Recollections of Early Texas

[ Texas ]

Recollections of Early Texas

Memoirs of John Holland Jenkins

Edited by John Holmes Jenkins III

A firsthand account of pioneer life in east Texas.


33% website discount price


6 x 9 | 347 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-292-77037-9

  • Foreword
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • I. Austin's Little Colony
  • II. Valuable Additions Arrive
  • III. Mexican Invasion
  • IV. Brushy Creek and Plum Creek
  • V. Comanches, Caddoes, and Cherokees
  • VI. More Mexican Trouble
  • VII. The Mier Expedition
  • VIII. The Texan Santa Fe Expedition
  • IX. People of Note.
  • X. Recollections at Random
  • XI. In All Fairness
  • XII. Hunting and Social Life
  • XIII. From the Sublime to the Ridiculous
  • XIV. In Conclusion
  • Biographical Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Bout the middle of October in the year 1828 my father left his old home in Alabama and came west, intending to grow up with the new country—at least in a financial point of view.

I was then a mere child, but the scenes and incidents of those early times are very clear and distinct in my mind even now, although more than fifty years with many and great changes have worked upon my life since then, and I look around me in vain for those who accompanied us on our journey westward.

One by one they have tired upon the journey of life and have gone to their long rest, until no signs of the old stirring times are left, except here and there an old man recounts to his children and to his children's children the many thrilling experiences of the old Texans.

Standing now and viewing the populous and thriving cities, together with the vast expanses of fields and pastures wrought by man's hand in this half-century, a description of our State as those early settlers found her seems as a "tale that must be told.

The broad prairies covered with rich grass and wild rye and her dense forests teeming with game are indeed a thing of the dead past. Memory recalls her as a proud and happy queen, holding forth her rare treasures of grand and beautiful scenery, and bright prospects to those hardy children who came thus upon her virgin soil, facing so many hardships, deprivations, difficulties, and dangers.

Surrounding our small band of pioneers was one vast and magnificent solitude with no sight nor sound of human kind, except the wandering tribes of Indians in their raids against each other and against the slow but sure inroads of civilization-which had driven them from their native hunting ground. I can recall many tales of horror concerning Indian cruelty and treachery upon the eastern portions of the Republic of Texas, and as we journeyed we found substantial proof of their truth. Near Captain James Ross's on the Colorado River, thirty-five miles from Bastrop, which was then called "Mina," we found human bones lying "grim and ghastly on the green grass." Upon inquiry they were found to be the skeletons of Indians who had come to Captain Ross's, first under pretense of peace and friendliness, then growing more and more aggressive until they gradually revealed false and murderous designs, until at last for selfprotection the whites collected and killed them.

While here, we heard of a murder by Indians of rather recent date. An old man by the name of Tumlinson was at work, tanning or dressing hides some distance from the home. A party of Comanches, finding him there alone and helpless, killed and scalped him with the relentless cruelty which characterized this tribe. Coming on to Woods' Prairie, we found similar bones, bleaching and seeming to point to coming strife, and possible death. Besides, the few families who had preceded us and were in a measure settled there, could give accounts of many deeds of bold and unwarrantable cruelty by the Indians, who were most evidently resenting the coming of white men upon their hunting grounds. All this would naturally fill the minds of the women and children with terror and alarm, which increased as we came farther westward—for we knew full well that the frontier settlers would be most exposed.

Continuing on in face of all these tales of danger we at last reached our first home, which was situated on Barton's Creek, about forty miles below Austin. Here we began life in the Republic of Texas, squatting out on the raw prairie, where never a stick of timber had been hewn, and deprived of many things generally regarded as being among the very necessities of life.

Our absolute need gave birth to invention and energy, however, and all hands—men, women, and children—went to work with a will to make our new quarters as comfortable as possible. When we think of families without houses, wagons, milk, or even nails, far removed from any communications or exchange with the world—when we think of them thus situated, it is natural to wonder what could be done. But it is surprising how much can be done when bone, sinew, and muscle are used with a will upon any material—however meager and insufficient. The change wrought upon the wilderness and the solitary place would have seemed almost like magic work to one who simply looked upon the scene as we came upon it, and then in a few days upon the huts, which stood ready for us to enter. And very comfortable quarters these were—log cabins covered with pine boards, all of which had to be cut, hewn, brought to hand, and built in shape, without wagons, nails, or any kind of machinery.

The cedar logs were cut with axes and were dragged up with horses, while the pine boards for the roofs were split about a mile and a half distant and then brought up by the men, who carried them on horseback.

Having completed and taken possession of the cabins, we settled into habits of life no less primitive and destitute of modern advantages than the cozy little huts that sheltered us, and few people of these modern times can imagine the ten thousand difficulties with which we had to contend. Mother, as well as the other wives of those pioneers, must have possessed rare tact and common sense, however, and been willing and ready to adapt herself to all circumstances, for although our home life was destitute of the most common necessities and conveniences, we never seemed to suffer for anything.

Beginning with bread, it seems difficult to understand how corn could be ground into meal without machinery of some kind; then we had no sieve, and no oven, but our old mortar and pestle was a first-rate grist mill, though very tedious as compared to present processes. Our sieve consisted of a wooden hoop, over which buckskin was stretched, and this in turn was perforated with a red-hot steel or wire. Upon our "Johnny Cake" boards, as they were called, was baked as good bread as was ever taken from oven or stove. Our coffee was tied in a piece of buckskin and beaten upon a rock with another rock.

As soon as possible corn was planted, for our bread supply was getting very slim, and neither corn nor salt could be obtained nearer than the Brazos River. Once we were out of both, and we were compelled to live a while on dried turkey breast for bread, while our meat was unsalted venison. Our hard life, as is usually the case, was a very healthy one, and we were quite comfortable in our new home, despite all these hardships, and the prospect of Indian attacks staring us in the face.

Very soon we received our first visit from Indians, which, by the way, was an entirely new experience in our lives—it being the very first time I had seen one of these red men of the woods. I remember full well what a wild picture the band formed—forty Comanches on the warpath under the leadership of the famous "Buffalo Hump," who was then young, and a magnificent specimen of savage manhood. The warriors were almost without exception large, fine-looking men, displaying to the very best advantage their erect, graceful, well-knit frames and finely proportioned figures, being entirely naked, with the exception of a small apron attached to a belt or girdle, which was made of cloth of all textures and colors, with fringes and tassels at the ends. They had keen black eyes without lashes, and long plaits of coarse black hair hanging from their bare heads down to the very ground behind them. All this peculiarity of costume, combined with their no less peculiar color, and their arms consisting of bows, arrows, lances, and carbines, made a rare picture of wild, untamed beauty, which could not be viewed without interest, and once seen could never be forgotten.

They could speak only the Spanish language, which was entirely unknown to our party, except one Mrs. Woods, whose husband had been forced on account of Indian depredations and dangers to take his family from their home in Woods' Prairie, four miles below us, and had come to us for protection. Though understanding their language, "Mrs. Betsy" was very bitterly opposed to serving as interpreter—regarding the savages with the most intense fear, hatred, and suspicion. Under the circumstances she was obliged to act as interpreter, however, and Buffalo Hump, being chief, was also spokesman.

He first asked, "Where is your Captain?"

She answered that he had gone hunting that morning, and would soon be back. He then proceeded to state their business, saying they meant no harm to the whites, were hunting Tonkawa Indians, were in great hurry, were hungry, and must have meat.

In the few months of our stay here we already had gotten a small start of cattle, so we proposed to let them kill a yearling. To this they cried, "No, must have big beef. If white man come to Indian hungry, Indian kill big mule or horse—have no cows."

So, without more ado, they killed one of our finest cows and before it was thoroughly dead were eating its raw liver most ravenously, while the warm, red blood trickled from their mouths and down their chins. Father and Mr. [William] Barton, who, as Mrs. Woods informed them, had gone hunting that morning, now arrived with venison, of which they immediately took possession, eating portions of that raw also.

There was one warrior among them, the peculiarity of whose appearance and position caused us to especially notice and remember him. He was very slender, indeed was much smaller than the Comanches, as well as different from them in form and feature—besides, he occupied the position of slave to the chief. By their own account he was a captive Tonkawa whom they had raised from infancy. While there he ran a footrace with one of the Comanches, and such running we had never before seen. The Tonkawa came out ahead and was pronounced winner, but both were most wonderfully fleet, nimble, and light, the race being one hundred yards.

This visitation was the beginning of a long and aggressive series of depredations, which gradually increased in effrontery first—then culminated into theft and murder and brought about fierce struggles and terrible loss of life, which characterized the history of our frontier settlements in their early days. For a time, bands of Indians would be seen passing to and fro in their warfare against other tribes and in search of game; always, however, seeming to assume the most friendly attitude toward us.

At length, one morning we awoke to find every horse gone, and upon examination there were moccasin tracks and other signs, plainly showing that the Indians had made us a visit during the night and had driven our horses away. The discovery naturally created great excitement, and there was a general uprising and preparation on the part of our men to pursue the thieves, and if possible regain our horses. Upon going a very short distance, however, they were much relieved to find the horses all quietly grazing on the prairie. The Indians had evidently reconsidered the matter, and for some reason had concluded not to take them. We afterward learned that a band of Coushattas in their rovings had mistaken our horses for those of some other Indians, their enemies, and had started off with them, but daylight revealed their mistake, and they turned them loose. This was a kind of initiatory step, however, and seemed to cast a shadow of coming events.

Very soon other little things of a suspicious character occurred. A band of Caddoes next came constantly in and out, pretending to be hunting and trying to seem friendly and honest; but Messrs. Monte Woods and John Cooke, old settlers, who had been here some time before us and had acquired considerable knowledge and experience of Indian treachery and cunning, as well as a personal acquaintance with the various tribes, warned us that their coming and maneuvers meant no good and probable mischief. Of course this warning put our men upon the alert, and careful note was taken of every new or unusual circumstance connected with their visits, which were all the time becoming more frequent.

Sometimes they would be joined by two or three other tribes, and would linger in the vicinity as if hesitating upon some question or meditating some new project. At last they commenced stealing, going to Woods' Prairie, where the families had crops growing, and stealing corn until serious damage was done.

Immediately ten or twelve settlers collected, and arming themselves went into their camps to see about it. The Indians assembled in council, and proceeded to business. Our men informed the Caddoes that the thing must be stopped, and at the same time let them know that they had come for that purpose—to stop it. The cool bravery and determination of our men had a telling effect upon the thieves, who at once acknowledged the theft and gave us a mule by way of compensation, then made all manner of concessions and promises for the future. One of our party, Mr. Jeff Prior [or Prayor], used every power of effort and persuasion to induce the whites to attack and kill the Caddoes without delay or mercy, but the proposition was overruled by a unanimous vote.

The apology of the thieves was accepted and a treaty of peace made. But the Indians would not consent to the departure of the whites till all had formed a circle about the campfire and smoked the calumet, or pipe of peace, together. The smell or taste of tobacco always made my father deathly sick, and he tried to be excused from taking part in this ceremony, but they would not be satisfied until all had taken a whiff from the calumet.

Constantly in the fall and summer of 1829 [1830] we would have additions to our small band of settlers—men, old and young, from all parts of the United States, coming to try, or look at, Texas. These newcomers were very welcome, for we were not only glad to get news direct from the great world of commerce now so remote from us, but we were also glad to be strengthened in numbers, in view of probable assault by the roving bands of savages, whose visits were constantly growing more frequent and more aggressive.

This summer marked the coming of some of the first settlers of West Texas, now known as Bastrop County. Martin Wells came from Alabama, and was the first man who settled where the town of Bastrop now stands. Then, too, one Moses Rousseau stayed a week with us, and then moving on settled first and alone west of the Colorado River on the Old San Antonio Road, opposite Bastrop. But most prominent, as well as most welcome among these newcomers, were old James Burleson and his sons, who came as strangers, but soon were at home with their new-found friends.

Finding my father to be a brother of one of his best friends back in Tennessee, their meeting was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. Ah! How we learned to look to the kind old soldier for council and comfort. His manly, genial bearing, his extensive experience, and his sound judgment soon won the confidence and love of our entire party.

Little did we know as we enjoyed these visits of father and sons how the boy Edward would serve Texas in the constant and severe struggles through which she was destined to pass. I have often wished for the pen of a ready writer that I might show forth his bravery and fidelity to his adopted state in fitting manner. Thrall, in his History of Texas, has been the first and only historian who has paid anything like just tribute to Edward Burleson. If I could, I would force upon the world a fact of which I am fully persuaded-that, although partial or prejudiced minds may decide that the laurels mainly belong to Sam Houston, in justice and in gratitude, Texas owes to Edward Burleson the fairest, most enduring monument which she can erect, for among her many brave and devoted advocates and heroes, he was not only the most faithful, but the most useful. Especially is this the truth with regard to western Texas—along the Colorado, for in the days when this vicinity was in most peril, he stood guard as it were, and was ever ready to meet any danger, or endure any hardship that our state might demand.

A peculiar chain of circumstances was linked and ran through the record of the family history of these Burlesons which is not without interest. In Tennessee, they were neighbors to a band of Cherokee Indians, who by a persistent course of stealing, finally exasperated them to such an extent, that the old father with his sons and nephews went into the Indian village to adjust matters. The visit brought on a little skirmish, which was the beginning of a feud that followed them through life, so that even here in the new country chance or fate brought them constantly and unexpectedly together.

I have heard the old man give a detailed account of the difficulty, and have seen a scar across his breast which was left by the knife of the Cherokee chief, "Bowles." Jim Burleson was old in all the "tricks and trades" of war—especially versed in Indian warfare, having served under General Andrew Jackson in the early days of the frontier troubles, and the entire family seemed to consider that they owed a debt of vengeance to all Indians. This vindictive hatred was not entirely without cause, for many friends and even members of the family had perished at the hands of Indians.

Upon moving to Texas it was natural to suppose that the old trouble was left at the old home in Tennessee, and the Burlesons settled in the western portion of our state. Gradually, the sons by their bravery and fidelity became "soul and center" of the defensive work which our country required from 1833 to 1845. Considerable trouble between the Indians and whites arose over in East Texas, around Angelina and Tyler Counties, and an appeal for help came to Edward Burleson, who now held command of quite a strong force from the Colorado.

Of course, he obeyed the call, being always ready at a moment's warning to act even unto death in behalf of Texas and her settlers. The Indians, whose depredations had given rise to this appeal to Burleson, proved to be none other than the old family foes—the Cherokees under Chief Bowles. They had moved to East Texas, and true to the inherent greed and treachery of their past lives, had become unendurable and dangerous to the white settlers, who everywhere learned to look to Edward Burleson for help and protection amid the suffering and dangers to which they were exposed. The Cherokees were defeated, and their old Chief Bowles was killed, so they struck out westward—still changing locality, but never changing character or habits.

Our frontier being a constant scene of trouble and danger from invasion and theft, Burleson concluded to make an invading raid against the invaders, and marched with his men to the San Saba—again never dreaming of coming in contact with the old Cherokee foes. He had a few Tonkawa Indians in his company, and through their native intuition they soon discovered Indian signs, whereupon they were sent out under Jonathan Burleson to find the camps. Soon they came upon a solitary Indian, who at first would not venture near, but was finally decoyed by the Tonkawas to talk with them. Seizing him, they took him to Burleson, who made him lead the way to their camps.

On Cherokee Creek, a branch of the San Saba, they found encamped a strong force of Cherokees under young Bowles, a son of the old chief—and the old foes met again. Burleson did not act hastily, however, but first sent the captive Indian into the Cherokee camps, bidding him to say to them that the whites did not come to fight the Cherokees—indeed would not harm them, unless they first made war. As soon as Burleson's company came within gunshot, however, before the Indian could deliver his message, the Cherokees fired upon them, instantly killing Captain [John L.] Lynch, one of Burleson's men. The fight was a close one, but again the Cherokees were defeated—their young chief Bowles was killed and the entire Bowles family was captured.

Thus ended a feud in which circumstances seemed to combine in always bringing together the parties at enmity.


I will now return to our own lives in the new country. In the fall of 1829 [1830] we moved to what is still known as the "Jenkins League" of land—then called Jenkins Prairie, now known as Hills Prairie, situated five miles south of Bastrop, and west of the Colorado.

A half-covered log cabin with a dirt floor had already been prepared for us by my father, and very near we had the luxury of a fine spring. Building cowpen, lot, and such things first busied the men, then the small stock of cattle was brought on from our first home on Barton's Creek.

Ah! What a country was West Texas then. It almost "flowed with milk and honey," and in truth nothing could be more beautiful than the broad plains covered with wild rye and the finest grass the world ever afforded. Feasting upon such luxuries the faithful old cows gave an abundance of milk the whole year round, and now when summer's drought or winter's blight comes upon us, and our stock suffer so much, despite every effort we make, it is no wonder that we wish for the good old days, when the land stood "dressed in living green."

Our only neighbors were the two citizens whose coming I have already mentioned, Martin Wells, who lived where Bastrop now stands, and Moses Rousseau, from the Colorado, five and six miles distant from us.

Before we had been there long a message came from Barton's Prairie, our former home, that Indians were growing very troublesome, stealing horses, etc. Immediately the men all collected and went to see about it. They were gone about three weeks, but all efforts to catch the thieves or regain the horses were unsuccessful, though they trailed them to the mountains, and from grains of coffee and other signs of civilization, they concluded the thieves belonged to the same band of Caddoes who had stolen corn from Woods' Prairie the previous year, as that tribe was less savage than most others who came through here at that time. They were very cunning and skillful in their thefts and retreats thereafter, and in this case fired the grass behind them as they went, thus destroying all trace.


"John Holland Jenkins was thirteen and a half years old when the Alamo fell in 1836 and he became a soldier of the Texas Republic under General Sam Houston.... [But] it was not until 1884, when he was past sixty years old, that he began writing down...the reminiscences that, as now put into book form, light up for whoever will read [them] the earliest days of early English-speaking Texas."

—from the Foreword by J. Frank Dobie

"This is the firsthand account by one who measured up to the demands of danger and hardships and lived to write about it for others. For, here is history in the making—Indian raids and Mexican forays were daily menaces and brought massacres, capture and torture to these first settlers. These reminiscences...are invaluable for their recordings of early frontier times and for their presentation of such historic happenings as the Mier and Santa Fe expeditions. The original flavor of the writing has been beautifully retained and the entire account is well documented."

Library Journal