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The Searchers” Revisited
by
Milton William Talbot, Jr. MD
April 2001

There have been many gripping stories arising from the settling of the American Southwest during the early 19th century.Few of them have had more romantic appeal or been subject to more fictionalization than those repeatedly told tales of Indian raids and child abductions. Such depredations and kidnappings were certainly not uncommon and occurred many times during those turbulent years, but there is one story that has been told and retold many times and although published repeatedly became perhaps the best known through the novel of Alan Le May, The Searchers.1This novel, which subsequently became a John Wayne movie6, was only the most recent (and admittedly fictionalized) of the numerous published accounts of a story in which an Indian raid upon a frontier family results in the abduction of a little girl with a long, difficult and ultimately successful search by her uncles and her final recovery. 

In this instance there is a very real story behind all of this and its victims and protagonists were members of the Talbot family and descendants of Matthew “the Gentleman”.

The Harvey Massacre is a well-known event in the folklore of Central Texas. Over time much of its recounting, often claiming historical accuracy, has been embroidered with speculation, bits from other stories and a natural tendency of authors, unsure of their facts, to invent them. I have made an attempt here to collect as much of the data that currently exists and to dispel as much of the fiction as possible. Even so, it is still an absorbing story.

In the 1820’s and 1830’s Texas was a Mexican state that enjoyed some degree of civilization only along its southern border and the curving, marshy coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Otherwise its principal inhabitants were Indians (Comanche, Kiowa, Tonkawa, Apache) whose roving, undisciplined and at times rapacious bands controlled the fertile interior.2The government of Mexico, despairing of Hispanic settlement there, solicited American immigration though grants of large tracts of interior land to developers whom they hoped would bring settlers who would be accepting of the Catholic Church and Mexican citizenship. The land was virtually free and the opportunity to patent a half-league (2222.7 acres) of virgin, fertile land at little cost caused many an independent-minded, Baptist, Anglo-Saxon American to join the trek to Texas. But conflict between the Anglo culture and that of the Indians was frequent, and occasionally violent and no more so than in the post-oak savannas of central Texas

William ( Matthew2 Matthew1) and Mary Bailey Talbot lived in Morgan (later Walton) County, Georgia. They had twelve children. Over time most of them would find their way westward into Alabama where they settled and married. Elizabeth Ann Talbot, their tenth child and fourth daughter, was born in Morgan County, grew up there and with her husband, John B. Harvey, settled to the farming of their homestead on the Good Hope-High Shoals road.4 They had two children: a son, William, born in 1828 and Ann, born in 1830. Four of her brothers, James, Matthew, Hale and William3 moved from Morgan County to Pike County, Alabama where they continued their lives as planters and farmers.

In 1835, a year before Texas rebelled against the strictures of Mexican citizenship and fought for and won its independence, John Harvey, fascinated by the promotions of developer Sterling Robertson, decided to make the move westward4,5,. He packed their family belongings, and began the long journey, probably passing through Pike County, Alabama, where the brothers who were to play such a major role in the life of her daughter then lived. The Brazos and several other rivers that ran from the hinterlands of Texas to the Gulf of Mexico supported navigation, often for several hundred miles inland. Along these and through traces cut through the dense riparian forests of the Sabine river and along the El Camino Real from central Louisiana to San Antonio, these recruited Anglo-Saxon immigrants poured relentlessly. To protect them and to provide a base from which their capture of the land could proceed, numerous small forts were built, and, although sparsely armed and manned, they provided an aura of safety. 

John and Elizabeth Harvey, with the two children and a 14-year-old Negro slave girl, came to Texas in the latter part of 1835, probably traveling by ship to Matagorda and then up the Brazos. Although they could have come overland, most did not when coming into this part of Texas. There were other families that came with him and, according to family tradition, Matthew Talbot and whatever family he had was one of them.9

He left his family at Dunn’s Fort, one of the fortified encampments, in southern Robertson County and, going northwestward up the Little Brazos River, found a site approximately 6 miles north of the present town of Calvert on which he built a log house and began his homestead. It was a beautiful land that he found there: fertile, with expanses of tall grass prairie interspersed at wide intervals by dense groves of post-oaks. The terrain was flat, the soil the of Brazos river flood plain brown and rich with its creek banks wooded and brushy, providing good cover for game and livestock—and Indians.7 In the latter part of the next year (1836), after the cabin was complete, he brought Elizabeth, the two children and the slave girl to live there. The cabin was on a hillside overlooking the Little Brazos River and had a spring a few yards away.

One Sunday in November, the family went to church. That evening, upon their return, while they were reading the Bible, the Negro girl went for water, returned running and screaming “Indians!” Harvey went to the open door, reached for his rifle, which was cradled above it, but was cut down by barrage of arrows. The Indians then rushed in, shot and killed the boy William (arrows again) and Elizabeth who was holding the 5 year old Ann. As in most of the stories, the arrow passed through Ann’s left shoulder, fatally piercing her mother’s chest, and spilling her blood over the open bible.4,8,9,10,11

The dead were taken outside and scalped. The band then ransacked the house and fanned through the blood soaked bible, apparently looking for money, leaving their blooded fingerprints and smudges throughout the book.9They took some household objects, Harvey’s horses, the child Ann and the 14 year old slave18. Three or four days later, the preacher Z. N. Morrell and his two sons, while camping on their way to Waco, encountered what appears to be this same band of Indians proceeding northward up the Brazos. But since they were armed with guns and the Indians not, they were not molested.11

After hearing nothing from the family for a week or more, Matthew Talbot and some others went to the Harvey place and to their horror discovered the carnage. They found that the bodies had been scalped, and left to the ravages of the wild animals of the area and the remains scattered and unidentifiable.9,10According to family tradition Matthew and the others assumed that all had been killed. There is contradiction to this view, though. The December 27, 1836, issue of the Columbia, Texas, Telegraph and Texas Register, published only several weeks later, prints the following: “We are just informed that Mr. Harvey, his wife and son, of Robertson’s Colony, and who lived some twenty five miles above Tenoxititlan, on the east side of the Brazos, were found dead and scalped at his house, that his daughter eight or nine years of age and a Negro girl were missing; supposed to have been carried off by the Indians who had committed the murder.”18

Noting the robbery and depredation of property, something that Indians never seemed to do, and that the tracks showed that the horses were shod,18 all concluded that the band was lead by Mexicans.

The Negro slave may have been sold to a white man in Waco, but in any event soon ended up with a white family in Laredo on the Mexican Border.9,4Matthew, after some time, may have returned to Alabama. According to Charles P. Briggs, III, the great-grandson of Ann Harvey, family tradition holds that no extensive effort was made to trace or recover Ann, since it was assumed that she was dead. Also acting on that assumption and acting as next of kin, Matthew then took over John Harvey’s land. But Z. N. Morrell, a traveling Baptist preacher, says in his book Flowers and Fruits from the Wilderness22in an entry supposedly from 1837, but obviously written after 1853:“…news has just reached us that the little daughter of Harvey, whose sad fate has been recorded, was alive in Mexico and a Negro girl whose life was spared by the Indians in the midst of the same massacre…Her uncle, James Talbot, was then living in Alabama. After long search and a large expenditure of money, this brother in Christ found the child. She had been sold by the Indians, and was now greatly attached to its Mexican mother. Her arm had been broken during the killing of her parents. She was carried by the uncle to Alabama, and by him was afterwards brought to Texas” He goes on to say that he has been in her house many times and “used the family Bible at worship owned by her father, and which yet has upon its pages the blood of her parents, spilled by the hands of the Indians on that fearful night." This passage, having obviously been written after Ann and her husband, Sanders Briggs, had returned to Robertson County, may be useless, for it could be but one more embellishment to the story, but since Morrell knew them, visited them and obviously talked with them about the incident, some credibility has to be given. Further the article in the Texas Telegraph and Register does indicate that her abduction was known.

Four years later, after the Negro slave convinced her white owners of the truth of the story and that Ann had been taken into Mexico, an American Consul12,20 was able to locate the child living with a prominent Mexican family in either Matamoros or Monterrey. It is known that the family was that of Cortinas a Mexican military officer (General or whatever, stories vary) and that it was, for the time and place, affluent. Whether Cortinas was the leader of the Indian band (as some accounts hold4), or had bought the child from them for the rumored price of several blankets10, no one now knows. At any rate she seems to have been treated well. In fact, in one account 4 she was greatly loved and pampered by her “foster parents”, and her appearance, described as black haired and blue eyed, captured the Mexicans interest.4,14However, in another account she was described as impressing them with “her bright blonde curls”.13

The American Consul notified James Talbot in Alabama of the presence of the child12—just how it was determined that he would be the one who should be notified is not known. Matthew, who may still have been living in Texas, picked up the girl after the release was arranged and four years after her capture, in 1840, brought her to Alabama where she lived in the household of James and Hannah Talbot and their children.12,19

Despite romantic descriptions of a relentless search4,11,14,16, a dramatic escape4,11,14,16, of hardship on the way4,14,16, of recapture4,14,16 and the like and of ransom paid6,10, none of this is in the memory of those who have kept the story and nothing verifiable appears in print except the quote from Morrell 22 above.

Ann Harvey lived in Pike County, Alabama, with James Talbot, until September of 1848 when, at the age of 18 she married, Sanders Briggs17. They lived for several years in Pike County having at least one child and perhaps a second before they joined with the James Talbots, the Salters and probably several other families and returned to Central Texas.  James Talbot was then 48 years of age “a distinguished man, a Mason and a Baptist and a man of strong family ties.”19 James Talbot was also a wealthy planter in his Alabama home, with large land holdings and many slaves21 and it is at first puzzling that he should leave an affluent life to try the wilds of Texas. However, by this time the central Texas prairies of Robertson County were no longer frontier and, being, in fact, at the fore of the antebellum cotton boom promised enormous profits.

     They left Alabama, likely in separate groups, in 1852 and 1853. Initially they may have come up the Brazos River to Brenham, Texas, and lived there for a while, but soon moved on up the Brazos to the same land on which the massacre occurred. James Talbot possessed a considerable amount of land a few miles to the north of Calvert in Robertson County adjacent to, and including, the Harvey home site.It was apparently the land that Matthew lived on 17 years before. Ann and Sanders Briggs soon bought their place from James Talbot (amid some grumbling about his lack of charity, in view of the fact that her uncles had appropriated it upon the supposition of her death). 

          Ann Elizabeth Harvey Briggs lived the remainder of her life on this land and it passed in time to her third child, Charles P. Briggs, and through him to his son Charles P. Briggs, Jr. The land remains to this day in the possession of the Briggs family. Though the houses the Talbot’s and the Harvey’s built are no longer there, the graveyard in which many of them are buried still exists. The blood stained Bible remains to this day in the possession of Charles P. Briggs, III.  A Historical Highway Marker commemorating the massacre is to be found on State Highway 6, 6.5 miles north of Calvert. 

          How about all the embellishments of this story over time? Ann Harvey lived for many years afterward (till 1894). Some years before her death, her son, Charles Briggs, found the Negro slave, now free, brought her back to the family home where for many years she lived again with Ann Harvey. Undoubtedly the story was told many times over, refreshed by the memories of its two living participants, so possibly some of the more intimate details that appear in the numerous printed versions may have indeed been true. There is no way of knowing.

          There is a story of a rag doll, though, which is so fetching and persistent that one hopes that it is true. It is mentioned in Felton16, Sams4 (Wayfarer in Walton author) and in the book by Arda Talbot Allen13. In this version of the story, the child Ann carried into captivity her only possession, a rag doll given her by her uncle James and it was this doll still in her hands that identified her beyond doubt to her rescuers. Much of the other embellishments appear to be fantasy or, charitably, creative writing, but none can be completely disregarded given the multiple sources from which this story may have come.

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Click here to view pictures of the Harvey Massacre Marker, the Harvey Cabin and much more
The Ann Harvey story is so interrelated with James Talbot that the reader should review Camille Corte's piece on the Talbot Brothers from Alabama
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Acknowledgement:

I would like to mention the inestimable help of Mr. Charles P. Briggs, III, Ann Harvey Briggs’ great-grandson,in sharing his memories and knowledge of this event that so affected his family.

References:

1. The Searchers. Alan Le May. Buccaneer Books.1956

2.A History of Robertson County, Texas. J. W. Baker. Sheridan Books and The Robertson County Historical

Society. 1970 p. 9-10

3.Pike County AL census, 1830

4.Wayfarers in Walton: Murder and a Rag Doll; Anita B. Sams, p.87

5,A List of Colonists Received Since the Passage of Organic Law in the Nashville

Colony. McLean: Papers Concerning Robertson’s Colony in Texas, Vol XII; p 576

6. ­The Searchersa Warner Brothers movie, featuring John Wayne, Ward Bond, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, and Natalie Wood. Directed by John Ford.1956

7.. A History of Robertson County, Texas.J. W. Baker. Sheridan Books, The Robertson 8. County Historical Society 1970. P 1-4

8. Ibid. p. 461

9. Personal communication: Charles. P. Briggs III

10. Indian Depredations in Texas; J. W. Wilbarger, 1889 (reprinted 1967), Pemberton 

Press, p. 23

11. Flowers and Fruits from the Wilderness; Zachariah N. Morrell, Gould and Lincoln, Boston, MA. 1872

pp. 51-53.

12. Texas land Heritage Registry, first Edition, Texas Department of Agriculture: John C. White,

Commissioner, 1974, p.116

13.Miss Ella ofthe Deep South of Texas.Arda Talbot Allen. The Naylor Company, 1950.

14.Family tradition: all the William Talbot children were black haired and blue eyed.Letters regarding

Green Berry Talbot, William Bailey Talbot and others.

15. 1850 Pike County Alabama Censusp.378

16. Country Life in Georgia in the Days of My Youth; Sen. Rebecca Latimer Felton, Index Press 1919.

Chapter I, p. 1.

17. Marriage record of ANN E. HARVEY and SANDERS BRIGGS.Pike County Book 1, page 313,

marriage Feb 16, 1848

18. Telegraph and Texas Register, Columbia, Texas, December 27, 1836

19. A History of Robertson County, Texas.J. W. Baker. Sheridan Books and The Robertson County 

Historical Society. 1970 page 461

20. Ibid.p. 446

21. Pike County census 1850 #378, p. 163

22. Flowers and Fruits from the Wilderness; Z. N. Morrell, Gould and Lincoln, Boston MA. 1872 pp. 68 - 69