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September 11th, 2013
Bartee Haile: Agent paid high price for devotion to Indians

This Week in Texas History:
A column
by BARTEE HAILE

Sept. 14, 1859 was supposed to be Robert Simpson Neighbors’ last day on his unbelievably difficult job not the dedicated Indian agent’s last day on earth.

A Virginia orphan who arrived too late for the Battle of San Jacinto, the 19 year old still found a place for himself in the Texas Army.  But in the rough-and-tumble Republic, his daily duties as quartermaster involved much more than simply shuffling papers.

An obstinate farmer decided to keep his corn and the government payment too, but Neighbors ignored the sodbuster’s threats and went right ahead and loaded the crop.  When the farmer and a few friends ambushed him on the trail, the quartermaster ducked several wild shots before settling the dispute with a well-placed bullet through the bushwhacker’s brain.

In the surprise invasion of San Antonio in September 1842, Neighbors was among the courtroom full of Texans taken prisoner by Mexican troops.  Along with the judge, witnesses, attorneys and spectators, he was marched at gunpoint across the border to infamous Perote prison, his hellish home for the next 21 months.

Not long after his release, Neighbors was put in charge of the Lipan and Tonkawa tribes.  In sharp contrast to similar bureaucrats, who waited for their wards to come to them, Neighbors boldly went out into the field.  This common-sense approach made him the most knowledgeable Indian agent in the whole Southwest and one of the few to earn the red man’s respect.

Neighbors toed the line and demanded that others do the same.  When a white trader casually confessed to peddling whiskey, the agent warned, “You know it is against the law to sell whiskey to the Indians.  It is my duty to visit your camp and ascertain whether you have whiskey.  I shall be there in the morning, and if I find things as you say, I shall hang you.”  The bootlegger got the message and disappeared before the sun came up.

A Whig victory in the national elections of 1848 cost the Democrat his post.  But a man with a reputation for getting tough jobs done was not unemployed for long.  Heeding the call of state officials, Neighbors blazed the historic trail to El Paso that finally opened the door to Far West Texas.

As expected, the mission was a touch-and-go affair packed with peril.  Near the confluence of the Colorado and San Saba rivers, the explorers came upon a giant gathering of nomadic tribes that numbered in the thousands.  The sad sight of a captive white woman, whose face “seemed the personification of despair,” tore at the Texans’ hearts for they knew any attempt to free her meant certain death.

Completing the hazardous assignment, Neighbors estimated the distance between Austin and El Paso at 598 miles, a perfect match with modern road maps.  A hard day’s drive on the current highway, the trek took him 11 weeks.

neighbor

Major Robert Simpson Neigbors

When the Democrats retook the White House in 1853, Neighbors resumed his role as federal go-between with the Indians.  Exhibiting superhuman patience he coaxed the Comanches onto reservations in Throckmorton and Young counties northwest of Fort Worth.  That impossible feat under his belt, he faced the uphill struggle of winning public support for the resettlement program.

Based upon the widespread belief that the Lone Star State was not big enough for both races, most Texans vehemently rejected the philosophy of peaceful coexistence with the Indians.  Neighbors’ cause was not helped one bit by regular renegade raids along the frontier, which were always blamed on the reservation residents.

A wave of vigilante attacks against the Comanches convinced the despondent agent of the futility of his efforts.  In 1859 Neighbors obtained permission to relocate his dependents north of the Red River and finished the mammoth move that September.

By this time Neighbors had had it.  His one-man battle against overwhelming odds had left him bitter and exhausted, so he decided to hang it up and join his neglected family at San Antonio.

At Fort Belknap west of present-day Graham, Neighbors turned in his resignation on Sept. 13, 1859.  The next morning, against the advice of the garrison commander, he paid a visit to the nearby village where feelings were running high against the notorious “Indian lover.”

Neighbors walked right into a deathtrap.  Confronted on the dirt street by a belligerent stranger, he did not notice the second man that slipped up behind him.  The last sound he ever heard was the roar of a double-barreled shotgun.

The killer escaped and never paid for the cowardly crime.  Although the army and civilian authorities knew his identity, no one lifted a finger to bring the murderer of Robert  Simpson Neighbors to justice.

The cynical consensus seemed to be that the friend of the Comanches had it coming.

Visit Bartee’s new web site barteehaile.com every day to find out what happened in Texas history on that date.  And while you’re there, do a little shopping at the General


San Marcos Mercury columnist BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.

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