Colonizer takes slum refugees to hell on earth

Five dozen Europeans from the slums of New York City set foot in Texas on Dec. 12, 1833 on their way to a promised paradise on the Rio Grande.

John Charles Beales was an English expatriate, who moved to Mexico in 1804. A physician by profession, he was a late entrant in the race for Texas real estate. By the time he filed his application, the choice sites had long since been handed out.

No empressario in his right mind would have accepted the eight million acres awarded to the ignorant amateur in 1833. But Beales and his partner, another doctor named James Grant, were oblivious to the dangers between the Nueces and Rio Grande rivers.

Dr. Beales went back east to recruit industrious Europeans for the dubious endeavor and enlisted several families of English, Spanish and German refugees eager to swap the squalor of Manhattan for Texas’ wide-open spaces. Fifty-nine men, women and children set sail with their messiah on Nov. 11, 1833.

After a month at sea, they dropped anchor in Aransas Bay. Because the disorganized doctor had not arranged transportation for the next leg of the trip, his followers spent three wretched weeks on the windswept beach with only flimsy tents for shelter.

The party eventually proceeded inland by way of Goliad and San Antonio. To commemorate their crossing of the Nueces, these words were carved on a tree trunk: “The first colonists of the village of Dolores passed here on the 28th of February 1834.”

Sixteen days later, the column of 15 carts and wagons reached the site the founder had named for his wife. Not far from the Rio Grande and 30 miles downriver from modern Eagle Pass, Dolores truly was in the middle of nowhere.

Dr. Beales in his slick sales pitch had omitted any mention of the hot climate, poor soil and constant threat of attack from hostile Indians. The pioneers hired Mexican mercenaries for protection against the red raiders, but nothing prevented their crops from turning to dust in the parched fields. 

The cursed colony steadily shrank in size as bitter disappointment replaced boundless optimism. Scarcely a month went by without more defections as frightened families abandoned the hellish hamlet for the safety of the Mexican interior.

Late word of Santa Anna’s invasion of Texas was the cue for the overdue departure of the Dolores die-hards. Last to leave were eight unattached men, the Horns and their two small sons and the Harrises with a three-month-old baby. On March 10, 1836, four days after the fall of the Alamo, they began the 200-mile trek to the coastal colony of San Patricio.

East of the Nueces and almost in sight of their destination, the evacuees were surprised by a Comanche war party. The warriors swiftly slaughtered nine of the 11 adult males and took the survivors captive.

Before breaking camp the next day, the Indians disposed of those considered excess baggage. The Harris infant was casually killed in front of the horrified mother, and an arrow-and-lance volley put a pair of wounded men out of their misery.

The band of 400 Comanches resumed their raid with the two widows and the Horn brothers in tow. Riding past the scene of a skirmish between the rebels and government cavalry, one of the women recognized the remains of Beales’ partner Dr. Grant.

Sometime that summer, Mrs. Horn was permanently separated from her boys. Except for fleeting glimpses on the trail, the heartbroken mother never saw them again.

Mexican traders bought the freedom of Mrs. Harris in June 1837, but the capricious Comanches rejected their equally generous offer for her companion. “Now left a lonely exile in the bonds of savage slavery,” wrote Mrs. Horn, “haunted by night and by day with the image of my murdered husband and tortured continually by an undying solicitude for my dear little ones, my life was little else than unmitigated misery.”

Three months later in New Mexico, a wealthy American asked the Comanches if their white captive was for sale. Told that she was, he approached the forlorn figure.

“You are the woman I have heard of,” the well-dressed merchant said. “I suppose you would be happy to get away from these people.”

Mrs. Horn stammered she would be eternally grateful for her liberty. Without another word, the stranger turned on his heel and walked away leaving the pitiful prisoner to ponder his intentions.

For three nerve-racking days, Mrs. Horn waited in vain for her would-be rescuer to return. She had all but given up hope, when a second businessman paid a chief’s ransom for her freedom.

Her health ruined by the 18-month ordeal, Mrs. Horn died soon after her dramatic deliverance. Her sons presumably lived out their lives as white Comanches.

As for Dr. John Charles Beales, he was conveniently absent from Texas when his ill-fated colony collapsed. He never returned and reportedly practiced medicine in New York until his death in the 1870’s.

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