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Frontier Bravery

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

Alfred Giles and three other men sat astride their horses atop a hill in what is now Kendall County.

As the riders surveyed the countryside from the high ground, they saw six Indians approaching. The warriors looked menacing.

While Giles was an architect from England, the other men were savvy frontiersman who had come to Texas from Kentucky and Tennessee. As Giles' son Ernest Palmer Giles later told the story, "The mountain men told my father to load his gun and put it straight up in the air. Then they put their horses pointing in every direction."

One of the men told Giles that being arrayed in that manner, with one horseman facing each of the cardinal directions in a cross-shaped formation, constituted Indian sign language for "If they [the Indians] wanted to fight they [the Anglos] were ready, but they would not start anything."

The Indians spoke only Comanche and maybe some Spanish, but they got the message. Instead of attacking, they rode around the men three times in a tight circle. Then, with loud war whoops they galloped off in the direction of Boerne.

Comanches respected bravery. Sometimes they settled for "counting coup" rather than bloodshed. In the instance Giles's son related, both the Indians and their would-be adversaries had displayed admirable resolve. If they fought, it would be on another day.

Such encounters became a subset of frontier folklore.

In his 1858 memoir, the Rev. Daniel Baker, who came to Texas in 1840 and again in 1848, related an incident he heard from a fellow man of the cloth.

The preacher, whom he did not name, told Baker he had been riding alone across open prairie "to an appointment" when he saw a single Comanche approaching.

"Feathered and painted, [he was] coming right down upon me, fast as his horse could travel, lance in rest," the preacher told Baker.

While the Indian had a long spear topped with a sharp blade, the preacher carried nothing but an umbrella. He had no rifle, no pistol, or no knife with which to defend himself.

"So," the clergyman explained to Baker, "I committed my soul to God, and rode steadily on, looking right in his face. He came full speed down upon me, but just as his lance was at my breast, he turned it aside and rode on, without drawing rein."

If that experience wouldn't make a Methodist out of you, what would?

The preacher continued: "I never looked behind, but blessed the Lord, and rode on to my appointment."

Baker had no trouble relating to that story. After preaching in San Antonio, he planned to ride to Austin to reach out to the sinners (and presumably some of the saved) there. But before he could offer a sermon at the new capital, he had to ride through Indian country.

"Every day whilst I was in San Antonio," he wrote, "I heard of the Indians committing murder and depredations all around."

So, firmly believing the good Lord helps those who help themselves, the reverend borrowed a gun for the dangerous 75-mile journey.

"But finding it...an awkward weapon," he continued, "I returned it; and it was well, for had trouble come, in all probability I would have shot at the stars just as soon as the Indians."

Rather than take the stagecoach, Baker opted to ride with several men "for mutual protection." But, "taking time...by the forelock," he decided to leave early, assuming the other riders would catch up with him.

"Permitting my horse to walk on slowly," he wrote, "I passed by the Alamo, and soon found myself out of sight of the town, on the road solitary and alone."

Baker expected the other men would catch up with him, but by the time he had reached Salado Creek, they still had not appeared. Still, though nervous, the preacher kept riding. He made it to Austin with his scalp intact, but rumor had spread that he had been killed and he later got to enjoy several laudatory obituaries published in other states where he had preached. One of his East Coast colleagues of the cloth wrote Baker to express his pleasure that he was still alive, though he did note that the happy news had spoiled a fine eulogy.

In Austin, someone told Baker of an incident "illustrative of the heroism of Texan females, which occurred near this place not many years ago."

A hundred Indians, he wrote, had swept down on two men in a field in the vicinity of Webber's Prairie (present Webberville in Travis County) and killed them while "[putting] a third to flight."

Alerted to the raid by the shaken survivor, "a young woman, scarcely 16 years of age, undertook to protect her family."

She took off her dress and donned what Baker called "a captain's uniform, with a cocked hat." Then, she "courageously walked out of her house, and beckoned to the Indians to come on, at the same time making signs to those within the house (only some women and children, and an old man) to repress their ardor and keep still."

Seeing someone in a military uniform inviting them to fight, the Indians reined their horses to ponder the situation.

As Baker explained it, "The Indians, supposing that the brave captain's company were within, eager to charge, thought it best to withdraw from so dangerous a post, and they accordingly fled! Certainly the Texan Congress should have granted her a captain's commission and pay for life."

Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" - March 3, 2016 Column

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