The Bone Business

In the early 1800’s buffalo (also called bison) roamed the American and Canadian West in the tens of millions, and the lives of the Plains Indians centered around the massive beasts. The buffalo provided food as well as skins for clothing, blankets, tents, and other leather items. Their dried manure was used for fuel. Indians followed the herds, taking what they needed and teaching the next generation to hunt. Theirs was a buffalo-based culture.

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The man who would not die!

Josiah Wilbarger was born in the United States in 1801. At age 26 he moved to Mexican Texas from Missouri as part of Stephen F. Austin’s colony. Wilbarger married and in 1830 was granted a league of land. For those of you who don’t measure land in leagues, that’s 4,428 acres. Wilbarger’s league was located on the Colorado River near Austin, where the town of Bastrop is now located. However, at the time, the Wilbargers were on the very edge of the frontier, their nearest neighbor 75 miles away.  By summer of 1832, anther settler, Ruben Hornsby, had moved his family to a nearby land grant. 

The following year, Josiah Wilbarger, (who was known as a land surveyor) and four young men who were staying with Hornsby— Strother, Standifer, Christian, and Haynie—rode out together to look at Texas land.  Encountering an Indian, the men gave chase, but didn’t catch up with him.  Instead they stopped for their nooner (or midday meal) in an area of brush and small trees. Wilbarger, Christian and Strother unsaddled and hobbled their horses. Haynie and Standifer simply staked their saddled horses out to graze.

Before the men finished their meal, they were under attack by a group of Comanche. The men dashed into the trees for cover. Strother was killed almost immediately and Christian was struck by a ball and his thigh bone broken. Wilbarger had an arrow though his calf and a flesh wound in his hip, but he managed to pull Christian behind a tree. As quickly as he had regained cover behind a small tree and begun to fire, his other leg was pierced by an arrow. Seeing Strother dead and Christian and Wilbarger seriously wounded, Haynie and Standifer ran for their saddled horses. Pursuing as best he could, Wilbarger ran to overtake them, asking to be mounted behind one of them.  His pleas went unanswered. Instead he was struck by an Indian’s shot which penetrated the center of his neck and exited on the left side of his chin. He fell, unable to move, but conscious.  The Comanche believing he was dead, stripped him of his clothes then cut and ripped the scalp from his head. He lost consciousness. He later said that he felt no real pain from the scalping, but it made a sound like distant thunder. 

 Later that night he came to and realized he was naked, losing blood, and alone in the wilderness.  The Indians had slit the throats of Strother and Christian. Their assumption that Wilbarger was dead apparently had saved his life.Thirsty, he crawled into a small pool of water and lay there. Later he crawled out of the water and slept. When he awoke, he drank again from the pool and ate some snails crawling near by.  He realized maggots had infested his head wound and decided he must to try to travel back to Hornsby’s cabin. Unable to crawl more than a few hundred yards, he collapsed under a large post-oak tree. Meanwhile, the two men who fled had returned to Hornsby’s cabin and reported Wilbarger and the others dead.

Here’s where it gets interesting—in addition to still being horrifying, I suppose. 

That night, Hornsby’s wife, Sarah, woke him in the night to tell him she saw Wilbarger in a dream. “He is not dead,” she insisted. Instead, she told her husband that Wilbarger was under a large oak tree—naked, scalped, and bloody. Sarah convinced Hornby and the others to search for Wilbarger and find and bury the two dead men. Sure enough the next day, the searchers found Wilbarger alive under an oak tree matching Sarah’s description of the tree in her dream. They took him back to Hornby’s and nursed him.

Wilbarger told them while he lay under the oak tree, he had a vision of his sister, Margaret Clifton, who lived more than 700 miles away in Missouri. She told him that he was too weak to go farther and should remain under the tree and friends would come to take care of him. Only weeks later did Wilbarger learn that his sister had died the day before he was wounded.

Wilbarger’s throat and thigh wounds healed but the scalping left him with an exposed skull.  His wife made him a special hat to help cover his bare  skull. I suspect it took a bit of bravery to face the world with his bony skull exposed. He lived for eleven years after the scalping, even fighting in the Texas Revolutionary War. He died in 1845 as a result of hitting his head on a low door frame. 

His experience being scalped and the fact that he not only survived it, but lived on for eleven years, earned him the title of “The Man Who Would Not Die.”  A tale of a brave, resilient Texan—Josiah Wilbarger.