the rambling boy
How the (fake) legend of Indian Emily saved Fort Davis
By LONN TAYLOR
When my wife, Dedie, and I first started coming to Fort Davis 25 years ago there was a café on State Street called Indian Emily’s. The café took its name from a legend first published by Carlysle Graham Raht in his 1919 book, “The Romance of the Davis Mountains and the Big Bend Country.” The story was reprinted and elaborated on by Barry Scobee, Fort Davis journalist, justice of the peace, and civic promoter in all three of his histories of Fort Davis, published in 1936, 1947, and 1963. For many years it was the best-known tale about Fort Davis.
According to Raht and Scobee, Indian Emily was a young Apache girl who was wounded in an unsuccessful Apache attack on Fort Davis and left behind when the Apaches retreated. She was taken in and nursed back to health by the mother of a young lieutenant at the fort named Tom Easton, and she lived in the Easton home for an unspecified amount of time. She fell in love with the lieutenant, but when he announced his engagement to another woman, Mary Nelson, she left the fort and rejoined her people. Time went by, but when she learned that the Apaches were planning another attack on Fort Davis her love for Tom impelled her to return to the fort in order to warn the garrison of the upcoming attack. As she approached the fort on foot in the dark she was shot and fatally wounded by a sentry, but the sentry then recognized her as the girl who had lived with the Eastons, and so she was taken to their quarters and was able to warn Tom of the attack with her dying breath. Her warning enabled the garrison to prepare for the attack and beat it off, and Indian Emily was buried at the fort. That is the essence of the legend. Not a word of it is true.
A couple of months ago I heard Larry Francell of Fort Davis give a paper at the monthly meeting of the Fort Davis Historical Society entitled “How Indian Emily Saved Fort Davis.” Francell, who retired several years ago as director of the Museum of the Big Bend in Alpine after a 40-year career in the museum world, is a fine historian and a meticulous researcher. In half an hour he utterly demolished the Indian Emily story. After tracing its bibliography through the books by Raht and Scobee and showing how the legend was spread by being included in Virginia Madison’s “The Big Bend Country” (1955), which generated an article in True West Magazine and, in 1959, an episode on the immensely popular television show Death Valley Days, Francell compared the legend to the historical record. First off, he said, the legend turns on two Apache attacks on Fort Davis, the one in which Indian Emily was initially wounded and the one that her warning enabled the garrison to beat off. Army records, Francell pointed out, do not record any Indian attacks on the fort, ever. Fort Davis was much too heavily garrisoned for the Apaches to attack; they were guerilla warriors, operating in small bands and swooping down on isolated ranches or travelers. In addition, Francell said, none of the names associated with the legend appear in any records. No one named Nelson appears on any censuses of Fort Davis, or in the fort’s records, and no Nelsons are mentioned in Lucy Jacobson’s and Mildred Nored’s exhaustive history, “Jeff Davis County, Texas.” Nor are there any records of a Lieutenant Tom Easton. The army has records of two officers named Easton who served in the latter half of the 19th century, but neither of them were named Thomas and neither were ever stationed in Texas. Finally, Francell recalled that when he was working as a seasonal ranger at the Fort in 1967 the Park Service superintendent, Frank Smith, had a crew of archaeologists open the alleged grave of Indian Emily, which had been marked by a Texas Centennial historical marker in 1936. There was nothing there. A subsequent superintendent, Jerry Yarbrough, had the marker removed and placed in storage.
So how did Indian Emily save Fort Davis if she did not exist? Francell explained that in 1953 the Fort Davis Historical Society was formed to preserve the old military post, which had been in private ownership ever since the army abandoned it in 1891. The Historical Society’s goal was to have the National Park Service acquire the fort site, which would require an act of Congress. In 1954 the Historical Society organized a bang-up celebration of the fort’s centennial whose centerpiece was the Indian Emily Pageant, with Roxa Medley, now Roxa Robison, playing Indian Emily. In the audience was state senator J.T. “Slick” Rutherford, soon to become congressman from the 16th District of Texas and the first chairman of the House Subcommittee on National Parks.
Rutherford never forgot the Indian Emily Pageant, and in 1961, Francell explained, he was able to broker a deal in Congress that placed Fort Davis in the National Park system. John Kennedy and the Massachusetts delegation wanted Cape Cod declared a National Seashore, the California delegation wanted Point Reyes declared a National Seashore, and Rutherford promised to organize enough votes to get that done if they would agree to include making Fort Davis a National Historic Site as part of the deal. He used the story of Indian Emily to round up the votes. Texan Ralph Yarborough did the same thing in the Senate, and they brought Barry Scobee to Washington to tell the story in both House and Senate subcommittee hearings. Scobee’s narrative was convincing, and on September 8, 1961, President John Kennedy signed Public Law 87-213, authorizing the establishment of a national historic site at Fort Davis. That is how Indian Emily saved Fort Davis.
Francell’s talk was utterly convincing and sprinkled with dry humor. When he finished speaking, he asked how many people in the audience still believed that Indian Emily was a real person. A few die-hard hands went up, but an elderly man seated behind me had the last word. “Well of course she was a real person,” he drawled. “She used to run a café right up here on State Street.”
Lonn Taylor is a historian and writer who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Story filed under: West Texas Talk