Texas History: Bull Creek burial boulder: fake or fact?
Welcome to Think, Texas a weekly column about Texas history
As readers know, at Think, Texas, we love a Texas history mystery.
Today’s tale — right out of Mark Twain — about a possible burial stone found in Bull Creek Canyon takes several unexpected twists and turns. I’ll try to straighten it out for you.
Meantime, wherever you are in Texas, remember this advice if you discover what might be a significant artifact:
1. Don’t alter the artifact and, if possible, don’t move it.
2. Contact your county historical commission.
3. If your case seems credible, contact an archaeologist or other trained expert.
4. If it involves Native Americans, contact tribal leaders.
5. Only once you’ve done the above, try crowdsourcing your remaining questions without revealing the discovery site.
6. Stay skeptical, but enjoy the historical ride.
On July 25, Travis County History Commissioner and good friend Rich Denney alerted me to a historical commission blog post that he wrote — and that combined the findings of several history buffs — about a possible Indian skirmish and large burial stone discovered on private land above rugged Bull Creek.
The weathered epitaph, he writes, engraved on the boulder reads, as best one can tell:
HERE LIE(S?) BEN KELL(ER?)
SHOT SIX INJINS FROM HIS HORSE
THERE WERE FORTY TO HIS REMORSE
OKT 5 1854 NOV 1(8?...)
Is this an actual burial stone? And if so, when and why was it placed on this spot? And could this not be part of a Tom Sawyer-like prank?
More trips to the land and many emails later — along with some crowdsourcing on social media — brought Denney and other history buffs who contributed to the reports as many new questions as new answers. The Texas Historical Commission has become involved, which indicates that the experts are taking it seriously.
But for now, it’s just fun to record what is known and how we know it.
The boulder was discovered years ago after a new subdivision was built. Residents who saw the boulder then, before bits eroded off, think the name was “Keller.” And “OKT” could be short for Oktober in German. Keller is a common German name.
“We know Bull Creek was the home of German settlers in the 1850s,” the blog post reads. “Or perhaps ‘OKT’ is simply a phonetic misspelling, as is ‘INJINS.’”
As Denney points out, the purported skirmish does not appear to be in popular reports of the late 19th and early 20th century, such as J.W. Wilbarger’s “Indian Depredations in Texas.”
But that in itself is not surprising. In a dispatch to Texas Gov. O.M. Roberts in 1880, “Expeditions for Frontier Defense from 1855 to 1879,” a report said much happened — skirmishes, raids, etc. — that was “never reported and of which there is no record anywhere.”
So when were the last armed encounters between Comanches, Apaches or Tonkawas and Anglo or German newcomers on Bull Creek?
A 1936 yearbook reports that the one-room Bull Creek School was founded in 1867, “during the time when Indians were prevalent.” Wishful thinking? Perhaps not: Grandparents of those 1930s schoolchildren could very well have been alive in the 1860s.
Bull Creek was so remote in the late 19th century, too, that local Unionists holed up in the canyon during the Civil War were able to resist Confederate forces based in Austin.
“There was an Indian skirmish at Defeat Hollow near Hudson Bend circa 1870 that went unrecorded until the 1960s during interviews with longtime residents,” Denney continues. “My own family oral history recalls Indian activity near today’s Volente, again circa 1870. And Preece Ranch — (later) River Place/Steiner Ranch — descendants have oral history of Indian activity, date unknown, but after 1859 when the ranch began.”
All these – as with the mystery boulder – took place along the Old Burnet Road corridor. That trail ran from Austin along today’s RM 2222, across Bull Creek, to Bullick Hollow Road, and past Comanche Peak (next to the Oasis restaurant), Anderson Mill, Volente, Travis Peak, and then on to the town of Burnet, a favorite campsite of the Comanche on Hamilton Creek.
“But who was Ben Keller?” the blog post asked in July. “Thus far nothing has been found in news of the time, General Land Office land or County Clerk deed records, nor census, to tie a ‘Ben’ or ‘Benjamin’ ‘Keller’ or ‘Kelley’ to such an incident or the property in general. The date ‘OKT 5 1854’ on the boulder is quite visible, and we thought initially this was the date of death.”
Indeed, the placement makes it more likely a birthdate.
“But on a subsequent visit to the boulder, off-camera flash photography was used, a technique used for reading badly weathered headstones,” the post continues. “Those photos revealed more letters in the epitaph, but most significantly part of a second date, ‘NOV 1(8). ...’ Unfortunately, the year, assuming one was given, was on rock that broke off; we have not yet found the missing piece.”
That whoever buried Ben K. knew his month and date of birth would seem to indicate some degree of familiarity, such as a family member, according to the post. Although we don’t have a year of death, the epitaph might indicate he was old enough to be a skilled marksman with firearms.
That combined with the history of Texas and Indian conflicts can provide a rough guess: Ben K. would have been 18 years of age in 1872. This is a date that jibes with known skirmishes in Central, South and West Texas.
It could be that Keller was part of a family that was living off the grid and simply did not show up in the census records.
There are, of course, other explanations for the mystery boulder and epitaph, according to the blog.
“Perhaps it’s a hoax,” the post reads. “If so, why a hoax in a remote location few would have seen?”
Or perhaps the epitaph commemorates a battle that took place elsewhere and Ben’s body was returned home for burial. Possible, although funerary practices of the mid-19th century suggest persons killed in remote locations usually involved burial on the spot. A check of the usual military records didn’t produce any hits.
Since July, more discoveries have been added to the story, including a firmer identity for Ben Keller, but those must wait for a future Think, Texas column.
“And to reemphasize,” Denney says, “we don’t know what this is one way or another – fake or fact — so I continue to document the paths explored, call out possibilities.”