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Turkey Hunt

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

When the governor and the state’s highest ranking U.S. Army officer took time off from their official duties to go turkey hunting together in the late winter of 1890, the outing did not escape the attention of the state’s leading newspaper. But the correspondent who filed the report on the South Texas hunt missed the real story.

Gov. Lawrence Sullivan Ross, then beginning his last year in office, had invited Gen. David Sloan Stanley, commander of the Army’s Department of Texas, on a turkey-hunting and fishing expedition. The two men and their assorted friends and staff rendezvoused in Pearsall on March 4 before departing for three days in “the jungles of the Frio” as the Galveston newspaper put it.

“The first afternoon they killed quail enough for supper along the route and caught a fine mess of fish,” the newspaper reported on March 9 in a dispatch headlined “Sport in West Texas.” That night, the dispatch from South Texas continued, “…the governor killed two turkeys.”

With the exception of one hunter, who only got one gobbler, everyone else in the party, including the 61-year-old Gen. Stanley, also bagged two birds. Serving as guides were Hidalgo County Sheriff James L. Doughtery and someone identified only as “Captain Hudson.”

Taking birds at night means the hunters were probably shooting turkeys off their roost, which would be illegal today on several counts. Back then, however, what they did was legal if not particularly sporting.

During the day they fished in the Frio River and at night, harvested more turkeys, the report noted.

“But the most interesting feature of the expedition was the campfire yarns of the old hunters,” the newspaper’s correspondent wrote.

Indeed, several of those participating in the outing were seasoned hunters – of game and men.

The governor, then 51, had ridden as a Texas Ranger from 1858 to 1860. Leading a contingent of friendly Indians as Rangers and U.S. troops tangled with Comanches in the Battle of Wichita in 1858, Ross took an arrow in his shoulder and a large-caliber bullet tore into his chest. He barely survived the wounds, at one pointing pleading with his fellow Texans to kill him to put him out of his misery.

Two years later, having recovered, Ross led the Ranger command that recaptured Cynthia Ann Parker (kidnapped in what is now Limestone County in 1836) during the Battle of Pease River.

When the Civil War broke out, Ross joined the Rebel cause and ended up fighting in 135 engagements, including the Nov. 30, 1864 Battle of Franklin in Tennessee.

And here is where that Victorian era journalist failed to see the irony: One of the Union officers participating in that bloody battle was Stanley. In other words, the two men who in 1890 enjoyed the fellowship of a turkey hunt only 26 years before had been on different sides in the same fight. While their respective units did not directly crash, both played a role in the engagement.

Stanley, in fact, later received a Congressional medal of honor for leading the charge in a successful Union counterattack that ended up saving the day for the Yankees at Franklin. In the process, a bullet wounded him in the neck and his horse got shot out from under him.

Evidently, the passage of time and a mutual love of hunting and fishing had mitigated any lingering partisan feelings between the two former combatants. While it’s easy enough to smirk that the gentleman of the press who wrote about the hunt didn’t capitalize on the angle of former foes taking up arms together in the name of recreation, the tragedy is that he didn’t go into more detail on their campfire exchanges.

“The Indian fights…recounted by the governor and General Stanley were very interesting,” the reporter tantalized without offering any details.

Everyone apparently had a fine time until a late-winter norther blew in on the second night of the hunt. The blast of cold air caught them unexpected while “camped on the bleak prairie six miles from anywhere without fuel, bait, or shelter.”

Judging from a mention earlier in the piece that Stanley’s camp cook had been caught drinking their “bait,” that word must have been polite newspaper code for whiskey.

“The governor of Texas and the military chief of this department stood around a little fire of trash and rat’s nests shivering until compelled to roll up in blankets,” the News went on. “Sleep was impossible, and when others of the party had replenished the fire at great labor, morning came in all [the] more welcome.”

The hunters packed their wagons and rode back to Pearsall. From there, Ross and Stanley took the International and Great Northern Railroad north to San Antonio, where the general had his quarters at Fort Sam Houston. After Stanley and his retinue got off the train, Ross and his party continued on to the Capital City.

A short time later, Ross left Austin for Washington to politic against Oklahoma’s claim to 1.5 million acres of Texas in the building Greer County dispute and Stanley soon departed Texas for his last post before retiring from the military in 1892.

The journalist who wrote about the Ross-Stanley hunt ended his piece with the observation that the man who had guided the dignitaries had vowed he would never again “chaperon a party of prospectors [hunters] on the Frio before March has fairly set in.” Too bad he didn’t make a similar pledge about shooting turkeys on their roost.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales"
November 26, 2009 column

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