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Sunday, June 7, 2020

Part Five: By the Skin of Their Teeth

Moon over Davis Mountains, near Fort Davis, Texas, 2011
"The Old Guide,"
published 1898

In 1849 there was no wagon route from San Antonio to El Paso. In the years just after the Mexican-American War of 1846, when the United States had won vast new territories in the American southwest, such a route was suddenly of national importance. Two young U. S. Army lieutenants, W. H. C. Whitig and William Farrar Smith, were ordered to find a route for wagons to travel between the two cities, and to scout for sites for army forts along the way. They chose as their guide José Policarpo Rodriguez, who tells about the journey in his autobiography, “The Old Scout,” published in 1898.
The group traveled without much incident from February 1849 until mid-March 1849. One day, near present-day Fort Davis in the Davis Mountains, they crossed paths with a small group of Indians: an old man, three or four women, and a small boy. There were some strong words expressed by the old man and at least one member of the expedition; some members of the expedition were in favor of killing the Indians and proceeding.
“Don’t be afraid,” Policarpo said in Spanish to the old man, “we will not hurt you.”
Davis Mountains
And so the small group of Indians, members of the Mescalero Apache tribes, passed safely on their way, and the Whitig-Smith expedition continued safely on theirs, but only after a signal fire had been lit by one of the women.
About the fire, the old man told Polly, “it is to call the Indians here, and then you’ll tell what you are after.”
His words were very true: within only a few hours the expedition was encircled by two bands of Apache warriors – a smaller circle, led by Chino Huero, who happened to be the son of the old Indian man spared by the expedition, the husband of one of the women, and the father of the young boy.
The larger group of warriors was led by Gomez, a fierce chief who controlled the Davis Mountain area of Texas (and Mexico). Gomez was not subtle: he intended to kill every member of the expedition.
Chino Huero plead with Gomez and promised “if he harmed these people their friendship would not only end, but Gomez would have to pass over his dead body, and those of his men, to reach his victims.”
All eyes were on Gomez, who, after a very long pause, called together a council of the chiefs.
“Three or four other chiefs came forward,” writes Rodriguez. “They took the goatskins off their saddles and spread them on the ground together. They then retired a little way and took off their moccasins, walked barefoot to their places, seated themselves in a ring, faces inward, and began their deliberations. Lt. Whitig, Dick Howard, and I were taken into the council. They lighted a pipe and passed it.”
Davis Mountains
Policarpo Rodriguez tells how he felt at that moment: “I recollect I raised my heart to God and said “My last day is come; God help me die like a brave man.” He looked over the Indians around him, picking his first target. “I had fully resolved to kill Gomez the first man.”
“The council listened as Chino Huero spoke. Finally, he won even against the head chief.”
Quickly the chief mounted his horse and rode in a circle around the expedition, shouting instructions to his warriors, riding three times very rapidly, “talking all the time to his men. Then he went round twice more much more slowly and talking much more deliberately.”
José Policarpo Rodriguez,
around 1898
The chief had decided to spare them “on condition we not disturb them. They wanted to remain in that country, even if it was barren. It would be of no use to us, but they could live on grass and roots.”
The chief then commanded that the expedition join him at his camp for a meal, and the expedition joined him there and spent a restless night in the Indian camp. It was obvious Gomez was having difficulty keeping his men from harming the expedition members.
The next day the expedition headed west, on their journey to El Paso. But that night the expedition did something clever.
They made a big show of setting up camp, building camp fires, and setting up tents. They knew they were being watched by many eyes from the rims of the surrounding hills. As darkness fell they kept the fires burning brightly, but quietly loaded all of their gear on their mules and silently slipped away, leaving the illusion of a quiet sleeping camp behind them.
They marched all night and the next day, too, hoping to put as much distance between themselves and Gomez and his warriors as they could.
And that’s how José Policarpo Rodriguez and the other men of the expedition lived to tell the tale.
This and many other tales of early Texas can be found in Rodriguez’s book, “The Old Guide,” which can be read online for free: click HERE
Until next week, all the best.

Click Here to learn more
Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who can't imagine the difficulties the men of the Whitig-Smith Expedition endured.  This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times June 6, 2020.

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.

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