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  Texas : Features : Columns : "Texas Tales"

Menard Grave

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Not long after retired history teacher-tennis coach John Kniffen bought his place on the San Saba River east of Menard and moved to West Texas from Tyler he got an interesting telephone call.

Though newly arrived in the county, Kniffen had already developed a reputation as one of the go-to folks in Menard anytime a history question comes up. But the woman on the phone had a question for which he had no answer.

She was looking for the grave of her great-great-great grandfather, supposedly buried somewhere in the vicinity.

“What was his name?” Kniffen asked.

“T.B. Smith,” she answered. “He’s supposedly buried somewhere along the river,” she added.

A few folks knew of a solitary tombstone surrounded by a fence in a live oak mott east of Menard off what locals call River Road (FM 2092), but not Kniffen.

“My son Barry and I started walking the river toward town and before long we found it,” Kniffen said. The white marble obelisk inside a rusty-if-ornate iron fence bears this inscription:
T. B. Smith
Born Jan. 14, 1833
Died Jan. 10, 1871
No pain, no grief
No anxious tear
Can reach the peace
In sleeper here
Delighted to have finally found her forebear’s resting place, the woman told Kniffen the rest of the story as it had been passed down in her family.

“Smith lived somewhere down the river, within five miles of town,” Kniffen began. “His great-great-great granddaughter said he wasn’t all there, somewhat mentally challenged.”

One day, the second date on his tombstone, a group of rowdy cowboys rode up as Smith walked along River Road a little more than a mile from town. One of them had the bright idea of making Smith “dance” while dodging bullets fired at his feet.

Surely drunk, one of the cowboys either shot too high and wounded the hapless man or did so deliberately. Whatever happened, the others started shooting at Smith, putting multiple bullet holes in him.

Newly incorporated in 1871, Menard had little or no local law enforcement. And the Texas Rangers had not yet evolved into state police officers.

Even so, the cowboys knew they had done wrong. One of them, possibly more somber than his colleagues, knew where some Indians were camped. And according to the story Kniffen heard, the cowboys actually got along with them.

The woman told Kniffen the killer cowhands rode to the Indian camp, likely on the nearby pecan-shaded river, and asked if they could have some arrows. While it is hard to imagine any group of Indians on the frontier being that neighborly in 1871, they are supposed to have given the culprits a handful of arrows.

Thus equipped, the cowboys rode back to the scene of their crime and inserted the arrows into the bullet holes in their hapless victim. Then, they covered the body with a large flat rock.

Clearly, the story has almost as many holes probability-wise as the unfortunate Mr. Smith supposedly suffered. But one thing is certain: The grave is there, and there is a large, irregularly shaped flat rock above it.

Alas, an article written in 1967 by former Menard newspaper editor Robert Weddle for the Edwards Plateau Historian offers another story that seems more plausible. Better known as Tull Smith, he built the first house in Menard in 1864. On Jan. 10, 1871, on the way back to Menard from a horse-buying trip, someone shot him from ambush and made off with his new horse.

Had the killer bothered to look in the pocket of Smith’s vest, he would have found two silver dollars borrowed only a short time before from a rancher who lived near Peg Leg station, a stagecoach stop between Mason and Menard that Smith had recently passed through. Weddle’s article does not say whether Smith’s killer was ever brought to justice.

Revisiting the grave recently, Kniffen found five other flat stones beneath the oaks.

“The river does not have that kind of rocks,” Kniffen said. “To get those, you’d have to pack them down from the Luckenbach Mountains, which are well to the south of the grave.”

Given that stones that large are not naturally occurring in that immediate area, they may mark other graves.

Another Menard County history buff and story teller, Carlton Kothmann, said he knew of the grave under the trees and had always heard it had been filled by the victim of an Indian attack. He had never heard the arrows-in-the-corpse story told by Smith’s relative until Kniffen passed it along.

“History,” Kothmann offered in perspective, “is not what happened but what’s recorded.”
© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales"
June 20, 2007 column

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