Thursday, December 1, 2016

The Death of Jane Simpson at Spicewood Springs

This is a slightly expanded and annotated version of my history article for the December 2016 issue of the NWACA Newsletter

Republic of Texas Congress' resolution for the ransom of the Simpson children, 1844
Resolution for ransom of Simpson children, 1844
172 years ago this month, on December 31st, 1844, the Congress of the Republic of Texas passed by joint resolution a ransom for the recovery of William and Jane Simpson, kidnapped by Indians. It was earlier that year Austin suffered what one might call the “Yogurt Shop Murders” of its day. A widow, Nancy Simpson who lived on West Pecan (6th), about three blocks west of Congress Ave., had two children – a daughter 14, a son 12—abducted by Indians while the children were in the adjacent Shoal Creek valley [1].

As described by Wilbarger in his classic book, Indian Depredations of Texas (1889), the Indians “seized the children, mounted their horses and made off for the mountains .. going in the direction of Mt. Bonnell”. A group of citizens from Austin gave pursuit, but lost the trail on the rocky ground of Mt. Bonnell. After alluding capture, the Indians rested at Spicewood Springs where Jane was killed and scalped. William was ransomed and returned to his mother in 1845 recounting the story at Spicewood Springs. Local citizens were led by the boy to the spot near Spicewood Springs where his sister had been killed and identified her remains.

This incident was understandably one of the defining moments in the relationship between the citizens of the young city of Austin and the Native Americans that still claimed the area as their own. This story was told and retold in all the Texas history classics of the late 1800s: Indian Depredations of Texas; Recollections of Early Texas; Indian Wars and Pioneers of Texas; Texas Indians Papers. The story still captures the imagination of modern Texas historians, retold in recent publications such A Fate Worse than Death, and our Northwest Hills neighbor and resident historian Dr. Jeff Kerr’s The Republic of Austin.

But as many times as this story has been told, there is a mystery that remains: what happened to the remains of Jane Simpson; where was she buried?

Oakwood is Austin's oldest city-owned cemetery, established at Austin's founding, but there are no records indicating she was buried there [2]. And while Austin was made the Capital of Texas in1839, the seat of government was temporarily moved to Washington on the Brazos in 1842 when Mexican troops invaded Texas taking over nearby San Antonio. Between 1842 and 1845 when Texas joined the Union, Austin was by some accounts "almost deserted". Given the remoteness of Spicewood Springs at the time, and the dire conditions in Austin, she may well have been buried where her remains were found, near Spicewood Springs, just as the Webster massacre victims were interred at the site of their death near present day Leander.

But there is another tantalizing possibility, my own theory, which I’ll talk about next month in conjunction with one early settler of our area, George Washington Davis.

[1] Year and names of the children vary by source. The date was almost certainly 1844 given Congress’ resolution to appropriate a ransom. The names William and Jane were used in the resolution. Image is from the Texas National Register, Washington, TX (temporary seat of government at the time), January 18, 1845. Some sources cited the Indians as being Waco, but a good case has been made in A Fate Worse Than Death the Indians were Comanche.

[2] Due, no doubt, to the dire conditions and reduced population in Austin from 1842 - 1845, the cemetery didn't appear to be heavily utilized until later. The Austin History Center provides an on-line tool, the Oakwood Cemetery Database Search, but lists no burials prior to 1866. There were earlier burials however, and my thanks go to the staff at the Austin History Center who kindly assisted in searching through hand written ledgers that included some of those earlier burials at Oakwood. Dale Flatt at Save Austin's Cemeteries provided a 1911 map of the old section of Oakwood where she would have been buried, but there are no Simpson burials identified. A register the result of an on-the-ground survey of all gravestones in the cemetery by Robert E. Tieman and Kay Dunlap Boyd was concluded in 2006. That registry shows only a single burial in 1845 (not hers). It does show one "J.B. Simpson" buried in Oakwood, without dates of birth or death, but the burial is in a section that was opened after 1866; again thanks to Dale Flatt in helping establish this fact. The registry is available on the Austin Genealogical Society website.

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