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Texas | Columns | "Charley Eckhardt's Texas"


Scalped Alive on Onion Creek

by C. F. Eckhardt
Josiah Wilbarger came to Texas from either Indiana or Missouri-sources differ. According to the story as I heard it in my youth, from my grandmother, he came from Indiana, the same place her grandfather and father came from. He appears to have been a frontiersman. He settled at Hornsby Bend, the bend on the Colorado just south of the present Montopolis bridge in Austin. Reuben Hornsby and his family had a blockhouse fort there, and a small settlement grew up around it.

Wilbarger apparently considered himself a guide, and began hiring out to guide surveyors and land scouts into the area west of Austin. He was doing a fair business at that, but he really doesn't seem to have been as much of a frontiersman as he held himself out to be. He made the biggest mistake someone moving through hostile country can make. He started using the same route each time he left Hornsby's fort-following the banks of Onion Creek, a tributary to the Colorado. As anyone who's ever had to operate in hostile territory can tell you-and the area west of Austin was very hostile in the early 1830s-the quickest way to get yourself into serious trouble is to become predictable. If you use predictable routes, people who don't like you can easily learn your predictable routes and use the knowledge to ambush you.
Scalping of Josiah Wilbarger woodcut by O. Henry
The Scalping of Josiah Wilbarger
Woodcut from Indian Depradations in Texas by J. Wilbarger
Woodcut atributed to O. Henry
Courtesy Texas State Library and Archives Commission
There are two stories about what happened. One insists that Wilbarger's party was approached by Indians who made friendly overtures, then started shooting. The other says there was a sudden fusillade from the brush. In either case, all but two of the party went down-and one who went down was Wilbarger.

Wilbarger was hit in the neck by a large-caliber musket ball. It apparently bruised his spine, temporarily paralyzing him completely. He appeared dead to the Indians. In fact, he was completely conscious, but unable to move or even blink his eyes. In this condition he was stripped naked-they left a sock on one foot, but took all else-and scalped. By his own statement, he felt the pressure of the knife against his scalp, but no pain. The only sensation when his scalp was removed he recalled as a sound 'like distant thunder.'

At some point he lost consciousness. When he came to the sun was low. He dragged himself to the bank of Onion Creek, washed as much of the blood off as he could, wet the sock, and placed it atop his head, over the area that had been scalped. For the record, that would have been about as much area as an old silver dollar would cover.

This done, he tried to go in the direction of Hornsby's fort. He didn't get far. By his own statement, he sat down at the base of a big tree, "composed myself as decently as I could" (which probably meant he placed his hands over his crotch), and "prepared myself to die." Shortly after the sun went down but before true darkness fell, he saw his sister walking toward him. So far as he knew, she was still back in Indiana. She stood in front of him, and-as he quoted her later-said "Have no fear, brother Josiah. Help is on the way." She then 'disappeared' going in the direction of Hornsby's fort.

At Hornsby's the two survivors insisted that all others had been killed. The place was buttoned up tight, with all the rifles and pistols loaded in preparation for the attack everyone was sure would come at any moment. When darkness fell and there was no attack, it became obvious that there would be none. Things relaxed slightly and the Hornsby family went to bed. Candles being expensive, it's likely bedtime was about as soon as it got really dark outside.

Something over an hour after they went to sleep, Sarah Hornsby awoke abruptly. She'd had a dream. In it she saw Wilbarger-wounded but alive, sitting under a tree. She woke Reuben and told him of the dream.

Reuben didn't put much stock in dreams. He told his wife to go back to sleep. Wilbarger was dead. The survivors saw him killed. He and the boys would go collect the bodies as soon as the sun came up.

Sarah went back to sleep. She had the dream again, this time in greater detail. "He's been scalped," she told Reuben. "He's got something on his head-some sort of cloth over where he was scalped." Reuben again told his wife that dreams meant nothing, Wilbarger was dead. "Go back to sleep."

Sarah had the dream a third time, this time in much greater detail. She was able to describe exactly his location. Reuben realized that he wasn't going to get any sleep at all unless he humored her. He woke the boys, they dressed, and went out to saddle horses. "Take the wagon," she told them. "He can't ride." She brought blankets and quilts from the house to pad the wagon's bed.

Josiah Wilbarger was found exactly where Sarah Hornsby said he would be found, in exactly the condition she described. He was alive. Reuben Hornsby and his sons loaded the badly- wounded man into the wagon and brought him back to the fort. The Hornsby daughters, together with their mother, nursed him back to health. His recovery was a long and arduous one, and the skin never grew back over the skull where he'd been scalped. He wore, according to the stories, a silk skullcap at all times.

Mail service was slow and unpredictable in early Texas. Several months into his recovery, Wilbarger received a letter from his family. The sister who appeared to him died the day before he was shot. As he lay unconscious and bleeding on the banks of Onion Creek, she was laid to rest. When she appeared to him, she was spending her first night in the grave.

Josiah Wilbarger lived a number of years after being scalped. He married into the Hornsby family, and one account of him has him operating a cotton gin near Hornsby Bend. Allegedly he struck the scalped portion of his skull on a low doorframe, fracturing his skull, and died of the injury.
Josiah Pugh Wilbarger marker
1926 Marker for Josiah Wilbarger near Utley on FM 969
TE Photo, February 2007
Wilbarger Creek & Wilbarger Bend Road
This is the Wilbarger story as I heard it nearly sixty years ago from my grandmother, Mary Ann Lane Eckhardt. Her aunt, Eliza Ann Lane, married Josephus Hornsby and thereby became an in-law of Josiah Wilbarger. My grandmother heard the tale from her Aunt Becky-Rebecca Hornsby--who heard it from her mother, Sarah Hornsby-who had the dreams.

C. F. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas" February 2, 2007 column

Related Story:
Wilbarger Creek & Wilbarger Bend Road

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