the stagecoach finally rolled to a stop in Mobeetie,
what caught Englishman Samuel Nugent Townsend’s eye was a troop of
cavalry mustering on the Fort
Elliott parade ground.
The visitor, planning a book on his exploration of the American West,
quickly set up his camera and photographed the horse soldiers readying
for a march eastward into Indian Territory where the Comanches and
Kiowas who had once terrorized the Panhandle
now lived on reservations.
When he finished, Townsend looked up 10th Cavalry Capt. Nicholas Nolan,
the only officer at the fort he knew. Nolan introduced the visitor
to a lieutenant and his wife who welcomed the 34-year-old bachelor
to share their quarters.
Townsend’s stay at Fort
Elliott in the fall of 1878 would be brief, but not dull. In fact,
for a time it looked like violence might erupt in nearby Mobeetie.
Townsend, a peace-loving fellow, soon felt grateful for the protection
of the fort, which lay conveniently out of pistol shot from the wild
and wooly town.
Townsend wrote in “Our Indian Summer in the Far West,” dangerous ill
will had developed following the arrest of several local ranchers
for selling tobacco to their hands at cost without having a federal
license. The U.S. Marshal for the area filed on them for the tax law
violation. But the county judge, clearly sympathetic to the locals,
released some of them on slight bail and dismissed the charges against
In reaction, the marshal blustered and jailed the judge, the county
attorney and the sheriff for obstruction of justice. After that, the
marshal rearrested the ranchers.
“The greatest excitement at once was got up in the county,” Townsend
The townspeople armed themselves “to the teeth,” as Townsend put it,
and the English visitor was sure the federal marshal would be lynched.
Meanwhile, the Army said it could not interfere in civil matters.
Eventually the citizenry cooled off and the ranchers paid their fines.
The federal charges against the local officials, if indeed ever formally
lodged, went nowhere.
“The affair subsequently terminated without bloodshed,” Townsend wrote,
“which goes far to prove that the days of miracles have not yet ceased.”
While a guest at Fort Elliott,
Townsend went on a prairie chicken hunt with Capt. Richard I. Escridge
of the 23rd Infantry. Venturing from the fort in the captain’s light
spring wagon, Townsend found the prairie “…heather-looking, but…not
heathery. Thin, gold, curly, buffalo grass lies amongest, and around,
large tufts of red, coarse herbage, which, had it been cut in May,
would have [made] some of the sweetest hay.”
As the two men rolled along, shotguns at the ready, the captain’s
pointer worked hard first to the right, and then to the left but found
no birds. “His spirit and ours at length began to flag…” But then
the dog froze on point.
“Whirr went the bird, bang went one of our guns, and our first prairie
grouse of the season, a lovely dark brown bird, fat as a quail, and
rounded as a partridge, came to earth, as dead as her late majesty,
the lamented Queen Anne,” Townsend wrote.
Townsend missed several shots that afternoon, and like most unsuccessful
hunters he blamed it on something other than marksmanship: “Nothing,
indeed, so puts out a British sportsman as the varying strength of
The gracious captain, unaware of Townsend’s prejudice against American
shotgun shells, gave the Englishman the remainder of his ammunition.
troops of Fort Elliott
of ten had to ride out on short notice in pursuit of Indians who slipped
off their reservation and entered their old range in Texas. Because
of that, Townsend said, the soldiers seldom appeared in “full-fig,”
a popular term of the day for complete fatigue dress.
“The United States soldier in his barrack, therefore, looks rather
slovenly, and the officers who seldom wear any uniform except trousers,
present a rather motely appearance to an eye accustomed to the rigid
dress…of European armies.”
While not impressed with how Fort
Elliott’s horse soldiers looked, Townsend definitely liked Army
“A regimental mess keeps up, no doubt, to desirable extent, the esprit
de corps of the regiment, and has many other virtues, not the least
of which is the greatest culinary comfort with a minimum of expense,”
pith-helmeted, monocled English gentleman had much more country to
cover before he could return to write his book. So that Townsend could
do some exploring on his own, the post trader furnished him with a
military ambulance for the remainder of his Panhandle
expedition. That wagon proved just the right size for all his gear,
which included a military tent, army rations, blankets, ammunition,
and an India-rubber bath he had carried all the way from England.
When he left Mobeetie,
he wrote, “Fort Elliott
is a place more pleasant to spend a month than a week….”
The writer-photographer kept careful notes throughout his journey.
His book was practically ready for press by the time he got back to
England. Dedicated to John George Adair, Esq., whose ranch Townsend
also visited, the book came out in 1880.
Fort Elliott lasted
another decade before the army considered the Panhandle
safe enough to abandon the post.
© Mike Cox
12, 2012 column