Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Bombs and blooms: strange connections

with 68 comments

Some of you have heard about the bombings in Austin over the last three weeks. This morning I turned on the local television news channel and learned that a little while earlier the bomber had blown himself up when police closed in on him in Round Rock, a large suburb bordering Austin on the north. Now investigators were apparently searching the house in the adjacent town of Pflugerville where the bomber lived. Police had thrown up a cordon to keep people from getting closer than a couple of blocks away, so the television station’s crew couldn’t approach the house. They did the best they could and showed a long shot, in which I made out a street sign at an intersection close to the bomber’s house: on the sign I read the name Wilbarger.

Wilbarger! In a 2012 post, which happened to appear during this very week in March, I presented the true and seemingly supernatural story of Josiah Wilbarger. After six years I see no harm in telling this marvelous story again, so I’ve copied it below with its original title. By further coincidence, I was already planning to go out today in quest of flowering huisache trees, which was the initial subject of the 2012 post.

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).”


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 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:

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 airport was named after him.

© 2018 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

March 21, 2018 at 2:00 PM

Posted in nature photography

Tagged with , , , ,

68 Responses

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  1. Quite a change of pace from your usual posts! (Especially as I know it would occur to you, “pace” as peace!) A horrifying but fascinating tale.
    I’m assuming the “gin house” where Josiah Wilburger hit his head, was an outbuilding where they stored cotton, and ran it through a cotton gin, although I don’t think anyone would think badly of Mr. Wilbarger, if he’d taken to drink after such an ordeal. The psychic portion of the story is also fascinating.

    Robert Parker

    March 21, 2018 at 2:56 PM

    • Yes, it is quite a change of pace, and a welcome one, pāce any naysayers. Given my interests in things beyond photography and native plants, especially math, history, and language, I enjoy going off in a different direction here every now and then. I’m glad you enjoyed this “horrifying but fascinating tale.”

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 21, 2018 at 3:55 PM

    • I’ve confirmed that a ginhouse was ‘a building where cotton is ginned.’ That kind of gin is short for engine.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 21, 2018 at 9:24 PM

      • I figured Mr. Wilbarger wasn’t ducking out for a cocktail. Although he should have ducked.

        Robert Parker

        March 21, 2018 at 9:31 PM

        • Right you are. While settlers in Texas in the 1800s made wine from the mustang grapes they found growing here, cocktails were still a long way in the future.

          Steve Schwartzman

          March 21, 2018 at 9:39 PM

  2. I recently read News of the World by Paulette Jiles. Quite good and it is about the return of a girl to family who had been captured by Indians. I was reminded of that area of Fredericksburg, not so far from you, after reading about Wilbarger. I went on to read several other books about history of Indian/settler relations. Very interesting histories in Texas. Sorry about the demise of the tree. “Progress.” Yikes.

    Dianne Lethcoe

    March 21, 2018 at 3:31 PM

    • I wonder if Jiles based any parts of her novel on the true story of Cynthia Ann Parker, whom Comanches in Texas kidnapped at the age of about 10 in 1836, three years after the Wilbarger incident:


      After the loss of that huisache tree, things accelerated as Austin’s population kept growing. In the past few years, a good 20 properties where I’ve taken nature photographs have been lost to me due to development.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 21, 2018 at 4:25 PM

  3. That’s a remarkable story. The poor guy must have been in great pain.

    Jim R

    March 21, 2018 at 4:30 PM

    • It is remarkable. Our old house wasn’t far from the place where the incident is believed to have taken place. I can’t imagine how horrible Wilbarger must have felt.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 21, 2018 at 4:39 PM

  4. Great story! Thanks!


    March 21, 2018 at 5:19 PM

  5. Well I continued reading. What a great story. And what a great picture too – the golden tree against that blue sky.


    March 21, 2018 at 6:46 PM

    • I went back to that park this morning, thinking I might replace the original post’s picture of a huisache tree with a current one. Unfortunately the huisaches there this year aren’t doing much, so I kept the great picture from 2012. In fact when I checked my archives I found that the huisaches in that park then were so good that I took 180 photographs of them.

      As for the great story, that’s indeed what it is, one of the best true stories I know.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 21, 2018 at 7:16 PM

  6. This is a very interesting story, Steve. People live through some horrific things. The psychic part of the story is particularly fascinating. There is much out there Science has yet to explain. The tools don’t exist yet.

    Lavinia Ross

    March 21, 2018 at 8:21 PM

    • It’s such a striking story that I’m glad to have brought it up again, especially since most of the people visiting here now weren’t doing so six years ago. You’ve made me think that somebody ought to turn this into a movie. The mystery and inexplicability of what happened would be the film’s appeal.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 21, 2018 at 9:13 PM

  7. Well that was a blooming good story.


    March 21, 2018 at 11:11 PM

  8. Steve, I think the story is fascinating. Thanks for sharing it. He is indeed heroic for having survived in this way. I love the illustration also. However, I still think these native American Indian conflicts with the early settlers were just the beginning of an escalation of conflicts that grew worse over the years. Although I love the story and acknowledge the bravery of Wilbarger, (BTW, there is a striking photograph of him in this WikiTree article here: https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Wilbarger-20), and for this reason, I would like to understand why there is so much anger and violence coming from Native Americans, as opposed to other indian tribes in the Caribbean and the Pacific. I suppose it’s because they had to fight so ruthlessly to defend the land that initially belonged to them in the first place (I know you heard this before). Nothing justifies this outrageous violence from them. Their violence is just more striking when compared to the Caribbean and Pacific indigenous people. It’s just amazing, the anger they must have felt, and it shows through this story.


    March 22, 2018 at 12:12 AM

    • I think ‘Dances with Wolves’ with Kevin Costner is a wonderful movie, because of an ‘apparent’ resolution of conflict between a white man and Native American peoples. I think this movie depicts harmonization at its best, with great photography, and I quote Wiki:
      “Because of the film’s popularity and lasting impact on the image of Native Americans, the Sioux Nation adopted Costner as an honorary member. At the 63rd Academy Awards ceremony in 1991, Dances with Wolves earned twelve Academy Award nominations and won seven, including Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay (Michael Blake), Best Director (Kevin Costner), and Best Picture of the Year. In 2007, the Library of Congress selected Dances with Wolves for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.”


      March 22, 2018 at 12:39 AM

      • I think most people remember that movie for its solidarity between one white man and a tribe of Indians that took him in. I remember a scene in which the Kevin Costner character justifies his accompanying the tribe on a raid against another tribe by saying that the other tribe had been pretty hard on the one he’s now with.

        I also remember an earlier film that showed things more from the Indians’ viewpoint, “Little Big Man.”

        Steve Schwartzman

        March 22, 2018 at 9:02 AM

        • Thanks for pointing out ‘Little Big Man’, a film I might have seen when I was much younger but feel I must revisit once more.


          March 22, 2018 at 11:11 AM

          • It’s readily available, whether from a public library or (for a price) by download or purchase.

            Steve Schwartzman

            March 22, 2018 at 2:02 PM

            • I also recently discovered the movie ‘A Man Called Horse’, a 1970 American Western film starring Richard Harris. An old movie I know, but really appreciated the scenery and the Sioux Indian scenes. The sequel ‘The Return of a Man Called Horse’ has even better reviews and I’m watching that one tonight.


              March 28, 2018 at 9:58 AM

              • I remember when that movie came out. I never saw it because the previews seemed so gruesome. I hope you enjoy the sequel.

                Steve Schwartzman

                March 28, 2018 at 11:34 AM

                • Thanks. They also made a third sequel, but that one had poor reviews. I don’t enjoy the gruesome parts of the movie either. Popular movie critics like late Roger Ebert and Leonard Maltin critiqued these aspects also. However, I found the photography very pleasing, both sequels having been filmed in South Dakota with plenty of nature scenes. The first sequel shows the scalping ritual in detail.


                  March 28, 2018 at 12:12 PM

                • From what you say, I’m glad I didn’t watch those films. On the other hand, scenery from South Dakota must have been a plus, based on what I saw in the Badlands and the Black Hills last year:


                  Steve Schwartzman

                  March 28, 2018 at 12:31 PM

                • The South Dakota scenery is gorgeous Steve. I visited each one of your posts, and if I go in the future, I will use these as reference points to visit!


                  March 28, 2018 at 12:53 PM

                • We’d tried to go in April but couldn’t get north of Kansas City because the weather was still too wintry. Waiting a month longer made the difference. I hope you get to visit and take pictures there.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  March 28, 2018 at 4:37 PM

    • It’s also true that inter-tribal warfare among certain North American tribes was as vicious and cruel as anything that happened between Native Americans and Europeans.

      The same dynamics can appear in widely separated cultures. When freed American slaves returned to Liberia, they busied themselves enslaving native Liberians. The divisions between the so-called Americo-Liberians and the tribal peoples eventually played a role in terrible civil wars. On the other hand, the divisions among indigenous tribes there were and are as sharp as those among certain Native American tribes, and the conflicts as horrendous. There are stories about how the tribe I lived among dealt with their enemies that match the Wilbarger story for sheer horror.


      March 22, 2018 at 6:53 AM

      • Linda, your experiences in Liberia must have been fascinating, as you witnessed the civil wars that arose there also. I also have no doubt there must have been horrendous inter-tribal warfare among certain North American tribes that didn’t necessarily involve early European settlers. Either way, the tragedy of civil war is the predicament that “brothers against brothers” will most certainly be involved.


        March 22, 2018 at 8:05 AM

      • You make the important point “that inter-tribal warfare among certain North American tribes was as vicious and cruel as anything that happened between Native Americans and Europeans.” On BookTV a few months ago I caught part of a program in which a current Native American put forth a revisionist claim to the contrary, but there’s so much evidence of Indian tribes fighting against one another. The main evidence is human nature itself, everywhere and always. You provided examples of it from Africa.

        I don’t know much about the history of the Pacific, but in preparation for our first trip to New Zealand I learned that the Māori were quite a bellicose group, with frequent fights among the various clans.

        Steve Schwartzman

        March 22, 2018 at 8:23 AM

    • The first photograph in the Wikitree article puzzled me because it’s not of Wilbarger but of Robert McGee. I guess the idea was to show what someone looked like after surviving a scalping. The other photograph is the first I recall ever seeing of Wilbarger, and I’m glad it includes his wife. I imagine if they’d known at the time of the portrait what Texas held in store for them, they’d not have moved here.

      You mentioned the native peoples of the Caribbean. I’m afraid the reason there was less violence against the Europeans in the centuries following their arrival is that the Europeans more quickly wiped out the natives due to the spread of diseases and to the use of far superior weapons. The Taíno, for example, became extinct.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 22, 2018 at 8:12 AM

      • I also read about Robert McGee, but his story doesn’t seem as clear and accurate as that of Wilbarger’s. There just seems to be too many different versions of what really happened.

        You’re right about other Caribbean and Pacific tribes being as bellicose as any other (and some even cannibalistic). I quote from (http://caribya.com/caribbean/history/arawak.taino/): “When Columbus and, shortly afterward, other European explorers first came to the islands, the people they met were almost invariably Taíno. However, once exploration moved into the Lesser Antilles, they did meet the Caribs, who were more hostile than the Taínos of the Greater Antilles and Bahamian Archipelago. Caribs were regarded as cannibals and therefore more savage than the Taínos.”


        March 22, 2018 at 8:48 AM

        • In the story of Wilbarger as told in the 1888 book, it’s hard to know the truth of so many of the details reported from half a century earlier. Controlled studies consistently prove that even people who are sincere misinterpret and misremember things.

          Steve Schwartzman

          March 22, 2018 at 9:07 AM

          • Several seem to be romanticized accounts also. I have no reason to doubt whether Wilbarger’s wife had premonitions or not, but because of the nature of humans before traumatic events, it leaves room for skepticism and further investigation on the unfortunate incident.


            March 22, 2018 at 9:15 AM

            • There’s room for skepticism, of course. In this case the event happened so long ago that I’m afraid we’re never going to know more about it than we do now. Even with well-documented recent occurrences, people disagree about their significance: was an event was merely a coincidence, or did it have deeper meaning?

              Steve Schwartzman

              March 22, 2018 at 9:40 AM

              • I’m a pacifist Steve, so everything that’s done through means of violence is a no-no. The Golden Rule reigns:
                “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you: do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.”
                Matthew 7:12


                “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your kinsfolk. Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.”
                 Leviticus 19:18

                The Golden Rule can also be considered a law of reciprocity in other religions.


                March 22, 2018 at 10:59 AM

  9. Yes…the news was splashed in our newspapers too…
    Informative post and discussion, Steve!


    March 22, 2018 at 2:38 AM

    • Wow, I wouldn’t have thought our local story would make its way to India. Fortunately the threat is now gone.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 22, 2018 at 8:24 AM

  10. Needless to say, I remember this story. Who could forget such a thing? As for the bombings, I happened to be passing by Schertz yesterday while listening to the afternoon press conference about the events. It seemed strange to be in a neighborhood that played a role in such things. I hope that the affair is ended now, and no more devices are found, although I suspect it will take some time for people to feel at ease.

    Coincidentally, I was going to mention to you that I finally understand why people rave about the huisache. I never have seen so many huisache trees in full blooom. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen any huisache in the sort of bloom I saw yesterday on the east side of San Antonio. I hope I find more, in a location more congenial for photography than the Anderson Loop, but even if I don’t, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the sight of those trees. The entire landscape seemed to be glowing golden.


    March 22, 2018 at 7:08 AM

    • Hurray that you finally got to experience the sight of huisaches in bloom. I hope you were able to experience the scent, too. For whatever reason, most of the ones in Austin that I’ve seen, including two in my neighborhood, are doing almost nothing. You may have noticed in a reply above that I went back yesterday to the very tree shown here from this week in 2012 and found it with relatively few flowers. Whether enough of the remaining buds will open soon enough to avoid being hidden by leaves, a few of which were already beginning to come out, remains to be seen. In a given place, there are good years and bad years for a given species.

      It’s a nice coincidence that you should have passed through Schertz yesterday at the same time as the afternoon press conference.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 22, 2018 at 8:57 AM

  11. WOW what a story. Thanks for resharing.. Not what came to mind when I thought of Austin.


    March 22, 2018 at 7:23 AM

    • Twin stories of violence, the first from an Austin no one alive today would recognize, the other that people have trouble believing happened here.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 22, 2018 at 8:30 AM

  12. The photo of the tree is spectacular! I enjoyed the story that went with it, although it is sad. The Indians won the battle but lost the war. I continue to hope that us white folk can figure out how to live without destroying everything in their path.


    March 22, 2018 at 9:34 AM

    • When I checked my archive yesterday I found that I’d taken 180 pictures of the huisache trees in Bartholomew Park when I visited on March 23, 2012. As dense and therefore photogenic as the huisache blossoms were there then, they’re paltry in that park this year, as I also confirmed yesterday.

      When it comes to destruction, race or ethnicity doesn’t seem to be the main factor. Not everything is as clear-cut as we might initially think. For example, I just learned something from Tom Standage’s 2009 book An Edible History of Humanity. In a discussion of locavorism (eating foods grown locally), the author points out that there’s sometimes less carbon emission involved in importing a food a long distance, even with the extra shipping cost, from a place where it can be produced efficiently, than in growing it nearby in a place that isn’t naturally suitable and that therefore requires an unnecessarily large expenditure of energy and other resources. I think about growing rice in east Texas, for example.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 22, 2018 at 9:57 AM

      • Yes exactly, or almonds in California. Or anything in California, really. I read that before refrigerated train cars were developed, truck farms produced fruit and vegetables to New York City. Once the cars were invented, however, produce from California could be shipped in. People liked the luxury and exotic nature of getting food from California, so the truck farms were put out of business and the ecology of California was destroyed. You may have heard of the decision of the WH to raise the Shasta dam to provide more water for the valley, and of course there has been the never-ending effort to steal water from everywhere for both Los Angeles and the valley agricultural interests.


        March 23, 2018 at 8:39 AM

  13. Thanks for sharing that extraordinary story!

    Kathryn Hardage

    March 22, 2018 at 3:45 PM

  14. […] on the previous post, which dealt with the strange events involving Josiah Wilbarger: On the website of the Texas State […]

  15. There are many things under the heavens we cannot explain. Thank you for sharing this fascinating story, Steve.


    March 23, 2018 at 9:47 PM

    • You’re most welcome, Tanja. Many strange things indeed exist. This is a great one from Texas history.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 23, 2018 at 9:58 PM

  16. Wow, you are right! That is a very bizarre story. The next post, of course, I have read, and it provides more trivia..

    Thank you for bringing this story out of ancient archives!

    • You’re welcome. I have the impression this was once a well-known story in Texas. I’m only too happy to bring it back to people’s attention every so often.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 25, 2018 at 7:54 PM

  17. I loved this, Steve. Absolutely. If you start giving classes in math, history, or whatever else you are good at, sign me up! I think I’m a much better student than I was back in the 60’s and 70’s! I know for sure that I’m better at paying attention!

    I believe there are many spiritual connections and messages all around us. We just do not use our senses (like other life forms do) to tap into them.


    March 26, 2018 at 6:52 PM

    • I’m glad to hear you took to this, Lori. It’s one of the great stories of Texas history. I don’t imagine anyone will ever explain what happened.

      I taught on and off for 40 years. My ostensible subject was mathematics, but I often made connections to history and language, and sometimes to nature. It doesn’t look like I’ll teach anymore, except indirectly through articles here and elsewhere. It’s fun to spread knowledge.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 26, 2018 at 10:21 PM

      • I did not enjoy math as a young girl. I suppose it was due to teachers who did not know how to teach or maybe didn’t know how to get kids interested in it. When my husband, Forrest, went to college, just for fun, I worked some of his math problems. I was slow, but it made me feel like I wasn’t such a dummy after all! I think as adults, we often are more open and curious about learning new things – regardless of what that can be!


        March 27, 2018 at 6:38 AM

        • Given all that, have you considered taking a class at a community college near you?

          By the way, have you ever taken the opportunity to say of your husband, when he’s out in the woods, that you can’t see the Forrest for the trees?

          Steve Schwartzman

          March 27, 2018 at 7:18 AM

          • Yes, and then there is “Run Forrest, RUN!!”

            There are community colleges within 24 miles of here, so that’s a possibility. Mostly though, I gain a lot of new knowledge from every day experiences. I’m always amazed at how math and science really are part of solving problems or understanding something of every day. We never stop learning, do we?


            March 27, 2018 at 7:34 AM

            • No, we never stop learning.

              Austin Community College, where I taught part-time for 15 years or so, offers a class called Math: Its Spirit and Use, which I used to jokingly call Math for Poets. The course is light on actually doing math, preferring to highlight the connections between math and other things. I imagine the community colleges near you have a similar course.

              Steve Schwartzman

              March 27, 2018 at 7:45 AM

              • That sounds exciting… and I like your title better! 😀


                March 27, 2018 at 10:00 AM

                • I just checked the ACC website and couldn’t find that course. I guess now I’ll have to call it Math for Deceased Poets.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  March 27, 2018 at 10:13 AM

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