History Friday: The Great Siege of Elm Creek

As the Civil War raged in the east, the western frontier went up in flames, along the Sierra Nevada, and from Minnesota to Texas. With the attention of both the Union and Confederate militaries focused on eastern battlefields, there was nothing much to restrain the Indians, except the volunteers of various western communities. Late in 1864, as the Confederacy stumbled through it’s final agony, a massive Indian raid flashed through Young County, Texas. An ambitious young Comanche chief, Little Buffalo hungered for the plunder and prestige accrued to him by a successful raid into the white-settled country at the headwaters of the Brazos River. Who would stop them? The Federal soldiers were long-gone from Fort Belknap, leaving only a few companies recruited for frontier defence – and Little Buffalo planned to avoid them. All during the fall of 1864, he talked up the possibilities to his fellows and their close allies, the Kiowa. By mid-October, he had gathered a raiding party of seven hundred or so, and they poured south, into the scattered holdings along the Brazos and Elm Creek where about a dozen families had settled. Many of them – the Fitzpatricks and the Braggs had taken the precaution of barricading their houses with a palisade of logs. The commander in charge of frontier defense had seen that another palisade with blockhouses at the corners protected settlers living there. A second fortified place was called Camp Murrah.

Little Buffalo’s war party came down both sides of Elm Creek; they first encountered and killed a man and his son who were out searching for strayed cattle. Then they fell like hungry wolves on the Fitzpatrick place, the local trading post and general store.  The men had all gone to Weatherford to purchase supplies, so there were only three women; the widowed Elizabeth Carter Fitzgerald, her daughter Susan Durgan and a slave, Mary Johnson, whose husband Britton was Mrs. Fitzgerald’s foreman, along with half a dozen children and an infant. Susan Durgan died on the front porch, a shotgun in her hands before the Indians swarmed into the house, looting and setting fire. But the smoke and noise carried along the valley alerting their nearest neighbors; the Hambys and the Wilsons. There were three men there at the Hamby place, branding cattle. By good fortune, one of them was Thornton Hamby, a young Confederate soldier on leave, recuperating from wounds received. Thornton, his father Thomas, and Tom ‘Doc’ Wilson rushed their families into a safe hiding place, away from their houses – a cave in the creek-bank hidden by brush. Thornton Hamby directed Tom Wilson to ride as fast as he could up the creek to warn their neighbors, while he and his father covered for him. They withdrew up the valley, pausing now and again to shoot at the Indians following after, while Tom Wilson galloped ahead. Wilson managed to warn the families at two farmsteads; all took shelter in brush along the creek and survived. By the time the three riders reached the George Bragg place, which had been fortified, the Indians were closing in. An arrow struck Tom Wilson through the chest as they ran for the door; he staggered into the house, gasping, “Hamby, I am a dead man.” He had enough strength to pull out the arrow, and he died just inside the doorway.

The two Hamby men had expected find more men there, enough men to ‘fort up’ and efficiently defend the Bragg place. Unfortunately, Bragg’s two sons were away, hunting. Now the Bragg place was besieged by one of the largest war parties to come into Texas since Buffalo Hump’s Penatekas had sacked Linnville almost twenty years before. There was no possible escape for the two old men, and the young convalescent; it was fight and die, or fight harder and maybe live. Thornton Hamby later remarked, “I might have jumped under the bed – had it not been occupied by three families of women and children who had made their way to the ranch for protection.”  Besides the three men – there were five women, a teenaged Negro girl and a number of children. Calmly, Thornton Hamby took charge, asking the women to load every rifle and pistol in the house. Likely there would have been more weapons then men to wield them. Re-loading a pistol or rifle with powder and ball was a finicky business: having extra weapons and someone to load conferred an advantage in a situation like this. And such a log house as the Bragg place had small shooting holes in the gaps between the logs it was made from.

First, the Indians charged the house, trying to uproot the log pickets that protected the outer periphery with a pick-axe. Thomas Hamby killed one of the leading attackers with a shot from his own pistol but was himself struck four times in return by Indian bullets. Adding to the nightmarish quality, one among the Indians had a military bugle and could play it. Thornton Hamby was also struck by another bullet, but carried on. All through an interminable afternoon, the young soldier defended the Bragg house through the loopholes, assisted by the women who frantically passed him reloaded pistols. Finally, a lucky shot brought down Little Buffalo himself. Temporarily leaderless, the Indians broke off the assault on the house around sundown, having little heart for a continuing to attack against a place so tenaciously defended. Everyone in the Bragg house owed their lives to him – as well as those families along Elm Creek who had received Tom Wilson’s warning. The Indians did not find any of the women and children hiding in the brush along Elm Creek. They spent a long, nerve-racking afternoon and evening, hearing the distant sounds of the fight at the Bragg house, fearing discovery at any moment.

But by the time the frontier protection forces arrived, the Indians were long gone, having set brush fires to cover their withdrawal. They took with them Elizabeth Fitzgerald and Mary Johnson, and five children who had survived the sack of the Carter Trading Post. Mary Johnson’s husband, Britton Johnson,  returned from Weatherford with his companions, riding the team animals, having temporarily left the wagon of goods that they had had been driving to hurry home. Johnson found that his employer, his wife and two youngest children gone, and his older son dead. The following spring, he ventured north of the Wichita River alone, looking for the camps of the Comanche and the Kiowa, to search for his family and Elizabeth Fitzgerald’s and perhaps to ransom them back. He went with a pack-horse, a rifle and two six-shooters – and some blankets and food – contributed by his Elm Creek neighbors. The Hambys were the first to donate. After four trips into Indian Territory, Britton Johnson was successful in retrieving all but Mrs. Fitzgerald’s youngest granddaughter, who was adopted into a Kiowa chief’s family. Britton Johnsons’ journeys are thought to have been one inspiration for the classic western John Wayne movie The Searchers.

 (Crossposted at my Celia Hayes blog)

5 thoughts on “History Friday: The Great Siege of Elm Creek”

  1. Quite a story Sgt! And when some of these children were found they were so integrated with Indian society that they didn’t want to leave, did they?

  2. Yes, quite often those children who had been adopted into an Indian family and kept for longer than a year or two were extremely reluctant to return. Those who were treated as slaves, though – they were usually quite happy to be ransomed and returned. In the case of the youngest Fitzgerald grandchild, she was a toddler at the time of capture. The story was that one of the Kiowa chiefs’ wife had no children, and so the chief had brought home the little girl specifically for his wife. Britton Johnson and Mrs. Fitzgerald were told that the little girl had died … but in the 1920s a newspaper reporter interviewed an elderly woman on the Kiowa reservation who may have been her.

    Interesting side note: Mrs. Fitzgerald was white … but her first husband had been mulatto. Early in the Civil War, her husband’s father (who was a free black) formally signed legal papers making himself Mrs. Fitzgerald’s property. He was a mildly prosperous man in the county, and he took that route to keep his person and property safe. Yep, the frontier was often a much more complicated place than we think today.

  3. More complicated an it took a tough person to live in Texas though the 1860s – interesting about the Fitzgerald child

  4. Uh-huh. Those adopted chulluns and a lot of kidnapped women like CeeCee Parker just loved living all wild and free…. why lawdy, they just couldn’t stand to go back to the white man’s world and live within four walls….


    Try substituting the Pastun or the Bedu for the Comanches — *modern* tribal societies that practice seasonal warfare, and to whom women are merely pack mules and brood mares — and the scales will fall from your eyes right quick. Imagine being a kid and watching your mother get raped, your father skinned, and your baby brother have his brains beat out against a tree by these terrifying strangers who then seize you and haul you off forever. Imagine being the mother who survived. Imagine this happening to YOU. And your kidnappers aren’t the noble-majestic-if-sometimes-cruel red man. They’re the Taliban. They’re the savages you see on the news raping women, killing kids. The scales will drop from your eyes real real quick, folks.

    A combination of physical and emotional shock, PTSD, and Stockholm’s syndrome pretty well explains their ‘not wanting to leave.’ Much less adapt to a home they could only dimly remember, if they ever got the chance to return at all.

  5. Phil – I put a captive-children narrative into the last book of the Adelsverein Trilogy, because I saw that as a horrific tragedy, especially for parents of children taken. There was also a plot element based on the tragedy of the Kensings; a husband and wife who were murdered by a war band in the Hill Country just after the Civil War; husband killed by having his skull bashed in, pregnant wife gang-raped, scalped and speared through the abdomen with a lance and pinned to the ground. She died a week later, after miscarrying of the fetus, of a massive infection. They never told her that her husband was dead before she died also.
    Generally, I just have to outline the unsparing circumstances of what happened historically. I trust the readers to come to their own conclusions regarding the parties involved.

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