Hanging Tree Ranch incident-Part IV
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 eight men from an oak tree in Frank Pyka's pasture have long been debated. In Part IV, the author shares information about the young boy who escaped the hanging and the names of descendants of the victims.)
After years of speculation about the identity of the young boy who was released, there was news uncovered in 1941 pertaining to the incident, said Stanley Sawyer, adding new perspective about what happened to the lone eyewitness.
Stanley said that he received information from the son of Dr. James Crispin Nowlin, settlers of the Camp Verde area. A letter written by Henry Moore Nowlin, Dick's half-brother, Stanley said, was the basis for information he got from Edward "Odell" Davis of Huntsville, Arkansas.
Davis is descended from Kip Piper (who Dr. Nowlin delivered on the same day he delivered his son, Henry Nowlin), whose brother, John, married William Martin Sawyer's daughter, Ellen. Henry noted that "The young fellow ... when released by the mob on Julian (Creek) came directly to Curry's Creek and spent the night with us."
Stanley added more details:
"Odell tells the story that the surviving boy's last name was Smart," he said. "He was kin to John Smart, who was hanged. My research leads me to believe that the hanged man was John Henderson Smart, who lived at Burnet at the time. John's brother, Bryce, had a son, William, who was the age of the boy who escaped hanging."
There was a Smart community in Williamson County, near Florence. It took the boy 30 days to relay the sad news to his family, none of whom knew of the deaths. Catherine was living on the San Gabriel River near Georgetown.
Here is the likely connection of the Smart family to the Van Winkles, found through Melanie Hester of Lexington, Texas. The hanged John (actually Jonathan) Smart was likely the brother of Elizabeth White Smart Van Winkle, mother of "Mr. (Andrew Jackson) Van Winkle," and wife of Thomas Benton Van Winkle. Thomas B. shows up in the Van Winkle family tree as the son of Jesse and Mary Ann Bra(e)den Van Winkle. This family group had settled in South Carolina, and then Jesse and his children scattered. Thomas went to Indiana and Missouri, and came to Texas in a 16-wagon train, settling in Williamson County. He was buried at Browns Creek Cemetery but when the US Government bought the land for Camp Hood in 1942, Thomas's remains were moved to Restland Cemetery in Gatesville, Coryell County.
One of Thomas Benton's youngest siblings was David Lawson "DL" Van Winkle (1821-1909), born in South Carolina, who took his family (with wife Dorcas Ann Inman and sister Rebecca) first to Mississippi, and by 1856, to Hill County (near the Steiner Valley, Peoria and Huron). His descendants lived around Hillsboro and Blum, later mostly moving on after the home places had been sold.
One of DL's local descendants is David Van Winkle of Kerrville. Other Van Winkle kin in the area, though not necessarily directly from that line, include Michael, Randi, Kerry Buford and Curtis Morries.
As for criminal charges filed against the soldiers or Major Alexander, Watkins said he located an original document in the Bandera District Clerk's office - the indictment dated 25th of April, 1866. Written on page 123 was: "The Grand Jury came into Court and brought in the following Polls of Indictment - The State of Texas vs. Wm. J. Alexander, et als - Murder; Highway robbery."
However, citing their inability to locate Alexander or the others, the courts were unable to bring them to justice.
So, regardless of their reasons for the hangings, a good number of people believe they got away with murder - not an uncommon occurrence during that terrible war.