Jim Bowie went looking for underground riches in 1831 but found instead a bunch of belligerent Indians on Nov. 20.
“The Lost Bowie Mine” was not always lost nor was it always named after the famous frontiersman. In 1753 Spaniards searching for a place to put a mission in present-day Llano County learned of a cedro de almagre or hill of red ocher. Several explorers were shown the mineral-rich mound by obliging Apaches.
Three years later, Bernardo de Miranda y Flores led an expedition to the site, sank a shaft and discovered, in his own words, “a tremendous stratum of ore.” Miranda got so carried away by the fabulous find that he actually told the royal governor there was enough precious metal for “each of the inhabitants of the province of Texas” to have his own mine.
But salvation came before silver. Only after an Apache mission and a presidio were built on the San Saba River near modern-day Menard was permission given to work the mine. The total destruction of the pious outpost by Indians in 1758 resulted in the permanent closure of the dig.
With the passage of time, the exact location of the Los Almagres Mine, as the Spaniards called it, was forgotten. There were, however, rumors and stories aplenty. According to the current edition of the Handbook of Texas, “Stephen F. Austin, on his first trip to Texas (in 1821), heard from Erasmo Seguin that there was a rich silver mine on the San Saba River and a gold mine on the Llano.”
Jim Bowie could think of little else after coming to Mexico’s northernmost province from Louisiana in 1828. He was combing the countryside for clues to the whereabouts of the missing mine, when he happened to meet Xolic of the Lipan Apaches. After the white adventurer set the old chief’s broken leg, the two became the best of friends.
But try as he may, Bowie could not pry the location of the Los Almagres out of the tight-lipped Apache. Xolic took the secret with him to the happy hunting ground, and his successor Tres Manos ordered the pale face with the king-size knife to stay out of Indian Country.
Bowie had never paid much attention to threats, and he was not about to let a tough-talking chief keep him from the fortune he had been chasing all his life. On Nov. 2, 1831, he left San Antonio for the forbidden zone with his brother Rezin and 11 ready-for-anything traveling companions.
The plan was to proceed to San Saba and erect a stockade on the ruins of the burned-out mission. The sturdy structure would double as headquarters for reopening the abandoned mine and as a fortress in the event of Indian attack.
The small but vigilant party crossed the Llano River on Nov. 19 and camped at the future townsite of Mason. A band of friendly Indians informed Bowie that his presence had not gone undetected and that Tres Manos was hunting him with as many as 200 warriors. He thanked them for the warning but refused to heed their advice to turn back.
Behind Bowie’s bravado was the hair-raising knowledge that he and his comrades were as good as dead, if the Lipan Apaches caught them out in the open. Their only chance was to reach the old mission by dark the next day.
An early start and a well-worn buffalo trail helped them make excellent time. But just when they dared to think they might make it, a long line of Indians suddenly materialized a mile in front of them.
Bowie sized up the situation and quickly improvised. He changed course and guided his anxious associates to the intersection of the San Saba River and Calf Creek. From all appearances they had bedded down for the night, when in reality they slipped away in the darkness leaving the campfire burning.
Bowie was not looking for an escape route, which he knew was out of the question, but a defensible position. He found it a few miles upstream on Calf Creek – a grove of oak trees bordered on the north by a dense thicket.
The sun had barely cleared the horizon, when the fighting started. The first red men to fall were Caddo, unusual Apache allies since they normally got along with the white newcomers. They surrounded the oak grove, which proved to be a short-sighted move that made them sitting ducks for Bowie’s sharpshooters.
Twice the Indians tried to burn them out by setting fire to dry prairie grass. Resisting the temptation to flee the flames, the defenders decided to stand their ground and fight to the last man.
After 13 hours of constant combat, the attackers withdrew taking with them 40 or 50 dead and 35 wounded. Bowie lost a single man, Tom McCaslin, in what was described as “perhaps the most desperate Indian fight recorded in Texas history.”
The payoff for Jim Bowie was not silver but another exciting chapter in his action-packed life. The Battle of Calf Creek turned out to be a dress rehearsal for the last act four and half years later on the Alamo stage.
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