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Saturday, May 23, 2020

Part Three: The men of the expedition are surrounded

Lightning, Davis Mountains, 2014.
Click on any image to enlarge.
In 1849 a group of 17 men left San Antonio on a mission to find a practical wagon route between San Antonio and El Paso. The mission was vitally important to the interests of the nation after the end of the Mexican War; not only would such a route connect the new territories of the United States, but the route would also open up trade with California.
Led by Lieutenants W. H. C. Whitig and William Smith, the party left San Antonio in early 1849. José Policarpo Rodriguez, famous in our part of the hill country, was a member of the group, and told the following tale in his autobiography, “The Old Scout,” published in 1898.
Painted Mescalero boy,
around 1885
Sometime in March, in the “Limpio Mountains,” near present-day Fort Davis, Texas, the expedition crested a hill and came upon a small, vulnerable group: an “old gray Indian with four or five squaws and a boy.” Some members of the expedition, after hearing the defiant words of the old man, wanted to kill the Indians and move on.
It was Policarpo Rodriguez who first spoke to the old man: “Don’t be afraid; we will not hurt you,” he said. Those eight words would later mean life – or death – for the members of the expedition.
During the verbal confrontation that followed, one of the Indian women lit a fire – a signal – which, according to the old man, would “call the Indians here, and then you’ll tell what you are after.” The old man wanted to know why the expedition was on Indian lands. 
The two groups parted peacefully, and the expedition continued on its mission.
“We left them and went on our course, [one of the men] cursing because [the Indians] were not shot. It was about ten in the morning. About twelve o’clock we saw a great dust rising before us some miles away. Some of the men said: ‘Look, what a drove of antelopes yonder.’”
If you’ve ever visited the Davis Mountains in far West Texas, you know how beautiful and stark they are. We’ve seen groups of pronghorn antelopes out there, but only a few here and there. I’m not sure what the expedition members thought they were seeing.
Gorgonia, a Mescalero Apache,
around 1885
“That’s not antelopes,” Polly Rodriguez told the men, “it’s Indians. Look behind us.” Another large group of Indians were pursuing them.
“We were in mortal peril,” Rodriguez writes. “We dismounted and tied our mules together neck to neck, and formed a ring around them and awaited the Indians. Those behind came up first. As they drew near enough to be heard they began calling to us in Spanish: ‘No tiren, El capitán viene atrás!’ [Don’t shoot, our captain comes behind.]
“‘Stand off’, we said. ‘Don’t come up.’
“They kept calling out ‘Don’t shoot, the chief is coming, and wants to talk to you.’
“In the meantime they were dividing out and forming a ring around us, but keeping out of range. In a short time the chief came up. It was Chino Huero (‘Blonde Curls,’ so called because his hair was light and inclined to curl).”
Gentle Reader, you might be surprised to whom Chino Huero was related: the old man the expedition encountered earlier was his father; one of the women was his wife; the young boy was his son. 
Just as Chino Huero arrived, so did the other group of Indians, the ones approaching from the front. “There must have been 300 of them,” Rodriguez writes.
Two Mescalero Apache women stand in their camp,
in New Mexico, around 1900
Among this larger group of Indians “was one man mounted on a beautiful horse with a Mexican saddle and bridle. He wore a Mexican sombrero and a short jacket, and looked like a Mexican, except he was very dark. His only weapon was a long, slender lance which he rested on the ground. 
“He stood apart from the rest, taking no part in the conversation. Those who were calling to us did not speak Spanish distinctly, and I, thinking the silent man could speak Spanish, called to them and asked that they get that man (pointing to him) to interpret for them. 
“He spoke up sternly in good Spanish: ‘I am interpreter for nobody.’ 
“There was in our party a man who understood the Indian dialect and knew this man, and he said to me: ‘That is Gomez, the head chief, and you have almost insulted him.’
Gomez was a chief of a band of the Mescalero Apache tribe, and appears several times in the historical record of the region.  He controlled the Davis Mountain region of Texas for many years.
Gomez stood to one side, looking menacing. Chino Huero “exerted himself to keep his men back from us. They were eager to press on us and finish us in short order.”
The expedition was surrounded, caught in the dry, cold mountains of West Texas, far from help, alone and outnumbered. No friend could hear their cries, no cavalry would ride over the hill to save them. 
[Next week’s installment is going to be very tense.]
Until then, all the best.

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Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who hopes this serial offers a gentle diversion during a season of worry. Strike that; you should worry about the members of the expedition. This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times May 23, 2020.

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.

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