Jonathan Bird's Fort: Birthplace of the DFW Metroplex
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The early Anglo military campaigns into the three forks of the Trinity had hardly been decisive. But if they had intimidated the Indians at all, if they had compelled the warriors to move their main camps with their women and children westward, then the expeditions had served a purpose. Generals John Dyer, Thomas Rusk, James Smith, and Edward Tarrant had opened the door for Anglo settlements in the region. Historically, the plow has always been more effective than either the sword or the gun in securing contested lands.
A fort on the upper Trinity would conform to General Rusk's strategy of establishing a string of garrisons, connected by a military road, from the Red River southwestward to the Nueces. In 1840, Colonel William G. Cooke had laid out the road from the Brazos to the Red River; it cut through the three forks of the Trinity. But the economic chaos of the government had forestalled any further activity on the project, and Fort Johnston (or Johnson), which Cooke had established on the northern end of the road, had been abandoned.
However the primary purpose of a fort on the upper Trinity would be to lure pioneering families to the relative safety of its garrison and walls, thereby promoting the settlement of the region.
General Tarrant later wrote, "I hereby certify that I gave Maj. Jonathan Bird authority to raise a company of volunteers in the Sumer (sic) of 1841 to go on the Trinity and establish a fort and maintain that position." Bird, himself, added a postscript: "I beg leave to correct the General in a little mistake. I was in the service from the 7 of August 1841 till the March following of 1842."1
Little is actually known about Jonathan Bird, who rode out of obscurity to establish the first Anglo settlement in what would later become Tarrant County. The Handbook of Texas states noncommitally that he was "born about 1783."2 The Handbook provides no birthplace, but other sources suggest he was a native of Alabama.3
Nor has the date of his immigration to Texas been ascertained. He presumably settled in Bowie County in the extreme northeast corner of the Republic about 1840 (the year Bowie was created out of Red River county).4
The mystery of Jonathan Bird is further complicated by the presence of two other notable Texians from the southern part of the Republic with similar names: John Bird, the hero of Bird's Creek; and James Bird, who fought at the battle of Plum Creek.5
There have been some other interesting speculations about Jonathan Bird. James Webb Throckmorton, the governor of Texas from 1866-1867 (and husband of Annie Rattan, whose brother, Wade Hampton Rattan, was present at Bird's Fort and, just possibly, at Village Creek) erroneously attributed command of the Village Creek expedition to Jonathan Bird. The Fort Worth Record of March 23, 1913, described a letter written by Throckmorton:
. . . Major Jonathan Bird, who was destined to be the founder of the first settlement in Tarrant County, accompanied by Captain Louis (sic) B. Denton, for whom Denton County was named, together with Louis (sic) Stout and others, made an attack on the Indians at the mouth of what was known as Village creek, in which attack Denton was killed and Stout was wounded.6
Although it is unlikely that Bird even participated in the Village Creek fight, there is speculation that he accompanied General Rusk's earlier expedition to the three forks of the Trinity. General Hugh McLeod, who chronicled that campaign, had written President Lamar on December 20, 1838, that General Rusk planned to establish all the three-month volunteers in secure garrisons at or near the three forks of the Trinity. In a thesis composed a century later, Gertrude Harris Cook suggested that Jonathan Bird was among those three-monthers, and that he selected the site of his fort during this expedition.7 General Tarrant, who would later promote Bird to the rank of Brevet Major and commission him to raise a company of three-month volunteers to establish an outpost on the Trinity, definitely was a veteran of the Rusk campaign. Tarrant and Bird may have been introduced on the Rusk expedition, but there is no evidence that Bird accompanied Tarrant to Village Creek, and it is equally feasible that their relationship developed because they were neighbors in Bowie County.8
Bird had received his orders, and his promotion to Brevet Major, in August, 1841. From his base in Bowie County, he began immediate preparations for the expedition to the Trinity.
Wade Hampton Rattan assisted in the organization.9 Rattan apparently agreed to serve Bird as both quartermaster and secretary. On September 1, 1841, he wrote Bird from Paris in Lamar County about his efforts to procure bacon and recruit men. "I have seen the most of Capt. Fowler's Command, and they will generally turn out," Rattan reported. Then he indicated that the task was more formidable than he alone could handle:
When you were here we supposed one person could discharge the duties of Quartermaster and Secretary both--I am now of a different opinion--I am convinced to the contrary--Two are absolutely necessary--and as a suitable person I would recommend Mr. Andrew J. Clarke, whom you saw at Mr. Wrights, as I think him fully qualified for the business.
I am in favor of being as economical as possible and should not have mentioned the subject if I thought it possible for one man to perform the duties.10
Being "as economical as possible" was something that Bird appreciated. He was financing the expedition from his own pocket, optimistically assuming that the government would reimburse him. Bird probably did not realize that Lamar's escalating war with the red man had brought the Republic of Texas to the verge of bankruptcy.
Rattan's letter also suggested the other major problem that Bird had encountered--recruiting men for the expedition. Bird had been instructed to raise a force of 150 volunteers. He tried to enlist men from Bowie, Fannin, Lamar, and Red River counties, citing a Texas law that provided free land to men who aided in the establishment of military posts. However only forty-three men enlisted in the "Bird's Fort Company," which was mustered by Colonel Daniel Montague on September 19, 1841. Alexander W. Webb was elected captain. I. B. Moore was first lieutenant, and J. F. Bedding was second lieutenant. King S. Custer served as orderly sergeant.11
The Beeman family, originally farmers from Illinois, made up a significant percentage of the volunteers. Seven of the men from that clan enlisted in the company. There were the brothers, John, James J., and Samuel H. Beeman, and the cousins, John S. Beeman (Samuel's son) and thirteen-year-old William H. Beeman (John's son). Two other family members, G. H. Beeman and Isaac H. Beeman, were also listed on the muster roll.12
Colonel Montague, who may have fought at Village Creek, did not accompany this expedition to the Trinity, but the company consisted of at least three other veterans of the Village Creek campaign; William Claiborne Chisum, Samuel Moss, and Captain Alexander Webb. Another member of the company, Bird's quartermaster/secretary Wade Hampton Rattan, may have participated in the Village Creek fight. Curiously Jonathan Bird's name does not appear on the muster roll. Perhaps he was elsewhere, organizing the expedition, when the company was formed.13
Retracing approximately the route taken by General Rusk in December, 1838, the "Bird's Fort Company" arrived at the edge of a small, shallow, crescent-shaped body of water (later known as Calloway Lake) nestled in a wooded region just north of the Trinity (about fourteen miles below the junction of the West and Clear forks) and just west of the military road. If Gertrude Harris Cook's theory is correct--if Bird had participated in Rusk's campaign--then he had selected this site three years earlier. It seemed to be a choice location. The forest provided concealment, game, and timber. A fresh-water spring gurgled at one end of the lake, and the semi-circle of water afforded natural protection.14
Fearful of hostile Indians, Bird's volunteers quickly erected a fort on a rise of land within the curve of the lake's northeastern shore. It consisted of a blockhouse and several cabins, three of which were enclosed by a palisade of vertical logs.15 A deep trench surrounded the stockade.16
After construction of the fort was completed, John Beeman returned to Bowie County to collect his wife and ten children and move them out to the post.17 Others in Bird's command did the same, and apparently several families journeyed back to the fort together. Accompanying John Beeman were Wade Hampton Rattan (and his pet bulldog); Solomon Silkwood; and possibly Alexander W. Webb, along with their wives and children. Mabel Gilbert, the steamboat captain from Tennessee who had fought at Village Creek, may have tagged along with his family. Arriving at Bird's Fort in November, these pioneers were the first actual settlers in what would later become Tarrant County.18
On October 30, 1841, young John S. Beeman wrote his parents in Illinois that he, his uncle James, and others in the Texas branch of the family were planning to join John Beeman at Bird's Fort:
We are now preparing to move to Trinity River and will start if nothing happens in two weeks which is about 200 miles from here. . . . There is no settlement on Trinity yet as high up as we are going but there will be soon. A man by the name of Bird went out there and built a fort with 35 men. Hampton Rattan moved out. John Beeman went out with them and got his left arm broke. A. W. Webb also went out and will move out. He has got him a wife.19
Hoping to induce his family in Illinois to immigrate to the new settlement, John S. Beeman devoted most of the letter to lavish praise of the three forks region:
About 10 miles this side of Fort Bird we encamped 2 days and the buffalo was never out of sight. The men that went out to kill some stated that there was about 700 in a gang. The country is rich, plenty of prairie, but timber scarce. Plenty of mill privileges, good water, good springs. The land is a black sandy land. John Beeman wants you to tell Wm. Beeman that he intends to try to save him a section of land. It is the best range country that I ever saw to raise stock. . . .John Beeman also wants you to say to John W. Scott that he has been to the 3 forks of Trinity and as for land and range it can't be surpassed in any country. . . .plenty of Buffalo, deer, bear, and it has the appearance of the healthiest country that I ever saw in my life and the navigation said to be good eight months in the year up to the 3 forks of the Trinity which will be good for transportation to Galveston. Tell Mrs. Scott that I have seen springs out at the three forks that far surpasses her well in her porch. . . .Father I think it is a great pity that you did not come this fall for you could get 1 or 2 sections for coming to this country. . . . Mother, I think if you was here and all the family that the money you would save from paying doctor bills would fix you as well to live in a few years as you are there . . . after knowing what I know if I was back there and owned father's lands . . . I would leave it and come to Texas, for I would get more land than he has and better and that ain't all. It is a better country for raising stock, healthier and warmer climate and far better water than you have there . . . and we don't have to feed stock in this country and can raise fine bottom sweet potatoes. And in fact everything grows fine. . . .If you should start come by the way of . . . Little Rock, Washington, Ark. and Coffee Red River . . . then to Fort Inglish, Fannin County and Fort Bird is 70 or 80 miles from there. . . .if you would come to Texas you could get land enough to do you all and get paid in the bargain. Bring with you your wives when you come for the more wives the more land. As for my part I am going out on Trinity to get a squaw and set her to raising cotton and dressing buffalo skins for me.20
From the enthusiasm of Beeman's letter, one could conclude that if Bird had employed him as a press agent, the major would have had no difficulty recruiting a full company of volunteers.
Yet despite young John S. Beeman's glowing reports of fertile soil and abundant game, the settlers and garrison at Bird's Fort were threatened by a critical shortage of food supplies. Thirteen-year-old William H. Beeman later recalled:
As an inducement to settlers, the Republic of Texas promised to feed them all the first year, or until a crop could be made and gathered. In this however, the Government failed utterly, and the pioneers had to rely on their own resources. On the way out the immigrants stopped at Fort English (sic) where they met Major Bird who advised them to take out some corn and beef steers, "as the boys at the Fort are pretty short of rations," he said.21
According to DeShields, when the settlers reached the Trinity, "the Indians had burned off the grass from all that section, and no game of any kind was to be found."22
The scorched prairie seems to be the first recorded incident of antagonism between the residents of Bird's Fort and the Indians. It was not to be the last.
William H. Beeman remembered the critical situation at the post:
When the party of immigrants arrived at Bird's Fort, they found the garrison entirely destitute of provisions, having had nothing to eat for a week. One of the Rangers, Riley Cole, had a few days before, picked up the feet of a calf that had been lying out on the prairie for six weeks and he boiled these dry and discarded bones into a sort of soup, or jelly. This was greedily devoured by the starving garrison and was the last morsel they had until the Beemans and their companions arrived.23
An article in the Fort Worth Gazette dated January 5, 1890, also described the plight of the Bird's Fort pioneers:
In spite of the efforts of the hunters, but little game could be secured for subsistence, and the men, women and children suffered severely from hunger. It seemed that starvation was to be their fate.24
In late November, Bird dispatched a team and wagon from the fort back up to the Red River settlements to gather supplies. Bird either accompanied the wagon or else followed later to meet some new families and guide them back to the fort. A month passed, and the supply wagon still had not returned.25 A harsh winter had set in, and an early snow covered the ground.
Desperate times require desperate measures. Just prior to Christmas, Wade Hampton Rattan, Solomon Silkwood, and Alexander Webb, ventured out of the fort's protective walls to procure food for the starving settlers. Rattan's pet bulldog followed, bounding through the snow. According to De Shields, the trio was seeking the overdue wagon.26 The Fort Worth Gazette reported that they were on "an extended hunt."27 It is entirely feasible that their mission was to fulfill both purposes.
The three men and the dog wandered east. Game was scarce in the frozen forest, and their progress was hindered by the bitter cold and six inches of snow. On Christmas Day they were about fifteen miles from the fort, on the Elm Fork of the Trinity near the present location of Carrollton. There they spotted a hollow tree which seemed promising. Perhaps the bulldog, sniffing curiously at the trunk, had brought it to their attention. A closer inspection revealed a bee hive, and one of the men found evidence which suggested that a bear might be hibernating in the hollow trunk. The men halted and unlimbered their axes.28
As the pioneers hacked at the tree, a band of Indians crept cautiously into the nearby underbrush. Perhaps they had been attracted by the echo of axes on a hollow tree. Perhaps it had been the barking of the bulldog. Suddenly a musket volley shattered the forest and dislodged the snow from the upper branches and flooded the crisp air with thick, acrid black powder smoke. And Wade Hampton Rattan crumpled into the snow, a red stain spreading from his body. The overworked quarter-master/secretary who had helped to organize the expedition had become its first recorded fatality. Webb and Silkwood grabbed their rifles and returned the fire, possibly killing one of the Indians. Then they fled back to the fort.
About a week later, the overdue supply wagon passed by the scene of the ambush and discovered Rattan's body. The faithful bulldog was still there, standing guard over his master's body. "The remains were carried to the fort, and in a rude coffin made of an old wagon bed, committed to earth," wrote DeShields.29
Wherever people live, people die. Wade Hampton Rattan, the first known mortality of the Bird's Fort settlement, became the first occupant of the first Anglo cemetery in what would later become Tarrant County. He was not alone for long. Solomon Silkwood became ill from his exposure to the severe winter and passed away shortly afterwards.30
J. J. Goodfellow, a former Tarrant County surveyor who visited the site of the fort in 1866 (twenty-five years later), remembered the location of that first cemetery. Goodfellow wrote ". . . a path led in a northeasterly direction [from the blockhouse], probably 250 or 300 yards through timber to the graves."31
Jonathan Bird had probably not been at the fort when Rattan was killed. On December 22, three days before the ambush, he wrote from Paris (Lamar County) to Sam Houston, who nine days earlier had assumed the office of President for a second term:
I am now some eighty miles from my former place of residence on my way to the new settlement upon the Trinity River with some ten families [and] to my utter astonishment & mortification . . . received the painful [news] that the New York Company has procured from the Third President of this Republic [Lamar] an additional grant of territory of forty miles south of the southern [boundary] of the original grant by them obtained at the last session of Congress . . . .32
The "New York Company" to which Bird referred was actually the Texas Agricultural, Commercial, and Manufacturing Company, which was composed of W. S. Peters and nineteen associates, about half of whom were from Kentucky and the other half from England. On August, 30, 1841, the company had entered into a land grant contract with the Republic of Texas, agreeing to settle six hundred families over a three year period into a 1,500 square mile tract of land below the Red River. The original southern boundary of the grant had stretched about sixty miles from the Red River to the approximate northern borders of present-day Dallas and Tarrant counties. Then, in November, under a new contract, the southern boundary of the Peters colony (as it came to be known) was extended forty miles southward and the total number of families-to-be-settled increased to eight hundred. The new boundary incorporated the eastern quarter of present-day Tarrant County, including the site where Bird had built his fort. Therefore the Peters colony invalidated the land titles held by Bird's colonists. Suddenly, from a legal standpoint, they had become trespassers on private property.
In his three page letter to President Houston, Bird tried desperately to confirm the legitimacy of his own colony. He wrote:
In the month of July last 1841, I . . . organized a company to form a settlement on the West Fork of the Trinity River in conformity to an order . . . by Gen'l E. H. Tarrant Brig General Texas Militia since which time I have been actively engaged in constructing a place of fortification, together with a settlement sufficient to withstand an attack from any hostile enemy. . . .33
Bird claimed to have already recruited "about fifty settlers and conveyed them to the point . . . having erected the necessary buildings for their comfort and protection and having about sixty families more, part of whom are on the march for that point under my guardianship and protection. . . ."34
Bird's estimates of the number of settlers both at the settlement and en route may have been wishful thinking or, more probably, exaggerations to impress Houston. It is unlikely that there were ever more than twenty families at the fort.35
Bird also noted that the settlement had been established "in strict conformity with the Constitution and laws of this Republic . . . ." He criticized former president Lamar for having entered into a contract with the "New York Company" on a date after Bird had received Tarrant's orders to establish his fort. The letter praised Houston's "high principles," stating, ". . . we now appeal to you as our principle and chief executive of this Republic to protect us in defending of our rights. . . ."36
The Peters colony posed a more serious threat for Bird's settlement than either hostile Indians or food shortages. Yet optimistic settlers continued to migrate to the fort. Among the new arrivals were William Byrd (sic), his daughter, and "a sojourner with the family" named Cartwright.37 It is quite possible that the Byrds and Cartwright were among the "ten families" that Bird was escorting back to the Trinity. They were described as being at the fort shortly after the death of Rattan. It is also feasible that William Byrd was Jonathan Bird's father, although no documentation has surfaced to support this speculation. The dissimilarity in the last name could be attributed to either a deliberate change of spelling or merely to careless record-keeping.
The Byrds' stay at the settlement was tragically brief. Approximately concurrent with their arrival, and possibly as a result of the ambush that claimed Rattan's life, excavations began for a well within the compound. But the well had only been dug to a depth of about eight feet when, as they were carrying water up from the lake, Byrd, his daughter, and Cartwright were all slain by Indians just outside the stockade.38
The little cemetery at Bird's Fort was filling up.
To sustain his settlement, Jonathan Bird continued to ship in food and other supplies for his garrison and settlers. Leaving part of the men to protect the women and children, Bird would send the others to guard the wagons and teams on their journey to the communities in Fannin and Lamar counties. Still assuming, or gambling, that the Republic would reimburse him, Bird paid for the supplies himself.39
However William H. Beeman remembered that Bird had not paid all the expenses. Bird had been at Fort Inglish, buying supplies, when the Beeman party had passed through on their way to the Trinity.
Major Bird negotiated with Mr. Bailey English (who was general trader) for five beef steers and a lot of corn, giving his note $100 for the same. John Beeman and Hampton Rattan indorsed [sic] the note and Rattan getting killed by Indians, Beeman afterwards had to pay it in full.40
Considering the Indians, the hunger, the harsh weather, and disease, it is a remarkable tribute to the hardiness of the pioneers that Bird's Fort endured through the winter. But it was abandoned shortly afterwards. Numerous theories, some quite contradictory, have been advanced about why the settlement failed. Some sources blamed the hostile Indians.41
Certainly the residents at Bird's Fort were apprehensive about the Indians, especially after the Byrds and Cartwright had been killed just outside the compound.
De Shields seemed a bit uncertain when he wrote, ". . . for some cause--the time of their enlistment expiring--the rangers returned home, leaving the post unoccupied." De Shields had the mistaken notion that Bird's company had established the fort "in the winter of 1840-41" and had abandoned it the following spring. According to De Shields, the settlers--Rattan, Gilbert, Beeman, and the others--had arrived the following fall and moved into the deserted compound.42 Historically, of course, the fort was constructed in the fall of 1841, and the garrison had coexisted with the settlers through the winter.
But De Shields should not be totally discounted. Bird's company was composed of three month rangers. There is no reason to assume that they would have lingered at the Trinity much beyond their term of enlistment. In January or February, the volunteers probably returned to their homes in northeast Texas.
However, at least some of the settlers--the men with families--stayed at the fort. It is not known whether Bird returned with his command or remained at his post with the colonists.
"In the early spring of 1842 some small attempts at farming were begun," wrote contemporary historian Duane Gage, "but on account of the malarial conditions near the lake, the pioneers decided to quit the locality and hunt for a more suitable area."43
An article in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram probably came closer to the truth by combining several of the factors: ". . . after a hard winter of Indian Raids, much sickness and many deaths, they abandoned the fort."44
There is an element of credibility to all of these theories, and collectively they all help to explain why the settlement failed. However there was another factor which probably contributed more than the rest to the desertion of the fort.
Jonathan Bird's appeal for the legitimacy of his settlement had been in vain. Though Houston and Lamar were political antagonists who disagreed on virtually every other issue, the new president supported the land grant which his predecessor had awarded to the Peters' Colony. Houston even vetoed a bill to grant powder and shot to the residents of Bird's Fort because he maintained that it violated the contract between the Republic of Texas and the Peters' Colony. The settlers were frustrated and demoralized by the prospect of losing title to lands for which they had worked, suffered, bled, and died.45
Sometime in the early spring, an adventurous Tennessean named John Neely Bryan visited the settlers who remained at Bird's Fort. Bryan, a farmer, lawyer, and Indian trader possessed with the pioneering spirit, had spent the previous winter in an isolated cabin he had erected on the Trinity about twenty miles east of Bird's Fort. Desiring both the companionship and the security of neighbors, he induced several of Bird's colonists to relocate in the vicinity of his cabin.46
Mabel Gilbert was apparently the first to take advantage of the invitation. In March, the former steamboat captain fabricated two cottonwood dugouts and paddled his family down the Trinity to Bryan's cabin. Gilbert was probably the first Anglo to navigate the headwaters of the Trinity, and his wife, Charity, became the first white woman in the new settlement.47
Mrs. Gilbert has also been credited with naming Bryan's settlement. However there is considerable debate about whom she was honoring--perhaps it was United States vice-president George Mifflin Dallas.48
The Beeman family and Solomon Silkwood's widow arrived there shortly after the Gilberts, in time for the spring planting. Bryan later married John Beeman's daughter, Margaret.49
The remaining settlers at Bird's Fort also pulled out. Some probably returned to their original homes in the Red River settlements. Others joined Dr. William Throckmorton's new settlement on the East Fork of the Trinity (at the present day town of Anna near McKinney in Collin County). A history of Collin County, "principally written by the late ex-Governor J. W. Throckmorton and published in 1880," included the following excerpt:
. . . the settlement that had been previously started in Bird's Fort, in what is now known as Tarrant County, broke up and Henry Hahn and family, Mr. Walker and family, John and James Wells, B. G. Thompson, from Bird's Fort, came to the settlement (of Dr. William E. Throckmorton, Collin County) and built cabins inside the stockade. They all made selections of land in the neighborhood and subsequently moved to them except Thompson, who died shortly after his arrival.50
Bird's Fort, the first Anglo settlement in what would become Tarrant County, had lasted only about six months. But some of Bird's colonists were among the first permanent settlers in Dallas and Collin counties. Their significance in the development of the three forks of the Trinity continued.
The refugees from Bird's Fort who remained in the area legalized their new claims by applying for land under the Peters colony contract. They were soon joined by other families brought in by Peters and his associates from Kentucky. The history of this group can be followed in the accounts published in the newspapers of the day.
The Louisville Journal of January 20, 1842, reported that the steamboat Embassy had recently sailed down from Louisville with "one hundred families" bound for the colony. The settlers had planned to disembark at the cross timbers, but the great raft on the Red River, a massive log jam that stretched for miles, prevented the Embassy from ascending higher than Shreveport. While the boat was docked there, "one marriage was celebrated . . . and one child was born."51
Presumably more than one couple was involved in those events.
Some of the Kentucky families aborted their trip west; instead the men found employment helping to clear the log jam. Others, perhaps only a dozen families, were provided with wagons and continued overland to the Peters colony.
The April 15, 1842, issue of the New Orleans Crescent City provided additional information:
The colony from Kentucky, under the control of Mr. Peters, has located in the upper end of Robertson County, and in the garden spot of Texas, being in the vicinity of that Eldorado, the Three Forks of the Trinity.52
However the garden spot proved too thorny for the Kentucky pioneers. On September 27, the Louisville Journal copied a story from the Caddo Gazette which reported that the settlement "composed of twelve families of emigrants who came . . . in the steamer Embassy, from Louisville, Kentucky," had been "broken up by the Indians."
They had opened up some five hundred acres of land, which they planted in corn and which was reported to be in a fine state of cultivation, when a large party of Indians made their appearance and compelled the whites to abandon their agricultural pursuits, and betake themselves to the fort. In those quarters they remained two or three weeks (during which time their cattle and the buffalo destroyed the corn) when their supply of provisions being exhausted, they were compelled to evacuate the post and seek protection among the settlers of Bowie County.53
The news account did not specify the fort in which the Kentuckians briefly sought refuge. The area north to the Red River was dotted with small forts and blockhouses, but most of them were occupied or in the midst of communities. The reference to exhausted provisions suggests that the pioneers retired to an abandoned fort--just possibly Jonathan Bird's fort.
Still others came to replace those who had left. In early September, 1842, Henry J. Peters and Phineas J. Johnson led a wagon train of twenty-two settlers from Kentucky to the colony at the cross timbers. Twenty more Kentuckians followed later that month, and another forty families arrived in December.
Yet only the hardiest and most determined settlers of the Peters colony endured the hardships they encountered in that Eldorado on the Trinity. In April, 1843, the Telegraph and Texas Register reported, "We have learned with regret that the condition of that colony is wretched in the extreme." The Register cited an earlier article from the Clarksville Northern Standard which stated, "Notwithstanding the large number of emigrants who have from time to time been to it, it is now nearly depopulated." According to the article, there were "but four or five families, and fifteen or twenty single persons" left in the settlement. Part of the problem lay with would-be pioneers "entirely unfitted for the settlement of a wild country" who had abandoned the venture and returned to civilization. And part of the problem could be attrobuted to the Indians. Three white men had been killed in a space of two months. But the report placed most of the blame on the colony's original contractors, "men of no capital" who, by "giving little attention to the settlement have rather retarded rather than advanced the scheme."54
However the original English investors had transferred their interests in the Peters colony to another group of speculators, and the Clarksville Northern Standard was guardedly optimistic:
With the intelligence, enterprise and capital, which the new contractors are said to have, we hope to have a far different account to render of its situation before another year shall be elapsed. There is no contrariety of statement about the character of the country--all concur in representing it as the region where health, beauty and fertility are combined in an eminent degree.55
From the fall of 1842 through the spring of 1843, there were rumors that two or three hundred Kentucky families were en route for the cross timbers. They never materialized. "The number of families now settled within the limits of the colony is only twenty-five," reported the November 22, 1843, Telegraph and Texas Register. "These are settled near the mouth of Elm Creek, and the houses are scattered from Bird's Fort to Dallas." John Neely Bryan and one of the Beeman's had set fire to the main log raft on the Trinity in an effort to make the river navigible to the mouth of Elm Fork. The Register asserted, rather prophetically, "the upper Trinity will soon become one of the most desirable situations of Texas, and the colony in the Cross Timbers will become the centre of flourishing settlements."56
Jonathan Bird, who had lost out to the struggling Peters colony, never quite disappeared into the obscurity from which he had emerged. In November, 1842, and again in November, 1843, Bird petitioned the Texas Congress for financial reimbursement, submitting an itemized statement of expenses totaling $653.00.57 But President Sam Houston, who had inherited a near bankrupt Republic from Lamar, remained unsympathetic. He vetoed Bird's petition, allegedly remarking, "However I will give the colonel half of my personal fortune--a stud horse eating his head off in a stable and a game cock."58
Houston's veto was sent to the House of Representatives on January 29, 1844:
The bill for the "relief of Jonathan Bird" has received the consideration of the Executive; and for reasons which he deems sufficient he returns the same to the House without approval.
The total inability of the nation to pay these claims at this time, and sustain its government must be apparent to all who have examined into our present financial condition. There are numerous claims that the country would willingly discharge were it able to do so, but which must be deferred from the force of necessity to some future period. Many other citizens of the Republic have expended their means in erecting forts and blockhouses for the protection of themselves, their families and neighbors. If therefore the nation is able to supply the relief intended by this bill, others equally entitled should not be overlooked. Partial legislation cannot but be considered a great evil; and in a country struggling with every difficulty it cannot but be productive of discontent and increased embarrassment.59
On January 8, 1845, the Texas Congress finally passed an act for Bird's relief. Bird was awarded drafts against taxes in Bowie County to the amount of $600.00. The drafts were to be collected over a three year period, but apparently Bird sold them at a discount for cash. He died about five years later in Titus County.60
Bird's Fort did not remain vacant for long after the departure of the original settlers. According to DeShields:
A little later Capt. Robert Sloan led a prospecting party as far out as the fort; but soon returned, one of the party, David Clubb, late of Illinois, and a soldier in the Black Hawk war of 1832, having been killed by Indians at a small lake on Elm fork of the Trinity, a short distance above its mouth, and below the Keenan crossing.61
Indians were not the only foe with which the Republic of Texas had to contend during Houston's second administration. Tensions with Mexico persisted, resulting in Mexican invasions of Texas and Texian forays into Mexican territory.
On March 5, 1842, General Rafael Vasquez, with an army variously estimated at between 300 to 700 men, occupied San Antonio. Vasquez did not linger. He plundered the city and retreated below the Rio Grande before hastily assembled Texian militias could confront his army.
San Antonio was again the target six months later when General Adrian Woll invaded Texas with about 1,000 men and several pieces of artilley.62 The Mexican force included a contingent of Indians led by Vicente Cordova, who had incited the rebellion near Nacogdoches and agitated the tribes encamped among the three forks of the Trinity.
Woll's army easily captured the city on September 11 or 12, but this time the Texians were more prepared. Texas Ranger John Coffee "Jack" Hays and John W. Smith alerted the Texians.63 Eighty-five men rendezvoused at Seguin and selected Mathew "Old Paint" Caldwell as their leader.64 They promptly marched to Cibola Creek, six miles east of San Antonio, where they were joined by other detachments of volunteers, raising the total number of Texians to over 200.65 Caldwell advanced to Salado Creek at sunset on September 17 and entrenched his men in the bed. On the following dawn, Woll marched out of the city to engage the Texians. James Wilson Nichols, one of Caldwell's volunteers, described the cannonade which initiated the battle:
The Mexicans opened fire on us with grape cannister and round shot, cuting the limbs and brush from the timber at least thirty feete above our heads but to the great anoiance of our horses. The falling limbs . . . falling on and around them caused them to rear and plunge and som broake loose.66
The ineffectual bombardment lasted about two hours. Then Woll formed his army into platoons and mounted an assault against the Texian position in the creek bed. Again and again the Mexicans charged bravely into the deadly accurate Texian guns. "We would crawl to the top of the bank and fire," Nichols remembered, "and it was seldom a Texas rifle fired that thare was not one [Mexican] seen to bit the dust." 67
During the battle, Cordova and his Indians attempted to outflank the Texians and launch a sneak attack from the rear. However one of the Texians "heard some nois . . . and mounted the bank and made the discovery of Cordova and his men on all fores creeping down to the bed of the ravine." The Texians swung around to meet the threat.
At the firs fire the Indians rose to their feete, yelling and faught like demons. They charged to the top of the bank and sent a shower of arrows at us but was shot down so fast . . . fell back and tried to gain our rear and a despreate fight insued. They stood their ground and faught until their leader Cardova was shot down and then retreated to the brush below us on the creek and set up a howl like a lost dog and would never ralley anymore.68
Vicente Cordova would never again incite the Indians of Texas to make war on the settlements.
After hours of fierce combat, Caldwell dispatched a courier with an appeal for aid. Although the Texians were surrounded and outnumbered five-to-one, "Old Paint's" message was confident:
The enemy are all around me on every side; but I fear them not. I will hold my position until I hear from reinforcements. Come and help me--it is the most favorable opportunity I have ever seen. There are eleven hundred of the enemy. I can whip them on my own ground without any help, but I cannot take prisoners. Why don't you come?--Huzza! huzza for Texas.69
The Mexican charges continued until around 1:00 that afternoon. The battleground was covered with at least sixty Mexican dead and many more wounded. Caldwell had lost only one man killed and nine wounded.70
Then, suddenly, Woll's cavalry and artillery withdrew from the field, leaving the infantry to pin down Caldwell's volunteers. A short time later, the Texians heard the thundering of cannons. Only a mile and a half away, the Mexicans had surrounded Nicholas Mosby Dawson and 53 volunteers from La Grange who were attempting to reinforce Caldwell.
Facing overwhelming odds, Dawson attempted to surrender, but some soldiers in both armies ignored the white flag. The Mexican artillery opened up, shredding the Texian ranks with cannister. Then the skilled lancers charged the tiny band. Thirty-five Texians, including Dawson were killed in the slaughter. Fifteen men, five of them wounded, were captured. Only three Texians managed to escape what became known as the Dawson massacre.
On the following day, Colonel John H. Moore arrived with about 600 Texian reinforcements, and General Woll began a hasty retreat to the Rio Grande.
The Woll invasion enraged Texians. In the Red River country, General Edward H. Tarrant was among the loudest to denounce the Mexican aggressions, and he advocated instant retaliation. On November 12, 1842, Colonel Bennett H. Martin in Clarksville wrote to Tarrant that the people only wanted leadership, and that in such a crisis all eyes turned to him. The citizens of northeast Texas wished Tarrant to be their spokesman, to take to President Houston the message that they were ready to fight either along the Rio Grande or in the heart of Mexico. Whether Tarrant complied with this request is not known, but the following spring "Old Hurricane" again advocated an invasion of Mexico at a meeting in New Boston.71
By that time President Houston had already authorized two ill-fated attempts at reprisal. The first of these, the Somervell expedition of December, 1842, quickly degenerated into the disastrous Mier expedition. Plagued by insubordination and disorganization, the Texian force allowed itself to be captured at the town of Mier, just below the border, on December 26. Some of the Texians managed to escape, but 176 prisoners were marched to Salado and condemned to death. However the sentence was later mollified so that only every tenth man was to be executed. The victims were determined by a lottery; the Texians were blindfolded and compelled to draw beans from a jar which contained 159 white beans and 17 black beans. The men who drew the black beans were shot on the evening of March 25, 1843. Ewen Cameron, who had masterminded an unsuccessful escape attempt, had not drawn a black bean, but he was later executed by specific order from Mexican dictator Santa Anna. The surviving prisoners were marched on down to Mexico City where they were incarcerated in the infamous Perote Prison. Many died of disease and starvation, a few escaped, and the others were finally released on September 16, 1844.
On February 16, 1843, five months after Woll's invasion, Jacob Snively was authorized to mount an expedition against Mexican traders passing through territory claimed by Texas along the Santa Fe trail. Snively was a surveyor and civil engineer who had served Texas as both paymaster general and acting secretary of war. He raised a force of about one hundred fifty men and christened them the Battalion of Invincibles. In late April, the Snively expedition marched out of Fort Johnson.
Two months later, on the Santa Fe Trail, the Battalion of Invincibles defeated a Mexican column of approximately one hundred soldiers. It was the high point of the expedition. Friction set in between Snively and a subordinate; the Texians chose sides, and the battalion split in two. On June 30, the faction loyal to Snively was discovered by a company of United States Dragoons who claimed that the expedition had ventured onto U. S. soil. Some of Snively's weapons were confiscated, and a few of the Texans, disgruntled and discouraged, abandoned the venture.72
Reduced to about seventy men, the remnants of the expedition struck the trail of a Mexican caravan but ultimately determined that it was too large and too well guarded to be captured. The Texans quietly withdrew. It was an ignominious climax for the Battalion of Invincibles. They retreated to the three forks of the Trinity and, on August 6, the Snively Expedition sullenly disbanded within the deserted walls of Bird's Fort. It was an appropriate location for the concluding act of yet another frustrated venture.
At that moment, Bird's Fort, with its weed-overgrown stockade, empty cabins, and silent, lonely graveyard, seemed nothing more than a monument to despair, defeat, and death.
But history was not yet through with Jonathan Bird's Fort.