Cultures Collide at Richland Creek

For many years there circulated amongst surveyors a copy of a letter, probably apocryphal, in which an attorney traces the title of a tract of land all the way back to God: "…who made the land". I have seen different versions of the letter, all are enumerating a long chain of real and imagined landowners including the Pope, Queen Isabella, Columbus, and others. Conspicuous by its absence is any mention of the names of those who have made this land their home for countless generations – the Native Americans.

Colonizers have never lost any sleep wondering whether or not anybody might have a prior claim to the "New World". Often enough it was the surveyors who first found out, usually the hard way. As the natives were quick to learn, after the surveyors came settlers who occupied the land and monopolized its resources, thus surveying was one of the principal causes of hostilities.

In one of the most disastrous survey expeditions ever made, twenty-five surveyors fought a hunting party of Indians, mostly Kickapoo but at least four other tribes were involved, at a place called Richland Creek in Navarro County, Texas. About fifty miles south of Dallas, Navarro County was buffalo country the Indians had long used it as a source of their winter supply of meat. Not one of them had ever heard of Queen Isabella or paid much attention to Sam Houston’s two-year-old Texas Republic, where soldiers and citizens were waiving their bounty and headright certificates demanding that the land be surveyed.

The Indians knew a surveyor if they saw one, sun burned fellows dragging chains and piling up rocks, always peeping over a gadget called a compass, for which the Comanches had a more ominous name: "The thing that steals the land".

William F. Henderson was a twenty-one-year old surveyor when in the spring of 1838 he surveyed in Navarro County with a party of fourteen men. One of them had carelessly wandered away from the group and was killed by Indians, causing the other men to abandon the survey. In October he decided to try again, this time assembling a party of twenty-seven men. Well armed and confident in their numbers they commenced their survey. Already on their way to the job they encounterd Indians who let them know that they strongly disapproved of any survey activity in their favorite hunting area.

The first day’s work took place partly in timber and passed without incident. On the second morning Henderson sent two of his men to Parker’s Fort to repair a defective compass thus reducing his party to twenty-five men. Small groups of Indians warned them that trouble lay ahead, even begged them to leave. One of them pointed to the compass and asked in English: "Is that God’s eye?" apparently insinuating that it would take the Allmighty to deprive them of their land. The warnings continued for several hours but were duly ignored. It proved to be a fateful mistake.

At about eleven o’clock everybody sat down for a late breakfast after which work resumed. They were now surveying in open prairie and had barely run a mile of line when all hell broke loose. Grabbing their instruments the surveyors dashed for a shallow ravine where small bushes lining the banks offered some protection, but they were surrounded. The Indians were determined to defend the land they and their families depended upon for their winter food supply. As far as they were concerned the only good surveyor was a dead one.

The battle continued all day and into the night. The surveyors had hoped that nightfall would allow them to make a break for the relative safety of the nearby timber, but it was a full moon and night was almost as light as day. Bullets and arrows cut the air until midnight, by which time eighteen of their party and countless Indians lay dead. The seven survivors slowly retreated towards Richland Creek, hiding in dense foliage whenever Indians came near. There they spent the rest of the night and the following day. Because four of them were too badly wounded to walk – their horses had been killed – it was decided for the other three, which included Henderson to attempt to reach a settlement and get help.

They might never have made it but for a chance encounter with six Kickapoo Indians who seemed to be ignorant of the fight at Richland Creek. While blaming their bloodied condition on a scrap with a different tribe, the surveyors persuaded the Kickapoo to lead them to their (the Indians’) camp where their wounds were bathed and dressed and they were fed a special diet in small amounts, spaced over many hours so as not to injure them in their starved condition by allowing them to overeat.

In exchange for a rifle, a Kickapoo agreed to guide them to Parker’s Fort, and to supply them with dried buffalo meat for the journey. "The Indian accepted the offer and faithfully carried out his contract," they were later to report with apparent astonishment. Understandably the surveyors were eager to leave, before a runner should arrive in camp with an account of what really had happened. I will spare the reader the grim details.

Some time after the Civil War a farmer plowing near Richland Creek turned up a compass. Engraved into it was the name of William F. Henderson. The affair went into the Texas annals (and the July 1952 issue of the Southwestern Historical Quarterly) as "The Surveyors Fight", but it really had been the Indians’ fight – for their land, title or no title.

Source: McCorry Henderson, Harry. The Surveyors Fight. Southwestern Historical Quarterly, July 1952.

About the Author

Fred Roeder, LS

Fred Roeder lives in Tularosa, New Mexico. He emigrated to the United States from Germany in 1957 and spent most of his surveying career in the Southwest, working for the U.S. Forest Service. Now retired, he started writing a regular column for the New Mexico Professional Surveyors Newsletter in 1988. In 1994, NMPS produced Antepasados, a book of his columns. Many surveyors are good writers, especially about technical or legal matters. However, it's not often that we find a surveyor/story-teller who can present historical facts in a manner that makes them fun to read. Fred Roeder is such a writer and we are pleased to present more than 80 of his stories here. Bibliography is a list of the books Fred used in his writings, and includes a numbered index of the articles. Index is a list of all the articles Fred has written and when. Editor's pick: The King Who Had No Title
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