Alabama-Coushatta to the Rescue: Aid to the Refugees During the Runaway Scrape (1836)
by Victor Vergara
After learning of the defeat at the Battle of the Alamo on March 6, 1836, General Sam Houston dispatched a message for the retreat of his troops and advised settlers to follow. As Santa Anna’s army quickly approached east, waves of families fled leaving their homes and properties behind. Throughout the escape, refugees endured an overwhelming low morale due to disease, starvation, and inadequate shelter that reduced them in numbers. While the settlers continued to flee east (reaching as far as Louisiana), the Alabama and Coushatta tribes aided the runaways in their escape to safety from the powerful Mexican army. Thus, the participation of these tribes during the events of the Texas Revolution earned them privileges and rights that were denied to other groups of Native Americans in the new republic. In gratitude of their generous and hospitable deeds, the tribes earned state recognition both under the provisional governments of Sam Houston and successor Mirabeau B. Lamar. Throughout an extensive period, the peaceful Alabama-Coushatta tribes experienced sporadic relocation, beginning with the occupation of British soldiers before the American Revolution. Progressively, they traveled further from what is now present-day Alabama, reaching parts of Louisiana and East Texas. Once arriving within the Spanish and French-American borders, the tribes were prone to the inevitable wages of Spanish-Franco conflict, the Mexican War for Independence, and later the Texas Revolution. Although the tribes remained separate, their common upbringings allowed the two tribes to cooperate and eventually settle together. Through their efforts in the Runaway Scrape, the Alabama-Coushatta determine their significance in the shaping of Texas history, thus creating opportunity for them to appeal to land.
Seeking new refuge, the Coushatta tribe sought to follow their neighboring Alabama allies to the southwestern territories of Louisiana and Texas where the groups hoped to make their new home. Upon the arrival of the Coushatta, the Spanish gladly opened their borders to the tribe. The Coushatta were then able to cooperate as a line of defense alongside the Eastern Texas border. By doing so, the Spanish were able to strengthen their borders and watch for any invaders that were constantly seen smuggling and wandering. Interestingly, Coushatta loyalties would later shift. Texas still under Spanish rule, the tribe engaged their efforts in the fight for Mexican Independence. On March 29, 1813, under the command of Samuel Kemper, thirteen hundred men stood in awe of the sight of twenty-five Coushatta charging towards the Spanish line before the signal was given. The Battle of Rosalis ended in a victory for the Mexican supporters as Spanish troops retreated back to San Antonio. The Coushatta would thus develop a record of faithful service to Texas that would never be fully repaid.
After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the Alabama-Coushatta again experienced the consequences of western expansion and again, the tribes were forced to relocate further west, where they settled in the Trinity and Neches Rivers. Under Chief Colita, the Coushatta erected three different villages along the Trinity where they remained until their relocation in 1845 after Texas became the 28th state of the United States. Once Texas was opened to American settlers, conflict between the Mexican government and the Americans ensued. Loyalties would again be tested despite the call for neutrality. In the outbreak of the Texas Revolution, fear of retaliation and possible alliance with the Mexican forces, led General Sam Houston to ensure the neutrality of the Alabama-Coushatta and surrounding tribes:
“The parties declare, that there shall be a firm and lasting peace forever, and that a friendly intercourse shall be pursued, by the people belonging to both parties.”
In order to ensure peaceful relations, Houston appoints a representative (agent) to each tribe whose job it was to oversee governmental affairs and see that relations with neighboring Anglo settlers do not cause an outbreak, or rather see that no “injustice” is done to the members of the villages. By establishing a friendly Indian policy, he became a favorable government figure for many tribes, including the Alabama-Coushatta, whom in 1859 appraised his role as Texas Governor, describing him as a “great and good man, a friend to the Indians”. Though he had previously asked the tribes to remain neutral, their support and loyalty to the cause managed to serve him and the Anglo settlers well during the Texas Revolution.
Upon receiving the news of the defeat at the Alamo, Houston then demands for settlers to evacuate their properties and flee to the eastern borders. In an account written by historian Henderson Yoakum, he describes the ill conditions the refugees experienced in the run for their lives during the Runaway Scrape:
"On every road leading eastward into Texas, were found men, women and children, moving through the country over swollen streams and muddy roads, strewing the way with their property, crying for aid, and exposed to the fierce northers and rains of the spring. The scene was distressing indeed: and being witnessed by the small but faithful army of Texas, whose families and wives they were, thus exposed and suffering, nerved their arms and hearts for the contest then not distant."
As principal chief of the Texas Coushattas, Colita was an instrumental figure in maintaining peaceful relations between the tribe and their Anglo counterparts. Evidently, in the events of the Runaway Scrape, he and the Coushatta assisted the fleeing settlers by providing them food and shelter, and personally helping them cross the Trinity River. Through their efforts in the Runaway Scrape, the Coushatta once again showed where their loyalty stood. Their participation in the Texas affairs thus prompts the tribes to appeal for land grants in the 1850's through their respective agent, James Barclay.