At Nacogdoches, Texas, in 1801, Spanish Commandant Miguel Francisco Múzquiz was relying on informants to put him on the trail of Philip Nolan, a 30-year-old horse trader from Natchez. Nolan had slipped past Spanish soldiers at the Louisiana posts of Fort Miro (Monroe) and Natchitoches before crossing the Red River into Texas at Texarkana with more than two-dozen men in his party.
Although he was recently married to the daughter of a well-to-do Natchez merchant and counted as his friends a number of high-ranking Spanish and American officials, including U.S. General James Wilkinson, Nolan lived much of his life in mystery in the hinterlands. He may have been involved in espionage with Wilkinson (a traitor to the U.S. who was on the Spanish payroll), but it’s never been proven.
Nolan was smart – he once worked as Wilkinson’s bookkeeper and shipping clerk in New Orleans. He had a good instinct for trade, which was one reason he spent much time in Spanish Texas during the 1790s catching and taming wild horses for sale primarily east of the Mississippi River.
Incredibly strong, Wilkinson once watched in awe as Nolan with “utmost ease” used one hand to lift from the back of a mule a sack filled with 2,000 silver dollars. For two years, Nolan lived with the Indians, primarily the Comanches, and was recognized as a master of Indian sign language, a valuable skill for an ambitious frontiersman. Nolan also spoke Spanish fluently.
By 1801 – after losing the trust of paranoid Spanish officials and traveling to Texas without their permission to catch wild horses – he was now the subject of a manhunt. Nolan claimed that his journey was primarily to catch and tame wild horses as a business opportunity that would help him support his pregnant wife and the baby on the way.
During this journey, he had spent much time with the Comanches. At one point Nolan and his men had to survive on horse flesh when they ran out of food and could find nothing wild to eat. Once he and some of his crew walked for days traveling countless miles in search of a group of Indians that had stolen Nolan’s best-trained horses. They found the culprits and reclaimed their animals.
At a time when conspiracy theories abounded, the Spanish feared Nolan was inciting the Indians to join him in a revolt against Spanish rule.
THE SPANISH WEST
At Nacogdoches, Múzquiz was an officer looking to make a name for himself for a country known for conquest and domination.
“By 1600, Spain ruled two thirds of the Western Hemisphere, and a century later the Spanish conquistadors had pushed their frontiers as far south as Buenos Aires and as far north as the Rio Grande,” according to the book The Spanish West (Time-Life Books). Previously, the conquistadors had defeated the Aztecs in Mexico and the Incas in Peru, putting millions of Indians under their brutal authority.
The Spanish were so renown for their fighting skills that it was quite a compliment in the 16th century to be told that you fight “like a Spaniard.” But the Spanish “were a haughty, race-proud, class-conscious breed of men who exploited the Indians as if they were mere animals; yet many Spanish solders married Indian women and treated them no better or worse than Spanish spouses.”
In North America, the Spanish founded Santa Fe, Tucson, Albuquerque, San Antonio and San Diego. In Mexico they exploited the country’s mineral wealth with silver and gold “producing great private fortunes as well as a flood of revenue to maintain Spain’s power on the European Continent.”
According to The Spanish West, “Horses were introduced to Mexico by the earliest conquistadors in 1519, and horse breeding followed the advancing line of Spanish settlement. By the early 1700s, Indian tribes along the Rio Grande had begun acquiring horses – by both trade and thievery – from the stock-raising haciendas. It was only a matter of decades before Spanish horses spread northeast to such nomadic Plains tribes as the Comanches and the Sioux, and westward to more settled Indians such as the Nez Perces, who themselves became expert stock breeders.”
‘THEY HID BEHIND A HILL’
As Múzquiz relied on his informant network for word on Nolan, William Barr, an Irish immigrant like Nolan, and Barr’s partner, Samuel Davenport, were interested in his whereabouts as well. The partners had an agreement with the Spanish that gave them trading rights with the Indians.
It’s certainly possible that Barr and Davenport felt threatened by Nolan’s presence in Texas to catch wild horses because they relied on that trade with the Spanish to fill their pockets. There was also bad blood between Nolan and Barr.
When Nolan learned that Barr had badmouthed him to the Indians, he sent Barr a warning:
“The Bearer a chief of the Ta-y-as told me that you informed him I was a Bad Man, had escaped from Prison at St. Antonio, that if he saw me he ought not to permit me to enter his village … We shall perhaps one Day … meet … & then you will receive the hearty thanks of Nolan.”
Historian Jack Jackson (Philip Nolan and Texas) wrote that on February 17, 1801 “the trader for the Tahuacanas reported that Nolan was in the vicinity of that nation running mustangs. On the 18th, a Caddo reported that he had seen Nolan’s trail leading in the same direction. On the 22nd, Pablo Bouet Lafitta (Pierre Lafitte) trader among the Caddos, reported that a tribesman had told him that he had seen Nolan’s three little forts. Without further delay, Múzquiz left Nacogdoches on the 4th of March. With him he took 120 men (seventy regulars and fifty militia), a cannon, and a good supply of munitions.”
Múzquiz led his men across the Neches River on rafts, and veered off the San Antonio road into the open country. Eight days later, he was on the Trinity River and crossed on 10 rafts assembled for that purpose. Heavy rains swelled the river.
“Fourteen days in the field,” Jackson wrote, “Múzquiz stumbled on his first real clue to Nolan’s campsite. A sergeant commanding the vanguard had spotted two mounted men, who quickly hid themselves in a thicket. They proved to be Indians and, when caught, admitted that Nolan and about twenty-five men were in the region, all of them having ‘long beards.’ By traveling fast, Múzquiz was assured that he could reach their camp about sundown. Further, the two captives offered to guide the army there, a place described as between the Monte Grande (Big Woods) and the Brazos River. Múzquiz, however, camped for the night to ponder the situation.”
Two days afterward, the Spanish reached the Rio Blanco, now known as the Nolan River, which runs through Johnson and Hill counties in north central Texas.
William Barr, the trader at Nacogdoches who has trashed Nolan’s name amongst the Indians, led a posse of 17 men in search of him. According to Jackson, “They returned before sunrise, saying that they had found a wooden intrenchment and a pasture-ground, with some horses, on the banks of the river. Múzquiz set out at once and reached the spot by daybreak. Nolan was not there.
“Two ‘detained’ Indians revealed that he and his men were at another place between the creek and some hills, where they had a house with a roof. Múzquiz waited until dark and then, guided by these Tahuayases (Taovayas), traveled all night. By sunup on March 21st he had his men poised outside the ‘stronghold.’ They hid behind a hill and waited for sufficient light to act.”
The location was believed to have been near Blum in northern Hill County -- 183 miles northwest of Nacogdoches, 65 miles southwest of Dallas and 51 miles north of Waco.
‘THE SPEED OF A HORSE’
For months now, the Spanish had been in pursuit of Nolan. Ultimately, Nolan’s major crime was catching wild horses on Spanish ground without Spanish permission.
Was the horse really that important? By all means.
As historian Stephen Ambrose wrote in Undaunted Courage, his book on the Lewis & Clark exploration of the Louisiana Purchase: "A critical fact of the world of 1801 was that nothing moved faster than the speed of a horse. No human being, no manufactured item, no bushel of wheat, no side of beef (or any beef on the hoof for that matter), no letter, no information, no idea, order, or instruction of any kind moved faster."