Hanging Tree Ranch incident - a dark Civil War crime Part III
By Irene Van Winkle Special to the Courier
(Editor's note - The reasons for a group of Confederate soldiers from Camp Verde, under the direction of Major William Alexander, to hang seven men from an oak tree in Frank Pyka's pasture - and shoot an eighth - have long been debated. In Part III the author looks at the victims' backgrounds.)
[Each man was pulled up over a branch of the oak tree using a horsehair rope.]
"When life was extinct the victim was let down, and the rope cut, leaving the noose still about his neck."
Historian Paul Burrier of Leakey said that the eighth man, William Sawyer, begged to be shot and his wish was granted; another version said that they had run out of rope.
"A five-man firing squad was organized," Burrier said. "... They fired, but only one shot hit Sawyer and it was in the arm. A sixth man, seeing Sawyer was only wounded, walked up to where he was laying. He loaded and capped his rifle and fired. In his haste he forgot to remove the ramrod from the rifle barrel and it penetrated Sawyer's body and went about 10-12 inches into the ground."
The teenage boy, however, was spared, Emmett said, "probably because of his weakness; and he escaped to the residence of Dr. JC Nowlin on the same day and there told the story of the massacre, while being given protection and comfort for the night by this venerable man. He went back to Williamson County."
His identity was not confirmed at the time, but his descendants think they know. More on this later.
Meanwhile, the bodies were discovered by a man named Joseph Poor, a resident of West Verde Creek, who ran and fetched Amasa Clark and others to the grisly scene.
"Some of the clothing and shoes of the dead men had been taken off and carried away, and I have been told that they were robbed of several hundred dollars as well as their horses and equipment," Emmett wrote.
Most of the hanged men were connected, related by blood to at least one or another. The Sawyers were brothers, and George Thayer was the brother of WM Sawyer's wife, Catherine.
Jake (Jacob) Kyle, born around 1840, was a cousin of Jack Whitmire. John Smart was believed to be the uncle of Mr. (Andrew Jackson) Van Winkle. At this writing, it is unclear if William Shumake was related to the others. Most of them were farmers, and several were married.
They ranged in age from 18-42 years of age, of those whose birth year was known.
At least three - the Sawyers and Van Winkle - have records online showing they had served in the CSA. Andrew Jackson Van Winkle had enlisted as a private in 1861 at Lampasas County in the 27th Brigade, under Capt. RY Cross. He enlisted in Belton for a year on Jan. 15, 1862, and joined Co. D 18th Regt., Texas Vol. Cav (CSA) of Bell County, Tex, under Capt. Milton Damron.
Coston J. Sawyer served in Co. A. Morgan's Regiment, Texas Cavalry. Records show he served from March-June, 1862, re-enlisting from June-August, 1862, showing up on another muster roll from August 30-Oct., 30, 1862, then again from Nov. 1862-Feb. 1863.
Sadly, official "rebel archive" records noted that William Sawyer was a "deserter." They said that he was "hanged," which is wrong. Descendant Stanley Sawyer, of Denton, shared some personal details of William's poignant story.
In the spring of 1863, shortly before he was killed, William wrote from a hospital in Columbus, Texas to his wife, Catherine (nee Thayer), while recuperating from illness. One of these letters survives and reflects the difficulty of dealing with prolonged illness and separation from family. Here is an excerpt, spelling and punctuation intact:
"Well Catherine I hope that you will rite a little offener I rite to you. I want to see you and the babes so bad that I don't (know) what to do. I hope this will find all of you well and plenty to eat. But I drank plenty such as it is but it don't soot (suit) Bill. I don't study aboud nothin else but you and the children. I think that my head is sewelled for it feels so. If I was there I would get well I know and I am coming before long girl or will only if I live. But that is uncertain look now the way they dy (die) here. Do the best you can and tend the post office and you shall here from me a long as I stay har. There are a grate many of our regiment here sum sick and sum well. My water an't took from me yet. I haven't been to the table yet. I get better to brought to mes and when the bell rings they're all going too fast and they wood run over me. Don't bee un easy bout me I will do the best I can. I can walk twise the length of that lane. I think that will let me off againt the first of next month. Try to have plenty of milk and butter and pees if you well anuff. I remain your husband until death." WM Sawyer
Next week, a look at the young survivor of the massacre.
Pictured: Numerous descendants of WM Sawyer attended a commemoration of the Civil War incident, held July 20 at the Hanging Tree Ranch, located south of Bandera on FM 1077.
Bottom: William Martin Sawyer