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Neighbors Expedition

by Clay Coppedge

The drive from San Antonio to El Paso on IH-10 takes the better part of a day. You pass through long, barren stretches and some of the most rugged country the state has to offer. Travelers see this from the comfort of their cars and don’t have to experience it other than visually if they don’t want to. The speed limit is 80 miles per hour through the most open of the wide open spaces. It’s possible to make what’s called “good time.”

Today, the trip might be called boring or monotonous. But as Texas was established and settled, the matter of traveling from San Antonio to El Paso was a matter of much concern among officials and entrepreneurs. They badly needed to link these two budding blossoms of commerce but there was a whole world – some 600 miles – of rugged country between the two towns, a vast region made all the more treacherous by the presence of Comanches and other tribes who liked the frontier just the way it was.

In 1849, Maj. Gen. William Worth commissioned Robert Neighbors to explore the region and come back with a map showing an acceptable wagon path from San Antonio to El Paso. Worth was apparently a good judge of talent.

Not only had Neighbors served two years with the Army of the Republic of Texas, he had also survived two years in a Mexican prison. In 1844 he was appointed Indian agent for Texas, a job that sent him far beyond the boundaries of civilization and also allowed him to develop a personal relationship with many of the tribes he would encounter along the way; it would also help get him killed.

Just as Worth was a good judge of character and ability, so was Neighbors. He chose four white men to go with him, including legendary ranger John S. “Rip” Ford and D.C. “Doc” Sullivan” who was as irreverent as he was brave and who would provide a fair amount of comic relief on the grueling, tedious and often dangerous route. Noted scout and interpreter James Shaw and A.D. Neal along with four Indians rounded the expedition.

Neighbors chose another legend-in-his-own time, Comanche chief Buffalo Hump, to guide the expedition. The old chief, who eschewed all forms of European clothing in favor of buffalo robes and beads, had led raids all over the region and well into Mexico, making him more well-acquainted with the area than anybody else. Fellow Comanches persuaded him to leave the party, his place taken by another leader of another Comanche band, Guadeloupe.

The star of the show, as gathered from Rip Ford’s memoirs, was Sullivan. Guadeloupe’s account, had he left one, would not have been so light-hearted. Like Neighbors, Sullivan had seen some hard and dangerous times. He had been a prisoner at Mier but was much too much even for Mexican prison officials. Given tools to work with, he threw them away. Assigned kitchen duty, he attacked the cooks; they fled in terror. Placed on probation with a priest, he was sent back to the prison for being “incorrigible.” Mexico eventually took pity on itself and released him. “He could sing for hours and not repeat a song,” Ford noted.

As part of the Neighbors expedition, Sullivan performed stand-up routines for the Comanches, leaving them convulsed in laughter. The exception was Guadeloupe. Sullivan insisted on calling him “Blunk” which infuriated the chief but greatly amused the other tribesmen. The two nearly came to mortal blows at least once, much to the amusement of the others.

That’s not to suggest that the trip was a frolic or that the Neighbors and his men were anything less than serious about their mission. Twenty-three days after they left San Antonio, they made it to El Paso. On the way back, taking a more northerly route, the trip took 21 days.

Later, the Butterfield Overland Mail ran along this route. Roads followed by highways followed by IH-10 eventually followed the same route. Neighbors estimated the distance between Austin and El Paso to be 598 miles. Today’s precise technology marks the distance as – 598 miles.

As an Indian agent, Neighbors worked hard to do what Indian agents were hired to do – protect the Indians. When reservation Indians in the vicinity of Fort Belknap and Camp Cooper were threatened by angry citizens who blamed them for raids being carried out against them, Neighbors protected the reservation Indians with the aid of federal troops. He managed the avert bloodshed and move the Indians to a new reservation in 1859.

At Fort Belknap, on his way back, a man named Edward Cornett, incensed at Neighbors conciliatory attitude toward the reservation Indians, shot him in the back and killed him. But the trail he blazed has lived on. He would no doubt be amazed to find that some people today find it a boring and uneventful journey.

© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" September 7, 2013 Column

Related Topic: Texas Drives
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