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EVOLUTION OF A STATE


CHAPTER XXI



Santa Fe, Mier, and Bexar prisoners in Mexico; Stories of their suffering and illtreatment; Murder of Mark B. Lewis; The Archive War; Cherokee War.

The Santa Fe expedition, a piece of folly to which the Texas congress refused its sanction, though the president gave it his approval, took away many good men who were destined never to return; and those who did survive to tell the tale, suffered untold hardships during their enforced sojourn in Mexican prisons, together with their countrymen who were taken at Bexar when General Woll made his descent on that town, taking the court, which happened to be in session, prisoners, and the survivors of the miserable Somervell expedition, which cost the struggling republic so many of its bravest and best men.

Being personally acquainted with many of the men in all the above named parties, many of the stories incident to their wretched life in the fortress of Perote recur to mind which may be of interest to my readers.

Sam Norval, than whom no man was better known about Austin, was one of the Bexar prisoners, and as they were not taken in arms, they were less harshly dealt with than those of the other parties, many immunities being offered them on condition that they embrace the Roman Catholic religion. Sam had no taste for prison life and was not disposed to allow a small matter like religion to stand in the way of liberty. He accepted the good offices of the padre, who took a lively interest in the spiritual welfare of the prisoners, as did some of the officers, and became so exemplary a proselyte that the proud missionary took him under his protection, sharing his quarters and clothes with him. The good father was a bit worldly withal, and loved to while away the time over the cockpit, himself being the possessor of several fine birds. Sam Norval had spent many years in New Orleans, where cock fighting was also a popular amusement, and was therefore able to give the padre many valuable hints, which tended to greatly enhance his zeal in behalf of his convert. Among other marks of the high estimation in which he was held by the father, Sam used to exhibit a fine cloak, such as is worn by the priesthood, and when enveloped in its folds declared himself "clothed in righteousness." The priest was derelict in his duty as a spiritual ministrant in that case. He should have put Sam to death while under conversion, for on his final release he apostatized, declaring that he had merely wrapped his Catholicism in the padre's cloak and laid it by for a future emergency.

John Taney, on the contrary, who had been raised a Catholic, stubbornly refused to give any intimation of the fact; so intense was his hatred toward his captors, that he would rather suffer all the horrors of the loathsome prison than gratify them by acknowledging his connection with their church.

The Mexicans firmly believing that those only who were within the pale of the Roman Catholic church were Christians, and in some instances solicitous for the future welfare of their charges, attempted to lead them to the light. An officer one day attempted to do a little missionary work on his own account, the object of his solicitude being the aforesaid Taney.

"Do you know who Jesus Christ is?" asked the evangelist.

"Oh, yes," Taney replied. "He was a good, kind old man who traveled over the country doing good everywhere. He came into Mexico and the Mexicans caught him and killed him."

"Carrajo!" ejaculated the infuriated catechiser, and, turning on his heel, left the "brute" to his fate. The Mexicans applied the term "brute" to all non-Catholics. I recall a laughable incident that occurred away back in the colonial days at San Felipe. A Mexican official came out on some business, having with him as interpreter a Mexican who had spent most of his life in Texas, and, having been a good deal among the Americans, had adopted their ways and was proud to class himself as an Americano. Some one asked him if he was a Christian.

"Oh, no!" said he, "me one brute, same like Mericans."

Felix McClusky, whose name has frequently occurred in these pages, voiced the sentiments of the Texans as to the Christianity of the Mexicans in an "aside" at San Antonio. A number of Mexican women visited our camp, and, not dreaming that their conversation was falling on understanding ears, were discussing the personnel of the Texans.

"A fine looking lot of men," was their verdict, and "what a pity it is they are not Christians like us!"

McClusky had mustered enough Spanish to catch the last sentence, and eyeing the group contemptuously, he snarled out:

"Ye----es, now, you're a d----d pretty lookin' set of Christians, now, ain't you!"

To this we all responded "Amen!" And yet many of those women were possessed of true Christian principles, as many a hapless prisoner testified.

But to return to the unfortunates imprisoned in the castle of Perote. The Mexicans did not believe in keeping a lot of idlers, even though they were captives, so they were put to work on the public highways. The first plan adopted was to make them up into pack trains, each man having a bag containing a bushel of sand slung over his shoulders, the sand being obtained at the river, and used to repair the roads leading into the city. Not relishing the job, some of the party devised a plan whereby the load might be considerably lightened. Slyly collecting scraps of hoop iron, they employed their leisure time in breaking it into small bits, which they could conceal in the palm of the hand, whetting the edge on the stone walls of the prison. Thus armed, they started out almost gaily for the next day's work. They were loaded up at the river and started citywards. On pretense of easing their burdens, they put their hands underneath the sand bags and with the improvised knives cut holes in the bags, so that little streams of sand began to trickle down, constantly diminishing the load until some of the bags contained less than a quart by the time the town was reached. The officers in charge of the gang eyed the perforated bags suspiciously and instituted a search for the instruments employed to do the mischief. Failing to find anything suspicions, they procured new bags and again went for the sand. But the bags continued to spring leaks, giving the road over which they passed a beautiful coat of sand, but there was none left in the bags by the time they reached their destination. The supply of bags and also the patience of the guards becoming exhausted, they devised another plan to utilize the physical powers of the "brutes." They rigged up rawhide harness, composed of breast and shoulder straps, with which they invested the prisoners, and, coupling them together in long strings, hitched them to wagons and set out for the mountains to bring in stone for paving the streets. There was no chance to shirk then, as they were accompanied by drivers, who treated them exactly as they did mules, except that the "teams" were made to load and unload the stone. Long suffering, with scarcely a hope of relief, had made them reckless, and they desperately resolved to put an end to the stone hauling, for one day at least, even at the risk of more serious consequences. During the night they arranged their plans. They were driven as usual to the mountains on the following morning, loading up the wagon and starting on the return with remarkable docility. Everything went so smoothly that the guards began to congratulate themselves on having at last found a means of subduing the lively Texans. It was but the calm before the storm. Arriving at the top of a long incline, they were allowed to stop and take breath. When the word was given to start again it was obeyed with an alacrity that astonished the natives. John Taney and his mate were working in the lead. Taney gave a loud snort, and simultaneously the whole team kicked up their heels and started on a mad race down the hill; running over stones in the road, the stones in the wagon were thrown this way and that, making it warm in the vicinity of the road; but on they went, knocking down and running over several of the guards who attempted to stop them, and at length in true runaway style swerving from the road crashed the wagon against a tree, utterly demolishing it.

For this escapade some of them came near suffering serious consequences, but as none of the Mexicans run over were killed, they were not put to death and there was little more in the way of punishment, short of death, than that which they had already endured.

John Taney was one of the number who made their escape from Hacienda del Salado, and being recaptured, had to draw a bean for life or death. Noticing that the black beans, several of which had been drawn before, were rather smaller than the white ones, he plunged his hand into the bowl, and feeling for the largest bean in the lot, drew a lucky white one. He was one of the eight who tunneled under the prison walls at Perote, and was again retaken. The prison was floored with large flat stones laid in cement; the prisoners managed to remove one of these stones and with only bits of iron and the horn spoons given them to eat with they excavated a tunnel, concealing the dirt under their pallets. Taney who was the leading spirit in the enterprise was nicknamed "the Gopher" on account of the dexterity with which he spooned out the dirt. When all was in readiness they filed off their irons and got out, but were not enabled to get away. They several times cut off their irons and hid them under a stone which they had loosened, concealing them so successfully that the Mexicans never found them during their stay.

They had again completed a tunnel, but upon learning through the United States minister that there was a prospect of their early release they abandoned the attempt to escape. After their release the officer in charge of the prison asked as a special favor that they tell where the missing irons were stored, but even this small favor they stubbornly refused to grant, averring that "they would be used on some other poor fellows." Taney said that he often wished he were some good man's dog, so that he might at least get enough to eat. He was a great whistler and in the absence of any other music he whistled a quickstep to which the company marched to their fatal encounter with Ampudia's army at Mier. I don't know what tune it was Taney whistled and there is probably no one left who heard it. When the Bexar prisoners were released, Taney, with several others, presented themselves among them. The commanding officer suspected them, and halting them, asked them if they were Bexar prisoners. At this the man to whom the question was addressed turned hesitatingly to his companions and said: "Shall I say yes or no?" The commandant caught the word "no," and at once halted them till the case could be investigated, a proceeding which proved fatal to their hopes of freedom. At length, as much to the relief of the guards, whom they had taxed their ingenuity to annoy as much as possible, as to themselves, the last of the prisoners were set at liberty and allowed to depart for Texas, leaving behind them the bones of many of their comrades, some of whom had fallen in battle, the seventeen who drew the fatal black beans and many who had died of disease and harsh treatment while confined in the foul dungeons of Perote and other prisons.

While the disastrous expeditions just mentioned were meeting their fate on the western border and the extreme eastern section was being made a bloody battle ground between the Regulators and Moderators, jealousy and ambition among the leading men congregated around the capitol was crystallizing into bitter partisanship which was now and then stimulated by bloodshed. Attempted canings were resented with bullets, several prominent men thus losing their lives, their adherents, in some instances, taking up the quarrel, till at last the system of vendetta culminated in the most villainous and cowardly murder that ever disgraced a city.

Of the many promising young men who came to help the Texans in their struggle for independence, none were more highly esteemed than Mark B. Lewis. I cannot give his nativity further than that he was an American; but he was one of the many who came out during the revolution of Texas. I met him first at Victoria in the summer of '36, his company arriving after the battle of San Jacinto.

When the regular army was organized Lewis was made captain of a company, and in that capacity was assigned to duty at Austin. He commanded the company that rescued the archives, which were being surreptitiously removed from the capitol.

Brave and honorable, Captain Lewis was deservedly popular, thereby incurring the enmity of a certain lawyer whose inordinate vanity and ambition could ill brook the favors lavished on one whom he chose to consider his rival. Burning with envy and hatred, this lawyer plotted to work Lewis' destruction, employing for his instrument a big Irish bully who took occasion to provoke a quarrel with Captain Lewis, and meeting him on the street shot at him. Lewis being untouched, was passing on, when his assailant taunted him with being afraid to return the shot, upon which Lewis turned about and shot the Irishman dead.

Captain Lewis gave himself up to the sheriff, who locked him up for the night, and the next day started with his prisoner to the justices' office for a preliminary examination. The sheriff was, unfortunately, a satellite of the instigator of the trouble, and when at a crossing this same principal and a nephew of the dead Irishman stepped out from behind a building and called to him to "stand out of the way," he obeyed with an alacrity that was strongly suggestive of a preconcerted arrangement. Seeing the two men step out with leveled guns, Lewis called to them:

"Gentlemen, there are two of you against one, and I am unarmed; give me a chance to defend myself." The only reply to this appeal to honor was another warning to the sheriff to clear the way. Lewis then turned to the sheriff and appealed to him for protection, but that worthy only shoved his prisoner away from him so as to give the murderous cowards a good chance at him. Seeing there was no other chance, Lewis broke to run, when the wretch who had engineered the whole miserable business fired and killed him. This dastardly deed roused the indignation of the people and had lynching been in vogue at that time there would have been short shift for both the man who fired the fatal shot and the recreant officer who refused to protect a defenseless prisoner in his charge. The law was allowed to take its course, however, and the murderer arrested and sent to Bastrop for safe-keeping. The jail was only a log house and the jailer being a friend of the prisoner allowed a log to be pried out and the murderer escaping made for Mexico, whither his wife and children followed him, he dying there a few years later.

The sheriff was a young man, highly esteemed, but that one act of his blasted his prospects in that part of the country. He strenuously denied any complicity in the murder of Mark B. Lewis, but no one believed him, and he found the atmosphere so uncongenial thereafter that he sought fresh fields, as did the nephew of the man whom Lewis killed.

And, speaking of the rescue of the archives, I have recently been interrogated by letter regarding the meeting that was held in Austin to take action upon the removal, my interrogator disclaiming that there was anything "revolutionary" in the sentiments expressed thereat. As I was not present I am unable to assert anything to the contrary, but this much I am positively certain about, that as a result of that meeting there were printed circulars sent out, conspicuously headed "Nullification on Our Own Hook." I was at the time lieutenant-colonel of the militia, and as such was waited upon by Colonel Jones, who insisted on my taking a hand in the business; but, nullification and revolution being synonymous terms in my vocabulary, I declined to mix myself up with it, thereby incurring the ill-will of many of my acquaintances to the extent that when I was again put forward as a candidate for office they opposed me on the ground that I was a "Houston man," a charge which I was proud to substantiate then and always.

There is one other noted episode that occurred about that time, about which much has been written, and yet the truth has not all been told, viz., the expulsion of the Cherokees, a very interesting article on which I noted in the Quarterly of the Texas Historical Association, written by John H. Reagan, in which the writer confirms my own impression of that affair. There were doubtless some bad men among the Cherokees, but there were worse ones among their white neighbors, who coveted the Cherokees' land, stock and improvements and spared no pains to place the Indians in the position of aggressors, when they had really exercised remarkable forbearance under the trying situation in which they were placed.

General Burleson, as all his friends knew, was in no wise partial to the Cherokees, but he had a strong sense of justice, and he himself told me that it made him furious to see those white reprobates, who were doubtless to a great extent, responsible for the trouble following in the wake of the military appointed to dispossess the Indians, and locating their lands as fast as the rightful owners were driven off. Another most revolting story, too, I heard of the mutilation of the body of Chief Bowls, one ghoulish wretch cutting strips of skin from the brave old chief's back, avowing his intention of making bridle reins thereof. Poor Lo, like Sambo, he "had no rights that a white man was bound to respect." Their traditional theory that it would be death to the red men to try to live like their white brethren doesn't seem to have stood the test of experiment, as demonstrated by the census of the Indian territory, which surprises me, as I had shared the opinion of the Indians.

Gradually the irresistible Texans drove the natives back till at the time of the annexation, hostilities along the Colorado had ceased, the savages having transferred their operations to the southwest. The last murder by Indians in the vicinity of Austin was in June, 1845, when Daniel Hornsby and William Adkinson were killed while fishing on the Colorado below Austin. With the removal of the capital back to Washington many of the inhabitants flitted away, and perhaps that state of affairs encouraged the Comanches to hope that the obnoxious pale face had begun a retrograde movement; or it might be that the lonely deserted look of the deserted cabins inspired them with a superstitious dread of the place - certain it is that had they been so disposed, they might have burned a large portion of the town.

Though President Houston by a vigorous application of the pruning knife, both to the number of offices and the salaries attached thereto, had succeeded in reducing the expenses of the government within the limits of its resources, and by his pacific Indian policy secured a cessation of hostilities from most of the native Indians, yet the condition of the country was so unsatisfactory that many of the inhabitants looked to annexation as the only hope of peace and prosperity. The last presidential contest being along that line, and though General Burleson, who led the annexation party, was defeated by the opposition candidate, Anson Jones, the sentiment in favor of annexation grew so rapidly that the first year of his administration saw the Lone Star absorbed into the glorious constellation established by the fathers of its citizens, and with few dissenting voices. After all those years of trial and sore distress, being as it were a kind of football for the greater powers on both sides of the Atlantic, it did seem good to see the old stars and stripes again floating over us, giving assurance of strength and protection, saying to the nations of the world, "Hands off," an injunction which only poor old Mexico refused to obey till General Scott taught her the same lesson that more enlightened nations had already learned.



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