Dunn peered up to the crest of the south bank to a glorious sight—a dozen or more Texas Rangers, wreathed in powder smoke, their ramrods flashing in the sun as they sought new targets. Maybe he wasn’t done after all
James Dunn thought his time had come, that this mild day in early 1841 would be his last. Hands bound and body lashed to the saddle of a Comanche pony, he glanced warily about him as his captors chivvied a herd of stolen mounts across the shallow ford of the Guadalupe River at the Pinta Trail Crossing, 45 miles north of San Antonio, in the Republic of Texas. Only the day before, Comanche Chief Yellow Wolf and 80 warriors had struck the western fringes of town, killing two Hispanic citizens and a black sheepherder before happening upon the Irish emigrant as he herded his own flock of woolies. Only his lush mane of coppery red hair had saved him from a quick lance thrust. The Comanches had not seen such hair before and were awed by the sight of a man presumably favored by the Great Spirit and possessing strong medicine. But Dunn expected to lose his favored status at any moment.
Yellow Wolf’s raiding party was moving north from San Antonio along the ancient trace of the Pinta Trail, which had long served as a route through the Hill Country for Indians, Spanish and Mexicans. The warriors were driving the horses and mules toward their home village in the hills well above the Guadalupe and Colorado rivers. Several warriors had ridden close alongside Dunn and stroked his head in wonder, but that didn’t keep the captive from worrying about his scalp. The raiding party paused at the river to allow its mounts and plundered herd to drink, and then, in late afternoon, the band started up the north bank. Suddenly, a thunderous volley of gunshots filled the cleft of the river channel, and rifle balls knocked several Comanches to the ground. Dunn peered up to the crest of the south bank to a glorious sight—a dozen or more Texas Rangers, wreathed in powder smoke, their ramrods flashing in the sun as they sought new targets. Maybe he wasn’t done after all; James Dunn felt the thrill of hope. That’s what the very sight of Rangers could do for pioneers who braved the Texas frontier.
James Dunn had arrived in San Antonio by March 1840 and was on hand at the Council House Fight, a pitched battle that broke out on the town’s streets in the wake of heated negotiations with visiting Comanche chieftains. In that conflict, Dunn shot to death a warrior who was attempting to kill John James, a prominent local surveyor and rancher. By 1841 Dunn was herding sheep, which ordinarily would be a peaceful occupation. But on the Texas frontier, the Comanches pledged peace to no man.
The officer who led the troop of Texas Rangers at Pinta Trail Crossing—much to Dunn’s delight—was John Coffee “Jack” Hays. The 24-year-old Tennessee native had lived in Texas since 1836, periodically following his profession as a surveyor, but spending more and more of his time in service with the Rangers. He had started as a gentleman private but was now captain of his own company. Hays was a veteran of fights with hostile Indians, Santa Anna’s invading soldados and border bandidos. On this winter day in 1841, Hays meant to see more Comanche blood darken the crystal flow of the Guadalupe.
With bullets whizzing everywhere, Dunn’s thrill of hope was replaced by the bleak realization that a Ranger bullet could just as easily strike him as one of the warriors who milled about him in momentary panic. Chief Yellow Wolf shouted for his braves to hold position in the ford long enough to retrieve their dead and wounded comrades. Finally, the Comanches quirted their ponies out of the shallows and up the gentle slope of the Guadalupe’s north bank. Cresting the rise, they thundered free of the river’s cypress-lined channel onto the open plains.
Captain Hays led his Ranger company forward at a run, splashing through the ford on the heels of the fleeing braves, eager to make them pay for the three fresh scalps that swung at their belts. Behind him rode two Lipan Apache trackers and 16 Rangers, with fresh powder and projectiles seated in their rifles’ breeches. Among them was 20-year-old James Wilson Nichols, who would leave in his memoirs the only extant detailed account of this often overlooked action. The exact date of the engagement is not known, but it most likely occurred in February 1841.
“We crossed over and galloped to the top of the rise,” Nichols recalled more than 40 years later. “They had halted and formed in line of battle. We poured into their ranks another volley and made them scatter. We then retreated back down the hill to reload, but before we had finished reloading, we looked and saw the top of the hill red with the savages.
“When they saw us, they raised the war whoop and charged down toward us, but seeing we did not flee but stood our ground, they charged halfway down the hill, discharged their escopetas [short-barreled flintlock muskets] and a perfect shower of arrows at us, wheeled their horses and galloped back, followed by loud yells from the Texians and a volley of bullets.”
The struggle swayed back and forth over the north bank of the Guadalupe between the ford and the open plains beyond its crest. The Rangers held firm as musket balls raised brown plumes from the riverbed and quilled shafts whisked past. One arrow buried itself in Jack Pearson’s thigh, but the Ranger gritted his teeth around his reins and sought another mark for his rifle among the screaming warriors.
Hays based his tactics in equal parts on his mission, the Rangers’ weaponry and the terrain. His men’s rifles were most accurate when fired from afoot and not from the saddle of a restive horse, but if he dismounted his command and sought cover for a defensive action, he would surrender the initiative to the Comanches. They could attack or withdraw as they chose. Dismounting also put his command at risk if the enemy should succeed in stampeding their horses. To keep the Indians close at hand and inflict maximum punishment upon them, the Rangers must remain mounted. But to reload their single-shot muzzleloading rifles and shotguns without the risk of topping a lance thrust, they fell back behind cover along the north bank to pour powder and patch balls into their rifle barrels and seat fresh caps on the breeches of their pieces. All the men carried pistols as close-in weapons, enabling them to fire a fast second or third shot at powder-burn range; the pistols, too, were mostly muzzleloaders.
By early 1841, Hays had acquired a brace of five-shot Colt Paterson revolvers as well as a Colt revolving rifle. A sprinkling of his Rangers were similarly armed, enough so that those men with Colt repeaters were able to keep the Comanches at bay as other Rangers plied ramrods and fumbled with caps. The Comanches were justly respectful of the Texians’ marksmanship with any firearm and wary of even a small number of the Colt “medicine guns” that seemed to give the Rangers a shot for every finger on their hands.
“We reloaded as quick as possible and charged them in return,” Nichols recorded. The Texians crested the rise, thundered through the screen of trees lining the river and a flanking creek bed and emerged on the open plains again. They raced up to within 60 yards of the milling braves and then halted to fire a volley of slugs and buckshot into the enemy ranks. Again the frontiersmen fell back to the ford, and again the Comanches scattered before their fire, rallied and then resumed pursuit in the seesaw contest. Yellow Wolf noted with mounting rage the number of slain and wounded warriors who littered the ground amid clusters of dead ponies.
Another round of fire and falling back followed, but Hays realized the Indians, with vastly superior numbers, might eventually succeed in outflanking the Rangers, cutting them off from their riverbank refuge. On the next thrust, he tried a slightly different approach. Nichols recalled that Hays instructed half of his men to follow at a distance as a reserve while the rest delivered the charge. The leading squad of horsemen dutifully closed with the braves, fired a volley and spun in retreat. When the Comanches gave chase, they ran right into the teeth of the following squad’s fire, including rapid fusillades from the Colts. “That plan worked well,” exulted Nichols, “as the reserve ran in and killed several and wounded the chief, Yellow Wolf, severely.”
The Comanches retrieved their dead and wounded and withdrew beyond rifle range. With their chieftain reeling on his horse and their losses mounting, the raiding party decided to cede the field to the Rangers. They abandoned most of their captured horses but held on to their captive, Dunn. Irish luck hadn’t smiled on him after all—at least not yet.
Captain Hays and his men were glad enough to see the Comanches go. “Cal Turner, Joe Williams and myself were sent to the top of the hill to watch the maneuvers of the enemy,” recalled Nichols, “while the wounded were taken care of.” Two more men had been injured in the fight. Ranger Sam Luckey suffered a slight wound in the left thigh, while Dave Lawrence carried a bullet in the shoulder. (All would recover, but the misnamed Luckey would suffer another bullet wound within months when Hays rode into a Comanche ambush at Bandera Pass, and still another musket ball would draw his blood as he faced Mexican regulars at the Battle of Salado Creek in September 1842. The well-perforated Texian endured to face the Union Army 20 years later in Maryland at the Battle of Antietam, where he was ultimately killed in the bloodiest single day in American military history.)
“It was then too dark to charge them [the Indians] again,” recalled a doubtlessly relieved Nichols, “and we awaited their charge….The savages did not seem disposed to fight anymore unless forced to, and as soon as it began to get dark, the Indians bundled up and left under cover of night, leaving us masters of the situation with a great quantity of their accoutrements and about 35 horses which they had abandoned.” Hays was content to bandage his wounded, round up the reclaimed horses and return to San Antonio in triumph, knowing he had extracted from the Comanches a high toll in bitter coinage for their raid on the settlement.
This Texian victory, however, was of no help to James Dunn. Defeat had left the Comanches in a foul mood, and the Irishman waited for one of his captors to take it out on him. He watched as the Comanches concealed the bodies of 23 dead warriors to protect them from scalping and mutilation by the hated Texians or their equally despised Lipan Apache allies. Of the 37 wounded warriors, 13 would subsequently die from their injuries. Yellow Wolf survived his wound, only to face disgrace for having led his braves into a fight that had cost almost half of them their lives. Three years later, during a clash with Hays at Walker’s Creek, a few miles north of the Pinta Trail Crossing, Yellow Wolf fell dead before the Rangers’ volley.
Come nightfall, Dunn found himself in one piece but expected his captors to kindle a torture fire. He waited and waited, but it didn’t come. The Comanches continued to treat the red-haired sheepherder with surprising gentleness. Still, when Dunn saw a chance to bolt a few weeks later, he didn’t hesitate. He survived the long trek back to the settlements and by mid-March had enlisted in Hays’ Ranger company. Nichols related Dunn’s account that the Comanches had “neither tortured, kilt nor ate him alive, which he expected them to do.” But, Nichols added, “He [Dunn] said that they came within an ace of drowning him in the river while attempting to wash the red off his hair, which they [had] taken to be paint. He said they would scrub his head with sand and water for hours at a time.”
Like his comrade Luckey, Dunn would also take a wound at Bandera Pass a few months later but would live to fight again beside Captain Jack Hays and survive several more narrow escapes as a Texas Ranger. For instance, on August 12, 1844, a small party of Comanches attacked Dunn and three other Rangers taking a swim in the Nueces River. Dunn and a fellow bather, stark naked, recovered their mounts and rode the 120 miles to San Antonio, arriving badly sunburned but with their scalps intact.
Today, the ford at the Pinta Trail Crossing of the Guadalupe sits in the shadow of a modern highway bridge supporting Sisterdale Road/FM 1376 (FM is Texas speak for a farm-to-market road), which spans the dozen miles between Boerne and the country hamlet of Sisterdale. The old trace of the trail still leads down to the ford, while the north bank climbs to the trim white property fence of a horse farm.
Wayne Austerman, historian at the U.S. Army Medical Department Center & School at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, often writes about Texas military history for Wild West. Austerman conducts staff rides for Army officers at a dozen Texas battle sites. Much of the information for this article comes from the “Instructor’s Guide for the Pinta Trail Crossing Staff Ride,” a publication of AMEDDCS. Suggested for further reading: Border Wars of Texas, by James T. DeShields, and Rangers and Pioneers of Texas, by A.J. Sowell.