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Remembering incident at Hanging Tree Ranch

By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor

"Eight slain men have laid in a single grave two miles south of Bandera, Texas since the Civil War. A grove of trees gracefully, somberly arcs over them, guarding, mourning and marking the spot." This paragraph opened Irene Van Winkle's article, "Bandera Hanging Tree grave site of Civil War atrocity," in the Thursday, July 4, edition of the West Kerr Current.

'No living witnesses'

On Sunday, July 20, more than 300 people attended a commemoration on Hanging Tree Ranch, located on FM 1077, to mark the July 25, 1863, deaths of CJ Sawyer, WM Sawyer, George Thayre, William Shumake, Jack Whitmire, Jake Kyle, John Smart and Mr. Van Winkle - Andrew Jackson Van Winkle.

Clearly gratified by the unexpected turnout, San Antonio attorney, Phil Watkins, who has owned Hanging Tree Ranch since 1981 told the crowd, "When Irene and I talked in May about doing this, I expected maybe 50 people to attend. Last week, we had luncheon reservations for 215." Far more than that attended the combination belated memorial service and local history tutorial.

Special invitations went out to descendants of the murdered men, with Leta Georgiopoulos of Watertown, Massachusetts traveling the farthest. She is a distant relative of WM Sawyer.

The gathering took place under a copse of live oak trees amid a gratifying breeze. Looking up, Watkins asked, "Is this the (hangman's) tree? Nobody knows. My father-in-law, who did extensive research on this incident in Austin, San Antonio and Washington. DC, believes the real tree was closer to the creek. Later, the bodies were pulled up and buried in this spot. But no living witnesses remain so we'll never really know."

Seven lynched, one shot

Also shrouded in the mists of time is the real story of what happened to the eight men, who were residents of Florence in Williamson County.

After stopping in Bandera County carrying the not-so-inconsequential sum of $900, seven found themselves on the wrong end of a noose while an eighth was shot to death.

According to Van Winkle, one account said they were traveling to Mexico. As she wrote: "Were they deserters, or innocent men looking to get provisions? After all, at least (four) of them had served in the Confederate Army, but they claimed they were on leave. Had the records been tampered, or was the term 'deserter' not accurate?

"Was someone envious or suspicious and then reported them as 'bushwackers?' Or was it just greed?"

The upshot was that the men were killed by a party of Confederate soldiers out of Camp Verde and the men's horses, equipment, clothing, shoes and the $900 were missing when Amasa Clark. George Hay and other early settlers of Bandera County discovered the bodies at the grisly scene.

Escaping Johnny Reb

Only one member of the party escaped the wrath of the Johnny Rebs that day. The 15-year-old boy is thought to have been William Smart, nephew of a hanged man John Henderson Smart.

This information came via Edward "Odell" Davis of Huntsville, Arkansas. Davis descended from Kip Piper, whose brother John had married the daughter of William Martin Sawyer, one of the hanged men.

Davis came across the information in a letter, written by Henry Nowlin, he had discovered in his mother's papers. After the hanging incident, the teenager, William Smart, apparently traveled to Kendalia and spent a night with Dr. James Crispin Nowlin, Henry Nowlin's father. Smart then began his journey back to his home.

"It took the teenager 30 days to get back to Williamson County," Van Winkle said. "The families were waiting for news of their relatives - and it wasn't good."

She said that criminal charges were eventually filed against the soldiers who instigated the lynching. Major William J. Alexander commanded the band of 25 men. Watkins has a copy of the 1866 grand jury true bill, which indicted the men for highway robbery and murder.

"The men scattered after the war and were never brought to justice," Van Winkle said. "One was later killed by law enforcement officers in New Braunfels as they attempted to arrest him for a crime, but the others got away, which was not an uncommon occurrence in those terrible days after the Civil War ended."

Interesting info

According to Watkins, in the mid-1960s, a barbed wire fence that surrounded the communal grave was replaced by a sturdy pipe fence. Apparently, a group of men, who had been 'ordered' to 'fix that fence properly,' sneaked onto the ranch and made upgrades at night. Watkins was surprised to learn that the man who actually built the new fence, Raymond Barrier Jr., was attending the ceremony with his wife, Paula.

University of Texas Austin graduate student Nick Roland is doing his dissertation on Central Texas during the Civil War, focusing on the persecution of Unionists in the Hill County. He thanked those attending the ceremony for "doing a good job preserving a history that has been ignored in larger historical records."

Roland noted that the first recorded account detailing the incident occurred in 1896 for the 50th anniversary of the founding of Fredericksburg. "It was written in German and was not translated into English until 1971," he said.

Noting the importance of written records, Roland continued, "The oral tradition says the men were on passes or furloughs when they were hung, but we need documentation. Nevertheless, he added, even had the men deserted, they were entitled to a court martial, not to be summarily hung without a trial.

Attempting to give context to the lynching, Mario Salas, professor of political science and education at University of Texas San Antonio, said that many times Confederate troops evolved into an anti-slavery stance. "Deserters from the Confederate Army had to travel to Matamoros or Mexico to join the Union Army," Salas said. "Additionally, the majority of Germans in the Hill Country had voted against succession." He referenced a shootout of several days duration that happened between Germans and Confederate troops in San Antonio.

Other descendants of the hanged men offered bits of information about the incident that had been passed down in their respective families.

'Gate always open'

Concluding the memorial, Watkins said, "I don't plan to be around for the 200th anniversary so I'm glad we were able to be here today to give respect to these brave men."

He added, "Our front gate is always open so descendants of the men can visit and pay their respects."

Pictured: Photo by Judith Pannebaker
Over 300 people attended a commemoration for eight men killed at the Hanging Tree Ranch on July 25, 1863. The memorial took place Sunday, July 21, at the ranch on FM 1077, south of Bandera. More images of the day will be published in the Thursday, August 1, edition of the Courier. In addition, during the next several weeks, the Courier will present a detailed history of the incident, written by Irene Van Winkle.