to gain a national reputation as a fearless Texas Ranger captain, when William
Jesse McDonald came to the Panhandle
in the winter of 1891 he expected to stay busy as a law enforcement officer in
a still sparsely settled section of the state. But he sure didn’t anticipate what
happened on the night of January 29 that year.
As a teenager, McDonald
came to East Texas from Mississippi
after the Civil War. Having studied business at a commercial college in New Orleans,
he evolved from merchant to lawman, serving as a deputy sheriff, special ranger,
and deputy U.S. marshal. By the mid-1880s he had moved to Hardeman County.
A skinny six footer as tough as a telegraph pole, McDonald soon established a
reputation for effectiveness as a peace officer, but his long-standing friendship
with newly-elected Gov.
Jim Hogg is what got him appointed captain of Co. B when S.A. McMurray left
the force. McDonald assumed command of the company in Amarillo,
a fairly new railroad town.
Arriving on the Fort Worth & Denver about midnight
Jan. 29, 1891, McDonald found a hotel. He had just drifted off when someone banged
on his door with an urgent wire: Indians had raided Hall County, about a hundred
miles to the west. His blue eyes smiling, the new captain read the telegram and
laughed. Some of the rangers in his company had decided to welcome him with a
practical joke. It had been a decade since any hostile Indians had caused problems
McDonald went back to sleep. But soon other telegrams came. Still not believing
that Indians had dared leave their reservation in Indian Territory, McDonald realized
he at least had to investigate. The new captain dressed and walked to the telegraph
office for more information. After an exchange of messages with the operator in
Salisbury, who ended his last transmission with, “Good-bye, I’m going now myself,”
McDonald got the railroad to put together a special train for an emergency trip
to Hall County.
People’s reactions to the raid reports ranged from pure
panic to expressions of bravado by young cowboys eager to prove their mettle in
an Indian fight.
South of Claude, Virginia Hamblen happened to look out
her kitchen window toward the nearby Luttrell place. Seeing her friend Molly Luttrell
frantically chasing a horse around their yard, Mrs. Hamblen knew something was
up. As she continued to watch, she saw Molly finally catch the horse and swing
up on its back. Once in the saddle, she started galloping across the prairie toward
the Hamblem residence.
“Molly, what in the world is the matter?”
“The Indians are coming!” she cried.
“What do you mean?” Virginia asked.
“The Indians are coming. They are tearing up the railroad track, killing women
and children and burning houses! What…are we going to do?”
As soon as
both families got everyone rounded up and threw their essential belongings in
wagons, they rushed to the more easily defended dugout of another nearby family.
There they found other families with the same idea. With the women and children
huddled in the dugout, the men circled the wagons around it and then took positions
with their rifles to await developments.
During the night, every coyote
yelp and owl hoot sent adrenaline surging since all knew that Indians communicated
with animal sounds. On top of that, one of the women was about to go into labor.
Another child had the croup and had to be dosed with sugar and coal oil all night.
Only the youngest children got any sleep.
The Palo Duro Hotel in Washburn
filled with terrified area residents rushing to town on the theory that there
would be safety in numbers. A nearby cellar was selected as a refuge of last resort.
Some men hurried their wives and children to the depot to board the west-bound
train for Denver. Volunteers saddled up to look for any sign of the approaching
war party while citizens armed with Winchesters patrolled the streets.
McDonald and his rangers arrived in Salisbury, the town looked abandoned. But
rifle barrels bristled from practically every window. The rangers walked their
horses off the train, saddled up and rode east to look for any signs of the reported
carnage. All they found was that the country was as devoid of Indians as it was
The captain soon discovered the source of the reported Indian
outbreak: a tenderfoot had panicked at the sight of a bunch of liquored up cowboys
raising Cain around their campfire. Even so, reports of killing and scalping had
swept across the Panhandle like
a prairie fire.
Failing to see any humor in the situation, McDonald disgustedly
returned to Amarillo to get
McDonald may have never known that the Indian scare had led
to one death in the Panhandle.
As young Virgil Rice of Washburn
rode home with his brothers after it had been established that no Indian raid
had occurred, he decided to demonstrate just how well he would have handled things
if renegades had actually attacked. Pulling his pistol with impressive speed,
he intended to impress his younger brothers by letting go a round as if shooting
an attacking Indian. Unfortunately, Rice proved a little too quick on the trigger
and the bullet killed his horse.
Cox - July 11, 2012 column
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