The Black Watch of Texas
From "San Antonio Express" November 16, 1924
Almost forgotten, These Seminole Negro Indian Scouts Are Living in Peace on the Border, But They Had Their Day in Shaping History for Texas--Quaint Feast and Burial Rites Still Observed
By Mary Louise Thompson
(Reprinted from "Kinney County 1852-1977" - Published by the Kinney County Historical Society.)
There are still a few interesting thrills for the lover of romantic history who will take the time and the interest to stir the smouldering fires of tradition on our Western frontier--the thrill of rescuing from oblivion some little unrecorded fact of early history, and the talking face to face with one who participated in the great work of making our border country the safe and pleasant place it is today.
Almost every year sees the falling away of one or more of the old Indian fighters and with their passing away goes a wealth of unrecorded historical stories of interest and personal recollections of illustrious men, places and events of pioneer history. Few, indeed, are those left today who are able to recount personal recollections of such men as Cols. Z. R. Bliss, W. R. Shafter, R. S. MacKinzie and others who saw service along the border in the treacherous days of the 'fifties,'sixties and 'seventies, when the Texas frontier was the camping and fighting ground of the fierce blood-thirs ty Kickapoos, Comanches, Lipans and Kiowas; men who fought and labored within hearing distance of the In d i a n s' blood-curdling war whoop; who knew the Indians as the white men's bitterest enemy, and as a breaker of treaties and perpetrator of fiendish deeds.
"Distance lends enchantment" and we of today can enjoy the picturesque stories of the American Indian as portrayed by our finest poets and prose writers, but not so, those who knew him to be a ferocious and pitiless enemy whose chief delight was to scalp, rape, and burn.
Cross Into Texas
Tucked away in the old town of Brackettville, Tex., living quiet, unpretentious lives, there are a few of those old pioneer Indian War veterans, of whom about the least pretentious are eight or ten of the old Seminole-negro Indian scouts--members of an enlisted detachment which was composed of Seminole negroes. An interesting bit of tradition is to the effect that these negroes were descendants of negro slaves in possession of the Seminole Indians of Florida; the supposition being that these slaves were stolen or bought from the whites and removed with their Indian masters from Florida to Indian Territory about 1842 after a very disastrous war between the Seminoles and whites.
Seminole negroes living today, claim that their masters fled with them from Indian Territory to Mexico when the whites tried to wrest them from their owners. Down in the State of Coahuila, Mexico--where they took refuge--they multiplied and to a certain degree intermixed until they out-numbered the Indians to whom they belonged They became skilled in the ways of the border Indian tribes, spoke their language and were familiar with their haunts and war methods.
In 1870, a number of them--about 150 in all--came across the river into Eagle Pass, where they were in a fair way to become a public nuisance, being wholly without means and employment.
Lieut. Bullis--later Gen. Bullis--obtained authority to enlist a company of scouts from their number of able bodied men, and according to Renty Grayson one of the oldest Seminole scouts now alive, the treaty with Mexico was consummated by Col. Z. R. Bliss for many years a useful and active U. S. Army Officer on the border on the Fourth of July, 1871, and the Seminole negroes were thereupon organized into a company of scouts and brought to Fort Clark.
Once a Large Colony
For about 25 years they remained quartered on the Fort Clark Reservation, their quarters extending along the fertile valley of Las Moras Creek, where in 1840, the fierce war tribes of Texas had a thousand head of mules and horses under herd. As time went on, they were joined by others of their number from Mexico until the colony numbered along in '72 and '73, between four and five hundred; during the last years of Indian warfare, these scouts rendered excellent service, being good horsemen and well acquainted with the maneuvers of the border Indian.
It is not always an easy matter to persuade an old Indian fighter to war tales, for like all true soldiers who have really accomplished deeds of valor and merit, these old men are still modestly unwilling, after 50 years of resting from their labors, to admit the part they played in making history; but, almost without exception, when one is drawn into talking, he warms to the recollections that come trooping through his mind, and before he is fully aware of what he is saying, one exciting story follows another in quick and animated succession. Such a one the writer found in old Renty Grayson, a seminole negro who speaks a mixed language of English, Seminole, and Spanish. When first questioned, old Renty was inclined to disclaim the honor of having helped to rid his country of the pestilential Indian. He only scratched his head and laughed. But, when Kickapoo Spring and Palo Duro Canyon were mentioned as reminders, he brightened up perceptibly and told of some hair-raising skirmishes in which he participated at this spring in '71, under the leadership of Lieut. Bullis; Renty also fought in the historic, final battle with the Indians at Palo Duro Canyon, September 22, 1874.
In Palo Duro Canyon
Speaking reminiscently of the Kickapoo Spring skirmish, Renty described the Indians' method of burying their war dead, saying that they never tarried to dig graves, but piled the corpses of men and dead horses together--first cutting away all the shoulder brisket from the horses which they used for steak or "bakashe" as they called it--and then covered them with brush. Renty has seen as high as 15 dead Indians in one pile.
In '74 he was detached from the scout company and sent as guide with the 4th Cavalry and the 24th Negro Infantry up on the plains, where he took part in the Battle of Palo Duro Canyon. Renty remem- bers that it was necessary time and again, as they journeyed to the plains country, to stop and break up a great herd of buffalo before they could proceed on the way with their men and wagons.
For the fighting he did in the historic battle of Palo Duro he received a monthly pension of $20. When the pension list was being made out, Renty's name was nowhere to be found among the Seminole scouts who saw service in any historic battle; several lawyers and army officers tried to secure a pension for him, but the necessary records were not forthcoming. Finally, R. Stratton, an ex-soldier and retired merchant of Brackettville, took the matter in hand--having fought in the battle of Palo Duro himself, Mr. Stratton remembered Renty was there and took active part in the battle--and after some investigation discovered that Renty's name was on the pay roll of A Troop, 4th Cavalry, with which he was doing duty as guade at the date of Pale Duro battle. The record was sufficient and Renty received back pay from March 4, 1917, to November, 1923, which amounted to $1,600. A neat sum for the old scout who was living from the post garbage cans.
Mixed Band of Indians
With this back pay he bought a little home and is spending his last days in humble comfort and security as is his right and due. Renty, unlike many of the Seminole negroes, disclaims having a drop of Indian blood in his veins. He has a good, honest face and unusually fine features for a negro; a rather straight nose and an intelligent forehead. He likes to tell about a face to face fight he had with an Indian in Palo Duro Canyon. He and the Indian had taken refuge behind opposite cedar trees; the In- dian had a cap and ball gun, while Renty was equipped with a modern United States Government Sharp's carbine. After playing peek-a-boo for some time, Renty had presence of mind to take the rod from his gun and stick his hat on it. Slowly he let the hat peep around the tree trunk and fooled the big Indian, who shot at it and ran. Renty warms to the recollection of this escapade to this day, and still exaults in the fact that he was a little sharper witted than the wary Indian whom he shot and killed on the spot.
The battle of Pale Duro Canyon was fought with a stray, mixed band of Kiowas, Comanches and Lipans.
In the matter of religion, the Seminole negroes are distinct from any particular Christian sect or denomination. Their rites and ceremonies are a blend of those peculiar to the Roman Catholics and the old-fashioned Hardshell Baptists, and yet different in some particulars from either of these denominations. They call themselves "Mount Zion Baptists" and practice baptism by immersion, yet they keep Lent from the last Friday in November till the 25th of December commemorating the advent of Christ and they pray for the dead continually; every Friday is a fast day with them and they meet at the church for prayer service, religiously, three times during the week, and twice on Sundays, with fairly good attendance. On particular fast nights the men attend in goodly numbers, presumably to be present at the sumptious feast which is spread in hospitable fashion at the breaking of the fast.
Have Ban On Pork
Everything good to eat imaginable is procured for the feast except hog meat, which is strictly taboo--a bit of the Mosaic law which has crept in from some source. One very remarkable and peculiar law governing the feast table is that there shall be no knives and forks laid thereon. Grace is said by the minister before the religionists are seated and then everyone begins to break bread at once. Bread is never cut at the Seminole negroes' feast table--it must be broken with the bare hand only. Sacrament is taken twice a year, and strange to say, the emblems of the broken body and shed blood consist of bread and tea common table tea--never wine. The Seminoles claim they have performed the ceremonies and kept their present ordinances when they were slaves under the Indians, and the general supposition is that the original Seminole negro slaves had imbibed the faith of Baptist masters before becoming slaves under the influence of Roman Catholics, possibly in Florida where Catholic faith was first planted on American soil, or in Mexico where they lived for years they gradually blended the two faiths and produced their present form of worship.
To the Seminole negro, death is a great and terrible occasion. It is impossible to detain, or useless to expect, a Seminole negro at his post of duty when one of his tribe lies in death; everyone who keeps a Seminole servant knows not to expect that servant so long as a Seminole corpse lies above ground. If at all possible every Seminole within reasonable distance will be at the bedside of his dying churchman, friend or relative; and as the sick person is passing from life unto death the entire assemblage sing and pray. No piece of jewelry is ever taken from the dead body of a Seminole, and only in inclement weather is the body removed from the home to the church after death. Fair weather from the date of death till the day of burial is considered a great blessing, for then a rousing wake of singing, crying and coffee drinking can be carried on with impunity at the home of the dead. Before the corpse is removed to the cemetery for burial, as the last act of love and respect all the friends and relatives line up and march around the corpse, singing and sometimes dancing. A strong belief of the Seminole negro is that prayer should be made for the dead without ceasing, and that one should not depend so much on personal religious experience, but rather on dreams, for in dreams the Seminoles' God reveals itself.
When the scouts with their families were removed from the Fort Clark reservation in 1914, they sentimentally refused to leave their old church building--a simple structure built on the architecture of the historic old First Church of Salem, Mass.--and as a result it stands today on a hill in West Brackettville where at almost any hour on a Sabbath day worshippers may be seen going to and from prayer.