last name was about the only thing plain about Coho Smith.
Born John Jeremiah Smith on Dec. 4, 1826 in Pennsylvania, he
first came to Texas in 1842 as a 16-year-old. He stayed only a short
time, but within a year or two he had settled in Texas for good. His
nickname, earned in surviving a Comanche lance wound, came from a
corruption of the Spanish word for lame, “cojo.”
Self-educated and fluent in several languages, including Comanche,
Smith was quite a character. He recorded his more notable adventures
in a journal and drew sketches of things he saw and did, including
a striking color depiction of a fight with Comanches along the Rio
Grande in 1847.
Smith had plenty of interesting experiences during his long life,
but one of the best stories he told involved another character --
Foot Wallace. It is a tale of good and evil with a twist.
In relating the story, Smith did not set the time it supposedly occurred,
but judging by the other details, it must have happened in the early
a rough and tumble frontiersman who had ridden with Capt. Jack Hay’s
Texas Rangers, had a cabin south of San
Antonio. One morning when he went looking for his horse, which
the night before he had set out to graze, Wallace
saw an Indian hiding in the brush. Clearly, the Indian intended to
ambush him when he approached the horse.
slipped up behind him. From higher ground, Wallace fell down on the
Indian, quickly overpowering him. Wallace
could have killed him, but opted to tie him with the rope he had intended
to use on his horse and walked him back to his cabin.
Binding the Indian more securely, Wallace left him and returned for
his horse. A few days later, Wallace
showed up in San Antonio
with his captive in tow and had him placed in jail.
Since the Indian had not been charged with any crime, Bexar County
officials did not think it proper that tax dollars be expended to
feed him. They asked Wallace
to remove the Indian, but he refused.
A month later, the jailer tried again to do something about his Indian
prisoner. This time he suggested to another former ranger, Mike
Chevalier, that the next time he and his friends went fishing
on the Medina River, they should “take this Indian out there and let
him escape…You know how to do it. Either shoot him or hang him.”
Before long, Chevalier invited a few friends for a wagon ride to his
favorite fishing hole. Before they left San
Antonio with the doomed Indian, Chevalier dressed down a Mexican
hired hand for placing the wrong collars on his horses. Rather than
politely correcting him, Chevalier slapped him in the face.
Chevalier gave the incident no further thought, but not the man he
had hit. When they got to the fishing hole, Chevalier and his friends
landed enough fish for a hearty fish fry. The hired hand, still simmering
over his ill treatment, got a cooking fire started and put on a big
pot of coffee. Resting in leg irons in the shade of a tree, not realizing
he was a condemned man, the Indian saw the cook furtively pouring
a white powder into the coffee.
When the man grabbed a bucket to fetch more water from the river,
the Indian set up a commotion, pointing to the coffee pot and yelling,
Motioning in the direction the hired hand had walked, the Indian continued
with hand gestures and words the men could not understand to indicate
that something was very wrong.
Drawing their pistols, Chevalier and another man walked cautiously
in the direction the Indian had indicated. About 40 feet from camp,
they found an empty envelop labeled “Strychnine.” Finally, it dawned
on the men what had the Indian agitated. Chevalier’s employee had
poisoned their coffee.
About the time they figured that out, the man approached the camp
with the full water bucket. Seeing them looking at the empty pack
of poison, the man realized he had been found out and made a dash
for his horse. But bullets being faster than feet, the would-be killer
went down with an ankle wound.
“Boys,” Smith quoted Chevalier, “that Indian has saved all our lives
beyond a doubt. We won’t hang him.”
All agreed that the would-be killer was the one who deserved to die.
They “dragged him to the tree the Indian had been lying under, and
hung him up to dry.”
After inviting the Indian to join them in their hearty meal, the men
presented him with the late hired hand’s clothing, personal effects
and horse and released him to rejoin his people.
The Indian rode off about 50 yards, then stopped and turned toward
the Texans. Saying something in his own language, he put his hand
over his breast and bowed. Then he turned and rode away.
A few days later, someone asked one of the men what they had done
with the Indian.
“We turned him loose,” he man replied. “In a horn you did,” the other
man replied, “I am willing to swear that I saw him hanging in a tree
at the fishing hole yesterday.”
© Mike Cox
December 12, 2004 Column
by Mike Cox
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