Margaret and Josiah Wilbarger
In the early 1830's, central Texas was still a very remote area and the territory of the Comanche and Kickapoo Indians, which made it dangerous for any settlers travelling through it.
This is the story of Josiah Wilbarger, and one of the strangest events that took place after an Indian attack.
On a hot August day in 1833, Texas settler Josiah Wilbarger and four other men were scouting territory near present-day Austin when they spotted a lone Comanche Indian and gave chase. The brave escaped the party, so they turned and headed back to neighbor Rueben Hornsby’s cabin, six miles away. At mid-day, they decided to stop for lunch near Pecan Spring and give their horses a rest. Wilbarger, Thomas Christian and a William Strother unsaddled and hobbled their horses. Mr.’s Haynie and Standifer, wary of the Indian they had seen, decided to leave their mounts saddled and tied them loosely to a nearby tree. They were kicked back and relaxing by the water, when suddenly, war whoops and rifle fire accompanied by arrows flying in shattered their peace. The five men jumped up behind trees and began firing, but the scrub oaks offered little protection. Thomas Christian was struck in the leg, and William Strother was mortally wounded. Wilbarger had an arrow through his lower left leg, and a wound on his hip. Just as he jumped behind another small tree, an arrow went into his other leg. Realizing that they were losing the battle, Haynie and Standifer jumped onto to their already saddled horses. Josiah yelled out to them, hoping to share a ride out. Haynie turned and saw Wilbarger hobbling towards him with an arrow in each leg, and then suddenly a bullet went through Josiah's neck, blowing out through the left side of his chin. He fell to the ground, apparently dead. Haynie and Standifer rode hard away from the scene towards Hornsby’s.
The bullet that had passed through Josiah’s neck didn’t kill him, it only paralyzed him, temporarily. But in a strange twist of fate, his being shot in the neck also saved his life. If the Indians had any doubt that the shot hadn't killed him, they would have cut his throat as they did the others. Although unable to move, he was completely aware when the Indians came around him. They stripped him naked, tore the scalp from his head, and then he lost consciousness. He wrote later that when this happened, “It created no pain from which I could flinch, but sounded like distant thunder.”
Wilbarger regained consciousness later that afternoon. All was quiet on the banks of the springs. The Indians had left, and Haynie and Standifer were nowhere to be seen. Being very thirsty and still bleeding, he crawled the few feet to the creek and slid into the cold water. In hastily stripping him, the Indians had left him with only one sock dangling from his foot. Pulling the sock off and dipping it into the cold water he washed the exit wound on his chin, and then used it to cover the scalp wound on his head. After getting chilled he crawled out into the sun and fell asleep, exhausted from the loss of blood.
The sun was already down when he came to again. He ran his hand along his chin and realized that the bleeding had stopped. Josiah pulled himself up and began to walk in the direction of Hornsby’s, but was only able to travel a few hundred yards before he was completely exhausted. He sank to the ground at the base of a large oak tree. Believing that his death was now inevitable, Josiah laid back against the tree and looked up at the stars, hearing only the hooting of owls and the bark of coyotes as the night got progressively colder.
During the night Josiah opened his eyes and saw his sister, Margaret Clifton, walking towards him. He wrote, "It was very strange. I could plainly see her." But he knew full well that she lived over 700 hundred miles away in Missouri. She knelt down beside him and spoke softly, "Brother Josiah, you are too weak to go by yourself. Remain here and friends will come to take care of you before the setting of the sun.” She rose and began walking east in the direction of Hornsby’s cabin as Josiah begged for her to stay with him.
Following their galloping exit away from the Indian attack, Haynie and Standifer arrived at Hornsby’s and delivered the terrible news of what had happened at the springs, and the certain death of their friends. A rider was sent on to Wilbarger’s home to tell Josiah’s wife Margaret, and then on to rouse other neighbors. By the time men arrived from the surrounding area it was too dark to go back to the site and retrieve the bodies of their friends, so they stayed at the Hornsby home until the next morning.
The Hornsby House
Austin History Center
As everyone slept that night, Sarah Hornsby suddenly awoke from a dream that left her trembling. She then woke her husband Reuben and described to him the vision that she’d seen of Josiah, naked, scalped and wounded, but alive. Reuben tried to calm her and said that it could only have been a nightmare, brought on by the stress of that day. Sarah wasn't fully convinced, but understood that he was probably right, so she settled herself down and went back to sleep. But within a short time the dream returned so vividly that she shot straight up in bed. She not only woke Rueben again, she woke up all of the men and then quickly starting making coffee and breakfast so they could get started on their way as soon as possible. As Sarah was preparing everything she kept repeating under her breath, “I know that Wilbarger is not dead!”
The sun was just topping the trees when the men arrived at the location near Pecan Spring. They immediately found the bodies of Christian and Strother and then began searching around for Wilbarger. Following the creek bank, they soon approached the oak tree that Wilbarger was sitting under. The lead rider saw him, but thought he was an Indian covered with red war paint. He yelled out “Here they are boys,” and raised his rifle. But Josiah muffled out as loud as he could through his wounded and swollen jaw "Don’t SHOOT...it's Wilbarger!"
Scalped, wounded in several places, and near death, Josiah Wilbarger was just as Sarah Hornsby had described. The rescuers gently wrapped him in a sheet that she'd provided and placed him on one of the horses. Reuben Hornsby mounted behind Josiah, wrapping his arms around him to hold him in the saddle. Back at the Hornsby's house, Sarah was so confident that Josiah was going to be found alive that she was prepared and waiting with hot water, bear’s oil, and poultices.
He stayed at the Hornsby’s recovering, and when ready, was moved back to his home a few miles downriver on a sled that his Father-in-Law built.
A few weeks later, Josiah received a letter from Missouri informing him that his sister Margaret Clifton had passed away. And then he realized that the date of her death was two days before he was wounded in the attack. He later wrote, “...at the hour of my vision, she was spending her first night in the grave.”
Josiah firmly believed that he saw his sister’s spirit that night, and that she not only gave him courage to hold on, but also alerted others through Sarah Hornsby’s dreams.
Wilbarger recovered from his wounds and lived another eleven years. His scalp never grew entirely over the bone. A small spot in the middle remained bare, over which, he always wore a small silk cap that his wife Margaret would sew from pieces of her wedding dress. He died on April 11, 1844 after accidentally hitting his head on a low door frame while working in his grain mill.
Josiah Wilbarger was buried in the Texas State Cemetery in Austin.
From J.W. Wilbarger (Josiah’s brother - written in the late 1880’s);
"The vision which so impressed Mrs. Hornsby was spoken of far and wide through the colony 50 years ago; For her earnest manner and perfect confidence that Wilbarger was alive, made (in connection with her vision and its realization) a profound impression on the men present, who spoke of it everywhere. There was no means of knowing that his sister Margaret had died seven hundred miles away only the day before he was wounded. The story of her apparition, related before he knew that she was dead- her going in the direction of Hornsby’s, and Mrs. Hornsby’s strange vision, recurring after slumber, present a mystery that made then a deep impression and created a feeling of awe which, after a lapse of half a century, it still inspires. No man who knew them ever questioned the veracity of either Wilbarger or the Hornsby’s, and Mrs. Hornsby was loved and reverenced by all that knew her."
Locations in Austin Texas: (By J.W. Wilbarger)
"They stopped about ½ mile up the branch above Pecan Spring."
(This is at Bartholomew Park- 51st & Berkman Dr.)
"The tree under which Wilbarger was sitting when found was just at the foot of the hill on the east side of Pecan Spring branch, and about where the road leading from Austin to Manor leads up the hill beyond the crossing on the branch."
(This would have been "Old Manor Rd." at East 51st St.). The tree pictured above is on the east side of Pecan Spring branch at Manor Road, just east of where he was found, and is a very old oak tree similar to what he would have been under.
Compiled paraphrased and edited from online resources, and from the book “Indian Depredations in Texas” by J.W. Wilbarger (brother of Josiah)
Caroline Clemmons- Sweethearts of the West
The Handbook of Texas online
J. Frank Dobie, Tales of Old-Time Texas