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Judge Vs Marshal
in Old Mobeetie

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
When the stagecoach finally rolled to a stop in Mobeetie, what caught Englishman Samuel Nugent Townsend’s eye was a troop of cavalry mustering on the Fort Elliott parade ground.

The visitor, planning a book on his exploration of the American West, quickly set up his camera and photographed the horse soldiers readying for a march eastward into Indian Territory where the Comanches and Kiowas who had once terrorized the Panhandle now lived on reservations.

When he finished, Townsend looked up 10th Cavalry Capt. Nicholas Nolan, the only officer at the fort he knew. Nolan introduced the visitor to a lieutenant and his wife who welcomed the 34-year-old bachelor to share their quarters.

Townsend’s stay at Fort Elliott in the fall of 1878 would be brief, but not dull. In fact, for a time it looked like violence might erupt in nearby Mobeetie. Townsend, a peace-loving fellow, soon felt grateful for the protection of the fort, which lay conveniently out of pistol shot from the wild and wooly town.

As Townsend wrote in “Our Indian Summer in the Far West,” dangerous ill will had developed following the arrest of several local ranchers for selling tobacco to their hands at cost without having a federal license. The U.S. Marshal for the area filed on them for the tax law violation. But the county judge, clearly sympathetic to the locals, released some of them on slight bail and dismissed the charges against others.

In reaction, the marshal blustered and jailed the judge, the county attorney and the sheriff for obstruction of justice. After that, the marshal rearrested the ranchers.

“The greatest excitement at once was got up in the county,” Townsend wrote.

The townspeople armed themselves “to the teeth,” as Townsend put it, and the English visitor was sure the federal marshal would be lynched. Meanwhile, the Army said it could not interfere in civil matters.

Eventually the citizenry cooled off and the ranchers paid their fines. The federal charges against the local officials, if indeed ever formally lodged, went nowhere.

“The affair subsequently terminated without bloodshed,” Townsend wrote, “which goes far to prove that the days of miracles have not yet ceased.”

While a guest at Fort Elliott, Townsend went on a prairie chicken hunt with Capt. Richard I. Escridge of the 23rd Infantry. Venturing from the fort in the captain’s light spring wagon, Townsend found the prairie “…heather-looking, but…not heathery. Thin, gold, curly, buffalo grass lies amongest, and around, large tufts of red, coarse herbage, which, had it been cut in May, would have [made] some of the sweetest hay.”

As the two men rolled along, shotguns at the ready, the captain’s pointer worked hard first to the right, and then to the left but found no birds. “His spirit and ours at length began to flag…” But then the dog froze on point.

“Whirr went the bird, bang went one of our guns, and our first prairie grouse of the season, a lovely dark brown bird, fat as a quail, and rounded as a partridge, came to earth, as dead as her late majesty, the lamented Queen Anne,” Townsend wrote.

Townsend missed several shots that afternoon, and like most unsuccessful hunters he blamed it on something other than marksmanship: “Nothing, indeed, so puts out a British sportsman as the varying strength of American powders.”

The gracious captain, unaware of Townsend’s prejudice against American shotgun shells, gave the Englishman the remainder of his ammunition.

The troops of Fort Elliott of ten had to ride out on short notice in pursuit of Indians who slipped off their reservation and entered their old range in Texas. Because of that, Townsend said, the soldiers seldom appeared in “full-fig,” a popular term of the day for complete fatigue dress.

“The United States soldier in his barrack, therefore, looks rather slovenly, and the officers who seldom wear any uniform except trousers, present a rather motely appearance to an eye accustomed to the rigid dress…of European armies.”

While not impressed with how Fort Elliott’s horse soldiers looked, Townsend definitely liked Army chow.

“A regimental mess keeps up, no doubt, to desirable extent, the esprit de corps of the regiment, and has many other virtues, not the least of which is the greatest culinary comfort with a minimum of expense,” he wrote.

The pith-helmeted, monocled English gentleman had much more country to cover before he could return to write his book. So that Townsend could do some exploring on his own, the post trader furnished him with a military ambulance for the remainder of his Panhandle expedition. That wagon proved just the right size for all his gear, which included a military tent, army rations, blankets, ammunition, and an India-rubber bath he had carried all the way from England.

When he left Mobeetie, he wrote, “Fort Elliott is a place more pleasant to spend a month than a week….”

The writer-photographer kept careful notes throughout his journey. His book was practically ready for press by the time he got back to England. Dedicated to John George Adair, Esq., whose ranch Townsend also visited, the book came out in 1880.

Fort Elliott lasted another decade before the army considered the Panhandle safe enough to abandon the post.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales"
December 12, 2012 column

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