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Sunday, March 5, 2023

I've been looking for a Kerr County rock with words scratched on its surface -- from 1856.

Detail, Merrill Doyle mural at the Butt-Holdsworth Memorial Library:
"Bone Yard Fight 1856."
Click on any image to enlarge.

I have spent the last several weeks looking for a rock, using advanced technology. More specifically, a limestone rock with a name and details scratched on its surface. It’s a grave marker. Possibly.

In a way, I could say my search for this rock began in 1967, when I was six years old.

That’s the year the Butt-Holdsworth Memorial Library opened. Among the treasures there was a mural painted by Merrill Doyle, an artist I knew through my parents’ print shop, and who patiently gave me an art lesson or two when I was in elementary school.

Looking back, I now realize many of my father’s friends were artists. We often visited with Merrill Doyle at Pampell’s, when we’d walk there most work mornings for a coffee break.

Merrill Doyle at work on the mural, 1967
The mural in the library depicts scenes from Kerr County’s history, in Doyle’s distinctive style. He was an illustrator, and he painted in bright colors. In just a few brushstrokes, our county’s story comes to life.

The mural is still on the walls of the library, upstairs, enclosed in a quiet reading room. Yet one of the scenes depicted there is anything but quiet.

The scene has a title: “Bone Yard Fight 1856.” I remember studying it closely, even as a boy, fascinated by the violence it showed.

Nine men are shown in hand-to-hand combat; four men, who I thought were cowboys, against five Indians. In the mural, it looks like an even fight, that the cowboys might prevail. The image relies on many stereotypes, of course – and the historical details were not exactly correct, either.

I was fascinated by that scene, though. I’m not sure when I realized it represented an actual event, a skirmish which actually took place in western Kerr County in 1856. Once I knew it represented a historical event, I was even more fascinated by the painting.

The details, in brief:

In 1856 (or possibly 1857), a raiding party of Native Americans attacked several settlers’ cabins near Kerrville, and then traveled up the Guadalupe River, past present-day Ingram and Hunt. The raiders were then pursued by seven young men: William Kelso, Spence Goss, Jack Herredge, Tom Wherry, Dan Murphy, Tom McAdams, and Newt Price.

Of the seven, only one had any experience fighting Indians: William Kelso, a former Texas Ranger. As with any group of young men, hindsight says they should have been more cautious.

They made camp in a thicket about “twenty-five miles west of Kerrville,” and staked their horses nearby in a glade. It was a very cold night.

According to Bob Bennett’s history of Kerr County, “the guns of the party were stacked around a tree several yards from the fire. About daybreak, Tom Wherry and Dan Murphy arose and rekindled the fire, and then, taking their guns, went out to hunt a deer. After they left, the other men got up and stood or sat around the fire.”

At that groggy moment, the party was attacked. First, the stacked guns were taken by the Indians and used against the settlers. Those settlers who had handguns returned fire as best they could, at close range, though it’s unclear how effective those shots were.

Hearing the gunfire, Wherry and Murphy hurriedly returned to the campsite. Murphy ran into the middle of the attackers, and fired one shot before “receiving a ball in the breast and [falling] dead on the spot.”

All but one of other settlers were wounded, either by fire from their own guns which were now in the hands of the Indians, or by arrows. 

The settlers scattered into the thicket; their horses, except for two, were taken. They had severe wounds and now they were miles from help.

The Indians did not pursue them. They had the settlers’ guns and their horses – they left with the spoils. It is unknown if any of the Indians were wounded.

Dan Murphy's gravestone
Dan Murphy died on the spot of the fight. Newt Price died trying to get home. The others struggled to get back home, and eventually made it. One, Spence Goss, whose leg was broken by a gunshot wound, spent more than twenty days in the wilderness before he was rescued.

Once news of the fight was known, a party went to search for survivors and information. Dan Murphy was buried where he fell. A flat stone was tilted upright, and his name was scratched on its surface: “D. Murphy/ Killed by Indians 1856.”

That’s the stone I’ve been searching for. I didn’t know it still existed until I found a photograph of it about a month ago, taken, most likely, in the 1990s. The photograph doesn’t give a lot of clues about its location.

However, I know roughly the area where it must be – from descriptions of a trip to the site recorded by John James Starkey in the 1930s in this newspaper.

Though the skirmish has been called the Boneyard Fight, after a pond of water called Boneyard Water Hole at the headwaters of the North Fork of the Guadalupe River, Starkey says the conflict actually took place about two miles from that spot, somewhere between today’s Mo-Ranch and the Boneyard Water Hole.

I’ve spent hours using ‘satellite’ images of that area, looking for the stone and the fence which surrounds it, slowly ‘flying’ over the area on my computer screen. I have not yet found it.

If you have an idea where the old grave marker stands, would you let me know? It would tell me where those men fought, 167 years ago.

Until next week, all the best.

Joe Herring Jr. is a Kerrville native who enjoys working on history mysteries. This column originally appeared in the Kerrville Daily Times March 4, 2023.


  1. Why did you switch from "Native American" to "Indian"? "Indian" is disrespectful given this landmass isn't India. That's similar to calling these united States 'America' when America is comprised of the entire continent. Also, you use "raiders". This is inaccurate since the Europeans were trespassing on the native's lands. An accurate description would be "a party of Native Americans defending their territory attacked several hostile encampments near Kerrville, . . ."

    1. Did someone wake up looking for ways to be offended today? So proud of you. So woke, so non offensive, so non descriptive.


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