By Linda Kirkpatrick
The time of the Texas Indian Wars would go down in history as a rugged and dangerous time. It took brave and determined people to come here and scratch out a life. On October 13, 1864 one of the most famous skirmishes between the Indians and the settlers occurred. This battle was the Elm Creek Raid of Young County, Texas. Many lives were lost and many lives were changed forever. It has been written that the John Wayne movie, “The Searchers” was written around this incident. Even though the movie was filmed in Monument Valley, the story line is set in Texas. With all the errors in filming and settings, the movie depicted the time and a story very similar to the real incident at Elm Creek.
Some film critics think that the novel “The Searchers” was inspired by the kidnapping of Cynthia Ann Parker. Cynthia Ann was only nine years old on the day of her capture. She spent over 25 years as a captive before she was retrieved, against her will, by Texas Rangers on the Pease River. However, the notes that were made in the writing of the “Searchers” indicate that the story leans more towards the story surrounding the Britt Johnson incident.
On that fateful day in October of 1864, several hundred Kiowa and Comanche warriors began their raid at the ranch of Peter Harmonson. The Harmonson family ranched in the Elm Creek Valley northwest of Fort Belknap. Mr. Harmonson and his family escaped with their lives after a brief skirmish with the warriors. From the Harmonson ranch, the Indians continued their raiding, killing Joel Myers before they proceeded to the Carter Trading Company, home of the widow Elizabeth Ann Fitzpatrick. In the same home, lived her daughter, her son and two granddaughters. Mary Johnson and three of her four children were visiting at Carter Trading Company while Mary’s husband Britt was away on freighting business. Mary Johnson and Elizabeth Fitzpatrick were friends and enjoyed getting together frequently for visits. Mrs. Fitzpatrick, twice a widow, had inherited the trading company from her first husband, Alexander Carter, a free man of color. Mary Johnson was a free black woman, married to the slave Britton Johnson.
Susan Durgan, daughter of Elizabeth Fitzpatrick, was the first to spot the marauding Indians. She grabbed the shotgun. She died from a shot of an Indian’s rifle on the front porch of her mother’s home with the shotgun still in her hands. Mary and Britt’s son, Jube, was also killed. Elizabeth Carter Fitzgerald, her son Elijah, her granddaughters Lottie and Millie Durgan, Mary Johnson and her two younger children Cherry and Charlie were all taken captive. It is unexplainable the fear that harbored in the hearts of these people. Elijah, son of Elizabeth, for whatever reason was killed a few days later. All that remained of Elizabeth’s family was her two granddaughters. Mary tried her best to keep her two remaining children close by her side but the Indians separated and sent them to various camps. The Indians did not stop at killing and taking captives. They continued to steal many horses and cattle and left a smoke trail of burning homes and out buildings in their wake.
Britt had taken his family to the Carter Trading Company for safety while he was gone. He left with two other men for Weatherford, Texas to purchase supplies for the various settlers. He never thought that between 700 and 1,500 Kiowa and Comanche would attack the settlers much less the Carter Trading Company. Britt and the other two men were almost home with their supply wagons when they received the news. They unhitched the horses, left the supply wagons and headed out on horseback. What they found was devastating.
Britt was almost at a total loss and what he wanted more than anything else was his family. He saw to the safety of his oldest daughter, who had been at another neighbor’s place on the day of the raid. Then he set out on a search to find the rest of his family. The search would take him most of a year. During that year Britt traveled Texas and Oklahoma searching for what some thought was a hopeless journey. At times he would live at various Indian camps hoping to gather information to their location. Then in June of 1865 his search ended. Stories vary at this point but the end result was satisfying. Either Britt located his family and Elizabeth Fitzpatrick or the Comanche chief Asa-Harvey served in getting the ransom arranged. After the reunion, Britt moved his family to Parker County, Texas.
It was in Parker County that he would continue working as a freighter, hauling goods between Weatherford and Fort Griffin. On January 24, 1871, Britt Johnson, Paint Crawford and Dennis Cureton prepared their wagons for an early morning departure of what would be their final trip. The Kiowa in the Salt Creek Valley of Young County, Texas attacked Britt and his two hired hands. They had camped about nine miles north of Graham when a band of Kiowa slipped up to their camp and charged. The three men were largely outnumbered. The Indians killed Paint and Dennis early in the fight. Britt grabbed their rifles and pistols and made his final stand huddled behind the body of his dead horse. The Kiowa were merciless and brutal. They badly mutilated the bodies of the brave men and Britt’s little dog. Searchers found their bodies two days later.
The men, who found the bodies of Britt and his comrades, buried them in a common grave at the spot where they fell. They marked the grave with an oak cross. As a testament to the bravery of Britt Johnson, the men who found him counted 173 spent rifle and pistol shells surrounding his body, a monumental tribute to the man who only wanted his family to be together.