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Clay Coppedge

Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Glenn Springs Raid

by Clay Coppedge

The little village of Glenn Springs was a peaceful and productive but isolated place in 1916 when it became part of an international incident.

Located at the southern end of the Chisos Mountains on the edge of the Chihuahua Desert, it's part of Big Bend National Park now. A spring-fed creek made Glenn Springs a popular site for centuries in that harsh and arid land. Not by coincidence did the Comanche Trail run through here, and it's no surprise that Comanches killed the first white man who tried to settle there.

In 1916, Glenn Springs had a candelilla wax factory and a general store. W.K. Ellis, who owned the wax factory, lived there as did most of the workers. Nine members of the U.S. Cavalry were camped in tents at Glenn Springs in May of that year as a measure of protection from a revolution in Mexico that had spilled across the border into the U.S.

When Pancho Villa's revolution first fired up in Mexico, Texas Governor Jim Ferguson had asked President Woodrow Wilson to station U.S. troops in the Big Bend, but the government denied the request, suggesting that Texas should fight its own bandits.

As raids across the border became more frequent - and violent - the government changed its position and sent troops to the region. The nine soldiers at Glenn Springs were from Troop A, Fourteenth Cavalry, and they were woefully unprepared for what was coming their way.

On May 5, 1916, somewhere between 100 and several hundred Mexican raiders - accounts vary - slipped into Glenn Springs. A sentry fired the opening rounds of what history knows as the Glenn Springs Raid.

The nine U.S. Cavalrymen, badly outnumbered, took cover in an adobe building and held their own in a three-hour gun battle. In the early morning hours, the raiders set fire to the roof of the building where the soldiers were making their stand. The candelilla leaves that served as a roof on the adobe building caught fire in a hurry, forcing the men to make a run for it. Three of them died in the attempt and four more were wounded. The young son of storekeeper C.G. Compton also died in the attack.

A few miles away, in Boquillas, another group of bandits attacked that undefended town. Somehow or another, the townspeople managed to capture a Mexican officer and some of his cohorts. The raiders took two hostages of their own, storekeeper Jess Deemer and another man, Monroe Payne, a Black Seminole with something of a reputation in Mexico as a gunfighter.

Deemer apparently took the raid in stride. He told the bandits he'd been expecting them and even, according to one witness, helped them clean out the shelves of his store and load the goods into their wagons. According to the account, "The last seen of Deemer, he was smoking his pipe, perched on a pyramid of goods that he was driving in his own wagon drawn by his own horses across the Rio Grande into Mexico."

The bandits tarried just long enough to rob a local mining company before skedaddling across the river and deeper into Mexico with their plunder and hostages.

The cavalry, complete with a colonel's Cadillac and his personal chauffer, took off in pursuit a few days later. The bandits sent word to the soldiers that they would release their hostage if the American released theirs. No deal. The bandits scattered and left the hostages for the Cavalry to pick up at their leisure, which they did.

In the aftermath of the Glenn Springs Raid, President Wilson ordered more than 100,000 National Guard troops to the Big Bend region. The army established more than a dozen "permanent" cavalry camps in the region, including one at Glenn Springs, which went back to business of making wax.

By that time, however, the trouble along the border was all over but the shouting. W.D. Smithers, one of the early chroniclers of the Big Bend, served at Glenn Springs as a member of the cavalry. He said that after the raid, the soldiers has little to do except "watch for bandits and play baseball."

By the time the cavalry pulled out in 1920, the price of candelilla wax had dropped, the wax factory closed, and Glenn Springs morphed into a ghost town. What's left of the town, along with the graves of those who died in the raid, remain as part of the park.

As for Deemer, the locals speculated that his "capture" was a ruse - they claimed he was in cahoots with the bandits all along. Whether that's true or not we can't say, but we know that soon after the raid he sold his store in Boquillas, lit out for California and never came back.

Brewster County TX 1920s Map
Brewster County 1920s map showing Chisos Mountains & Boquillas
From Texas state map #10749
Courtesy Texas General Land Office

Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" January 4, 2016 column

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