( [The following is synthesized largely from Brown's History of Texas, Sowell's Rangers and Pioneer's of Texas and Brice's The Great Comanche Raid: Boldest Indian Attack of the Texas Republic and some other family history records. For more accounts, see The Battle of Plum Creek.
The largest, longest sustained and possibly the only attack by Comanches with a semblance of organization in the DeWitt Colony occurred during the first two weeks of August 1840. According to John Henry Brown, a resident of the colony, in his book The Indian Wars and Pioneers of Texas:
"....the country between the Guadalupe and San Marcos, on the west, and the Colorado on the east, above a line drawn from Gonzales to La Grange, was a wilderness, while below that line it was thinly settled. Between Gonzales and Austin, on Plum Creek, were two recent settlers, Isom J. Goode and John A. Neill From Gonzales to within a few miles of La Grange there was not a settler. There was not one between Gonzales and Bastrop, nor one between Austin and San Antonio. A road from Gonzales to Austin, then in the first year of its existence, had been opened in July 1839."
The route was one the Comanches used unimpeded on their hunting parties and raids to the Texas coast and into Mexico from their base in the mountains and plains of northwest Texas. The raid on Victoria and Linnville came after a failure of attempts for peace between Texas settlers and the Comanche tribes culminating with the Council House Fight in San Antonio on 19 Mar 1840. In the fight, over 35 Comanches were killed including several chiefs and 29 were taken prisoner. Eight Texans were also killed in the foray including two judges, Hood of San Antonio and Thompson of Houston, and 8 including Judge James W. Robinson and Capt. Mathew Caldwell were wounded. With promises of land and protection in a Texas reunited with Mexico, Mexican authorities used this event to intensify their encouragement and aid to the Indians to attack and destabilize the new Texas Republic. A force of Comanches of over one thousand moved from the north and west through the colony with bands of 20 to 30 spinning off the main contingent and making continuous raids on anything in their path to Victoria and Linnville on the coast.
The Foley and Ponton Incident. On 5 August, Tucker Foley and Dr. Joel Ponton, who were Lavaca County residents, were on their way to Gonzales on the Columbus Road west of Ponton’s Creek when attacked by a band of 27 mounted Comanches. They fled on horseback until Foley's horse began to falter. Foley told Ponton not to worry about him, but to save himself. Spurring his horse onward past Foley, several warriors passed Foley in hot pursuit of Ponton. Knocked off his horse with an arrow in his hat and two in his back, Ponton abandoned his also wounded horse and escaped into a dense thicket where the Indians left a guard. The main band returned to Foley who was pursued into a creek bottom where his horse became mired in a "hog wallow". He ran for cover in the timber, but was overtaken and surrounded. The warriors promised him no harm and he surrendered. As soon as he gave up his weapons, he was tied hand and feet; the bottoms of his feet were peeled of skin with knives and he was made to walk over stones and freshly burned stubble where Ponton was hiding and forced to call in attempt to get Ponton to emerge. Shortly after, the Indians killed Foley with their spears and scalped and mutilated his body. Although Ponton’s horse was killed and he was severely wounded with two arrows in his backside, he survived by crawling through the bottom land thickets and eventually managed to return to his home the following night after which minuteman leader Capt. Adam Zumwalt was alerted to the incident.
Ellen McKinney Arnold, daughter of John McKinney, related the incident told to her by her father in 1905:
"Tucker Foley was killed in about two miles of where Moulton now stands, and was buried under a big live oak tree. Father dug his grave with a butcher knife and wrapped him in a saddle blanket made out of cotton. When father found him, he was naked, had been scalped, and was hanging to a tree, tied up by his hamstrings. Nearly all the people in Lavaca County pursued the Indians, over took them and had a big fight. There were about thirty-seven men from Gonzales; my father was among the number who were joined by other volunteers. Mason Foley brought back his brother's horse and rifle; he said he killed the Indian that had them, and that he believed he was the one that killed his brother. I saw the horse and rifle several years afterward; the horse was a bay, and the rifle was a flint-rock rifle. Mase told me after the fight was over he killed all the squaws and tried to find his brother's scalp, but it was lost."
Captain Adam Zumwalt with 36 Lavaca River area settlers came together in response. Among them were Mason and Stewart Foley who were brothers of Tucker Foley. As described above, on the following day they found the scene and buried Foley’s body. Known members of the troop of 36 were W.H. Baldridge, Henry Bridger, Anthony Brown, Wilson Clark, Patrick Dougherty, Mason B. Foley, Stewart Foley, Richard Heath, John W. Hinch, David Ives, David Kent, Mark H. Moore, Cicero Rufus Perry (from HaysCo on a visit to Sherrill), Jesse Robinson, John McKinney, Montreville Rountree, Arthur Sherrill, John Smothers William Smothers, Richard Veal, and Thomas K. Zumwalt (son of Capt. Zumwalt). Captain Zumwalt’s force pursued the trail of the Indian raiders south.
Word of increased Indian activity from Plum Creek toward the coast and the Smothers/Foley incident spread through the settlements. An assembly of 24 volunteer minutemen from Gonzales under Captain Ben McCulloch moved quickly into the area known as the Big Hill region of current Lavaca County about 16 miles east of Gonzales.
The Big Hill region is described by author John Henry Brown as "an extended ridge bearing northeast and southwest, separating the waters of the Peach creeks of the Guadalupe from the heads of Rocky, Ponton’s and other tributaries of the Lavaca and the latter stream itself. Indian raiders almost invariably crossed the Columbus and Gonzales road at the most conspicuous elevation of this ridge—the Big Hill." According to Doug Kubicek, chairman of the Lavaca County Historical Commission (1997) the highest point in Lavaca County is just east of the Gonzales/Lavaca County line right off of the old San Felipe (Columbus)/Gonzales Road. The hill is 550 feet above sea level and is located southwest of old Moulton and northwest of Henkhaus. Both Burkett's Mound and nearby Fredrick's Mound have been referred to as Big Hill. In LavacaCo, the area including all three hills is referred to as the Big Hill area. Sites on the extended ridge that splits the two watersheds in Gonzales County are also referred to as Big Hill or the Big Hill Area. According to Sherriff Glen Sachtleben of GonzalesCo (2000), the highest point on the ridge in the county was probably referred to as Dilworth Mound at 584 ft. It is just south of the Stonewall Cemetery, northeast of the Sam Houston Oak. Historic accounts of Big Hill and also McClure Hill.are probably referring to this hill and surrounding area.
From Big Hill to Victoria. On 5 Aug south of the Big Hill area, Capt. McCulloch’s company from Gonzales joined Captain Adam Zumwalt’s company from the Lavaca River and the joint force followed the trail of the Comanches south toward Victoria. Within several miles they met a group of 65 from settlements on the Guadalupe near Cuero and Victoria under command of Capt. John J. Tumlinson. The three groups were united under command of Capt. Tumlinson by mutual agreement. At the same time the bulk of the Comanche force was approaching Victoria killing and pillaging everything in its path. At Spring Creek north of Victoria, the Indians killed four blacks that belonged to a Mr. Poage (Page). East of Victoria on the road to Texana, they killed Colonel Pinkney Caldwell (quartermaster for Col. Hockley's Regular Infantry Command at San Jacinto). Several of the surrounding residents escaped the savagery by fleeing into Victoria, an unidentified German settler, a Mexican and three other blacks were run down and killed. Captain J.O. Wheeler barely reached Victoria hotly pursued by a band of warriors. He attributed his escape to his fleet horse "Robin" and a diversion by a Mr. John Van Bibber. Thirteen Victoria residents including a Dr. Gray, Varlan Richardson, William McNuner and a Mr. Daniels were killed when they confronted the Indians just outside Victoria. At nightfall 5 Aug, the Indian force camped on Spring Creek and consolidated control over the greater than 1500 horses and mules they had gathered in the area. A significant number was the herd of Scotch Sutherland who had just arrived with them from east Texas. On 7 Aug, scouting-raiding parties reappeared in Victoria, but were confronted by citizens under cover of buildings and held in check. Gathering hundreds more horses from local ranges, the main Indian force moved to Nine Mile Point where they captured a Mrs. Crosby (granddaughter of Daniel Boone) and children. They then moved east toward Linnville and camped for the night on Placido Creek where they killed a teamster named Stephens. A nearby French immigrant settler escaped their notice by hiding high in the Spanish moss of a live oak just over the Indians heads.
Attack and Looting of Linnville. At dawn 8 Aug, the main force approached Linnville where they killed a man named O’Neal and two black slaves working in the hay fields belonging to Major H.O. Watts. The unwary residents of Linnville believed the force to be a large herd belonging to horse traders from Mexico. At the last moment, residents of Linnville escaped to the bay by boat. Major Watts, customs collector at Linnville, was killed while trying to reach the boats anchored about 100 yards offshore and his wife and Negro slave (and her son) were captured. Pillaging the extensive warehouse goods bound for San Antonio and Mexico in Linnville and packing them on horses and mules took the Indians most of the day after which they burned the pillaged buildings while the residents watched safely offshore from their boats. Having done their maximum damage and looting of life and property, the main Indian force full of wild celebration over their perceived victory moved west north along the west side of Garcitas Creek, 15 miles east of Victoria.
On the same day, 8 Aug, the group under Capt. Tumlinson reached Victoria near sunset where they rested and received supplies and reinforcements. Within hours they moved on east on the Texana Road and spent the night on Casa Blanca Creek. At Texana was Captain Clark L. Owen with a group of forty which met George Kerr at Kitchen’s Ranch on the east side of Arenosa Creek. Capt. Tumlinson had sent Kerr from Victoria to Texana in search of reinforcements. By then the bulk of the Comanche force was between the Owen and Tumlinson companies. Capt. Owen sent out scouts Dr. Bell, a Mr. Nail or Neill and John S. Menefee. Bell was caught and killed. Neill outran a flanking band all the way to the Lavaca River and Menefee survived by hiding in the brush after being pierced by at least 7 arrows. On the other side in the morning of 9 Aug, the main DeWitt Colony force under Capt. Tumlinson dismounted in an attempt to confront the main Indian force, but were encircled by probing bands of warriors as the main force tended their loot in moving north to the mountains. The combined force engaged the Comanches on 9 August 16 miles east of Victoria. The settlers combined forces decided not to mount an all out attack because of lack of arms and supplies. While waiting for supplies and reinforcements, the Indian force retreated north across the unoccupied southeast part of current DeWitt County through the west part of Lavaca County passing through their usual Big Hill trail, then across northeast Gonzales County into northern Caldwell County where they were engaged at the famous Battle of Plum Creek.
McCulloch was for all out attack on the main force at Victoria, but Tumlinson, in agreement with the majority of his men, was in charge and decided against it. The main Comanche force moved with their bounty northwards. The forces under Capt. Tumlinson and Capt. Owen joined in pursuit and engaged the rear of the Comanche force without large effect except that one Indian was killed as well as a Mr. Mordecai from Victoria. [John J. Linn, resident of Linnville, in his account credits Capt. Adam Zumwalt as the leader of this encounter and suggests that it had impact in terms of Indian casualties.]
The Battle of Plum Creek. On 7 Aug after hearing of the action in Victoria, 22 minutemen assembled at the home of Major James Kerr on the lower Lavaca River. Under command of Captain Lafayette Ward, they moved to the Big Hill area of current Lavaca County which they expected the Comanche force to move through. Finding no Indians it was speculated that the Comanche force was moving north on the west side of the Guadalupe River. They joined 37 men under Capt. Mathew Caldwell in Gonzales. They reached Seguin on 10 Aug by traveling all night on the speculation by Capt. Caldwell that the Indians would cross the Guadalupe River at New Braunfels, Couriers including a Mr. "Big" Hall (probably Robert Hall of Gonzales from Victoria and Linnville announced the retreating path of the Indians. Caldwell decided to confront the Comanche force at Plum Creek (27 miles south of Austin) while camping the night of the 10th at the San Antonio Road crossing on the San Marcos River. The next morning Caldwell’s forces met those of General Felix Huston, General of the Texas Militia, at Goode’s cabin.
Near Plum Creek, 32 men from Gonzales under Captain James Bird joined Capt. Caldwell's forces. They were joined by Ben McCulloch, Alsey S. Miller, Archibald (Gibson) and Barney Randall who had split from the Tumlinson force near Victoria on 9 Aug, passed the Comanche force on the west and after coming through Gonzales reached the group at Plum Creek. It is unclear whether Capt. "Black" Adam Zumwalt’s company of Lavaca River area men joined Capt. Caldwell's forces and participated in the Battle of Plum Creek. Major author's compilations of accounts of the battle do not specifically mention the company after the encounters at Linnville on the coast. It is the opinion of this author that Capt. Zumwalt's company may have joined Caldwell's forces and participated in the battle since it is clear they left the Linnville area, probably on the 7th, well before other companies, which would have given them time to arrive back in area of the upper Lavaca River and then move to the Plum Creek area. Victor Rose in History of Victoria County states that "Captain Zumwalt made a timid pursuit of them to the "Bill Hill", sixteen miles east of Gonzales, when he left for home." In his own sworn affidavit, Capt. Zumwalt says "....and was with his company in the fight with the Indians at Lenville, and followed up said Indians until they were drove out of the settlements...."
John J. Linn of Linnville and Victoria in his 1883 memoirs states:
"....on the morning of the 7th these fell in with a company of 120 men, commanded by Captain Zumaldt, of Lavaca County, and the whole encountered the Indians 12 miles east of Victoria, on a creek called the Mercado, where some skirmishing was indulged in, the whites losing one man, Mordeci....Some of Captain Zumaldt's men were anxious to charge them; and, when the disparity of arms is considered, the result must have been the rout of the Indians and their subsequent capture and annihilation....Zumaldt's men also went into camp, not far distant from the Indians, and despatched runners to Victoria for ammunition and provisions. The wily Indians silently folded their tents in the night and stole away. Zumaldt saw no more of them until he ran into their rear as, they were crossing Plum Creek, and taking position in the post oak point beyond, on what was destined to be a fatal battle ground for them.
Gen. Huston gives special praise to the men of the "Colorado, Guadalupe and Lavaca," in his official report of the battle although this may refer solely to Capt. Ward's men from the lower Lavaca in current JacksonCo rather than Capt. Zumwalt's men from the upper part of the river.
Capt. Caldwell turned over his command to ranking General Huston, although according to author John Henry Brown, who was a nineteen year old present with the DeWitt Colony force, a majority would have voted for Capt. Caldwell had he not deferred. Couriers Owen Hardeman and a man named Reed from Bastrop announced that 87 mounted volunteers under Colonel Edward Burleson were approaching within five miles. Col. Burleson had been alerted to the Comanche action to the south by the Reverend Z.N. Morrell, who had traveled by oxcart to LaGrange and then to Col. Burleson’s home from near the original site where the Comanches attacked Ponton and Foley on the Gonzales-Columbus Road on 5 Aug. Morrell and Burleson went to Bastrop and Austin to muster volunteers. His brother, Jonathan Burleson, was sent to recruit Tonkawa Chief Placido who accompanied Burleson for thirty miles on foot with 13 Tonkawas. According to John Jenkins in Recollections of Early Texas, Chief Placido placed his hand on Burleson’s horse’s rump and trotted with his band of 13 the entire thirty miles without rest. According to author Brown, the combined Texan force observed the full Comanche force which consisted of mounted warriors as well as those on foot including squaws with about 2000 horses and mules loaded with bounty about a mile away celebrating their triumphs oblivious to their presence and covering about a mile in length. He estimates the Comanche force at about 1000 and the combined Texan forces at 200. The Texan force moved slowly into a gallop toward the Comanches before they were noticed. Brown noted that Capt. Andrew Neill, Ben McCulloch, Archibald Gipson, Reed, Capt. Alonzo B. Sweitzer, Christopher C. DeWitt and Henry E. McCulloch made first contact with the quickly mobilized Comanche skirmishers on the front line. The Texan force was split into three parts, one held back in the trees with muskets and long rifles, a large part halted and dismounted about 200 yards from the main Comanche force on an open plain, and the mounted skirmishers described above that had already engaged the forward edge of the mounted warriors.
Even after multiple charges by the Texan forces in which the mounted warriors sustained heavy casualities, the main force of the Comanches remained concerned with moving their stolen and pack loaded herds northwest toward the mountains. All eyewitness accounts of the battle expressed fascination, even puzzlement, with the dress, wild and erratic behavior of the Comanche force as well as their failure to mount a cohesive defense or take the offense against the Texan forces. According to some eyewitness accounts, there appeared to be confusion of lack of agreement among smaller bands within the Indian ranks about where to concentrate their action. Horses and riders were arrayed with all the trappings looted from the Linnville warehouses. Ribbons of calico and silk streamed from the tails and manes of horses as well as their riders. One warrior, believed to be a chief of some sort, was noted in practically all accounts of the battle. He wore a stovepipe (beegum) silk hat, delicate leather gloves, a pigeon-tailed broadcloth black coat buttoned in the back and calf skin hightop boots. He carried an open ladies parasol over his head and was singing loudly, all the while skillfully eluding attack by mounted Texan horsemen. The most outlandishly dressed warriors, including the one above, approached theTexan lines with exceptional courage as if to dare them to harm them, their chest shields repelling multiple bullets. One Indian whose horse was shot from under him returned in the middle of intense fire to retrieve the bridle from the dead horse, an action which resulted in his immediate death.
Burleson, Caldwell and McCulloch were for an immediate charge into the main force, but General Huston failed to give the order. About an hour into the skirmish, a particularly notable mounted chief wearing a headdress made of a buffalo head with horns rode daringly forward toward the Texan lines repelling numerous bullets as if invincible. Accounts of warriors with headdress made of various buffalo skins and horns prompted some observers to suggest that the entire Comanche force was under command of the notorious Chief Buffalo Hump [some accounts say that Chief Buffalo Hump was one of the chiefs killed at the Council House Fight. According to James Nichols, he spoke with the wife of a Chief Tuckalote whose similar headdress was noticeable at Plum Creek where he was killed].
According to Wilberger in Indian Depredations in Texas:
"An old Texan living on the Lavaca asked me to hold his horse, and getting as near the place where they <Indian warriors> wheeled as was safe, waited patiently till they came; and as the Indian checked his horse and the shield flew up, he fired and brought him to the ground."
The resident may have been John or William Smothers, both part of Capt. Zumwalt’s company from the Lavaca River, related in the incident below [On the other hand, the account below may relate to the one Indian killed in the skirmish at Linnville described above. There are multiple accounts at Plum Creek of this type of incident, it is difficult to distinguish whether they all refer to the same event or separate events. James Nichols in his diary says "old John McCoy" was the shooter--WLM].
Judge Paul Boethel in A History of Lavaca County relates Lucy Turk’s account of the skirmish as told by her grandfather:
"So when they had the battle, all the Indians were then all bunched up and the old chief kept daring all of them. He kept circling all around. He was decorated all over in ribbons made of calico, feathers in his hair. He was riding a big paint horse, and he kept daring them all, and Granpa Smothers shot him off of his horse."
After he was brought down and carried off into the timber by warriors, a howl of anguish was noted among the Indians which caused Capt. Caldwell to yell to General Huston "Now, General, is your time to charge them! They are whipped." After Ben McCulloch remarked "that was not the way to fight Indians," General Huston ordered the charge and immediately the Indians were broken into small retreating bands fighting all the while. At that time the Texan force was no longer under a command, but bands of individuals acting autonomously similar to their Indian adversaries. Small bands of Indians were killed by small bands of Texans over a 12-mile radius. According to Ben Highsmith as told to author A.J. Sowell, the pursuit ended near the present town of Kyle between San Marcos and Austin and extended to 3 miles east of Lockhart in Caldwell County. Several hostages were recovered from the Indians although the Indians attempted to kill them all. Mrs. Watts and her black slave, who were kidnapped in Linnville, were severely wounded, while the Negro woman's son was unharmed. Mrs. Watts was found by Rev. Z.N. Morrell with an arrow in her chest furiously trying to remove it herself. According to eyewitnesses, after removal of the arrow by force with the help of company physicians, Mrs. Watts became elated by her survival and escape. She later married a Mr. Stanton and then a Dr. Fretwell of Port Lavaca where she died in 1878 while managing the San Antonio House. Mrs. Crosby, who was captured with her children between Victoria and Linnville, was killed with a lance through the heart as she tried to escape into the trees during the Indian retreat.
A large number of the stolen horses and mules were rounded up and by mid-afternoon the Texan forces were re-assembled at their original point of attack. About 150 men including the troop of Colonel John H. Moore of Fayette County and Capt. Tumlinson's force from the south that had been at Victoria arrived by having followed the Comanches trail independently. Author Brown estimated that nearly 150 Comanches was killed in the battle. The Battle at Plum Creek, in addition to Col. Moore’s offensive pursuit of Comanches into their strongholds on the upper Colorado in October of 1840, practically ended attacks of significance by Comanches on DeWitt Colonists.
In May 1841, Captain Adam Zumwalt was officially elected Captain and Arthur Sherrill Lieutenant of a Minute Company organized at the home of John Clark. Essentially all able-bodied settlers in the area were members. Records indicate the company was called into action because of reports of Indian or outlaw activity only twice after its organization and both resulted in no engagements with Indians or outlaws. According to Capt. Zumwalt’s application for pension, he served as head of the Lavaca River minutemen for 8 years.