The country surrounding the little city of Corpus Christi, on the southern coast of Texas, has been the field of many bloody encounters which have helped to make the bravery of Texans stand out in bold letters.
Among the bloodiest of these contests were the raids of 1875 and 1878, the incidents of either of which would cause a thrill of horror to pass through one and make a tale almost too awful to relate.
In the seventies, Texas was thinly settled, sometimes fifty or sixty miles intervening between two homesteads or settlements; but every man carried a rifle in those trying times, and, like New England's early settlers, they were always ready for enemies, either savages or desperadoes. Many were the times that, when the morning dawned and the husband kissed his wife and little ones good-bye, it was good-bye forever. Such were the conditions which the pioneer Texan had to face and endure.
Early in the spring of 1875 a band of about one hundred and fifty men was formed at a place in Mexico called Las Quisamas, and under the leadership of a cruel and daring commander, José Cortina, started on a march toward Texas. After crossing the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass, they formed into four separate commands, their purpose being to first capture and plunder Corpus Christi, and then make it the base of their operations. As they advanced they murdered all who crossed their path, men, women, and even children. But the United States troops stationed at San Diego were on the alert, and after inflicting several defeats upon three of the bands, who fled towards the Rio Grande, they went in search of the fourth. Meanwhile, the fourth division, which had met no opposition as yet, halted just outside of Corpus Christi at a place now called the Oso. Here they camped on a road which was the main highway to the p129 city. There were in this band fifty men, heavily armed. They stopped all persons coming to or from the city, took their property, and made them prisoners. Some of the most prominent people of Corpus Christi were captured, among them being S. G. Borden,2 George Franks, George Reynolds, Judge Gilpin, P. H. McManigle, Mrs. E. D. Sidbury, Mrs. R. R. Savage, and Mrs. Laura Allen, all but two of whom3 are still living. It is said that Judge Borden, who was going to Sinton, a small settlement near Corpus Christi, was riding quietly along, when suddenly Jim Hunter, a friend of his, came dashing from a thicket beside the road, on horseback, and cried: "You had better turn back, Judge, for an old Mexican just told me that the treacherous Cortina and a band of cut-throats are holding up a part of the road." Borden, insisting that the Mexican had lied, started again on his way. Thereupon Hunter remarked, "Well, if you go, I'll be hanged if I'm afraid to go"; so he turned and went with the Judge. They rode along for some distance, when, on turning a sharp corner in the road, they found themselves within a few yards of the enemy. Borden, being in a wagon, was unable to escape, and was immediately taken prisoner, but Hunter, being on a good, hardy mustang, got away. He hurried to Corpus Christi, and like Paul Revere of a hundred years before, he aroused the city by galloping through the streets and shouting with every breath, "The Mexicans, the raiders are coming!" A mass meeting was being held at the town hall that night, and a guard for the protection of the city was immediately formed; but arms and ammunition were lacking, and it was impossible to supply the large number of volunteers. At last, however, a detachment was organized and dispatched to attack the Mexicans on the main road.
At this time the Morgan steamers were running between Galveston and Corpus Christi, and one of them, the Aransas, was then in port. Women and children flocked to the pier and rushed in uncontrollable excitement on board the vessel, and in a few minutes it was crowded to its utmost capacity. Luckily, a large lumber schooner was also in the harbor, having arrived the night before from Lake Charles, La. This, too, was soon crowded. The schooner p130 had not yet discharged her cargo of lumber, and with the added weight she sank into the water until the waves washed over her upper deck. Both the ships left the wharf and anchored some miles out at sea until the danger was passed.
It happened on this eventful day that some thirty or forty school girls had gone with their teacher for a picnic to a reef •about three miles from the town. When their mothers heard news of the raid they became frantic, as all the men were on guard some miles distant or were out in search of the enemy. Finally a company of about twenty negro boys was formed, and they conducted the frightened children safely home.
In the meantime the raiders were still camped beside the road and amusing themselves by stripping their male prisoners and making them dance under the lash of the whip. The female captives took advantage of a moment when the Mexicans were busy with this diversion, and, darting into the thicket on one side of the road, made their escape. Soon after six o'clock that evening the raiders broke up camp, and to their amazement, found the female captives missing. This enraged them so that they cursed and tormented the remaining prisoners more than ever. Lashing the men together in pairs, they marched them in front of the band in the direction of Nuecestown, a hamlet •some five miles distant. Under the cruel treatment accorded them, some of the captives knelt down and prayed for mercy, but none was granted. By and by they came to the store of George Franks, on the left-hand side of the road. On reaching the place the leader knocked at the door, which was promptly opened by an aged Mexican. The commander asked him to join their band, but he refused. He insisted, promising the old man a good share of the booty if he would only join them, but he would not consent. The leader asked him once more, this time using a threat and cursing him. At this the old Mexican closed the door in the cut-throat's face. This so enraged the leader that he rushed in after the old man and, catching him by the neck, he dragged him to the door and called to his men to tie his hands and feet with cords. He then ordered a rope suspended from a near-by tree, and he himself placed the frightened man beneath its branches and tightened the rope about his neck. Hearing the noise, Mr. p131 Franks immediately rushed to the scene and begged them to spare the life of his servant. At that moment two Mexicans snatched the rope and were about to strangle the poor old man, when Franks interceded, dealing one of the ruffians a staggering blow. Franks was immediately put in chains and was made the object of much abuse. The hanging proceeded and the victim was soon a corpse.
When the Mexicans left they took with them Franks' wagon and horses and all the plunder they could carry. The prisoners were again placed in front. They were forced to march on foot over rough roads, through prickly pear and thorny brush, and it was with fiendish delight that their tormenters followed in the blood-stained path. Presently a rustling in the brush caused a halt, and a scout was sent forward to ascertain its cause. He soon returned with the information that a herd of horses, driven by a white man, was some distance ahead. Three men were immediately dispatched to capture the herder. This commotion caused a stampede among the horses, they being fresh from the prairie and somewhat wild, and during the the man made his escape. He proved to be Henry Stevens, of Nuecestown.4
The night had settled before the party reached Nuecestown. Stopping near a large frame building in which the postoffice was then kept, the leader jumped from his horse and called a halt. The United States mail carrier who had just arrived with the evening mail from San Antonio, was made a captive and the mail taken and plundered. T. J. Noakes, who was postmaster at that time, afterwards wrote an interesting account of the raiders' visit to Nuecestown, which was found just recently among some old papers, and reads as follows:
"Nuecestown, Nueces County, Texas, May 13, 1875.
"On Good Friday, March 26, 1875, I was kept busy all day, having remittances to make to several business houses, that I wanted to send by the evening mail for goods that I had received a few days before, and if they had been sent off sooner I should have owed no man a cent.
p132 "After finishing my letters I made up the mail in readiness for the carrier who was about due, when a man named John Smith came into the store for some flour, and while in the act of handing him a parcel over the counter, I noticed three Mexicans ride up and fasten their horses to the rack in front of the store, and excitedly approach the door, heavily armed. I said nothing to Smith of the circumstance, but walked hastily to the sitting room at the back of the store to get my Winchester rifle, thinking things looked shakey. I had no sooner reached my rifle into my hands when Smith came rushing into the room, closely followed by a savage looking Mexican with his gun in the attitude to shoot Smith, but immediately on seeing me, brought it round on me, but before he could shoot, my bullet had penetrated his chest and knocked all the fight out of him. In the meantime, Smith had escaped out of an open door opposite to the one by which he had entered the room, and my wife, passing in as he went out, was with me in the room. Seeing the wounded Mexican could shoot no more, I made ready for the next to follow him. Having seen but three Mexicans, I felt no apprehension as to my being able to cope with that number, and expected when they heard the firing they would come to the assistance of their comrade, but none came. I stepped to the door leading into the store to see where they were, and was taking aim at the fellow nearest me when my attention was attracted by the number outside the front of the store which appeared to me to amount to a hundred Mexicans. Realizing at once that I was greatly overpowered (for one man cannot with much hope fight a hundred), I did not fire, but turned, expecting to see my wife in the room and tell her to take the children and leave the house, but she was nowhere to be found, and the doors and windows looking into the room where I was from the three sides of the house all being open, and the Mexicans taking up position so as to surround us, I was compelled to avail myself of a trap door through the floor, by which I passed into a trench dug beneath the floor of the house that enabled me to pass from one part of the house to another and get into any room I wanted to without being exposed to sight. Here I found Smith, who, crawling under the house at the back, had found the trench. He was very excited and I advised him to stay where he was and keep quiet and I would go to front of the house p133 and see if there was any chance to fight them, when, if I saw that he could do any good with it, I would furnish him with a pistol, but as excited as he was he was best without one.
"On reaching the trench from which I could see the crowd in front of the store, I noticed several Americans held as prisoners, among whom was a person named Lane, another, Mike Dunn, and one, Tom Nelson, and I came to the conclusion that, Mexican-like, they meant to take all the prisoners they could from among the Americans, and as soon as they were through robbing, have the enjoyment of a general massacre, a la Peniscal.a
"I determined at once I would not be taken alive, so I passed back to a place where I could command the store with my rifle, but to my consternation, I found my wife in the store, surrounded by the raiders and two of them placed in the same way with cocked pistols that any shot that should be fired from an unseen party would be retaliated on her by one of the fiends; consequently, to resume firing was only to insure her being shot, and I had to remain inactive while my wife was trying to persuade them not to carry out their threat of taking me or burning the house. Several times when they had lighted a fire in the store my wife put it out, and the first time by throwing a pitcher of water on it. I now noticed that Smith had left the trench, and hearing shots from the direction in which he must have gone, knew that he was shot down by the guards placed to keep us from leaving the house. I could now hear the roar of the fire over my head, and to remain longer was certain death, and my only chance lay in shooting down the Mexicans who guarded the back of the house, and escape in the smoke. But when I reached the end of the trench from which to put my design into operation, my wife called to me that the Mexicans were not there, and now was my only chance to leave alive, and she helped me to tear a hole through the fence by which to escape. When I left her she was getting her feather bed out of the house, and in spite of the impending danger, I could but feel amused at such a notion as getting out a bed while thousands of other articles, in my estimation, would have had the preference. I expected every moment to be fired upon, and in such a case had made up my mind to lie flat and return the fire, but I was allowed to turn the corner of the fence without molestation, and, by keeping along the angle p134 of the fence, I reached a point where to go further I had to pass over open ground where I should have been seen, so concluded to remain and see it out. I passed by Smith soon after leaving the house, being on his face and covered with blood, and as I thought, dead. The Mexicans, not seeing me leave, boasted they had burnt me with the house as were their intentions. When reconnoitering from my trench among the crowd in front of my store, I noticed the mail rider among the prisoners; they took him as he came up to deliver his mail, and he was not allowed to do so, but both he and his two horses were carried off by them, together with the mail bags, when they left.
"From the numerous murders and raids that have been made within the last two years, I deemed it necessary to be well prepared for such an emergency whenever my time came, which I always had a presentiment it would do, and I had used all my spare time in making preparations for the event, and had gone to a great expense in planning the trench. I shaped it so that a person being in it was perfectly safe from the shots from the outside, and I reached it from three trap doors, one in the floor at my bed, one at my desk in the store and another from a room beside the store, and it led to a way of escape at the back of the house, which saved my life. A trench also led to the cellar, and another from the cellar to the front of the stairs. At the trap door in the front room I could reach the top of the house by means of a hook and ladder, and in the top of the house I kept a needle gun with five hundred rounds of cartridges, and I had, to the best of my recollection, sixteen improved pistols and about fifty boxes of cartridges distributed about the house, and with sufficient warning of their approach to enable me to close the house, I considered myself, alone, capable of fighting off twelve or fifteen men, and had determined never to surrender to a force smaller.
"My wife tells me that when she left the house, as she ran down the hill towards the river, the two Mexicans who had killed Smith rode after her and were preparing their guns to shoot at her, but she begged them to spare her for the sake of her baby, and they let her go.
"Early in the attack my wife had given the baby to my little daughter and her brother, who, both together, were hardly able to p135 carry the smallest, telling them to carry him away as quickly as they could, and the three had about reached a point very near to where the Mexicans shot Smith, and at the time they were engaged in doing so, and were witnesses to the deed, and from what they saw became so horrified that they fell to the ground, incapable of moving. In the meantime, the two older boys, who had been on the river and knew nothing of what was going on, suspected something wrong at the house from seeing the Mexicans shoot down Smith, caught sight of the little ones at the same time, and seeing them fall, came to their rescue, and all agree in saying that while crossing the flats, the five were fired at by the Mexicans and one of the shots that was intended for Smith nearly hit Grace, the little girl. The children reached the river and crossed in the skiff, where my wife joined them some time after.
"As soon as darkness set in the Mexicans turned loose all their prisoners except the mail carrier and two or three others, among whom was W. A. Ball, our justice of the peace, who, I afterwards learned, they took with them some distance before they allowed him to escape. As soon as they were gone I ran to Smith, whom I found alive, but with so many bullet holes in him that death seemed at first inevitable. I now met my wife who told me the children were all safe, which made me feel very grateful. Smith was lying about one hundred yards from the burning house and praying for water, so I ran to the place where the house had stood, with the idea of getting water, but of course everything was gone or red hot, and I could not find anything that would hold water, but while I was hunting for something two men, strangers, rode up to the fire on the other side, and one of them requested me to approach the fence on the other side of which he stood, and as soon as I was close to him he demanded my rifle, at the same time bringing his six-shooter down on me and threatened to kill me unless I complied. Not dreaming of such conduct from a white man, I was totally unprepared and he could have shot me before I could have raised my rifle. But I refused him his request, saying that I needed the rifle for my own and my family's protection, as that was all the Mexicans had left. However, as he insisted that he could do more good with it than I could, as he was going in pursuit of the Mexicans, I gave the rifle to him on his promise to return it, but, poor fellow, in less than p136 an hour he was dead, and only through luck I recovered the rifle, which was picked up near his body by F. Sims, a gentleman living near me, and it was some days before I recovered possession of it. The person who took my rifle was named Swanks, I was told, and was among the first of those in pursuit of the Mexicans, and was reported at the time to have been killed by them. He was a brave man, a fine example of a Texan.
"I had now returned to Smith, who would not let me leave him, although I had no hat nor clothes enough to keep me warm. After a while parties brought a cart and took him away, and then we hunted up the little ones, who were by this time huddled together under a fence near the river, crying and half-witted from fright. My wife had, luckily, pulled the running gear of the light wagon out of reach of the flames, and we now took the hind wheels and mustered up all our possessions, which consisted of a bed, a blanket and a quilt, which she had carried out while the house was burning, with her sewing machine, and with the five little ones we started down the hill to the wharf I had recently built on the river, and in the darkness we took possession of the only home we now owned, but felt thankful for it.
"While the house was burning I had to stand and watch from my retreat by the fence, the huge tongues of flame shoot heaven ward, knowing that they were licking up the fruits of ten years' toil, and everything except ourselves that I valued in this world, yet I never experienced so utterly maddening a feeling as came over me when I first realized the fact that my children were crying for the want of a roof to cover them, and a taste of a bite of bread.
[Signed]T. J. Noakes."
This brave man died several years afterwards. Since his death his sons have been pushing a claim for fifty thousand dollars against the Mexican government: but it is only one of the many of such claims for damages sustained through Mexican raids, on which, for some unexplainable reason, no action has ever been taken.
The prisoners who escaped from the camp of the bandits near Corpus Christi ran for their lives and were soon •a mile or more from the demons. When first captured they had been robbed of all their p137 valuables, but they were thankful indeed to escape with their lives. All that night and the next day they wandered aimlessly, lost in the woods. Again night was coming on, they were suffering for water and their hunger was extreme. Their only food during this time being what few berries and herbs they could find in the woods. During the first night they had seen a bright blaze in the distance, and had been to the conclusion that Corpus Christi had been captured by the raiders and was being burned. So they knew not which way to turn.
The two companies formed at Corpus Christi pursued the Mexicans in the direction of Nuecestown, and when within a few miles of the place they noticed a large fire and at once knew what was happening. They hastened their speed and soon arrived at the village. John McClane, who was then sheriff of Nueces county, commanded one company, and John Swanks, a merchant, the other. Upon nearing Nuecestown the men heard the tramping of horses, and knew the enemy was only a few hundred yards ahead of them. During the night the Mexicans had become aware of their pursuers and decided to retreat towards the Rio Grande. In their haste to reach the border line they abandoned all their prisoners, amounting to some twenty men. Both sides were anxiously awaiting the dawn, one in the anticipation of a battle royal, the other to see more clearly their way of escape. At last it came. Several of the men who had gained their liberty had in their hurry wandered in the direction of the American camp, and they received a hearty welcome. They related that the Mexicans were making preparations to leave for Mexico.
When the number of Mexicans was ascertained, McClane did not think it prudent for his men to undertake to fight them, being so poorly armed. The Mexicans had two or three pistols each and several rounds of cartridges, besides their guns. Swanks, not thinking as did McClane, was determined to fight, and while he was making preparations for the attack, the Mexicans became aware of his purpose and immediately formed in line for battle. Soon after five o'clock, Swans, at the head of his company, gave a fierce cowboy yell and charged on the murderous fiends. Frightened by this proceeding, the Mexicans retreated ingloriously; but one of them, p138 turning in his saddle, fired at the brave Swanks, who immediately fell from his horse, lifeless. Seeing their leader fall, the command came to a halt.
Poor Swanks was found with his face buried in the earth, lying in a pool of blood. The day before, when the town of Corpus Christi had been thrown into such excitement, he had been working at his trade, happy and well. Five minutes after the alarm he was seen pacing the streets, yelling at the top of his voice, "Boys, who will follow old Swanks to the Oso?" The response was prompt, and he was soon on the road with a party of brave companions. He died like a man, but deserved a better fate.
As the body of Swanks was being prepared for a hasty burial, someone was heard calling from the thicket for water. It was found to be the John Smith who was shot during the burning of the Noakes residence. So badly was his body torn that it took three or four men to raise him from the earth. He was often spoken of as "Lying John," because it is said he was never known to tell a truth, but he told one when he said to his physician that he would not die. What seemed to worry him more than anything else, was the fact that the Mexicans would get beyond the reach of our men and escape; so, after they had ministered to him and made him as comfortable as possible, he insisted on their hurrying on. After riding on for some distance they saw, close to a tree near the road, a white object on the ground. It proved to be a sheet in whose folds was wrapped a half dead Mexican. He was the man whom Mr. Noakes shot. His companions, in the hurry, had abandoned him. In his right hand he held an ugly knife, and like a lion at bay defied the Texans. Some of the men were in favor of hanging him on the spot, but cooler heads controlled, and he was bound and carried along. On a scrap of soiled paper, which he handed them, was this message from his leader, written in human blood: "Texans, we will revenge our comrade and expect to meet us again two years hence. Cortena."º
Finally abandoning the trail, which they had followed for several miles, the men from Corpus Christi returned home at midnight. On the way their attention was attracted by cries, which they at first thought to be those of wolves, but soon recognized as human, and following them they found, some distance from the road, in a p139 frightened and half starved condition, the women who had been taken prisoners two days before. The party reached home just at sunrise, and it would be hard to imagine a more joyful reunion than that held in Corpus Christi that morning.
After being held as a prisoner for four days, the captured Mexican was taken by a mob and hanged. He refused to disclose anything in regard to his companions, only saying that the Mexican who was killed at Franks' store met death because he recognized one of the raiders.
1 This narrative has been made up from the statements of those who had personal knowledge of the raid, and from the notes of Mr. T. J. Noakes, together with his account of the affair, which is given entire.
2 A cousin of Gail Borden, originator of the famous condensed milk.
3 P. H. McManigle and Judge Gilpin.
4 Mr. Stevens is still living, and is actively engaged in the dairy business near Corpus Christi.
a This refers to the cross-border raid by eleven Mexicans on May 9, 1874, who reached Peñascal in Baffin County and killed four men at the Morton store there.
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