Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography


with 29 comments

Yesterday’s post told you about a venerable huisache tree, Acacia farnesiana, that I used to enjoy visiting and photographing, but that I found out on March 23 had recently been destroyed to make way for a new building. That tree was growing close to a creek in northeast Austin called Tannehill Branch, which continues under the adjacent street and forms the northern boundary of Bartholomew Park. The creek also nurtures half a dozen well-established huisaches growing along it. Those trees offered—and being in a park will continue to offer—some consolation for the destroyed huisache; I spent the better part of an hour taking of photographs of them, including this one in which the nearest branches lean forward and in so doing create a ring of flowers surrounding the center of the tree:

Click for greater size and clarity.

This location on Tannehill Branch is close to the spot where one of the strangest events ever recorded in Texas history took place. It has nothing to do with plants or photography—the picture above has given you your daily dose of those things—but it’s such an unusual and compelling story that I’ll include it here for those of you who would like to keep reading; just be aware that you may find some of the details disturbing.

The following account of what happened is from the 1890 edition of an 1888 book with a long title (as was common back then): Indian depredations in Texas : reliable accounts of battles, wars, adventures, forays, murders, massacres, etc., together with biographical sketches of many of the most noted Indian fighters and frontiersmen of Texas. The author was John Wesley Wilbarger, a brother of the Josiah Wilbarger described in the account. The Hornsby mentioned in the first sentence was Reuben Hornsby, one of the first Anglo settlers in what is now Austin; Hornsby Bend along the Colorado River near Austin’s current airport was named after him.

UPDATE. On the website of the Texas State Library and Archives Commission I confirmed the surprising identity of the person who illustrated Indian Depredations: “T.J. Owen, better known as the author William Sydney Porter (O. Henry).”

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman


Written by Steve Schwartzman

March 26, 2012 at 5:29 AM

29 Responses

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  1. holy smokes, steve–stranger than fiction! it adds yet another dimension to that storied place you explore for us daily. personally, I love having historical material added occasionally to fill out the purely botanical. thank you.


    March 26, 2012 at 6:24 AM

    • Thanks, Lance, for letting me know you enjoy occasional information that departs from botany. I’ve added such things sparingly, but this was a story that I felt should be told. I first heard about this incident in 1999 when I was working on a photo CD of Austin (which ultimately became two CDs). I’d stopped to take pictures at Hornsby Bend (yes, the place named after Reuben Hornsby) and I went into the offices there of the City of Austin Water Utility’s Center for Environmental Research to see what I could find out about the place, which I’d never visited before. A man who worked there told me a brief version of the story, which I then followed up on.

      Going off on another tangent: if you’re a baseball fan, you may have heard of Rogers Hornsby. He turns out to be a great-grandson of Reuben and Sarah Hornsby. All three of them are buried in the family cemetery nearby.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 26, 2012 at 6:53 AM

  2. My goodness, thank you for sharing this story! Sometimes our explorations of the natural world lead us to things we’d never otherwise know. It’s all out there for us to find. Feel free to share more.


    March 26, 2012 at 7:47 AM

    • You’re welcome. This would be a hard story to top, but if anything else noteworthy comes my way I’ll pass it along.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 26, 2012 at 7:53 AM

  3. Steve, thank you for sharing this riveting story with us. Life wasn’t easy during those times.


    March 26, 2012 at 8:15 AM

    • No, it certainly wasn’t easy back then. I’m often thankful for the benefits of today’s world.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 26, 2012 at 8:17 AM

  4. Steve, thanks for giving readers a chance to read about the Wilbarger scalping. The story is that Wilbarger’s wife made a covering from her silk wedding dress for his open scalp. He lived for years with that covering. The tale also claims he died after accidentally bumping his head.


    March 26, 2012 at 10:26 AM

  5. Hi Steve .. what an extraordinary story – a real life account .. I could feel the story unfolding .. not to say you can say story .. absolutely incredible .. and your commenters – great additions … what an amazing read – thank you .. Cheers Hilary


    March 26, 2012 at 12:56 PM

    • I’m glad you got caught up in the story, Hilary, and a true one in this case. It just occurred to me that someone should make a movie about this event.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 26, 2012 at 4:46 PM

  6. I also appreciated this diversion from botany to history. What horrors Wilbarger underwent! Who would have thought he could have possibly survived such wounds? And two different other-worldly visions. It’s just an amazing story. Thank you for sharing it.

    Deb Platt

    March 26, 2012 at 2:15 PM

    • You’re quite welcome, Deb. It’s one of the best true stories I’ve ever encountered. I can assure you botany didn’t mind yielding a little of its time to history for this.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 26, 2012 at 4:50 PM

  7. Thank you, Steve, for the historical notes. My wife’s first Texas ancestors, Thomas and Nancy Tarvin Early Puckett, who came to Texas in 1837 from Terre Haute, lived near the Hornsbys and there were several marriages between the two families. I believe Barbara’s grandfather had cousins who are buried in the Hornsby cemetery, though Nancy Puckett is buried a few miles farther northwest with some of her other descendants. Lorenzo Dow Puckett, Barbara’s great grandfather was also involved in some Indian chases in the same area.. Meanwhile, back in southwest AL, Nancy Puckett’s brothers were marrying Creek Indians, leaving a number of mixed-blood Tarvin cousins. An interesting time with some interesting people…….and the trees are descended from trees they knew.

    John Mac Carpenter

    March 26, 2012 at 3:51 PM

    • Thanks for adding all those personal connections, John. It’s ironic that some of your wife’s ancestors were fighting Indians while others were marrying them. Too bad the second couldn’t have prevailed over the first more often.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 26, 2012 at 4:56 PM

  8. Thanks for sharing!


    March 26, 2012 at 6:57 PM

  9. Particularly after the tragic view of the huisache beaten down by an ice storm you showed us, this one’s flourishing is most welcome! As for the story of Wilbarger, how remarkable that he survived for sometime after. Do you think the visions had any merit, or are they simply tales that grew into being over time?

    Susan Scheid

    March 26, 2012 at 8:24 PM

    • Yes, the huisaches across the street from the destroyed one definitely welcomed me, or I them. The largest of them probably even survived the ice storm of 2000, as did the one behind the convenience store, though it succumbed this year due to a lack of protection that the park affords the other ones.

      You raise a good question about the story of the parallel visions. I’ve lived long enough to see people distort things that did happen, or worse, to claim as real things that never happened. Nevertheless, even skeptical me inclines to believe the truth of the Wilbarger-Hornsby story. There’s something about it that has an air of authenticity for me. Do you have an inclination one way or the other here?

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 26, 2012 at 8:51 PM

  10. Steve, thanks for reminding me of this story. My father’s family settled just east of this area, and knew the Hornsbys and Wilbargers. I remember when I was a small child, an old newspaper article of this story was actually tucked into the family bible at my grandparent’s house. My grandfather, not one to tolerate any nonsense, believed the story of both visions adamantly. I wish I could remember now who it was he actually knew personally, but it was direct descendants of both families. That story was oft told in that region for many, many years!

    Diane Sherrill

    March 27, 2012 at 1:28 PM

    • I’m pleased to hear about another personal connection, Diane. Thanks for letting us know. Since I posted this I’ve been wondering—not for the first time—what contemporary documentation might still be available; by “contemporary” I mean soon after the event, rather than the half-century later of the famous account given here. For example, are there any surviving letters by Hornsby or Wilbarger or any of the other people involved? Is there anything in your family’s surviving documents from that period that mentions the event?

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 27, 2012 at 7:16 PM

      • I doubt if there’s anything in our family, but it’s worth asking. I’ll let you know if I find anything. Also, I believe both families are still represented in the general area.

        Diane Sherrill

        March 28, 2012 at 2:55 PM

        • After my Austin CD came out in 1999 and I was interviewed on the radio about it, I heard from at least one Hornsby descendant who was still in the area.

          Let’s hope some family documentation turns up.

          Steve Schwartzman

          March 28, 2012 at 3:02 PM

  11. WOW what an interesting piece to read. I love history and this is amazing! Thanks for sharing it Steve!


    March 28, 2012 at 8:12 AM

    • You’re welcome. I’ve never gotten tired of telling the story since I learned about these events.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 28, 2012 at 8:31 AM

  12. Steven, what a fascinating piece of Texas history you have shared here!


    March 28, 2012 at 5:08 PM

    • Yes, it is a fascinating story. Do I take it that you hadn’t heard the tale when you lived in Texas?

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 28, 2012 at 6:48 PM

  13. A busy mom of four, I’m only just now getting to read the story. Fascinating and entertaining. Difficult to believe that it’s not fiction but true accounts of people’s recollection. Thank you for sharing that.


    April 2, 2012 at 9:34 AM

    • You’re welcome, Shannon. This is a story I’ve always found moving, so I’m happy to share it with as many people as possible.

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 2, 2012 at 9:51 AM

  14. […] may recall that a recent post included the story of the strange visions and dreams of Josiah Wilbarger and Sarah Hornsby. I […]

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