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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Big Foot Wallace
and the Indian

by Mike Cox

Ambush, strychnine, hanging...
A tale of good and evil with a twist.
Mike Cox

His last name was about the only thing plain about Coho Smith.

Born John Jeremiah Smith on Dec. 4, 1826 in Pennsylvania, he first came to Texas in 1842 as a 16-year-old. He stayed only a short time, but within a year or two he had settled in Texas for good. His nickname, earned in surviving a Comanche lance wound, came from a corruption of the Spanish word for lame, “cojo.”

Self-educated and fluent in several languages, including Comanche, Smith was quite a character. He recorded his more notable adventures in a journal and drew sketches of things he saw and did, including a striking color depiction of a fight with Comanches along the Rio Grande in 1847.

Smith had plenty of interesting experiences during his long life, but one of the best stories he told involved another character -- Big Foot Wallace. It is a tale of good and evil with a twist.

In relating the story, Smith did not set the time it supposedly occurred, but judging by the other details, it must have happened in the early 1840s.

Wallace, a rough and tumble frontiersman who had ridden with Capt. Jack Hay’s Texas Rangers, had a cabin south of San Antonio. One morning when he went looking for his horse, which the night before he had set out to graze, Wallace saw an Indian hiding in the brush. Clearly, the Indian intended to ambush him when he approached the horse.

Expertly, Wallace slipped up behind him. From higher ground, Wallace fell down on the Indian, quickly overpowering him. Wallace could have killed him, but opted to tie him with the rope he had intended to use on his horse and walked him back to his cabin.

Binding the Indian more securely, Wallace left him and returned for his horse. A few days later, Wallace showed up in San Antonio with his captive in tow and had him placed in jail.

Since the Indian had not been charged with any crime, Bexar County officials did not think it proper that tax dollars be expended to feed him. They asked Wallace to remove the Indian, but he refused.

A month later, the jailer tried again to do something about his Indian prisoner. This time he suggested to another former ranger, Mike Chevalier, that the next time he and his friends went fishing on the Medina River, they should “take this Indian out there and let him escape…You know how to do it. Either shoot him or hang him.”

Before long, Chevalier invited a few friends for a wagon ride to his favorite fishing hole. Before they left San Antonio with the doomed Indian, Chevalier dressed down a Mexican hired hand for placing the wrong collars on his horses. Rather than politely correcting him, Chevalier slapped him in the face.

Chevalier gave the incident no further thought, but not the man he had hit. When they got to the fishing hole, Chevalier and his friends landed enough fish for a hearty fish fry. The hired hand, still simmering over his ill treatment, got a cooking fire started and put on a big pot of coffee. Resting in leg irons in the shade of a tree, not realizing he was a condemned man, the Indian saw the cook furtively pouring a white powder into the coffee.

When the man grabbed a bucket to fetch more water from the river, the Indian set up a commotion, pointing to the coffee pot and yelling, “Malo, malo.”

Motioning in the direction the hired hand had walked, the Indian continued with hand gestures and words the men could not understand to indicate that something was very wrong.

Drawing their pistols, Chevalier and another man walked cautiously in the direction the Indian had indicated. About 40 feet from camp, they found an empty envelop labeled “Strychnine.” Finally, it dawned on the men what had the Indian agitated. Chevalier’s employee had poisoned their coffee.

About the time they figured that out, the man approached the camp with the full water bucket. Seeing them looking at the empty pack of poison, the man realized he had been found out and made a dash for his horse. But bullets being faster than feet, the would-be killer went down with an ankle wound.

“Boys,” Smith quoted Chevalier, “that Indian has saved all our lives beyond a doubt. We won’t hang him.”

All agreed that the would-be killer was the one who deserved to die. They “dragged him to the tree the Indian had been lying under, and hung him up to dry.”

After inviting the Indian to join them in their hearty meal, the men presented him with the late hired hand’s clothing, personal effects and horse and released him to rejoin his people.

The Indian rode off about 50 yards, then stopped and turned toward the Texans. Saying something in his own language, he put his hand over his breast and bowed. Then he turned and rode away.

A few days later, someone asked one of the men what they had done with the Indian.

“We turned him loose,” he man replied. “In a horn you did,” the other man replied, “I am willing to swear that I saw him hanging in a tree at the fishing hole yesterday.”

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales"
- December 12, 2004 Column

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