More to Explore
Faithful Shep Holds the Fort
By John P. Wilson
One of the most desolate locations along the Butterfield Overland Mail’s early route lay at Crow Spring, in a salt pan known as Crow Flats, ninety-four miles by road east of El Paso, Texas. The station here, a mile south of the New Mexico line, had been built mostly of adobe and gypsum blocks. It served for scarcely a year and then slowly fell into ruin after the mail line began to follow a more southerly route in 1859.
In January 1880 two young men from Denver, J.P. Andrews and W.P. Wiswald, stopped to make dinner in the shelter of the old walls. They had set out from Ysleta, a dozen miles below El Paso, to seek opportunities in the Pecos River Valley, some 150 miles to the east. Their equipment included a new ambulance (a type of carriage), two good horses and a saddle pony, with plenty of grub and arms. A big black shepherd dog named Shep accompanied them. The trip coincided with a peak period of Apache chief Victorio’s raiding across southern New Mexico and far western Texas.
At Crow Spring the men turned their team out to graze. Suddenly they heard yelling and the trampling of horses’ hooves; looking up, they saw four or five Indians driving off their animals. The travelers grabbed their guns and started after the thieves on foot, but some of the raiders fought to delay pursuit while others got away with the horses. Back at the old station, now afoot and chilled by a cold north wind, the two companions decided to seek help from along the Pecos.
They pushed their ambulance and other property inside the ruined walls and rigged up two dummy sentinels, then set out after midnight. Shep wanted to go too, but they put a sack of corn and a side of bacon under the ambulance and made him understand that he was to stay and guard it.
By the next evening, the travelers found themselves south of Guadalupe Peak and abruptly facing an entire village of Apaches, who were headed towards them. Everyone recovered from their surprise and a sharp fight broke out. The two men wounded one warrior, then took off running back towards Crow Flats as night fell. They made it back safely. Their dummy sentinels still stood guard and the faithful shepherd dog was overjoyed at the return of his masters.
After resting the next day they decided to pull out for El Paso. Their shoes were now worn out and they tied their feet up in gunnysacks. Once again Shep received his orders. Not so much as a cow camp lay between them and Hueco Tanks, a small ranch twenty-four miles east of El Paso, that marked the last settlement going east.
Andrews and Wiswald found no help at El Paso, so the weary men trudged down to the Texas Ranger camp at Ysleta. The small Ranger company there formed part of the Frontier Battalion. In those days, the Texas Rangers pursued lawbreakers, trailed and fought with hostile Indians, and aided citizens in trouble. The Ranger Lieutenant decided to represent the honor and dignity of Texas by setting off with eight Rangers and a guide to accompany the two Denverites back to their ambulance.
For four days they retraced the old Butterfield Trail east from Hueco Tanks, until finally the twelve-man party rode the last twenty-eight miles to Crow Flats and arrived in the night. There to challenge them was the ever-watchful guardian, old Shep. According to the Ranger Lieutenant, George Wythe Baylor,
“….. when he [Shep] heard his master’s voice he went wild with joy, barked, rolled over, stood on his head [?], ….. and we gave him a cheer. He had been there alone for fifteen days. His side of bacon was eaten, and the sack of corn [was] getting very low. The Rangers were as much delighted as if it had been a human being they had rescued.”
Shep had worn the top of the remaining station walls perfectly smooth by his pacing, while keeping out the coyotes. Their tracks were thick all around, but Shep and the dummy sentinels had held the fort. Everything was just as the owners had left it.
Everyone then returned safely to Ysleta, although preceded by a rumor that the entire party had been massacred. The Texas Ranger Lieutenant and his sergeant agreed that Shep’s valiant defense merited a monument in the plaza at El Paso.
Roscoe P. and Margaret B. Conkling, The Butterfield Overland Mail 1857-1869, Vol. I. Glendale, CA.: The Arthur H. Clark Co. (1947).
Peggy A. Gerow, Along the Butterfield Trail II. Albuquerque: Office of Contract Archeology, University of New Mexico (1996).
James B. Gillett, Six Years With The Texas Rangers 1875 to 1881, Chapter 18. Chicago: The Lakeside Press (1943). Reprint of 1925 edition.
George Wythe Baylor (edited by Jerry D. Thompson), Into The Far, Wild Country, Chapter Six (pp. 292-298). El Paso: Texas Western Press (1996). The quotation is from this volume.
(c) John P. Wilson, Las Cruces, NM. All rights reserved.