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Sunday, May 10, 2020

Part One: A true Texas tale, told by José Policarpo Rodriguez

Detail, map of Whitte-Smith Expedition of 1849
I read a true Texas tale of peril and bravery this week, told by José Policarpo Rodriguez, who was there, and who recorded the events in his autobiography. It happened in 1849 and it changed history even though it happened in the middle of the desert wilderness and only a few people were there.
Rodriguez’s book, “The Old Guide,” was originally published in 1898 by the publishing house of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, in Nashville, Tennessee. My copy is a reprint, and was given to me by the late Raul Arreola, a great-grandson of Policarpo Rodriguez.
Policarpo Rodriguez,
late in life
Many will recognize Policarpo Rodriguez’s name: not only does he have many descendants living in our area, he had a long and fruitful life right here in the Texas hill country. In his early days he was a guide and tracker; later he became a preacher, and built by hand a stone church building on Privilege Creek in Bandera County, now called “Polly’s Chapel.” It’s one of the most peaceful chapels in the world, rustic and simple, in a motte of live oaks beside a clear creek, and faithfully cared for by Rodriguez’s descendants.
In 1849 Rodriguez joined an expedition led by Lt. W. H. C. Whiting to establish a road from San Antonio to El Paso, and to find locations for forts along the route. While the expedition was led by two U. S. Army lieutenants, the remaining 15 members of the group were all civilians, and included a mule packer from Mexico and a Delaware Indian. Rodriguez was only 20 years old, and his role in the group was to scout ahead, looking for water and hunting for game to feed the men.
Rodriguez was invited to join the group on the recommendation of a surveyor named Dick Howard, with whom he worked on other surveying expeditions. When Lt. Whiting offered a spot on the team to Howard, he replied “Well, if I go, I want this boy to go, too.”
“What can he do?” asked Whiting.
“Why he can do more than I can. He can hunt and he can find water. He’s my guide; can do most anything in the woods. He would be very useful to us on the trip.”
Rodriguez did prove very useful.
Polly's Chapel, still standing
near Privilege Creek
in Bandera County
“This boy Policarpo,” Whiting wrote in his diary on the journey, “is one of the most valuable members of my party – a patient and untiring hunter, an unerring trailer, with all the instinct of the Indian combined with the practical part of surveying which he has learned from Howard; moreover, a capital hand with the mules. I don’t know of any person whom I would rather have in the woods.”
The trip west was marked by severe deprivation suffered by the group; they often had to travel days without water. If you’ve traveled on IH10 from San Antonio to El Paso, you know the country. It’s a long, hot journey in an automobile. Imagine traveling the route on mules, and managing a string of mules carrying supplies and equipment.
Somewhere west of the Pecos River, and north of the Rio Grande, in the “Limpio Mountains,” the party came suddenly upon “an old gray Indian with four or five squaws and a boy,” Rodriguez writes.
“We were right upon them before either party saw the other. The boy ran off into the bushes as wild as a scared buck. The squaws stood still, with their mouths open as if struck dumb and paralyzed. We were looking at them. The old Indian commenced muttering and turning around as if making some incantations. He lifted an old blanket on two ramrods and waved it back and forth, all the time muttering. He then stooped down and gathered handfuls of dust and rubbed it on his breast, talking to the boy who held his little bow and arrows, and to the squaws. He bellowed like a bull. I thought I would speak to him in Spanish, and I said: “Don’t be afraid; we will not hurt you.”
Imagine the scene, somewhere between present-day Fort Davis and El Paso. It’s 1849, and you and 16 other men are on an expedition trying to find a route west – a southern route that will connect the country together, which will be traveled by thousands and thousands of people, protected by a line of forts. You crest a small hill and find a vulnerable group of Indians. Some members of your group suggest killing the Indians right then, and continuing on. One young man tells them no harm will come to them.
The next moments are very tense, and the decisions made will have big consequences. I’ll tell you about them next week.
Until then, all the best.

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Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who enjoys time spent in the Davis Mountains with his family. What a magical place. This column first appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times May 9, 2020.

For your enjoyment, I have two Kerr County history books available, filled with historic photographs of Kerr County.  Both books are available at Wolfmueller's BooksHerring Printing Company, and online by clicking HERE.

1 comment:

  1. I can't wait to read the rest if the story.Thanks for sharing.


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