The death of Maggie Graham

By Daniel Aranda

How happy Maggie Little must have been when she exchanged wedding vows with Harry Graham on September 16, 1879. She anticipated a new and wonderful life. Instead, within a year, she was laid to rest in a distant and desolate desert grave in the same ruffled dress that she then wore.

Margaret Little, the first of eight children of Scotch-Irish parents Mary and Bryce Little, was born in Pennsylvania on October 23, 1858. It is unknown what Bryce did for a living at this time, but it is known that he had emigrated from either Scotland or Ireland. Perhaps to improve his situation, Bryce moved his small family to Texas. They lived in Kendall County for a few years before moving to Bexar County, Mason County and by 1871, Frio County. After Margaret, the birth of the Little children in order was John, born in 1860, David, born in 1862, Mary, born in 1864, Samuel, born in 1867, Sarah, born in 1869, George, born in 1874 and baby Edmond, born in early 1879.

Tall, robust and bearded Bryce Little went into the sheep raising business. By hard work, frugality and common sense he became the owner of several sheep camps. In 1880, Bryce was able to provide the finest wedding reception that Frio Town would remember. Margaret, affectionately called Maggie, was to marry Harry B. Graham.

Harry Graham was born in Patterson, New Jersey circa 1854. Nothing is known of his early life, but by 1875 he was working as a carpenter in Frio Town, Texas. His younger brother, Samuel, joined him, but the young man soon got bored with a carpenter’s life and signed up with the Texas Rangers. Harry Graham continued as a carpenter and sometime in the late 1870’s fell in love with beautiful and vivacious Maggie Little. Twenty-six years old Harry married twenty-two-year-old Margaret Little in September 1880.

The wedding was a luxurious affair. Family and friends lined the entrance and up the stairs to the second story of the Frio Town courthouse where the reception was held. Long tables, festooned, and draped with white tablecloths, were covered with dishes, pies, and beverages. An orchestra provided music for the dance. A photographer took at least one photograph ofMaggie in her wedding dress.

The newlyweds remained in Frio Town for several months, but Harry became restless when he heard that fine opportunities awaited them out west He, Maggie and younger brother Sam, who had completed a stint with the Rangers, decided to move to Silver City, New Mexico Territory to begin anew.

At sunup April 16, a small crowd of family and friends gathered to bid the Grahams farewell. The optimism for the future was temporarily dampened when they said their final goodbyes. Maggie stood, turned, and waved once more when the wagon drove off. A neighbor recalled that Maggie’s mother trembled as she tearfully and half-heartedly responded with her white handkerchief.

The couple and Sam Graham headed west and were joined in Uvalde by the Murphy family. Daniel, known as Pat, was a forty-eight years old ex-soldier, also moving to Silver City. He intended to open a brick factory in the thriving town. Pat’s wife, Martha Jane, was twenty-eight years old and two months pregnant. They brought along their children, eight-year-old Joe, four-year-old Sally and two-year-old baby, James. There is some confusion as to who else also joined the party. All accounts, however, agree that at least four men also joined. Some say that they were French gamblers from Castroville or possibly Fort Worth. Two of these went under the unlikely nicknames of “Fetchet Finger” and “Dutch Willie.” Yet, another account lists two brothers or a man and his son as joining. One of them was James Elmore and the other, his father, son or brother.

The party now consisted of four wagons with Sam Graham in the lead on horseback. Harry and Maggie may have brought along a small flock of sheep, a gift from Bryce Little. The party journeyed westward, uneventfully, through Brackettville and San Felipe. The road then veered north to Camp Hudson and Beaver Lake. Maggie sent a letter, describing her journey, from the latter by eastbound stage. This practice, which had started almost at her departure, would continue for the rest of her short life. She sent letters by eastbound stage and sometimes received one by one westbound.

On April 25, the Party camped at Howard’s Well where, eight years previously, nine members of Anastacio Gonzalez’ wagon train had been killed by Indians. Harry and Maggie walked up the hill to the mass grave. Maggie became uncomfortable and envisioned Indians hiding in ambush. It almost frightened her to death, she wrote to her friends back home.

East of Fort Lancaster, the Graham-Murphy party, rough-locked their wagon wheels before descending the steep, four-hundred-foot escarpment. Once in the valley, they rode on by abandoned Fort Lancaster and went to the H.C. Tardy Ranch, where Maggie sent another letter, describing her experiences.

At the Pecos Crossing, they were joined by James Grant, an older man and the post trader at Fort Concho. The wagons continued to Escondido Spring, where Stage Station Keeper, Bill Hobbs, warned them, of Apache renegades.

The next stop was at Fort Stockton. The post, established in 1858, was a collection of buildings built astride the Great Comanche War Trail at the strategic site of Comanche Springs. A military poster again warned travelers of renegade Apaches and of the shortage of water west of Fort Davis.

In early May, the Grahams and their party rolled into Leon Holes. The “Holes,” as it was commonly called, housed a stage station, run by Herman Huelster and his twenty-year-old, blonde bride. The road, at this point, was heavily traveled because there was a branch in the road that led south to Chihuahua. Stagecoaches, freight wagons, military traffic as well as emigrants passed through here.

A couple of days were spent resting and washing clothes. Mrs. Huelster later recalled how she enjoyed the company of women her age. Because of the recent drought, Limpia Creek was dry, and the women congregated at the well to wash and cook. Mrs. Murphy’s baby cried constantly, but the mother, considerately, moved away a short distance so as not to disturb. Mrs. Huelster noted that Maggie’s pregnancy was starting to show and their conversation drifted to those concerns. Maggie inquired about medical care in this far-flung country. From Mrs. Huelster, she learned that there was a surgeon at Fort Davis and at Fort Stockton. There was also “Fat Rosa” a Mexican mother of twelve children, and a midwife known for her delivery skills.

As usual, Maggie checked every westbound stage for letters addressed to her. Though inconvenient, the drivers could not refuse this beautiful and bubbly, Irish-accented lass. Sometimes they even checked their mailbags twice. The party filled their water containers before leaving because the Huelsters warned them that the spring at their next stop, Barilla Station, was very low or maybe even dry.

May 6, 7 and 8 were spent at Fort Davis under the large cottonwoods, east of the corrals. Here, Sam Graham had his horse shod while the others rested, washed clothes, checked their equipment and purchased supplies. More rumors of Apache atrocities gave them reason for concern, but they were not about to turn back.

They passed through Barrel Springs Station around May 9 or 10 and the next day saw them camped at a stage station with the dubious name of El Muerto. El Muerto, which literally means “the dead man” was named after an unfortunate soul, who had been killed and dumped into the well. Two men with packhorses, Robert Johnston and a Mr. Glassner, passed through that night. They hoped to get through to Van Horn’s Wells before daylight. Lacking sufficient water containers, they had tried to attach themselves to a small wagon train that trailed the Graham’s. They had offered their two guns as added protection in exchange for water from their barrels. They were refused, probably because there was no guarantee that any more water would be found for several more days. Disappointed, Johnston and Glassner decided to get through on their own. They rode into Van Horn’s Wells, rested during the day and went to their next destination, Eagle Springs, at night.

The Graham train, closely followed by another train of seven wagons, arrived at Van Horn’s Wells before midnight of May 11 or 12. Several minutes elapsed before the station keepers, carrying lanterns, came to greet them. They helped the tired travelers get situated, and it wasn’t until about noon, the next day, that the Grahams were on their way.

They soon entered rocky and gully-lined Bass Canyon. The canyon got its name for stage driver James Bass who was killed by Indians on a cold day in early January 1869. Another stage driver found his dismembered body strewn on the road.

As usual, Sam Graham rode in the lead as scout. Next in the procession were the French gamblers followed by another wagon with, perhaps, the Elmores. A hundred yards to about a quarter of a mile behind James Grant rode on horseback followed by Maggie and Harry Graham. Maggie rode while Harry walked alongside. The Murphy family brought up the rear. One account put them about fifty or sixty feet behind the Grahams while another estimated a quarter of a mile.

The Apaches, cleverly, waited to let Sam and the first wagon pass before springing the trap. A crash of rifle fire from close range greeted the unsuspecting travelers. James Grant was killed in the opening volley. Unarmed, Harry called for Maggie to hand him his rifle. The horses reared, but she still managed to reach on the outside of the wagon bow to pull the rifle from its scabbard. Before she could hand it to Harry, an Indian shot her from close range. He sent a bullet through her bonnet and brain. Maggie’s limp body fell between the horses and wagon. About the same time, a bullet slammed into Harry’s right thigh, wounding him seriously. He fell but was able to crawl a short distance through a bale of bullets. He then pretended to be dead and eventually passed out.

Although Pat Murphy received two slight wounds, he was fortunate to be in a wider section of the canyon and the Apaches could not get in as close. He kept them at bay with his Ballard rifle and eventually he and his family backtracked and joined the trailing group of travelers. Accounts have Murphy blowing his bugle, which may have confused and caused the Indians to leave sooner than they intended.

One account states that news of the Apache attack reached Eagle Springs Station, when a light wagon with four men including “Dutch Willie” and “Fetchet Finger” came barreling in. Some accounts described them as cowards. After all, they did flee without a fight and they did not pause to turn back to offer aid. They reported that all were massacred. On the other hand, Sam Graham stated in his depredation claim that four men in a wagon aided him in working his way to the wagons and repulsing the Indians. Unfortunately, he did not give their names.

Bob Johnson, who had ridden all night, and two or three stage employees, including Guillermo Mesa, left Eagle Springs to look into the matter. When they got there, the Indians had already ransacked the wagons and fled. The men then joined Sam Graham to see what could be done. Harry Graham’s wounds needed medical attention so Grant was hurriedly buried where he lay. Maggie’s corpse was taken to Van Horn Wells Station.

Apparently, the Apaches remained in the vicinity for several days because a letter, signed by six members of the trailing wagon train, was sent from Eagle Springs to Major McLaughlin, the Commanding Officer at Fort Davis, on the 16th. It stated that fifteen of their party (seven men, three women and five children) and four other men, who were also in Bass Canyon during the attack, were in bad need of supplies. The letter also stated that the Apaches were still in the area and an escort to Fort Quitman was needed.

On the same day the Van Horn Wells Station keeper, H.M. LaPorte, also wrote to the Commanding Officer asking for blankets and supplies for the wounded Mr. Murphy and his family.

News of Maggie’s death reached Frio Town, just as the town-folk were making preparation for a big dance. After the initial shock, a gloom descended and no one danced that night. Maggie’s brother, John, did not learn of his sister’s death for about a month. He had been on the trail, herding cattle for a Mr. B.L. Crouch. A friend, Billie Henderson, read an account of the murder in the San Antonio Express and he hurried to inform his friend. Perhaps on a premonition the previous night, John had a dream that, on his return home, one of his sisters was waiting at the gate with news that Maggie was dead. His friend confirmed the sad news.

The military watched the events unfold with intense interest. Within a few days, orders were sent to Fort Davis by the Acting Adjutant General at the Headquarters, District of the Pecos at Fort Concho to Fort Davis. Captain Louis Carpenter was ordered to take his men and pack train in search of the enemy. They were to scour the Carrizo and Eagle Mountains, punish the offenders or at least run them out of the country. Other units, stationed in West Texas, were to work with him in concert.

Although 1880 had been an unusually dry year, severe rain and hail showers passed through the canyon obliterating the renegades’ trail. Small patrols, nevertheless, crisscrossed the trails leading to waterholes. Indications of small Indian bands were found, but the prey proved elusive.

So far, the Indian point of view has been misrepresented or at least misunderstood. Let us explore their side. These were turbulent times. The southwest was in the midst of the Victorio War and the Apaches committing the depredations may or may not have been associated with the Warm Springs Chief. It is believed that the raiders were Mescaleros and indeed, Victorio had many of this separate tribe among his following.

There was much confusion and dissention at the Mescalero Agency due to the recent bumbling of affairs. The military suspected the Mescaleros of aiding Victorio with food, arms and manpower. In order to nullify this threat, they went to disarm them. Reinforcements were summoned from Texas and the Mescaleros were ordered to the agency. Many Apaches did not understand and feared what was happening, so they fled.

Some determined to cast their lot with Victorio while others went their way only to escape the tumult. There is also a possibility that the attacking party was one that had become disenchanted with Victorio and was returning to the agency. Even those, that normally would have wanted to avoid bloodshed, could have committed the atrocity through necessity. Thirst and hunger can drive anyone to desperate measures. The Apaches may have been in such straits and the hate and mistrust that existed on both sides would have made it nearly impossible for the Apaches to safely beg a meal for their hungry families. The party that attacked the Grahams and Murphys could have fallen into any the categories described above, but their armament indicates that they were probably hostile.

The guilty party may have been punished Texas Ranger Jim Gillett described an attack on an Apache camp where women’s clothing believed to belong to Mrs. Graham and Mrs. Murphy was found.

That same night, back at Van Horn Wells, Harry Graham sat, propped on the Murphy wagon tailgate. He not only felt the pain of bullet wounds, but that of his loss of his beloved Maggie. The women had prepared her for interment by grooming and by dressing her in her wedding dress. Her wedding ring was removed and a lock of her brown hair was clipped as mementos for her family. After Guillermo Mesa piled the final shovelful of dirt on the grave, Harry Graham was helped on to the stage that would take him and his brother to Fort Davis.

The death of Maggie Graham is only one of many such tragedies that befell our early pioneer ancestors. Fortunately, for most, life went on. The Murphys reached Silver City where Pat realized his dream of a brick factory. But, before that, Mrs. Murphy gave birth to a baby girl, whom she named Margaret Josephine in honor of her friend, Maggie Graham.

Much credit has to be given to the late Keith Humphries, who researched and wrote about the death of Maggie Graham. Born in Retrop, Oklahoma on June 19, 1907, Keith James was the second child of Eugene Alfred Humphries and Lucy Ann Harris Humphries. Because the delivering doctor commented that the baby looked like a little Irishman, Keith went by that moniker until he entered college many years later.

The family relocated to Toyah, Texas in 1910 and after a couple of moves, they settled on a ranch, nine miles southwest of town. It was at this ranch that Keith began his life-long love affair with history. Passing vendors and cowboys often stopped at the ranch and it was from them that the little Irishman learned much of the local history. Among his favorite raconteurs was Guillermo Mesa, known as “Burro Mendoza,” who helped bury Maggie. It is from him that Keith first learned of the events and her death.

Years later, Keith began to use his real name. Era Rentfrow, Registrar at New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, convinced him that “Keith” would look better than “Irishman” on his diploma. Keith starred in basketball and baseball and was a captain in the ROTC.

After graduation in 1932, Keith married Gertrude Hallick Loomis. This union brought about a daughter, Carol, who was affectionately called “Bunkie.”

Keith served in Word War II in the Army Air Corp and after the war, he worked for the Federal Aviation Agency. He later took employment at what is today known as the White Sands Missile Range and retired after twenty-four years. This gave Keith time to spend more time writing and painting. Although not a Russell or Remington, Keith’s works still attract interested historians. The reason is that Keith depicted scenes from southwestern history. Most of his paintings are vignettes of actual occurrences and I was fortunate to listen to him point out which character was who and what was maybe waiting around the bend. He wrote many articles over the years. They appeared in several newspapers, New Mexico Magazine, True West and Saturday Evening Post. In 1988, he self-published his Apache Land From Those Who Lived It.

Keith J. Humphries passed away in Las Cruces on July 21, 2002. His notes and paintings were donated to the Geronimo Springs Museum in Truth or Consequences, N.M.

A story about a dog and Maggie appears in only one account. It must not, however, be discounted because it came from one who was there. Many years after the events, Guillermo Mesa, known as “Burro,” Mendoza, who had been a young employee at Van Horn Station, related his story to, fledgling historian, Keith Humphries. He recalled that two days after they had buried la muchchacha bonita or pretty girl (his name for Maggie), a collie showed up at the grave. It is not known if the animal belonged to Maggie or to someone else from the wagon train.

When Harry and Sam Graham returned to Fort Davis for medical assistance, the dog tagged along. Then, for some reason, the pooch left the brothers and returned to Van Horn’s Wells.

The dog was drawn to Maggie’s grave and he soon established himself as her protector. The faithful animal eventually became more possessive and refused to be coaxed away. He growled at those who approached too closely, but he did allow those that fed him and gave him water to come near.

When the station was abandoned the animal had to learn to fend for himself. Burro Mendoza saw him, still standing vigil, several times afterward, but then one day discovered that the animal had died or had been killed by coyotes. Sadly, but dutifully, Burro gathered the scattered bones and skull and buried them next to his beloved Maggie.