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Clay Coppedge
Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Bird's Creek

by Clay Coppedge

Sometimes history remembers the marksman and other times it's the victim whose name attaches itself to historical immortality. The deciding factor is who writes the history, and the history of the Old West was not written by the Indians.

That's why frontiersman Billy Dixon's famous rifle shot in 1874 at the Battle of Adobe Walls has become part of western history and mythology. It's known as the shot of the century. But the unlucky brave whom Dixon shot from the unlikely distance of 1,538 yards (4,614 feet) is known simply as an unwitting dupe who got in the way of a bullet that traveled a long way to kill him.

Part of Bell County history and mythology centers on John Bird who was felled by an arrow fired from 200 yards away at the Battle of Bird's Creek in what is now the middle of Temple. The creek - really a ravine - where the battle happened was named in Bird's honor, posthumously. If the Indians had won, the creek probably would have been named for the archer.

The arrow that killed Captain Bird was fired 35 years before Dixon's famous long shot, in May of 1839, when the red man held sway in Bell County. Mexico had lost its battle for Texas in 1836 but the Mexican government was still intent on driving the snotty Lone Star upstarts out of the state. The Cordova Rebellion, which aligned the Mexican Army and various Indian tribes against the Anglo settlers, was designed to accomplish that.

Bird and about 50 men left Fort Milam, near present-day Marlin, escorting about half a dozen soldiers to Bastrop to face court martial charges. They arrived at Fort Little River, which was abandoned at that time, and Bird turned the prisoners over to Lt. James Irvin and a dozen men for the trip to Bastrop.

Bird and his second-in-command, Nathan Brookshire, escorted the men a few miles, then turned back for the fort. On the way, they spooked three Indians skinning a buffalo on the prairie. Bird and Brookshire confiscated the meat, returned to Little River, and saddled up the next day in search of the Indians. Unfortunately, they found them.

Bird and his men faced a small force, roughly equal to the rangers' manpower, and chased them smack dab into a trap, where Bird's men found themselves outnumbered about 20-1 by a force comprised of Caddos, Kickapoos and Comanches.

The incident took place near where General Bruce Drive Temple is now. At the time of the battle, it was all open prairie and it belonged to the Indians; not a single white person lived in the county at the time. Bird's men were able to make it to a ravine, where they made their stand. John Henry Brown, a participant in the battle, wrote about it 20 years later. He described the place where the rangers hunkered down:

"The ravine was in an open prairie with a ridge gradually ascending from its head and on either side, reaching the principal elevation at from 200 to 250 yards. For about 80 yards the ravine had washed out into a channel and then expanded into a flat surface. Such localities are common on the rolling prairies of Texas."

The Indians must have liked their chances at this point. A cocky chief sauntered his pony to within earshot of the trapped Rangers and asked in impeccable English, "How do you do?" He rode back and forth in front of the Rangers and repeated his question twice more: "How do you do?" This was the frontier equivalent of trash talking.

Maj. Brown related the second most famous incident, behind Bird's unlikely death, of the battle. "William Winkler, a Dutchman, presented his rifle with as much self-composure as if he had been shooting a beef, at the same time responding: 'I dosh tolerably well. How dosh you do (expletive deleted,)'" Then he shot the cheif off his horse and hollered at the fallen chief, 'Now how tosh you do, you tam red rascal!"

Chief Buffalo Hump - so named because he wore buffalo horns on his headdress -ordered the assembled Indians to charge, and they did so, twice. The Rangers repelled both charges.

After the Indians had dropped back a second time, Captain Bird mounted the creek bank to encourage his men, only to be struck in the heart by an arrow that Brown said was fired from 200 yards away.

Brown, quoted in George Tyler's "History of Bell County," said of the shot that it was "the best shot known in the annals of Indian warfare, and one that would seem incredible to those who are not familiar with their skill in shooting by elevation."

The Indians lost somewhere between 30 and 100 Indians in the battle. Bird and four of his men were killed. Willie Dixon went on to write his memoirs, where he claimed, as he always had, that his shot at Adobe Walls was just as lucky as it was long.

No one knows what the Indian who killed Captain Bird had to say about his shot. We don't even know if he survived the battle, but the memory of the shot he made certainly has.

Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" September 28, 2005 column

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