The Astounding Bigfoot Wallace — Part Two

He is perhaps the greatest figure in Southwestern legendry. Hundreds of tales – a regular myth-cycle – have grown up around him. But his life needs no myths to ring with breath-taking adventure and heroism.

— Letter from REH to Lovecraft, circa October 1931

The ferocious hand-to-hand single combat of Bigfoot Wallace with an unnamed huge Indian, described last post, took place in the fall of 1842. That was a busy time for Wallace. His chronicler and former comrade John C. Duval wrote:

He was at the battle of the Salado … when General Woll came in and captured San Antonio. The fight began about 11 o’clock in the day, and lasted until night. General Woll had fourteen hundred men, and the Texans one hundred and ninety-seven, under Caldwell (commonly known as “Old Paint”). Between eighty and one hundred Mexicans were killed, while the Texans lost only one man (Jett).

General Adrian Woll was a remarkable character himself. Born near Paris in 1795, he had served in the defense of that city against Napoleon’s enemies in 1814 – not long before Waterloo. Woll later emigrated to the U.S.A. and then moved to Mexico, where he lived as a civilian until the War for Mexican Independence was won. After that, in 1830, when Spain invaded Mexico (not willing to accept the fact of Mexican independence), Woll was called into active service by the Mexican government. He served under General Antonio de Santa Ana in – among other actions – San Jacinto. The Texans defeated him at the Battle of Salado Creek in September 1842, and then at the Battle of Hondo River in the same month, effectively scotching a serious Mexican attempt to retake Texas.

In Robert E. Howard’s words, Bigfoot Wallace “was at the Salado, he marched on the Mier Expedition and drew a white bean; he was at Monterey.” Salado Creek was an engagement in which fifty-four Texans found themselves up against five hundred Mexican cavalry and a couple of cannon. Thirty-six Texans died and fifteen were captured. In retaliation for this and other raids into Texas, the Somervell Expedition, 700 men under the command of a customs officer, recaptured Laredo from the Mexicans in December 1842, and then took the Mexican town of Guerrero. They received no further official backing and their numbers were reduced, so Somervell thought that to proceed was not feasible in the circumstances. He ordered his men to disband. Five captains and their men, led by William Fisher, ignored him and pressed on to Ciudad Mier. They numbered 308 altogether. William “Bigfoot” Wallace was among them.

They didn’t know there were three thousand Mexican troops in the area.

The Texans killed 650 of the enemy before their survivors had to surrender. General Santa Ana, the ruler of Mexico, ordered them all shot, but intense political representation from the United States and Britain induced Santa Ana to give what he called a compromise. Only one in ten of the prisoners would die. The appropriate proportion of white beans and black ones were placed in a pot and the prisoners were compelled to take part in a life-or-death lottery. Seventeen men drew black beans and were shot by firing squad. One, James Shepherd, feigned death, and when left in the courtyard, went over the wall despite his wounds – but he was recaptured and shot again. One of the leaders, Captain Ewen Cameron, drew a white bean, but Santa Ana ordered him shot nevertheless.

Bigfoot Wallace was among those who drew a white bean and survived.

Coming back to Texas, he joined the Rangers in the division’s early days, serving under another of its legends, Jack Hays, until the Mexican-American War broke out in 1846. It lasted a year and a half. The Rangers played a significant part in it; they became General Zachary Taylor’s “eyes and ears”, in fact, and scouted the most desirable route to Monterey for their commander. Wallace was in the thick of it from the beginning, his desire to “take pay out of the Mexicans” no doubt even stronger since the black bean affair. During that war, he was a lieutenant with the Texas Mounted Volunteers. As REH wrote, he “was at Monterey,” like his fellow Rangers Jack Hays and Ben McCulloch.

There had been “Rangers” in Texas even in the 1820s, with Stephen Austin being the first to call them by that name. An ordinance of the General Council, in November 1835, had first called for a definite organization and command structure. It provided for three Ranger companies, 56 men in each, with a captain, first and second lieutenants. Overall command of the three companies was vested in a Major. Privates were paid $1.25 a day and were required to find their own horses and equipment. The “Texas Almanac” website comments, in the post “Texas Rangers: From Horses to Helicopters” with an understatement that seems more English than Texan, “… a lack of funding was a constant obstacle for the Rangers until well into the twentieth century.” Even Sam Houston, in the 1830s, was pretty niggardly with their budget from concern for the public purse of Texas. When Mirabeau Lamar became President of the Republic of Texas at the end of 1838, he saw the need to expand the Rangers considerably, and he did. Five more companies were raised. A large part of their function was to counter marauding Native Americans. As Wallace said of the year 1842, “A fellow’s scalp wasn’t safe on his head five minutes.” Wallace did his share of Indian fighting. REH commented:

When he settled on a ranch in the Medina country, he made a treaty with the Lipans that they would not steal his cattle. They kept that treaty until they decided to move westward. When they moved, they took Bigfoot’s stock with them – every head of it. Bigfoot was slow to anger; he was swift in vengeance. He went to San Antonio and was given charge of a ranger company of some thirty men. With them he hunted the thieves to the head-waters of the Guadalupe River. In the ensuing battle two white men bit the dust, but forty-eight red warriors went to the Happy Hunting Grounds, and the Lipans dwindled from that day, and in a comparatively short time, were but a memory of a once-powerful tribe.

— Letter from REH to Lovecraft, circa October 1931

Concerning the Lipans (who hold an important part in the legend of the lost San Saba Mine; see “Silver and Steel – Bowie’s Mine”) REH also wrote to August Derleth circa January 1933, “… the Lipans … were a strong and important tribe, in and about Bandera County, until dealt a terrific defeat by Bigfoot Wallace and his rangers, after which the survivors migrated to Mexico; the Apaches, … need no advertisement – I doubt their assumed kinship with the Lipans …”

General anthropological and historical opinion at present is that the Lipans actually were close kin to the Mescalero Apaches. I’m not qualified to say. Whatever their tribal affiliation, it seems definite that they were tough. They sometimes were allied with the Apaches and sometimes fought against them; they and the Comanche were nearly always enemies. By all I’ve read and heard, you didn’t fight either people if you were a marshmallow. Wallace, in his time, tangled with all three.

He served a Texas Ranger again during the 1850s. The Rangers as a body were undeservedly neglected in that decade. (Not for the last time.) The U.S.A. had now assumed responsibility for the Texas frontier, and the politicians in Washington had no appreciation of men like Hays and Wallace. The division lost its best captains. It was (again) badly financed and ill supported. Bigfoot Wallace fought border bandits and marauding Indians, and to make ends meet he drove a mail wagon between San Antonio and El Paso. On one occasion, Indians attacked Wallace while he was working as a stage driver on the dangerous San Antonio to El Paso route. After barely escaping with his life, the Indians stole his mules, leaving him stranded in the furnace of the Texas desert. Wallace was forced to walk to El Paso, later claiming he ate 27 eggs at the first house he encountered during his long hike, and then he went into town to have a “real meal.” Less creditably, by today’s standards, he hired out to hunt runaway slaves trying to reach Mexico. Most people’s sympathies now would be with the runaways and not with the trackers. Wallace’s formidable skills in that respect made him a bad man to have hunting you.

For a couple of years at the end of the 1850s, Captain John S. Ford was appointed the Rangers’ senior captain. He led his men north of the Red River against hostile Comanches, and there they killed the fighting chief Iron Jacket. Afterwards, in 1859, they were assigned to the Brownsville area in support of the U.S. Army. Their adversary there was Juan Cortina, but the work was inconclusive. Their pursuit of Cortina wasn’t among the Rangers’ finest hours; for one thing, he wasn’t a common bandit, but rather a hero who fought for abused Mexicans. A rancher and member of the Democratic Party in the beginning, he caught the Brownsville city marshal pistol-whipping an unarmed Mexican, a former employee of Cortina’s. He demanded the marshal stop. The marshal refused, with insults. Juan Cortina shot him in the shoulder, then took the man on his horse and rode with him to safety.

That was the beginning of “Cortina’s War.” The Rangers often punished Mexicans indiscriminately during the six months it lasted – that is, shot or hung them. Mexican rancher, politician, military leader, outlaw and folk hero Juan Cortina soon led five or six hundred men. He briefly took over Brownsville and executed four Anglos he held guilty of murdering Mexicans. He was beaten decisively by the U.S. army at Rio Grande City in December 1859, but they never captured him. He retreated into Mexico and fought for Benito Juarez against the French in the 1860s.

For fourteen years after the campaign against Cortina, the Rangers went through one of the various hiatuses in their record when they were neither appreciated by the government nor employed. During the Civil War, Texans supplied the Confederacy with a high proportion of its best cavalry, and numerous former Rangers were among them, but mostly fought outside Texas. Bigfoot Wallace didn’t agree with secession, but he wasn’t willing to fight against his fellow Texans either. He remained in the state and gave valuable service protecting the frontier against Comanches, who weren’t slow to see their chance while the white men were killing each other. After the war, during the Reconstruction years, the men who had been the backbone of the Rangers weren’t much required by the new authorities, and probably despised them anyhow. The new forces of law and order were Governor Davis’s State Police.

When Reconstruction ended, Bigfoot Wallace was past fifty, though by all accounts still tough as whalebone. The Democrats were elected to power in the state of Texas, and from 1874 the Special Force of Rangers and the Frontier Battalion were raised to police the region against marauding Comanches, Mexicans and outlaws like Sam Bass and John Wesley Hardin. They were highly effective; so much so that by 1884 the Frontier Battalion was no longer needed.

Even Wallace had enjoyed his fill of fighting and adventure by then. He retired on a land grant from the – properly – grateful government of Texas, and spent a mellow and good-natured old age. He enjoyed telling stories about his redoubtable career. If he’d been anybody else, he might have been suspected of exaggeration, but it was pretty widely known that exaggerating the deeds of William Alexander Wallace would hardly be possible. Past eighty when he died, he was interred in the Texas State Cemetery, and today there’s a Bigfoot Wallace Museum.

Museums have often been dedicated to far less impressive men.

Read Part One