by Lonn Taylor
The Rambling Boy
The weeks between March 6, 1836, when the Alamo fell, and April 21, when Santa Anna was defeated at San Jacinto, were the darkest in Texas history. Santa Anna’s army moved eastward from San Antonio into the heart of Anglo-American Texas, destroying everything in its path, and Sam Houston’s army retreated before it. No one knew what the outcome would be.
“There was nothing for us to do but run,” recalled Lucinda Gorham, recounting the events of 40 years earlier. “We went to Cunninghams to join the Bastrop people, who were going by the Gotcher Trace. We camped in the field, and before daylight 25 Comanches stampeded and took our horses. We put it to a vote whether we should stop there and send to the army for relief or get away from there as fast as we could. The women voted, too.”
Lucinda Gorham was recalling the Runaway Scrape, the mass flight of Anglo-American settlers to the Sabine River, the boundary between Mexican Texas and American Louisiana, that took place during those weeks. She told her story to Julia Lee Sinks in 1876, when Sinks was interviewing old settlers for a history of Fayette County. Her brief narrative captures the fear, indecision and misery that accompanied the panic that swept through the Anglo settlements of Texas that spring.
Gorham went on to tell Sinks that, after the Comanches ran their horses off, her little group made a stand on the prairie, the men waving their rifles and the women waving sticks, hoping the Comanches would mistake them for rifles. The Comanches emerged from the woods on horseback and circled the group several times but did not attack them. Eventually the Indians rode off to loot a nearby cotton gin. Lucinda Gorham and her group got across the Colorado River in an abandoned boat and walked across Fayette and Washington counties to the Brazos in knee-deep mud. When they got to the crossing at Washington-on-the-Brazos, they found the west bank of the river jammed with “all manner of vehicles, good and worn out carriages, ox and mule wagons, trucks, slides, anything that could carry women and children.”
The panic started at Gonzales on March 11, the day the news of the fall of the Alamo reached Sam Houston and the Texan army that was camped there. The slaughter at the Alamo created 20 widows in that little town. Many of them were young women with small children. Houston ordered the army to withdraw eastward and the town to be burned, and the women and children followed the army.
As Houston’s little army retreated toward the Colorado River, the panic spread across Texas as word flew from settlement to settlement that Santa Anna’s army meant to purge the region of Anglo-Americans. In Nacogdoches, far from the Mexican threat, the rumor started that the Cherokees had allied themselves with the Mexicans and were planning to massacre the population. Most of the men were on their way to join the army, and colonist John A. Quitman reported that, “…the houses are all deserted, and there are several thousands of women and children in the woods on both sides of the Sabine without supplies or money.”
In fact, the Runaway Scrape was almost entirely an exodus of women and children. As Houston’s army crossed first the Colorado and then the Brazos without making a stand, retreating farther and farther eastward, more and more farms were abandoned, and ever-increasing numbers of women whose men were with the army took to the roads with their children. The rains that spring were the heaviest in many years. The roads turned into quagmires, and the rivers and creeks swelled beyond their banks. Dilue Rose Harris, who was 11-years-old when her family abandoned their home at Stafford’s Point, recalled that when they reached the San Jacinto River at Lynch’s Ferry there were 5,000 people waiting to cross. They camped in the rain for three days before they could get to the other side. They pushed on east to the Trinity River, which was out of its banks and covered with driftwood.
”The horrors of crossing the Trinity are beyond my power to describe,” she later wrote. “Measles, sore eyes, whooping cough and every other disease that man, woman, or child is heir to broke out among us. . . .” It took them five days to cross the swollen river and get out of its flooded bottom. Her little sister died in her mother’s arms and was buried in the cemetery at Liberty where a family took them in. They were so exhausted they could go no farther.
They were still at Liberty when they heard a sound like distant thunder. It was the cannons firing at San Jacinto.
The cannonade was so brief that they thought the Texans had been defeated, and they started east again only to be overtaken by a man on horseback who shouted, “Turn back! No danger! The Texans have whipped the Mexican army!” She recalled that her mother laughed that night for the first time since they left home. Mary Helm, another refugee, remembered that when news of the victory reached their camp her party “. . .all turned shouting Methodist . . . some danced, some laughed, some clapped their hands.”
For many the trip back home was as arduous as the flight.
The rain was unrelenting, the rivers were still up and the roads were still morasses. When they reached their homes they found them in ashes. Santa Anna’s army had burned everything in its path. Rosa von Roeder Kleberg recalled that when her family left their home at Cat Spring they had buried their large library, but the Mexicans found it and tore the pages from all of the books as well as burning their home. “We had to begin anew,” she wrote, “with less than we had when we started.”
For those who were in it, the Runaway Scrape became a watershed that divided old Texans from Johnny-come-latelies. The Runaway Scrape seems to have fallen between the cracks, forgotten amidst celebrations of the Declaration of Independence, the Alamo, and San Jacinto. But it should be remembered and celebrated too, because it is a monument to the fortitude of Texas women who held their families together in the face of disaster.
Lonn Taylor is a historian who lives in Fort Davis, Texas and writes columns about Texas history for the Marfa Big Bend Sentinel, where this piece originally appeared, and Texas Monthly magazine. For 20 years, Taylor served as a historian at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. He lived in Round Top from 1970 to 1977 when he was director of the Winedale Historical Center.