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Lengend of The Wild Woman of The Navidad

That Thing That Comes

Growing up in East Texas, the daughter of original colonist of Tejas, I heard plenty of legends, tall tales, lore and old time “sayings & warnings”. One, that I never understood until my adult years was the Legend of “The Wild Woman of The Navidad”. Now this was a mystery, when someone’s hair was disheveled or you were in a “state” of unkept or wildness about your personal appearance but especially of your hair or “bed head” my father would say..”You look like the wild woman of the Navidad”. Of course, I knew what the Navidad was, a river in East Texas. But who in the heck was the wild woman and why was the reference to unkept appearances referred to as a “wild woman” of that place? Even when quizzed, none really knew whoi she was or where the saying came from. Though no answer was forthcoming, so began the curious and inquisitive youngster on a quest to find out who she was and why they referred to her so often without real knowledge of what they were talking about. I never realized the story would take on a life of research and include such famous slave traders, as James “Jim” Bowie & Pirate Jean Lafitte, or such a terrible historical facts of slavery and slave trade in Texas. That Thing That Comes “The Wild Woman of The Navidad”

The Navidad isn’t really much of a river, as rivers go, it’s not very famous, is spring fed and deepens on largely on rainfall for it’s very existence. It’s watershed drains into the Bay of Galveston where the famed pirate Jean Lafitte and his band of Barratarians (Barataria Island, La) operated “Campechee”. (Maybe I’ll tell you all about Campechee in another story) And though there is a legend that Santa Anna buried a large deposit of gold somewhere along it’s path during the “run away scrape” it has a larger legend you see, the Navidad has a past of mysterious and wild creatures, of the two-legged variety, living along its winding path.

map rivers of Tejas

In the early days of Texas, settlers living near the banks of the Navidad, southeast of Hallettsville, were subjected to visits by beings of unknown origin, several hairy and stealth-like individuals roamed through the brushy bottoms of the river,  witnesses indicating that there was a male and female.

Many folks back then were convinced that the male half of the duo had died and only the female remained. She became known as the “Wild Woman of the Navidad.”

It all began in 1837, shortly after Sam Houston and his army had secured independence from Mexico for Texas by defeating Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto. Settlers who had fled from the advancing Mexican army during the “Runaway Scrape” had returned to their homesteads and were starting over. It was about this time that odd tracks began turning up near various settlements and homes along the Navidad River. There were usually two sets of tracks; one pair larger than the other and always barefoot, so it was widely assumed the prints belonged to a male and a female. Sometimes they appeared in the sweet potato or cornfields where the pair helped themselves to some of the bounty secured by the labors of the sod-busting settlers. No one ever saw this pair. It seemed they took great pains to avoid detection and, other than helping themselves to some of the crops, avoided mischief of any kind. Speculation ran rampant as to who the mysterious barefoot couple could be. Some thought they were runaway slaves while others posited they were children, a brother and sister perhaps, who had been separated from their family during the war for Texas independence and had gone feral. Of course, many assumed they were a pair of wandering Indians. There were holes in all of these theories but it didn’t keep many a lively debate from being enjoyed by the locals who defended their position regarding the possible origin of these two mysterious visitors. A couple of years passed and the barefoot tracks of the larger individual ceased to be seen. The smaller tracks continued to be spotted, however, so it was assumed the larger male had died. Indeed, skeletal remains of what appeared to be a man were found by local hunters when they noticed bones protruding from a pile of sticks and leaves in a wooded area near the Navidad River. Logic seemed to dictate that these remains belonged to the male recluse who had so often frequented the fields of the area. The tracks of the smaller individual continued to appear in the potato fields of the area unabated. In fact, the visits seemed to increase in frequency. The people of the community wondered if this might not be due to the fact that the “woman” was not as adept at finding game as her mate had been. For various reasons, ranging from a desire to help this recluse to mere curiosity, a plan was hatched by several of the young men in the area to lie in wait and capture the wild woman. One night, as they hunkered down in a potato field, she came. The night was dark but the men claimed they could discern the figure of a woman, apparently unclothed, cautiously approaching their location. When she had drawn near to them they sprang in an effort to capture her with their bare hands. They drew nothing but air, however, as the woman, exhibiting impressive agility, dodged, ducked, and quickly bounded away without their ever laying a hand upon her. No sign of the wild woman was seen for several months afterward. At length, the wild woman returned though her tactics changed a bit. She continued to visit the potato fields but became more bold and started entering the cabins of the settlers on her visits. The settlers thought that this must be a sign of desperation as she was risking her life by entering homesteads at night while the occupants slept. In addition to owning firearms, nearly all the settlers kept two or more large and fiercely protective dogs. The dogs were the alarm systems of the day and were kept to protect the families from interlopers be they man, big cat, bear, or something else. The wild woman, seemingly, was able to step right over these dogs and enter the premises. Once inside, she would take only what she needed. It was widely reported that she would tear a loaf of bread in two and take only one half. Her motive always seemed to have been hunger. Several times the wild woman had the opportunity to take gold watches, silverware, guns, and powder but never did so. She only took some, never all, of the food. All the while, nary a settler awoke during her intrusions nor did a dog so much as whimper upon her trespasses. This ability to sneak in and out of occupied homes gave rise to much superstition regarding just who, or what, the wild woman actually was. The slaves in particular were greatly disturbed at the prospect of receiving a nighttime visit from the wild woman and took to calling her “that thing that comes.”

GENERAL VIEW OF THE EAST NAVIDAD RIVER BRIDGE, SOUTH SIDE, LOOKING NORTHWEST. - East Navidad River Bridge, Spanning East Navidad River at FM1579, Schulenburg, Fayette County, TX

It was soon discovered that the wild woman would often enter a crib, or storage building, in the area that housed harvested corn. As always, she took only a trivial amount; but the curious felt this was just the way to catch her. All that need be done was have someone hide within the crib and shut the wild woman inside once she had entered. For several nights the watch was kept to no avail. The locals were not discouraged, however, and their patience was rewarded when the wild woman returned to the crib. The man on watch that night was lightly dozing when he heard the soft rustling of the corn husks. All he needed to do was close the door, slide the bolt, and call out to his friends; however, he was overcome by an unexplainable dread and could not bring himself to stay even one more second inside the crib with “that thing that comes.” He cried out in his fear before making his move and the creature tore out of the door with blinding speed. Another opportunity had been lost. Years passed and the wild woman of the Navidad continued to haunt the fields, homes, and animal pens of the settlers. It is said that she began to take things other than food; a chain, a hacksaw, forks, a pitcher, etc. What she might have done with these things is not clear. The possibility that the wild woman became a convenient foil for those who had misplaced items must also be considered. One thing remained constant, however, and that is that during all her comings and goings never a bark, growl, or whimper was ever raised by even a single dog when she paid her visits. This baffled the settlers and began to weigh heavy on their minds. Just what kind of being was this “thing that comes?” All of this had been going on for roughly eight years when a crude camp was found in the heavily wooded area near the river. Many of the items that had come up missing over the last year or so were found there. Among the items in the camp was a Bible. Could the wild woman read? No clothing was found and the only bedding was a pile of moss and leaves. Once again, pity for this wretched creature welled up within the hearts of the settlers. How could they just leave this poor woman alone out in the wilderness? It was resolved then and there that this mystery had to be solved. A new plan was devised by the locals that was more systematic and sophisticated than previous plans to capture the wild woman. A number of hunters would form extended lines and drive through the woods with leashed hounds. Other mounted men, lassos in hand, would take “stands” outside the brush line in the hopes of roping the woman once she had been flushed out of the woods and onto the open prairie. The plan was implemented without success several times. The hunters got a break when a settler found fresh sign of the wild woman and took up positions that very night in the area. Their quarry was, indeed, in the area. It is generally known that hounds bark, bay, and cry in different ways depending on the animal whose scent they are following. That night under a bright moon, the hounds raised a cry that their owners had never heard before. They were on the scent of “that thing that comes.” Shortly after the hounds were on the track there came a rustling of brush near one of the lasso men who was waiting outside the timberline. Suddenly, there she was, the wild woman of the Navidad. The creature sprinted out of the brush at an amazing rate of speed. She was attempting to reach another heavily wooded area several hundred yards across the open prairie. The rider spurred his horse to full speed in an attempt to catch the sprinting figure. To his amazement, the rider had to push his mount to a full gallop to get within range of the fleeing woman. He pulled to within lasso range several times but each time his horse, obviously afraid of this strange creature, shied and his throws came up short. Within moments the wild woman reached the safety of the woods and the chase was over. The disappointed hunters regrouped and the rider who had pursued the wild woman gave his account. He had drawn close to her several times before his horse shied away and had gotten a good look. She had long hair, almost down to her feet that flew behind her as she ran. She wore no clothing of any kind and was covered completely in short brown hair. The rider had not been able to get a very good look at her face as she only took a few frightened glances over her shoulder at him. The rider said that initially she had been carrying an object of some kind but had dropped it during the pursuit. The hunters spread out to look and found what was described as a club, roughly five feet long. Additional searches were made with no luck. The wild woman of the Navidad had vanished. In 1850, during a particularly harsh winter, fresh prints were found. Rejuvenated by this find, the hunters were soon back on the hoof. The hounds were quickly on the trail though it was noted their cries were of a more familiar nature this time. To the delight of the hunters, their quarry was treed in short order. Instead of the wild woman, however, they found a black man, completely naked and frightened, clinging to the tree. It was discovered, with the help of a local who had worked in the slave trade, that he was a runaway slave who had escaped from his owner some years before along with a male counterpart. The slave did not speak much English, as he had but recently been brought over from Africa when he made good his escape, but the interpreter was able to discern how his partner had died some years earlier and he had been forced to steal food in order to supplement his diet as his counterpart had been the more adept of the two at capturing game. The slave was taken back to town where he was held for a good while. His feet were measured and found to match the dimensions of the recently discovered tracks perfectly. He was quite the attraction among the locals who wanted a glimpse of “that thing that comes.” Public notices were posted in various newspapers throughout the region, but no slave owner ever stepped forward to claim the captive. It was decided to put this runaway up for sale at public auction. He was sold back into slavery and the mysterious nighttime visitations ceased. Likewise, no more barefoot tracks were found in the area. It seemed the wild “woman” of the Navidad was no more.

The Navidad River is located on a great portion of the original James Bowie Survey in early Tejas Colony.  James Bowie (September 8, 1793 – January 17, 1841) was an American inventor and designer of the Bowie knife. He also served three terms in the Louisiana Legislature.

One of the ugliest sagas of Southeast Texas history was the traffic in African slaves. And that history also mars the image of two Republic of Texas heroes, James Bowie and James Fannin.

“With his brother James, Bowie smuggled slaves and worked as a land speculator. The brothers set up the first steam mill in Louisiana to be used for grinding sugar cane. Bowie took credit for inventing the Bowie knife, which came to prominence when used by James in the Sandbar Fight in 1827. After James moved to Texas, Rezin accompanied him on an expedition to find the Lost San Saba Mine. They did not find the mine, but their adventures in fending off a much larger Indian raiding party became widely known”.

The African slave trade in Texas began in 1816 while Texas still belonged to Spain and the privateer Luis de Aury occupied Galveston Island. It reached its peak there in 1817 after the pirate Jean Lafitte arrived. Within a year, at least 1,000 Africans had arrived on Spanish slave ships captured by the pirates.

navidad Watershed

Three of Lafitte’s best customers were James, Rezin and John Bowie, who ferried slaves either overland to the Louisiana sugar planters through present-day Beaumont or via the Sabine and Calcasieu rivers.

In Dec. 1817 Lafitte built slave barracks near Deweyville on Sabine River so that the sugar planters could come to that point to buy slaves.   In 1836, while W. F. Gray was fleeing east in the Runaway Scrape, he wrote the following in his diary:

“…Here stands an old shed, a part of the shelter constructed for African slaves that Lafitte used to bring here…”

Southeast Texas received a brief respite from the African slave traffic until April, 1836, the month of the Runaway Scrape and Battle of San Jacinto. During that month, W. F. Gray encountered “the McNeils (brothers of Brazoria) with their 40 African Negroes…,” in the vicinity of Nome, Texas.

In the summer of 1836, a Spanish slave ship, with 200 Africans aboard, sailed up Sabine River to Niblett’s Bluff. It was not verified whether or not any slaves were unloaded. Capt. Moro, the Spanish master, murdered a mate named Coigley, and fearing arrest, he fled aboard his ship to the Gulf of Mexico.

In April, 1836, Capt. John Taylor docked the slave ship Elizabeth at Sabine Pass, where it remained for six weeks. The “slaves” were actually British subjects, who had been freed by an admiralty court in Barbados. Taylor unloaded some slaves in present-day Port Neches, which he delivered to San Augustine. Taylor was later arrested and tried by a British court, reputedly being sentenced to 14 years imprisonment.

The last known slave ship, under pursuit by a British frigate offshore, wrecked at Blue Buck Point in Sabine Lake in 1837.8   Henry Griffith, a pioneer rancher of Johnson’s Bayou, La., sold cattle to the slaver captain to feed to the slaves. Fifteen years earlier he had sold cattle twice to James Bowie to feed the latter’s slaves.

The U. S. customs officer in New Orleans was well aware of the Sabine Lake slave trade, which was why a U. S. customs house was built on Garrison Ridge in 1837. In 1820 the customs office kept the revenue cutter Lynx on patrol off Sabine and Calcasieu rivers, and after 1838 the cutter Woodbury patrolled in Sabine Lake.

The trade in African slaves was evidently quite profitable for men to risk their necks to the noose. The U. S. Slave Trade Acts of 1820 defined African slave-trading as piracy, and conviction carried an automatic penalty – death by hanging. So far as known, Capt. Nat Gordon, hanged in New York in 1862, was the only person ever to suffer that fat

What is to be made of this tale? My own opinion is that the pair of runaway slaves are likely from James Bowie expeditions to purchase slaves by the pound from no less than the Pirate Jean Lafitte and his band of Baratarians, and were likely responsible for most of the mischief attributed to the wild woman. It was the feet of this pair that made the barefoot tracks found around homes and in the fields of the region. It all makes sense. The visitors who tore loaves of bread in two and only took one half, who stole the hacksaw, chain, silverware, and pitcher were human and not some “thing that comes.” The fact that the mysterious pair were escaped slaves explains their desire to remain hidden. The fate awaiting a runaway who was captured was often a brutal one. Many have wondered why these two did not seek help and comfort from the slaves of the region. The fact is they, at least at times, may have sought and received aide. I strongly doubt that the slaves would have been inclined to share this with their owners. It is documented, however, that the two runaways did not speak English well. They, it was learned, were not born on some plantation in the New World but had been sold by their own African tribe into bondage. The language barrier could very well have been enough of an obstacle to keep the pair from approaching the slaves of the area. So, you see, the whole thing was eventually wrapped up quite tidily and the odd goings-on of a decade or more were explained. Or were they? Source Citations http://lcweb2.loc.gov/pnp/habshaer/tx/tx0900/tx0947/data/tx0947data.pdf

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