San Sabá fight (1831)

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The San Sabá fight was an armed encounter between a heavily outnumbered group of American prospectors led by James Bowie and a band of Tawakoni, Waco and Caddo Indians, which took place on the San Saba River in Mexican Texas, on November 21, 1831.

Primary sources

  • San Antonio de Bexar, December 10, 1831.
    To the Political Chief of Bexar:
    Agreeably to your lordship's request, I have the honor to report to you the result of my expedition from San Antonio to the San Saba. Information received through different channels in relation to that section of the country, formerly occupied by Mexican citizens, and now in the hands of several hostile Indian tribes, induced me to get up that expedition, expecting that some benefit might result therefrom both to the community and myself. But, as my intentions were known to you and approved by your lordship previous to my departure, I deem it useless to enter into these particulars. I left this city on the 2d of November last in company with my brother, Rezin P. Bowie, eight men and a boy. Wishing, with due care, to examine the nature of the country, my progress was quite slow. On the 19th we met two Comanches and one Mexican captive (the last acting as an interpreter) at about seven miles northwest of the Llano River, on the road known as de la Bandera. The Indians, after having asked several questions in regard to the feelings of the Mexicans towards the Comanches, and receiving an assurance on my part that they were kindly disposed towards all peaceable Indians, told me that their friends were driving to San Antonio several horses that had been stolen at Goliad. I promised them that they would be protected, and they continued on their way to the city to deliver the said horses to their proper owners or to the civil authority. On the following day at sunrise, we were overtaken by the captive, who informed us that 124 Tehuacanas were on our trail, and at the same time showing us the medal received this year by his captain from the authority of this city, which was sent to us to prove that the messenger was reliable. We were then apprised that the Tehuacanas had the day before visited the camping ground of the Comanches, and told them that they were following us to kill us at any cost. Ysayune (such was the name or the Comanche captain), having become informed of the determination of the savages respecting us, tried first to induce them to desist from the prosecution of their intention, insisting that they should not take our lives, and telling them he would be mad with them if they went to attack us, but they separated, dissatisfied with each other. Ysayune sent us word that if we would come back he would do all he could to assist us, but that be had only sixteen men under his command, and thought that we could defend ourselves against the enemy by taking a position on a hill covered by underbrush, which the captive was ordered to show us, adding, that the houses on the San Saba were close by. The houses alluded to were the remains of those belonging to the San Saba mission, that had been long abandoned. We did not follow the Comanche's advice, thinking that we could reach our destination, as we did, before the enemy could overtake us. But once arrived we could not find the houses, and the ground upon the San Saba offering no position for our protection, we went about three miles to the north of the river, and there selected a grove wherein to encamp for the night. There was a smaller grove about fifty varas* from the one chosen for our encampment, and I caused it to be occupied by three men, so as to prevent the enemy from taking possession of it, and thereby have an advantage over us. However, we passed the night without being disturbed.
    On the 21st, at eight o'clock a.m., we were about to leave our camping ground, when we saw a large body of Indians close upon us, and at a distance of about two hundred varas. Several of them shouted in English: "How do you do? How are you? How are you?" We soon knew by their skins that they had among them some Caddoes, and we made signs to them to send us a man to inform us of their intentions. Just then we saw that the Indian, who was ahead on horseback, was holding up a scalp, and forthwith a volley of some ten or twelve gun-shots was discharged into our camp, but without effect.
    At the arrival of the Indians, my brother repaired with two men to the smaller grove which was between us and the Indians, but when I saw that most of them were withdrawing and sheltering themselves behind a hill about 100 varas northeast of our position, expecting, that they would attack us in a body from that direction, I went to tell my brother to come back and on our return Mr. Buchanan was shot and had his leg broken. We bad scarcely joined our camp when, as I expected, the Indians came from behind the hill to dislodge us, but as the foremost men, and among them the one who seemed to be the leader, fell, they busied themselves in removing their dead, and to do this they had to come closer and fight sharply, but it was at the cost of more lives on their part. This contest lasted about fifteen minutes; but when they perceived that they could not enter our camp they withdrew, screening themselves behind a hill and surrounding timber, and thence commenced firing upon us from every direction. While we were thus engaged, fifteen Indians, who, from the report of their firing, seemed to be armed with rifles, concealed themselves behind some oaks in a valley about sixty varas to the northwest. These were the severest of our foemen, and they wounded two more of our men and several horses. At about 11 o'clock, a.m., seeing, that they could not dislodge us with their fire-arms, they set fire to the prairie, hoping thus to burn us or compel us to abandon our camp. So soon as the prairie was on fire they loudly shouted, and, expecting their stratagem would be successful, they advanced under protection of the smoke to the position they had first been obliged to abandon; but when the fire reached the valley it died out.
    Thinking the siege would be protracted, we employed Gonzales and the boy Charles in making a breastwork of whatever they could lay their hands upon, such as boughs and our property. From that moment until 4 o'clock the fire slackened gradually, and the Indians withdrew to a considerable distance. But the wind having shifted from the southwest to the northwest, the Indians again fired the prairie, and the conflagration reached our camp, but by dint of hard work in the way of tearing the grass, and by means of our bear skins and blankets, made use of to smother the flames, we succeeded in saving the greater part of our animals and other property. We expected a furious attack of the enemy under cover of the smoke, in order to penetrate our camp, but the greater part of them withdrew to a pond, distant about half a mile from the battle field, to procure water, and those of them that remained kept up firing and removing their dead. This work on their part went on until about 6:30 o'clock p.m., when the battle closed, only one shot being fired by them after 7 o'clock, which was aimed at one of our men who went to obtain water.
    We had agreed to attack the enemy while they were asleep, but when we reflected that we had only six men able to use their arms, and that the wounded would have to remain unprotected, we thought it more advisable to remain in our camp, which we had now fortified with stones and timber, so as to make it quite secure against further assault. On the 22d, at about 5 o'clock a.m., we heard the Indians moving, towards the northeast, and at day-break none were to be seen. However, about 11 o'clock we observed thirteen of them, who, upon seeing us, withdrew suddenly. Subsequently, in order to intimidate them and impress them with the idea that we were still ready for a fight, we hoisted a flag on a long pole, as a sign of war; and for eight days we kept a fire constantly burning, hoping thereby to attract the attention of any friendly Comanches that might be in the neighborhood, and procure some animals for the transportation of our wounded and our camp property.
    On the evening of the 29th, the wounded being somewhat relieved, we began our march for Bexar, and on striking the Pierdenales we observed a large Tehuacana trail, and noticed several others between that stream and the Guadalupe, all seeming to tend in the direction of a smoke that curled upward from some point down the Pierdenales. Upon seeing these trails, we took a more westerly course, and after having crossed the Guadalupe, we saw no more signs of Indians, and arrived here on the night of the 6th inst. My only loss among my men during the battle, was by the fall and death of the foreman of my mechanics, Mr. Thomas McCaslin, from a bullet that entered below the breast and passed through the loin. He was one of the most efficient of my comrades in the fight. I had, also, three men wounded, five animals killed and several severely hurt. We could make no estimate of the loss of the enemy, but we kept up a continual firing during the day and always had enemies to aim at, and there were no intervening obstacles to prevent our shot from having their full effect. We saw twenty-one men fall dead, and among them seven on horseback, who seemed to act as chiefs, one of whom was very conspicuous by reason of the buffalo horns and other finery about his head. To his death I attribute the discouragement of his followers. I cannot do less than commend to your lordship for their alacrity in obeying and executing my orders with spirit and firmness all those who accompanied me. Their names are Robert Armstrong, Rezin P. Bowie, Mathew Doyle, Thomas McCaslin (killed), Daniel Buchanan (wounded), James Corvell, Mateo Dias, Cephas K. Ham, Jesse Wallace, Senor Gonzales, Charles (a boy).
    God and Liberty.
    James Bowie.
    • Report of James Bowie. Reproduced in J. C. F. Kyger, Texas Gems (1885), pp. 130–134, and J. H. Brown, History of Texas, from 1685 to 1892, Vol. 1 (1893), pp. 170–175: "Among the archives of San Antonio there has recently been found and translated, an official report of the affair made by James Bowie himself, immediately after the occurrence."
      • (*) The unit of Spanish measure as applied to land measurements in Texas was the vara (yard) of thirty-three and one-third inches. An English mile is 1900 varas. A labor contains one million square varas and if in square shape has one thousand varas on each side, making an area of 177 English acres. A sitio or league of 4,428 acres, is five thousand varas square and contains the equivalent of 25 labors or 25,000,000 square varas. A lineal league in land measurement is two and sixty-three hundredths English miles.
  • The following interesting narrative of a fight with the Waccos and Tawackanies, Indians, in Texas, amounting to 164, and a party of Americans—nine men and two boys, eleven in number—is related by Razin P. Bowie, Esq. one of that party, now in this city.
    On the 2d of November, 1831, we left the town of St. Antonia de Baxar for the silver mines, on the St. Saba river; the party consisting of the following named persons:—Razin P. Bowie, James Bowie, David Buchannan, Robert Armstrong, Jesse Wallace, Matthew Doyle, Cephas R. Hamm, James Corriell, Thomas M‘Caslin, Gonzales and Charles, servant boys. Nothing particular occurred until the 19th, on which day, about ten, A.M., we were overhauled by two Camancha Indians and a Mexican captive, who had struck our trail and followed it. They stated that they belonged to Isaonie’s party, a chief of the Camancha tribe, sixteen in number, and were on their road to St. Antonia, with a drove of horses, which they had taken from the Waccos and Tawackanies, and were about returning them to their owners, citizens of St. Antonia. After smoking and talking with them about an hour, and making then a few presents of tobacco, powder, shot, &c., they returned to their party, who were waiting at the Illano river.
    We continued our journey until night closed upon us, when we encamped. The next morning, between daylight and sunrise, the above named Mexican captive returned to our camp, his horse very much fatigued; and who, after eating and smoking, stated to us that he had been sent by his chief, Isaonie, to inform us we were followed by 124 Tawackanie and Wacco Indians, and forty Caddos had joined them, who were determined to have our scalps at all risks. Isaonie had held a talk with them all the previous afternoon, and endeavoured to dissuade them from their purpose; but they still persisted, and left him enraged, and pursued our trail. As a voucher for the truth of the above, the Mexican produced his chief’s silver medal, which is common among the natives in such cases. He further stated, that his chief requested him to say, that he had but sixteen men, badly armed, and without ammunition; but if we would return and join him, such succour as he could give us he would. But knowing that the enemy lay between us and him, we deemed it more prudent to pursue our journey and endeavour to reach the old fort on the St. Saba river, before night, distance thirty miles. The Mexican then returned to his party, and we proceeded on.
    Throughout the day, we encountered bad roads, being covered with rocks, and the horses’ feet being worn out, we were disappointed in not reaching the fort. In the evening we had some difficulty in picking out an advantageous spot where io encamp for the night. We however made choice of the best that offered, which was a cluster of live-oak trees, some thirty or forty in number, about the size of a man’s body. To the north of them was a thicket of live-oak bushes, about ten feet high, forty yards in length and twenty in breadth. To the west, at the distance of thirty-five or forty yards, ran a stream of water.
    The surrounding country was an open prairie, interspersed with a few trees, rocks, and broken land. The trail which we came on lay to the east of our encampment. After taking the precaution to prepare our spot for defence, by cutting a road inside the thicket of bushes, ten feet from the outer edge all around, and clearing the prickly pears from amongst the bushes, we hobbled our horses, and placed sentinels for the night. We were now distant six miles from the old fort above mentioned, which was built by the Spaniards, in 1752, for the purpose of protecting them while working the silver mines, which are a mile distant. A few years after, it was attacked by the Camancha Indians, and every soul put to death. Since that time it has never been occupied. Within the fort is a church, which, had we reached before night, it was our intention to have occupied to defend ourselves against the Indians. The fort surrounds about one acre of land, under a twelve feet stone wall. Nothing occurred throughout the night, and we lost no time, in the morning, in making preparations for continuing our journey to the fort; and when in the act of starting, we discovered the Indians on our trail to the east, about two hundred yards distant, and a footman about fifty yards ahead of the main body, with his face to the ground, tracking. The cry of Indians was given, and all hands to arms. We dismounted, and both saddle and pack horses were immediately made fast to the trees. As soon as they found we had discovered them, they gave the war whoop, halted and commenced stripping, preparatory to action. A few mounted Indians were reconnoitering the ground; amongst them we discovered a few Caddo Indians, by the cut of their hair, who had always previously been friendly to Americans.
    Their numbers being so far greater than ours, (164 to 11,) it was agreed that Razin P. Bowie should be sent out to talk with them, and endeavour to compromise rather than attempt a fight. He accordingly started, with David Buchannan in company, and walked up to within about forty yards of where they had halted, and requested them, in their own tongue, to send forward their chief, as he wanted to talk with him. Their answer was—"how de do? how de do?"—in English, and a discharge of twelve shot at us, one of which broke Buchannan’s leg. Bowie returned their salutation with the contents of a double barrelled gun and a pistol. He then took Buchannan on his shoulder, and started back to the encampment. They then opened a heavy fire upon us, which wounded Buchannan in two more places slightly, and piercing Bowie’s hunting shirt in several places, without doing him any injury. When they found their shot failed to bring Bowie down, eight Indians on foot took after him with their tomahawks, and when close upon him, were discovered by his’ party, who rushed out with their rifles and brought down four of them—the other tour retreating back to the main body. We then returned to our position, and all was still for about five minutes.
    We then discovered a hill to the north-east, at the distance of sixty yards, red with Indians, who opened a heavy fire on us, with loud yells. Their chief, on horse-back, urging them in a loud and audible voice to the charge, walking his horse perfectly composed. When we first discovered him, our guns were all empty, with the exception of Mr. Hamm’s. James Bowie cried out, "who is loaded?" Mr. Hamm observed, "l am." He then was told to shoot that Indian on horseback. He did so, and broke his leg and killed his horse. We now discovered him hopping round his horse on one leg, with his shield on his arm to keep off the balls. By this time four of our party being reloaded, fired at the same instant, and all the balls took effect through the shield. He fell, and was immediately surrounded by six or eight of his tribe, who picked him up and bore him off. Several of these were shot down by our party. The whole body then retreated back of the hill, out of our sight, with the exception of a few Indians who were running about from tree to tree, out of gun shot.
    They now covered the hill the second time, bringing up their bowmen, who had not been in action before, and commenced a heavy fire with balls and arrows; which we returned by a well directed aim with our rifles. At this instant, another chief appeared on horseback, near the spot where the last one fell. The same question of who was loaded, was asked; the answer was, "nobody; when little Charles, the mulatto servant, came running up with Buchannan’s rifle, which had not been discharged since he was wounded, and handed it to James Bowie, who instantly fired, and brought him down from his horse. He was surrounded by six or eight of his tribe, as was the last, and bore off under our fire. During the time we were engaged in defending ourselves from the Indians on the hill, some fifteen or twenty of the Caddo tribe had succeeded in getting under the. bank of the creek in our rear, at about forty yards distance, and opened a fire upon us, which wounded Matthew Doyle, the ball entering in the left breast and out the back. As soon as he cried out he was wounded, Thomas M‘Caslin hastened to the spot where he fell, and observed, "where is the Indian that shot Doyle." He was told by a more experienced hand not to venture there, as, from the report of their guns, they must be riflemen. At that instant he discovered an Indian, and while in the act of raising his piece, was shot through the centre of the body, and expired. Robert Armstrong exclaimed, "damn the Indian that shot M‘Caslin, where is he?" He was also told not to venture there, as they must be riflemen; but on discovering an Indian, and while bring his gun up, he was fired at, and part of the stock of his gun cut off, and the ball lodged against the barrel. During this time our enemies had formed a complete circle around us, occupying the points of rocks, scattering trees and bushes. The firing then became general from all quarters.
    Finding our situation too much exposed among the trees, we were obliged to leave it, and take to the thickets. The first thing necessary was to dislodge the riflemen from under the bank of the creek, who were within point-blank shot. This we soon succeeded in, by shooting the most of them through the head, as we had the advantage of seeing them when they could not see us.
    The road we had cut round the thicket the night previous, gave us now an advantageous situation over that of our enemy, as we had a fair view of them in the prarie, while we were completely hid. We baffled their shots by moving six or eight feet the moment we had fired, as their only mark was the smoke of our guns. They would put twenty balls within the size of a pocket handkerchief, where they had seen the smoke. In this manner we fought them two hours, and had one man wounded, James Corriell, who was shot through the arm, and the ball lodged in the side, first cutting away a bush, which prevented it from penetrating deeper than the size of it.
    They now discovered that we were not to be dislodged from the thicket, and the uncertainty of killing us at random shot; they suffering very much from the fire of our rifles, which brought half a dozen down at every round. They now determined to resort to stratagem, by putting fire to the dry grass in the prairie, for the double purpose of routing us from our position, and, under cover of the smoke, to carry away their dead and wounded, which lay near us. The wind was now blowing from the west, and they placed the fire in that quarter, where it burnt down all the grass to the creek, and then bore off to the right and left, leaving around our position a space of about five acres that was untouched by the fire. Under cover of this smoke, they succeeded in carrying off a portion of their dead and wounded. In the mean time, our party were engaged in scraping away the dry grass and leaves from our wounded men and baggage, to prevent the fire from passing over it; and likewise, in pulling up rocks and bushes to answer the purpose of a breastwork.
    They now discovered they had failed in routing us by the fire, as they had anticipated. They then re-occupied the points of rocks and trees in the prairie, and commenced another attack. The firing continued for some time, when the wind suddenly shifted to the north, and blew very hard. We soon learned our dangerous situation, should the Indians succeed in putting fire to the small spot which we occupied, and kept a strict watch all round. The two servant boys were employed in scraping away dry grass and leaves from around the baggage, and pulling up socks and placing them around the wounded men. The remainder of the party were warmly engaged with the enemy. The point from which the wind now blew being favourable to fire our position, one of the Indians succeeded in crawling down the creek and putting fire to the grass that had not yet been burnt; but before he could retreat back to his party, was killed by Robert Armstrong.
    At this time we saw no hopes of escape, as the fire was coming down rapidly before the wind, flaming ten feet high, and directly for the spot we occupied. What was to be done—we must either be burnt up alive, or driven into the prairie amongst the savages. This encouraged the Indians; and to make it more awful, their shouts and yells rent the air; they at the same time firing upon us about twenty shots a minute. As soon as the smoke hid us from their view, we collected together, and held a consultation as ty what was best to be done. Our first impression was, that they might charge on us under cover of the smoke, as we could make but one effectual fire—the sparks were flying about so thick] that no man could open his powder horn without running the risk of being blown up. However, we finally came to a determination, had they charged us, to give them one fire, place our backs together, and draw our knives, and fight them as long as any one of us was left alive, The next question was, should they not charge us, and we retain our position, we must be burnt up. It was then decided that each man should take care of himself as well as he could, until the fire arrived at the ring around our baggage and wounded men, and there it should be smothered with buffaloe robes, bear skins, dear skins, and blankets, which, after a great deal of exertion, we succeeded in doing.
    Our thicket now being so much burnt and scorched, that it afforded us little or no shelter, we all got into the ring that was made round our wounded men and ba gage; and commenced building our breastwork higher, with the loose rocks from the inside, and dirt dug up with our knives and sticks. During this last fire, the Indians had succeeded in removing all their killed and wounded which lay near us. It was now sundown, and we had been warmly engaged with the Indians since sunrise, a period of thirteen hours; and they seeing us still alive and ready for fight, drew off at a distance of three hundred yards, and encamped for the night with their dead and wounded. Our party now commenced to work in raising our fortification higher, and succeeded in getting it breast high by ten, P. M. We now filled all our vessels and skins with water, expecting another attack the next morning. We could distinctly hear the Indians, nearly all night, crying over their dead, which is their custom; and at daylight, they shot a wounded chief—it being also a custom to shoot any of their tribe that are mortally wounded. They, after that, set out with their dead and wounded to a mountain about a mile distant, where they deposited their dead in a cave on the side of it. At eight in the morning, two of our party went out from the fortification to the encampment, where the Indians had lain the night previous, and counted fort — bloody spots on the grass where the dead an wounded had been lying. As near as we could judge, their loss must have been forty killed and thirty wounded.*
    Finding ourselves much cut up, having one man killed, Thomas M‘Caslin—and three wounded, D. Buchannan and Matthew Doyle, and James Corriell—five horses killed, and three wounded—that we recommenced strengthening our little fort, and continued our labours until one, P.M., when the arrival of thirteen Indians drew us into our fort again. As soon as they discovered we were still there, and ready for action and well fortified, they put off. We after that remained in our fort eight days, recruiting our wounded men and horses; at the expiration of which time, being all in pretty good order, we set out on our return to St. Antonia de Baxar. We left the fort at dark, and travelled all night and next day until afternoon, when we picked out an advantageous spot and fortified ourselves, where we remained two days, expecting the Indians would again, when recruited, follow our trail; but, however, we saw nothing more of them.
    David Buchannan’s wounded leg here mortified, and having no surgical instruments, or medicine of any kind, not even a dose of salts, we boiled some dive-oak bark very strong, and thickened it with pounded charcoal and Indian meal, made a poultice of it, and tied it round his leg, over which we sewed a buffalo skin, and travelled along five days without looking at it; when it was opened, the mortified parts had all dropt off, and it was in a fair way for healing, which it finally did, and his leg now is as well as ever it was. There was none of the party but had his skin cut in several places, and numerous shot-holes through his clothes.
    On the twelfth day we arrived, in good order, with our wounded men and horses, at St. Antonia de Baxas.
    • Report of Rezin Bowie. First published in the Saturday Evening Post; reprinted in Atkinson's Casket, no. 9 (September 1833), pp. 422–425.
      • (*) We afterwards learned, from the Camancha Indiana, that their loss was eighty-two in killed and wounded.

Secondary sources

  • Their raging, day-long battle would become a testament to the warriors’ tenacious determination to protect their territory and to the treasure hunters’ wherewithal to defend themselves against the overwhelming odds of 15 to one.
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