Heroines of the Southwest

by William Worthington Fowler, 1877

Pioneer Woman

Pioneer Woman

No portion of our country has been the scene of more romantic and dangerous adventures than that region described under the broad and vague term the “Southwest.” TexasNew Mexico, and Arizona are vast, remote, and varied fields with which danger and hardship, wonder, and mystery are ever associated. The country itself embraces great contrarieties of scenery and topography — the rich farm, the expansive cattle ranch, the broad lonely prairie watered by majestic rivers, the barren desert, the lofty plateau, the secluded mining settlement, and vast mountain ranges furrowed by torrents into black canyons where sands of gold lie heaped in inaccessible, useless riches.

The forms of human society are almost equally diverse. Strange and mysterious tribes, each with different characteristics, live side by side.

Vile mongrel breeds of men multiply to astonish the ethnologist and the moralist. The Comanche and the Apache roam, the most remorseless and bloodthirsty of all the North American aboriginal tribes. Mexican bandits traverse the plains and lurk in the mountain passes, and American outlaws and desperadoes here find refuge from justice.

As the Anglo-Saxon, after fording the Sabine, the Brazos, and the Colorado River of Texas, advances westward, he is brought face to face with these different races mixed in greater or less proportion the blood of the old Castilian conquerors. Each race is widely alien from and most instinctively antagonistic to the North European people.

Taking into view the immense distances to be traversed, the natural difficulties presented by the face of the country, the remoteness of the region from civilization, and the mixed, unpredictable, and hostile character of the inhabitants, we might naturally expect that its occupation by peaceful settlers,–by those forms of household life in which woman is an essential element–would be indefinitely postponed. But that energy and ardor which marks alike the men and the women of our race have carried the family, that germ of the state, overall obstacles and planted it in the inhospitable soil of the most remote corners of this region. There it will flourish and germinate doubtless till it has uprooted every neighboring and noxious product.

Texas Panhandle Plains

Texas Panhandle Plains by Kathy Alexander.

The northeastern section of this vast country is composed of that stupendous level tract known as the “Llano Estacado” or “Staked Plain.” Stretching hundreds of miles in every direction, this sandy plain, treeless, arid, with only here and there, patches of stunted herbage, whitened by the bones of horses and mules, and by the more ghastly skeletons of too adventurous travelers, presents an area of desolation scarcely more than paralleled by the great African Desert.

In the year 1846, after news had reached the States that our troops were in peaceful occupation of New Mexico, a party of men and women set out from the upper valley of the Red River of Louisiana to settle in the valley of the Pecos River, in the eastern part of the newly conquered territory. The company consisted of seven people: Mr. and Mrs. Benham and their child of seven years, Mr. and Mrs. Braxton, and two sons 15 and 19 years old.

They made rapid and comfortable progress through the valley of the Red River, and in two weeks, reached the edge of the “Staked Plain,” which they now made preparations to cross, for the difficulties and dangers of the route were not unknown to them.

Disencumbering their pack-mules of useless burdens and supplying themselves with water for two days, they pushed forward on their first stage, which brought them on the evening of the second day to a kind of oasis in this desert where they found wood, water, and grass. From this point, there was a stretch of 90 miles perfectly bare of wood and water and with rare intervals of scanty herbage for the beasts. After this desolate region had been passed, they would have a comparatively easy journey to their destination.

New Mexico Plains

New Mexico Plains

On the evening of the second day of their passage across this arid tract, they had the misfortune to burst their only remaining water cask and to see the thirsty sands drink up in a moment every drop of the precious liquid. They were then forty miles from the nearest water. Their beasts were tired and suffering from thirst. The two men were incapacitated for exertion by slight sun-strokes received that day, and one of the boys had been bitten in the hand by a rattlesnake while taking from its burrow a prairie dog he had shot.

The next day they pursued their march only with the utmost difficulty; the two men were barely able to sit on their horses, and the boy who had been bitten was faint and nerveless from the effect of the poison. The heat was felt very severely by the party as they dragged themselves slowly across the white expanse of sand, which reflected the rays of the sun with a painful glare into the haggard eyes of the wretched wanderers. Before they had made fifteen miles, or little more than one-third of the distance that would have to be accomplished before reaching water, the horses and mules gave out. At three o’clock in the afternoon, the party dismounted and stretched themselves on the sand, panting with heat and thirst. The sky above them was like brass, and the soil was coated with a fine alkali deposit which rose in clouds at their slightest motion, filling their nostrils and eyes and increasing the agonies they were suffering.

Their only hope was to be discovered by some passing train of hunters or emigrants. This hope faded away as the sun declined and nothing but the sky and the long dreary dazzling expanse of sand met their eyes.

The painful glare slowly softened, and with sunset came coolness; this was some slight mitigation to their sufferings; sleep too, promised to bring oblivion; and hope, which a merciful Providence has ordained to cast its halo over the darkest hours, told its flattering tale of possible relief on the morrow.

The air of that desert is transparent as crystal, and the last beams of the sun left on the unclouded azure of the sky a soft glow, through which everything in the western horizon was outlined as if drawn by some magic pencil. Casting their eyes in that direction, the wretched wayfarers saw far away from a dun-colored haze through which small black specks seemed to be moving.

It grew larger and more distinct and approached them slowly over the vast expanse until its true nature was apparent. It was a cloud of dust such as a party of horsemen makes when rapidly over a soil as fine and light as ashes. Was it friend or foe? Was it American cavalry, or was it a band of Mexican guerrillas that was galloping so fiercely over that arid plain?

Mexican Bandits

Mexican Bandits

These torturing doubts were soon solved. Skimming over the ground like swallows, six sunburned men with hair as black as the crow’s wing, gaily dressed and bearing long lances, soon reined in their mustangs within twenty paces of the party and gazed curiously at them. One of the band then rode up and asked in broken English if they were “Americans,” having thus done reconnaissance and seeing their helplessness, without waiting for a reply, he beckoned to his companions who approached and demanded the surrender of the party. Under other circumstances, a stout resistance would have been made, but they could do nothing in their present forlorn condition.

Their guns, a part of their money, and whatever the unfortunate families had that pleased the guerrillas, was speedily appropriated, the throats of their horses and mules were cut, Mrs. Braxton and Mrs. Benham were seized, and despite their struggles and shrieks, each of them was placed in front of a swarthy bandit. Then the Mexicans rode away, cursing “Los Americanos” and barbarously leaving them to die of hunger and thirst.

After a four hours’ gallop, the marauders reached an adobe house on Picosa Creek, a tributary of the Rio Pecos. This was the gang’s headquarters, and here they kept relays of fresh horses, mustangs, fiery and full of speed and bottom. Mrs. Benham and Mrs. Braxton were placed in a room by themselves on the second story, and the door was barricaded so that escape by that avenue was impossible; but the windows were only guarded by stout oaken bars, which the women, by their united strength, succeeded in removing. Their captors were in a profound slumber when Mrs. Benham and her companion dropped themselves out of the window and succeeded in reaching the stable without discovery. Here they found six fresh horses ready saddled and bridled, the others on which the bandits had made their raid being loose in the enclosure.

Upper Pecos River

Upper Pecos River

It was a cruel necessity that impelled our brave heroines to draw their knives across the hamstrings of the tired horses, thus disabling them to prevent pursuit. Then softly leading out the six fresh mustangs, each of our heroines mounted one of the horses man-fashion and led the others lashed together with lariats, walking the beasts until out of hearing. They then put them to a gallop and, riding all night, came, at sunrise, to the spot where their suffering friends lay stretched on the sand, having abandoned all hope.

After a brief rest, the whole party pushed rapidly forward on their journey, arriving that evening at a place of safety. Two days after, they reached the headwaters of the Pecos. Here they purchased a large adobe house and an extensive tract suitable for grazing and tillage.

These events occurred early in the autumn. The Mexicans revolted and massacred Governor Bent and his military household during the following winter.

Arroyo Hondo

On the same day, seven Americans were killed at Arroyo Hondo; a large Mexican force was preparing to march on Santa Fe. It seemed as if the handful of American soldiers would be driven out of the territory for a time. This conspiracy was made known to the authorities by an American girl, who was the wife of one of the Mexican conspirators, and becoming, through her husband, acquainted with the plan of operations, divulged them to General Price to prevent a more general outbreak. As it was, the American settlers were in great danger.

The solid and spacious house in which the Benhams and Braxtons lived had formerly been used as a stockade and fortification against Indian attack. Its thick walls were pierced with loopholes, and its doors, of double oak planks, were studded with wrought-iron spikes, which made it bullet-proof.

A detachment of United States troops was stationed a short distance from their ranch, and the two families, despite the disturbed condition of the country, felt reasonably secure. However, the troops were withdrawn after the revolt commenced, leaving the new settlers dependent upon their own resources for protection. Their cattle and horses were driven into the enclosure, and the people of the house kept a sharp lookout against hostile parties of marauders, whether Indian or Mexican.

Early on the morning of January 24th, a mounted party of 12 Mexicans made their appearance in front of the enclosure, which they quickly scaled, and discharged a volley of balls, one of which passed through a loophole, and, entering Mr. Braxton’s eye as he was aiming a rifle at the assailants, laid him dead at the feet of his wife. Mrs. Braxton, with streaming eyes, laid the head of her husband in her lap and watched his expiring throes with agony, such as only a wife and mother can feel when she sees the dear partner of her life and the father of her sons torn in an instant from her embrace. Seeing that her husband was no more, she dried her tears and thought only of vengeance on his murderers.

The number of the besieged was t12 at the start: Mr. and Mrs.Braxton, Mr. and Mrs. Benham and their children, three Irish herders, and a half-breed Mexican and his wife, who were house servants. The death of Mr. Braxton had reduced their number to eleven. A few moments later, the Mexican half-breed disappeared but was not missed in the excitement of the defense.

Mexican Bandits

Mexican Bandits

The besieged returned the fire of their assailants with vigor, two of whom had already bit the dust. The women loaded the guns and passed them to the men, who kept the Mexicans at a respectful distance by the rapidity of their fire. Mrs. Benham was the first to mark the absence of Juan, the Mexican half-breed, and, suspecting treachery, flew to the loft with a hatchet in one hand and a revolver in the other. Her suspicion was correct. Juan had opened an upper window and had assisted two of the attacking party to ascend, letting down a ladder. They were preparing to assault those below by firing through the cracks in the floor when the intrepid woman dispatched Juan with a shot from her revolver and clove the skull of another Mexican; the third leaped from the window and escaped.

As Mrs. Benham was about to descend from the loft, after drawing up the ladder and closing the window, she was met by the wife of the treacherous half-breed, who aimed a stroke at her breast with a machete or large knife, such as the Mexicans use. She received a flesh wound in the left arm as she dodged the blow, and it was only with the mixed strength of Mrs. Braxton and one of the herders, who had now ascended to the loft, that the enraged Mexican whom Mrs. Benham had made a widow, could be mastered and bound.

Three of the attacking party had now been killed, and three others placed “hors de combat.” The remnant was apparently about to retire from the siege when six more swarthy desperadoes, mounted on black mustangs, came galloping up and halted on a hill just out of rifle shot.

Mrs. Braxton and Mrs. Benham, looking through a field-glass, at once recognized them as the band which had made them captives a few months before.

After a few moments of consultation, one of the band, who appeared only armed with a bow and arrow, advanced towards the house, waving a white flag. Within 30 paces of the door stood a large tree, and behind this, the envoy, bearing the white flag, ensconced himself, and, striking a light, twanged his bow and sent a burning arrow upon the roof of the house, which, being dry as tinder, in a moment was ablaze.

Both women immediately carried water to the roof and extinguished the flames. Another arrow, wrapped in cotton steeped in turpentine, again set the roof on fire. As one of the daring matrons threw a bucket of water upon the blaze, the dastard stepped from behind the tree and sent a pistol ball through her right arm, but at the same moment received two rifle balls in his breast and fell a corpse.

Mexican Attack

Mexican Attack

Mrs. Benham, for it, was she who had been struck, was assisted by her husband to the ground floor, where her wound was examined and found to be fortunately not a dangerous one. However, a new peril now struck terror to their hearts; the water was exhausted. The fire began to make headway. Mrs. Braxton, calling loudly for water to extinguish it, and meeting no response, descended to the ground floor, where the defenders were about to give up all hope, and either resign themselves to the flames or by emerging from the house, submit to the massacre at the hands of the now angry foe. As Mrs. Braxton rolled her eyes in search of some substitute for water, they fell on the corpse of her husband. His coat and vest were completely saturated with blood. Only the sad but terrible necessity immediately suggested to her the use to which these garments could be put. Shuddering, she removed them quickly but tenderly from the body, flew to the roof, and succeeded, by these dripping and ghastly tokens of her widowhood, in finally extinguishing the flames.

The attack ceased at nightfall, and the Mexicans withdrew. The United States forces soon quelled the outbreak, and the territory was brought again into a condition of peace and comparative security.

At the close of the war in 1848, Mrs. Braxton married a discharged volunteer named Whitley, and having disposed of the late Mr. Braxton’s interest in the New Mexican ranch, removed in 1851 with her husband and family to California, where they lived for two years in the Sacramento Valley.

Whitley possessed one of those roving and adventurous spirits that is never happy in repose. When John Crossman informed him, an old comrade, of the discovery of a rich placer which he had made during his march as a United States soldier across the territory of Arizona, at that time known as the Gadsden Purchase, he eagerly formed a partnership with the discoverer, who was no longer in the army and announced to his wife his resolution to settle in Arizona. She endeavored by every argument she could command to dissuade him from this rash step, but in vain, and finding all her representations and entreaties of no avail; she consented, though with the utmost reluctance, to accompany him. They accordingly sold their place and took vessel with their household goods, for San Diego, from which point they purposed to advance across the country three hundred miles to the point where Crossman had located his placer.

Suguaro Cactus

Saguaro Cactus

The territory of Arizona may be likened to that wild and rugged mountain region in Central Asia, where, according to Persian myth, untold treasures are guarded by the malign legions of Ahriman, the spirit of evil. Two of the great elemental forces have employed their destructive agencies upon the country’s surface until it might serve for an ideal picture of desolation. For countless centuries the water has seamed and gashed the face of the hills, stripping them of soil and cutting deep gorges and canyons through the rocks. The water then flowed away or disappeared in the sands, and the sun came with its parching heat to complete the work of ruin. Famine and thirst stalk over those arid plains or lurk in the waterless and gloomy canyons; as if to compensate for these evils, the soil of the territory teems with mineral wealth.

Grains of gold glisten in the sandy debris of ancient torrents, and nuggets are wedged in the faces of the precipices. Mountains of silver and copper are waiting for the miner who is bold enough to venture through that desolate region in quest of these metals.

The journey from San Diego was made with pack mules and occupied thirty days, during which nearly every hardship and obstacle in the pioneer’s catalog was encountered. When they reached the spot described by Crossman they found the place, which lay at the bottom of a deep ravine, had been covered with boulders and thirty feet of sand by the rapid torrents of five rainy seasons. They immediately commenced “prospecting.” Mrs. Braxton had the good fortune to discover a large “pocket,” from which Crossman and her husband took out $30,000 in gold in a few weeks. This contented the adventurers, and being disgusted with the country’s appearance; they decided to go back to California.

Mojave Desert

Mojave Desert

Instead of returning on the same route by which they came, they resolved to cross the Colorado River higher up and in the neighborhood of the Santa Maria. They reached the Colorado River after a toilsome march. While searching for a place to pass over, Crossman lost his footing and fell sixty feet down a precipice, surviving only long enough to bequeath his share of the treasure to his partner. Here, too, they had the misfortune to lose one of their four pack-mules, which strayed away. Pressing on in a northwesterly direction, they passed through a series of deep valleys and gorges where the only water they could find was brackish and bitter and reached the edge of the California desert.

Meanwhile, they had lost another mule that had been dashed to pieces by falling down a canyon. Mr. Whitley’s strength becoming exhausted, his wife gave up to him the beast she had been riding and pursued her way on foot, driving before her the other mule, which bore the gold-dust with their scanty supply of food and their only remaining cooking utensils.

Their tents and camp furniture having been lost, they had suffered much from the chilly nights in the mountains, and after they had entered the desert, from the rays of the sun. Before they could reach the Mohave River, Mr. Whitley became insane from thirst and hunger, and nothing but constant watchfulness on the part of his wife could prevent him from doing injury to himself. Once, while she was gathering cactus leaves to wet his lips with the moisture they contained, he bit his arm and sucked the blood. Upon reaching the river, he drank immoderately of the water and in an hour expired, regaining his consciousness before death and blessing his devoted wife with his last breath. Ten days later, the brave woman had succeeded in reaching Techichipa in so wasted a condition that she looked like a specter risen from the grave. Here, by careful nursing, she was at length restored to health. The gold dust which had cost so dearly was found after a long search beneath the carcass of the mule, twenty miles from Techichipa.

The extraordinary exploits of Mrs. Braxton can only be explained by supposing her to be naturally endowed with a larger share of nerve and hardihood than usually falls to the lot of her sex. Some influence,  too, must be ascribed to the peculiarly wild and free life that prevails in the southwest. Living so much of the time in the open air in a climate peculiarly luxuriant and yet bracing, and environed with dangers in manifold guise, all the latent heroism in woman’s nature is brought out to view, her muscular and nervous tissues are hardened, and her moral endurance by constant training in the school of hardship and danger rests upon a strong and healthy physique. Upon this theory, we may also explain the following incident related to another border-woman of the southwest.

Beyond the extreme outer line of settlements in western Texas, near the headwaters of the Colorado River, and in one of the remotest and most sequestered sections of that sparsely populated district, there lived in 1867, an enterprising pioneer by the name of Babb, whose besetting propensity and ambition consisted in pushing his fortunes a little farther toward the setting sun than any of his neighbors, the nearest of whom, at the time specified, was some fifteen miles in his rear.

The household of the borderer consisted of his wife, three small children, and a female friend by the name of Mrs. L., who, having previously lost her husband, was passing the summer with the family. She was a veritable type of those vigorous, self-reliant border women who encounter danger or the vicissitudes of weather without quailing.

Born and nurtured upon the remotest frontier, she inherited a robust constitution, and her active life in the exhilarating prairie air served to develop and mature a healthy womanly physique. From an early age, she had been a fearless rider, and her life on the frontier had habituated her to the constant use of the horse until she felt almost more at home in the saddle than in a chair.

Upon one bright and lovely morning in June 1867, the adventurous borderer before mentioned set out from his home with some cattle for a distant market, leaving his family in possession of the ranch, without any male protectors from Indian marauders.

Indians on Horses

Indians on Horses

However, they did not entertain any serious apprehensions of molestation in his absence, as no hostile Indians had made their appearance in that locality. Everything passed on quietly for several days until one morning. While the women were busily occupied with their domestic affairs in the house, the two oldest children, who were playing outside, called to their mother and informed her that some mounted men were approaching from the prairie.  On looking out, she perceived, to her astonishment, that they were Indians coming upon the gallop and already very near the house. This gave her no time to make arrangements for defense; but she screamed to the children to run in for their lives, as she desired to bar the door, being conscious of the fact that the prairie warriors seldom attack a house that is closed, fearing, doubtless, that it may be occupied by armed men, who might give them an unwelcome reception.

However, the children did not obey the command of their mother, believing the strangers to be white men, and the door was left open. As soon as the alarm was given, Mrs. L. sprang up a ladder into the loft and concealed herself in such a position that she could, through cracks in the floor, see all that passed beneath.

In the meantime, the Indians came up, seized and bound the two children outdoors, and, entering the house, rushed toward the young child, which the terror-stricken mother struggled frantically to rescue from their clutches; but they were too much for her, and tearing the infant from her arms, they dashed it upon the floor; then seizing her by the hair, they wrenched back her head and cut her throat from ear to ear, putting her to death instantaneously.

Mrs. L., who was anxiously watching their proceedings from the loft, witnessed the fiendish tragedy and uttered an involuntary shriek of horror, which disclosed her hiding-place to the barbarians, and they instantly vaulted up the ladder, overpowered and tied her; then dragging her rudely down, they placed her, with the two elder children, upon horses, and hurriedly set off to the north, leaving the infant child unharmed, and clasping the murdered corpse of its mangled parent.