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Texas | Columns | "Charley Eckhardt's Texas"

Jim Bowie’s
Fight at Calf Creek

by C. F. Eckhardt

This story and I go back a long way. Back to the 1940s, in fact. We were living on East 42nd in Austin at the time. Our next-door neighbor was a WW I vet named Ralph A. Doyal. His grandfather was Matthew A. Doyal, whose name is on the Calf Creek historical marker—misspelled as ‘Doyle’—because he was with Jim Bowie at the Calf Creek fight. Incidentally, he’s sometimes referred to as ‘Matteo Diaz’ for reasons unknown, but his name was Matt Doyal.

According to Ralph’s granddaddy, the Calf Creek marker, where it was originally placed—in a field east of the road—was ‘pretty close but not right on’ where the fight took place. Old Matt told Ralph the story of the fight. It’s not the story the Bowie brothers told. It’s not even close. It was, however, told by someone who was a participant in the fight, long after the Bowies—and most of the other participants—were dead.

According to Matt Doyal—and remember, he was there—the Bowies never had a silver mine. Well, they did, sort of. Their ‘silver mine’ had legs.

Mexico had virtually no international credit. It did have, however, a number of silver mines. Silver is money—but only if you can get it to a destination. Mexico also had no real navy, nor a viable merchant marine. Even if the silver was already coined, there was no way to get it safely to the countries Mexico needed to trade with. The best way to handle it was to purchase letters of credit from stable banks in a third nation, a nation with a stable government. Fortunately for Mexico, there was one right next door—the US.

There appears to be no paper trail for this. However, save for the original US mint in Philadelphia, the US has always established mints near the source of coinable metal. There was a mint in Atlanta in the 1820s, following the Dalonegah County, Georgia gold rush. There was a mint in Carson City, Nevada, for the Nevada silver rush. Mints still exist in Denver and San Francisco, established for the Colorado, Black Hills, and California gold rushes. Why was there a mint in New Orleans in the 1820s and 1830s? There was no coinable metal being mined in the US anywhere close to New Orleans. However, the New Orleans mint stamped out a lot of silver coinage during its existence.

According to Matt Doyal, the Mexican government sent mule trains loaded with tres quintales—a quintal equals 101 lbs—per mule of bar silver eastward across Texas. The obvious destination would be New Orleans, where the silver could be traded for letters of credit in the local banks. The letters of credit insured Mexico could make purchases from overseas suppliers. The banks, in turn, sold the silver to the US government, which turned it into coinage at the New Orleans mint.

Jim Bowie was the son-in-law of the Vice Governor of Coahuila y Tejas. He had an ‘in’ there. His father-in-law would know about the pack trains, their schedules, and their routes. Bowie would have had no trouble finding out when a pack train was due to start for New Orleans and what its route would be. He simply took several men with him, waited in concealment alongside the trail the mules would use, and cut off the last three or four mules. That’s why his silver was so pure—it was already refined in Mexico.

The story about James Bowie living with the Lipans to get knowledge of the location of a mine was simply a cover. There simply isn’t enough time not otherwise accounted for during Bowie’s sojourns in Texas for him to have gained the trust of the Lipans, an Apache band, be adopted into the tribe, and be shown the ‘closely guarded secret’ of the silver mine.

In fact, one of the men who was with Bowie at Calf Creek—Caiphas K. Hamm—told an almost identical story about living among the Comanches. It’s so nearly identical that Bowie’s story of living with the Lipans exactly parallels it at many points. According to Hamm, his best friend in the band once pointed to a hill and told him “Other side, plenty silver,” but he was never shown the exact source of the silver.

Again according to Doyal, as the party waited in the rocks the mule train came by. Typically, the muleskinners and their guards were at the head of the train. It was a simple matter to cut the tether for the last three mules and make off with them, which is what they did. If you doubt the story, remember what Bowie told his men when he saw the mule train that resulted in the Grass Fight. “Boys, those mules carry enough silver to buy everything Texas needs.” Why would he think that? Well, almost certainly because he’d previously raided such a pack train and it was carrying silver.

The party was headed back to Bejar with the loot when a friendly Comanche—there were a few of those—warned them that a large war party was on their trail. Bowie chose a spot near a spring to fort up. The silver packs became part of the fortification.

According to Doyal, there really wasn’t all that much of a fight at Calf Creek. The party had three excellent riflemen. The Indians worked themselves up for a charge. Finally one of them stood up and hollered “Let’s go get ‘em” or something similar. He then went head over heels with a rifle ball through his totem paint. You do that a few times and the other guys are going to figure it’s not a good idea to stand up and holler “Let’s go get ‘em.”

The Indians then resorted to crawling through the brush and weeds. It was November, but a warmish November. Anything large, crawling through weeds, is going to cause an eruption of insects. Every time the Bowie party saw such an eruption it brought a rifle ball. How many they actually got we don’t know—Indians never left their dead on the field if they could remove them.

One got close enough to poke a musket barrel through the defenses and fire. His first round took a chip out of Buchanan’s shinbone. His second hit Matt Doyal in the chest. The third time the musket barrel came through, it was grabbed and shoved down violently. The head of the man on the other end of the musket popped up over the parapet. A large horse-pistol’s muzzle was the last thing he ever saw.

Eventually the Indians decided the game wasn’t worth the admission price. They took the party’s horses and mules and left.

This left Bowie’s party in a dilemma. They’d lost only one man—Tom McCaslin—but they had two wounded. Doyal’s wound was a serious one and Buchanan couldn’t walk. They also had 909 lbs of bar silver--eighteen half-quintal bars. Those things are about the size of two packs of king-size cigarettes laid end to end, but they weigh 50½ lbs. With two men on litters—according to Doyal there were originally fourteen men and a servant in the party—six men were essentially out of action. They were Doyal, Buchanan, and the four men it would take to carry the improvised litters. That left only seven to do any fighting or carry any silver. Sensibly, they decided to bury the silver and come back for it later. According to Doyal, the silver was buried “waist deep on a tall man” in the immediate vicinity of the improvised fortification. That would be about three feet deep. Marks were left to guide them to the location, McCaslin was buried in the same area, and the party started home after swearing an oath that no one or group would ever return to get the silver unless all were present. The following spring Bowie’s beloved wife died in Monclova and he took a headlong dive into a whiskey bottle, from which he didn’t emerge until 1835. After that he was too busy with the revolution to go back for the silver. Doyal told his grandson that, so far as he knew, nobody violated the oath and the silver was still where he watched Bowie and the other able men of the party bury it.

© C. F. Eckhardt July 7, 2013 column

Author's Note: Since this story was told by an actual participant in the Calf Creek fight, a man who made no attempt to aggrandize himself, & a man who, according to his grandson, was not one who 'spun windies,' I consider this likely the most accurate account of what occurred at Calf Creek in November of 1831--far more accurate than the 'blood and thunder' tale the Bowie brothers told. - CFE, July 05, 2013

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