JOSIAH WILBARGER SCALPED BY INDIANS
From J. Marvin Hunter’s Frontier Times Magazine, March, 1924
In the spring of 1830, Stephen F. Austin came to his new colony, located on the upper Colorado, with two surveyors and the advance guard or emigrants for the purpose of establishing the surveys of those who had made their selections. Josiah Wilbarger and Reuben Hornsby were among those who had previously been over the ground and picked out locations for their headright leagues. Wilbarger had come to Texas from the State of Missouri as early as 1828 and first settled in Matagorda county, where he remained about one year and then moved up the Colorado. It was in about the month of March, 1830, that he selected for his headright a beautiful tract of land situated at the mouth of what is now known as Wilbarger creek, about ten miles above where the San Antonio and Nacogdoches road crosses the river where the town of Bastrop now is. After making his selection he immediately moved on his headright league with his family and two or three transient young men and built his occupation house, his nearest. neighbor being about seventy-five miles down the river. In the month of April, Austin, with his surveying party, accompanied by Rueben Hornsby, Webber, Duty and others, who had also previously made their selections arrived, and commenced work on the Colorado at the crossing of the San Antonio and Nacogdoches road. The river was meandered to the upper corner of Jesse Tannehill league, when the party stopped work in the month of May. Wilbarger was the first and outside settler in Austin's new colony until July, 1832, when Rueben Hornsby came up from Bastrop (where he had stopped for a year or two) and occupied his league on the east bank of the Colorado river, some nine miles below the site of Austin.
Hornsby's house was always noted for hospitality, and he, like his neighbor Wilbarger, was remarkable for those virtues and that personal courage which made them both marked men among the early settlers. Young men who from time to time came up to the frontier to look at the country made Hornsby's house a stopping place, and were always gladly welcomed, for it was chiefly through such visits that news from the States was obtained. A more beautiful tract of land, even now, can nowhere be found than the league of land granted to Reuben Hornsby. Washed on the west by the Colorado, it stretches over a level valley about three miles wide to the east, and was, at the time of which we write, covered with wild rye, and looking like one vast green wheat field. Such was the valley in its virgin state which tempted Hornsby to build and risk his family outside of the settlements. Until a few years ago not an acre of that league of land had ever been sold, but it was occupied by the children and grandchildren of the old pioneer, who lived out his four-score years and died without a blemish on his character.
In the month of August, 1833, a man named Christian and his wife were living with Hornsby. Several young unmarried men were also stopping there. This was customary in those days, and the settlers were always glad to have them for protection. Two young men, Standifer and Haynie, had just come to the settlement from Missouri to look at the country. Early in August, Josiah Wilbarger came up to Hornsby's, and in company with Christian, Strother, Standifer and Haynie, role out in a northwest direction to look at the country. When riding up Walnut creek, some five or six miles northwest of where the city of Austin stands, they discovered an Indian. He was hailed, but refused to parley with them, and made off in the direction of the mountains to the west of them. They gave chase and pursued him until he escaped to cover in the mountains near the head of Walnut creek, about where James Rogers afterwards settled.
Returning from the chase, they stopped to noon and refresh themselves, about one-half mile up the branch above Pecan spring, and four miles east of where Austin afterwards was established in sight of the road now leading from Austin to Manor. Wilbarger, Christian and Strother unsaddled and hobbled their horses, but Haynie and Standifer left their horses saddled and staked them to graze. While the men were eating they were suddenly fired on by Indians. The trees near them were not large and offered poor cover. Each man sprang to a tree and promptly returned the fire of the savages, who had stolen up afoot under cover of brush and timber, having left their horses out of sight. Wilbarger's party had fired a couple of rounds when a ball struck Christian, breaking his thigh bone. Strother had already been mortally wounded. Wilbarger sprang to the side of Christian and set him up against his tree. Christian's gun was loaded but not primed. A ball from an Indian gun had bursted Christian's powder horn. Wilbarger had an arrow through the calf of his leg and had received a flesh wound in the hip. Scarcely had Wilbarger regained the protecting cover of the small tree from which he fought, until his other leg was pierced with an arrow. Until this time Haynie and Standifer had helped sustain the fight, but when they saw Strother mortally wounded and Christian disabled, they made for their horses, which were yet saddled and mounted them. Wilbarger finding himself deserted, hailed the fugitives and asked to be permitted to mount behind one of them if they would not stop and help fight. He ran to overtake them, wounded, as he was, for some little distance, when he was struck from behind by a ball which penetrated about the center of his neck and came out on the left side of his chin. He fell apparently dead, but though unable to move or speak, did not lose consciousness. He knew when the Indians came around him —when they stripped him naked and tore the scalp from his head. He says that though paralyzed and unable to move, he knew what was being done, and that when his scalp was torn from his skull it created no pain from which he could flinch, but sounded like distant thunder. The Indians cut the throats of Strother and Christian, but the character of Wilbarger's wound, no doubt, made them believe his neck was broken, and that he was surely dead. This saved his life.
When Wilbarger recover consciousness the evening was far advanced. He had lost much blood, and the blood was still slowly ebbing from his wounds. He was alone in the wilderness, desperately wounded, naked and still bleeding. Consumed by an intolerable thirst, he dragged himself to a pool of water and lay down in it for an hour, when he became so chilled and numb that with difficulty he crawled out to dry land. Being warmed by the sun and exhausted by the loss of blood, he fell into a profound sleep. When awakened, the blood had ceased to flow from the wound in his neck, but he was again consumed with thirst and hunger.
After going back to the pool and drinking, he crawled over the grass and devoured such snails as he could find, which appeased his hunger. The green flies had blown his wounds while he had slept, and the maggots were at work, which pained and gave him fresh alarm. As night approached he determined to go as far as he could toward Reuben Hornsby's, about six miles distant. He had gone about six hundred yards when he sank to the ground exhausted, under a large post-oak tree, and well nigh despairing of life. Those who have ever spent a summer in Austin know that in that climate the nights in summer are always cool, and before daybreak some covering is needed for comfort. Wilbarger, naked, wounded and feeble, suffered after midnight intensely from cold. No sound fell on his ear but the hooting of owls and the bark of the coyote wolf, while above him the bright silent stars seemed to mock his agony.
We are now about to relate two incidents so mysterious that they would excite our incredulity were it not for the high character of those who to their dying day vouched for their truth.
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As Wilbarger lay under the old oak tree, prone on the ground, he distinctly saw, standing near him the spirit of his sister Margaret Clifton, who had died the day before in Florissant, St. Louis county, Missouri. She said to him: "Brother, Josiah, you aro too weak to go by yourself. Remain here, and friends will come to take care of you before the setting of the sun." When she had said this she moved away in the direction of Hornsby's house. In vain he besought her to remain with him until help would come.
Haynie and Standifer, on reaching Hornsby's had reported the death of their three companions, stating that they saw Wilbarger fall and about fifty Indians around him, and knew that he was dead. That night, Mrs. Hornsby started from her sleep and waked her husband. She told him confidently that Wilbarger was alive; that she had seen him vividly in a dream, naked, scalped and wounded. but she knew he lived. Soon she fell asleep and again Wilbarger appeared to her alive, but wounded, naked and scalped, so vividly that she again woke Mr. Hornsby and told him of her dream, saying: "I know that Wilbarger is not dead." So confident was she that she would not permit the men to sleep longer, but had their coffee and breakfast ready by daybreak and urged the men at the house to start to Wilbarger's relief.
The relief party consisted of Joseph Rogers, Rueben Hornsby, Webber, John Walters and others. As they approached the tree under which Wilbarger had passed the night, Rogers, who was in advance, saw Wilbarger, who was sitting at the root of a tree. He presented a ghastly sight, for his body was almost red with blood. Rogers, mistaking him for an Indian, said: "Here they are, boys." Then Wilbarger rose up and spoke, saying: "Don't shoot, it is Wilbarger." When the relief party started, Mrs. Hornsby gave her husband three sheets, two of them were left over the bodies of Christian and Strother until the next day, when the men returned and buried them, and one was wrapped around Wilbarger, who was placed on Roger's horse. Hornsby being lighter than the rest mounted behind Wilbarger, and with his arms around him, sustained him in the saddle. The next day Wm. Hornsby, Joseph Rogers, Walters and one or two others returned and buried Christian and Strother.
When Wilbarger was found the only particle of his clothing left by the savages was one sock. He had torn that from his foot, which was much swollen from an arrow wound in his leg, and had place it on his naked skull from which the scalp had been taken. He was tenderly nursed at Hornsby's for some days. His scalp wound was dressed with bear's oil, and when recovered sufficiently to move, he was placed in a sled, made by Billy Hornsby and Leman Barker (the father-in-law of Wilbarger) because he could not endure the motion of a wagon, and was thus conveyed several miles down the river to his own cabin. Josiah Wilbarger recovered and lived for eleven years. The scalp never grew entirely over the bone. A small spot in the middle of the wound remained bare, over which he always wore a covering. The bone became diseased and exfoliated, finally exposing the brain. His death was hastened, as Doctor Anderson, his physician, thought, by accidently striking his head against the upper portion of a low door frame of his gin house many years after he was scalped. We have stated the facts as received from the lips of Josiah Wilbarger, who was the brother of the author of this book, and confirmed by Wm. Hornsby and others who are now dead.
The vision which so impressed Mrs. Hornsby was spoken of far and wide through the colony fifty years ago; for her earnest manner and perfect confidence that Wilbarger was alive, made, in connection with her vision and its realization, a profound impression on the men present, who spoke of it everywhere. There were no telegraphs in those days, and no means of knowing that Margaret, the sister, had died seven hundred miles away only the day before her brother was wounded. The story of her apparition, related before he knew that she was dead—her going in the direction of Hornsby's, and Mrs. Hornsby's strange vision, recurring after slumber, present a mystery that made then a deep impression and created a feeling of awe which, after the lapse of a half a century, it still inspires. No man who knew them ever questioned the veracity of either Wilbarger or the Hornsbys, and Mrs. Hornsby was loved and reverenced by all who knew her.
We leave to those more learned the task of explaining the strange coincidence of the visions of Wilbarger and Mrs. Hornsby. It must remain a marvel and a mystery. Such things are not accidents; they tell us of a spirit world and of a God who "moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform."
Josiah Wilbarger left a wife and five children. His widow, who afterwards married Talbert Chambers, was the second time left a widow, and resided, in 1888, in Bastrop county, about thirty-five miles below the city of Austin.
The eldest son, John, was killed many years after the death of his father by the Indians in west Texas. Harvey, another son of Josiah, lived to raise a large family when he died. His widow and only son live in Bastrop county. One married daughter lives at Georgetown and another at Belton, Texas. Of the brothers and sisters of Josiah Wilbarger who came to Texas in 1837, the author, and Sallie Wilbarger (who resides at Georgetown ) are the only survivors. Matthias Wilbarger, a brother, and a sister, Mrs. W. C. Dalrymple, died many years ago. Mrs. Lewis Jones, another sister, died on the way to Texas.
So far as our knowledge extends, this was the first blood shed in Travis county at the hands of the implacable savages. It was but the beginning, however, of a bloody era which was soon to dawn upon the people of the Colorado.
Owing to the sparsely settled condition of the country, the Indians could slip in, commit murders, then slip out and return to their mountain homes with impunity. However, when the rich valleys of the Colorados became known, immigrants began to flock into Austin's new colony and it was not long until the settlers grew sufficiently strong to organize for protection into minute companies which were placed under the command of Colonel Edward Burleson. These companies afforded great protection to the families, and no doubt saved many women and children from being murdered or carried off into a captivity worse than death. The settlers over on the Brazos, the Guadalupe and Lavaca had likewise formed similar organizations, but notwithstanding the vigilance and untiring efforts of these companies in trying to protect the advance guard of civilization from the tomahawk and scalping knife of the hostile savages, the bloody traces of these demons could be seen here today, several miles distant tomorrow, and before they could be overtaken they would be far into the cedar brakes of the mountains, where they could not well be pursued.