A BANDERA COUNTY TRAGEDY
From J. Marvin Hunter’s Frontier Times Magazine, August, 1924
During the days of the Civil War, Bandera County was the scene of several tragedies, the most prominent of which was the execution of eight men one night in the summer of 1863, on Julian Creek, five miles east of this town. There are no living witnesses to this tragedy--at least, if they are living they have kept silent for many, many years. But living in Bandera County today are two are three men who remember the circumstances, and who assisted in giving the victims decent burial, and it is from these men that I get the information from which to weave the story of a crime for which the perpetrators were never brought to the bar of justice.
When Texas seceded from the Union, old Camp Verde, 12 miles north of Bandera, was occupied by the Confederate forces. First a frontier battalion was organized for protection against the Indians, and this was directed from Camp Verde. Later, Confederate soldiers were stationed at this well-known post, where Gen. Lee, Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston and other notables had at previous times been in command. While Lawton's company was stationed at Camp Verde in 1860, it became known that a small party of supposed “bushwhackers" were passing through the country en route to Mexico to avoid conscription. There were eight men and one boy in the party, and it became known that they were from Florence, Williamson County. Why they were termed "bushwhackers" has never been explained, but it is presumed that they had taken part in certain bushwhacking operations and had been forced to leave that section. But be that as it may, the word was carried to Camp Verde and a troop of 25 men under command of Maj. W. J. Alexander immediately started in pursuit. In the pursuing party were a number of men who were well known to the early settlers of Bandera County, but after the close of the war they all disappeared, some making haste to get out of the country.
The small band of nine men passed through Bandera several days before the soldiers took up their pursuit. They were well mounted, well-armed and well provisioned and made no secret of their destination, saying that they were leaving the country because they did not care to become involved in the strife between the States, and when it was over they expected to return and take up their residence in Williamson County again, where some of them had families and homes. They seemed quiet and peaceable and paid for everything they secured in Bandera and went on their way.
Several days afterward Maj. Alexander and his men came through Bandera on trail of the men and went from here to Hondo. Picking up the trail there, they followed it to Squirrel Creek, some 10 miles beyond Hondo. where they discovered the men they were seeking in camp. They had finished their noonday meal, and were quietly resting, some lounging around and talking, others attending to the stock, not suspecting that they were being pursued and at that very moment in danger of being captured. Approaching under cover within a very short distance of where the men were camped, Maj. Alexander stepped out into an opening and, swinging his saber over his head, called upon them to surrender, telling them he had them surrounded and there was no chance for escape, and if they would quietly submit he would pledge his word that they should have a fair trial by court-martial at Camp Verde.
The little party of nine promptly yielded up their arms and were then forced to saddle their horses and immediately start back toward Camp Verde. All went evenly enough until the second night on the return trip, when, while in camp on the Julian some of Alexander's men wanted to hang the prisoners.
Some of the party refused to have anything to do with the execution, but some were determined to put the prisoners out of the way, and accordingly marched them out some distance from camp and hung them one by one. A hair rope was used in hanging these men, and each one died by strangulation, being drawn up until choked to death. When life was extinct the victim was let down, and the rope cut, leaving the noose still about his neck. Bill Sawyer, one of the victims begged to be shot, saying he preferred that manner of death to being hung. His wish was granted, and someone in the party fired a rifle at him which only produced a flesh wound on his arm. Sawyer fell, but when it was found that he had not been fatally shot, another man placed, the muzzle of his gun against the fallen man and shot him through the body with a full charge, leaving the ramrod in the gun, which went through him and into the ground. He was thus found the next day. The boy in the party, a lad about 16 years old, is supposed to have escaped, but he too, may have been murdered, as he was never heard of again.
After completing their work, the men who had participated in this crime (those who refused to have a hand in it having passed on) came to Bandera the next morning and proceeded on to Camp Verde without delay, some of the party hinting to citizens that they had rid the country of some more bushwhackers. Alexander's men had their victims' horses, saddles, bedding, clothing and shoes.
Joseph H. Poor, who lived on the West Verde, was camped near the place of execution, and the next morning he went out to look for his horses and came upon the bodies just as Alexander's men left them. He hastened to Bandera and notified the authorities and Justice of the Peace O. B. Miles, Robert Ballentyne, George Hay, Amasa Clark, John Pyka and a number of others went down there to investigate. They found seven of the men had been hanged until dead, and the eighth had been shot through with a ramrod, as stated. George Hay says he pulled the ramrod out of the body. An inquest was held, and the verdict rendered as follows: “We the jury, find that these men (giving their names) were killed by Maj. W. J. Alexander's company." A grave was opened and the bodies of the eight unfortunate men were rolled into it and covered up. Many years later a tombstone was erected over the grave, and on this tombstone appears the names of the men who were murdered while prisoners, who had been given a sacred pledge that they would be given just treatment if they surrendered.
How do we know these things? There were men in Maj. Alexander's party who refused to countenance the execution of helpless prisoners, and months afterward they talked freely of the occurrence, telling all particulars, and even giving the names of the men who participated. This tragedy occurred in 1863, but retribution usually follows such crimes, and after the war ended and while E. J. Davis was Governor of Texas, district judges all over the State were instructed to charge their respective grand juries to investigate such matters. G. H. Noonan, a good man and true, was judge of this district at that time, and he directed the grand jury of this county to thoroughly investigate the hanging of these men, with the result that as soon as it became known that the strong arm of the law was reaching out, there was a hasty departure by some for a more congenial climate. This was in 1866.
The grand jury indicted W. J. Alexander et al for murder and highway robbery, and for want of service. The ease was continued on the docket from term to term, so the records show. Maj. Alexander had disappeared. Not one of the men charged in the indictment was ever arrested. One of them, it is said, was killed at New Braunfels by officers while resisting arrest. More than half a century has passed since that stain was placed on Bandera County's history, and all who took part in it are supposed to be dead. But it is said that the men who urged the execution of those prisoners and carried it out were not citizens of the county. The court records may reveal their names, if search is made, for they were indicted by the grand jury in 1866. The names or their victims are: C. J. Sawyer, W. M. Sawyer, George Thayer, William Shumake, Jack Whitmire. Jake Kyle, John Smart and a Mr. Vanwinkle.
George Hay who is now in his 86th year but still quite active, in discussing this crime said:
"I have seen many foul crimes in my time. but this was the most revolting that I ever knew. A party of us went out from Bandera as soon as we learned of the occurrence and found the bodies of those unfortunate men lying just as they had them cut down, pieces of the horse-hair rope around each man's neck. They had all been strangled to death by the rope being placed over a limb and drawn up. possibly by somebody on horseback. One man. Bill Sawyer, was lying face down, shot through with a wooden ramrod, which had passed entirely through his body and penetrated into the ground for at least 10 or 12 inches. It Was with great difficulty that I drew out this ramrod. Alexander's party passed through Bandera about 8 o'clock one Sunday morning, and in just a little while, Joseph Poor came with the news that he had found some murdered men down on the Julian. We buried them as best we could, and in giving our verdict at the inquest we definitely placed the blame on Alexander's men, some of whom I knew, but they are all dead now."
Amasa Clark one of the first settlers here, and who is now in his 96th year, active and full of life, clearly remembers the time when this tragedy was enacted, and when questioned about it a few days ago was very emphatic in his denunciation of the perpetrators. His statement follows:
"Oh, yes, I remember the hanging of the Sawyers and those other men. It was an outrage. They were murdered—yes murdered in cold blood. Deliberately murdered without being given a chance for their lives. I knew all of the circumstances, and when Mr. Poor brought word to Bandera that he had found their bodies, Mr. Daniel Rugh asked me to go with him down there. When we arrived there a gruesome sight met our gaze. Some had been partly stripped. I heard afterward that some of the men who took part in the hanging had worn the clothes of their victims while passing through Bandera. There was a report that some of them gambled for the clothing the night of the murder, but I cannot vouch for this statement. This crime created a great deal of indignation here, but the citizens were powerless to do anything. The murdered men were strangers, peaceably passing through the country. They had committed no crime that I know of and should not have been molested. After the war diligent efforts were made to apprehend the guilty ones and bring them to justice, but without success. I knew several of them, but as soon as they were mustered out of the Confederate service, and before the civil courts were in good running order, they left the country. An attempt was made by New Braunfels officers to arrest one of these men on warrant. from Bandera County, but he resisted arrest and was killed. Now I do not charge this crime to Confederate soldiers. I do not believe a true Confederate would be guilty of such a heinous offense as deliberately putting to death an enemy without giving him every chance the law gives a man. I have lived in the South ever since I returned from my service in the Mexican War, in 1848, and I loved the South and the cause she fought for. I know the rules of warfare and how prisoners should be treated. Sawyer and his men were not treated as prisoners of war. They were hung without a trial, and it seems to me that robbery was the sole motive that prompted their execution. This all happened years ago, but it made such a lasting impression that I will never forget it, and have many times wished to, see the guilty ones brought before the courts and made to pay the penalty for their crime."
John Pyka, another highly respected citizen of Bandera, gave his version of this sad affair as follows:
"At that time, I was just a lad, large enough however, to think I was about grown, and I distinctly remember when Mr. Joseph Poor came and notified us that he had seen the body of a man on the Julian with arrows sticking in him and he thought Indians were in the country. Mr. Poor lived on the West Verde, but was camped near the scene of the crime, and was out looking for his horses that had strayed off from camp when he came upon the bodies. He did not take time to investigate but came right on to Bandera and notified the authorities. I went out with the crowd to the place, and we found seven of the men had been hung and one had been shot through with a ramrod. It was an awful spectacle. No, I do not think these men had been stripped of their clothing, because I remember seeing that the cattle had chewed the sleeve of the coat on one of the dead men, and if I remember rightly they were all in full attire. Their pockets were empty, showing that they had been robbed. A 16-year-old boy that was captured with the men was spared for the time being, I understand, and was taken up about Fredericksburg, but as he was never heard of again, it is supposed that he, too was killed. I knew some of the men who had a hand in the hanging, but they left the country when investigation started, I think all of the participants are dead now, for it has been a long time ago since all this happened.
"We dug a shallow grave, laid the dead men into it, spread blankets over them, and covered them up the best we could with dirt and stones to keep the wolves from getting to the bodies. I do not know of any person now living who was present at the time except myself, George Hay and Amasa Clark. There may be others, but I do not remember."
The spreading oak to which these men were hung is still standing, a grim sentinel on a hillside, gnarled and knotted with age, a silent witness of the scene. Nearby, in a beautiful glade, is the shallow grave which contains the bones of the strangers who were the victims of a Hellish plot. Over the grave stands a tombstone, placed there by citizens of the country who were familiar with the details of the murders. On this tombstone is inscribed the following: "C. J. Sawyer, W. M. Sawyer, George Thayre, William Shumake, Jack Whitmire, Jake Kyle, John Smart, Mr. Van Winkle, Died July 25, 1863. Remember friends, as you pass by; as you are now, so once was I. As I am now, you soon will be; prepare for death and follow me."
Mutely this monument stands as the years roll by, in an out-of-the-way place, on land belonging to Frank Pyka. In its seclusion the grave is never disturbed, while in the springtime wild flowers grow and bloom over the mound, song birds make melody in the nearby trees and the soft breezes that blow through the branches chant a requiem to the departed souls.
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