Oh, Texas Road Trip: The battle of Calf Creek and Jim Bowie’s lost silver

This historical marker in Calf Creek, Texas, marks the site of a battle between Jim Bowie and more than 100 Indians. Photo by Dave Thomas

This historical marker in Calf Creek, Texas, marks the site of a battle between Jim Bowie and more than 100 Indians. Photo by Dave Thomas

If the fog had been like this, those Indians would’ve overrun Jim Bowie’s sharpshooters. Or never found ’em. Like a horror movie, the closer I got to my destination, the thicker the fog.

A few hours earlier, I awoke and hit the road before Mi Ranchito in Manchaca was open to sell me a breakfast taco or two, which — with all due respect to the folks who make the tacos — is way too early. But I wanted to be in the ghost town of Calf Creek by 8 a.m., and didn’t miss it by much.

What’s here? Not much. But in 1831, authentic Texan legend Jim Bowie (no doubt with his helluva knife) and less than a dozen compatriots fought an epic battle against more than 100 Indians who wanted them dead. It didn’t go well for the Indians. Bowie, warned earlier by some friendlier Native Americans, saw them and his company took a defensive stand in an oak grove, hastily erected a breastwork and let his sharpshooters get to work.

Jim Bowie

Jim Bowie

In a letter after the battle, Bowie says there were 124 Tahuacanoes. The historical marker here at Calf Creek says 164 Lipan Apache and Caddos. Other accounts say 200 or more. It was, reading several of those accounts, a mighty stand. The Native Americans surrounded them. Shot rifles at them from all sides. Twice set the countryside ablaze, trying to dislodge them. One of Bowie’s men was killed (pour one out for Thomas McCaslin), two or three (depending on the account) others wounded. But their attackers suffered such losses that they decided their siege was definitely not worth the trouble.

After the wounded could travel, Bowie and company began their walk back to San Antonio, having lost their horses. Five years later, Bowie would find himself surrounded and outnumbered again, this time at the Alamo.

But what was Bowie doing in Calf Creek? That’s the more interesting part. He was headed for Presidio de San Saba (which, confusingly, is in Menard, about 25 miles west of Calf Creek, and not in San Saba, Texas). And he was looking for silver. Or maybe he had stolen some silver. We’re not sure.

In his telling of the tale, J. Frank Dobie recounts how Bowie, seeking the San Saba silver that was already legendary, worked his way into the good graces of a band of Lipan Apache through bribery, bravery and audacity. He was said to be adopted into the tribe, and such a warrior that the Lipan showed him their stash of silver bullion captured from the Spanish.

Dobie says that Bowie then abandoned his Lipan friends and went back to San Antonio to raise a force to seize the silver — some say in a bid to finance the Texas army. It was that force that was eventually driven back at Calf Creek.

But writer Charley Eckhardt says that’s all wrong. In this story, which includes a detailed account of the battle, Eckhardt shares the tale told to him by the grandson of Matthew Doyal, who was one of the men wounded at Calf Creek. According to Eckhardt, Bowie never lived with the Lipan, never knew about any secret stash of silver. No, this was far more practical.

Bowie knew about mule trains, hauling refined silver from Mexico to the U.S. Mint in New Orleans. And he intended to steal it. In Eckhardt’s telling, Bowie and his compatriots waited for the mule train to pass by, guards in front, and surreptitiously cut off the last three mules, each carrying more than a hundred pounds of silver. (All of that seems pretty ninja to me, but this is the story.)

They had done just this, Eckhardt says, and were on the way back to San Antonio when they were ambushed at Calf Creek. After the battle, horses gone and several men injured, they had no choice to bury the silver (which has now grown to 900 pounds in the story) nearby, “waist-deep on a tall man.”

And, Eckhardt says, it’s still there. Like good pirates, they swore not to retrieve it unless they all could together. History happened, Bowie died and nobody went back for it.

It’s a good hidden treasure story. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in silver … it could be right over there. Or there.

But I’ve got a thermos full of coffee in me. I’m just hunting breakfast, not silver.

On to Melvin, Tx.


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