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The Scalping of Josiah Wilbarger

The Scalping of Josiah Wilbarger
By Harry Krenek

In August of 1833, Josiah Wilbarger and three companions were surveying land in central Texas in what is now within the limits of the city of Austin.  But these were the days before Austin had been established, and the line of Anglo settlements ended at the Colorado River.  The men were land speculators who had spent the previous night eight miles down the river at the home of Reuben and Sarah Hornsby at what was known as Hornsby’s Bend.  This was the extreme frontier of the Texas of the 1830s, and Wilbarger and his friends were taking a risk venturing so far behind the settlement line.


Wilbarger and his brother Mathias had come to Texas in December 1826.  For a year, Josiah taught school at Matagorda before moving north to La Grange in Fayette County.  Later, Josiah and his wife Margaret moved farther up the Colorado River to a site ten miles up the river from Bastrop.  Margaret was only nineteen years old when Josiah sent for her to come to Texas.  Unwilling to give up all of the luxuries of the life she was leaving, Margaret had come to Texas on horseback with her feather mattress rolled up and tied behind her saddle.

On this day in August, Josiah and his three companions had stopped in the middle of the day for lunch in a grove of trees at Pecan Springs in what is now east Austin.  They had just finished their noon meal when they were attacked by Indians.  One of the surveyors, a man named Strother, was killed immediately, but two members of the party managed to  reach their horses.

Wilbarger had unsaddled his horse when the men had stopped for lunch, so he attempted to climb on behind one of the two men who had been able to mount.  Just as he reached for the back of the saddle to swing himself on, an arrow grazed his neck, and he fell to the ground still conscious but unable to move.

Believing Wilbarger to be dead, the two men who had survived the initial attack rode away.  Wilbarger, paralyzed by the arrow, watched helplessly as the Indians took off Strother’s clothes and scalped him. 

One can only imagine the terror Wilbarger must have felt as he was approached the Indians.  The Indians pulled off Wilbarger’s clothes and prepared to scalp him.  Scalping was a two-step process.  First a cut was made around the top if the head, and then the scalp was removed by grabbing the hair and jerking.  When the Indian jerked to remove Wilbarger’s scalp, Wilbarger later remembered that he “heard a sound like thunder” and lost consciousness.

Later that afternoon, Wilbarger regained consciousness.  All was quiet on the banks of the springs.  The Indians had left, and his friends were no where to be seen.  Wilbarger was not certain how long he had been unconscious.  He had been on the ground long enough for maggots to get into the top of his head, and the sun had burned his exposed skin.  Weak but very thirsty, Wilbarger crawled to the nearby creek for water.  To protect his head, he packed mud on his wound.

Wilbarger’s two companions, Haynie and Christian, made their way back to Hornsby’s Bend, where they reported the attack and what they believed to be the death of Strother and Wilbarger.  It was too late in the day to safely return to the scene of the attack, and plans were made to return the next day to retrieve the bodies of the two men. 

Meanwhile, Wilbarger realized that he was too weak from the loss of blood to make it back to Hornsby’s, so he propped himself against a large tree, and for several hours, he lapsed in and out of consciousness.  During the long night, Wilbarger’s sister, Margaret Clifton, who lived in Missouri, appeared to him in a dream and said to him, “Josiah, stay where you are and your friends will come and get you.”

That night back at the Hornsby’s Bend, Sarah Hornsby was also dreaming.  She dreamed that Wilbarger was wounded and bleeding but alive.  She awoke Reuben to tell him what she had seen in her dream, but he replied, “it is just a dream, Sarah, go back to sleep.”  Sarah did go back to sleep, but again the dream came to her, so she got up and prepared breakfast, determined to send her husband and the other men off at first light to find Wilbarger.

Retracing their path back to the scene of attack, the men found Wilbarger propped against the tree at the edge of the creek.  He was so covered with blood that at first the men did not recognize him, but Wilbarger called out to them.  Cleaning the wound as best that circumstances would allow, the men then took Wilbarger back to Hornsby’s Bend, where Sarah cared of him.

A messenger was sent down the Colorado to Wilbarger’s wife to tell her of the tragedy that had befallen her husband and his friends, and Margaret went to the Hornsby place to care for her husband.  After Josiah had recovered sufficiently, Margaret had a wagon packed with feather mattresses and took Josiah home.  News of the attack and Josiah’s dream was sent to his sister in Missouri.  Word came back several weeks later that his sister had died the day of the Indian attack.

Josiah Wilbarger lived for several years after the attack at Pecan Springs.  He never fully recovered from his wounds, and he wore a greased sock over the top of his head for protection.  When a new doctor came to the area, Josiah was among the first to seek treatment in hopes of gaining some relief from the constant pain.

Josiah and Margaret continued to live on the Colorado River, where Josiah was a cotton farmer.  One morning he was entering his gin house and struck his head going in the small door.  The blow caused his wound to rupture, and he died on April 11, 1844.  Josiah was survived by his wife and five children.  Wilbarger County in West Texas is named for Josiah and his brother.



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