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Bartee Haile: Indian fighter saves an endangered species, the frontier settler

This Week in Texas History: A column

On Jul. 11, 1855, the Governor of Texas gave an experienced Indian fighter the no-questions-asked job of saving an endangered species — the frontier settler.

After nine years of the Potomac politicians going back on their word, nothing Washington did should have surprised the citizens of the biggest state in the Union. But Texans never dreamed the United States government would leave the Lone Star frontier unprotected.

As a key condition of annexation, congress promised in 1846 to keep the hostile tribes in check. Nevertheless, the Army broke that pledge in the summer of 1855 by transferring cavalry units from Texas to Kansas to referee the violent debate over slavery in that troubled territory.

From sanctuaries south of the Rio Grande, bands of red renegades attacked isolated farms and hamlets penetrating as far as the San Antonio city limits. Acutely aware the cavalry would not be riding to the rescue anytime soon, Gov. E.M. Pease took the bull by the horns.

The mission impossible of beating the raiders at their own game was assigned to James Callahan. A hard-bitten Georgian, who escaped the Goliad Massacre by the skin of his teeth, he never had lost an encounter with any warriors on the warpath.

Assembling a single company of 88 volunteers, the majority from his hometown of Seguin, Callahan began patrolling the Indian-infested frontier. Pease’s orders not only authorized the pursuit of “any marauding parties” but also allowed him to “follow them up and chastise them wherever they may be found.”

Callahan took the governor at his word. Hot on the trail of a band of Lipans, he forded the Rio Grande on the last day of September 1855. To evade detection by the Army garrison at Fort Duncan, the Texans crossed the rain-swollen river three miles south of Eagle Pass.

Three days later, Callahan and his men laughed off a peasant’s dire prediction that they were riding right into an ambush. Sure enough, in a matter of minutes the foreigners were fighting for their lives against a superior force of Mexican soldiers.

The Texans managed to slip away under the cover of night. By mid-morning, they reached Piedras Negras, Eagle Pass’ sister city, and seized control of the town.

Callahan carried his wounded to Fort Duncan and talked far into the night with the sympathetic commander. The officer offered his assistance upon the visitor’s return to American soil, but Callahan refused to call off his private invasion.

News the next day that 1,400 Mexican regular troops were marching on Piedras Negras caused him to curse his stubborn streak. Forced to buy time for a painfully slow retreat through the swirling floodwaters of the Rio Grande, he ordered his companions to set fire to the border town.

With the enemy column, which actually numbered 800, blinded by the thick smoke, Callahan successfully withdrew that evening. His new friend at Fort Duncan covered the retreat by aiming his four cannons at the frustrated Mexicans.

The governor and public opinion wholeheartedly endorsed the controversial expedition. In a message to the state legislature, which included critics that condemned Callahan for going off half-cocked, Pease backed him to the hilt. Mass meetings and newspaper editorials applauded the adventure and made no apology for the burning of Piedras Negras.

To the astonishment of most Texans, the U.S. secretary of state also spoke out in strong support of Callahan. Replying to a protest from the government of Mexico, he castigated the Mexicans for their complicity in Indian atrocities and the unprovoked ambush of the Texas volunteers.

James Callahan hopefully made the most of his moment in the limelight because it was destined to be his last. The 44 year old frontiersman was shot to death six months later not by Indians but by a white rancher and his son.

Callahan moved west from Seguin to Pittsburg, which later changed its name to Blanco, where he became embroiled in a nasty feud with a neighbor named Blasingame. Never one to back down from a fight, the fearless frontiersman and two companions rode out to the Blasingame place.

For the first and final time, James Callahan underestimated an opponent. The conversation had hardly started, when the rancher and his grown offspring went for their guns. In the uneven exchange, the famed Indian fighter was killed instantly.

Shock exploded into rage at Seguin, and 50 men mounted up for a merciless mission to avenge the murder of their hometown hero. Galloping into Pittsburg in the middle of the night, the posse dragged father and son out of bed. As the horrified wife and mother looked on helplessly, the vigilantes shot her menfolk to pieces.

Bartee Haile welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549 or haile@pdq.net.

2 Comments (Open | Close)

2 Comments To "Bartee Haile: Indian fighter saves an endangered species, the frontier settler"

#1 Comment By Jerry On 10/24/2013 @ 11:56 am

James Callahan is my 3rd greatgrandfather. I found in a newspaper dated 24 May 1856 the letter written by Mrs. Mary Blasingame to the newspaper describing the death of her husband and son. She states they were being guarded by a large number of men, with one man always inside the house with them. She states 3 men (none by name) drug her husband and son out of Justice Long’s house. When Woodson and Calvin Blasingame were drug outside, Mary ran out of the house and ran toward the river. She states she heard six or eight guns firing. She remained at the river until morning when she was found by Ed Burleson and taken to a Mr. George’s house. Here she was tried for conspiracy and sent to jail in New Braunfels. She was later acquitted.

#2 Comment By DJ Melton On 01/10/2016 @ 12:41 am

Jerry, I would love to talk to you. I am gathering notes from as many descendants as possible of the actors in that tragic shootout, the lynching, and the trials. Several parties are already represented, but I’ve not yet spoken with any descendants of James H. Callahan. Mr. Haile, would it be possible for you please to forward my email address privately to Jerry?