Editor’s Pick
NOVEMBER 30, 2008 10:55AM

Relatively Unsung Heroes

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Juan Nepomuceno Seguin was a man whose good and bad fortune it was to be always on the border between the Anglo Texians and the Mexican Tejanos, during his lifetime and after. He was born in the first decade of the 19th century, a native of San Antonio. He came of a prominent local family; his father Erasmo Seguin was a signatory to Mexico’s first constitution of 1824. Juan Seguin married into another prominent local family, and was himself elected to the office of alcalde, a sort of cross between mayor and justice of the peace while in his late twenties. Altogether, he was a promising young man in local politics, when Texas was merely a far-distant province of Mexico itself, and gradually becoming disaffected by the dictatorial actions of the Centralist President of Mexico, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, and the self-styled Napoleon of the West.

When Santa Anna soon dissolved the Mexican Congress, and threatened to come down like a ton of bricks on those who disagreed with his way of running Mexico, moderates such as Seguin were thrown into opposition, right alongside their Anglo neighbors. Stephen Austin granted a captain’s commission to Seguin, who raised a company of scouts. When General Martin Cos was thrown out of San Antonio at the end of 1835, Captain Seguin’s company of nearly forty men were among those doing the throwing. He and his company were among the small garrison of the tumbledown mission compound known as the Alamo. I have read speculation that Seguin might have been detailed as it’s commander, given his local prominence and background… but that he personally was too valuable, first as a scout, and secondly for his local connections. He was sent out of the doomed Alamo as a courier. At Gonzales, when Sam Houston began gathering his ragged Army of Texans, Seguin collected the remnants of his little band of Tejanos, who served as scouts and as rear-guard, as Houston fell back into East Texas.

When Houston finally turned to fight Santa Anna, at first he wanted to leave Seguin’s company out of his line of battle, fearing that in the thick of it all, Seguin’s men might be in danger from their own side. After the massacre of the defenders of the Alamo and the Goliad, many of Houston’s army were not inclined to make distinctions between Mexicans. Houston first suggested that Seguin’s Tejanos guard the camp and the baggage.

Seguin angrily refused, insisting on a place for his company in the line: he also had lost some of his men in the Alamo. All of those he had left to him were from San Antonio, and they could not return to their homes until Santa Anna was defeated; they had just as much or more cause to hate him as any Anglo-Texian. It was their right to take a part in this fight. Houston relented, asking only that Seguin’s men must place pieces of cardboard in their hatbands, to distinguish them.

In Stephen Hardin’s book “A Texian Illiad”— a history of the Texas Revolution, illustrated with careful sketches of many of the soldier participants — there is one of a member of Seguin’s Tejano volunteers. His clothes and equipment are of the borderlands: American shoes, short Mexican trousers, a fringed buckskin jacket, a rolled serape and a Brown Bess musket, a gourd canteen and a wide-brimmed vaquero’s hat with a rosary around the crown and a slip of cardboard with “Requerda el Alamo” scrawled on it.

More about Seguin here : His monument in Texas is the town of Segiun, a little south of San Antonio on the main highway.

Britton “Brit” Johnson was born a slave in Tennessee around 1840, and brought to Texas by his owner, who was a landholder in the Peters colony, an impresario grant in Northern Texas on the Red River. Johnson seems to have been able to read and write; although technically a slave, he worked as a ranch foreman. He must have been allowed a great deal of latitude, for in the last year of the Civil War, he was working as an independent freighter, owning his own team and wagon. He was married, and the father of four children. His home was in western Young County, in the Elm Creek Valley northwest of Fort Belknap, on property owned by the Carter family, brothers Edmund and Alexander. The Carters were free men of color, but the most prosperous family in the county, due to their ranching and freighting interests. Alexander’s wife Elizabeth Bishop Carter, was white, and after the deaths of her husband and father in law, she continued to manage their various properties and enterprises. Johnson had worked for the Carters as a ranch hand and teamster, and continued to work for Elizabeth Carter, after her remarriage to a man named Fitzpatrick and her subsequent second widowing .

In mid October of 1864, Britt Johnson and two of Elizabeth Carter Fitzgerald’s neighbors had gone to Weatherford, In Parker County, to purchase supplies. They were returning, with their wagons well-laden with when they received word that an large party of Kiowa and Comanche warriors (later estimated to be between 700 and 1,500) had gone through the Elm Creek Valley settlements like a flash fire. They had burned homes, raided, stolen cattle and horses, killed a number of settlers and taken others captive. The three men left their wagons and hurried to their homes on horseback.

Britt Johnson came home to find that not only had his wife Mary and two younger children, Cherry and Charlie, been taken by the raiders, but his teenage son Jube had been killed. Elizabeth Carter Fitzgerald’s widowed daughter Susan Durgan had also died, on the front porch of her mothers’ house with a shotgun in her hands. Elizabeth, her young son Elijah, and Susan’s daughters Lottie and Millie Durgan, then aged about five  and two years old, were also captives. The raiders had also taken several thousand head of cattle and horses, and set bonfires as they went, to discourage any immediate pursuit. By the time the cavalry came to the rescue, the Indian war party was long gone. When winter set in, the raiders had settled into winter camps along the Canadian River, near the ruins of an old trading post called Bent’s Fort. The captives were taken into various camps, all but Elijah. He had fallen ill, from drinking tainted water, and been killed by his captors when he had not been able to keep up. He was thrown onto a bonfire and burned alive. His mother was forced to watch the murder of her child.

According to legend, Britt Johnson stayed just long enough to see to the safety of his older daughter, who had been visiting a neighbor on the day of the raid; a neighbor who had just enough warning to fort up and successfully defend his house and those sheltering in it. He had often delivered freight to Ft. Belknap, and was well known to many of the Penateka Comanche, who had lived there before being moved north to Indian Territory. Johnson managed to make contact with a Chief Asa-Havay, who agreed to help him search for his family and negotiate their return… in exchange for an exorbitant ransom. Johnson was able to raise the ransom demanded when he returned to the settlements. Early in 1865 he returned to the Indian agency on the Washita River, in company with Chief Asa-Havey and another man, David White, who hoped to ransom his son from the Indians.

There were peace talks being held between the Kiowa and Comanche, and representatives of the Confederacy, and the peace commissioner wrangled permission for Britt Johnson, David White and Chief Asa-Havey to travel among the Indian villages, searching for and ransoming captives. Over the next year Johnson was successful in recovering some of them, including his wife and daughters, and David White’s son. Lottie Durgan was recovered nearly a year later, and her grandmother another year after that. Millie Durgan was never found, although Britt Johnson and her grandmother kept searching for her. It is thought that she was adopted into the family of the war-chief who took her family in the Elm Creek raid. An elderly Kiowa woman named Gain Toh Oodie interviewed in the 1930ies by an interested newspaper reporter may indeed have been the child Millie Durgan.

Sadly, Britt Johnson, who had continued to work as a teamster and freight-hauler was killed with two other teamsters by raiding Indians in 1871, near Salt Creek. Those who came upon the aftermath counted nearly two hundred empty rifle and pistol shells where Britt Johnson had made his last stand, behind the body of his horse. His monument is a different sort than Seguins’, being more virtual. His efforts to rescue his family, and others are supposed to be the inspiration for the movie “The Searchers”.

Of these two unsung heroes of 19th century Texas, only Britt Johnson makes an appearance in  my upcoming book release, "The Adelsverein Trilogy". In Book Three - The Harvesting, he is hired by Hansi Richter in an attempt to rescue Hansi's two youngest children, taken by a raiding Comanche war party in 1866. Juan Seguin is briefly mentioned in Book Two- The Sowing, as a friend of the father of a Tejano character, Porfirio Menchaca ... whose father was part of the Alamo garrison. I will have copies available very shortly, should anyone want to purchase the trilogy in time for Christmas!

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texas, frontier, history

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You're right - I was thinking of Poteet, which is more to the south on 16.
Every year our high school stage band would play a festival in Seguin...only later in college did I learn how the town got its name. 30 years or so ago, I saw a show on Seguin on TV. He's definitely deserving of more recognition. Thanks for the info on Britt, too.