A KILLER'S TRAIL OF THREAD:
SOME ALAMO HEROES FOUGHT TWICE FOR TEXAS
By W. T. Block
Reprinted from "Killer's Trail of Thread," TRUE WEST, June,
1978, pp. 18ff.
It was May of 1835 in the Green Dewitt colony located in the Mexican
province of Texas-Coahuila. Along the banks of the Guadalupe River, about fifty miles east
of old San Antonio de Bexar, spring was manifest on every bush and tree. It was a
countryside unmarred by either the axe or the plow, for the "advance of
civilization" such as a cabin or wagon trail was rarely seen except near the village
Along the lonely trail from Gonzales to San Antonio, there lived only
one settler. John Castleman had brought his young family there to the valley of the
Guadalupe sometime before 1825. He built a strong log cabin there, complete with shutters
that locked securely from the inside, and for defense against Indians he surrounded his
home with a palisade of sharp cedar posts.
Nearby was a small lake and a shallow wagon ford across the Guadalupe,
and once or twice a month some weary traveler, en route from Austin's Colony to San
Antonio, might stop for food and lodging at the log cabin.
So it was, late one Saturday afternoon, when Castleman heard a loud
shout outside. Instinctively Castleman went to the window and could see a stranger waving
both arms in a broad arc to attract attention. Upon reaching the palisade gate, Castleman
learned that he was a French merchant named Gressier, seeking information about the route
to San Antonio. Standing behind him was his small caravan of pack mules and three
2-wheeled carts, each of the later covered with canvas and driven by a Mexican teamster.
Gressier had left New Orleans by steamboat two months earlier, and upon
arrival at Natchitoches, Louisiana on the Red River, had purchased the carts and mules and
had engaged the Mexicans, late of San Antonio, as drivers to guide his caravan of hardware
and dry goods across Texas. The men and animals were quite weary from the long day's
journey, and Gressier inquired where there might be a suitable watering-place and campsite
for the night.
Castleman directed the merchant to the small lake, some 300 yards
distant toward the river, where there was plenty of water and grass for the mules, but he
suggested that Gressier not camp for the night in the neighboring cedar brake.
"Stranger, you and your teamsters kin camp here in my yard tonight
behind the palisade," Castleman offered. "A Comanche war party has been reported
up north of here, and you'd be in bad shape if they showed up down there at the lake.
There's plenty of well water and wood here, and in case of attack we'd have a better
chance to defend your property and mine."
The Frenchman declined, however, remarking that they had not seen any
Comanche signs along the trail. His Mexican hands were well armed and were experienced
Indian fighters as well. And besides, he didn't wish to endanger his benefactor any more
than necessary, for he knew that mules and horses attracted Comanches like buzzards to
So Gressier and his teamsters drove the caravan down to the cedar brake
where they parked the carts in a defensive perimeter, unharnessed the teams, watered and
hobbled the mules, and allowed them to graze, after which they settled down for the night.
Gressier's cargo, although not discernible to the casual eye, was only
slightly less attractive to marauders than his mule teams. The packs were filled with axe
heads, hammers, knives, hoes, scissors, needles, and just about every hardware item that a
frontier merchant required. The carts carried casks of green coffee, kegs of whiskey,
dozens of bolts of cheap cotton prints, calico, alpaca, and muslins, yarn and knitting
needles, boxes of spooled thread of every hue, hogsheads of tobacco, and many other
As darkness approached, Castleman barred his shutters and doors,
secured his household and livestock, and retired for the night.
Dawn came amid a din of war whoops and musket fire. Even before the
first rays of light punctured the horizon, a war party of Comanches were preparing to
water their horses when they unwittingly stumbled into the Frenchman's campsite. The
Mexican teamsters were not totally unprepared. At their sides lay an asortment of loaded
muskets and pistols, and when the first sound of Comanche voices and pony hoofs disturbed
their slumber, the Mexicans loosed a volley of shot which sent the warriors scurrying for
Before the war party could recover from its initial shock, Gressier and
his men hurriedly overturned the carts in a triangle, stacked casks, packs, and bolts of
cloth about as breastworks, and with all their muskets reloaded, they cautiously awaited
the attack that was certain to come.
Soon aware that they outnumbered their opponents by ten or more to one.
the Comanches deliberately took their time before pressing their attack. They were heavily
armed with bows, lances, and tomahawks, but carried only a limited quantity of muskets and
powder. During the early hours of the fight, they encircled the Frenchman's camp at a
distance of 100 to 150 yards away and employed various ruses to draw the Mexicans' fire.
Gressier and his teamsters, in the hope of discouraging their
attackers, triggered a volley of bullets at the first rustling of any branch or bush.
Occasionally they caught momentary glimpses of the warriors as they darted about, and now
and then, they knew a bullet had struck its mark when some Comanche howled or dropped to
the ground. But throughout the fight, the war party did not show the least inclination to
abandon the siege.
At the first sound of gunfire, Castleman grabbed two muskets and rushed
to a window. His cabin stood at the top of a hill, and he had an excellent view of the
impending massacre, where columns of smoke and gun flashes emerged from the cedar brake
surrounding the campsite. The number of ponies and glimpses of warriors scampering about
confirmed his fear regarding the size of the Indian party.
At a distance of 150 yards from the cabin was a gnarled post oak upon
which Castleman had nailed a paper target for musket practice. The white object soon
caught the eye of a young Indian. As he stood before it, curiously examining the bullet
holes, Castleman took a careful aim and was about to pull the trigger when his wife
intervened. She begged him to refrain from firing since, because of the number of
warriors, the couple's only hope hinged upon the possibility that the Comanches might
become intoxicated with their successful plunder of the caravan and leave the settler and
his family unmolested.
Soon aware that he was in an exposed position, the young Indian glanced
quickly at Castleman's cabin and darted back into the underbrush.
As the Indians had hoped, the constant rate of fire from the Mexicans
began to subside and by mid-morning had deteriorated to only an occasional shot. Believing
that Gressier and his teamsters had depleted their supply of powder and shot, the Indians,
advancing from all four sides, crawled on their bellies to within fifty yards of the camp.
At a given signal from their chief, they charged the teamsters, assailing them with a
barrage of bullets, arrows, and lances. Gressier and his men fired one final volley,
killing some of them, and then using their muskets as clubs, fought like tigers until a
few screams and then a pervasive silence encompassed the massacre site.
With the firing and yelling ended and his worst fears confirmed,
Castleman and his wife fearfully pondered their perilous predicament. He even thought of
dispatching his wife and son on horseback in the direction of Gonzales, but decided
In time the Indians' upraised voices, whoops, and laughter became
increasing loud. They ramsacked the carts and packs, broke open the whiskey kegs, and soon
were dancing about an open space, their bodies wrapped with bolts of brightly-colored
cloth. Later Castleman watched as two columns of mounted Comanches filed slowly over the
neighboring hill. Some of them held a bolt of cloth under each arm, while others struggled
to carry a cask or a keg. Then there followed in single file near the end of the column
six of Gressier's mules, their packs in place. As the last Indian disappeared over the
horizon, Castleman counted altogether almost eighty horsemen, the largest war party of
Comanches he had ever seen or heard of in Dewitt's Colony.
At the end of the columns rode the young Indian, no more than a lad and
probably on his first raid, that Castleman had had in his gun sights. Already nearing the
point of drunkenness, the boy carried a box under his arm and toyed with a single spool of
red thread, the end of which had been wrapped around a finger, in his right hand. The
spool soon fell to the ground and, as yard after yard trailed out behind him, the youth
became fascinated by the great length of thread that was wound upon the reel. As each
spool played out, he starting reeling out another spool of yarn, and then another, and by
nightfall, after the Comanches had ridden westward for hours along the river, there was
mile after mile of colored thread stretching along the south bank of the Guadalupe River.
When the last Indian disappeared, Castleman took his musket and headed
for the lake. The battle site was fully as ghastly as he had expected -- mutilated corpses
still bleeding from multiple lance wounds. He also found several Indian bodies floating in
the lake. Castleman hurriedly gathered his family and some belongings and carried them to
safety in Gonzales, arriving late in the night.
News of an Indian attack traveled fast and far in the Gonzales
vicinity, as it always did. Before noon, Castleman and twenty-seven other men were in the
saddle and en route back to the battle scene on the Guadalupe. The group of frontiersmen
with Castlemen included Mathew Caldwell, John Davis, Robert M. White, Dan McCoy, Jesse
McCoy, B. D. McClure, Ezekiel Williams, George W. Cottle, Andrew Sowell, Sr., Dr. James
Miller, Almeron Dickinson, Jacob C. Darst, and several others, some of whom had arrived
from the States only two days earlier. McClure was elected to lead the men, and shortly
after noon, they arrived at the scene of the massacre.
The Indian trail was plain and clear, sometimes red, sometimes green,
or blue, but always it followed west along the south bank of the river. At about the spot
where the trail of thread played out, the war party crossed the Guadalupe at Erskine's
Ford, later following.
Days passed before McClure and his men finally sighted the Comanche
campfire on a high ridge overlooking the San Marcos River, opposite the present-day city
of that name. In the center of their camp, the warriors had erected a pole, around which
the grass had been completely trampled down, for throughout the previous night, the
Comanches had performed their well-known scalp dance, celebrating their victory.
Outnumbered as they were by three to one or more, McClure and his men
were unwilling to risk a fight without the element of surprise, and as the Indians were
then in the process of breaking camp, the Gonzales frontiersmen chose to pursue them along
the banks of the Blanco River.
Two more days would elapse before the company would encounter the
Comanches again. They followed them along the banks of the Blanco, where fresh Indian
signs confirmed that the war party was only a short distance ahead. Obscured the following
morning by a dense fog bank, McClure and his men were moving cautiously along the south
bank when suddenly the fog lifted, and an Indian lookout on a nearby hillside sounded an
Thus discovered and cheated of the element of surprise, McClure hurried
his company to a thick cedar brake, dismounted, and sent Darst and Dickinson ahead to
scout for the main body of warriors. The rest of the men advanced through the thick
underbrush and were almost to an open field by the river when they saw their scouts
beating a hasty retreat, closely pursued by eight Comanches.
The two scouts led their happy pursuers right into the musket muzzles
of their companions, who promptly dropped the eight Indians with as many shots. Other
whoops and shouts revealed that the main body of Comanches was straight ahead near the
river bank, and McClure's men charged across the open field to the next cedar brake. When
they finally made contact, it became obvious that the war party was seeking to escape
across the river with their plunder rather than press the fight, and their yelling and
whooping almost drowned out the ensuing musket fire.
A few warriors attempted to put up a limited, rear guard defense,
releasing volleys of arrows, while others led loaded mules into the water, or started
wading across the river carrying bolts of cloth. Their meager defense soon gave way to
total rout, however, the fleeing warriors abandoning much booty on the south bank in their
haste to escape to the underbrush on the opposite shore. Spread out as they were along the
Blanco, the Indians' flight actually became a trapshoot for the frontiersmen, who fired as
fast as they could reload.
The general melee of battle lasted perhaps ten or twelve minutes, with
nearly half of the war party escaping to the opposite bank where they soon disappeared,
and the remainder dying or drowning in the middle of the stream and bolts of cloth
floating downriver. Thus shorn of their mounts and weapons, those who escaped were no
longer effective as a raiding party, and no further attempt at pursuit was made. The
Texans had lost none of the frontiersmen killed, although three of them had been hit by
arrows, each suffering a minor flesh wound. McClure's men then collected the stolen mules
and Indian ponies, loaded as much of the Indian plunder as could be salvaged on the
animals' backs, and began their long trek back to Gonzales.
The fight on the Blanco River was only one of many such engagements
that would transpire before the hostile Comanche tribe would eventually be subdued and
resettled in Oklahoma. And certainly many more lives and scalps would be lost before that
day would arrive. One of McClure's veterans, later to become Captain Mathew Caldwell, or
"Old Paint," of the Texas Army, eventually led a dozen or more expeditions to
curb their depredations.
In 1842, Caldwell became the hero of the Battle of Salado Creek, but
many of McClure's old Indian fighters were no longer living to be with their comrade that
day. On March 6, 1836, the day that the Alamo fell, Jake Darst, Jesse McCoy, G. W. Cottle,
Robert M. White, Almeron Dickinson, and a couple of others were among the twenty-one
Texans from Gonzales who died with William Barret Travis, David Crockett and James Bowie
in defense of Texas' most sacred shrine.