The Callahan/Blassingame "Incident"


The Callahan-Blassingame Incident

(April 7 - April 14, 1856)

This is the story and events leading up to the deaths of noted Texas Ranger, Capt. James Callahan, William "Mallheel" S. Johnson, Woodson Blassingame and his son Calvin, and the resulting actions. Based on the research of Don Watson, San Antonio, Texas, descendant of John M. Watson.

One of Capt James R. Callahan's, for whom Callahan County was named, more notable and finally infamous events was the chasing of Lipan Apache Indians into Mexico in retaliation for some raids in and around the Blanco Valley in 1855. It turned out that the Indians were in concert with the Mexicans, and Callahan had been led into an ambush. Eventually, he eventually was able to orchestrate his company's escape loosing only a couple of men. Yet, for some reason, he did not immediately leave Piedras Negras, Mexico. He remained for a day or so, but when he came under attack, he had his men burned the town and crossed the Rio Grande. Callahan was criticized for this action and was drummed out of the Rangers for it. Newspaper accounts of the day are generally complimentary of the event, but some of the German papers seem to have been very critical of Callahan.

The area of Pittsburg, TX in Comal County (which later became the town of Blanco) was settled in large part by German immigrants. The German's seem to have been at odds with many of the settlers from the U.S. in a "political" sense. News accounts indicate that they greatly disagreed with Callahan's intrusion into Mexico and felt that it was illegal. Those Texans and newspapers that supported Callahan and similar campaigns were referred to as "Know-nothings".

Shortly after the Piedras Negras event, Callahan heard of some comments, reportedly made by Woodson Blassingame, a neighbor of Callahan's and the father of Luther Blassingame who had served in the ill-fated mission just recounted. Some accounts have it that Woodson made some unkind remarks about Callahan's wife (it is possible that either Calvin or Luther were accused of having an affair with Callahan's wife and Woodson may have commented if Callahan were not gone so much of the time she wouldn't need to have a lover), but other accounts indicate that the comments were negative ones about Callahan's raid into Mexico suggesting that Callahan was just trying to "plunder" the town that he burned. At any rate, Callahan had learned of these comments from a friend, William S. "Mallheel" Johnson. These accusations were supported by another friend, Eli Clements Hinds (b. 27 Jan 1819, KY). Hinds had been a friend and comrade of Callahan since their days in the Texas Rangers in 1841 back in Gonzales, and had later settled in Caldwell County, where Callahan had also lived, then in 1853, moved with Callahan's family and his own to establish homes in the Blanco River valley, becoming the first two settlers in what is now Blanco County.

Eli had not wished to inform Callahan of the comments, but William Johnson chose otherwise. Callahan apparently informed Calvin Blassingame, who was working for Callahan, to tell Woodson that he should leave the territory by a certain time or else. On April 7, 1856, Callahan along with his friends William Johnson, William's son Thomas, and Eli Hinds went out to talk to Woodson.

It is reported that it was to be a peaceful event, however, upon approaching the Blassingame cabin, Callahan yelled into the cabin for Woodson to come out. Shooting commenced, and again depending on the account, nobody knows who fired first. Most accounts say the Blassingames, however one newspaper account suggests that Thomas Johnson, William "Maulheel" Johnson's son, a boy of about 17, may have "spooked" and fired either intentionally or by accident, but the shooting was on. Callahan was killed instantly, William fell next, Thomas reportedly emptied his weapon and then fled the scene, Eli Hinds' horse was spooked and bolted, but not before two shots pierced Eli's throat and another through his upper arm, breaking it. Eli's horse ran past John M. Watson along the trail, and Watson turned and attempted to check the horse. He pulled Eli down, took him into his house and dressed his wounds. Watson then, along with Bob Page, went out to see about the Blassingames. The two killed men were still lying where they were shot and the Blassingames were still in their cabin.

Watson suggested to Woodson that since there was really no law in the area and that Callahan was a very popular man, that he might be better off going into Mexico. Woodson chose not to and asked Watson for his assitance in getting a fair trial. Watson agreed. The Blassingames, Woodson, wife Mary and son Calvin were taken into custody and since there was no jail, they were "held" at the cabin of Justice of the Peace George Lange. Watson, being a "deputy" but having been called away to Lockhart, warned George Lange that some men might come up from Caldwell County and attempt to "lynch" the Blassingames. Reportedly, George felt that this was not a threat.

On April 14, 1855, a mob of men, reportedly as large as 100 strong, approached the Lange cabin and demanded the Blassingames be turned over to them. There is a great deal of confusion and differing reports of what happened next, but the cabin was overtaken. The two Blassingame men were drug out by their heels and told to run. They refused, claiming they had done nothing wrong, feeling they had acted in self defense against Callahan. Mary Blassingame, meanwhile, escaped into the nearby woods. The two Blassingames were shot where they stood. One news account stated that Woodson had more than 50 bullet holes in him and that supposedly, young Thomas Johnson had emptied his gun into the body, although he was never indicted for any part in the killings. Lange turned out to be the "ring leader" of the lynch mob.

The shootout occurred April 7, 1856. Woodson and Calvin were killed in the mob action April 14, 1856. There was no "local" paper at that time as this was Comal County, TX and those early settlers had only been in the area about 3 years (These were also some of the first settlers in that area of Texas). It is estimated that there were probably 180 families (or about 900 people) in the area that made up Blanco County when it was organized in 1858, two years after the shooting. Blanco County at that time included the area now known as Kendall County as well. Woodson and family lived near Pittsburg, now the present day town of Blanco. There were probably less than 50 families in the area of Pittsburg at the time of the shooting.

There was no jail. The county seat for Comal was New Braunfels, about 35 miles southeast of the town of Pittsburg. There was a German language newspaper in New Braunfels called the Zeitung. A letter from Calvin Blassingame to the families and friends of the Blassingame's pleading for assistance, as they were in fear of their lives was published in the State Gazette and the Zeitung. It relates their version of what happened. Unfortunately, the letter was not published until April 26. There is also a letter written by Woodson's widow Mary Blassingame that was published May 24, 1856. Concerned that some of the accounts of the event that the papers were reporting were inaccurate, Mary wrote her account of the events.

James Callahan, William S. "Mallheel" Johnson, Woodson Blassingame, and Calvin Blassingame were the first murders in the area and, except for an infant son of Callahan that died a few months prior to the shooting, they were the first buried in the area. Callahan and Johnson were buried in unmarked graves in what is now Blanco Cemetery which was located on Callahan's land.. Callahan was buried next to his infant son. In the 1930's, Callahan's burial site was identified by an "old timer". Callahan's wife had died a few months after Callahan's death due to the stress of the loss of both the child and her husband in such a short time and was buried beside her husband. After being identified, the State of Texas dug up the graves of Callahan, wife and child and re-interred them in the State Cemetery in Austin. W. S. Johnson's grave remains unidentified, and its exact location is not known.

Woodson and Calvin were not allowed to be buried in the Blanco Cemetery and were buried near their cabin in what is known as the "Sauer Family Cemetery", located about 3 miles west of present day Blanco. This cemetery is very near the old Blassingame cabin.

Blassingame appears to have been of similar mind to the Germans, and it appears that based on the court records of the criminal case involving the Blassingame murders, that the Germans supported the Blassingame family's position. There was great controversy noted regarding positions of the community related to the shootings. According to Blanco County Historian, John W. Speer, "Its effects were felt long years after the death of Callahan . . ." That Woodson and Calvin are buried in a German family cemetery supports this position.

The trials were most notable at the time and highly debated and had to be moved on change of venue due to the difficulty of seating an impartial jury. The trials have been traced to Caldwell County, TX, but since the courthouse in Caldwell is currently (1999) being remodeled, all of the county records have been moved and the "older" records are not organized so are nearly impossible to research. The courthouse rennovations are expected to be finished by 2001. According to research done by Don Watson on the trial, it was still going on in May 1859.

In the aftermath of this event, many men were indicted for the murders of Woodson and Calvin Blassingame, with at least 22 indictments handed down. The primary defendant in the case turned out to be none other than George Lange, the Justice of the Peace charged with ensuring a fair trial for these men. Five were found Not Guilty, two had charges dismissed against them, and a third had a hung jury and was held over for retrial. He, and the rest, had a change of venue to Caldwell County where records are not presently available, so the outcome of the others is not known. The trials were moved at least twice because of the difficult of seating an impartial jury..

In spite of Callahan's popularity, many news accounts report "regret" over the mob action taken by the people of this community and how it might reflect on the people of Texas in general to the rest of the world. The article quoted below is from the The Standard:

         "We are satisfied that no one who participated in causing the death of the Blassingames, but will, in cooler moments, deeply regret the course he has taken. We cannot tell what were the just desserts of the prisoners, but this we know, and this every freeman will assert --that so long as there was an opportunity to appeal to the judicial tribunal, he should have beent ried by a jury of his counttrymen, and the proper verdict rendered by them.
"This sad even will go abroad to misrepresent the character of our people...We may well say that this event would have never transpired, could it have been forseen by the leading citizens of Hays, in time to have interferred. We hope never again to be called on to record another scene of the kind in this county."

Captain Callahan had just lost a child in death about 6 months prior to being killed himself. After his death, his wife was supposedly so overtaken by the stress that she died in Dec of the same year leaving five orphaned children. William Johnson left a wife and at least two sons, Rufus and Thomas, the same Thomas involved in the shooting. It is interesting to note that Thomas was never indicted and no mention is made of him in any reports of the day, either because of his age, or because with his father dead, he was now the "breadwinner" for the family. Thomas was later killed at the Battle for Galveston during the Civil War. Eli Hinds went on to be a very prominant citizen in Blanco County and became the first County Commisioner after the County was created on 12 Feb 1858. but reportedly never spoke of the incident. A daughter of Eli in an interview in the 1920's related that she had always known her father with his neck injury but she was a "grown woman" before she ever knew how he had come about the injury. Eli and his wife Catherine had thirteen chldren, William, ? Clements, Harriet Elizabeth, Susie, Margaret, Mary L,, John B., Minerva, Alice L,. Laura, with William, Minerva and Laura and the last child dying young.