In south Texas in 1846 during the Mexican-American War, a young Army lieutenant observed mustang herds so large that he didn’t think all of the animals could “have been corralled in the State of Rhode Island, or Delaware, at one time.”
The lieutenant – who would one day command the Union army during the Civil War and later be elected President of the United States – was named Ulysses S. Grant.
A future rancher, Thomas Dwyer, also described seeing “thousands and tens of thousands of wild horses running in immense herds as far as the eye or telescope could sweep the horizon.” It was amazing, Dwyer noted, adding, “The whole country seemed to be running.”
A steamboat captain who transported U.S. troops and goods on the Rio Grande during the Mexican-American War, Richard King, saw the wild mustangs, too, and he also discovered property that he thought would be perfect for raising cattle.
King had grown up in a New York City slum, the son of impoverished Irish immigrants. He ran away from home at age 11 and made his way to the Gulf of Mexico hidden in the bowels of a ship. By the 1850s he was in Texas and making his name as a steamboat captain.
But the wild horses and the prospect of raising cattle in big numbers obsessed him. Livestock could lead to riches.
South of the Nueces River valley about all one could see were the mustangs. Eventually, the region became known as the Wild Horse Desert.
In 1852, King left Brownsville on horseback to visit Corpus Christi to attend a fair designed to persuade settlers and merchants to move to the region. As King rode the trail through the Wild Horse Desert, he recognized that the land held promise for cattle as well as horses.
“About 125 miles north of Brownsville,” according to The Ranchers (Time-Life Books), “the captain and his friends noted that the desert vegetation was getting greener, and they paused to drink the clear, cool waters of a tree-shaded stream known as Santa Gertrudis Creek. King gazed beyond the grove of live oaks and anaqua trees and saw the prairie rolling away to the horizon, its grasses rich and waist high and splashed with red, gold and blue wildflowers.”
Wildlife abounded too – antelope, deer, wild turkey and quail.
Here King would create the ranching industry: “He dared to start raising stock back in 1852, when the whole trans-Mississippi West had fewer than 600,000 potential customers. King encountered all of the problems that had plagued ranchers since the Spanish conquistadors first imported cattle, horses and sheep in the 16th Century. But he adapted useful Spanish techniques, introduced new ones that became standard throughout the West and built up his ranch with patience and care. The place he chose to do all this came to be recognized as the birthplace and breeding ground of American ranching; the broad belt of embattled prairie land between the Rio Grande and Nueces rivers.”
HORSES IN SPANISH TEXAS
Some 50 years earlier, a young horse trader from Natchez – Philip Nolan – had seen those mustang herds, too. He envisioned riches just as Richard King would during his lifetime. And like King, Nolan was tough, strong and ornery, a man who fought hard for what he wanted.
During Nolan’s days, a horse was as valuable as a car is today. Everybody needed one. There was money to be made. But Nolan had crossed the wrong folks in his venture for riches.
From 1791 to 1800, Nolan made four expeditions from Spanish Louisiana to Spanish Texas. The fourth trip was his last.
Trip 1: In 1791, with a passport provided by Louisiana Governor Esteban Miro, the 20-year-old Nolan headed to Texas with a small supply of trade goods packed in small barrels and carried by a mule. For some reason, Spanish officials in San Antonio grew suspicious of Nolan and confiscated his goods.
Broke and without a means to support himself momentarily, Nolan vanished into the wilderness. For two years, he lived with the Indians, primarily the Comanches. He hunted, trapped and refined his ability to communicate with Native Americans through sign language, a skill that drew the interest of Thomas Jefferson before he became president. During this period, Nolan grew close to the various tribes and earned their trust.
By late 1793 or early 1794, Nolan finally emerged from the Texas wilderness with 50 wild horses. He drove them to the Louisiana market to sell.
It was during the decade of the 1790s that Nolan made Nacogdoches his staging area. He quickly learned that catching, taming and delivering to market wild horses was a difficult, time-consuming job that required employees. At Nacogdoches he hired a couple, an elderly man and his younger wife (she was 20 years older than Nolan) to pasture and care for his horses before he drove them to Louisiana. Nolan and the woman, Gertrudis de los Santos, soon began an affair, which continued even after Nolan married 21-year-old Fanny Lintot in Natchez in 1799.
Trip 2: All the while cultivating friendships with Spanish commandants and public officials, including the Texas governor, Nolan returned to Nacogdoches in June 1794 with a passport from Louisiana Governor Baron de Carondelet, who had replaced Gov. Miro.
Carondelet needed horses for the Louisiana militia regiment and Nolan offered to provide them. Once again, he brought trade goods with him to Texas. In January 1796, Nolan drove 250 horses into New Orleans, selling the prime stock in Natchez and Frankfort, Kentucky.
Trip 3: In July 1797, Nolan became friends with the Spanish Governor of the Natchez District, Manual Gayoso. With the continued support from Louisiana Governor Carondelet in New Orleans, Nolan again returned to Texas to catch more horses for the Louisiana regiment. Eight men accompanied him on this journey.
This trip took him to south Texas, where Richard King would locate, and into the northern portion of Mexico, land Nolan knew well. He had to build corrals and some fencing to hold the animals before they were driven to the Trinity River and fattened up on the rich pastureland, and then driven to Nacogdoches before the final drive home.
During this lengthy stay in Texas, Nolan had managed to round up more than 1,200 horses and while in San Antonio, had courted a young lady who became pregnant with his child. When orders came for his arrest over this indiscretion, the Texas governor saved him and allowed him to get out of town.
In the meantime, Gov. Gayoso in Natchez, who would assume the Louisiana governorship only to die to Yellow Fever a short time later, grew so suspicious of Nolan that he made known his feelings that Nolan was not to be trusted.
By 1799, Nolan was back in Natchez with his herd. He employed several men. Some tended to approximately 600 horses Nolan pastured on his land along the Homochitto River in Wilkinson County. In 1800, he recruited more than two-dozen men – including Spanish, Americans and two slaves – for what would be his final journey west where he visited the Comanches, built several small forts and constructed corrals where he kept the wild horses he and his men had tamed.
‘I EXPECTED THEM TO SURRENDER’
Nolan’s fourth trip to Texas didn’t have a happy ending.
In the predawn hours of March 1801, the horses at Nolan’s encampment in east central Texas grew restless. Nolan sent a few of his men to see what was going on. He thought it possible that horse thieves had slipped into the camp. But the men found nothing.
Things changed at dawn, however. In the distance, Nolan saw the sombreros of some of the more than 100 Spanish soldiers and militia. Their commander was Nacogdoches-based Miguel Francisco Múzquiz, sent by Spanish authorities to arrest Nolan and his men primarily for trespassing on Spanish property without a passport and for taking wild horses from Spanish ground without permission.
Múzquiz had divided his troops into three groups. As they advanced on Nolan’s fort, they hauled a four-pounder cannon with them.
Nolan had left Natchez, now a U.S. possession, months earlier. Across the Mississippi River at Vidalia, then called the Post of Concord, the Spanish maintained control of that settlement and all of Louisiana as well as most of the American Southwest, including Texas.
The post commander, Jose Vidal, opposed Nolan’s journey west before the Mississippi Supreme Court, but lost the case. As Nolan made his way across Louisiana, Vidal ordered Spanish troops to arrest him and his men. By the time Nolan got to Texas and began catching wild horses, months had passed.
But in a series of messages, most delivered by aides traveling on horseback, from Vidalia to the capital of Mexico – involving commandants and other Spanish officials – a manhunt for Nolan was organized. The Spanish realized the importance of wild horses for the growing American settlements east of the Mississippi and realized that American immigrants would threaten the stability of the Spanish government in the lands west of the Mississippi. They also feared that Nolan – well liked and respected by Native Americans – would incite an uprising against the Spanish. Nolan was setting a bad example and he had arrogantly defied their laws.
Despite being greatly outnumbered, Nolan pleaded with his men to fight until the death. Surrender, he said, and the Spanish would make them slaves for life.
Nolan bolted from the fort and stood only a few yards from the opposing troops.
Múzquiz, who didn’t speak English, ordered his interpreter to tell Nolan "that I had come for the purpose of arresting them; and that I expected them to surrender in the name of the King."
In response, Nolan shouted, “Gentleman, come no further, for one of us will be killed!”
"Nolan and his men were determined to fight,” Múzquiz said.
According to historian Jack Jackson (Philip Nolan and Texas), Nolan told him men “to make sure of their shot, to waste no ammunition, to maintain a steady fire, and to do everything in their power to keep the enemy from coming nearer to the fort. By their so doing, he explained, the Spaniards might withdraw for a time and give them a chance to make escape.”