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Clay Coppedge

Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Santa Anna's
Adopted Texian

by Clay Coppedge

John Christopher Columbus Hill was just 13 years old when he saddled up a horse and rode away with his father Asa Hill and brother Jeffrey to defend Texas from Mexican general and dictator Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna in 1842.

This was six years after Santa Anna had surrendered to Sam Houston at the Battle of San Jacinto and promised to invade Texas no more forever, a promise that lasted long enough for Santa Anna to gather soldiers and march them north across the Rio Grande to finish what he'd started before Houston and his volunteer army interrupted his plans.

Asa Hill and his son James had joined the Texas rebellion after the Alamo fell, and both were at San Jacinto when Santa Anna surrendered. They were ready to finish the fight once - actually twice - and for all. John begged to go with Asa and Jeffrey (James was too sick to go) until his reluctant mother finally gave in and sent him on his way with her blessing. As he prepared to ride away, James offered him a rifle he'd used to great effect at San Jacinto.

"Brother John," James said, handing the rifle to his little brother, "this is not to be surrendered." The Hill father and sons fought at the battles of Laredo and Guerro then pressed deeper into Mexico, to the town of Mier about 75 miles from the Mexican border. More than half the original force of 700 had left the expedition by this time, but the Hills were among the 261 who ignored warnings of a large Mexican force waiting for them at Mier. The warnings turned out to be accurate. Asa, Jeffrey and John were captured, and Jeffrey was badly wounded.

When the Mexican soldiers ordered the prisoners to hand over their weapons, John remembered the promise he'd made to brother James and refused, choosing instead to splinter his rifle against some nearby curbstones. The officer in charge sent the now-14 year old Hill to General Pedro de Ampudias's office for punishment.

The general, who had recently lost an adopted son in battle, took a liking to the willful young man and arranged for him a meal, bath and new clothes. John took food to his father and brother, who were happy to see the boy safe, even in the clutches of the enemy, though many of the Hills' fellow prisoners were less understanding.

Ampudia gave John a written introduction and sent him with a military escort to Mexico City to see Santa Anna, but the would-be ruler of Texas was ill and taking no visitors. Before a meeting could take place, the old despot had sent Asa Hill and 220 or so other prisoners on a forced march across the Chihuahuan desert to Mexico City. One-hundred and eighty one prisoners escaped near Salado, but the Mexicans recaptured all but five.

A deeply displeased Santa Anna decreed that all the prisoners be executed, but ultimately resolved to execute just one in every 10, thus creating the infamous Black Bean lottery that required all the prisoners to draw drew a bean from a jar. Those who drew a white bean lived. The ones who drew a black bean were shot. Asa Hill's bean was white. (John's brother Jeffrey was too wounded to make the march to Mexico City and arrived there with the rest of the wounded two months later.)

As it had been with Ampudia, Santa Anna took an immediate liking to John C.C. Hill when the two finally met. He decided to adopt the boy and make of him a Mexican soldier, but Hill refused to take up arms against Texas or the United States. So Santa Anna offered to send him to the College of Mines instead. John went to talk it over with his father in prison. These kinds of adoptions weren't all that rare in the wars of the 1880s - the Hills even had a Mexican boy they took home with them from San Jacinto. Asa gave his blessings, but John stipulated that Santa Anna release his father and brother as part of the deal.

Hill, known as Juan Cristoban Hill in Mexico, later married the daughter of a Spanish general and became one of the country's leading engineers and influential citizens without ever assuming Mexican citizenship. He remained an outspoken defender of Texas all his life, a member of the Texas Veterans Association and an honorary member of the Texas State Historical Association.

But Hill never turned his back on his Mexican benefactors either. When the Mexican government sentenced Ampudia to death for his alleged loyalties to the deposed Maximillian, Hill interceded on the general's behalf and arranged his release.

It's a peculiar thought, but Hill is probably the one person who could have identified the calamitous Mier Expedition as the best thing that ever happened to him, not that he ever did. He probably considered the rifle his brother gave him and the promise he kept as the turning points in his singular life.

Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" March 10, 2018 column

Clay Coppedge's "Letters from Central Texas"

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  • Trammel's Trace 2-3-18
  • Milt Hinkle, the South America Kid and aerial bulldogger 1-13-18
  • Mackenzie Trail 1-2-18
  • Chasing Villa 12-16-17

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