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2013-08-08

Hanging Tree Ranch incident Part II - Dark Civil War crime

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 II, the author looks at the hanging.)

[Were the Williamson County men deserters deserving to be hanged?]
Or was it just greed?
Leaving Bandera a few days later, the party stopped to rest along the way at Squirrel Creek. By this time, about 25 Texas State (Confederate) troops from Camp Verde, commanded by Major William J. Alexander, caught up with the band, which also included a boy of about 16 years of age.
In Pioneer History of Bandera County, Marvin Hunter wrote: "Approaching under cover to within a very short distance of where the men were camped, Maj. Alexander stepped out into an opening and swinging his saber over his head called upon them to surrender, telling them he had them surrounded and there was no chance for escape, and if they would quietly submit he would pledge his word that they should have a fair trial by court-martial at Camp Verde."
It turned out to be a lie.
Initially, it seemed the soldiers had intended to round them up as "bushwhackers," or deserters, and take them in for questioning. As they proceeded back to Camp Verde, while in Frank Pyka's pasture, events took a dark turn. Several soldiers - perhaps tempted by the money and valuables - began tossing around the notion of hanging, and Alexander did not object.
Not all of them agreed, and a few left the scene, among them Richard "Dick" W. Nowlin, who later realized his horsehair rope was missing.
Chris Emmett, in Texas Camel Tales" (first edition, 1932, Naylor Printing Co.), had interviewed many old timers about the history of the former camel camp. In the chapter, The Confederacy, one man who talked about this era was Jim "Uncle Jimmie" Walker who was in Lawhorne's company (McCord's Regiment) with Jim and Dick Nowlin.
As "the urge for execution became greater... Defying the major in command, Dick Nowlin and Benj. Patton mounted their horses and rode 17 miles straight back to Camp Verde, where they reported the conduct of the officer and men," Emmett said. "While enroute, however, Dick Nowlin discovered that he had lost his hair rope, the only one of its kind in the command, and it then became apparent to him, since he had made it known to Major Alexander that his contemplated conduct met his disdain, that his hair rope had been stolen by some of the troop so as to make it appear he had been a participant in the affair. A party went out to investigate on the strength of the representation of these two soldiers ... but before the arrival of the investigating party, the deed had been done.
"The rope had been produced, and one by one, seven of the men had been swung to a convenient tree..."
Hunter's rendition painted an equally graphic picture, "... and each one died by strangulation, being drawn up until choked to death."

Next week's Part III will take a closer look at the backgrounds of the victims.


Pictured: Stephanie Sword has been contracted by Texas A&M Forest Service to rewrite "Famous Trees of Texas," which features Bandera's 'hangin' tree' as the first entry. "The new volume will pay tribute to author John Haislet who wrote the first edition in 1970," Sword said.

Reporter Irene Van Winkle stood beneath what is believed to be the hangin' tree from which seven men met their grisly deaths during the Civil War.