Traveling Texas Highway 118 from Alpine to Fort Davis is Western eye-candy and guaranteed to fire up your imagination. After a flat stretch leaving Alpine, you encounter towering rocks on both sides of a curvy, climbing state highway. It’s the kind of road where you think, “Apaches could hide behind those rocks.” Or maybe you only imagine that if you grew up watching 1950s-era Westerns or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
In Fort Davis, you find more going on than its tiny size suggests. The night we visited, the Hotel Limpia featured live music under the patio’s big-leaf trees. The Transpecos Blend had a local legend, Washtub Jerry, wearing garden gloves and strumming a washtub bass. At Prude Ranch outside of town, telescopes are propped up next to RVs for the annual Texas Star Party.
A first-time visitor in our group requested a visit to the original reason for the town: the actual fort, used during the Indian Wars until the 1880s. It’s north of town, barely, and barracks, officer’s quarters, and the hospital have been carefully restored. In 1961 Fort Davis was declared a National Historic Site.
It’s a spot I visited often as a girl, but now I have issues. Well, one issue. Not with the general history of the fort, only a most specific story that caught my interest years ago.
Not a lot of feminine heroines populated my imagination or anyone else’s in the 1950s—Elfrida Von Nardroff, later-disgraced game show winner, and NBC’s Pauline Frederick, whose face I could hardly see on a snowy TV while she reported from the United Nations. Yeah, and Nancy Drew, but she wasn’t real.
So it was with great curiosity and enthusiasm that I latched onto Indian Emily, a local girl whose grave was on the grounds at the Fort Davis. Reading the Centennial marker sent my imagination soaring: “Here lies Indian Emily, an Apache girl whose love for a young officer induced her to give warning of an Indian attack. Mistaken for the enemy, she was shot by a sentry, but saved the garrison from a massacre.”
Another part of the story, as told by Fort Davis newspaper reporter Barry Scobee, was from a military report. In a sort of reverse Cynthia Ann Parker tale, the child Emily was wounded in battle, rescued by soldiers, and raised by a post officer’s family. She fell in love with the family’s handsome son, was not allowed to marry him, and returned to her people.
Upon learning her Apache tribe planned an attack on Fort Davis, she sneaked away at great risk and warned the young soldier. Or something like that. As it turns out, my story is as good as anyone’s in this case.
According to old-timers, Emily’s grave at one time had a crude marker: “Indian Squaw – Died by Accident.” But a proper marker was later installed, postcards made, and a map of the fort, including Emily’s grave was in the newspapers when the fort was declared a National Historic Site.
As a sixth-grader, I stuck the postcard in my scrapbook, writing under it, “My Favorite”, and moved on through school and off to college, looking and finding plenty of role models by then.
Historical mischief was afoot in 1969 in the person of reporter Mike Cox of the San Angelo Standard Times. Cox went sleuthing about and wrote that the Indian Emily story was untrue. According to his source, no less than the Site’s superintendent, records do not exist of Tom Eason, the soldier Emily fell in love with. Further, “her behavior” in battle was very “un-Apache”, and captured Indians were usually sent to boarding school, not kept “around the forts.”
And in a mostly offensive statement, the superintendent offered that someone had “dreamed up the story after reading one too many Victorian romances.”
Soon after Cox published his findings, the National Park Service removed the piled stones from the grave and put the historical marker in a closet.
Scobee gets credit for the Indian Emily story having whatever ever legs it did. Cox writes that Scobee always believed some truth hovered over the story. In my own reporting, I’ve had some issues with Scobee’s versions of truth, but usually, I’ve found he’s in the ballpark or hovering above it.
The old saying goes that history is written by winners. In this case, I wonder how much, if any, serious historical research exists about adolescent Apache girls. Until the last half of last century, history focused on male interests and achievements. And individuals were stamped with a group identity not always allowing for individual human nature.
Fifty years later, I want Emily’s story to be true. It’s the story of a brave Native American girl from my small part of the world. Mark Twain wisecracked, “Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.” So, until I’m convinced that “captured Indians were sent to boarding school,” and there’s only one way for an Apache girl to behave in battle, I’ll choose to believe Indian Emily’s story.