Early Pioneer Days in Texas
In 1838 a young fellow, with a humorous and adventuresome disposition, bold and brave, came to Texas to make his home. He came from South Carolina; he was Uncle Joe Spence. Uncle Joe was not an ordinary man in the sense of being uninteresting or unattractive in conduct and speech, but was vivacious, humorous and a good conversationalist. He had an excellent memory and could spill more yarns and stories and make everyone around him jolly and gay. He was like the sunshine after a cold, wet rain, and so lighthearted and gay and jovial that he was twice happy who had the good fortune to be associated with him. How charming were the times when Uncle Joe would come to the home of my parents, and how my boy chums and playmates would delight themselves as Uncle Joe would entertain the older folks, especially at Christmas. The darkies, our trusty servants, would make special efforts to get through their work to hear Uncle Joe tell of his experiences in dealing with the wily savage or thrilling experiences and encounters with wild beasts. Uncle Joe told us once how he made his first attempt at raising crops. He had cleared a small patch of new ground, put a brush fence around it, and afterwards used big heavy rails. In the patch he planted corn, peas and pumpkins. Scarcely had he got a good start when the deer, coons, squirrels and bears began to help themselves to his crop. The Indians looked on, too, with longing eyes, and about the time he was about to enjoy the fruits of his labor the bloodcurdling yell of the savages burst in on his peace and began to devastate the little patch he had so carefully husbanded. Frequently he was obliged to seek the shelter of his stoutly built log cabin and through the loopholes he had specially prepared pepper the Indians with his faithful, tried and true rifle. In this way many of the Indians were silenced forever, and many a time my father, W. B. Allen, and other brave pioneers helped to drive the pestiferous pilferers away.
The way Uncle Joe got rid of the coons and the droll and interesting manner he explained it are reminiscences I cannot help but think are novel. He made a fire pan light to shine the coons' eyes by tying a frying pan handle to a pole and setting fire to rich pine knots, put them in the pan and flash them in the eyes of the coon, then blaze away with his flint-lock shotgun, and the coons would drop in multitudes, while those that could would scatter helter skelter in every direction in their haste to get away. His bear and coon dogs followed up the chase until they found a big hollow tree, about forty feet high, that had been broken by a big storm. The tree was about four feet wide, and into this hollow the coons tried to hide, their tails, in a conspicuous heap, hanging out at the opening near the ground. Here a battle royal ensued until the bear and coon dogs had dispatched the pest, and their hides were hastily taken and loaded later for the market with bear, buffalo, panther, deer and wolf skins, and set on pack ponies to be taken to Sam Fulton's store, on White River, Arkansas, a distance of about eighty-five miles.
On another occasion Uncle Joe, my father, and a few friends were exploring and seeking a place to locate claims, which they had a right to do, after they had journeyed through a beautiful country over very rich fertile lands, pitched their camp. After being out about the third day Uncle Joe took a bucket to get some water while the others were making ready to fix the camp. Passing over to an adjoining hill, he found a fine gurgling spring of pure, cold water, bursting out of gravel and boulders. While he was filling his bucket he noted the numerous tracks from moccasined feet and an innumerable quantity of animal tracks, evidencing that this was the watering place for a considerable surrounding country. Suddenly he was aroused by the unearthly yell of a host of bloodthirsty savages. Summoning his courage, he bravely faced his foe and defiantly held himself in an attitude of defense. The Indians, admiring his courage, said they did not want to kill brave man. The chief came forward, patting him on the back, said: "Much heap brave white man," "White man make heap good chief," "He whip big Indian tribes if he be their chief." The Indians camped there one night, then went on their journey, following next day on their narrow, meandering trail, chanting as they went their weird war songs. As they journeyed on they occasionally encountered buffalo, bear or deer, and when hungry would take their bows and arrows, lances and tomahawks and scalping knives and eat ravenously the raw meat of their victims as quickly as they were skinned. Uncle Joe was taken with them and his days were sad and lonely, as he contemplated that he would probably never see his friends again, as he was being taken farther and farther away from them. Probably he would be killed and scalped, and his Texas friends and Carolina friend would never know what had befallen him. The Indians were surprised one day to see in the distance what seemed to be smoke, but which proved to be a cloud of dust ascending upward to the skies. Quickly they discovered the cause was a monster rush of stampeded wild horses and other animals rushing like the wind toward them, like a mighty avalanche. Seeing the imminent danger, the Indians and brave Uncle Joe courageously prepared to give resistance and defend themselves against the onrushing beasts. They were almost on them and the blinding dust made breathing difficult. The plan agreed on was to kill the leaders in the hope that the others would divide and thus prevent them from being crushed to death. Uncle Joe, taking deliberate aim, brought down the biggest buffalo leader and the Indians did their share well, and the result was that they escaped the death which seemed certain to be upon them. After feasting on the carcasses of the animals they had slain they proceeded to the mountain ranges through the valleys and rough, rocky roads till they reached the top of one of .the highest ones, from which they could have a view for miles away. Camping, the Indians compelled Uncle Joe to carry wood and water, imposing heavy burdens almost unbearable. Uncle Joe was ever on the alert for an opportunity to escape, but the watchful eyes of the squaws and spies made it impossible. After the cheerful fire of the blazing logs, which the cold night air made doubly agreeable, the Indians fell to sleep, while poor Uncle Joe, suffering from cold and dread and apprehension, not knowing what the Indians intended to do with him and having a sense of his helplessness and loneliness, sat dejectedly near, though not able to enjoy the comforts of the fire. In the morning, after a night of stupor and unrest, he discerned the Indians pointing and jabbering over a large iron-bound whisky barrel that had been left by some white men who had camped there. The Indians proceeded to loosen the hoops and broke out the head, then rushed and violently took Uncle Joe and crammed him in the barrel, put on the head, and after giving their fiendish yell, went off and left him there to die. In his dilemma poor Uncle Joe revolved in his mind the good and the bad he had done in his life; cramped as he was there was little hope of escape and no hope of escape seemed possible. The only way he could get fresh air to breathe was through the bunghole. No one who has never been in a like position can appreciate the torture he had to bear. After he had been in the barrel some time a large number of wolves, bears and panthers came to feed upon the carcasses left by the Indians after they had broken camp. In their efforts to get the remnants the beasts began to fight. The howling, snarling and barking beasts made a hideous noise, so fierce as to make poor Uncle Joe's flesh creep. Two big black wolves got into a terrific battle and jumped and fell over each other beside the barrel in which Uncle Joe was a prisoner. One of the big wolves, in switching his tail, got it stuck through the bunghole of the barrel and Uncle Joe snatched it with a grip like a drowning man catching a straw. The big wolf, in his rage, went bounding over rocks and hills until the strain on the barrel loosened the hoops and the staves gave way, with Uncle Joe rolling down the hillside, but fortunately he had escaped from his prison and he was overjoyed over his good fortune. He said it seemed to him as though he had rolled over a mile before he could gather together his senses, and with difficulty he picked up his bruised and mangled body, glanced about at the bewildered beasts about him who slunk away when they saw him stand up before them, master over all he surveyed.
He lost no time in returning to his comrades, traveling night and day to get to the camp. What a happy surprise it was to the boys to see him come, as they were fearful lest they would never see his face again. But he lived to have many an exciting experience after this, and not long after he had one with bears that had been carrying off his roasting ears on his new-made ground. Filling his flash pan, he went out and found the bears with a lot in their arms walking on their hind feet. Flashing their eyes with his pan, he killed two or three with his gun, and not having a good hold lost his footing, fell back, and the bear was about to jump on him when he whipped out his knife and they had a rough and tumble fight. Finally he thrust his knife to the bear's heart and he came off victorious with several carcasses of bear to his credit. They had plenty of bear meat to eat for several days.
It is, of course, impossible to recite all the deeds of valor and the only hopes I have in writing this little sketch of Uncle Joe Spence is to show to the generation now living, and those that are to follow, some of the difficulties and dangers that were daily experienced by the brave pioneers of former days. Uncle Joe's example and fortitude may not seem so striking now, but it was the lives of such men as these that have left us the freedom and comforts we enjoy as a blessed heritage, and it is my humble privilege to extol his name as of nature's noblemen and as one of Texas' heroes.