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February 20th, 2013
Bartee Haile: Frontier hero puts adventures down on paper

This Week in Texas History:
A column

Buck Barry stayed in his native North Carolina just long to marry an old flame on Feb. 24, 1847 before coming back to Texas to start a family. All too often early settlers of Texas are portrayed as illiterate fugitives. Not so with James Buckner Barry, who possessed a better than average education for the times and was running to an exciting land full of opportunity rather than from the law.

James Buckner "Buck" Barry

James Buckner “Buck” Barry

Twenty-four years old when he left his Tar Heel home, Barry spent a month at sea before finally docking at New Orleans. He had to wait a week before finally boarding a ship bound not for Galveston but an inland port of entry on the Red River.

Jefferson was not much to look at on Apr. 12, 1845, the day Barry first set foot in Texas. As he recalled in his memoirs half a century later, “Several houses were under construction but there was only one finished.”

The newcomer did not linger long at the future haven for bed-and-breakfast tourists. He wandered west through the wild countryside with his ultimate destination San Antonio.

On his way to the Alamo City, Barry visited the latest and last capital of the Texas Republic. Austin was still in its infancy and offered the traveler little more than Jefferson.

Barry clearly was not impressed. Other than the capitol building, “Austin had only a few houses built of logs, clapboards and whipsawed lumber,” he wrote so many years later. “I recollect seeing only one white woman in town, if it could be called a town.”

The day after Barry reached San Antonio, the inhabitants were panicked by reports of another in a series of Mexican invasions. He eagerly rode out with a Ranger company to confront the threat but never caught sight of the trespassers, who had retreated to the Rio Grande.

A short time later, Barry “joined the little army of the Republic of Texas, numbering 250 men, commanded by Major (John Coffee) Jack Hays.” He was assigned to a squad of ten headquartered “on the Trinity River, something like halfway between where Dallas and Fort Worth have grown to be cities.”

Of all his memorable experiences as a Ranger on patrol, none withstood the ravages of time quite like a strange sight in a snowstorm. “We saw a horse at a distance standing still with a saddle on. We found his rider frozen to death with a noose of the bridle reins around one wrist.”

In the spring of 1846, Barry and his comrades invited a passerby to breakfast. That was how they learned war with Mexico was about to break out on the border.

Jack Hays saved a place for the North Carolinian in the First Texas Mounted Rifles, a regiment made up of Rangers and other hard-fighting frontiersmen. Membership in the unit was Barry’s ticket for nearly every major battle and a front-row seat for an unforgettable incident.

Bright and early one morning, a detachment of Mexican lancers surprised the sleeping Texans. To give his men time to wake up and prepare for battle, Hays “rode out front with his saber in hand and challenged the colonel of the lancers to meet him halfway between the lines to fight a saber fight.”

The enemy officer “advanced waving his saber, while his horse seemed to dance rather than prance. Within a few feet of the Mexican, Hays pulled a pistol and shot him dead from his horse.”

The lancers “charged us like mad hornets” making three costly passes through the Texan lines. Marveling at the enemy soldiers’ courage, Barry wrote, “I have never called a Mexican a coward since.”

After the one-sided war, it was back to North Carolina for Barry and marriage to the sweetheart who had waited for him. The newlyweds set up housekeeping in Navarro County, where voters drafted the office-shy breadwinner for three terms as sheriff and one as county treasurer.

In late 1855, Barry moved west to Bosque County on the edge of the frontier. But plans of spending more time with his growing family were spoiled by the depredations of so-called “reservation Indians” from their government-protected sanctuary on the Brazos.

Barry devoted the next decade, including the entire Civil War, to fighting Indians and retrieving the horses and human captives taken on their raids. He eventually succeeded in bringing about the relocation of the troublesome tribes north of the Red River thereby averting all-out war with the U.S. Army.

The familiar figure with the shoulder-length hair and fondness for buckskin dabbled in politics in the 1880’s and 1890’s, first as an active supporter of the Grange and later with the People’s Party.

After a failed bid for state treasurer in 1898, Buck Barry retired to his ranch near Walnut Springs. He completed his autobiography, published in 1932, before going totally blind and dying on his eighty-fifth birthday in 1906.

Last chance! Three “Best of This Week in Texas History” collections for the price of two: “Hurricanes, Tornadoes & Other Disasters,” “Secession & Civil War” and “Revolution & Republic.” Mail a check for only $28.40 to “Bartee Haile” at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, TX 77549 or order on-line at

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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