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As I watched Mel Gibson’s production of Braveheart, I remembered the Texas connection to that story of Scotland’s struggle for freedom.  If any of you have ever been to Mount Bonnell outside Austin, you’ll recall an historical marker that relates how an early frontiersman, Bigfoot Wallace, spent several weeks in a cave on the mountain, recuperating from an illness he contracted in what was the early frontier settlement of Austin.  This pioneer whose given name was William Wallace was a descendant of a Scottish Clansman, William Wallace.

 

            The Texan we know as “Bigfoot” Wallace was born William Alexander Anderson Wallace in Lexington, Virginia, on the third day of April in the year 1817.  He weighed 13 pounds at birth and his nurse said he could kick harder and yell louder than any baby she had ever seen.  The Wallace family were of Scottish origin having come to America two generations before with the arrival of Bigfoot’s grandfather Samuel sometime before the Revolutionary War.  All the Wallace men served with the American  forces in fighting the British, and all of the died except Grandfather Samuel.  All of these men were of large stature and great physical strength.  It is said that the family descended from the famous Scotsman Sir William Wallace, regent of Scotland and leader of the Scottish army in their war for freedom against Kind Edward of England.  The family also is said to have been related to Robert Bruce, rightful King of Scotland through grandmother Elizabeth Bruce.

            Young William grew up, along with his six brothers and three sisters, on the farm of his parents, Andrew and Jan Ann, near Lexington, Virginia.  William recalled later that he took to the woods at an early age enjoying the freedom that the unsettled land offered.  As William grew to early manhood, he found the land became more settled with fewer wild lands for him to roam in, fishing and hunting.  He, along with his cousins and brothers, began to listen to the tales of the unsettled lands found to the west where the opportunity to homestead and enjoy the open country still existed.

            Several of William’s family preceded him coming to Texas.  Two of these, his brother Sam and a cousin also named William, joined the Georgia Battalion and eventually ended up with Fannin’s men at Goliad.   They, along with most of their compatriots, were shot down in March of 1836 by their captors, General Urrea’s Division, during the Texas Revolution.  So it was Wallace’s wish to avenge their deaths that brought him to Texas the following year.   He’d already heard of Santa Anna’s defeat at San Jacinto, but came ahead anyway, hoping in some way to exact revenge.

            Wallace landed at Galveston and eventually arrived at the small settlements of Bastrop and La Grange, going on extended trips hunting game or pursuing hostile Indians from which both settlements suffered greatly.  By April 1838 he relocated to San Antonio and remained until 1839 when he moved to the small town of Austin pursuing the promise of plenty of work to be found with high wages.

            When Wallace first arrived in Aust6in there were few houses.  The town mostly being made up of tents and shanties.  Wallace recalled later that it seemed to him that the majority of the population was made up of gamblers.  He was soon employed by a man named Woods to deliver hewn logs at a salary of $200 a month and board – an excellent salary for the time and place.  He worked at this for two months, rafting logs from high up the Colorado River from the flats along the banks.  One day he went down to the spring to get some water and found numerous fresh Indian tracks and, fearing for their safety, went and told his partner that they had better float their raft down river.  That might they rafted down three miles and tied up under a bluff and spent the night.  Some weeks later a party of Germans were killed by Indians when they went upriver after more timber.

            Austin, being as it was on the edge of the frontier, was a great base for Wallace’s ranging expeditions.  He spend extensive periods traveling up the Colorado River alone hunting and then looping back into town from the north all the while learning more and more of the land surrounding the settlement.  At this time Wallace went into partnership with and Irishman named William Fox, renting a house and contracting to haul rocks from the surrounding hills to build houses.  It was during this period that Wallace came to be known as “Bigfoot”.

            At this time there was a famous Indian that preyed upon the settlers in and around Austin who the inhabitants named “Bigfoot” due to the size of the track left by the huge native.  He would sneak into the settlement killing whoever he could – stealing horses and whatever goods he could lay his hands on.  His track was quite distinctive being fourteen inches long, and the big toe in his right moccasin always being out and leaving its imprint in the sandy soil that surrounded Austin.   This Bigfoot Indian had been wounded in the knee by a settler named Tom Green some years previous and this wound caused him to wear a hole in the toe of his moccasin.

            Wallace pursued this Indian many times but never succeeded in getting a shot at him.  Later on it was determined this Indian belonged to the Wacos, a subtribe of the Wichita Nation.  He was Six feet-eight inches tall and was killed by a friend of Wallace, Ed Westfall, on the Llano River some years later.

            One night in 1839, this Bigfoot Indian stole into Austin and entered the kitchen of a man named Gravis, and then went up to the house where Wallace and his friend William Fox lived.  The next morning Gravis, seeing that his house had been broken into, trailed the Indian to Wallace’s door and accused him of breaking into his kitchen.  Wallace also wore moccasins and made a large track but became angry of being accused of this crime.  He made Gravis come up and look at his foot after it had been placed in the footprint of the huge Indian.   This convinced Gravis and he apologized to Wallace and left.  Meanwhile Wallace’s roommate had come to the door and heard the whole conversation.  While Wallace was standing in the big track, Fox laughed at his friend’s dilemma and called him, from that day forward, “Bigfoot”.  Their neighbors in the small town soon heard the story and the name stuck.  When the name “Bigfoot” was brought up they would ask whether the speaker meant the Indian of “Bigfoot” Wallace.

            Wallace later recalled that, when he lived in Austin, forty people were killed there and that he helped bury twenty-two of them.  Most of these settlers were killed by the Bigfoot Indian and his gang which normally numbered eight members.  After Bigfoot Wallace and some of his friends had killed three of these Wacos and wounded some others the Indians finally left the area.

            In the final months of 1839 a “flux” broke out in Austin (probably cholera – a disease which ravaged other settlements on the frontier at this time due to the unsanitary water conditions found there) which Bigfoot caught and which caused him to lose his hair.  He was cured of the disease by an old French lady name Tetar who made and fed him a thin porridge of toasted flour and thin milk – a remedy still used effectively in third-world countries.   Wallace had been engaged to be married before he got sick and decided to leave town as soon as he could travel to keep his loved one from seeing him without his hair.  Bigfoot left town and went to a cave he had found on nearby Mount Bonnell.  He stayed there hunting and fishing as he recuperated and began to grow his hair again.  His housemate, Fox, came to check on him from time to time, always sticking his head in the cave and asking, “Hello! Bigfoot are you dead yet?”  After learning that Wallace was doing better he would load up the meat that the hunter had procured and take it back to Austin to sell.  After some weeks of this, Fox brought Bigfoot the news that his sweetheart had run off and married another man to which Wallace replied, “I’m glad she’s gone.   A woman that can’t wait until a man’s hair grows out I don’t want.”  This experience pretty much soured Bigfoot on matrimony and from that time on always said that he never had the time to getting married.  It does seem that as a result of this incident, he dedicated his life to making the country around him safer for those who were unable to defend themselves.

            In 1840 Bigfoot left Austin and relocated to San Antonio and joined the company of Texas Rangers serving under the command of John “Coffee” Hays.  Hays was very particular about the men he enlisted requiring that each man have courage, good character, be a good rider, a good shot and have a horse worth $100.  Hays put together a band of men many of whom are remembered to this day – Sam Walker, Ben McCulloch, Ben Highsmith, Kit Ackland, Ad Gillespie and Creed Taylor.  During the years of 1840 – 1841, Hays and his company of men spent most of their time pursuing horse thieves, rustlers, bandits and marauding Indians.

            San Antonio became full of rumors about an invasion force from Mexico in 1842.  Santa Anna had returned to power in his homeland and, anxious to regain some sense of honor after the defeat of his forces at San Jacinto, actively moved to reinvade and retake the richest to the north.  Santa Anna had much to gain and little to lose from just such a venture.  Texas was in the midst of a great struggle to diplomatic recognition, not only from the United States, but also from Great Britain and France.  This was all part of a political posturing which would eventually result in Texas remaining a Republic or becoming a part of the United States.  By invading Texas, Santa Anna could show Europe and the United States that he still hoped to affect the policy of the weak, independent nation of Texas.   He could also keep the troublesome Mexican Army busy by involving the often independent-minded generals with the invasion of Texas.

            On September 11, General Adrian Woll – a Frenchman serving as a mercenary in the army of Mexico – invaded San Antonio with a force of some 1200 men.  Bigfoot was not in town at the time having been sent to Austin by Captain Hays for some ammunition which was suddenly in short supply in San Antonio.  Captain Hays and his Rangers were out “on a scout” at the time Woll’s men took San Antonio and were almost captured when they attempted to enter the town.  Volunteers gathered at the small village of Seguin and met Woll’s forces on Salado Creek.  The Texans, under the command of Matthew “Old Paint” Caldwell took up their position in the cover of a dense grove of Pecan trees and began firing upon the invasionary force.  After several attempts to drive the Texcians from their position Woll and his men retreated and immediately headed back to San Antonio.  After a few days, the Mexican force began their retreat, while being pursued by a force of 500 Texicans.   Them met in a skirmish on the Hondo River about 40 miles southwest of San Antonio and after Hays’ Rangers charged Woll’s position and were not supported by the rest of the Texican forces due to some question of who was in command the Mexican army made their way back to the Rio Grande.

            In response to this invasion, Bigfoot – along with Captain Hays and the rest of the Rangers – joined the Somerville Expedition which marched to Laredo and arrived in December of 1842.  The force of 750 men captured the town easily and encamped about three miles down the river.  The next day, part of the army returned to Laredo and plundered the town.  This disgusted Somerville and he, along with Hays and most of the army, returned to San Antonio.  Bigfoot, Sam Walker and Ewen Cameron stayed on with the remaining force numbering some 300 men.  These men spent two weeks marching down the river looking for some Mexican soldiers to fight and finally at the small village of Mier on December 24 got their wish.  A force of 2000 Mexicans attacked the Texicans and after several sharp, fierce battles the Texican invasionary force surrendered.

            The Texicans were rounded up and forced to walk southwards to Mexico City.  They temporarily escaped under the leadership of Ewen Cameron and immediately headed north, but made the fatal mistake of leaving the road they had marched in on, fearing to meet the enemy in front or in pursuit of them.  Their route lead them into the mountains where they soon learned there was no water and little food.   The Texicans soon realized they would have to return to the road and civilization to obtain food and water. Upon doing so, they were recaptured by the Mexican Cavalry.  Of the 193 men who made the escape, 5 died of thirst and starvation, four got through to Texas, and three were never found or heard from again.  

            The prisoners were then marched in chains to Saltillo where orders were received from Santa Anna declaring that they were all to be shot.  The officer in charge refused to do so, stating that he would resign his commission first.  The British consul got wind of what was going on and met with Santa Anna pleading for clemency.  After some thought, the President declared that every 19th man was to be shot.  The prisoners were forced to draw dried beans from a jar which contained 159 white beans and 17 black ones.   The 17 doomed men, who drew the black beans, were marched out, blindfolded and shot.  The remaining prisoners marched to Mexico City and were incarcerated in Perote Prison.  After imprisonment of nearly two years the Texicans were freed at the request of Santa Anna’s wife while she was on hear deathbed.  During their imprisonment, forty of the men had died from disease brought on by the poor conditions in the prison.

            Bigfoot and four companions walked to Vera Cruz and received free passage for New Orleans from the compassionate captain of their vessel.  From there, he returned to Texas via the port of Galveston and traveled to La Grange in an ox drawn wagon.  He then fell in with a man named Carr, who was driving a heard of cattle to San Antonio.   Bigfoot stayed in San Antonio a while but soon determined to settle on the Medina River to farm and hunt, where he arrived and built his cabin in 1845.

            Bigfoot wasn’t much of a farmer though and, after several failed crops due to dry weather and his own negligence, he joined up with Hays’ company of Texas Rangers to fight hostile Indians and bandits.  Bigfoot, out on a scout with two companions, came upon a horse thief who refused to be captured and was subsequently shot and killed.  To serve as a warning to the lawless element in this wild country Bigfoot cut of the man’s head, put it in a leather sack and attached it to the saddlehorn of their thief’s horse.  He then took the man’s stiffening body and set it upright in the saddle and bound it to the terrified horse with rawhide straps and set it loose.  The horse ran wild, bucking and pitching, trying to free itself from its awful burden.   Soon tales were heard, told by terrified cowboys and their vaquero counterparts, of a headless horseman, El Muerto, who could not be killed.  Years later after the horse was finally worn out enough to be run down and captured by some fearless rider, the animal was freed of its morbid cargo. The body was perforated by numerous bullet holes lending credence to the frightened cowboy’s tale avowing to their having shot the headless rider.

            While Bigfoot was a Ranger, a treaty was made with the Comanches at Fort Belknap, and a portion of Hays’ men were sent there to be on hand in case of trouble.   Ad Gillespie was with this group and had been in a fight on the Pinta crossing on the Guadalupe River with some of these same Indians.  During the fight, he had shot an Indian in a hand-to-hand struggle, and in turn had been lanced by the Comanche.  Each fighter had thought at that time the other would not survive and when the battle was over, left the field.

            While the talk for the treaty was in progress, Gillespie laid down on the ground and went to sleep.  Wallace soon noticed an Indian standing near and intently gazing on the face of the sleeping Ranger.  Not knowing his intensions, Bigfoot walked up and asked the Comanche why he was looking at the sleeping man.  The Indian told of the fight at the Pinta crossing and showing the scar where he was wounded said that this was the man who had done it.  He also said he wounded the white man with a lance, and could put his finger on the spot.  Bigfoot told him to do so.  He complied by pointing and saying “there” as he indicated the place with his finger.  Gillespie was not awakened, and Bigfoot said, “Take a look at your old partner, Ad.”  After being told of the previous conversation, Gillespie laughed and said, “He must be the one” and lifting up his shirt showed the old lance wound in his chest.

            In 1846 Wallace joined the Ranger company that served with the forces of the United States during the War with Mexico.  Wallace was commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant and served in the Battle of Monterrey and in the assault on the Bishop’s Palace.  Soon after this, part of the Rangers were sent back to Texas for frontier protection and Bigfoot was one of these.  After his period of enlistment was up Wallace returned to his cabin on the Medina.

            In 1850, Wallace contracted to carry the mail from San Antonio to El Paso, a distance of some 600 miles, 500 of it totally unsettled.  This was part of the old Butterfield Stage line and Bigfoot hired six guards to ride up close to the rear of the stage in order to protect the extra stock the stage took along in case of attack or accident.  The worst part of the trip was the crossing at the Devil’s River due to the distance from civilization and the terrain being surrounded by high bluffs, lending itself to the ease of ambush.  One day as the stage party had stopped at noon just above the painted cave at the river crossing, they were set upon by 27 Comanches dug in high on the bluffs.  Bigfoot’s party began to immediately defend themselves, but the Captain soon realized that the defenders were just wasting ammunition as the Indians were so well protected by their position in the rocks.  He told the party to cease firing and save their bullets, but it was difficult to do so as they were continually fired upon by the hostiles.  Bigfoot said, “Keep cool, they will show themselves directly, when they find out we will not shoot.”  Soon the Indians began to partially show themselves, thinking the white men were cowards.  “Now, boys,”  Wallace said  “run and tumble down under the stage like you were nearly scared to death.”  The Indians yelled, calling them cowards and squaws and continued to fire upon the men, wounding one of them.  The Indian chief and four of his men came out in full view and Wallace yelled, “Now boys, every man for his Indian, take good aim and fire.”  All five Indians fell and the Comanches soon retired.  Wallace failed to deliver his mail only one time, on an outgoing trip to El Paso.  On that occasion he lost all of his mules and his whole outfit had to leave the stage, and walk to El Paso, a distance of 80 miles.

            After finishing out his mail contract with the Butterfield Stage line, Bigfoot relocated his homestead to the less populated area on Chicon Creek.  While out on a hunting trip with some friends, on of which was named Dutch Pete, Bigfoot and the others came upon a small uninhabited cabin after hunting all day.  They decided they would spend the night there; and in order to avoid all the skunks and snakes that came in at night, they slept on some wide boards that laid across some rafters in the top of the little cabin.  They had almost gotten to sleep when six big Indians came into the cabin, built a fire in the fireplace and proceeded to broil a deer which they had killed.  Dutch Pete was so full of curiosity that he couldn’t be still.  He kept crawling out onto the planks and peeping out at the Indians to see what they were doing.  Finally, he crawled out too far and fell through the planks right into the middle of the Indians.  The rest of the men leaped down from above shouting and firing their guns.  All the Indians took to their heels, leaving all their gear and the deer meat, roasted to a turn.  “By God,” Bigfoot exclaimed, “that was the best meat I ever tasted.”

            Another one of Wallace’s stories was about his friend Ed Westfall concerning the time they were in a tight spot in an Indian fight, and as they jumped over a brushy fence he ran his ramrod into Westfall’s eye.  Westfall remarked, “this is a hell of a place to punch a fellow’s eye out!”

            Bigfoot spent the rest of his life protecting the families that made their homes on the headwaters of the Frio River and after he got older and was less able to see after himself, he was taken in by two of these families and lived with them, The Thomases and the Bramlettes.  In her recollections of those times Miss Fran Bramlette speaks very fondly of the old frontiersman.   “For two generation he took as much interest in wielding the rod as the parents did in our family.  He had a habit of going down to the tank we had for watering the cattle to take his bath.  He would take an old leather-bottomed chair, wade out until the water was about waist deep, and then sit in the chair and bathe.  When my son, Ewell Cochran, and my nephew, Gus Leuthy, were about nine years old, they thought it would be great fun to hide in the surrounding brush and shoot as near to him as they could with their slingshots.  They thought this would make him believe the Indians were after him.  The old Captain never said a word or let on that anything was happening but calmly finished his bath, dressed, and came back to the house.  One the way, however, he got a nice, long, flat board which he hid in his shirt.  Tilting his chair back against the kitchen door, he opened up his newspaper and began to read, all the while keeping one of his eagle eyes out for the scamps, as he called them.

            “After sneaking around for awhile, the boys saw the Captain reading the paper and thought he had forgotten all about the Indian playing.  Anyway, it was about time for lunch, so the young men ventured in.   The Captain sat perfectly still until they were about even with him; then he reached out those long arms and grabbed both of them.   He put one small boy’s head between his legs, holding him like a vise, while he poured in on the other one.  Then he turned him loose and served the other likewise.

            “The young men felt very much sat upon so they started looking for some way to get even.  Now, the Captain was very much interested in raising fine chickens, and whenever he found anyone having extra good ones, he would get a setting of eggs, bring them home, and set them under one of his own setting hens.  In this way he had built up a flock of fine chickens.  He doted on one especially noble rooster and had often taken the boys out to ask them if they had ever seen anything so beautiful anywhere else in the country.  Still smarting from the indignity of the Indian escapade, they decided that an injury to the rooster would really aggravate the old man; so the caught Mr. Rooster and pulled off every feather, leaving only the long tail feathers.

            “ It wasn’t long before Mr. Wallace spied his rooster and called the whole family out to see the wreck.  When I saw what had happened I said ‘Captain, I’ll beat the dickens out of those youngsters’, and he replied, “Don’t.  I want to attend to them myself.  What I want you to do is get something to make him a coat so the sun won’t burn him.”  We made him a coat, and with the Captain herding him under the shade, it wasn’t long until he was again covered with beautiful feathers, and the new ones were so much prettier than the old that the Captain said, “By God, I think I’ll pick the whole flock.”   Needless to day, he attended adequately to the boys, who about gave up trying to get ahead of the old man.”

            Mrs. Bramlette was attending the old Captain when he died.  “He had been feeling bad for several days but was never confined to his bed.  He ran a slight temperature and seemed to have some cold, but never appeared alarmingly ill.  The day before he died he said he was feeling much better and sat out in the yard in his chair, which he liked to lean up against the wall.  When he came in, he and father and Colonel Holcombe sat up late talking in the front room where I had put a single bed for Mr. Wallace because of the fire in the fireplace there.  He seemed to sleep well that night.  I was in the habit of going in through the night to see if he wanted water or anything since he had been having the cold.  The morning he died my father had come, as he usually did, to get his cup of coffee early, and he and Colonel Holcomb and Mr. Wallace were talking.  Mr. Wallace still sitting on his bed and putting on his shoes.  I had gone into the kitchen when I heard daddy say, “’Foot, ‘Foot, what’s the matter?”  I ran to see, and dad and Colonel Holcombe were laying him back on the bed.  Colonel Holcombe said, “He’s gone.”

            “I tried to argue that he couldn’t be dead so quickly, but he was, poor old dear, and the next day we took him and buried him in the graveyard at Longview Cemetery.  In about a month his body was taken up and taken to Austin where he was buried with military honors.”

            If you would like to learn more about William “Bigfoot” Wallace, look for A. J. Sowell’s book The Life of Bigfoot Wallace.  Also, Mrs. Frances Bramlette Farris’ book, From Rattlesnakes to Road Agents.

 

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