Archive for the ‘Frontier Tales’ Category

Texas pioneers John Holland Jenkins and Mary Jane Foster Jenkins

Texas pioneers John Holland Jenkins and Mary Jane Foster Jenkins

John Holland Jenkins (1822-1890) fought for Texas for 30 years. At age 13, he joined General Ed Burleson’s First Regiment in the Texas Revolution of 1836. Once the Mexicans were driven back, Jenkins returned to Bastrop, Texas, where he quickly earned a reputation as an Indian fighter. He became a Texas Ranger and, later, a Confederate soldier.

In later life, Jenkins became an author of an invaluable memoir, Recollections of Early Texas. Read today with 21st Century eyes, Jenkins’ accounts of gritty frontier days may come across to some as politically incorrect, especially in regard to native Americans. When the book was printed in 1958, Texas folklorist J. Frank Dobie wrote a foreword, somewhat predicting a backlash:

“Johnny Jenkins seems to consider it his duty to put down the truth – whether it is complimentary or not.”

Here is Jenkins’ account of an experience with a group of Tonkawa Indians, one of the many tribes of Plains Indians still roaming Texas when the Anglo settlers arrived in the Mid-19th Century. While some historians dispute that the Tonkawas, like the coastal Karankawas, were cannibals, Jenkins does not:

“There was a cowardly tribe among us, the Tonkawas, who were at peace with the whites, but hated all other Indians of every tribe. Only a short time before this, a band of Wacoes had killed five of them while out hunting, and, of course, this increased their hatred toward [the Waco] Indians. Hearing that I had killed one of their enemies [a Waco], they came in a body, thirty of them, and insisted that I should go with them and show them the dead warrior.

As we went, their excitement and speed increased, and every now and then they would trot on faster than ever, while I trotted with them, determined to keep up and see what they intended doing. When they discovered the body, they seemed wild with delight or frenzy. They sprang upon the body, scalped him, cut off both legs at the knees, both hands at the wrists, pulled out his fingernails and toenails, strung them around their necks, and then motioned for me to move aside. Seeing they meant further violence to the body, already horribly mutilated, I demanded why I must move. They said, ‘We must shoot him through the head for good luck….’

I moved aside, and they shot….They then went back to the house and camped, getting me to furnish them some beef. They boiled their beef, and the hands and feet of the dead Waco together…. Upon inquiry, I found they intended having a dance, and would feed their squaws on the hands and feet of the dead Indian, believing that this would make them bring forth brave men who would hate their enemies and be able to endure hardness and face dangers.

They erected a pole, to which they attached the scalp, hands, and feet of the Waco, and then with horrible yells and gestures, all danced around it, while the squaws constantly danced up to the pole and took bites from the hands and feet and then would go back and dance again. They would prolong these dances three, five, and sometimes ten days.”

The Tonkawas had a Plains Indian culture, subsisting mainly on buffalo and small game until the Apaches and Comanches began pushing them from their hunting grounds. The Tonkawas then became a destitute culture, scavenging for food. They befriended the Anglo settlers who came to Central Texas in the mid-19th Century, relying on them for food, supplies, and an alliance against their Indian enemies. The Tonkawas wore little clothing. The women went topless and tattooed themselves extensively. They painted black stripes on their mouths, noses, and backs, and painted concentric circles around their breasts. Painting by the Berlandier Expedition, 1828.

Readers: You might enjoy other frontier tales also on this website. Scroll down the right sidebar to Categories/Frontier Tales. Enjoy!

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In this 1851, Texas pioneer Mary Adams Maverick is shown with 5 of her children. In 21 years, she bore 10 children. Four died of illness before reaching the age of 8. Her first-born, Sam, Jr., lived to be 98.

In this 1851 photograph, Texas pioneer Mary Adams Maverick is shown with 5 of her children. In 21 years, she bore 10 children. Four died of illness before reaching the age of 8. Her first-born child, however, lived to be 98!

On August 4, 1836, Mary Ann Adams Maverick (1818-1898) married Samuel A. Maverick, in Mary’s hometown of Tuskaloosa, Alabama. Mary was 18: Sam, 33. Sam had recently returned from Texas where he had fought in the Texas Revolution.

For the next several months, the newlyweds traveled throughout the South, visiting relatives, before arriving at Sam’s family home in South Carolina. There, on May 14, 1837, Mary gave birth to their first child, a boy.

Sam’s father did everything in his power to induce his son and family to settle with him in South Carolina. “Father Maverick” offered Sam and Mary a plantation complete with mills, vineyards, orchards, lands, and shops. Or, if a plantation wasn’t their fancy, he offered instead a new style house and improvements.

But Father Maverick’s efforts were “all in vain,” wrote Mary in her memoirs,

“for my husband dreamed constantly of Texas, and said: ‘We must go back.'” (1)

Sam wanted to build his land empire in the new Republic of Texas.

In October 1837, Mary, Sam, and their baby boy left South Carolina for Alabama. For the next six weeks, they – and their 10 “negroes” – stayed with Mary’s family while they made final preparations for their long overland journey to Texas.

“December 7, 1837, we set off for Texas. With heavy hearts, we said goodbye to Mother, and my brothers and sister. Mother ran after us for one more embrace. She held me in her arms and wept aloud, and said: ‘Oh, Mary, I will never see you again on Earth.’ I felt heartbroken and often recalled that thrilling cry; and I have never beheld my dear Mother again.” (1)

(1) Green, Rena Maverick (ed.). Memoirs of Mary A. Maverick. The Alamo Printing Co., San Antonio, 1921.

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"Comanche War Party on the March, Fully Equipped," oil painting by George Catlin, 1846-1848. By the time Texas won its independence from Mexico in 1836, the frontier war between the settlers and the Comanche Indians was at full throttle, with brutal attacks being waged on both sides.

Here is an article that appeared in an 1840 Texas newspaper:

A little remedy against Indian arrows:

Take about 16 or 24 sheets of common blotting paper; lay between them some thin layers of cotton or silk; make a kind of jacket of it to be put on in the moment of danger, and you will be invulnerable from the chin to the leg, from the most of Indian arrows and even bullets. It is no more cowardice than to stand behind a tree or to be a cuirassier [a mounted soldier wearing armor]; and in our big European wars, the lives of many thousands of brave soldiers were thus preserved. I recommend it by experience.

H. Mollhausen, captain of artillery                          

Texas Sentinel, March 1840

Readers, other posts of similar interest are:

The Scalping of Robert McGee

“The Scalping of Josiah Wilbarger”

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Early Kansas settlers had a rough time of it. For the first twenty years of Kansas settlement, homesteaders had to battle hot winds, drought, Indian raids, and hailstorms to save their crops. But the year 1874 promised to be different. “In the spring of 1874,” wrote Mrs. Everett Rorabaugh, “the farmers began their farming with high hopes, some breaking the sod for sod corn, others…sowing spring wheat, corn, and cane, and with plenty of rain everyone… [was] talking about the bumper crop they were going to have….”

Rocky Mountain Locust, or grasshopper
Rocky Mountain Locust, or grasshopper

But, by July, happy anticipation had turned to despair in when hordes of crop-eating grasshoppers descended upon Kansas. “August 1, 1874,” explained Mary Lyon, “is a day that will always be remembered…For several days there had been quite a few hoppers around, but this day, there was a haze in the air and the sun was veiled….They began, toward night, dropping to earth, and it seemed as if we were in a big snowstorm where the air was filled with enormous-sized flakes.” (1) The snowflake-like appearance was due to the whitish wings of the grasshopper, or Rocky Mountain locust.

The grasshoppers then dropped to the ground, crawling over the fields in a solid body, eating every green thing that was growing. Hillsides looked as if water were running down them the hoppers were so thick. They devastated the crops. When they had eaten the fields bare, leaving not a sprig of grass, they would pile up by fence posts and eat the bark off the posts.

Wishful Thinking

Wishful Thinking

“They devoured every green thing but the prairie grass,” continued Mary Lyon. “They ate the leaves and young twigs off our young fruit trees, and seemed to relish the green peaches on the trees, but left the pit hanging….I thought to save some of my garden by covering it with gunny sacks, but the hoppers regarded that as a huge joke, and…ate their way through. The cabbage and lettuce disappeared the first afternoon….The garden was soon devoured.”

When the grasshoppers had cleared the land of vegetation, they ate the clothes drying on the clotheslines and curtains hanging in the windows. Adelheit Viets remembered the day the grasshoppers came to her farm. “The storm of grasshoppers came one Sunday. I remember that I was wearing a dress of white with a green stripe. The grasshoppers settled on me and ate up every bit of green stripe in that dress before anything could be done about it.” (1)

The insect hordes moved into barns and houses. Besides devouring food in cupboards, barrels, and bins, they attacked anything made of wood. They particularly craved sweaty things, eating the handles of pitchforks and the leather harnesses of horses.

300px-book_littlehousebanksofpcIn her book, On the Banks of Plum Creek, Laura Ingalls Wilder recalls the creepy feeling of the huge grasshoppers clinging to her clothes, writhing and squishing beneath her bare feet and the sound of “millions of jaws biting and chewing” as they destroyed her family’s fields in Minnesota. (2) The stench of the oily insects was hideous.

When the grasshoppers were done, they rose with a humming that sounded like distant thunder, casting a shadow on the ground for a few seconds just as a cloud does when passing between you and the sun. Then they moved on, relentlessly in search of food. As they made their way cross-country, they landed on railroad tracks, making the tracks so slippery that the wheels of the train would only spin and an hour’s sweeping was needed to move their bodies out of the way.

Grasshoppers warming themselves on railroad tracks did stop trains but not exactly like this.

Grasshoppers warming themselves on railroad tracks did stop trains but not exactly like this.

By September, the plague had moved eastward out of Kansas, leaving a state devastated by insects. The corn crop was nearly gone and the wheat crop substantially damaged. Gardens and fruit trees were totaled. Water in ponds, streams, and wells were polluted. Cows and chickens that had gorged on the grasshoppers became useless as food as did fish caught in streams. The meat smelled and tasted like grasshoppers. Chickens ate so many of the hoppers that egg yolks were red. Without a crop and livestock, pioneer farmers were destroyed.

Although Kansas governor Thomas A. Osborn pledged to provide relief to needy citizens, angry and discouraged pioneers fled Kansas by the hundreds in trains and by covered wagon. “In God we trusted; in Kansas we busted,” was a popular slogan painted on the sides of the wagons headed back east. For those who stayed behind, state governments and the U.S. Army distributed food rations to affected Kansans as wells as to others in the Dakota and Colorado territories, Minnesota, Iowa, and Nebraska, other places caught in the path of the grasshopper migration.

Families also needed clothes, many having only flour sacks to wear. So the government distributed old Civil War uniforms. For years after the grasshopper plagues, pioneer women and men could still be seen wearing these military uniforms while out working in their fields. (3)

grasshopper-swarmLocust plagues long haunted American farmers, and they may do so again. In the 19th Century, black clouds of Rocky Mountain locusts swept across the plains almost every summer, leaving only stubble where crops once stood.

Inset map: The 1874 swarm (shown in red) was the largest ever recorded: 1,800 miles long and 110 miles wide, it caused the equivalent of $650 million of damage. Other grasshopper species probably did not swarm, although they experienced major infestations in 1855, 1864, and 1866.

Large map: The U.S. Department of Agriculture releases a “Grass-
hopper Hazard Map” every year showing where infestations
are most likely to occur in the coming summer. In some areas,
grasshopper populations can reach densities of more than 200
per square yard. (Map by Matt Zang, 2003)


(1) Stratton, Joanna L. Pioneer Women: Voices From the Kansas Frontier. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1981)
(2) “Looking Back at the Days of the Locust,” New York Times, April 23, 2002.
(3) The ‘Hopper Plague of ’74,” True West, August 1990.

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In the 1840s, many thousands of families left their homes and headed west searching for California gold or a plot of cheap but good Oregon farmland. It was usually the man of the family who got “Western fever” and made the decision to uproot the rest of the family. They loaded up their possessions, stocked up on supplies, and piled into their covered wagon, waving good-bye to loved ones, sometimes forever, and hitting the trail.

Women on the trail had plenty to keep them busy. Charlotte Stearns Pengra, who traveled west in 1853, kept a journal of her trip. One entry read:

I hung out what things were wet in the wagon, made griddle cakes [pancakes], stewed berries, and made tea for supper. After that was over, made two loaves of bread, stewed a pan of apples, prepared potatoes, and meat for breakfast, and mended a pair of pants.”

No matter how bad the weather or how tired the women were, the women always were in charge of preparing everyone’s meals. They cooked over simple stoves or open fires – which required fuel. Twigs and boughs were easy fuel to find for the first week or so on the trail. When they moved into tall-grass country, women and children collected grass – prairie grass, slough grass, or hay – and twisted it into “cats,” which burned well when dry, though it produced a blinding smoke.

A pioneer woman and child gather buffalo chips for fuel for the evening campfire

A pioneer woman and child gather buffalo chips for fuel for the evening campfire

Once the wagon had moved out onto the open prairie, there were no trees and seldom even grass, and the pioneers had to look for an alternate fuel. They found themselves forced to rely upon buffalo dung for fuel. The women and children walked alongside the wagon and gathered the dung in large sacks or gathered it in wheelbarrows. Few women took readily to the task of picking up animal droppings, as evidenced in this excerpt from a popular trail song:

Look at her now with a pout on her lips
As daintily with her fingertips
She picks for the fire some buffalo chips.

The chips – which they called “meadow muffins” – were placed in shallow trenches over which pots were hung on a pole set on two forked sticks. To the pioneers’ surprise, the burning chips produced a hot, clear, and virtually odorless flame. Even better, the lighted chips drove off the mosquitoes. A bushel could be gathered in a minute’s time and three bushels made a good fire. By the time  the pioneer family had traveled farther west and was out of the range of  buffalo herds, the women found themselves wishing the animals had roamed further west, since chips were much preferable to sagebrush, the next available fuel on their journey. Sagebrush burned too quickly for a decent fire.

Peavy, Linda and Smith, Ursula. Pioneer Women: The Lives of Women on the Frontier. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996.

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Robert McGee

Robert McGee

In my last post, I wrote about the scalping of Texas settler, Josiah Wilbarger, who lived to tell the tale. I’ve come across another scalping survivor account, that of teamster Robert McGee, who agreed with Josiah Wilbarger who said the scalping sounded like “distant thunder. The following is excerpted from the blog, The Road to Samarkand:

Somewhere on the plains of western Kansas in the summer of 1864, a wagon train was carrying supplies to Fort Union, New Mexico. As they stopped for an evening meal, they were attacked by a group from the Brule Sioux Indians allegedly led by Chief Little Turtle himself. The soldiers charged with protecting the wagon train had been held up and consequently the wagon teamsters were entirely unprepared for such an attack. Every member of the caravan was brutalized and executed in various grisly ways. When a government scouting party found them, they discovered that Robert McGee, a 13 year old driver, had miraculously survived. He was whisked off to an infirmary where he gradually recovered and became one of the few people in history to have survived being scalped.

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The following is an excerpt from my book, Get Along, Little Dogies: The Chisholm Trail Diary of Hallie Lou WellsAlthough it is fiction, the book is historically authentic, and the event it recounts really did happen in August, 1844, outside Austin, Texas, near Pecan Springs. The narrator is a young woman named Hallie Wells who is traveling up the Chisholm Trail on a cattle drive with some cowboys: 

Get Along, Little Dogies by Lisa Waller Rogers

Get Along, Little Dogies by Lisa Waller Rogers

Sunday, May 12, 1878
Northeast of Austin at Wilbarger Creek

Late at night

This was a golden day. I want to write about it before the memory fades. The lamplight already grows dim.

Today we didn’t travel. It was a true Sabbath, a day of rest – except for Mrs. Bubbies, our bell cow. She gave birth to two heifers this morning. When we resume travel, Joe One-Wing will toss the calves into the supply wagon with the other calves born on the trail. He’ll put loose sacks on them so that their scents won’t get mixed with the other calves as they jostle along the trail. In that way, Mrs. Bubbies will recognize her young and give them milk every evening when we break for camp.

We’re starting to feel like a family. Tonight, after dinner, the off-duty cowboys hung their saddles in the low live oak branches and spread bedding for us to sit on. We sat around the campfire. Cookie even got in the mood and passed around tin plates of “bread and lick” (molasses). John R. read a Bible passage aloud. Will and Henry serenaded us with banjo and a fife. Jeb played “Get Along, Little Dogies” on his harmonica. Will took my hand and we danced a slow waltz. The cows loved the music. They made a soft lowing sound. It was like a big city symphony! We wanted to laugh but that would have made those crazy cows stampede for sure.

The Scalping of Josiah Wilbarger, a woodcut by T.J. Owen, AKA O. Henry, found in Indian Depredations in Texas, 1889

The Scalping of Josiah Wilbarger, a woodcut by T.J. Owen, AKA O. Henry, found in Indian Depredations in Texas, 1889

Joe One-Wing told a scary story. We’re camped beside Wilbarger Creek, named for a brave pioneer named Josiah Wilbarger. Just a few miles from here, Josiah was attacked by Comanches and scalped. The Indians left him for dead.

The Indians were mistaken. Josiah was not dead. He managed to drag himself to some springs, drink, and bath his aching head. With his fingernails, he dug until he found some snails to eat. Then he crawled over to a live oak and collapsed.

Around midnight, he heard a voice softly calling his name. He awoke to see his dear sister, Margaret, walking toward him. “Josiah,” she said, pointing to the southeast. “Help will come from that direction.” Then she vanished into thin air.

At that same moment, six miles to the southeast, Sarah Hornsby, was having a strange dream. In the dream, she saw her neighbor, Josiah Wilbarger, leaning against a an oak tree, soaked in blood and dying. She awakened her husband, Reuben, and told him her incredible vision. Reuben immediately organized a search party.

The men found Josiah exactly where Sarah had said. He was taken home and nursed back to health. Slowly, Josiah began to recover from his many injuries. Three months passed. One day, a letter arrived for him from Missouri. The letter told him that his sister, Margaret, had died. The mail had been very slow. Margaret had died three months before. She had died the very night she had appeared to Josiah at midnight. It had been her spirit that gave Sarah Hornsby the marvelous dream that saved her brother.

Josiah’s wound never really healed. His wife made him little caps to cover the hole in his head. However, he lived another eleven years until one day he bumped his head on the door frame. Wilbarger County, Texas, was established in 1858 to honor Josiah and his brother Mathias. The bodies of Josiah Wilbarger and his wife are buried in the State Cemetery at Austin.

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