The Last Hero of San Jacinto


Alfonso Steele was born in 1817 in Kentucky. Leaving home at the age of 17 to seek his livelihood, he acquired passage down the Mississippi River on a flatboat and made his way to Lake Providence, Louisiana in late 1834. After working at various temporary jobs for almost a year, he joined Ephraim Dagget's volunteer force which then headed to Texas to fight for it's independence. 

Arriving in Washington-On-The-Brazos on New Year's Day, 1836, the contingent found that Texas had not yet declared independence from Mexico. Most of the men left and went back home, but Alfonso had no family and no particular reason to return to Louisiana so he stayed and began working in the hotel across the street from where the Texas delegates were busy crafting the declaration and at a gristmill several blocks away. After grinding corn at the gristmill, he made bread to be served at the hotel and began serving meals to the delegates as they worked late into the night.

Once independence had been declared, Alfonso joined a company of men who began training for the battles which would surely be ahead. When word of the fight at the Alamo reached the town, the company raced to San Antonio to join the fight. Just after crossing the Colorado River, the company of soldiers received word that the Alamo had fallen and all of its defenders slaughtered, their bodies thrown into a pile and burned. With this news, the men returned and joined Sam Houston's army.

On April 21, 1836, fighting hunger and exhaustion, Private Steele was in the front lines as the outnumbered Texans fought the Mexican army. After firing two shots, Steele took a mini-ball in the chest. The bullet went through his left lung and knocked him from his horse, but Alfonso got back up and continued to fight. Closeby, General Houston's horse took a mortal wound, falling and throwing him to the ground, but Houston jumped up, mounted Alfonso's now riderless horse and continued leading his men. Alfonso's horse would also be killed during the fight becoming the 2nd of 3 horses Sam Houston would ride during the battle.

Although grievously wounded, Alfonso continued the fight until the Texas army had won the field of battle and secured independence. He was then carried to a nearby home which had been hastily converted into a hospital. Several days later, he was transported by boat to a hospital which was better equipped to handle his serious wounds. 

Against the odds, Steele began recovering and after many weeks hovering between life and death, was discharged from the hospital and the army. With a small stipend for his service in the army, Alfonso then made his way to Montgomery County where he started farming and raising cattle. 


Alfonso & Mary Ann
On September 28, 1838, Steele married Mary Ann Powell of Tennessee. She had come to Texas in 1833 at the age of 10 by covered wagon with her cousins the Berrymans and the Parkers. The Parker family established Fort Parker in Mexia where in 1836, several family members were killed or kidnapped by Comanches, including Cynthia Ann Parker, Mary Ann's playmate. Cynthia Parker who would later marry a Comanche chief and have a son by him, Quannah, who would himself become the last free Comanche chief. 

After Alfonso and Mary Ann were married, they sold his farm and moved to Robertson County (which later became part of Limestone County) and established another farm and ranch. By all accounts, the union and their life together was happy and quiet. Their marriage lasted 65 years and produced 10 children, only ending when Mary Ann passed away of natural causes in 1903.

When his wife died, Alfonso finally fully retired and moved into the home of a grandson in Kosse, about 50 miles from Waco. His final years were happily spent being visited by many of his 250 descendants and telling stories of his life in the early days of Texas. Steele died at age 94 on July 8, 1911 and was buried in the Mexia City Cemetery, the last living participant of the battle for Texas independence at San Jacinto.




Scalped Wilbarger and The Dream That Saved His Life


Sometime in the mid-1820's, a man named Josiah Wilbarger came to Texas with his wife Margaret from Missouri and settled in a bend in the Colorado River a few miles east of present day downtown Austin. Hornsby Bend, as it was then called, was originally settled in 1820 or 1821 by Reuben Hornsby who staked out his claim on the land, built a small fort and then moved in his wife and children. Wilbarger made his living by hiring out as a scout and guide while his wife raised their children and a large garden. Soon, the Wilbargers called on their neighbors and in short order the families became close friends. Hornsby's Fort became Josiah's unofficial headquarters and he spent a lot of his off time there. This would prove to be a huge mistake.

Woodcut from Indian Depradations in Texas
 by J. Wilbarger - Courtesy Texas State
Library and Archives Commission
Wilbarger began using the same route from Hornsby's Fort along Onion Creek when guiding the surveyors that were mapping the dangerous lands to the west and therefore broke a cardinal rule of living in hostile country - his movements became predictable. When you are predictable, others who mean you harm can observe your habits and use them against you. 

One August morning in 1833, Wilbarger was leading a party of 4 surveyors along his usual trail westward when only 6 miles from the fort they decided to take a break for lunch. Josiah and 2 of the men removed the saddles from their horses, but the other 2 merely removed the bridals. They had just finished eating when suddenly, a number of Comanche Indians ambushed the group. Firing rifles and arrows from behind tree's and bushes, 2 men were fatally hit.The 2 men who had not removed saddles from their horses made a run for them. Wilbarger ran after them but was hit in the leg by an arrow. The man nearest him waited several seconds for him, but as Josiah was reaching to grab the back of the saddle to pull himself up, he was hit in the neck by a large caliber musket ball and fell to the ground. Fearing for their lives, the 2 men quickly wheeled their horses around and made a run back to Hornsby's Fort. 

The musket ball which hit Josiah had passed completely through his neck and exited under his chin. The projectile had somehow bruised but did not break the carotid artery and the jugular vein and nicked his spine. The wound caused him to be temporarily but completely paralyzed, even to the point of being unable to blink, while leaving him fully conscious. As he lay there as he had fallen, on his side with eyes open, he watched with increasing terror as the Indians begin to strip, cut the throats and then scalp the two dead surveyors. He knew his turn was coming, but try as he might, he couldn't move a muscle. When one of the Indians turned to him, he completely stripped Wilbarger of all clothing except 1 sock and then, grabbing Josiah by a handful of hair, lifted his head and stared into his face. With Josiah unable to move even his eyes and with a bloody wound under his chin, the Indian apparently was satisfied he was dead as he placed his large knife against the white man's scalp and gave a loud blood yell. 

Josiah Wilbarger recovering after the
horror of being scalped.
Although still completely paralyzed, Wilbarger was conscious and he felt the sharp edge of the blade upon his scalp as the Indian cut around the hair and skin he intended to remove. He heard a sound like distant rolling thunder as his scalp was ripped away, but mercifully, there was little pain as his senses had been deadened by his wounded spine. He felt his head fall back and saw the Indian warrior stand up and walk away holding Josiah's bloody, detached scalp in his hand. It was at this point he lost consciousness.

When Wilbarger woke up in the afternoon, he found himself completely alone with nothing but the scalped bodies of the dead surveyors around him. He was once again able to move, but he was naked and the Indians had left nothing behind except the lone sock on his left foot; no horses, no guns, no food, no clothing, nothing at all that might help. His head hurt terribly and the sun had burned his naked skin a bright and painful red. He could feel blowflies crawling around his open wound and knew maggots would soon hatch and begin eating his flesh. He saw the arrow in his leg had gone mostly through so stealing himself against the pain to come, he forced the arrow the rest of the way through and out of his leg. Summoning all his will, Josiah then crawled to the banks of Onion Creek and drank of the muddy water. He removed the one sock he had been left, soaked it in the creek and as best he could, washed away the blood and insects from his scalped head. To get relief and to protect his head from the sun, he smeared wet mud on his bare skull and packed it in the wound in his leg.

After resting a while, he turned in the direction of Hornsby's Fort and began crawling toward it. He made it almost a mile before the coming darkness and exhaustion overtook him. Covered in blood which had mixed with the mud on his head and knowing he was about to die, he propped himself up against a large live-oak tree, modestly placed his hands over his naked crotch, and waited for death to release him from his unbearable pain.

While laying there just before it got full dark, Josiah's sister, Margaret Clifton, appeared before him. He knew he must be hallucinating because she was still living back home in Misouri. She spoke to him saying, "Have no fear, Brother Josiah. Remain here under this tree. Help is on the way." Before passing out, he saw her turn and walk toward Hornsby's Fort, disappearing into the night.

Back at Hornsby's Fort, the 2 surviving surveyors  had returned and told of the ambush. They reported the other 3 men were surely dead as they had seen "50 savages" fall upon the felled men with raised war clubs and knives and everyone knows Comanches do not leave a man alive. The fort was quickly locked down tight in expectation of an imminent attack. By the time it became dark, fear of  the Indians coming was waning and with the exception of one man posted as a guard, everyone prepared for bed. Lamp oil and candles were expensive and hard to come by during that time so people went to bed when it got dark. 

Sarah Hornsby, Reuben's wife, had been asleep about 2 hours when she suddenly awoke from a very vivid dream. She shook her husband awake and told him she had seen Wilbarger who was naked and wounded but still alive and laying under a big tree. Reuben told her it was just a dream, the men who returned had insisted all of the others were dead. About an hour later, she awoke again from the same dream. This time there had been more details. She told him Wilbarger had been scalped and was covered in blood. She also told him he had something on his head where he was now bald. Again, Reuben told her to go back to sleep. He promised her the men would go out the next morning to retrieve the bodies. After falling sleep once more, the dream returned a 3rd time. Sarah woke her husband again and loudly insisted Wilbarger was still alive and desperately needed help. She described the tree where he lay saying he was naked and bloody, but still clinging to life.

Reuben, no doubt totally exasperated by this time but knowing his wife wasn't going to let him sleep until he did her bidding, roused their 2 older boys and woke up several of the men sleeping in the fort to accompany him. He knew the large tree his wife had described so that's where they would head. Before leaving, Sarah told the men Wilbarger wouldn't be able to ride so she padded a wagon with quilts and blankets and insisted the men take it with them. She also provided a sheet with which to wrap him. With loaded guns and burning lamps, the men set out for the large live-oak tree along the banks of Onion Creek.

About 6 miles from the fort, the men found Wilbarger under the tree just as Sarah had described. At first, they were sure he was dead as he was covered in blood and mud and wasn't moving. They were standing there looking at him when suddenly Josiah opened his eyes and said, "Don't shoot, it's me, Wilbarger." Recovering from their shock, the men carefully wrapped his head in clean rags, clothed him in the sheet, hurriedly loaded him into the wagon and took him back to the fort.

Over the next 6 long and painful months, Wilbarger recuperated under the gentle care of his wife. The skin never grew back over the bald spot on his head so he began wearing a silk skullcap made by his wife to cover the exposed bone. Eventually, the wounds in his neck and leg healed and Josiah regained his health enough to make a living operating a cotton gin located near Hornsby Bend. By all accounts, the Wilbarger's were happy and lived a fairly normal life together even though Josiah was in almost constant pain.

The Wilbarger headstone in the Texas State
Cemetery
On April 11, 1845, over 11 years after he was scalped, Wilbarger's mind was preoccupied on something else when he entered the side entrance of his cotton gin. Not paying attention, he failed to duck low enough and struck the bald spot of his skull on the the wooden lintel of the door, fracturing his skull and exposing his brain. He died almost instantly and was buried in Fairview Cemetery not far from his home. Wilbarger County, Texas was later named after him. His son, John Lemon Wilbarger, became a Texas Ranger and was killed by Indians in 1850. John was also buried in Fairview Cemetery, but both Josiah and John were moved and interred together in the Texas State Cemetery in 1936. Josiah's wife, Margaret, later remarried and when she passed away, was laid to rest next to her 2nd husband, Talbert, in the Fairview Cemetery under the name Margaret Chambers.

What about the sister who came to him in a vision and gave him the will to continue because help was on the way? Due to the mail being very slow in those days, it was several months after the incident, while Josiah was still recuperating, when a letter was received informing him that his sister Margaret had taken ill and passed away. She had died the evening before he was scalped. Her family had lain her to rest as Josiah lay unconscious and bleeding by the banks of Onion Creek. When she appeared to him, she was spending her first night in the grave.  What of the vivid recurring dream Sarah Hornsby had? The distance between where Josiah had lain under the big post-oak tree to Hornsby's Fort takes about 2 1/2 hours to walk. From the time his sister Margaret appeared to Josiah until Sarah had the dream the first time? About 2 1/2 hours.