don’t know much about Tom’s background, because Tom was a slave. He belonged to
William Snyder, a plantation owner in East
Texas. We’re told that he was about 35 years old, stood well over 6 feet in
height, and weighed about 240 pounds. He was also, apparently, immensely strong.
We don’t know much about Snyder, but—as will become obvious—it would be interesting
to know what he weighed.
James Adams, Lucien Daly, and Snyder set out
from San Antonio for the Big Bend
country in the early summer of 1852. They were hunting what most men who went
into the Big Bend country before 1865 were hunting—gold. Snyder brought Tom along
to tend to the horses and do the camp chores. He also brought ‘Old John,’ one
of the plantation mules, a special favorite of Tom’s.
The expedition was
well armed, with each of the white men carrying a rifle, two revolvers, and other
pistols. Tom was armed with a shotgun and a large knife. They were well-mounted
as well, and had pack animals in addition to their saddle horses. Tom rode ‘Old
The expedition followed the Guadalupe to its source, where they
camped. They saw signs of Indians in the vicinity, but no Indians. Leaving the
source of the Guadalupe they headed across dry country for the Devil’s
River. Their water ran out before they reached that stream and, because of
its steep banks, it took them several hours to find a way down to the river itself.
There they camped, drank, watered the animals, and caught fish. After resting
a day or so, they headed west to the Pecos,
which they then followed northward into what is now New Mexico. They crossed the
San Antonio-El Paso stage route, where they encountered a stage driven by none
other than William
W. ‘Bigfoot’ Wallace. Wallace
warned them there were Indians in the vicinity and told them to turn back. He
and his guards had a fight with Indians just the previous day, in which two of
his guards were wounded.
The party, thoroughly infected with gold fever,
kept on. They followed the Pecos
to the West River, in New Mexico territory, where they stopped to eat a cold lunch,
there being no wood to make a fire in the area. They were congratulating themselves
on having made the trip without encountering a single Indian when the horses suddenly
threw up their heads and snorted. Tom stood up and said “Marse Will! Look yonder!”
A party of about twenty Apaches had suddenly appeared atop a rise to the
The men immediately began a retreat to a draw behind them. In the
draw there was a dry sinkhole four to five feet deep and about twenty feet long.
As they ran for the draw a bullet struck Snyder in the hip, breaking his hip.
Tom immediately dropped his shotgun, picked up his master, and carried him to
the sinkhole, where the men forted up.
Daly picked up Tom’s shotgun on
The Indians charged but, though most had guns, they were not
particularly good shots with them. One almost got Adams, but Adams shot him in
the face with a pistol, which lessened the number by one.
Adams and Daly
were both experienced Indian fighters, but their experience was with Comanches
and Kiowas. These were Apaches. Neither Adams nor Daly was familiar with their
techniques of attack.
The party took refuge in a draw which had a dry
sinkhole in it. The sinkhole protected them from almost any shot taken by the
Indians. They, on the other hand, had to show very little of themselves for targets
when shooting at the Indians. Daly and Adams did most of the shooting, with Tom
reloading the weapons. Tom did get to fire a shot. While he didn’t kill the one
he shot at, he did knock a wildcat-skin headdress of the brave’s head.
four besieged men had neither food nor water, all their supplies being on the
pack animals. The Indians, of course, immediately took all the horses and mules.
The men improved their position in the sink by digging into the sides with their
knives, giving them better shelter.
At the end of the first day the Indians
appeared to leave, but both Daly and Adams realized this was a ruse. They would
simply withdraw out of sight and wait for the men, now afoot, to attempt to escape.
When the men made no attempt to leave the Indians returned. They lost several
braves in the process, but as they outnumbered the men in the draw by some five
to one, they likely considered it to be no more than a matter of time before their
quarry would try to break out.
the evening of the third day Snyder proposed that Daly, Adams, and Tom make their
escape under the heavy cloud-cover that obscured the moon. It would be impossible
for the Indians to see them in the pitch darkness. Tom immediately objected.
declared he would not leave his master, he would stay and die with him if necessary.
Daly nor Adams was prepared to leave Snyder to his fate, but in their weakened
condition neither could help him. With a hip broken by a musket ball, Snyder simply
could not walk. Tom, at six-feet-six, weighing about 240 lbs, began to carry Snyder.
The four made their escape on that dark night. For eight days, at least
eight to ten miles a day, Tom carried William Snyder. Eventually the group made
its way to a mining village on the Rio Conchos in Mexico, where Snyder’s wound
was treated and the men were able to buy horses.
Although it was illegal
in Texas, at the time, to manumit—or free—a slave, Tom was given his freedom.
He remained on the Snyder plantation until he died, supported by the Snyder family
even after emancipation in 1865.
Eckhardt's Texas" >
December 1, 2010 column