was May of 1835 in the Green Dewitt colony located in the Mexican province of
Texas-Coahuila. Along the banks of the Guadalupe River, about fifty miles east
of old San Antonio de Bexar, spring was manifest on every bush and tree. It was
a countryside unmarred by either the axe or the plow, for the "advance of civilization"
such as a cabin or wagon trail was rarely seen except near the village of Gonzales.
the lonely trail from Gonzales
to San Antonio, there lived only
one settler. John Castleman had brought his young family there to the valley of
the Guadalupe sometime before 1825. He built a strong log cabin there, complete
with shutters that locked securely from the inside, and for defense against Indians
he surrounded his home with a palisade of sharp cedar posts.
a small lake and a shallow wagon ford across the Guadalupe, and once or twice
a month some weary traveler, en route from Austin's Colony to San
Antonio, might stop for food and lodging at the log cabin.
it was, late one Saturday afternoon, when Castleman heard a loud shout outside.
Instinctively Castleman went to the window and could see a stranger waving both
arms in a broad arc to attract attention. Upon reaching the palisade gate, Castleman
learned that he was a French merchant named Gressier, seeking information about
the route to San Antonio. Standing
behind him was his small caravan of pack mules and three 2-wheeled carts, each
of the later covered with canvas and driven by a Mexican teamster.
had left New Orleans by steamboat two months earlier, and upon arrival at Natchitoches,
Louisiana on the Red River, had purchased the carts and mules and had engaged
the Mexicans, late of San Antonio,
as drivers to guide his caravan of hardware and dry goods across Texas.
The men and animals were quite weary from the long day's journey, and Gressier
inquired where there might be a suitable watering-place and campsite for the night.
directed the merchant to the small lake, some 300 yards distant toward the river,
where there was plenty of water and grass for the mules, but he suggested that
Gressier not camp for the night in the neighboring cedar brake.
you and your teamsters kin camp here in my yard tonight behind the palisade,"
Castleman offered. "A Comanche war party has been reported up north of here, and
you'd be in bad shape if they showed up down there at the lake. There's plenty
of well water and wood here, and in case of attack we'd have a better chance to
defend your property and mine."
The Frenchman declined, however, remarking
that they had not seen any Comanche signs along the trail. His Mexican hands were
well armed and were experienced Indian fighters as well. And besides, he didn't
wish to endanger his benefactor any more than necessary, for he knew that mules
and horses attracted Comanches like buzzards to carrion.
and his teamsters drove the caravan down to the cedar brake where they parked
the carts in a defensive perimeter, unharnessed the teams, watered and hobbled
the mules, and allowed them to graze, after which they settled down for the night.
cargo, although not discernible to the casual eye, was only slightly less attractive
to marauders than his mule teams. The packs were filled with axe heads, hammers,
knives, hoes, scissors, needles, and just about every hardware item that a frontier
merchant required. The carts carried casks of green coffee, kegs of whiskey, dozens
of bolts of cheap cotton prints, calico, alpaca, and muslins, yarn and knitting
needles, boxes of spooled thread of every hue, hogsheads of tobacco, and many
other frontier necessities.
As darkness approached, Castleman barred his
shutters and doors, secured his household and livestock, and retired for the night.
Dawn came amid a din of war whoops and musket fire. Even before the first
rays of light punctured the horizon, a war party of Comanches were preparing to
water their horses when they unwittingly stumbled into the Frenchman's campsite.
The Mexican teamsters were not totally unprepared. At their sides lay an asortment
of loaded muskets and pistols, and when the first sound of Comanche voices and
pony hoofs disturbed their slumber, the Mexicans loosed a volley of shot which
sent the warriors scurrying for cover.
Before the war party could recover
from its initial shock, Gressier and his men hurriedly overturned the carts in
a triangle, stacked casks, packs, and bolts of cloth about as breastworks, and
with all their muskets reloaded, they cautiously awaited the attack that was certain
Soon aware that they outnumbered their opponents by ten or more
to one, the Comanches deliberately took their time before pressing their attack.
They were heavily armed with bows, lances, and tomahawks, but carried only a limited
quantity of muskets and powder. During the early hours of the fight, they encircled
the Frenchman's camp at a distance of 100 to 150 yards away and employed various
ruses to draw the Mexicans' fire.
Gressier and his teamsters, in the hope
of discouraging their attackers, triggered a volley of bullets at the first rustling
of any branch or bush. Occasionally they caught momentary glimpses of the warriors
as they darted about, and now and then, they knew a bullet had struck its mark
when some Comanche howled or dropped to the ground. But throughout the fight,
the war party did not show the least inclination to abandon the siege.
the first sound of gunfire, Castleman grabbed two muskets and rushed to a window.
His cabin stood at the top of a hill, and he had an excellent view of the impending
massacre, where columns of smoke and gun flashes emerged from the cedar brake
surrounding the campsite. The number of ponies and glimpses of warriors scampering
about confirmed his fear regarding the size of the Indian party.
distance of 150 yards from the cabin was a gnarled post oak upon which Castleman
had nailed a paper target for musket practice. The white object soon caught the
eye of a young Indian. As he stood before it, curiously examining the bullet holes,
Castleman took a careful aim and was about to pull the trigger when his wife intervened.
She begged him to refrain from firing since, because of the number of warriors,
the couple's only hope hinged upon the possibility that the Comanches might become
intoxicated with their successful plunder of the caravan and leave the settler
and his family unmolested.
Soon aware that he was in an exposed position,
the young Indian glanced quickly at Castleman's cabin and darted back into the
As the Indians had hoped, the constant rate of fire from
the Mexicans began to subside and by mid-morning had deteriorated to only an occasional
shot. Believing that Gressier and his teamsters had depleted their supply of powder
and shot, the Indians, advancing from all four sides, crawled on their bellies
to within fifty yards of the camp. At a given signal from their chief, they charged
the teamsters, assailing them with a barrage of bullets, arrows, and lances. Gressier
and his men fired one final volley, killing some of them, and then using their
muskets as clubs, fought like tigers until a few screams and then a pervasive
silence encompassed the massacre site.
With the firing and yelling ended
and his worst fears confirmed, Castleman and his wife fearfully pondered their
perilous predicament. He even thought of dispatching his wife and son on horseback
in the direction of Gonzales,
but decided against it.
In time the Indians' upraised voices, whoops,
and laughter became increasing loud. They ramsacked the carts and packs, broke
open the whiskey kegs, and soon were dancing about an open space, their bodies
wrapped with bolts of brightly-colored cloth. Later Castleman watched as two columns
of mounted Comanches filed slowly over the neighboring hill. Some of them held
a bolt of cloth under each arm, while others struggled to carry a cask or a keg.
Then there followed in single file near the end of the column six of Gressier's
mules, their packs in place. As the last Indian disappeared over the horizon,
Castleman counted altogether almost eighty horsemen, the largest war party of
Comanches he had ever seen or heard of in Dewitt's Colony.
At the end
of the columns rode the young Indian, no more than a lad and probably on his first
raid, that Castleman had had in his gun sights. Already nearing the point of drunkenness,
the boy carried a box under his arm and toyed with a single spool of red thread,
the end of which had been wrapped around a finger, in his right hand. The spool
soon fell to the ground and, as yard after yard trailed out behind him, the youth
became fascinated by the great length of thread that was wound upon the reel.
As each spool played out, he starting reeling out another spool of yarn, and then
another, and by nightfall, after the Comanches had ridden westward for hours along
the river, there was mile after mile of colored thread stretching along the south
bank of the Guadalupe River.
When the last Indian disappeared, Castleman
took his musket and headed for the lake. The battle site was fully as ghastly
as he had expected -- mutilated corpses still bleeding from multiple lance wounds.
He also found several Indian bodies floating in the lake. Castleman hurriedly
gathered his family and some belongings and carried them to safety in Gonzales,
arriving late in the night.
of an Indian attack traveled fast and far in the Gonzales
vicinity, as it always did. Before noon, Castleman and twenty-seven other men
were in the saddle and en route back to the battle scene on the Guadalupe. The
group of frontiersmen with Castlemen included Mathew Caldwell, John Davis, Robert
M. White, Dan McCoy, Jesse McCoy, B. D. McClure, Ezekiel Williams, George W. Cottle,
Andrew Sowell, Sr., Dr. James Miller, Almeron Dickinson, Jacob C. Darst, and several
others, some of whom had arrived from the States only two days earlier. McClure
was elected to lead the men, and shortly after noon, they arrived at the scene
of the massacre.
The Indian trail was plain and clear, sometimes red,
sometimes green, or blue, but always it followed west along the south bank of
the river. At about the spot where the trail of thread played out, the war party
crossed the Guadalupe at Erskine's Ford, later following.
before McClure and his men finally sighted the Comanche campfire on a high ridge
overlooking the San Marcos River, opposite the present-day city of that name.
In the center of their camp, the warriors had erected a pole, around which the
grass had been completely trampled down, for throughout the previous night, the
Comanches had performed their well-known scalp dance, celebrating their victory.
Outnumbered as they were by three to one or more, McClure and his men
were unwilling to risk a fight without the element of surprise, and as the Indians
were then in the process of breaking camp, the Gonzales frontiersmen chose to
pursue them along the banks of the Blanco River.
Two more days would elapse
before the company would encounter the Comanches again. They followed them along
the banks of the Blanco, where fresh Indian signs confirmed that the war party
was only a short distance ahead. Obscured the following morning by a dense fog
bank, McClure and his men were moving cautiously along the south bank when suddenly
the fog lifted, and an Indian lookout on a nearby hillside sounded an alarm.
Thus discovered and cheated of the element of surprise, McClure hurried his company
to a thick cedar brake, dismounted, and sent Darst and Dickinson ahead to scout
for the main body of warriors. The rest of the men advanced through the thick
underbrush and were almost to an open field by the river when they saw their scouts
beating a hasty retreat, closely pursued by eight Comanches.
scouts led their happy pursuers right into the musket muzzles of their companions,
who promptly dropped the eight Indians with as many shots. Other whoops and shouts
revealed that the main body of Comanches was straight ahead near the river bank,
and McClure's men charged across the open field to the next cedar brake. When
they finally made contact, it became obvious that the war party was seeking to
escape across the river with their plunder rather than press the fight, and their
yelling and whooping almost drowned out the ensuing musket fire.
warriors attempted to put up a limited, rear guard defense, releasing volleys
of arrows, while others led loaded mules into the water, or started wading across
the river carrying bolts of cloth. Their meager defense soon gave way to total
rout, however, the fleeing warriors abandoning much booty on the south bank in
their haste to escape to the underbrush on the opposite shore. Spread out as they
were along the Blanco, the Indians' flight actually became a trapshoot for the
frontiersmen, who fired as fast as they could reload.
The general melee
of battle lasted perhaps ten or twelve minutes, with nearly half of the war party
escaping to the opposite bank where they soon disappeared, and the remainder dying
or drowning in the middle of the stream and bolts of cloth floating downriver.
Thus shorn of their mounts and weapons, those who escaped were no longer effective
as a raiding party, and no further attempt at pursuit was made. The Texans had
lost none of the frontiersmen killed, although three of them had been hit by arrows,
each suffering a minor flesh wound. McClure's men then collected the stolen mules
and Indian ponies, loaded as much of the Indian plunder as could be salvaged on
the animals' backs, and began their long trek back to Gonzales.
fight on the Blanco River was only one of many such engagements that would transpire
before the hostile Comanche tribe would eventually be subdued and resettled in
Oklahoma. And certainly many more lives and scalps would be lost before that day
would arrive. One of McClure's veterans, later to become Captain Mathew Caldwell,
or "Old Paint," of the Texas Army, eventually led a dozen or more expeditions
to curb their depredations.
In 1842, Caldwell became the hero of the Battle
of Salado Creek, but many of McClure's old Indian fighters were no longer living
to be with their comrade that day. On March 6, 1836, the day that the Alamo
fell, Jake Darst, Jesse McCoy, G. W. Cottle, Robert M. White, Almeron
Dickinson, and a couple of others were among the twenty-one Texans from Gonzales
who died with William Barret Travis, David Crockett and James Bowie in defense
of Texas' most sacred shrine.
from "Killer's Trail of Thread," TRUE WEST, June, 1978, pp. 18ff.
W. T. Block, Jr.
May 15, 2007 column