day mail couriers like Henry Skillman worked for the U.S. government
but they didn't get much in the way of benefits. If they survived
the Apaches, Comanches, rattlesnakes and terrain they got to do
the same thing again and again until their contract ran out or they
got killed. Health insurance? They carried Sharps rifles.
Skillman came to the Southwest from Kentucky as a young man, though
some accounts have him born in New Jersey in 1813. Henry Skillman
wasn't made for New Jersey.
One of our first glimpses of Skillman comes from Waterman L. Ormsby,
a reporter for the New York Herald, who rode on the old Butterfield
stage route. Ormsby describes Skillman, who was about 45 years old
at the time as "an old frontier man who was the first to run the
San Antonio to Santa Fe mail at a time when a fight with Indians
was considered in every contract."
Ormsby compared Skillman's appearance to portraits of the Wandering
Jew "with the exception that he carries several revolvers and bowie
knives, dresses in buckskin, and has a sandy head of hair and a
beard. He loves hard work and adventures, and hates 'Injuns' and
knows the country about here pretty well."
Skillman's prior experience included working as a trader in Santa
Fe and Chihuahua and serving as a scout in the Mexican War, where
he was part of the Doniphan Expedition that captured what is now
Juarez on Christmas Day, 1848. That, combined with a reputation
as fierce fighter of Apaches in northern Mexico, made Skillman a
perfect candidate for the first U.S. contract to carry the mail
horseback from San Antonio
to Santa Fe by way of El
Paso in 1850. One of the other riders was William "Bigfoot"
Wallace. They were two of the lucky ones who lived to tell about
government paid Skillman $12,500 for his services, which might have
seemed lucrative when he signed the contract, but the cost of hiring
18-armed men to make sure the mail made it through Apacheria and
Comancheria, plus losses from the
angry inhabitants of said regions, compelled him to Washington,
D.C., where he lobbied the postmaster general for more dinero.
In Washington Skillman met a representative of the Sharps Company,
famous for its accurate, long-range and high caliber buffalo guns.
Skillman bought 10 Sharps 1851 .52 caliber carbines and armed himself,
his drivers and guards with them. Back on the job a few months later,
Skillman supposedly shot an Apache warrior from either 200 or 300
yards away, depending on who tells the tale. All accounts end with
the rest of the Apaches departing in hopes of living to fight another
Skillman wrote a letter to the Sharps Company, praising the effectiveness
of the weapon. The company used the unsolicited testimonial in its
advertising. Meanwhile, the Apaches kept their distance. And the
stage kept rolling.
In 1854, Skillman asked the government for $50,000 to continue the
run. The government responded by awarding the contract to low bidder
David Wasson for $16,760. Wasson didn't last long. He sold it to
George H. Giddings a few months later. Skillman continued to fill
in on the route, and may have partnered with Giddings in the 1850s.
historians know Skillman best as the man who drove the first west-bound
Overland Butterfield Mail stage from Horsehead
Crossing on the Pecos
River to El
Paso in 1858. A.C. Greene described the feat in his book "900
Miles on the Butterfield Trail."
"He kept the reins on that first westbound stage from Horsehead
Crossing all the way to El
Paso, four days on the box without a break, behind four wild
mules over 306 miles of the most twisted, nearly waterless, rock-strewn
passage on the entire Butterfield trails - an almost superhuman
feat of stage driving." -
Some historians believe Skillman was not in complete sympathy with
the Confederate cause but when the Civil War started he signed on
with the rebel army anyway. He hooked up with a Confederate group
that had fled the U.S. and formed an émigré colony in Juarez with
hopes of taking control of far West
Texas from the California Cavalry column that controlled the
region. Skillman knew the country as well as anybody - better than
most - and slipped back and forth from Texas
to Mexico across the Rio Grande like a shadow and reported on the
The U.S. commissioned Captain Albert French of Company A of the
First California Cavalry to capture its former mail carrier alive,
but Skillman would have none of that. He fought to the death, killed
through treachery, some say, at Spencer Ranch in what is now Presidio
County in 1864.
© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
February 4, 2017 column
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