Lt. John Lapham Bullis
and the Seminole Negro Scouts
of the least-known heroes of the Texas frontier was a man known to his followers
as ‘The Whirlwind’ and to his enemies as ‘The Thunderbolt.’ His name was John
Lapham Bullis, and he was a Lieutenant in the US Army.|
Photo Courtesy National Park Service
| Bullis enlisted as
a private in a New York volunteer infantry regiment in 1861. He was promoted to
corporal, wounded and captured at Gettysburg, and exchanged. He was appointed
a captain in the 118th United States Colored Infantry, a volunteer regiment made
up entirely of Black enlisted men and white officers. In 1866, like many other
volunteer officers, he was mustered out of the army. For a year he ran a wood
business on the Mississippi, supplying steamboats with fuel.|
the Regular Army was reorganized into the largest peacetime establishment it had
ever had-or would ever have again until the onset of the Cold War following WW
II. The cavalry was expanded from 6 regiments to 10, the infantry from 19 regiments
to 45. Two cavalry regiments, the 9th and 10th, and four infantry regiments, the
38th, 39th, 40th, and 41st, were composed of Black enlisted men with white officers.
The army was also authorized up to 1,000 Indians as scouts, to be recruited as
needed. At that point the Regular Army was larger and better suited for the purpose
for which it existed than it ever had been in the history of the United States-or
ever would be again until the latter half of the 20th century.
L. Bullis, like many other volunteer officers who'd served with 'colored' troops
during the war, was offered a Regular Army commission to return as an officer
in one of the new 'colored' regiments. 'Regular' Regular Army officers-West Pointers-tended
to shun the 'colored' regiments as social, political, and promotional graveyards.
George A. Custer turned down a full colonelcy in 1867 in favor of a captaincy
in the 7th Cavalry because, as a colonel, he would command a 'colored' Cavalry
regiment. Bullis accepted a commission as a Lieutenant in the 41st Infantry.
In 1869 the army was reorganized yet again, into the structure it would hold
for the remainder of the Indian wars. The Cavalry was left pretty much untouched,
though the number of privates in a cavalry company, which by law could be anywhere
from 50 to 100, was fixed at 64.
The Artillery was left at 5 regiments,
but these, for the most part, were assigned to coastal defense forts. The Infantry
was reduced from 45 regiments to 25, with the 4 'colored' regiments consolidated
into 2. The 38th and 39th became the 24th Infantry, while the 40th and 41st became
the 25th Infantry. The 42nd, 43rd, 44th, and 45th Infantry regiments, the 'Veterans'
Reserve Corps,' made up of wounded and overage veterans, were disbanded entirely.
The 1869 reorganization also eliminated some 900 officer slots, forcing many
officers to resign. Had this served to eliminate the deadwood-over age in grade
and incompetent-it might have considerably improved the army's combat efficiency,
but unfortunately that's not what happened. Many of the men eliminated were, instead,
highly qualified combat officers with considerable Indian-war experience who were
removed because they lacked the social connections or political influence that
pervaded promotion in the 19th century Regular Army. About the only non-socially
connected, non-politically connected officers who were allowed to remain were
those willing to serve in the 9th and 10th Cavalry or the 24th and 25th Infantry-or
those who volunteered for frontier duty. John Bullis had served his entire commissioned
career with Black troops. He also had no objection to going west.
1869 until 1873 Bullis served with the 25th Infantry on the frontier. Then, about
1872, something began to happen in southern and western Texas. Indian raids from
inside Mexico-not to mention bandit raids from the same source-were devastating
the border. The one thing the army lacked was scouts-really competent trackers
who could follow the faint trails of the Comanche, Lipan, Kickapoo, and Kiowa.
Living south of the border in the Santa Rosa Mountains of Mexico was
a very peculiar group of people. They were-and are-called Seminole Negroes. They
are the descendants of escaped slaves from Alabama, Georgia, and northern Florida
who fled into the swamps of Florida and southern Georgia, joined with-and intermarried
with-the Seminole tribe, and considered themselves part of the Seminoles.
When the Seminoles, along with the Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks,
and Shawnees, were removed to the new Indian Territory along what those peoples
still call 'The Trail Of Tears,' the Seminole Negroes went along. It didn't take
them long to realize that what is now Oklahoma would never be a home to them.
While the Seminoles-and to some extent the Cherokees-accepted them completely,
almost no other tribe did. A large band of them packed up and removed themselves
entirely from the United States, to settle in the Santa Rosa Mountains of northern
Though many of their descendants live there to this day, their
new home was an uneasy one. They were distrusted by the Mexicans and disliked
by the local Indians, who decided-on more than one occasion-to see if these strange-looking
newcomers knew how to fight. The Seminoles remain the only tribe never to have
signed a treaty of peace with the United States, and the only tribe that had to
be run down and captured, one by one, rather than ever voluntarily entering a
reservation. The Seminoles-and the Seminole Negroes-were plenty tough customers.
The warlike Indians of northern Mexico quickly learned to leave them strictly
Part of the distrust in Mexico seems to have arisen over religion.
Mexico was-and to a large extent still is-Roman Catholic. The Seminole Negroes
were Baptists-but very peculiar Baptists. Most of their church ritual seems to
have been brought by their Black ancestors and interpreted by their Indian forebears.
Among other things, at Communion neither wine nor grape juice is served. The Seminole
Negroes use, to this day, iced tea. It seems the Indian side of the family couldn't
regard wine, which any white man would sell you, or grape juice, which you could
squeeze out of the grapes growing wild in the forest, as sacred. They were just
Tea, on the other hand, was expensive and hard to get,
and ice was almost impossible to come by. Something as rare as iced tea simply
had to be far more sacred than wine or grape juice and therefore more suitable
for the Lord's Supper.
1872 the United States finally admitted that it took Indians to trail Indians.
Right south of the border were the Seminole Negroes, still nominally US Indians-and
they could track a lizard across rock. Agents were sent to them, promising them
land of their own, permanent enlistment in the army, food for themselves and their
families, and a chance to strike back at the Indians who'd harassed them when
they first moved to Mexico. A good many trekked north of the border and formed
a company of scouts being raised at Fort Clark, Texas.
however, the army now had a company of some of the best scouts money could buy-and
nobody to command them. While there was some glamor-later on-associated with commanding
Indian scout companies, the Seminole Negroes didn't look like Indians. They looked
like Black folks. Regular Army officers fought shy of commands involving Black
troops, and the Seminole Negroes were no exception. A call went out for an officer
who wanted to serve on the frontier, who had experience commanding Black troops,
and who didn't mind continuing the experience. 1st Lieutenant John Lapham Bullis,
fresh from the 25th Infantry, volunteered.
The man and the job met at
Fort Clark in 1873, and never was a soldier more perfectly suited to a job than
the man the Seminole Negroes nicknamed 'The Whirlwind.' Militarily, the function
of a scout or a group of scouts is to find the enemy's forces, identify their
location, then contact the combat troops and lead them to the enemy. John L. Bullis
didn't agree with that definition. To his way of thinking, the function of the
Seminole Negro scouts was to find the enemy, identify his location, fall upon
him like the wrath of God, leave nothing but corpses and ashes behind, and then
tell the 'combat troops' what you'd done.
Of LT Bullis one of the Scouts,
Joseph Phillips, said: "That feller suffer just like we did out in the woods.
He was a good man. He was a Injun fighter. He was tough. He didn't care how big
a bunch they was, he went into 'em every time, but he look after his men. His
men was on equality, too. He didn't stand back and say 'go yonder,' he say 'come
on boys, let's go get 'em."
1875. LT Bullis and three Seminole Negro scouts-SGT John Ward, Trumpeter Isaac
Payne, and PVT Pompey Factor-struck a trail of about 75 horses, some shod, being
driven by riders on unshod horses. That meant exactly one thing. Those were stolen
horses headed for Mexico with Indians driving them. Though Bullis and his men
had already ridden some 70 miles and were actually headed for home, they took
up the trail. They followed it for eight days.
Early on the afternoon
of April 26, several miles above Eagle's Nest Crossing on the Rio Grande, they
cut into the trail where it was fresh. At the crossing itself they came up on
the thieves. Four men-Bullis and the three scouts-attacked some 25 to 30 Lipans.
The shock of the attack was effective at first. Bullis and his men recaptured
the horses. Unfortunately, the shock wore off. They lost the horses to the Lipans,
then recaptured them in about 45 minutes of non-stop shooting. Finally Bullis'
horse was shot out from under him and, with the scouts and the LT almost out of
ammunition and on the verge of being captured by the Lipans, they were forced
to retreat. Much to Bullis' regret, they had to abandon the recovered horses to
Bullis was on the ground. SGT Ward picked him up 'on
the fly' as they retreated. On May 28, 1875, SGT Ward, Trumpeter Payne, and PVT
Factor were awarded Congressional Medals of Honor for their courage above and
beyond the call of duty at Eagle's Nest Crossing. Ward's carbine had to be turned
in for repair after the fight. A bullet had shattered the stock just behind the
June 20, 1876. LT Bullis and scouts were returning to Fort Clark
from a long ride into the Davis Mountains far to the north. They struck a fresh
trail-stolen horses, headed for Mexico. Bullis, of course, turned to follow it.
It led to the Rio Grande, then across into Mexico. US troops weren't supposed
to cross the border. How long Bullis hesitated we don't know, but on topographical
maps of the Big Bend country you'll find what's known as Bullis's Crossing. For
three days the Seminole Negro scouts followed a band of Mescalero Apaches into
Mexico. They weren't able to bring them to a fight, but they pressed them so hard
they had to abandon the 36 horses they were driving-each of which bore a Texas
brand. Bullis and his men drove them back across the Rio Grande. Then the LT,
who'd been in the saddle for perhaps a week with little rest, saddled a fresh
horse, rode 140 miles in 36 hours to Fort Clark, and reported what he'd done.
Less than a week later Bullis and 90 scouts were back in Mexico. They planned
to attack a Lipan village not far from Saragosa, Coahuila, in retaliation for
a Lipan raid in May that left 12 to 15 Texans dead. The village was empty-the
Lipans had been warned. Bullis burned the lodges to the ground.
29 Bullis, accompanied by 20 scouts and 20 troopers from the 24th Infantry, crossed
the Rio Grand in the dark. Twenty-five hours later, just at dawn, they attacked
a Lipan village of 23 lodges on the Rio San Antonio not far from Saragosa. Disciplined
volley fire by the troopers of the 24th, plus highly accurate individual fire
from the scouts, all but destroyed the Lipans. Caught completely off guard, they
tried to counterattack, then broke and ran. Bullis counted 14 dead Lipan warriors
on the field. Signs indicated that many more had been dragged away by survivors.
The scouts and infantrymen captured 100 horses and mules, all wearing Texas brands,
and 4 women.
Bullis burned the village to ashes and returned to the American
side. There was trouble coming. Some of the Lipans who escaped contacted the Mexican
authorities. A force of about 250 Mexican cavalry mounted up and gave pursuit,
intending to annihilate Bullis and his small force on Mexican soil. Thirty miles
from the Rio Grande, the Mexican cavalry caught up with Bullis and his 40 men.
LT Bullis, 20 scouts, and 20 infantrymen turned to fight the 250 cavalrymen in
what would surely be their last fight.
As it turned out, there wasn't
a fight at all. In the finest tradition of Hollywood, bugles sounded to the east…everybody
looked…and LTC William R. "Pecos Bill" Shafter and four companies of US cavalry-300
men-came riding over the ridge. There followed a long, tense, quiet standoff…and
then the Mexican troops went home.
There were a lot of official protests
over Bullis' incursion-including allegations that he had raided a peaceful village
of farmers. This despite the fact that every horse and mule recovered wore a Texas
brand, and property positively identified as having been taken from ranches and
settlements in murderous raids was found in the lodges and brought back as proof.
It didn't discourage Bullis. It also didn't discourage Major General Edward
O. C. Ord from issuing an order which said that in the event the raids continued,
American troops would be allowed and even encouraged "...when in pursuit of a
band of marauders and when…troops are either in sight of them or upon fresh trail,
to follow them across the Rio Grande, and to overtake and punish them, as well
as retake stolen property…." General Ord meant exactly what he said, and he had
the quiet if not vocal support of the two most powerful men in the army, Generals
William T. Sherman and Philip Sheridan.
a Seminole Negro tracker, there was no such thing as a 'cold trail.' It eventually
dawned on the hostile Indians of the lower border that they were in trouble. Between
the man they called The Thunderbolt and an Eagle Chief (Colonel) they called Broken
Hand or Three Fingers, Texas was no longer the easy pickings it had been when
the bluecoats were more interested in chasing white men who'd been wearing gray
coats than they were in chasing Indians. To the north the Comanches had another
name for this Eagle Chief. They called him Pony Killer. His name was Ranald Slidell
The pace of the raids began to slow down, but a great many
of the raiders swore one thing. They would see The Thunderbolt's bones bleaching
in Mexico and his scalp hanging in a lodge if he chased them across the Rio Grande
again. Which, of course, is exactly what he did. All during 1877 and 1878, Bullis
and his Seminole Negro scouts continued raiding in Mexico, attacking villages
known to harbor or suspected of harboring raiders who'd raided Texas. The scouts
were never wrong. Each raid returned to Texas horses and mules bearing Texas brands
and property identifiable as stolen in Texas.
In October, 1877, Bullis'
command struck an Apache trail, followed it more than 50 miles into Mexico, killed
five braves, and returned with 60 Texas-branded horses and mules. In November
a band of raiders got away. There were too many, and Bullis couldn't fight them
with the troops he had. A week later he was back with a company of 8th Cavalry
and the Seminoles. They attacked the same band in the same place. This time the
soldiers rode away with 17 horses, 5 mules, and a burro, all with Texas brands,
over a dozen saddles, all made in the US, 10 water kegs, 54 deer and buffalo hides,
and nearly a quarter-ton of fresh and dried venison and horse meat. The kegs,
hides, and meat Bullis soaked with lamp oil and burned. It would be a long, cold
winter for one band of raiders.
By the early summer of 1878 the raiders
were getting the word-and Mexican authorities were getting madder by the minute.
Orders went out for Mexican forces to stop, fight, and if possible annihilate
any US troops crossing the border in pursuit of hostiles. In June CPT S. M. B.Young
and a half-company of cavalry, accompanied by Broken Hand Pony Killer himself,
set out from a camp on the Devil's River in pursuit of a band of marauders who
would unquestionably try to escape into Mexico. Less than half a day behind the
small force came Pecos Bill Shafter, leadinga half-regiment (5 companies) of cavalry,
a full regiment of infantry, and a battery of light artillery.
Mackenzie & Co. were bait. Shafter was the trap.
At the village of Remolino
on the Rio Rodriguez, Mackenzie's small force was met by some 200 Mexican troops
under a General Valdez. Valdez told Mackenzie he was going to stop him. Mackenzie
told him he was welcome to try. At 1:30 PM on June 19 Mackenzie's men began to
move forward in skirmish formation toward Remolino. Valdez' men, who outnumbered
them 4 to 1, prepared to receive them-when over the hill behind Mackenzie came
Pecos Bill Shafter, with nearly 1500 men and six cannon. There were no shots fired.
The Mexican army never again tried to interfere with US troops who were in pursuit
1879. A band of Lipan and Mescalero Apaches crossed the border into Texas. It
wasn't raiding season, but Bullis and his scouts were out The crossing was found
and 39 scouts, 15 cavalrymen, 3 Lipan scouts, and an ex-Comanchero set out in
one of the strangest pursuits in the history of the Indian wars. The Indians committed
no depredations that Bullis found, but they were followed until his command had
them in sight. For 34 bitterly cold days, Bullis and his men dogged the Apaches'
steps-never moving closer, never falling back, never losing contact. The pursuit
ended with the Apaches rode onto the Fort Stanton Reservation in New Mexico Territory.
After conferring with authorities at Fort Stanton, Bullis turned his men back
for Fort Clark. They had been in the saddle 80 days and covered 1,266 miles.
By 1880 most of the hostiles south of the border realized that Texas-thanks
largely to LT John Lapham Bullis and the Seminole Negro scouts-was too hot to
hold them. Only a few raiders crossed the Rio Grande, most were driven back easily,
and little was lost in the way of lives or property. On April 14, 1881 a band
of Lipans, possibly under the influence of bad whiskey, crossed the river, rode
all the way to the headwaters of the Frio, raided an isolated ranch, and killed
a woman and a young boy. They looted the place and, before leaving, killed a horse,
skinned it, and wrapped the hide around their horses' hooves to disguise their
tracks. On April 26 the scouts were informed of the raid. The orders read "pursue
On May 1, deep in the Sierra del Burro Mountains in Mexico,
the scouts ran the Lipans to earth. At dawn the next morning The Thunderbolt struck.
In less than 20 minutes over half the raiders were dead. The scouts recovered
21 horses and mules and an American woman and small boy no one knew were missing.
1881 US troops mounted 12 expeditions to search for signs of hostile Indians on
Texas soil. They left from 12 different forts or camps and covered, by their own
records, an aggregate of 3,662 miles horseback. None found any trace of Indians.
The people of West Texas presented LT John Lapham Bullis with a fine,
engraved sword. It read: He has protected our homes-our homes are open to him.
On April 7, 1882, the Texas Legislature, in a Joint Resolution, commended LT Bullis
for his services "..in behalf of the people of the frontier of this State,
in repelling the depredations of Indians and other enemies of the frontier of
John Bullis didn't do it all alone. He had a lot of help.
The help, mostly, was the Seminole Negro scouts. What became of them?
The Seminoles had been recruited by a promise of permanent enlistment in the US
Army, homes and food for their families, and land of their own. Those promises
were made by the US Congress, not by the army. No sooner than the Indian threat
ended than Congress ordered the discharge of the Seminole Negro scouts. There
would be no permanent enlistment, no homes, and most important, no land they could
call their own. Every promise was broken.
Predictably, the politicians
didn't bother to tell the scouts themselves. Instead, they told the army to do
it. MG Christopher C. Augur, who probably had more admiration for the scouts than
any man in the army save Bullis himself, had to tell them that these promises,
like so many others, wouldn't be kept. Some few remained at Fort Clark, hanging
on to the 'good old days' and keeping themselves alive as best they could. Some
of their descendants still live around Brackettville.
Most simply saddled up and headed back to the Santa Rosas, chalking up one more
bunch of broken promises to go with all the rest.