Like a great many locations of note to the tumultuous years of the Republic of Texas, the site of the battle of Salado Creek today doesn’t look much like it did in 1842 . . . however, it is not so much changed that it is hard to picture in the minds’ eye what it would have looked like then. The creek is dryer and seasonal, more dependent upon rainfall than the massive amount of water drawn into the aquifer by the limestone sponge of the Hill Country, to the north. Then – before the aquifer was tapped and drilled and drained in a thousand places – water came up in spectacular natural fountains in many places below the Balcones Escarpment. The Salado was a substantial landmark in the countryside north of San Antonio, a deep and regular torrent, running between steep banks lined with oak and pecan trees, thickly quilted with deep brush and the banks scored by shallow ravines that ran down to water-level. Otherwise, the countryside around was gently rolling grasslands, dotted with more stands of oak trees. There was a low hill a little east of the creek, with a house built on the heights. Perhaps it might have had a view of San Antonio de Bexar, seven miles away, to the south and west.
In that year, San Antonio was pretty much what it had been for two centuries: a huddle of jacales, huts made from plastered logs set upright in the ground and crowned with a roof of thatch, and thick-walled houses of unbaked clay adobe bricks, roofed with rusty-red tile, all gathered around the stumpy tower of the Church of San Fernando. A few narrow streets converged on the plaza where San Fernando stood – streets with names like the Alameda, Soledad and Flores. The whole was threaded together by another river, lined with rushes and more trees. The river rambled like a drunken snake, but it generously watered the town, the orchards and farms nearby . . . and was the main reason for the town and a string of missions having been established by the Spanish in the first place. That street called the Alameda, or sometimes the Powderhouse Hill Road (now Commerce), led out to the east, across a bend of the river, and past another ramble of stone and adobe buildings clustered around a roofless church; the Alamo, once a mission, then a presidio garrison, and finally a legend. By 1842 – the siege of it’s Texian garrison only six years in the past – it was still a barracks and military establishment. In the fall of 1842, the Mexican Army returned to take temporary possession.
General and President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna had never ceased to resent how one-half of the province of Coahuila-y-Tejas had been wrenched from the grasp of Mexico by the efforts of a scratch army of volunteer and barely trained rebel upstarts who had the nerve to think they could govern themselves, thank you. When General Adrian Woll, a French soldier of fortune who was one of Lopez de Santa Anna’s most trusted commanders brought an expeditionary force all the from the Rio Grande and swooped down on the relatively unprotected town . . . this was an action not entirely unexpected.
Coincidentally, for the Texans, that fall had seemed to be a good time to get on with urgent civic business, such as the meeting of the District Court in San Antonio. There had not been the opportunity to try civil cases for many years; the town was full of visitors who had come for the court session: officials, lawyers and litigants. Court opened on September 5th – but within days rumors were flying of another Mexican incursion. Such rumors were cheerfully dismissed – not soldiers, just bandits and marauders. Just in case, local surveyor John Coffee Hays – who already had a peerless reputation as a ranger and Indian fighter – was sent out to scout with five of his men. They saw nothing, having stayed on the established roads; unknown to them, General Woll was approaching through the deserted country to the west of San Antonio, with a column of more than 1,500 soldiers – as well as a considerable assortment of cannon.
Under cover of a dense fog bank on the morning of September 11th, Woll’s army marched into San Antonio, with banners flying and a band playing. Having blocked off all escape routes, the General ordered a cannon fired to announce his presence. There was some sharp, but futile resistance, before surrender was negotiated. General Woll announced that he would have to take all Anglo men in San Antonio as prisoners of war; this included the judge, district attorney, assistant district attorney, court clerk, court interpreter, every member of the San Antonio Bar save one, and a handful of litigants and residents, to a total of fifty-five. They were kept prisoner – after five days they were told they must walk all the way to the Rio Grande, but they would then be released. Sometime during this period, the-then Mayor of San Antonio, John William Smith, managed to escape.
Texas did not have much of a regular professional army, as most western nations understood the concept. Texas did have sort of an army, and sort of a navy, too – but mere tokens – the window-dressing required of a legitimate nation, which is what Texas was trying it’s best to become, given restricted resources. What Texas did have was nearly limitless numbers of rough and ready volunteers, who were accustomed to respond to a threat, gathering in a local militia body and volunteering for a specific aim or mission, bringing their own weapons, supplies and horses, and usually electing their own officers. They also had the men of various ranging companies, which can be thought of as a mounted and heavily-armed and aggressive Neighborhood Watch. Most towns and settlements of any size on the Texas frontier fielded their own Ranger Companies. By the time of Woll’s raid on San Antonio, those volunteers and Rangers were veterans of every fight going since before Texas had declared independence – a large portion of them being of that tough Scotch-Irish ilk of whom it was said that they were born fighting. That part of the frontier which ran through Texas gave them practice at small-scale war and irregular tactics on a regular and continuing basis.
One bit of good fortune for the Anglos of San Antonio and the various militias and of Texas generally, was that the captain of the local Ranger Company was not one of those caught by Woll’s lighting-raid. Captain John Coffee Hays and fifteen of his rangers had actually been out patrolling the various roads and trails, in response to rumors of a Mexican force in the vicinity. It was they who – upon their return in the wee hours of a September morning – found every road into San Antonio blocked by Mexican soldiers. Naturally, they did not let this event pass without comment or response.
Most people accept as conventional wisdom about the Texas frontier, that Anglo settlers were always the consummate horsemen, the cowboys and cavalrymen that they were at the height of the cattle boom years. But that was not so: there was a learning curve involved. The wealthier Texas settlers who came from the Southern states of course valued fine horseflesh. Horse-races were always a popular amusement, and the more down-to-earth farmers and tradesmen who came to Texas used horses as draft animals. But the Anglo element was not accustomed to working cattle – the long-horned and wilderness-adapted descendants of Spanish cattle – from horseback. Their eastern cattle were slow, tame and lumbering. Nor were many of them as accustomed to making war from the saddle as the Comanche were. Most of Sam Houston’s army who won victory at San Jacinto, were foot-soldiers: his scouts and cavalry was a comparatively small component of his force. It was a deliberate part of Sam Houston’s strategy to fall back into East Texas, where the lay of the land worked in the favor of his army. The Anglos preferred weapon in those early days in Texas was the long Kentucky rifle, a muzzle-loading weapon, impossible to use effectively in the saddle and more suited to their preferred cover of woods – not the rolling grasslands interspersed with occasional clumps of trees which afforded Mexican lancers such grand maneuvering room.
When did this begin to change for the Anglo-Texans? Always hard to say about such things, but I suspect that the Anglo-Texas began morphing into becoming what they fought almost as soon as Texas declared independence in 1836. The war with the Comanche was unrelenting for fifty years, and conflict with Mexico was open for all of the decade that the Republic of Texas existed, as well as simmering away in fits and starts for even longer. And one of the agents taking an active part in that metamorphosis from settler to centaur was Captain Hays, during the time that he commanded the San Antonio Ranger Company. Jack Hays was one of the most innovative and aggressive Ranger captains. He had already begun schooling his contingent in horsemanship and hard riding, and in use of five-shot repeating pistols developed by Samuel Colt.
Hay’s contingent spread the alarm brought by Mayor Smith – and in answer to it, militia volunteers began to assemble from across the westernmost inhabited part of Texas. Colonel Matthew “Old Paint” Caldwell, from Gonzales began gathering a scratch force at Seguin, east and south of San Antonio. He collected up about a hundred and forty, and set out for a camp on Cibolo Creek, twenty miles from San Antonio, before settling on another camp on the Salado, seven miles north of San Antonio. He gathered another seventy or eighty volunteers – and more were on the way. But “Old Paint” was in any case, outnumbered several times over, and being a sensible man knew there was absolutely no chance of re-taking San Antonio in a head-on assault. But what if a sufficient number of Woll’s force could be lured out of the town – which may not have been a fortified town in the European sense of things, but certainly was set up to enable a stout defense against lightly-armed infantry. Caldwell arranged his few men efficiently, among the trees, deep thickets and rocky banks of the creek, with the water at their backs, and the rolling prairie, dotted with trees all the way to San Antonio spread out before them. Could any part of Woll’s invaders be lured into a kill-zone? The Texians grimly proposed to find out.
There were only thirty-eight horses counted fit enough for what would be an easy ride to San Antonio, but undoubtedly a hard ride back. Jack Hays and his Rangers, and another dozen men were dispatched very early on the morning of September 17th. At a certain point, still short of San Antonio, Hays ordered twenty-nine of the men with him to dismount and set up an ambush. He and the remaining eight then rode on – to within half a mile of the Alamo, where the main part of Woll’s force had camped. They would have been clearly seen from the walls of the old presidio; it would have been about sunrise. What else did they do besides show themselves? Perhaps they fired a few shots into the air, shouted taunts, made obscene gestures clearly visible to anyone with a spyglass. It was their assignment to provoke at least fifty of Woll’s cavalrymen into chasing after them, hell for leather . . . instead, two hundred Mexican cavalrymen boiled out of the Alamo, along with forty Cherokee Indians (who at that time had allied themselves with Mexico) and another three hundred and more, led personally by General Woll. Hay’s provocation had worked a little too well – it was a running fight, all the seven miles back to the camp and the carefully arranged line of Texians with the Salado and the green forest of the trees and thickets at their back. Caldwell and the others were just eating breakfast when Hays and his party arrived breathlessly and at a full gallop. Over two hundred shots had been fired at them, none with any effect – not particularly surprising, given that it would have been extremely difficult to hit a moving target from a position on a galloping horse, and that reloading would have been near to impossible.
Having succeeded beyond their wildest dreams in drawing the Mexican force to follow them, Jack Hays and the others took up their position in “Old Paint” Caldwell’s line – carefully screened and sheltered among the trees. Caldwell sent out messages saying that he was surrounded, but in a good spot for defense, if any at all could come to his aid – and so it turned out to be. The canny old Indian-fighter had a good eye for the ground, and for an enemy. The pursuing Mexican cavalry drew up short, upon seeing his positions, or whatever evidence they could see from their position on the open prairie, looking into the trees along the Salado – but they did not withdraw entirely. Instead, Woll, and most of his command lined up and prepared to sling a great deal of musket-fire and a barrage of artillery shot in the direction of Caldwell’s force, none of which had any noticeable effect at all – on the Texians. Instead, Anglo-Texian skirmishers went forward with their chosen and familiar weapon and from their favorite cover sniped at leisure all through the next five hours, inflicting considerable casualties, before scampering back to safety on the creek-bank. Some sources claim at least sixty dead and twice that number wounded, against one Texian killed, nine or ten injured and another half-dozen having had hairsbreadth escapes. At one point, General Woll ordered a direct attack – a few of his soldiers got within twenty feet of the dug-in Texians. Being a fairly rational man, and a professional soldier, the General knew when it was time to cut his losses. Leaving his campfires burning, he and his forces silently fell back to San Antonio under the cover of night, and then withdrew even farther – all the way back towards the Rio Grande.
This would have been a complete and total victory for Caldwell . . . except for one unfortunate circumstance: a company of fifty or so volunteers from Bastrop, on their way to join him, had the misfortune to almost make it – to even hear the sounds of the fight, from two miles distant. The company of Captain Nicholas Mosby Dawson, from Bastrop and the upper Colorado was caught by Woll’s rear-guard, as they retreated. Only fifteen of Dawson’s men would survive that battle and surrender to superior military force. Caldwell’s men would find the bodies of the dead on the following day, as the pursued Woll towards the somewhat amorphous border. The fifteen Dawson men would join those Anglo-Texians taken prisoner in San Antonio in chains in Perote prison – some of those would be held in durance vile until early 1844.
For the rest of the life of the Republic, war on the border with Mexico continued at a slow simmer, now and again flaring up into open conflict: a punitive expedition here, a retaliatory strike there, fears of subversion, and of encouraging raids by bandits and Indians, finally resulting in an all-out war between the United States and Mexico when Texas chose to be annexed by the United States.