred charges against Colonel Coleman, on which he was relieved from command and ordered to report to the war department at Columbia. While the investigation was pending, Coleman was out in a boat hunting, when the boat capsized and he was drowned.

The circumstance which led to his removal was this: There was in Coleman's company a man who had been a United States regular; some said a deserter. However that may be, he was, by virtue of his military knowledge, raised to the rank of lieutenant, upon which he proceeded to visit upon his subordinates the abuses which he may have undergone at the hands of some upstart cadet. Among the men was one poor fellow who had a weakness for intoxicants, which he would indulge whenever an opportunity offered. Having imbibed too freely, Lieutenant R. ordered him tied up to a post all night to sober off. The man was so completely under the influence as to be unable to maintain an upright position; his limbs gave way, and he sank down so that the cord about his neck literally hung him. The outburst of indignation frightened R. and he skipped out, leaving Colonel Coleman to bear the odium of the inhuman deed.

One evening early in the spring of 1837 we were out on the parade, which was lighted by the silvery rays of a crescent moon, whiling away the time between supper and taps. The soft night wind regaled our nostrils with the mingled fragrance of the millions of wild flowers with which nature so lavishly adorned the hills and prairies ere the advent of the white man forced them, like their contemporaries, the Indian and the buffalo, to give place to prosy corn and cotton.

The older men were smoking and spinning yarns, the younger ones dancing, while I tortured the catgut. The festivities were brought to a sudden close by a bright flame that suddenly shot up on a high knoll overlooking the present site of Austin from the opposite side of the river. Fixing our eyes steadily on the flame, we distinctly saw dark objects passing and repassing in front of it. Our scouts had seen no sign of Indians, still, we knew no white men would so recklessly expose themselves in an Indian country, and at once decided they were Indians.

Hastily summoning Captain Andrews, we held a consultation as to the measures to be adopted for their capture. We surmised they had but just struck camp, otherwise they would have known their camp fire could be seen from the fort. The Indians, being on the other side of the river near their regular crossing, Captain Andrews suggested that we take an early start and intercept them at the ford. My plan always was, when there was a momentous job on hand, to go right at it and get it over with. So I urged that we start at once and surprise them in camp.

"Well," said the captain, an easy-going old fellow, "I hate to order the boys out after night."

"No need to order them," I replied; "just call for volunteers."

To this he assented. A call for volunteers was responded to by almost every man in camp. Lieutenant Wren offering to lead the expedition. Selecting fifteen of the best mounted men, we were soon ready to start. The moon was getting low, and having the river to cross, we made all haste to get across before it went down. With the disappearance of the moonlight clouds blew up, obscuring the stars and making it difficult to keep on our course. We had the river to guide us, however, and, having scouted the country till we were familiar with every hill and ravine, we moved slowly forward. Lieutenant Wren, Jo Weeks and myself formed the advance. Picking our way through the brush, and stumbling over rocks, we watched and listened for any sign that might indicate discovery, and, satisfying ourselves on that point, returned to bring up our comrades.

In this way we consumed the greater part of the nights. Away on toward day, When we knew we must be nearing the locality of the fire we had seen the evening before, and were therefore proceeding with extreme caution, we suddenly found ourselves in the midst of a caballado, which, startled by our sudden advent among them, sprang to their feet, snorting and stamping. There were a number of mules in the drove, which at once set up a friendly braying. Fully expecting the commotion would arouse the Indians, who we knew must be in the immediate vicinity, we kept perfectly still till the horses and mules, having recovered from their fright, began to feed. We knew the animals had been stolen and, as the Indians always traveled night and day after having made a haul till sure they were beyond the reach of pursuit, we surmised they were tired when they struck camp, which accounted for their sleeping so soundly. Wren, Weeks and I then dismounted and, leaving our horses with the other boys, started out to locate the marauders.

Their fire had died out, leaving no trace to direct us in our search. I had eyes almost equal to an Indian's then, and, after carefully reconnoitering the ground, led off toward a clump of cedars. After going a hundred yards we descried several dark objects lying motionless under a spreading live oak. We were close upon them before we discovered them. There was something suspicious about them, so we crouched low and waited for some sign by which to determine their character. At length one of them turned himself and grunted. That was sufficient.

We stole back to our waiting companions and arranged the plan of attack. Securing our horses behind a clump of trees, we divided our force into parties, Wren taking one division and going up to the right under cover of a ravine, while I led the other up in front.

In making the detour Wren mistook the tree under which our game was sleeping, getting away beyond. I could hear the boys stumbling over obstructions, and momentarily expected the sleeping savages would be awakened thereby.

By this time the twittering of birds announced the approaching day; still the Indians lay wrapped in slumber, unconscious of the enemy only waiting for the signal to pour a deadly fire upon them.

I had just raised my gun to see if I could draw a bead on the Indian nearest me, when he raised himself to a sitting posture, and began to sing his matin lay, "ha ah hah."

Upon hearing the song, Wren perceived his mistake and, hastily retracing their steps, the boys made noise enough to wake the dead.

The Indian's ear caught the sound and, springing to his feet, he turned his face in the direction whence it proceeded, his back presenting such a good target Jo Weeks could not resist the temptation, and, without waiting for the word, raised his gun and fired, bringing down his game. The other Indians rose running. We fired a volley after them, but they got into a ravine, from which they fired back, one ball striking Philip Martin in the head, killing him instantly. I had stepped over Jo Weeks' Indian when we charged the camp, supposing him dead, but when we went to look for him he was gone. So we didn't get a scalp to show for our night's work; but we got all their horses and camp equipage, and, but that we had a dead comrade to carry home, would have been very well satisfied with our raid.

Poor Philip Martin was one of the best men in camp; a genial, warm-hearted son of old Erin. We carried him back and buried him with the honors of war outside the fort on the north side, beside the victim of Robel's cruelty.



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