The Seminole-Negro Indian Scout Detachment
Sub-post [of Fort Clark] at Meyers Spring, Terrell County, Texas, Wednesday, February 28, 1883…Muster and inspection day. Worked on the Muster Rolls and Clothing Rolls today. In the evening mustered the Detachment. All the men were present except Sgt. Daniels who is sick in the Post [Fort Clark]. As these men have never been drilled, the military part of the ceremony was very ludicrous. I made them all wear the uniform as much as they could out here. Most of them have fine forms and all are strong healthy men. With proper drill, I think they would make a very military appearance.
From the diary of
Second Lieutenant Francis Henry French
Company E, 19th U.S. Infantry
In August of 1872, the John Daniels band of Seminole-Negroes, a group whose men-folk were now enlisted in the U.S. Army’s newly formed Seminole-Negro Indian Scout Detachment, moved from Fort Duncan at Eagle Pass, Texas, and established a permanent settlement along Las Moras Creek, just two miles south of the main post garrison of Fort Clark. It had been a long journey for these proud freedom seeking people.
The Seminole-Negroes were descendants of freed or escaped slaves who sought sanctuary in Spanish Florida where authorities in the 1700s granted freedom to runaways. These people were taken in by the Seminole Indians, who themselves were once slaves of the “civilized” tribes in the Carolinas and Georgia and had found refuge in Spanish Florida. Although some blacks intermarried with the Seminoles, most lived in their own separate villages blending their African culture with the customs of the Seminoles. The Seminole chiefs gave the Black Seminoles autonomy in exchange for an annual tribute and periodic military service against common enemies. It was during their time in Florida that the Seminole-Negroes first demonstrated their skills as soldiers by winning victories over U.S. Army forces in the first two Seminole Wars.
The Seminole Chiefs, including John Horse (also known as Gopher John or Juan Caballo), a chief of the Black Seminoles, made peace with the federal government in 1842 and reluctantly agreed to move to the Indian Territory in present day Oklahoma. John Horse and Seminole Chief Wild Cat found life in “the nations” oppressive and determined to take their people south into Mexico. Their 700-mile trek through Texas and ultimately across the Rio Grande on the eastern branch of the Great Comanche War Trail brought them to Las Moras Spring in central Kinney County, Texas, and the future site of Fort Clark, in early July 1850. Here, they had a fateful encounter with Major John Titcomb Sprague, an Army officer familiar to them from the Seminole Wars in Florida. Sprague’s journal gives an account of that chance meeting:
Friday, July 5th, 1850: At 9 ½ A.M. we reached Las Moras, where was encamped the Train destined for El Paso. The road was excellent, the country barren Prairie. This is an excellent camping ground, it is at the head of a stream some twenty feet wide, which rises from Springs, and empties into the Rio Grande, about twenty miles distant, running through a narrow rich bottom. The ground here is quite elevated, grass is good and abundant. Distance today…7 miles.
Saturday, July 6th: Coacooche, or Wild Cat, came into my camp today with his band of fifty Kickapoo warriors, twenty Seminoles, and many Negroes. The whole band numbered about one hundred and fifty souls. Gopher John was along as Interpreter. He said he was on his way to Fort Duncan. The train is making preparations to move on the 10th. Mr. Coons is still in the rear with twenty wagons.
Of the souls with that group were the young boys who would grow up to become the original scouts of the detachment. After a generation of military service against hostile Indians in northern Mexico for the Mexican government, the Black Seminoles yearned to return to the Seminole Nation in Oklahoma. Negotiations for repatriation began with the Army at Fort Duncan in early 1870. By mid-summer, the Seminoles had moved back across the Rio Grande and entered into a treaty with the federal government that essentially guaranteed their eventual return to the Indian Territory in exchange for military service as Indian scouts. The term of enlistment for a Seminole-Negro Indian Scout was six-months, at the pay of a cavalryman with fifty cents extra per month if the scout provided his own horse. The “treaty” was sent from Fort Duncan to Fort Sam Houston by Major Zenas R. Bliss, the post commander, and subsequently lost to history, with the government’s promise was never fulfilled. The outcome is to this day referred to by the Seminoles as “the treatment.”
Command of the Seminole-Negro Indian Detachment always fell to a white officer, normally a junior second lieutenant. During extended periods of garrison duty, the detachment was, as a rule, commanded by the post adjutant whose primary responsibility was the enlistment and reenlistment of the scouts.
Lieutenant (later Brigadier General) John L. Bullis of the 24th Infantry took command of the Scout Detachment at Fort Duncan in the summer of 1872. Soon after Bullis assumed command, the detachment and their families were split between Fort Duncan and Fort Clark. Bullis and his scouts were the vanguard for Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie’s daring Remilino Raid into Mexico with the 4th Cavalry in May 1873. The detachment participated in subsequent raids into Mexico with Colonel William R. “Pecos Bill” Shafter and Captain Samuel B. M. Young of the 8th Cavlary during the late 1870s. The exploits of the Seminole-Negro Scouts and their heroic commander Bullis in the Lower Pecos and Big Bend region became legendary. Three Scouts were awarded the Medal of Honor for rescuing Bullis during a battle with Comanches at the mouth of the Pecos on 25 April 1875. It was Bullis and his Scouts who first established a road into and out of the Pecos River Canyon, making a wagon crossing practical and opening the country west of the Pecos. Bullis relinquished command of the Scouts in July 1881.
A Seminole settlement was established on Fort Clark in 1872. The scouts and their families lived along the course of Las Moras creek some two miles south of the main post garrison, and they referred to their village of simple jacal thatched roofed homes as “the camp.” Upon his first visit there in May 1883, Second Lieutenant Francis H. French of the 19th Infantry, who was then in command of the detachment wrote: “Rode all around camp with Sgt. Kibbets and saw where the animals graze and where the men live. Some of them keep their places in nice condition all the time while others live like pigs.” Another officer, assistant post surgeon Captain John Vance Lauderdale, MD, observed on 21 January 1888 that “we had a nice drive to the Seminole Scouts village about a mile from the Post. It is a regular African settlement with houses or huts about like those to be seen in the works of travels in Africa with stockade walls of thatched straw.”
Two incidents in time came to tarnish the otherwise peaceful existence of the Seminoles in their camp at Fort Clark. On 19 May 1876, former scout Titus Payne and Seminole patriarch John Horse were returning to the camp when they were attacked by desperados near Fort Clark’s post cemetery in a daylight ambush. Payne was killed, but John Horse survived his four wounds. His mount, a white stallion named America, was also severely wounded in the attack. Afterwards, many Seminole families returned to Mexico in fear of further troubles. By year’s end the close-knit community was in turmoil. The arrival of wanted fugitives Adam Paine, former scout and Medal of Honor recipient, and a border-area bandit, Frank Enoch, only added to the unrest. On New Year’s Eve 1876, the Kinney County Sheriff and his deputy, Medal of Honor recipient Claron A. Windus, learned the wanted men were in the Seminole Camp. In a clearing where the Seminoles were welcoming in 1877, shots rang out and Adam Paine fell dead, shot in the back by Windus at such close range Paine’s clothes burst into flames. This is the only known instance in American history where one Medal of Honor recipient killed another. Both men are buried in Kinney County, Paine in the Seminole Indian Scout Cemetery and Windus in Brackettville’s Masonic Cemetery.
During the decade of the 1880s, the Seminole-Negro Indian Scout Detachment spent little time in garrison or with their families in the camp on Fort Clark as they were, to use the terminology of today’s Army, continuously deployed to the Big Bend region of Texas. The Army had established a series of sub-posts in the Big Bend to protect against raids on settlers by marauding Indians and bandits from Mexico and attacks on commerce along the wagon road to El Paso. The posts also guarded the route of the Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio Railroad, the oldest component of the Southern Pacific system.
The scouts were at their best in the field on campaign, pursuing an elusive adversary or just making their presence known to potential desperados. They were stoic and tough as evidenced by this observation made by one of their commanders, Second Lieutenant Francis H. French, of the 19th Infantry: “Sunday. December 9, 1883: The night was quite cold, and did not sleep well. Got up before day light. Was very glad to find the men laughing & joking instead of growling at the cold weather as white soldiers would have done.”
Occupying a series of remote camps west of the Pecos River the Scouts became, in essence, the very first border patrol to operate in the Big Bend region. They came to know every trail, waterhole, spring, and hiding place in this vast desolate country. Sub-posts at Langtry in Val Verde County, Meyers Spring in Terrell County, Camp Peña Colorado at Marathon, Texas, in Brewster County, Neville Spring deep in what is now Big Bend National Park, and Polvo near Presidio, Texas, were all familiar sites to the Seminoles. Neville Spring, which the Scouts occupied for nearly six years, was over 300 miles and a fourteen-day journey on horseback away from their families at Fort Clark.
By the early 1890s the country west of the Pecos River was considered to be free of Indian troubles and long established posts such as Fort Stockton and Fort Davis were closed, along with all the sub-posts of the Indian Wars in west Texas. The scouts finally were able to return to their families and routine garrison duties at Fort Clark, but not for long. In September 1892, the Army transferred the Seminole-Negro Scout Detachment to Fort Ringgold, Texas, some 285 miles southeast on the Rio Grande and far away from their families who remained in the camp at Fort Clark. The scouts served at Fort Ringgold for the next fourteen years until July 1906.
Before the end of 1892 the Seminole-Negro Indian Scouts had once again proven their mettle and worth to the Army. In his annual report of 1893 to Army Commanding General John M. Schofield, Brigadier General Frank Wheaton, commanding the Department of Texas, stated, “The Seminole-Negro Indian Scouts have been of much use and are considered most valuable adjuncts by officers serving with or near them.” Under the command of Second Lieutenant Percival G. Lowe, 18th Infantry, the Scouts had played a pivotal role in ending violations of U.S. neutrality laws by Mexican revolutionaries and bandits in Texas, including the killing of Eusabio Martinez, alias Mangas de Agua, the most desperate of all the bandits. While serving at Fort Ringgold, the scouts were often sent to patrol the Rio Grande in the direction of Fort Clark, where the opportunity to visit their families was rarely missed. Following the Spanish-American War, a small detachment of Scouts was again stationed at Fort Clark while the main group continued to operate from Fort Ringgold.
The new century brought significant decline in the use of the Seminole-Negro Scout Detachment for their traditional missions. Field service was infrequent and the men were reduced to performing menial garrison duties. The full twenty-man detachment was back at Fort Clark in August 1906 and struggled to justify its existence for the next eight years. A front page article in the Army and Navy Register on 20 December 1913, titled “A Landmark of the Old Frontier – Fort Clark, Texas,” written by Post Chaplain Cephas C. Bateman, proved both praiseworthy and prophetic:
At Eagle Pass there was organized early in January, 1871, a body of scouts, which, while much reduced in numbers in recent years, has ever since been a “feature” of garrison life at Fort Clark. The enlisted detachment is composed of Seminole negroes.
The colony numbers at this date about two hundred souls.
What is to be done with these people is a question the War Department has so far not answered. Reports by General Ducan, Colonel Dorst, and Colonel Sibley have long ago been made, with recommendations as to their disposition.
For forty-four years the Seminole-Negro Scout Detachment proved a very cost-effective organization for the Army as the Seminoles were always producing more scouts. Oral tradition recounts that when a male child was born in the Seminole camp during the time Bullis was in command of the scouts, the child was presented to the lieutenant for him to determine if the boy would ever be a scout. The scouts’ usefulness had always been their unequalled tracking skills, stamina on campaign, and fearlessness in combat. With the end of the Indian Wars in the early 1890s their mission shifted to border security. Although the detachment continued to serve into the new century, it was no longer of any practical use to the Army. Having served thirty-seven years at Fort Clark, longer than any other unit, the Army disbanded the detachment on 30 September 1914. The remaining eight scouts were “discharged from the Service of the United States” and ordered to move from the Fort Clark Military Reservation with all their stock and belongings; however, twenty-four members of the “Scout Camp” were, “…permitted to remain and live on the…Reservation until the older people pass away in the course of nature, or until such time as the War Department may see fit to order their removal.” As they had always done, the Seminole people persevered, moving to Brackettville where retired scouts had already established a presence. Many former scouts gained long and meaningful employment with the Quartermaster Department at Fort Clark. The last surviving scout, Curly Jefferson, died in 1959.
Each September, in memory of the disbandment of the Seminole-Negro Indian Scout Detachment in 1914, Brackettville’s Seminole community gathers to remember their Indian Scout ancestors. Their cemetery is always the centerpiece of that celebration. To the south and west of the Seminole camp on Fort Clark is the burial ground of the scouts and their descendants. Four recipients of the Medal of Honor are interred here. Under the lone twisted oak at the back of the cemetery are the two first sergeants, John Shields and Ben July, with the other scouts in uneven rows out in the hot Texas sun. On Seminole Day, a small American flag is placed in front of each government headstone, a garden of flags for the scouts in their final camp.
In the spring of 1907, Lieutenant Colonel Francis H. French, who had commanded the Seminole-Negro Indian Scout Detachment in 1883-84, returned briefly to Fort Clark after an absence of twenty years. When he finished his inspection, he rode in an ambulance to Spofford Junction for his return train trip to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. As he passed in the vicinity of the Seminole camp, he recorded in his diary, “Wonder if any of my old warriors are there now?” Today we can answer…yes; the spirits of your old warriors will always be here.