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Sunday, May 17, 2020

Part Two: Peril in the Limpio Mountains of Texas

Detail, Whitig-Smith Expedition map.
Click on any image to enlarge.
The more I learn about the Whitig-Smith Expedition in 1849, the more amazed I am by the story. If it were not a true Texas tale, with several eyewitness accounts, I would not believe it actually happened.
Last week I told you a little bit about the 17 men who set out from San Antonio to find a route to El Paso. The expedition was led by two young West Point graduates, Lieutenants William Henry Chase Whiting and William Farrar Smith. Their orders were plain: find a route for a road, and find sites for U. S. Army forts along the way. The recent Mexican War focused the attention of the U. S. Government on the southwest, and routes to newly acquired territories, as well as trade routes to California, became a national priority.
Whitig, 1860s
The two young officers had a problem, though. They knew nothing about surviving in the deserts of West Texas. Both men were engineers – one taught mathematics at West Point – and neither was an outdoorsman. They needed help if they hoped to survive the journey.
Richard Austin Howard, who had attended West Point, but did not graduate, was a former classmate of Whitig’s. He had been active in Texas as a surveyor and scout, helping a variety of folks, including John O. Meusebach, of Gillespie County, in his attempt to secure the Fisher-Miller Grant for the German colonists. Howard also surveyed the tract for the future Fort Mason, and lands near Corpus Christi.
Most importantly, Howard had survived the Hays-Highsmith expedition of 1848, an effort to find a ‘practical wagon route from San Antonio to El Paso’ – which almost ended in disaster when the group got lost and nearly starved.
It was while Howard was surveying near Corpus Christi he was approached by his old classmate Whitig, and asked to join Whitig’s expedition to explore a route from San Antonio to El Paso.
Howard agreed to go on Whitig’s expedition only if José Policarpo Rodriguez would come along, too. Howard relied on Rodriguez’s talent as a scout, hunter – and as a person who could find water, even in the desert.
Smith, 1860s
The group left San Antonio in January, 1849, traveling first to Fredericksburg, and then heading for the Llano River. (They did not stop in Kerrville because, in 1849, there was no Kerrville, other than a few men at a camp making shingles from the abundant cypress trees here.)
In March, 1849, somewhere in the “Limpio Mountains,” near present-day Fort Davis, the group suddenly came face to face with a small band of Apaches, “an old gray Indian with four or five squaws and a boy,” Rodriguez writes in his autobiography, “The Old Guide,” published in 1898.
The old Indian man began dance and make incantations. He rubbed dust on his chest and hair. The entire group of Indians was very agitated.
Finally ‘Polly’ Rodriguez spoke to the old man in Spanish: “Don’t be afraid, we will not hurt you.”
You might be surprised by the answer.
“I do not know and never knew what fear is,” the old Indian said in ‘good Spanish,’ according to Rodriguez. “What do you want here? This is our country; what are you here after?”
One of the men in the expedition replied, in English: “Let’s kill that old fool and these old squaws and go on.”
Whitig replied “No. We will not hurt them. The old man is making no attempt to hurt us, and we will let them alone. My orders are not to fire first on any Indian.”
“Orders? What are orders here in these wilds? I say let’s kill them.”
“I obey orders everywhere,” Whitig replied. “These Indians will not be hurt.”
The old Indian had an understanding of what was being said, and suspected his end was near.
“You can kill us, but you will soon be ground to dust. These mountains are as full of Indians as my hand of dust, and they’ll make dust and powder of you.”
The scene was tense. ‘Polly’ Rodriguez spoke again, in Spanish, to the old man.
“Don’t you see we are not after you nor your people. You are going from one camp to another, just as we are, and we do not mean to harm you.”
The old man believed Polly, and came a little closer. “Do you have any tobacco?” And he and the squaws were given tobacco. During this exchange, the men noticed one of the squaws had set the prairie on fire – a signal.
That’s when the real trouble began. About the fire, the old man told Polly, “it is to call the Indians here, and then you’ll tell what you are after.”
Indeed. I’ll share more of this crazy but true story next week. I’m not sure the expedition is going to make it.
Until then, all the best.

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Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who finds facemasks uncomfortable but wears them anyway. This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times May 16, 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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