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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Indian Emily

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
One of the most romantic stories in the lore of the Old West originated at Fort Davis. The tale has been told and retold in all media. And now it’s on the internet. It’s the story of Indian Emily and goes like this:

In the late 1860s, an Apache female fell wounded in a skirmish between cavalry troops stationed at Fort Davis and her band. The soldiers took her back to the fort, where a Mrs. Eason nursed her back to health and named her Emily. The Indian girl grew up on the post and eventually fell in love with Mrs. Eason’s son, Lt. Tom Eason.
Fort Davis old photo
Ft. Davis and its Buildings c. 1950
Photo Courtesy TXDoT
But the soldier married a girl of his own culture and the broken-hearted Emily returned to her people.

Some time later, so the story goes, the Apaches planned a major assault on the fort. Emily, in an act of selfless love, slipped away from her village in the middle of the night to warn the young officer.

As she approached the fort a jittery sentry shot her. She died in Mrs. Eason’s arms after telling her of her everlasting love for Lt. Eason and of the impending attack on Fort Davis.

They buried Indian Emily in the post cemetery. After the Army abandoned the garrison in 1891, the graves of most of the soldiers were relocated to the National Cemetery in San Antonio. Emily, however, was left behind.
The story goes back to 1919, when Carlyle Graham Raht included it in his book, “Romance of the Davis Mountains and the Big Bend Country.” Raht said he got the tale confirmed by Henry O. Flipper, the first African-American graduate of West Point and a one-time lieutenant at Fort Davis.

During the Texas centennial in 1936, the state placed a granite marker at Emily’s grave. The inscription reduced her story to 38 words, concluding that she had “saved the garrison from massacre.”

Alas, though touching, the account of Indian Emily and her valiant death is pure folklore.

In 1969 as a reporter for the San Angelo Standard-Times, I had a hand in exposing it as such. I interviewed Franklin Smith, then superintendent of the Fort Davis National Historic Site, and asked him about the Indian Emily story.

“All evidence points against it,” he said.

In fact, he continued, National Park Service historians had refuted every aspect of the story.

For one thing, Smith said, the National Archives had no record that a Lt. Tom Eason was ever stationed at the fort. Further, researchers had found no record a person by that name ever served in the U.S. Army prior to 1903.

The park superintendent said the military kept pretty good records, better than most people would think.

Those records also showed that Fort Davis never experienced an attacked by hostile Indians and that no attack ever had been seriously anticipated.

Smith, who had done socio-anthropological studies of the Apache culture, also said Emily did not behave like an Apache woman in the story. “Her general behavior was, well…very un-Apache,” he said.

Though the legend has Emily being wounded during the fight with the soldiers, according to Smith, “Apache women didn’t do any fighting except under dire circumstances.”

Too, the circumstances of her supposed capture did not ring true.

“Normally,” he said, “when Indian dependents were captured, they were cared for as best as the Army could. They were usually farmed out to boarding schools. They were not normally kept around the forts.”

Smith said someone likely dreamed up the story after reading one too many Victorian romances.

Sometime after my interview with Smith the NPS removed the piled stones from Emily’s purported grave, cut off access to the site and even took down the heavy historical marker, storing it along with other artifacts associated with the fort.

Indian Emily 1936 Texas Centennial Marker at Fort Davis
Indian Emily 1936 Texas Centennial marker at Fort Davis before removal.
Old photo courtesy Sarah Reveley
Indian Emily 1936 Texas Centennial Marker
Photo courtesy Barclay Gibson, May 2009
Indian Emily 1936 Texas Centennial Marker in storage
Indian Emily Marker in storage today
Photo courtesy Barclay Gibson, May 2009

The late Barry Scobee, one of the frequent tellers of the Indian Emily story, went to his own grave believing it contained at least some elements of truth. He set forth two pieces of circumstantial evidence in his 1963 history of Fort Davis.

Scobee’s Exhibit A came from a military report describing an engagement between three companies of Fort Davis troops under Lt. Patrick Cusack and a party of Indians on Sept. 8, 1868. Following the fight, Cusack’s command returned to the fort with two Mexican children who had been captured by the Indians and “an Indian female child.”

Since local lore had Emily’s death occurring in 1879 or ’80, Scobee wrote, the child brought in by Cusack more than a decade earlier could have been Emily.

The writer offered as Exhibit B the recollection of David Merrill, the man who got the government contract to exhume the Fort Davis post cemetery. Merrill related that the military told him to dig up all the remains except for a soldier who had committed suicide and an Indian woman. He said he removed 89 sets of remains, though a later account has the number at 83. No matter the count, he did not remove the Indian burial.

Scobee wrote that the grave had been marked by a board bearing an inscription that said “Indian Squaw—Died by Accident.” By the time the state put up the historical marker, Scobee continued, the board had disappeared. Warren D. and Herbert D. Bloys, local old timers, pointed out the grave’s location and recalled the no-longer politically correct wording of the wooden grave marker.

As Scobee wrote: “These bits of ‘evidence’…constitute the supporting circumstances of Emily’s reality.”

For a story teller, killing off a legend is a mighty hard thing, almost as tough as putting down a good horse with a broken leg. Fortunately, a story does not have to be true to be engaging.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" October 2, 2008 column

Related Topics & Stories:
Texas Love Stories
Fort Davis

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