This cemetery is located on property once owned by John Duncan. There is a Texas Centennial marker located at the site. There are also slaves buried on the property, but the names are unknown.
In many ways, Stephen F. Austin’s “Old Three Hundred” colonists can be likened in Texas history to the Pilgrims in the history of the United States. John Duncan was one of these historic settlers. Born in Pennsylvania in 1788, he first moved to Alabama and lived there until he was forty-five years old. He married Julia Coan of Gilford, Connecticut, born December 7, 1807. They were the parents of five children.
For some unknown reason, John Duncan, who operated a successful line of steamships on the Alabama River between Catawbe, Mobile and Selma, abandoned his business, his plantation, and his family, and immigrated to Texas. He left Alabama in 1835 and upon arriving in Matagorda, enlisted in the Matagorda and Bay Prairie Company of Volunteers participating in the October 9, 1835, capture of Goliad under Captain George M. Collinsworth. Ten miles north of Bay City, bordering the meandering Caney Creek, in 1936, the state of Texas erected a marker commemorating John Duncan as an outstanding settler of early Texas.
In 1835 Duncan was among the forty-nine signers of a pledge formulated to assure protection of the citizens of Goliad and all other towns they might enter. The citizens in return were to “stand firm to the Republic institutions of the government of Mexico and the State of Coahuila under the constitution of 1824. After they defeated the Mexicans at Goliad, the company disbanded; most of the men returned home.
Duncan was also a member of the company dubbed “The Horse Marines.” This name was acquired when the company of twenty-five men under Captain Isaac W. Burton was assigned to guard four hundred miles of Texas coast. Upon discovering three Mexican ships offshore a few miles south of Matagorda, the men left their horses on the beach and piled into boats. They approached the enemy ships cheering and calling as in welcome. The Mexicans were duped for the trickery and were captured without firing a shot.
Again in early 1836, Duncan became a member of the newly organized First Regiment of Texas Volunteers under Captain Moseley Baker, which prevented Santa Anna from crossing the Brazos at San Felipe for several days. Company D then moved on to San Jacinto and took part in the Battle of San Jacinto, which won Texas her freedom on April 21. It is said that Duncan became a hero in this battle for his charge in advance of the troops. The legend, however, has it that the mule Duncan was riding was accidently jabbed by the bayonet of a comrade, causing it to bold into action—followed by the rest of the startled company.
Although John Duncan served as a private in the army, he was always known as “Captain Duncan” because of his early days as a steamboat captain. In 1837, with the Texas Revolution behind him, he accepted his league and labor of land in Matagorda County. He returned to Alabama, collected his family and his slaves and moved them to Texas. Duncan’s interests were not confined to Matagorda County, because deed records show him to have holdings in Comanche County also.
John Duncan built a three-story home on the banks of Caney Creek but the only remaining landmark is a pair of giant crepe myrtle bushes. John and Julia Duncan’s children were: Thomas, born February 1828, in Alabama, and died July 9, 1852; Sarah, born 1834, in Alabama; John, Jr. “Jack,” born 1839, in Texas; Mary “Mollie,” born 1840, in Texas; and Samuel, born 1845, in Texas, and died February 26, 1853.
Duncan was said to have owned ninety-four slaves in 1860. Their quarters were situated about one-half mile north of the home site; the brick cisterns were built from brick made on the plantation. One group of slaves was led by a tribal chief from Zululand named “Podo.” The tribe had been captured after being made drunk and hauled aboard ship in chains. The Kaffir slave was a leader for many years—even after they were free men and the plantation had been sold to A. H. “Shanghai” Pierce. The sugar cane producing area and the shipping switch on the Southern Pacific Railroad which ran through Duncan’s plantation, were known as “Podo.”
The credit for founding the town of “Old Palacios” goes to Duncan, D. Davis D. Baker, and Isaac E. Robertson. This was a port on a tract of land between the Colorado and Tres Palacios Rivers which divided Matagorda and Tres Palacios Bays. It was destroyed by the storm of 1875.
Most plantation owners of 1840 had some land in sugar cane. Duncan used his mechanical skill and put two steam engines into operation, one of them furnishing power for his sugar mill. Only fifty of his 13,000 acres were planted with cane in 1844, but he still out produced all his neighbors.
John Duncan, Jr., was the only one of Duncan’s children to survive to full adulthood. Julia, their mother, died May 3, 1846, and her body was taken back to Mobile, Alabama. John’s will was probated May 8, 1878.
When the Civil War ended and the slaves were freed, most of the plantation owners turned to cattle to try to recoup their lost fortunes. In 1850 there were 35,009 head of cattle in Matagorda County. All but nine farmers owned cattle. John Duncan had the largest herd—3,000 head. By 1870 the largest rancher was Abel Head “Shanghai” Pierce with about 35,000 head—one-half of the cattle population in the county. John Duncan had 5,000.
Historic Matagorda County, Volume I, pages
Cane Syrup Kettle
HOW I WON THE BATTLE OF SAN JACINTO
My name is Ulysses. I’m a piebald farm mule. And at the age of 14-1/2 years, I won the battle of San Jacinto and freed Texas from Mexico. Here’s how I did it.
My army career began just five days before the end of Texas’ War for independence.
During the Runaway Scrape (when word that the Mexicans were winning the war sent settlers scurrying for the Sabine River), almost every large animal which could walk, creep or crawl was put to carrying refugees. My master saddled me up and loaded me with all the family treasures he could tie on. Then Le Roy, the 15-year-old who usually drove me before the plow, hopped on my back.
“Haddup, ‘ar, yew!” he shouted with a kick. I stood fast. He whacked my rump with a willow branch and dug his heels into my sides. I stood still, my tail flicking a fly from my left flank with studied unconcern.
We mules have our dignity, you know. Due to certain circumstances beyond our control we miss out on some of life’s satisfactions. It is not our lot to see offspring cavorting off into the future as we near the end of our active years, and romance, alas, passes us by.
Yet we mules have our sense of pride. In one respect a mule is master of his fate.
At the time of the Runaway Scrape I stood on my dignity, and stood, and stood and stood. Finally Le Roy and his family abandoned me with a few departing kicks and some words I’d rather not repeat here. That’s how I happened to be standing along in the pasture on the morning after my master’s departure, the only unattached steed between San Felipe de Austin and Raccoon Creek.
Early on the morning of April 16, 1836, I looked up to see the mud-covered Texas Army passing by, retreating from forces led by Gen. Santa Anna, the president of Mexico. As the tired, dirty men plodded through torrential rain and ankle-deep Texas mud on the Harrisburg Road, a tall, lean soldier spied me. I was eyeing the motley crew from around the corner of the barn and assessing the condition of the horses and the possible presence of oats in their supply train.
The thin soldier broke into a run when he saw me and approached with his belt in his hand. This he placed around my neck and led me back to the procession of retreating men. My former owners would have stared in disbelief at how docilely I followed, but the truth is I had gotten pretty hungry since they left and not a little bored. I’d never been in the military, and even this dilapidated bunch on the run promised some excitement.
His first sight of me, I learned later, brought great joy to my new master. He was John Duncan of Moseley Baker’s Company of Burleson’s First Regiment of Texas Volunteers. Now, if there is anything a 48-year-old farmer would rather not do than ride a mule, it’s walk. That John Duncan had done for a whole week. Ever since his trusty mare had stepped in a pot hole and broken her leg, he had slogged and waded through the thick, black, sucking mud. Because of the Runaway Scrape he had searched in vain for another mount. By the time he discovered me, I looked every bit as good to him as Gen. Houston’s white stallion.
That’s how I happened to be part of the Texas army five days later when Gen. Houston began readying his forces on a point of land between Trinity Bay and Cedar Bayou for his first offensive action of the war.
At 3:30, when his commanding officer gave the signal, John put the saddle on my back, but I puffed out my sides to prevent his tightening the girth. How many soldiers, I ask you, would ever become heroes if they had to set forth to battle in a corset. I puffed and John pulled. Finally, he gave me a sharp punch in the ribs, catching me completely by surprise. With a jerk he tightened the girth and leaped into the stirrups, shortly before Gen. Houston lifted his sword to signal attack.
A young soldier with a fife, accompanied by another on a drum, burst forth with a tune. The Irish love song “Come to the Bower” hardly had a martial ring, but it was the only song both fellows knew.
The other mounted Texans advanced from the woods and rode slowly across the sloping plain. John and I did not advance. After the insult I had just moments before, I was exercising my prerogative. As Gen. Houston on the white stallion, followed by the other horses and riders, began to leave us behind, John grew increasingly impatient. He dug his spurs into my side. I moved not an inch. He slapped my flank with the blunt side of his sword. I sank my hoofs harder into the turf. I could feel him tremble with frustration as the broke into a string of curses. He turned in the saddle as he beat me with a branch. I stood there smiling as only a mule can smile when he knows he is having the last word.
The foot-soldiers were crowding by us and jeering as they paused to point. I suspect one of the approaching soldiers must have been a farm lad, perhaps with a long-standing grudge against mules.
Suddenly, I leaped into the air as the point of a bayonet connected with my backside. If there is one thing less open to persuasion than a mule standing still, it is one who has been startled into motion. I took off. We passed the infantry, leaving a few scattered bottom-upwards across the plain. We passed the surprise cavalry. Far behind we left the bearer of the white silk flag embroidered with a rather lumpish figure of Liberty. Lastly, we out distanced our astonished commander-in-chief, who shouted, “Hold your fire, men! Hold your fire”
John still clung desperately to my back, shouting and cussing and tugging at the reins, as I sailed through the air, swifter than any thoroughbred. We hit the Mexican lines a good seventy-five yards ahead of the rest of the Texas Army.
The Mexicans were having their afternoon siesta, never dreaming that the Texans would dare to turn and attack them.
Before the drowsing Mexican sentinel could sound the alarm, I was upon them. Still wild from my recent shock, I cleared a brigade of pack-saddles with a single bound. Snorting and braying, I knocked over Mexican tents and sent men and equipment flying.
Modesty prevents my saying I won the battle singlehanded, but by the time the rest of the Texas Army reached the camp, I had the Mexicans so demoralized that, at best, only mopping up operations were left.
Through the pungent smoke I could see gray-clad figures rushing to and fro, clothing awry, grabbing for weapons. Some managed to reach their stacked rifles and attempt some sort of orderly retreat. One Mexican general rallied a few soldiers about a field piece, but they were quickly dispatched by Bowie knives. Santa Anna himself ran from his tent yelling at everyone to lie down, then vaulted onto a black horse and disappeared.
We killed 630 of the enemy that day, wounded 208 and took 730 prisoners. The battle itself lasted barely more than a quarter of an hour, although the pursuit and capture continued through the following day. But what, we all wondered, had become of the black horse and its rider?
Near sundown of the next day, a patrol returned with more prisoners. One of them, a bedraggled little man in a blue cotton smock and red felt slippers, caused a sensation.
“El Presidente! El Presidente!” the Mexicans cried, grabbing off their hats.
“I am Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, president of Mexico, commander-in-chief of the army of operations. I place myself at the disposal of the brave Gen. Houston,” he said.
And, thus, Texas gained her independence. Although the true story of my feat was whispered among the soldiers and, I am sure, will be told among their descendants for generations, the history books may well ignore me altogether. Such is the fate of us mules.
John and I, despite our earlier misunderstanding, became firm friends and I will have a home for the rest of my days on his ranch. He always tells me, as he pats the light blotch on one side of my neck, that if the true story were known to all, the flag of Texas would bear—in place of a white star on its field of blue—a piebald mule.
Historic Matagorda County, Volume I,
Copyright 2004 -
Present by MCHC & Buie Family
Dec. 2, 2004
Oct. 19, 2011