The early settlement of the Americans along the Red River Valley came as residents of Miller County, Arkansas took advantage of the unsettled boundary line between the United States and Spain following the U.S. acquisition of French Louisiana in 1803. The early settlements of note were first Jonesboro and then Clarksville in the Red River District.
By the 1836 the movement west had progressed in starts and jumps, often leading from river based trading posts as pioneers set down roots in what would become Lamar and Fannin Counties. With the success of the revolution, the organized distribution land and the recording titles became the function of the new Texas government and movement into Texas from the United States took off.
They called themselves Texians, the Anglos who lived Texas before the Lone Star joined the cluster of stars in the galaxy of the United States, and if they had arrived before March 2, 1836, they were entitled to a First Class Headright.
The heads of families received one league (4,428 acres) and one labor (177.1 acres), and single men got 1/3 of a league (1,476.1 acres). There were 88 first-class certificates in the area that would become Fannin County when the delegates at Washington voted independence from Mexico.
Second-Class Headrights, for those who came between March 2, 1836 and October 1, 1837, provided for 1,280 acres to heads of families and one section, 640 acres, to single men. So rapid was the area’s population growth, that on October 5, 1837, Dr. Daniel Rowlett petitioned the congress to organize a new county west of the line where Bois d’Arc Creek flowed into the Red River. By December 14, it was done, with a minor tweak. The petition had called for the new county to be named “Independence,” but the congress decided to honor the martyr of Golidad, and named it “Fannin” instead.
The county covered an area of more than 20,000 square miles, reaching far beyond the settlements along the river and taking in land that eventually would be the counties of Grayson, Collin, Cooke, Denton, Montague, Wise, Clay, Jack, Wichita, Archer, Young, Wilbarger, Baylor, Throckmorton, Hardeman, Foard, Knox, Haskell, Stonewall, King, Cottle, Childress and parts of Hunt and Collingsworth. But that was in the future, and in 1837, most of the settlements clung the eastern edges of the cross timbers, the belt of blackjack and post oak, which separates the Black Prairies from the Grand Prairies to the west.
The increasing numbers of settlers caused friction with the Indians to the west. The tribes retaliated to what they perceived as incursions into their hunting lands with raids on isolated cabins and travelers. It was a bloody business, and murder, mutilation, and hostage taking was common coin. The raids were small, there was rarely a large or even medium sized confrontation, but raids were persistent, as the settlers cast a wary eye to the west and laid down at night with a rifle close to hand.
Judge J.P. Simpson related this account of a raid in W.A. Carter’s History of Fannin County, Texas, published in 1885.
Mr. George Dameron was one of the first settlers on Caney Creek, six miles west of where the city of Bonham now stands. He settled there in 1838, but owing to danger from the Indians had to leave his home and move off. In 1842, he proposed to Dr. Hunter, then at Fort Inglish, that if he would settle on Caney, he (Dameron) would also go back there, and the two families would form a nucleus for protection and build a settlement. Dr. Hunter built a house for his family, and he and his two sons left on business. His wife, two daughters and a Negro woman were occupying the house.
One day about 11 o’clock, one of the daughters went about fifty steps from the house to get some water and was attacked, killed and scalped by the Indians who were lying in ambush at the spring. The Indians then charged upon the house, killed Mrs. Hunter and the Negro woman and took the little girl prisoner. The negro woman had probably fought like a heroine, for she was found dead with a stick in her hand, with marks on it as if it had been used on the Indians’ heads. They [the women] were scalped and tomahawked and the bodies mangled in a most barbarous manner. The Indians ripped open the beds and emptied the feathers on the dead and bloody bodies, which adhered to them to them and made a most appalling sight.
The younger Hunter girl survived eight months in captivity before she was ransomed by the government for $300.
The Texians did not always wait for trouble or “fort-up” when it came. Once, when word came to Fort Inglish that a band of Indians were gathering to the west, bent on a raid, the able men of the area decided pre-emptive action was called for. They formed a volunteer ranger company and rode off to intercept the raiders far from the settlement. The rangers returned several days later, having not found the Indians, but the anticipated raid never materialized.
The meetings with the Indians were not always as deadly, as Judge Simpson recalled in a reminiscence he titled “A Buffalo Hunt.”
Simpson soon came upon three mounted Keechi Indians who surrounded him and ordered him off in a specific direction while they accompanied him on horseback. They had gone only a few hundred yards, when the party spotted some buffalo, and the Indians left Simpson to give chase. When his captors were out of sight, Simpson took off.
In 1838, the writer of this article, with five other citizens, were eager and anxious for a buffalo hunt; so in the month of May we got our wagons and oxen, guns and ammunition in readiness for the trip, not deeming it advisable to take horse teams for fear of being left afoot in the wilderness by the thieving Indians.
We traveled by Pilot Grove, where Kentuckytown now stands, kept the divide between the Red River and the Trinity until we reached the cross timber west of where Whitesboro now stands and found immense herds of Buffalo. We killed five that evening and camped for the night, feasting on fine buffalo beef and roasting the marrow bones, cracking the same and eating the marrow out of them.
In the midst of this delicious feast, we were suddenly alarmed by the sound and rush as of a mighty engine and cars on a railway, which was a new thing in those days, thirty-eight years ago. We all sprang to our arms, ready for battle, not knowing from the heavy tramp, sound and snort of animals, but that the whole Comanche nation were charging upon us.
Our alarm was soon relieved by ascertaining that it was an immense herd of traveling buffalos. Thoughts of our oxen then engrossed our minds. We supposed they had gone with the buffalo, and most of the night was spent in consulting how we should get our team and escape from the wilderness country. Next morning, all hands turned out hunting for the oxen. From the trail of the buffalo, it appeared that several thousand head had passed.
At 2 o’clock that day, myself and another man started on the wagon trail we had made going out and followed the same until we could ascertain whether our team had gone home or not. We traveled ten or fifteen miles; found no sign of oxen; camped for the night; did not sleep well for fear of Indians.
The next morning, the man who was with me started for home, leaving me alone in Indian country. You cannot imagine my feelings under those circumstances. ... I do not make any pretention to be brave, for I can truthfully say I was greatly excited and felt afraid of the scalping knife and the tomahawk of the savage foe.
Simpson made it back to the camp, where his friends were “barbecuing” buffalo meat. They continued their hunting for several days, and then prepared to head for home, when a band of 40 Indians set up a camp near the hunters and began drying meat for themselves. (He does not say, but apparently his companions had recovered the oxen.)
I can tell you that I did some pretty tall running for a number of miles. My breathing apparatus was as good as a greyhound’s; my body felt light as a feather; I neither tired nor halted for miles.
Both of Simpson’s accounts emphasize the arbitrariness of life on the frontier. In dealing with the Indians, there seemed to be no method to their actions. The settlers had to rely on themselves and their neighbors and trust in providence if they were to survive on the edge of civilization.
When we camped on the third evening after the encamping of the Indians, our camp keeper informed us that the Indians had that day made preparations to take our scalps at night. Our meat went into our wagon, the oxen yoked and we started in haste for home. We traveled fifteen or twenty miles that night, freed from the Indians, and on our way rejoicing, none of us wounded, killed or scalped. Spent the summer eating delicious buffalo meat; made no corn scarcely, it being excessively dry year. Thus ended our buffalo hunt.