Hood County Texas Genealogical Society



1805 – 1873


The Controversial Captain – Hero or Villain?

by Barbara Thorp Wilkins

From granbury! Magazine – Fall 1986



Two days after Christmas, 1858, at an Indian campsite up on the Brazos River near Palo Pinto, the eerie pre-dawn silence of a cold and rainy Monday morning was shattered by pounding hooves, gunshots and screams.  The morning light soon revealed a grisly scene – at least seven Indians, including squaws, lay dead in and around their bloody tents.  Also found among the bodies was one white man, shot in the head.


Thus, say many Texas historians, began the Reservation War, the flames of which would rage for over fifteen years in the north and northwest parts of the state, long after the Indian tribes were removed to reservations in what is now Oklahoma.  And the blame for lighting the match – or credit, depending upon viewpoint – was laid squarely at the feet of one man, leader of one faction of the battle in the rain up on the Brazos.  He was reported to have said after the pre-dawn fight, “We have opened the ball, and others can dance to the music.”


“Murderer!” they screamed.


“Hero of the frontier!” they cheered.


“Known gunman,” they growled.


“One of the most prominent men in the vicinity,” they boasted.


His grandfather, a Virginian, had been a colonel in the American Revolution, his father a major in the War of 1812.  Both pretty-good-sized wars.  This man was called “Captain” and it seems he started his own war.


Governor Runnels ordered the sheriffs of two counties and then Texas Ranger Capt. “Rip” Ford to arrest him.  They all refused.


“We shall decline being arrested,” he wrote to the governor – and made it stick.


Such was the raw Texas frontier in the 1850’s.


Capt. Peter Garland was – and has remained – controversial long after his death in Thorp Spring of Hood County in 1873.  Back in Mississippi in the 1840’s, he had been Circuit Court Clerk and a Deputy Sheriff – and a saloonkeeper.  After coming to Texas, he was a conservative rancher and family man – and a fearless Indian fighter.  And, in 1867, he was elected the first Treasurer of Hood County.


Garland lived in sparsely-settled Erath County, near what later became Stephenville, at the time of the infamous incident in neighboring Palo Pinto County.  An early settler of “energy and spirit” and “stout physical appearance,” he reportedly gathered a group of rock-jawed, steely-eyed citizens, mostly stockmen, and proceeded to track down and attack old Choctaw Tom’s motley camp of friendly Indians while they slept.  These redmen (and women) were Caddos, Anadarkos and Choctaws from the Federal government’s Brazos Reserve who were on a hunt outside of the reservation.  There are many published versions of the episode, and even “on-the-scene” accounts vary greatly.  Some say the Indians attacked first (the white men lost two of their number in the battle, the one found dead at the scene and another who died of wounds later).  Others insist the reservation Indians were murdered in their sleep.  Choctaw Tom’s wife was killed, but he was away from the campsite at the time.  Most report seven Indians dead, some say eight or ten, others say more, with several wounded.  Some even suggest the whites accidentally shot their own men.  The one point that all seem to agree upon, however, is that the incident lit the fire and provoked the Caddos, Anadarkos and other tribes of the reserves to smear on warpaint along with their own enemies, the wild Comanches.  In turn, the frontiersmen geared up for a Reservation War that resulted in the Federal government’s hurried removal of the Indians to protection of reservations in Indian Territory north of the Red River, now Oklahoma.


The upper-middle Brazos Valley had been a powderkeg awaiting just such a spark as the Peter Garland/Choctaw Tom encounter.  Northern Comanches had been terrorizing the territory with increasingly brutal raids, but the general feeling of the settlers on the frontier seemed to be that the presumably friendly Indians of the Brazos Reserve, including the Caddos, were also guilty at the very least of horse0thievery and suspect of much more.  The reserve’s Federal Indian Agent in charge vehemently denied this.  But respected Texas Ranger Capt. J.B. “Buck” Barry commented that whenever raiding parties of Indians were followed, it was invariably observed that “after a time the trail divided and that a part of the Indians had gone off in the direction of the reservations; and, finding many of our horses on the reservations…we were pretty well satisfied that these reserve Indians were leagued with the wild tribes in raiding on the settlements.”


Neighbors were few and far between in the farming and stock-raising county of Erath, but some of Peter Garland’s closest ones had included the Woods family, the Lemlys and the Joshua Jacksons.  As described by Barry in Wilbarger’s Indian Depredations in Texas, in the winter of 1857 a party of Indians came into the settlements and “took two ladies, Mrs. Woods and Mrs. Lemly, some two miles from the house, and, after using them in the most savage and brutal manner, they murdered and scalped both.  They also carried off two young ladies, the Misses Lemly…”.  The girls were found after two days, abused and stripped, and were brought to Garland’s house for attention.


The Texas Indian Papers show settlers’ and rangers’ reports of another brutal raid in October of 1858.  “A party of Indians attacked the family of Joshua Jackson, consisting of the old man and his wife, two sons and two daughters…the old lady and one of the boys I saw killed at the wagon…the old man was afterwards found dead about 150 yards from the wagon.  The trail was followed about one half mile to the river and found on said trail a stocking belonging to one of the little girls, with spots of blood upon it.  We have every reason to believe that the whole family has been murdered, save the little girls, who have been carried into a captivity a thousand fold worse than death itself.”  By the end of the month, it had been reported to Gov. Runnels that “one of the young ladies that was supposed to have been taken into captivity has been found murdered.  One of her breasts was cut off and her person otherwise badly butchered.”


Not two months after the Jackson family’s massacre, Capt. Peter Garland gathered his unofficial ranger party and led the group of over twenty citizens from Erath County against friendly old Choctaw Tom’s camp of reservation Caddos, Choctaws and Anadarkos.  The battle erupted at a spot called Indian Hole on Elm Creek near where it enters the Brazos, just northwest of Hood County in Palo Pinto, which was long referred to as “the Dark and Bloody Ground.”


Settlers of Erath and surrounding counties had pleaded loud and long with state and Federal officials for promised protection, to no avail.  Out of their fear and frustration had grown a bitterness that led many a frontiersman to the conviction that the “only good Indian is a dead Indian.”


But in that fierce struggle between land-hungry settlers and Indians whose territory they coveted, bitterness was not unique to the beleaguered pioneers.  The Indians – good or bad – had a very uncomplicated point: They were there first.  They considered their culture and use of the land an ancestral privilege, if not duty, to preserve.  Many of the redmen were friendly with the intruding settlers; some merely pretended to be friends.  Others, Comanches and Kiowas and the like, made bloody war and pretended nothing.


The settlers – good or bad – just kept coming.  “…like pine needles.  Like drops of rain.  No end to them.”  The Peter Garland affair was one of many such incidents in the push westward, acre by acre, mile by mile, a tide that would not be stemmed.  Confrontations, large and small, were unavoidable; retaliations, swift and vicious, inevitable.  Bitterness was pervasive.


Garland’s vigilantes from Erath were all a part of the Frontier Guard, an assortment of stockmen, farmers, merchants and others banded together for protection to fill a void left by the government, which was, in effect and in fact, protecting the reservation Indians instead.  In the general hysteria of terrified settlers and furious redmen following the raid, and in the face of the rage of Maj. Robert S. Neighbors, the Federal Indian Agent, Garland and his group stood firm, making no apologies and publicly claiming justification for their actions because marauding Indians had been systematically burning homes, raping, killing and scalping, not to mention stealing horses, a capital offense in itself calling for swift justice on the frontier.  The murder and mutilation of Joshua Jackson’s family had seemingly brought the frustrated pioneers to the breaking point, at which time, some insist, the men organized with the express, announced purpose of tracking and killing Indians, “any Indian,” in retaliation.  Others steadfastly contend they were only tracking their own stolen horses to the Indians’ camp, where they were themselves attacked.


In several accounts of the controversial fight, Garland is labeled a “known gunman,” leader of a gang of “rowdies” or “crowd of bravos,” as well as a “murderer.”  It’s easy to sit back and attach labels; but, taken in the context of the times, the frontier’s wide gap between law and enforcement and the drive to survive, such finger-pointing gets more complicated.  Realistically, one must wonder, “Had I been one of those settlers, what would I have thought, what would I have done?”  It’s hard to imagine – and tougher to answer.  The answer is certainly not here.


In the recent (1982) book Lambshead Before Interwoven, A Texas Range Chronicle, Frances M. Holden flatly and somewhat recklessly calls Peter Garland an “Indian-hater of the first order” and, on a roll, goes on to deduce that “Garland believed that Indians, like rattlesnakes, should be killed on sight.  In fact, he personally led the move to exterminate Indians, regardless of who or where they were.”  Stories do grow.  But, sentiments aside, one must wonder how the author could know of Garland’s innermost thoughts and beliefs – no source is cited for the statement, and research reveals no other accounts that afford Garland quite such an important, if repugnant, status in Texas history.


At the height of passion following the Indian Hole raid, Maj. Neighbors relentlessly pressed the governor to prosecute the Erath County men for murder.  Hearing of this, Garland wrote to Gov. Runnels on behalf of himself and his followers, identifying them as the “Company which made war on the Reserve Indians in Palo Pinto County,” and respectfully informed the governor that “we shall decline being arrested.”  He requested a legal investigation so that “minds that appear to be much harassed and troubled at the so called outrage may be quieted (albeit these same persons remained at home in quiet and the consciences permitted them to rest perfectly easy when they heard of the horrid massacre of the Jackson family attended with horrors too revolting to name, no tear then dimmed their eyes)…”.  The letter also told the governor of an impending meeting of citizens of the frontier counties for “taking into consideration measures best adapted to secure the further safety and welfare of our frontier.”  Obviously completely disillusioned by empty promises of government protection, the group was adamant in its position, the letter continuing, “…but it after all this Maj. Neighbors is fixed in his purpose force the point…we do respectfully but firmly say we will stand by our army and result must rest with those who do know how to respect the frights of Free men.”  Concluding, “…our friends and fellow citizens of our own and surrounding counties concur with us fully in our view and requests…”, the communication was signed, “Peter Garland Company, The Frontier Gards.” (sic)


Included among Garland’s “army” were Dr. W.W. McNeill, original settler and Erath County Clerk; Daniel Thornton and Joshua Hightower, Garland’s sons-in-law; Robert Duvall, well-to-do stock farmer and Erath’s first County Treasurer; Riggs Dupuy, son of the County Judge; John R. Waller, later Sheriff of Erath; Kentuckian Israel P. Harris; William Wood, whose family was killed by Indians; Thomas Wylie, well-known stockman of Sim’s Valley; William E. Motherall; George Hardin; W. Fitzgerald; William Highsaw; W.J.F. Lowder; Voluntine Dalton; Enoch Fiveash; J.P. Harris; A.L. Braw; John Barnes, who died of wounds suffered at the Indian Hole battle; and Samuel W. Stephens, killed at the scene, the son of John Stephens, an early settler for who Stephenville was named.


Warrants were issued but never served.  The tense situation on the embattled frontier – a ticking bomb – was apparently recognized at the State Capitol, and, to the frustration of the Federal Indian Agency and Robert Neighbors, the whole matter was soon quietly dropped.  When a grand jury assembled in Palo Pinto County, it disregarded the Garland case and indicted Anadarko Chief Jose Maria for horse stealing.  The feeling against the Indians was running too high on the frontier, witnessed by the fact that even famous Texas Ranger John S. “Rip” Ford had refused direct orders from the governor to arrest Garland and his followers.  “It was not doubt a fortunate thing for Ford, and perhaps for the State, too, that he did not accept the deputation and attempt to make the arrests,” according to Rip Ford’s Texas.  “It would have caused a civil war on the frontier.”


Finally responding to intense pressure from the citizens, increasing Indian atrocities, and the very real threat of mass vigilante action, the Federal government directed Maj. Neighbors to arrange to remove all the Indians during the following year from the Texas reserves to reservations in Oklahoma.  After that, any Indian caught south of the Red River would be breaking the law, presumed to be guilty of raiding and stealing, and dealt with accordingly.  To the dismay of all, however, what seemed a solution backfired on the settlers – the new ground rules fit the style of the highly-mobile, far-ranging, fast-pony Comanches, who would swoop down from Indian Territory to wreak their havoc, gathering scalps and horses before retreating to the safety of the reservations north of Red River.  The settlers of Hood and surrounding counties suffered mightily at the hands of the displaced redmen before the last battle in the county several years after the Civil War ended.


By that time, Garland had resettled at Thorp Spring; and, yes, in his sixties he fought in that last battle, too.


Though he had many detractors, it would appear that Capt. Peter Garland was highly regarded by many of his peers and roundly cheered as a hero by others.  In History of Hood County, Thomas T. Ewell called him a “rough ashler” of frontier citizenship.  Elected to a four-year term as Hood County’s first Treasurer in 1867, Garland died in 1873 and is buried about three miles out of Granbury at Thorp Spring [Thorp Spring Cemetery].  Ironically, when his son, Allison Nelson Garland, died in 1891, the son was living in the Choctaw Nation of Indian Territory, in the mercantile business.


Ewell reflected many views when he wrote [in 1895] that Peter Garland has “honored and trusted by the people who knew him best and were personally cognizant of all the events.”


But John Graves probably nailed it down in his Goodbye to a River.  “Maybe what Garland did shows a sense of abstract justice after all.  Of abstraction, anyhow…But he set a pattern for other settlers like him, and it seems that more were like him than were like, say, Robert Neighbors.  Many more…”


Yep.  Such was the raw Texas frontier of the 1850’s.


~ Web Page by Virginia Hale ~