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Photo: Heritage Auction Gallery William Alexander Anderson Wallace aka Big Foot Wallace.

Photo: Heritage Auction Gallery
William Alexander Anderson Wallace aka Big Foot Wallace.

The Headless Horseman

And Bigfoot Wallace

 From 1850 to 1855, people reported encountering a headless rider, a mysterious mounted ghostly spectre which brought fear to the plains of west Texas. During those five years, hundreds of people claimed to have seen the spirit rider roaming the lonely ranges riding a huge black mustang stallion as wild as anything that ever raced over the prairie.

Folks would be peacefully walking down the road of an evening when a terrible headless rider would gallop pass on a midnight black stallion with serape blowing in the wind and severed head bounding on the saddle horn beneath its sombrero. Nothing could deter the terrible spectre – not bullets, not arrows, not spears.

Clad in rawhide leggings and a buckskin jacket, the figure seemed to appear out of nowhere. Sometimes he would appear in the bright sunshine of the day tearing across prickly pear flats, but usually it happened in the dark of night. Always alone and sometimes accompanied by lightning and wind, it struck terror into even the bravest gunfighter. Neither horse nor rider ever seemed to tire and it was noted the rider sat rigid as if he were made of wood and never bent or turned in the saddle.

Men who saw him claimed there was only a gaping hole atop his shoulders where his neck and head should have been. Some said he carried his head under a Mexican sombrero tied to the horn of his saddle. The creature he rode was shunned by other wild horses. Sometimes he could be found by the stampede of mustangs running away from his presence. He seemed possessed by the very devil himself and at the sight of humans, would tear away at a speed even the fleetest of the cowboy’s horses could not match.

Most of the Indians in the area, being superstitious, tried to keep well clear of him. They saw him many times and would always give him a wide berth, often trekking miles out of their way to avoid his presence. The Mexican vaqueros and sheep herders were just as scared of the apparition as the Indians, making the sign of the cross and hurrying away at the sight of him. The cowboys weren’t as superstitious, but they kept their distance as well, especially if they were alone.

There were times however, being emboldened by numbers and bravado and distance, that men would take shots at the horseman. They declared they were positive they hit him, but their bullets seemed to pass through him like paper. A few brave soldiers in the area also insisted their shots were true, but the rider never even flinched when their bullets hit him. They declared him to be Lucifer himself or at the very least, a demon summoned from hell.

Eventually, a group of ranchers perhaps a little braver than others, decided to track down and capture this headless horseman and put an end to the mystery once and for all. They tried tracking him for several days, but could not get close enough. They finally decided to go to the Nueces River at a spot where he had been reported to water. The next morning, their wait was rewarded as the big black horse and its rider cautiously made their way to the water’s edge. When the horse lowered his head to drink, the men arose from their hiding places and began shooting. When the dust and smoke had cleared, the horse and rider lay dead. The men were stunned as they fully expected their bullets to have no affect.

Upon inspection, the men found the horse appeared to be not a ghost, but nothing more than a fine, large specimen of a mustang.  Upon his back they found not the devil, but an old, dried up carcass of a Mexican, perforated by hundreds of bullets and even several arrows. The body had been tied to the horse and saddle so tightly that the rope had to be cut to unfasten it. Tied securely to the horn of the saddle was a skull with a frayed sombrero bound around it.

The mystery, however, was only half solved. How had this Mexican vaquero’s body come to be tied to a mustang and his head lashed to the saddle? The answer came several years later with a story told by Bigfoot Wallace, the famous Texas Ranger, Indian fighter, and veteran of many battles in the Mexican war and war for Texas Independence.

After getting the lay of the land, so to speak, frontier man Bigfoot Wallace moved from Austin to San Antonio, which was considered the extreme edge of the frontier, to sign up as a Texas Ranger under Jack Hayes. In them days, Texas was as wild as the west could get. There was danger from the south from the Mexicans, danger to the wet and north from the wild frontier filled with Indians and desperados, and to the east the settlements still had problems with the Cherokee Nation.

General Sam Houston himself had appointed young Captain Hays, a hero from the battle of Plum Creek, to raise a company of Rangers to defend San Antonio. Hayes had high standards for his men. They were the best fighters in the west, and they had to be, considerin’ the fact that they were often outnumbered fifty to one. A man had to have courage, good character, good riding and shooting skills and a horse worth a hundred dollars to be considered for the job. Captain Hayes knew all about Bigfoot Wallace and signed him on the spot.

Bigfoot Wallace was as crazy an individual as they come. He could spin a yarn better than anyone, and while he was a dangerous foe to his enemies, he was also a jovial giant, who was always on the lookout for a good laugh. What with hunting and fishing and fighting Comanches and avoiding rattlesnakes, Wallace had the time of his life in Texas. Said he wouldn’t swap Texas for the whole shooting match that was the rest of the United States.

So armed with Colt pistol and a Bowie knife, Texas Ranger Bigfoot Wallace once more took on the Wild West, and quickly made his mark on Texas folklore. In them days, the Rangers tended to handle stock theft at the end of the rope, so to speak, stringing up the bandits, forcing a confession out of them, and then leaving the bodies swaying in the wind to deter other outlaws. Only it didn’t work, and the bandits kept right on stealing, sometimes passing right under the bodies of their fellow outlaws to do it.

Shortly before the battle of San Jacinto gave Texas its freedom, a Mexican deserter named Vidal came to the Texan’s camp bringing information about the strength of the Mexican army. Bigfoot Wallace and another man destined to later be a Texas Ranger, Creed Taylor, took note of him and declared they didn’t trust him.

After the war, Vidal turned to horse stealing, and in time, he became the leader of a band of thieves operating in both Texas and Mexico. In early summer of 1850, Vidal and three of his men stole a large number of horses and headed to Mexico.

Their timing was good as a large Comanche raid had just been carried out in the area and most of the men were away from home trailing the Indian raiders.

Now Bigfoot’s fellow Ranger, Creed Taylor, had a big spread lay west of San Antonio, in the cedar hills clear on the edge of Comanche territory, and he was constantly losing stock to bandits and Indian raids. The last straw came for Taylor the day famous Mexican raider and cattle thief Vidal and his gang rounded up a bunch of horses from his ranch and took them south toward Mexico.

Unfortunately for Vidal, some of the stolen horses belonged to Creed Taylor and even more unfortunately, Creed Taylor had not gone off after the Indians.

Creed was a Texan among Texans and with a fighting background just as impressive as his friend Bigfoot’s, was not someone you should steal horses from. With a nearby Mexican rancher named Flores who had also lost horses and happened to be home, Creed set off tracking the thieves.

Before long, the trackers became convinced it was Vidal they were after. When they came across several cows with arrows sticking out of them, they knew for sure as Vidal had become notorious for doing this to trick greenhorns into thinking it was Indians they were after. Creed knew no Indian would kill a cow and leave behind the meat and their arrows. When the trail got to the Frio River, the pair ran into Bigfoot. After hearing the story, Bigfoot readily joined them as he was always “ready to whup somebody who needs whuppin’.”

Bigfoot had come to Texas bent on avenging the death of a brother and cousin who’d been massacred at Goliad by Santa Ana’s army. Bigfoot was always ready to hunt horse thieves and desperadoes, especially those of Mexican descent, never forgetting what happened to his brother at Goliad.

Bigfoot decided it was time to put an end to Vidal’s gang once and for all. He would track the wiry Mexican bandit to earth. Two days later near dusk, the Texans sighted campfire smoke and the stolen horses. They left their horses staked and stealthily crawled up to get a better look.

Evidently the thieves believed they were out of danger as they had a big fire going and only one man was on watch. A plan was made and after it was dark and 2 of the thieves were asleep, Bigfoot and Creed crawled up close to the camp being careful to keep downwind of the herd so the horses wouldn’t be spooked and raise the alarm.

Flores waited a sufficient enough time for the two men to get into position and then, with his rifle, shot the man guarding the camp. As soon as the shot rang out, the two thieves’ asleep rose up drawing their guns, but Bigfoot and Creed had their own six-shooters ready and put both thieves back to sleep forever.

At daylight, the bodies were inspected and sure enough, Bigfoot and Creed recognized one of them as Vidal. Bigfoot, always a bit eccentric, suggested what he thought was a good joke and a way to maybe scare other horse thieves in the region. In the herd happened to be a big black wild stallion. While Creed roped the horse, put a bandanna blindfold over its eyes and saddled it, Bigfoot made use of his Bowie knife and cut off Vidal’s head. With chin-strap and leather thongs, he firmly attached the bandit’s sombrero to it and then with more leather straps, laced the sombreroed head to the horn of the saddle. He then dressed Vidal’s headless body in full regalia complete with leggings, spurs, serape and with great care, attached it in the saddle. A strong tree limb was tied under his clothes to keep him upright. The feet were tied in the stirrups and the stirrups were then double-fastened to each other under the horse’s belly.

During all this, that big black stallion was snorting and trembling something fierce as nothing scares a mustang more than foreign blood and there was plenty of that all around and on him. When everything was finished, the blindfold was removed from the horse and without bridle or halter, he was set free.

Bigfoot declared that over the years he had seen thousands of wild, bucking horses, but he had never seen one act like that big stallion with a dead Mexican on his back. After the poor creature had pitched and bucked in every direction, snorted, squealed, pawed the air, reared up and fallen over backwards, rolled and then stood quivering and sweating, the awful thing was still on his back. For five minutes then he stood there with his legs spread out, sides heaving, nostrils snorting and his eyes almost bulging out of their sockets. Then he let out a squeal like none any of the 3 men watching had ever heard from a horse before and took off running like the wind across the prairie.

Bigfoot, Creed, and Flores took the herd back to San Antonio, gave back to the owners the horses that could be identified and split the remaining mustangs among themselves. All three agreed they should lay low and not speak a word of what they had done for a while. And thus the legend of the Headless Horseman was born.

A name as long as William Alexander Anderson Wallace demands a nickname. The reason for Mr. Wallace’s particular nickname is easy to explain. The guy simply had big feet. The name has been spelled Big Foot, Bigfoot and Big-Foot.

There are at least two stories on the origin of his nickname. Wallace (who was likely never to repeat the same story twice) said that in Austin around 1839, his footprints were confused with those of a well known (and presumably easy to track) Indian who went by the name Big Foot.

The other story had its origin when he was a prisoner in Mexico. Being issued prison clothing – al the other prisoners received sandals except for Wallace who, because of his big feet, had to have his footwear made on the spot.

Ken Rasure

The adventures of Big-Foot Wallace, the Texas ranger and hunter

Texas Ranger “Big Foot” Wallace

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