Buffalo fights

GEORGE CATLIN sketched the Indians and buffalo while touring the Great Plains in the 19th century. When he returned to the east, he turned his sketches into paintings. Of the scene here he wrote: “The ‘running season,’ which is in August and September, is the time when [the buffalo] congregate into such masses in some places, as literally to blacken the prairies for miles together. It is no uncommon thing at this season, at these gatherings, to see several thousands in a mass, eddying and wheeling about under a cloud of dust, which is raised by the bulls as they are pawing in the dirt, or engaged in desperate combats, as they constantly are, plunging and butting at each other in the most furious manner. In these scenes, the males are continually following the females, and the whole mass are in constant motion; and all bellowing (or ‘roaring’) in deep and hollow sounds; which, mingled altogether, appear, at the distance of a mile or two, like the sound of distant thunder.” (Credit George Catlin, Buffalo Bulls Fighting in Running Season, Upper Missouri, 1837-1839, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Peter Ellis Bean arrived in Natchez in 1800. He was 17, tough and adventurous. 

Not long after arriving, he met Philip Nolan, a 30-year-old recently married horse trader planning another expedition out west to catch wild horses. The Spanish claimed possession of those lands west of the Mississippi and they were paranoid about a growing wave of Americans heading to the Lower Mississippi River Valley. 

Spain’s representative across the Mississippi River in Vidalia officially opposed Nolan’s journey west, but the Mississippi Territory Supreme Court at nearby Washington, Miss., said it had no power to tell U.S. citizens where they could travel. 

Bean was of tough Tennessee stock. A trip to catch and tame wild horses and to see magnificent herds of buffalo was compelling enough. But the journey offered the adventurer even more: The chance to fight the Spanish or the Indians on the frontier, possible riches from fabled gold and silver mines out west and the excitement of exploring unknown lands. Having moved in with a relative not long after arriving in Natchez, Bean slipped out one night when the family was gone and headed out with Nolan. 




Bean’s Tennessee family, according to Bean biographer Texas historian Jack Jackson (Indian Agent), was “a well-established clan in the mountains of eastern Tennessee by the time of his birth, dating back to the foundation of Bean’s Station. It stood in a gap of the Cumberland Mountains where Indian trails intersected, being branches of their Great Warpath. There on the Holston River near sulfur spring and a salt lick that attracted game the Beans built their Station (or fortified enclosure) as a protection against Indian attack. It grew into an important crossroads point in what became Grainger County, Tennessee.” 

Bean’s Uncle Russell – described as a “great, hulking fellow” -- was a man well known. When Uncle Russell returned from New Orleans following a trading venture, he found his wife nursing a baby fathered by another man. The historian Jackson reported that in a drunken rage, Uncle Russell picked up the infant and bit its ears off. 

After his indictment, Uncle Russell arrived in court ready for a fight. He cursed everyone he saw, including the judge, a man by the name of Andrew Jackson, a future U.S. President famed for his frontier exploits dating back to his youth during the Revolutionary War. Once done with his cursing, the defendant went outside. 

Because of Uncle Russell’s disrespect of the public and the court, the judge ordered the sheriff to arrest him. But the sheriff indicated he was not sure he wanted to attempt to arrest a man of Uncle Russell’s size and temperament. So, the sheriff did something that made sense to him – he deputized the judge and told him to arrest Uncle Russell. 

According to accounts, Judge Andrew Jackson, and justice, prevailed. Ultimately, Uncle Russell surrendered to the law as demanded by the judge. 

But Uncle Russell Bean’s quick temper and that of some in the Bean family was not uncommon on the frontier. The Beans had fought in the French and Indian War, and in the American Revolution, taking part in the Battle of King’s Mountain. 

Ellis Bean’s childhood, wrote historian Jack Jackson, “was spent in the wild, savage, and yet beautiful part of Grainger County that his grandfather had settled when Tennessee was still regarded as sacred country belonging to the Cherokees.” 

His grandfather, Captain Bean, a contemporary of Daniel Boone, established his Station “on what became a hub of busy county roads. Although he prospered at this location, when crowded by too many settlers the Bean clan moved on. Around 1769 Captain Bean built a cabin for his growing family near where Boone Creek emptied into the Watauga.” 




It is easy to understand why a man like Philip Nolan – an adventurer who hated authority – would appeal to Peter Ellis Bean. 

Historian Jackson wrote that Nolan “was the beau ideal of backwoods lads like Peter Ellis Bean. He had many friends in high places, had just married a rich girl of the plantation class, and returned from his last trip to Texas with over twelve hundred spirited mustangs. These horses fetched high prices in the Mississippi settlements, and Nolan was a man on the rise. 

“Only he knew how to pull the levers to get to Texas, obtain these animals, and get out again. Nolan was enlisting about thirty men; each was to bring back ten horses, half of which he could keep for himself. These horses, when tamed and driven to Natchez, were worth around $50 on the market, ‘magnificent’ ones going as high as $150. The more horses, the more money. 

“Besides a lot of money to be made, there was the excitement of seeing places that few Americans knew anything about – the ‘unknown land,’ as Nolan described it to his double-dealing patron, General {James} Wilkinson. Bean probably understood little of the intricacies involved, but he knew enough to realize that it promised to be a real adventure.” 




In Natchez, Peter Ellis Bean wrote of the early days of his venture west with Nolan: 

“We then set out on our voyage, and prosecuted the same for Red River, but, before reaching it, Mordecai Richards, John Adams, and John King, got lost from our party while out hunting. We stopped and hunted for them several days, but could not find them. We supposed they would return to Natchez, which was a fact.” 

Richards, a longtime employee of Nolan’s, actually deserted the expedition. He and the other two men had been shocked to learn that Spanish soldiers were pursuing the Nolan party. 

Soon, Richards found himself in the hands of Jose Vidal, a longtime Spanish official in Natchez who established the Post of Concord across the river when Mississippi became American in 1798. The post soon was given the name Vidalia, in honor of Vidal. For hours, Vidal grilled Richards. 

Before Nolan and his men reached Texas in late 1800, Vidal sent a message to Lt. Miguel Francisco Múzquiz, the Spanish commander at Nacogdoches, TX, reporting that Nolan's plan "is to pass through the virtually-deserted areas and establish a camp," somewhere around Nacogdoches "at a place known as Los Llanos (the plains)." 

"Nolan's orders to his men," Vidal wrote, "are that if they encounter opposition from the Indians or the Spanish government they will force their way through. The injury which ... Nolan will cause His Majesty's domains is so serious that if we fail to block him we are in the soup ... If he is successful in his mission, he will influence others to follow and thus, any American who wishes may take over the valuable possessions of His Majesty." 

For months, Vidal had witnessed what he felt was a general disregard for law and order growing in the new American city of Natchez. He cited "mountain ramblers," the men who arrived from the Ohio and Mississippi on flatboats that docked under-the-hill – men like Peter Ellis Bean -- as a major problem. Vidal was determined to establish order on the west bank of the river to attract good citizen settlers. 

Nolan's flagrant failure to seek a proper passport to travel on Spanish territory, his political connections with high-ranking American authorities, and his clandestine activities were all worrisome to the Spanish as was the fear that Nolan would cause an uprising among the Indians. 




Bean wrote of the early days of the expedition: “There being now but eighteen of us, seven of whom were Spaniards, we continued our journey, and, after five days, came to Red river at the old Caddo town (Texarkana, Ark.), where we built a raft and crossed, swimming our horses. In about four miles we came to some large prairies, where we found a large quantity of buffalo-meat and some Indians. These were called Twowokanaes. They were very friendly to us, and sold us some fresh horses, of which they had very fine ones. 

“In about six days' journey we came to Trinity river, and, crossing it, we found the big, open prairies of that country. We passed through the plains till we reached a spring, which we called the Painted spring, because a rock at the head of it was painted by the Camanche and Pawnee nations in a peace that was made there by these two nations. 

“In the vast prairie there was no wood, or any other fuel than buffalo-dung, which lay dry in great quantities. But we found that the buffalo had removed, and were getting so scarce, that, in three days after passing the spring, we were forced, in order to sustain life, to eat the flesh of wild horses, which we found in great quantities. For about nine days, we were compelled to eat horseflesh, when we arrived at a river called the Brasos. Here we found elk and deer plenty, some buffalo, and wild horses by thousands.” 

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