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Newlywed Maggie Graham Met Sudden Disaster in the Desert

By Daniel Aranda
9/20/2018 • Wild West Magazine

Apaches ambushed her in Texas’ Bass Canyon.

The wedding held on September 16, 1879, in Frio Town, Texas, was a well-attended, luxurious affair. The guests packed the second story of the courthouse, where the reception was held. Long tables, festooned and draped with white tablecloths, were covered with meat and vegetable dishes, pies and beverages. An orchestra provided music for dancing, and a photographer took a picture of the bride in her wedding dress.

The bride was 20-year-old Margaret Little, affectionately called Maggie by family and friends. Her husband was a 26- year-old carpenter named Harry Graham. The newlyweds remained in Frio Town for seven months. Life was comfortable there.

Maggie had been born in Pennsylvania in 1858, the first of eight children of Scotch-Irish parents Mary and Bryce Little, but the family soon moved to Texas—first to Bexar County, then to Mason County and finally to Frio County in 1871. By the time of his first daughter’s wedding, Bryce had prospered enough in the sheep-raising business to own several sheep camps.

Harry Graham, a native of Paterson, N.J., had been an upstanding carpenter in Frio Town since 1875. Harry and his beautiful, vivacious bride had no real reason to leave town, except Harry had become restless after hearing about the many opportunities available to a young man in Silver City, a New Mexico Territory mining town less than 10 years old.

On April 16, 1880, the now-pregnant Maggie and Harry headed west with Harry’s younger brother Sam, who had just completed a stint with the Texas Rangers. At Uvalde, the Graham wagon was joined by three other wagons, including that of the Murphy family. Daniel (“Pat”) Murphy was a 48-year-old soldier who intended to open a brick factory in Silver City. His 28-year-old wife, Martha Jane, was two months pregnant, and they had three other children—Joe, 8; Sally, 4; and James, 2. The other two wagons carried at least four men. Exactly who they were is uncertain, but some accounts say that two of them were gamblers nicknamed “Fetchet Finger” and “Dutch Willie.” The other two were Elmores— James Elmore and either his father, son or brother. Sam Graham led on horseback.

The group traveled westward, uneventfully, through Brackettville and San Felipe, before veering north to Camp Hudson and Beaver Lake. Maggie described the journey in letters that she sent home on eastbound stagecoaches. On several occasions, she received letters brought on westbound stages. On April 25, she wrote friends how her party camped at Howard’s Well, where Indians had killed nine members of the Anastacio Gonzalez wagon train eight years earlier. Harry and Maggie had walked up the hill to the mass grave, and she had become frightened, envisioning an Indian ambush.

East of Fort Lancaster, the travelers rough-locked their wagon wheels before descending a steep, 400-foot hill. Once in the valley, they rode by the abandoned Fort Lancaster and went to the H.C. Tardy Ranch, where Maggie sent another letter. At the Pecos Crossing, the post trader at Fort Concho, James Grant, joined the small wagon train. Further on, at Escondido Spring, station keeper Bill Hobbs warned them about Apache renegades.

The next stop was Fort Stockton, established in 1858 at the site of a spring along the so-called Great Comanche War Trail. A military poster there warned travelers of Apaches and of the shortage of water west of Fort Davis.

In early May, the party rolled into a stage station called Leon Holes or just “Holes” and decided to rest there for a couple of days. This was a heavily traveled area, because a branch of the road led south to Chihuahua, Mexico, and they saw plenty of other emigrants, as well as stagecoaches, freight wagons and military traffic. The wife of station keeper Herman Huelster noted that Maggie’s pregnancy was starting to show, and Maggie inquired about medical care. Mrs. Huelster said that there were surgeons at Fort Davis and Fort Stockton and a Mexican mother of 12 named “Fat Rosa,” who was a skilled midwife.

The Graham-Murphy party spent May 6-8 under large cottonwoods, east of the corrals at Fort Davis. Sam Graham had his horse shod while the others rested, purchased supplies and listened to a few more rumors about Apaches. The travelers passed through Barrel Springs Station on May 9 and on the 10th camped at a stage station with the dubious name El Muerto (“the dead man,” named for an unfortunate soul who was killed and dumped into the well). Two men with packhorses passed through during the night, anxious to get to the Van Horne Wells way station. The Graham-Murphy train, closely followed by another train of seven wagons, arrived at Van Horne Wells before midnight on May 11. The tired travelers slept and then set off again about noon on the 12th.

Maggie and company soon entered rocky and gully-lined Bass Canyon, named for James Bass, a stage driver killed by Indians in January 1869. As usual, Sam Graham rode in the lead as scout. Next was the wagon with the gamblers, followed by the Elmores’ wagon. James Grant was on horseback at least 100 yards back. The Graham wagon was next in line, with Maggie and the children riding and Harry walking alongside. Bringing up the rear was the Murphy wagon.

Well-hidden Apaches allowed Sam Graham and the first wagons to pass before opening up with rifle fire. Grant was killed in the opening volley. Unarmed, Harry Graham called for his rifle. The wagon horses reared, but Maggie managed to pull the rifle from its scabbard at the side of the wagon. When she tried to hand the gun to her husband, a bullet struck her bonnet and brain from close range. Her limp body fell between the horses and wagon. Harry was in no position to help her, because a bullet had slammed into his right thigh. He crawled a short distance through a hail of bullets before pretending to be dead. Eventually, he passed out.

The trailing Murphy wagon was in a wider section of Bass Canyon, and the Apaches could not get in as close. Although he received two slight wounds, Pat Murphy kept the attackers at bay with his Ballard rifle. He then turned his wagon around and backtracked until he reached the safety of the other wagon train. Before doing so, according to some accounts, he blew a bugle, which may have caused the Apaches to leave.

Dutch Willie and Fetchet Finger apparently kept on going when they heard the shooting instead of turning back to offer aid. They came barreling into Eagle Springs Station and reported that everyone else was massacred. What the Elmores did when the shooting started isn’t certain, but they might have helped Sam Graham. Sam stated in a depredation claim that four men in a wagon helped him return to the ambush site and repulse the Apaches.

Several men from Eagle Springs, including Bob Johnson and Guillermo Mesa, rode back to Bass Canyon, only to find that the Indians had ransacked the Graham wagon and fled. With the help of Sam Graham, they hurriedly buried Grant. The wounded Harry Graham and Maggie’s corpse were taken to Van Horne Wells. Maggie was buried there in her wedding dress. Her family removed her wedding ring and a lock of her brown hair to keep as mementos. Harry, who would recover from his wounds, and his brother Sam soon left by stage for Fort Davis.

The Apaches apparently remained in the vicinity, because the second wagon train made a request—sent on May 16 from Eagle Springs to the commanding officer at Fort Davis—to be escorted out of Bass Canyon. On that same day, Van Horne Wells station keeper H.M. LaPorte wrote to Fort Davis asking for blankets and supplies for the wounded Pat Murphy and his family.

The news of Maggie’s death hit Frio Town hard, sending many in the community into shock. The oldest of Maggie’s brothers, John, was out herding cattle, and he did not learn of her fate for a month, though he had had a premonition about her death.

Within a few days of the Bass Canyon ambush, Captain Louis Carpenter, out of Fort Davis, led a command in search of the renegades, most likely Mescalero Apaches. They never caught up with them. As for the Murphy family, they continued on to Silver City, where Pat eventually realized his dream of operating a brick factory. His wife, Martha Jane, gave birth there to a girl whom she named Margaret Josephine in honor of her friend and traveling companion, Maggie Graham.

 

Daniel Aranda of Las Cruces, N.M., has included Maggie Graham’s story in a work in progress, tentatively called Episodes From Apache Land.

Originally published in the December 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here

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