Camp among the Comanches

While I often can find the same article printed in multiple nineteenth-century newspapers, I have only found the following in one, the Charleston City Gazette for December 28, 1818.  While the letter is not signed, I suspect it was written by a Dr. Sibley, an Indian agent resident at Natchitoches, Louisiana.  He must have had a voluminous correspondence, for his letters are often found in these early papers.  I have tentatively labeled it, “The First Texas Tall Tale,” although some have assured me there must be earlier, and taller ones.

From Natches, Nov 21.  Dated, “Camp among the Comanches,” October 20, 1818:

            Dear Sir—I received your’s, bearing date of October 1st, 1818, requesting information concerning the animal which has lately been discovered by the natives of the Province of Texas, and duly take my pen to answer it.  On the 10th August, 1818, there was a report by two Chiefs of the Tribe of Indians called Lapans, that a tremendous animal had been discovered in their neighborhood—it was represented by them as an animal so different from what naturalists had delineated in their descriptions, as to give me some doubt of its existence; but knowing the veracity of these Chiefs, my curiosity was excited to make further enquiry.  I went to the place where it was said to have been seen, which was called the Prairie del Grande Ajo, or the Prairie of the Great Spring.  I found the place entirely desolate.  Every native had retired to a considerable distance.  They told me ‘twas a fact that the Caiman de Tierra ruled predominant in that part of their country.  They said if I did not believe them, they would take me to a precipice from under which the spring flowed, where I could remain in perfect security, and from whence I could see him, with all his usual motions.  . . .  He approached the spring, and drank by lapping; after which he retired to a small distance, and partly secreted himself; he placed his under jaw, or chin, in a smooth rock, and being extended at full length, his tail reached a tree which in this country is called bois d’arc.  I was desirous to attempt to kill him, by firing down the precipice upon him; but being told by the natives that an attempt had been made several times in vain, and if I did not disturb him I would see a struggle between him and the mustangs, or wild horses—I desisted; and about 10 o’clock, A. M. when some of these mustangs, with which this large prairie abounds, came to drink, he raised his tail and fastened it on the neck of a large horse.  It appeared that the tail of this animal possessed the faculties of the proboscis of an elephant; for with it he circulated twice the neck of the horse, and at the same time seized a large tree with his fore feet; the horse pitched and bounded tremendously; but in the end he was choked and killed.  The animal then turned to him and devoured the meat of him at a meal.  He afterwards withdrew, when I had an opportunity to descend to measure the distance from the rock on which he had placed his chin to the tree, which was fifty-three feet; the diameter of his body in the largest part, appeared at least 4 ½ or 5 feet.  He was of a dark brown or rusty color.  His tail from the hind legs appeared somewhat larger than from thence to the end of the nose; his head was about the same proportion as that of an alligator, but his hind legs were considerably longer than his fore ones.  When he went off he folded his tail over his back, which discovered to me that his whole force and action lay in this part for both offensive and defensive operations.  I enquired if any other animal of the same description had been seen, and was told there had not; that this had come from the north-west on one of the ____ branches of the Rio del Norte; that he was never seen to attack any other animal than a mustang, and that he had been fired upon without effect—since which I have seen a Spaniard by name of Don Pedro de Dios, who observed him and marked his actions for three days, all of which were similar to what I have described.  The animal is certainly not more strange than curious in natural history.  Knowing you to be a man of taste, I have been minute in its description.  If required, I will give my affidavit of what I have written, and will produce the affidavits of three other persons.”

[From the web page of Corpus Christi Museum; Dinosaurs:  “Probosuchus.  This Texas crocodile from the Cretaceous Period was discovered along the Rio Grande in the western part of the state.  It was estimated to have been 40-50 feet long.”]

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About the Author

Mary Bowden is a researcher working at the Texas Collections Deposit Library at the University of Texas. A little-known but invaluable treasure of U.S. history and the history of American journalism is archived in the collection of bound United States’ Newspapers at the University of Texas at Austin. The collection began more than a century ago and has been stored in recent years in the Texas Collections Deposit Library on the campus of the University of Texas. The sizeable archive is currently in the early stages of being digitized before being moved to a more climate-controlled environment at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus of the University, on the north side of Austin.

Mary Bowden