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The Snively Expedition

by C. F. Eckhardt

Jacob Snively—the name is sometimes spelled Schniveley—was either a con-man, a fool, or probably the unluckiest man on earth. It’s hard to tell which. He claimed to be a mining man who’d prospected the Sierra Madres. He also claimed he’d found one of the richest gold mines on the continent in the mountains below El Paso, on the Texas side of the Rio Grande.

The catch is, there is gold out there. Lodes have been found—and lost—several times. Samples have been produced. A sample in the possession of retired railroad conductor Lock Campbell, in San Antonio in the 1920s, was provided by a Seminole Negro named Bill Kelly. It assayed, in the 1920s, when gold sold for $20 per ounce, at $20,000 to the ton. Another, of wire gold—Kelly’s was not wire gold—assayed at a similar amount in the same period. A third sample, picked up somewhere along the original route of the Southern Pacific Railroad, probably somewhere in Brewster County, assayed even higher. However, the locations of the prospects were never properly documented. If they have been subsequently found no reports have been made of the find. Snively, then, could have found one of those lodes, of which there are at least three and possibly more.

In the fall of 1866 Snively and Col. William C. Dalrymple of Williamson County started to raise an expedition to locate and claim Snively’s lode. That year was a very unsettled one in Texas. The state was under martial law during reconstruction. There was little money anywhere. Almost any prospect of finding something valuable would attract the war-impoverished people of Texas.

Snively wanted an expedition of 30 to 40 men. Col. Dalrymple, an experienced frontiersman and Indian fighter, disagreed. He insisted an expedition of 10 hand-picked frontiersmen would make a far better group. Besides, the fewer the men, the larger each man’s share would be. Snively finally agreed. Col. Dalrymple picked first old Mose Carson, brother to the famous Kit Carson. Other names are given as Tom Jones, Tom Holly, John Cohen, Malcolm, Warren, and Abe Hunter, Temp and W. H. ‘Bud’ Robinson, and A. Whitehurst. All the men were experienced frontiersmen and excellent shots.

In January of 1867 the expedition was organized and started west. Every member of the expedition furnished his own mount, weapons, and ammunition. The group left Camp Colorado well mounted, with ample provisions and equipment for opening the mine.

On February 3, on the old stagecoach trail along the North Concho—about where present Sterling City is—the group spotted a trail of a large number of unshod horses. Dalrymple and Snively decided the trail was made by mustangs and were of no concern to the party.

Two of the men, Jones and Warren Hunter, both experienced Indian fighters, disagreed. After examining the trail they saw signs which convinced them the trail was made by a party of Indians, either Comanches or their allies, Kiowas. The trail was a straight one, made by horses being ridden in single file, a dead giveaway that the animals weren’t mustangs. Mose Carson agreed. After some discussion the party tightened their ranks and kept the pack animals under closer guard.

That night the party camped on what is now known as Kiowa Creek, a tributary of the Concho River. They kept the horses and mules close to camp all night in order to prevent them from being stampeded in the night. The next morning they remained in camp until about 11 AM, allowing the animals to graze, since they’d been unable to the night before. Since no Indians had been seen most of the party decided Snively and Dalrymple were right and relaxed their vigilance.

About six hundred yards from where they’d camped the night before two of the men who were lagging behind suddenly began yelling for help. The men looked back to see two columns of Indians in hot pursuit of the stragglers. Jones, Hunter, and Carson were right—the horses were those of a war party. The Indians were combined party of Comanches and Kiowas, about 120 in number, outnumbering the frontiersmen 12 to 1.

The Indians were armed primarily with bows and lances. Hunter remarked that he saw only four long guns, though several apparently had pistols or revolvers. Each of the frontiersmen had a rifle, some of which were 7-shot Spencer repeaters, as well as several revolvers. It was necessary to carry several revolvers, since once fired a percussion revolver is very slow to reload.

As soon as the Indians, in particular the Kiowas, came in range, the rifles began to talk and saddles were emptied. The chief was the main target, but he had a heavy buffalo-hide shield, probably reinforced inside with books—that was a common practice—and he was able to stop or avoid every shot fired at him. Dalrymple, the most experienced other than Carson, ordered the men to stay in the saddle and charge the Indians, which they did. The tactic was very effective any time it was used, and it worked this time, as well. Jones’ horse was shot from under him. He managed to avoid a lance, grabbed the bridle of the Indian’s horse, shot the Indian out of the saddle, and took his horse.

The charge required the men to abandon the pack animals. The Comanches immediately started after the packs, but seeing the Kiowas disrupted by the charge, rallied with their allies. Dalrymple, seeing the pack animals beginning to scatter, ordered two of the Hunters to round them up and head them for the creek, where there would be both water and timber for cover. He then ordered another charge. A number of the white men’s horses were killed in the second charge and several men were wounded including Dalrymple, who took a lance wound in one arm. By this time both his pistols and his rifle were empty. With a lance still hanging from his arm he made a break for the timber. Several Kiowas got behind him, cutting him off from the rest of the men, but the two Hunters began to pursue the Kiowas who were chasing Dalrymple, emptying a couple of saddles.

The chase continued for about 300 yards when the Indians, realizing they were too far from the main body and were in danger of being cut off themselves, broke it off. The white men then took cover in a small creek, where the lance was removed from Dalrymple’s arm. The wound was bandaged with a neckerchief. In taking cover, the men had to abandon their pack animals, which the Indians immediately rounded up.

The Indians settled into a siege. The white men were cautioned to fire low, shooting for the hips, legs, or lower bellies of the Indians, which were not protected by their shields. A number of them were wounded that way and likely later died. A shot at a shield was considered a waste of ammunition.

The war party formed for yet a third charge. Dalrymple gave the order to hold fire until the Indians were within point-blank range, then fire a volley and begin firing at will. Dalrymple allowed the charge to get within 10 or 12 yards of the whites before he ordered the volley, which proved devastating, nearly every round taking out an enemy. The men with Spencers continued firing their rifles and carbines, while other men opened up with revolvers. That ended the charge—but began a siege.

One of the Indians had an excellent rifle and was apparently a very good shot with it. He took cover in some rocks and began shooting the white men’s horses. Warren Hunter waited his opportunity and when the sniper showed his head to aim Hunter, in his own words, “…took the whole top of his head off.”

Several of the Indians tried to sneak through the grass, but—upon seeing a disturbance in the grass—the white men fired at it, which put an end to the attempts. The Indians then tried to rain arrows into the defile to hit the frontiersmen, but a strong wind blew the arrows aside. Most of the horses and mules had been either captured or killed by this time. During the night the Indians put arrows into the last two, leaving the whites completely afoot and without provisions. Finally the Indians, apparently deciding they’d sustained too many casualties, withdrew.

About 10 PM the whites decided to make their escape in the darkness. Some members of the group wanted to follow the creek down to the Concho, but Carson and others said that would be what the Indians would expect. They would be waiting in ambush. Accordingly, the party started out across the prairie. Just before dawn they came to the Concho and took cover in a dense thicket, where they rested a day. Hunter and Jones spotted a small herd of buffalo. Since the herd was windward of the men it wouldn’t catch their scent. Hunter managed to get close enough to kill a buffalo cow, so the men had their first meal in nearly 48 hours. As soon as night fell they struck out afoot. At daylight they holed up in another thicket, rested, and ate more buffalo meat—“…half raw and without salt,” or so the account says.

The following day the party met with a wagon train headed for the salt lakes to gather salt. From the wagons they got provisions other than buffalo meat for the first time since the fight. The party then split up, half headed for Fort Mason and half headed home. Dalrymple and Snively told the men to go home, rest up, and early in the spring be prepared to set out again. This time the expedition would have 100 men, wagons, and beef on the hoof.

The second expedition actually reached the Big Bend country, though not without incident. While the expedition itself was not attacked, it did manage to rescue another party that had been cut off without food or water for three days. The party survived only because the people took refuge in roofless adobe along the road. They lost all their horses and some 400 head of cattle to the attacking Indians.

On arrival in the Big Bend, it became obvious that Snively either had never been there or had never been in the part of the Big Bend the party hit. Eventually he confessed to having received his ore samples from a dying US soldier, who described to him where they were found. He could not connect the description with anything he saw. While a number of his companions were contemplating lynching him for having brought them on a wild-goose chase, cooler heads prevailed. The party returned to central Texas. Snively went to Arizona where he was killed by Apaches in 1870, never having found the gold mine he craved.

© C. F. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas" May 29, 2009 column

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