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Clay Coppedge

Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

The Saga of Texas Iron
The Red River Meteorite

by Clay Coppedge

A long time ago in a land not very far away a large rock fell out of the sky and landed just a little shy of present-day Albany, Texas. The rock stayed there for untold centuries, an object of reverence for generations of Native Americans. The Comanche name for it translates into Medicine Rock.

Anglos called it Texas Iron.

Indian trader Anthony Glass and his band of like-minded comrades were the first white men to lay eyes on Texas Iron. Indian agent John Sibley, at the invitation of Taovaya chief Awahakei, sent a trade expedition to the Taovaya-Wichita villages along the Red River in 1809.

Glass and his men were motivated by tales of wild horse prairies and vast quantities of silver ore deposits on the Southern Plains. Glass paid attention when he was told by a native Spaniard named Tatesuck, who had been captured by the Wichita as a small boy and was now a distinguished warrior, of a large rock that was like iron, yet it did not rust. Glass immediately thought the rock might be platinum, its value priceless.

In late October, Glass and his men, after a two week journey, first laid eyes on Texas Iron. “We approached the place where the metal was; the Indians observing considerable ceremony as they approached,” Glass wrote in his journal. “We found it resting on its heaviest end and leaning towards one side and under it were some Pipes and Trinkets which had been placed there by some Indians who had been healed by visiting it. The mass was very little embedded in the place where we found it. There is no reason to think it had ever been moved by man.”

That was about to change. All the starry-eyed traders had to do was move the rock from where it was to a place where it could be sold to the highest bidder. A year after the initial foray into the Red River country, two factions of Glass’s original expedition set out independently to retrieve the rock.

The group that got there first also got there with the least; they had no way of transporting a ton of rock to the Red River, much less floating it on the river to Natchitoches. They managed to roll it under a “flat stone” and cover it with some grass before setting out to get some horeses and tools.

A second group, led by George Schamp, Ezra McCall and some other traders, convinced the Taovaya and Comanche to sell them the big iron that would not rust. Schamp’s group eventually found the rock where the first group had hidden it and made a truck wagon to which they harnessed six horses. In such a manner, they began the laborious process of hauling it to the Red River for transport downstream.

As if moving an almost immovable object (it later weighed out at just over a ton) wasn’t hard enough the men found themselves afoot after all their horses were stolen en route to the Red River. They secured more horses, possibly from the same Indians who stole theirs to begin with, and made their way to the Spanish Fort crossing on the Red River.

The traders constructed a sturdy raft from a large walnut tree and floated Texas Iron down the Red River to Natchitoches. There it stayed for the better part of a year, a marvel and a mystery. Sibley sent it to New Orleans for an appraisal but no one there could say for sure what it was or wasn’t. Sibley then sent it to New York for a proper assessment by experts.

Texas Iron’s arrival in New York corresponded with a notion that these rocks people were finding but no one could identify were not of this world, that they came from outer space: meteorites. Benjamin Silliman confirmed that this was one of those rocks, mostly iron and nickel, and practically worthless.

The disappointed traders never truly believed it, even as they sold it for a pittance to mineralogist George C. Gibbs, who loaned it to the New York Historical Society. The collection was given to the Lyceum of Natural History in New York, where Gibbs was also a member, in 1829.

Gibbs died in 1833. His meteorite came close to being put in the ground at the same time. His widow happened to be passing through Central Park one day when she saw some Irish laborers digging a huge hole. She asked what they were doing and was shocked and dismayed to find that the Lyceum, vacating its headquarters on the edge of the park, was preparing to bury her husband’s meteorite; they didn’t know what else to do with it. She rescued it and presented it to Yale University in memory of her husband. It’s still there today, where it’s known as the Red River Meteorite.

Back in Texas, it’s still called Texas Iron.

© Clay Coppedge July 8, 2014 Column
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