Badly outnumbered and surrounded by mounted warriors, the surveyors had no choice but to retreat. They managed to fight their way back to the head of the ravine.
The surveyors set to work on the morning of October 8, 1838, ignoring both a Kickapoo warning that they might be attacked and the advice of one of their own not to begin until he and a companion had fetched a new compass. As the 25 workers reached a ravine east of Battle Creek in what is now southwestern Navarro County, Texas, 40 warriors rose up and attacked them, wounding several men and killing some of their horses. The surveyors’ elected captain, J. Neil, acted decisively, ordering his men to charge.
“We did,” recalled surveyor Walter Lane, “and routed them out of the ravine, when they fell back on a small skirt of timber 50 yards off, from which up sprang 150 Indians.”
The Indians’ trap was the kind successfully sprung on soldiers many times. But that was small consolation for the surveyors; they retreated under intense fire and soon found themselves surrounded by well-armed warriors on horseback.
The Battle of Battle Creek, also known as the Surveyors’ Fight, was hardly the first confrontation between whites and natives in the 2-year-old Republic of Texas. Settlers, particularly those far from population centers, lived in constant fear of Indian attacks. A farmer did not dare work his fields without a rifle at his side for protection. But as dangerous as it was to farm the land, it was even more dangerous to survey it. The Indians were well aware what the surveyors’ work led to—more settlers. They were as threatened by the surveyor’s compass as they were by a rifle, calling the compass the “thing that steals the land.” In 1838 the Kickapoos, Caddos and other tribes weren’t about to give up their buffalo-hunting grounds without a fight.
The Caddos, who traditionally relied more on farming than hunting for survival, had dominated northeast Texas for centuries before the Spaniards arrived in the mid-1500s. Generations of Caddos (including people of the Hasinai and Kadohadacho confederacies) had founded many permanent towns surrounded by fields of corn and other crops. When Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, the Caddos remained a powerful force in the area, though over the next two decades their influence decreased, due to disease and attacks by other Texas tribes. The Kickapoos, on the other hand, were relatively new to the area. Originally from the Great Lakes region, they were resettled to a Kansas reservation in 1832. Some soon migrated to Texas, settling along the Sabine River, from which they mounted horse-stealing raids on surrounding ranches.
For the Caddos, Kickapoos and other Texas tribes in the 1820s and ’30s, coexistence with white immigrants from the United States was never easy. Because few Mexican citizens wanted to live in Mexico’s northernmost province, the government also admitted Indian and American settlers, who took an oath of loyalty and at least pretended to be Catholic. The white colonists had an advantage over the Indians, as they could acquire Mexican land titles by paying a small fee and having the land surveyed. By 1834 some 15,000 colonists and 5,000 slaves had settled in east Texas. Although there were only about 4,500 Indians in the area, they lived on some of the most desirable land.
When conflict between Mexico and the white Texans (also known as Texians) seemed inevitable, each side sought the support of the Indians. On February 23, 1836, the Texas provisional government sent Sam Houston, an adopted son of the Cherokee Nation, to establish a treaty with them and associated tribes, including the Caddos and Kickapoos. Houston promised the tribes land, hoping to ensure their neutrality in the coming revolution. But on March 2, 1836, only days after the treaty was signed, a convention of Texan delegates at Washington-on-the-Brazos rejected the treaty and the idea of granting land to the Indians. Understandably, many of the tribes switched their allegiance to Mexico and began raiding settlements in northeast Texas.
Even after Houston’s victory over General Antonio López de Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto on April 21, 1836, the Mexican government continued to promise the Indians it would retake the former colony. When an invasion did not occur, most chiefs chose to accept the new Republic of Texas, with Houston as its founding president. President Houston tried to have the U.S. Senate ratify the treaty he had signed with the Indians that February, but it too refused.
Mexico again threatened invasion, and in May 1838 disgruntled Indians made a pact with Mexican army Captain Vicente Córdova to raid Texas in support of his cause, sparking the so-called Córdova Rebellion. That September, Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar replaced Houston as president of the Republic of Texas and announced his intention to drive all Indians from the republic. Peace, he argued, could not exist on the Texas frontier as long as the Indians considered alliance with Mexico. Indeed, the peace was shattered in October by Kickapoo raids in which Mexican agents participated. Major General Thomas Jefferson Rusk, commander of the Nacogdoches militia, was tasked with suppressing the Kickapoos and Caddos, and midmonth his militia would meet hostile Indians head-on.
But first the surveyors had their turn at battle.
The surveying party formed on October 6, 1838, at Franklin, in Robertson County, Texas. The men were to survey the land in future Navarro County for veterans of the Texas Revolution. The first night out they camped at Fort Parker, which had been abandoned following a Comanche raid two years earlier in which most of the inhabitants were killed and Cynthia Ann Parker captured.
The surveyors certainly were aware of possible danger from Indians in the area and likely posted guards. A few months earlier, chief surveyor William F. Henderson had been out with another party when it was attacked. The Indians killed one man and cut short that survey.
After passing the Tehuacana Hills, the October surveying party reached Richland Creek (later known as Battle Creek) and set up camp. The Texas men soon discovered about 300 ostensibly friendly Kickapoo Indians camped nearby. The Kickapoos said they were there to kill enough buffalo to have meat for the winter. “From the hills you could see a thousand buffalo at a sight,” noted surveyor Lane, who later provided a narrative of the clash.
The Kickapoo chief gave the surveyors some friendly advice: Leave the area quickly because it isn’t safe. He said a renegade band of Ionies (another name for Caddos of the Hasinai Confederacy) was planning to attack the survey party and drive it from the rich buffalo range. If the chief had hoped to scare off the white men, his tactic failed. According to Lane, “We thanked them for the information, but said that we were not afraid of the Jonies [Ionies], and said if they attacked us we would clean them out, as they have nothing but bows and arrows anyway.” The chief begged them to leave, saying that if the Ionies killed them, their deaths would be blamed on his Kickapoo tribe. No dice, said the surveyors; there was work to be done.
On October 8, William Love discovered that one of the party’s compasses was broken. He and a fellow surveyor named Jackson volunteered to return to Franklin to get a replacement. Concerned about the Kickapoo chief’s warning, Love suggested the others refrain from surveying until their return. He further urged them to drive the buffalo away so the Indians would follow and leave the surveyors in peace. But the survey party, largely unconcerned at the threat, ignored Love’s advice, left the buffalo unmolested and went to work—riding right into the Kickapoo trap. The chief had decided to attack the surveyors and blame the Ionies.
Following the initial ambush, the surveyors seemed to get the upper hand, driving the 40 warriors from the ravine. But that only exposed the Texans to the guns of the remaining Kickapoos. Badly outnumbered and surrounded by mounted warriors, the surveyors had no choice but to retreat. They managed to fight their way back to the head of the ravine, where they had some cover but no peace, as the Indians rode into the ravine below and opened fire. To keep the party from escaping, the warriors killed the surveyors’ horses, except for two that remained undiscovered in the bushes.
The two sides exchanged fire, the Indians shooting from brush amid the ravine, the surveyors shooting from nooks along the ravine. Survey captain Neal soon fell wounded and unable to command. Euclid M. Cox stepped up, posting himself behind a lone cottonwood tree. From this exposed position, he was able to hit a few Indian targets, but hours into the fight took a bullet in the spine. Hearing Cox’s cries for help, Lane dropped his gun, ran to the tree and dragged the wounded man by the shoulders to safety. But Cox would not survive the night.
After repulsing several Indian charges, the surveyors decided to wait until dark and then slip away. Much to their disappointment, a full moon rose in the clear sky, lighting up the ravine. Still, they were desperate, not liking their chances if they stayed put overnight. Close to midnight they loaded up the two surviving horses with wounded men and made a break for it. The Indians were ready, forming a half circle around the party and opening fire. “We retreated in a walk,” Lane recalled, “wheeling and firing as we went, and keeping them at bay.”
Still, many surveyors fell dead. Lane himself was wounded. “I was shot through the calf of the leg, splintering the bone and severing the ‘leaders’ that connected with my toes,” he said. “I fell forward as I made a step, but found I could support myself on my heel.” Lane was one of the lucky few who made it to the mouth of the ravine. There, he collapsed and called for help, realizing he would bleed to death if he didn’t get treatment. Henderson answered the call, cutting off the top of Lane’s boot and bandaging the wound.
Henderson and John Burton, who were uninjured, helped Lane and another wounded surveyor, John Violet, get moving again. Before long, though, Violet, whose thighbone had been shattered by a bullet, could only crawl. The other three, vowing to return with help, left him beside a muddy pool and resumed their forced march. As dawn approached, the men “cooned” across a log to hide amid an island of tall grass in the ravine. They spent the next day listening as warriors rode up and down the creek bed searching for them. If the Kickapoos were to succeed in blaming the Ionies for the attack, they had to eliminate all witnesses.
At dusk, Lane, Henderson and Burton decided to leave their hiding place and head for the Tehuacana Hills. But when Lane rose after lying in the thicket all day, the pain from his splintered leg was so severe that he fainted. He came to in the midst of an argument, with Burton wanting to abandon him and Henderson refusing. In Lane’s words: “Henderson said we were friends and had slept on the same blanket together, and he would stick to me to the last! I rose to my feet and cursed Burton, both loud and deep, telling him he was a white-livered plebian, and, in spite of his 180 pounds, I would lead him to the settlements—which I did.”
On the third day after the fight, as they approached Tehuacana Springs, the men encountered 10 Kickapoos from another camp. When these Kickapoos, unaware of the past days’ events, asked what they were doing, the quick-thinking surveyors told them they had been attacked by the Ionies and become separated from their comrades. Convinced, the Kickapoos took the trio to their camp and turned them over to the care of their women. The surveyors received good treatment and much-needed food—a soup of dried buffalo, corn and pumpkin served in a wooden bowl. “I have never tasted anything more delicious,” Lane said.
The three left on foot the next morning, not wanting to risk discovery. They had covered barely a few miles when a party of six Indians galloped up to them, wanting to swap an old, dilapidated rifle for their one good one. It became clear the surveyors would either have to make the trade or put up a fight, and they were in no condition to fight. Anyway, the rifle was a small price to pay for safe passage, and there was a bonus: One of the Indians agreed to carry the wounded Lane on horseback and guide the men to Fort Parker, 25 miles distant. He did so and returned to his people while the surveyors continued toward Franklin.
About 15 miles from Franklin, two men stopped the trio at gunpoint, demanding to know who they were. “I didn’t blame them much for the question,” Lane recalled, “for I was in my shirt and drawers, with a handkerchief tied around my head, having lost my hat in the fight, and they thought we were Indians.”
The two men turned out to be Love and Jackson, the members of the surveying party who had returned to Franklin for a replacement compass. News of the Kickapoo attack stunned the two, who relinquished their horses to Lane, Henderson and Burton for the remaining miles to town. Arriving in Franklin, Lane was put in the care of sympathetic local women, and Henderson and Burton returned home.
Meanwhile, Love and Jackson raised a 50-man burial detail and started for the scene of battle the next morning. They were on the lookout for the injured John Violet, who had been left at the muddy pool. Incredibly, the men found Violet—rather, he found them—at Tehuacana Springs. When the wounded surveyor popped out of his hiding place, yelling his head off, the riders thought they were under Indian attack. “Boys, I’m mighty glad you’ve come!” said Violet. He explained that he had grown tired of waiting. After splinting and bandaging his own thigh, he had struck out from Richland Creek toward Tehuacana Springs, “subsisting on green haws and plums.” When he reached the springs, he was so famished that he tried to capture a large bullfrog. Failing at that, he loaded a pistol with a dozen buckshot (each the size of a small English pea) and a proportional amount of powder to blast the frog. Violet hit his target, but the recoil propelled him over an embankment, breaking the ligature that bound his thigh, and he briefly lost consciousness. On regaining his senses, he crawled up to the spring in search of the dead frog. “He found one hindquarter floating around, the balance having been shot to flinders,” Lane said. “Being very hungry, he made short work of that.”
After recovering Violet in better shape than they expected, the men from Franklin continued on to the ravine. “They found the bones of all our killed, the flesh having been stripped off by the wolves,” Lane said. The detail buried the remains of 18 surveyors in the shade of the trees. In the lower part of the ravine they examined 80 piles of green brush from which the Indians had done most of their firing. Lane said that beneath each was “a copious quantity of blood, which proved that we had not been fooling away our time during that day.”
The Kickapoos may have lost twice as many men as the surveyors in the fight at Battle Creek, but there are no exact figures. The burial detail returned to Franklin with Violet, who recovered from his wound. Some sources claim there were three other survivors besides Violet, Lane, Henderson and Burton.
On October 16, Kickapoos attacked Maj. Gen. Rusk’s militia, which was en route to a Kickapoo village on the Trinity River in search of Córdova. Rusk repelled the ambush, but each side lost 11 men.
In the end, the attacks on the surveyors and Rusk’s militia did little to change the situation in Texas. By 1840 most of the Indians had left the republic. The Alabamas and Coushattas were given title to a small parcel of land in east Texas. The only other Indians who remained in the region were the Tiguas near El Paso and the Mexican Kickapoos near Eagle Pass. Texans finally completed effectual surveys and established permanent settlements in Navarro County around 1845.
Today, a Texas Historical Commission marker commemorates the site of the “Battle Creek Burial Ground,” about a mile west of Dawson on state Highway 31. It bears the following inscription:
A surveying party of 25 Texans ran into about 300 Kickapoo Indians on a buffalo hunt; failing to heed warning to leave, the Texans were ambushed on Oct. 8, 1838. Only seven survived, and four of these were wounded. After the escape, they came back to bury their comrades in a common grave.
The figure 25 does not count Love and Jackson and is correct if 18 surveyors died and seven escaped. Some accounts suggest fewer surveyors were involved and only 17 died. In any case, it is doubtful that even trained soldiers would have fared much better against those horrible odds.
Donna Gholson Cook is a sixth-generation Texan, an associate member of Western Writers of America and the author of Gholson Road: Revolutionaries and Texas Rangers (2003). For further reading, see “Walter P. Lane’s Account of the Fight Between a Surveying Party and a Band of Kickapoo Indians on Richland (Battle) Creek in Navarro County,” in Volume XVI of Papers Concerning Robertson’s Colony in Texas, compiled and edited by Malcolm D. McLean.