Boys' Book of Frontier Fighters - Edwin Sabin

A Search for a Silver Mine

and the "Bowie Indian Fight"

While the American traders were bent upon opening a trail through the desert country of the Southwest Indians—the Kiowas, Comanches and Apaches—into northern Mexico, American settlers had entered Mexico itself.

Moses Austin, born in Connecticut, but lastly a lead merchant in those same mines of Washington County, Missouri, where Major Andrew Henry the fur-hunter also was working, heard of the rich lands of the Spanish province of Texas. Major Henry thought mainly of beaver-fur—a get-rich-quick business that took what it might out of a country and left little in exchange. Moses Austin was a merchant and a manufacturer—in Missouri he turned his lead into shot, bars and sheets, and shipped his product to New Orleans. Now in 1820 he determined to settle Texas with American farmers.

Toward the close of the year he obtained from the Spanish governor, at San Antonio the capital of Texas, a grant of land. He died before he had removed there, himself; but his son Stephen Fuller Austin led the first settlers, gathered at New Orleans, in December, 1821. They located up the Brazos River in southeastern Texas.

The government of Mexico was glad to have the sturdy Americans upon its frontier, to act as a bulwark against the Indians. All Texas, like the Ohio Valley, was the favorite range of hard-fighting tribes; from the cannibal Karankawas (six feet tall, and wielding long-bows that no white man could draw) on the Gulf coast in the south, to the widely riding Comanches and Apaches in the north, with the Wacos, the Tawakonis, the Caddos, and others, in between.

The Spanish soldiery had made little progress against them. The Mexican settlements were few, the missions built by the Spanish priests had been destroyed; from San Antonio in the west to Nacogdoches in the east the country still belonged to the red warriors.

They began to pillage and kill the Americans. Texas was another Kentucky. But as in Kentucky and the Ohio Valley the Americans pushed on and on. They were not the kind to quit.

Among the early Americans to make their homes in Texas were the Bowie brothers: James, Rezin and Stephen. They were Georgians, but raised in Louisiana. The United States claimed Texas as a part of the Louisiana Territory that had been bought from France. Before ever Moses Austin had obtained his grant of land, parties of American adventurers were

constantly invading, to seize the country which as yet seemed to belong to nobody.

In 1819 James Bowie had landed, in just such a company, near Galveston; and although the company was driven out he chose Texas for his home. He traveled through it, lived at old San Antonio, entered into business, at Saltillo, south of the Rio Grande on the present Mexican border, was naturalized as a Mexican citizen, and in 1830 married the daughter of Juan Veramendi, the vice-governor of the State of Coahuila and Texas.

His brother Rezin also was now a Texan; Stephen came in a little later.

The two, Jim and Rezin, were famous for their bowie-knife, as well as for their bold fighting qualities. The knife was an accident. The first one had been invented by Rezin from a finely-tempered blacksmith's file, for a hunting-knife, in Louisana. When hammered and drawn into shape it had a blade five and one-quarter inches long and one and one-half to wide; was so nicely balanced that it was proved be both a useful tool and a terrible weapon.

Rezin gave this first knife to his brother Jim, and ordered another for himself. "Bowie's knife" gained much favor from those who tried it; and speedily the "bowie-knife" was being adopted by the hunters, back-woodsmen, desperadoes and all. Some wore it in their belts; some wore it in their boots.

The Spanish from the south had been in Texas long before the Americans were admitted; the Spanish military post of San Antonio de Bejar was founded in 1718, to protect the Catholic missionaries there. Two hundred miles to the northwest of San Antonio the Spanish priests had started the mission of San Saba, in 1857, among the Lipan Apaches; but that had been destroyed in the spring of the next year by the Comanches, Wichitas, Tawehash, and other Indians who hated the Apaches and the Spaniards both.

They had other reason, than revenge upon the Lipan mission Indians and the Spanish who were helping their enemies. Along the San Saba River there were rich veins of silver which the Tawehash owned. Miners from the mining district of Amalgres, Mexico, came to the mission and worked the veins, and sent the precious metal away. The Indians did not wish to have their silver taken; and they set out to close the mines. This they achieved in one stroke—wiped the mission and the pupils and the miners from the face of the valley.

For almost seventy-five years the "New Amalgres" mines, as they were known, of the San Saba, remained only as a secret to the Indians. No outsider could get near them; no Indian would show them to the stranger: and of course the longer they were hidden from view, the richer they grew in story and guess.

About the time that he was married to the lovely daughter of Vice-Governor Juan Veramendi, Jim Bowie himself, with a party of thirty other fearless bordermen, started from San Antonio to prospect, and discover the storied Amalgres mines, which would make their fortunes.

Before swinging north they traveled one hundred miles west, to the Frio River country; here they came upon an outcrop of silver and sunk a shaft; at the same time they built a rock fort near a spring on a ridge between the forks of the Frio, so as to stand off the Indians.

The Indians found them very promptly; in the early morning drove them from their shaft to the rock fort, and besieged them hotly all the day. These Texans were good shots; they were Texan Ranger stuff—and the Texan Rangers have been unmatched as frontier fighters. But though the Indians could not get in, they themselves were out-numbered and could not get out; could not even get to the spring, and what with the thirst from sun and powder-smoke they at last had drained their canteens.

Doubtless the Indians were counting on this; but they had not reckoned the nerve of the men behind the walls.

Jim Bowie was the commander there. He figured the situation over. They had to have water; already thirst was torturing, and making his men reckless. There were twenty-nine white men, and one negro slave, Jim—his own servant. Jim was the poorest shot and could be the most easily spared. He turned to Jim, by his side.

"See here, Jim. I want you to take the canteens and fetch us water from that spring.'

It may be readily believed that Jim's eyes popped.

"Out among dem Injuns? No, sar, Marse Jim! Dem Injuns is layin' dare in dem rocks an' bushes by de t'ousand, an' all dey gotto do is rare up an' kill dis nigger 'foh he could say 'Scat!' at 'em twice! No, sar; I cain't fill dem cainteens. Dey won't let me. No, sar!"

The white Jim looked for a moment at the black Jim, with those steady gray eyes that never wavered even when, six years later, they gazed from a sick

bed and waited the attack of a hundred Mexicans in the tragic Alamo.

"Jim!" he said, "Which are you most afraid of: me, or those Indians?"

Black Jim's knees shook, and he scratched his woolly thatch.

"Well, now, Marse Jim, if de boys got to have water 'foh dey kin lick dem Injun, an' you 'sist on me goin,' 'cose den I'll volunteer. Jes' gimme dem cainteens."

"All right, Jim." And white Jim smiled grimly. "You'll be safe. We'll cover every head with our guns and you sha'n't be hurt. The spring's in short range. Just fill the canteens, and come back with them."

Out went Negro Jim, as brave as the bravest. Sure enough, he made the spring and not a shot was fired at him; he filled the canteens, and started back with his load—and no Indian had managed to get sight of him. But the canteens clinked, a warrior peeked and saw, and the whoop of alarm rang.

The Indians' guns spoke; the fort replied briskly; dark forms sprang from shelter, to cut the water-carrier off, and through the whizz of balls black Jim legged for the fort, with the canteens bouncing on his back and shanks.

One warrior gained rapidly on him—tomahawk raised to strike. Jim's voice rose in a panting wail. 261) ?>

"Marse Jim! Oh, Marse Jim! Shoot dis hyar Injun, quick! He's gwine to hurt somebody d'rec'ly!"

That looked likely. Most of the guns in the fort had been emptied, white Jim himself was madly reloading for a shot in time, if possible; the tomahawk was poised over poor black Jim's bobbing wool; when a report sounded smartly, and the "Indian fell back so suddenly his feet flew up in the air."

Negro Jim's voice changed.

"Never mind now, Marse Jim. Marse Bob done knock his heels higher'n his haid. Oh, glory!"

And puffing and sweating he dived into the fort with all the canteens. He had brought the water. But—

"Marse Jim, please, sar, make dis water go fur as possible," he pleaded. "'Twon't take much mo' dat kind o' work 'foh dar'll be one nigger less in dis world. No, sar! If Marse Bob hadn't kep' him load back an' make de bullet come straight dat big Injun'd put his hatchet squar' into my haid! Had har! He suht'inly did grunt when dat piece ob lead hit him 'kerchug'! But mebbe next time dar wouldn't be no piece ob lead."

Robert Armstrong was the man who had fired the shot. Black Jim had recognized the rifle-crack. He knew all the men well, and they all knew him. Al-though he ranked as only a slave, they were free to admit that whatever his color he had done well; and Marse Jim Bowie was proud of his faithful servant boy.

This evening the Indians withdrew, discouraged.

The Texan treasure-seekers went home while they had the chance. Negro Jim found himself quite a hero in San Antonio; he lived long after his master perished in the historic Alamo fight, there, and was called "Black Jim Bowie" until his own death.

As for the other Jim Bowie, he did not give up his search for the Amalgres mines. They filled his dreams. Almost immediately he left his bride and went out again, into the San Saba country; this time was more successful; discovered an old shaft eight feet deep, and at the bottom chopped out some ore with his hatchet; had it assayed at New Orleans. It tested rich indeed. He decided to take another party in. The result was not wealth, but glory; for "Bowie's Indian Fight" has never been forgotten.

There were eleven in the little company: Jim Bowie and Rezin Bowie, David Buchanan, Robert Armstrong again, Jesse Wallace, Matt Doyle, Tom McCaslin, James Coryell, Caephus Ham, black boy Charles ("Black Jim" stayed at home, this time), and Mexican boy Gonzales. They rode out of old San Antonio on September 2, 1831; everybody knew where: to open up the lost Amalgres silver mines in the San Saba hills. Many a hand had grasped their hands, to bid good luck; but sundry hearts rather doubted whether even the two Bowies could hold the country against the redskins.

"Hang tight to yore scalps, boys, and keep a weather eye out for sign."

"We shore will."

They clattered away. Nothing especial happened on two weeks of trail; by the nineteenth they were al-most at the San Saba—the ruins of the ancient mission lay close ahead, and the mines were not far beyond. This noon they sighted Indians bearing down upon them. A fight? No. These were Comanches, and the Comanches had turned friendly; had announced that they did not war with the Texans, but with the Spanish.

Besides, Caephus Ham was a Comanche, himself; that is, he had gone out with a band of Comanches, from San Antonio; had been adopted in a chief's family; and had lived and traded among them for five months. They had treated him well. But Jim Bowie had sent word to him to return; that the Mexicans were preparing to attack the Texas Indians, and in the fighting he might be killed. Twenty-five warriors escorted him back to San Antonio, and he joined the Bowie excursion to the San Saba.

The Comanches who now arrived were sixteen, under a chief, and acted friendly. They brought news. They said that over one hundred and fifty angry Indians—Tawakonis, Wacos and Caddos—were on the same trail, to kill every Texan that they found. No stranger should be permitted in the San Saba country.

"But if you will turn back," added the Comanche chief, "I and my men will go with you and we all will fight them, together."

"No," Jim Bowie replied. "You are our brothers; your hearts are strong; we thank you but we cannot accept. If they are so many, you would only die with us. We do not wish to fight. If we travel fast we shall reach the old mission and the walls will protect us. Adios."

He and his Texans rode one way, the Comanches rode the other.

They had hoped to arrive at the old mission or Spanish fort by night. And they might have done so had the trail not become so rocky that their horses' feet gave out; therefore they made camp in a small prairie island of live-oaks. The clump was bounded on the west by a stream; on the north by a thick growth of mesquite trees and prickly-pear cactus about ten feet high.

"That's where we'll 'fort,' boys, in case we have to hunt a hole," Jim Bowie said.

So they posted a look-out; cut a crooked lane into the midst of the mesquite and cactus; cleared a fighting space there, hobbled their horses among the live-oaks, ate supper, refilled their canteens, and with night guards on watch they rolled in their blankets, until morning. They still had hopes of getting to the San Saba ruins.

That was not to be. They were just cooking breakfast by the first gray of daylight, when the guard called:

"Whoopee! They're a-comin', boys."

"Get your guns and lie low, boys," rapped Jim Bowie, the captain. "See that your horses are tied short."

The guards ran in, to join the line. "How many"

"One buck afoot, with his nose to the ground, followin' the trail. But plenty more behind."

The camp had been discovered. A dozen Indians, horseback, had ridden forward, reconnoitering. There were shouts, a shrill chorus of glad whoops; the back trail looked alive with warriors. One hundred, one hundred and fifty—one hundred and sixty-four!

"Well," Captain Bowie remarked, "that's a big mouthful for eleven men. I reckon we'd better try a talk, and see what they want. If we can come to terms, so as to pull out with what we have, all right. Otherwise, we'll fight. Who'll go with me?"

They all trusted Jim Bowie. He was not a large man; he was of medium height, small-boned and wiry. He never blustered; had a quiet way and a soft voice—but it could cut like steel when the case demanded. He was a fighter, in defence of his rights or the rights of others; but his bravery did not depend upon "bowie knife" or such weapon.

"No; you stay here, Jim, and boss matters. I'll go," spoke his brother Rezin. Rezin Bowie was like him in manner, but of slightly heavier build.

"I'm with you," said Dave Buchanan.

"Go ahead, then. We'll cover you. Give them the peace sign and ask them what they Rezin and Dave stood, and walked boldly out of the live-oaks, into the open; advanced on to within forty yards of the waiting Indians. Rezin could be heard calling to them in Spanish.

"Como 'sta (How are you)? Where is your capitan (chief)? I want to talk."

"How do? How do?" they answered, from all quarters—and drowned their voices with their guns.

Down lurched Dave.

"Got me in the leg," he gasped.

"I'll take you in." Rezin spread two barrels of buck-shot among the howling ranks, hoisted Dave upon his back, and with shot-gun in one hand and pistol in the other staggered for the trees.

There was another volley.

"Got me twice more," Dave gasped. "Drop me if you can't make in."

Rezin Bowie had no thought of dropping him, but eight of the Indians were hot after, with tomahawks. Led by Jim, out charged the Texans, firing; they killed four of the Indians, scattered the others, and rescued Rezin and Dave. Dave was badly hurt, but not fatally. Rezin's hunting-shirt was cut in several places; he himself was unharmed.

The Texans formed a half circle, fronting the enemy. The most of the Indians had disappeared, in the grass and chaparral. For about five minutes there was no shooting. Then, on a sudden, the yells burst forth from a new quarter. A little hill to the northwest, across the creek, was "red with Indians." The Texans shifted front slightly, to meet the attack; the bullets and arrows pelted in and the Texan ball and buck-shot replied.

A chief upon a horse was riding back and forth, urging his warriors to charge. His words sounded plainly.

"Who's loaded?" cried Jim Bowie, as he rammed the powder into his gun, and most of the men seemed to be doing likewise.

"I am." That was Caephus Ham.

"Then shoot that chief yonder."

Caephus drew careful bead, and fired. It was long range, but the chief's pony fell kicking and the chief hopped wildly about on one leg. The ball had passed through his other leg and killed the pony. He tried to cover himself with his shield and his struggling horse; four Texan rifles spoke together—every ball plumped into the shield, he crumpled in a heap, his warriors hustled to bear off his body and other bullets caught some of them, also.

So far the honors of war were with the Bowie men. The Indians scampered to the safe side of the hill. What next? On a sudden, led by another chief, the Indians again swarmed into sight, at the same place. The chief was yelling:

"Forward! Forward! Kill the Texans!"

"I'll stop your gab," muttered Jim Bowie. He aimed, touched trigger, killed this second chief.

That infuriated the Indians. They dared not charge the grove, but they deluged it with lead and arrows; the few white men answered rapidly. Without warning, bullets and shafts spattered in from another angle.

"Look out! They're flanking us!" Captain Bowie shouted. "They're in the creek bed."

So they were; a party of them had gained the banks of the creek, on the west. The men at that end of the line turned, and ran, stooping, to face the attack. Matt Doyle was fatally shot, through the breast. Tom McCaslin, springing to drag him to cover, and get sight of his slayer, if possible, received a ball through the body.

"Into the chaparral," ordered Jim Bowie. "We'll stand 'em off from there. Never mind the horses."

Carrying their wounded, they dived for the lane into the mesquite and cactus. From here they raked the creek bed, and cleared it. That was better. They had good view of the hill and prairie, too. They fought cunningly. The Indians could locate them only by the powder smoke from the gun muzzles; but the instant that they fired, the Texans squirmed aside for six or eight feet, and the answering bullets were wasted.

The Indians were still getting the worst of it. A large number were lying dead or wounded. The sun was high.

"What they up to, next, I wonder?"

"They're goin' to smoke us out! I see a fellow crawlin' through the grass to windward."

"Can't you get him?" demanded Captain Jim. "No. He's foxy."


Bob Armstrong's heavy rifle interrupted.

"I fetched him, boys! Plumb through the head. Dead center."

Bob had scored at two hundred and fifty yards, with a snap-shot. He was one of the best rifle-shots on the border.

The grass was fired, nevertheless, in several spots. It was dry, and caught like tinder; the flames crackled and leaped, and raced down upon the thicket. The smoke rose densely. The Indians might be dimly seen, running about in the drifting veil and carrying off their killed and wounded.

Jim Bowie's voice pealed like a trumpet.

"We're not dead yet. Clean away the brush and leaves as far as you can reach, some of you. The rest of us pile up rocks and dirt for a breastworks for the wounded."

They labored madly. The horses tore loose and bolted. The Indians whooped, gleeful, and shot briskly. But the wind changed, into the north, and the fire surged past, just grazing the thicket; the slowly creeping back-fire was easily smothered with blankets.

Had they been saved? No! The Indians started another fire, on the north. The dried grass was even higher here. The flames roared in a front ten feet in air; the pungent smoke drifted chokingly.

"Put the wounded and baggage in the center," were the orders. "Then every man clear his own space. When it comes, lay on with blankets, robes, anything. We may be roasted here, but it's sure death for us outside."

The heat and smoke became terrific. "The Indians," said Rezin Bowie, "fired about twenty shots a minute," riddling the thicket. "The sparks were flying about so thickly that no man could open his powder horn with-out running the risk of being blown up." If the Indians charged in after the fire, under cover of the smoke, the Texans could only empty their guns and meet the charge with knives and hatchets.

Now the flames were upon them. The branches and the cactus twisted and popped. Cowering and shielding their wounded, the men "lay to" with whatever came to hand—blankets, buffalo robes, bear-skins, coats, shirts—and beat out the ground-fire. Their hair, beards and eye-brows were singed; they could scarcely see. And leaping overhead, or splitting, the storm passed on.

It left the thicket bare to the blackened branches and shriveled cactus-lobes. Every inch fumed with the acrid smoke.

"Raise that breastworks. It's all we've got, boys. We'll have to fight from inside it."

"Dat Jim nigger 'lowed he was in a toler'ble fight, but 'twa'n't nothin' 'side ob dis," chattered boy Charles.

They toiled, piling their rampart ring higher, while they constantly peered right, left, before, behind, expecting a charge.

Bob Armstrong cheered.

"The reds are going! They've had enough!"

That seemed true. The Indians had taken away their dead and wounded; they were commencing to follow, but some of them remained in sight.

The sun set. It had been a short day. In the dusk the Texans got fresh water, at the creek. Soon they were ready for the morrow. All that night the Indian death chants sounded. Morning came. There was silence, while inside their little circle of rocks and sod amidst the scorched brush the five able-bodied white men and two boys waited.

No Indians appeared near. They were somewhere, burying their dead. It was found out afterward that they were in a cave, not far off.

This night Bob Armstrong and Caephus Ham stole away, and examined the other side of the hill.

"Forty-eight blood signs we counted," Bob reported, "where Injuns had been laid."

"I reckon we'd best stay here awhile, just the same," Captain Jim Bowie counseled. "And we've got a man or two who ought not to be moved yet."

On the ninth morning after the fight they started home, with their three wounded and their baggage on horses, but themselves mainly afoot; traveled ten days, and reached San Antonio in early night.

They met with a great reception. The Comanches had been there, to tell of the danger and to say that the Bowie party were surely doomed. Stephen Bowie had heard and had hastened in; was forming a company to set out and avenge Jim, Rezin and the rest.

But now a shout arose—

"Here they are! The Bowies are back! The whole party's in!"

Men and women rushed out of the adobe houses, for the plaza. All San Antonio rejoiced. The escape was looked upon as a miracle.

One killed, three wounded, was the list; "but we fought fire as well as Injuns." Of the one hundred and sixty-four Indians over eighty had fallen—fifty two of them never to rise again.

Such was "Bowie's Indian Fight," in the San Saba country of central Texas, September 20, 1831.

The Bowie brothers did not give up. James was certain that the mine was there, in the San Saba; it only waited to be reclaimed by brave men. He organized another party; they were ready, and feared not, when Texas rebelled against the unjust laws of the Mexican government. For the next three years all was in confusion. On October 2, 1835, the American settlers, collected at Gonzales, east of San Antonio, defied the Mexican troops in the skirmish called the Lexington of Texas.

The noted Sam Houston was appointed commander-in-chief of the Texan army, to fight for State rights. These were not times in which the Bowie brothers or any other true man would search for a mere mine. On March 2, 1836, Texas declared independence, as a republic. On Sunday, March 6, General Santa Anna of the Mexican army stormed the old Alamo mission of San Antonio with two thousand five hundred soldiers supported by cannon.

Colonel Jim Bowie was among the defenders, but sick in bed. Of the one hundred and eighty only three women, a baby, a little girl and a negro boy were spared; and in bed Jim Bowie died, pistols in hand, face to the doorway through which the Mexican soldiers crowded and shot him—they were afraid to use their bayonets.

After the war Rezin Bowie went back to Louisiana. The "Bowie Mine," of the old Amalgres workings in the dangerous San Saba country remained unopened, for the secret of it perished with Jim Bowie himself.