Part III: More on the McNelly Raid and then Headley settling Down

Alexander Headley, Public Servant or Scoundrel?


Yet another and differing account comes from long-time King Ranch’s El Sauz Division foreman, George Durham. He was a 15-year-old when he became part of Captain McNeely’s 29-man Texas Ranger outlaw pursuit company.

Durham, the last living survivor of the company, related his experiences to Clyde Wantland, a San Antonio newsman. It was published as “On the Trail of 5,100 Outlaws” and appeared in the magazine “West” as well as being serialized in the Valley Morning Star of 1959.

Durham gives the reported figure of 80 rustler bandits killed at Los Cuevos and a figure of 400 stolen cattle. He also added that a Sgt. Leahy had turned loose that Gatling gun at Los Cuevos “saving our necks.”

Durham also voiced the skepticism made by Sergeant George Hall. He writes, “If them damn cut-throats deliver them four hundred cattle like they agreed to, you know what I’ll do? I’ll take one of them steers by the tail and eat him raw. That’s what I’ll do.” “Then you don’t think they’ll do like they agreed to?” “Hell, no. Captain had old Doc Headley and his caporals in a tight place, and they would sign anything to get out. But that don’t mean they’ll make any effort to deliver the cattle they promis ed.”

After the Mexican authorities dragged out the immediate return of the cattle, Durham was one of the 10 men ferried across the river to expedite their return. At first McNelly was all smiles and graciousness with the Mexican head customs man. Matters suddenly took a turn for the worse as Durham remembers.

“And then the big senor told the captain that before the crossing tomorrow that the regular duty would have to be paid on each head. And he was getting along fine with this talk. Lieutenant Robinson signaling with his eyes had told us all to glue our eyes on him and be ready for something. And it happened like a bolt of lightning. ‘Cover em,’ Captain barked. Ten pistols leaped from holsters; ten hammers were cocked; and ten pistols were aimed at that big senor. Then Captain done something he never done before or since. With his feet he hit this officer in the belly and sent him sprawling. And then he landed one or two good kicks to his ribs. ‘Tell him,’ Captain said, ‘that if there’s a shot fired from anywhere he will die with ten bullets in him.’

“The intimidated customs chief then spoke in English telling McNelly ‘You can have the cattle; go to the pens and get them.’ McNelly snapped back, ‘No, You get them damn cutthroats out of the brush, and you swim them across. Well take delivery on the Texas bank where they were stolen from.”

Still there is yet another variation in the first-hand account by George P. Durham who accompanied McNelly into Mexico.

In this account as rewritten in Brian Robertson’s Wild Horse Desert, The Heritage of South Texas, “At five o’clock on the afternoon of November 19, a white flag appeared from the south and the carrier produced a letter from the “Chief Justice of the State of Tamaulipas” pledging complete cooperation. The cattle would be returned to the Ringgold Barracks the following morning and everything would be done to stop the thievery.” U. S. Army Captain James F. Randlett had crossed into Mexico with forty soldiers in the belief that McNelly’s Rangers would be massacred. Once his superior, Major Alexander, learned of this he ordered Randlett and his soldiers to return to U. S. soil. In any case Randlett had been suspicious of the offer. Durham names the courier as “Doc Headley.”

In this confused history McNelly recounted that the document was addressed to “Officer Commanding the Forces invading Mexico” and its tone was anything but cordial. Robertson puts the number returned at 75 head, 35 of which bore the King Ranch brand.

The 1880 U. S. Census of Hidalgo County, taken June 12, provides interesting information on Headley’s marital status and Ranch Nuevas at the time. Headley, age 42, lists as his wife 26 year old Ramona Alamos, however another source notes their marriage in Starr County as June 18, 1883 when he was 47 years old. Living with them are Jesus Vargas, stepson age 8 and Mexico born; William Headley age 4 Mexico born January 2, 1876; and Isabel (Ysabella) Headley age 2 Texas born ca.1878. Employed on the ranch were two laborers, one with a wife and three children and the other with only a child.

The ranch had 4,665 total acres of which 60 were tilled. This real estate was valued at $1500 along with $50 worth of machinery, and $520 worth of livestock. William, by the 1930 census was a farmer living in Rio Grande City and married to Delfina, 49, a washerwoman. He died in Rio Grande City March 9, 1931 at age 55. Ysabella married Jacob Francisco Miller in Starr County October 29,1894. They had one child. Ysabella died November 19, 1914 at age 36 in San Antonio.

It was also the year 1880 that Headley had gained citizenship to the United States of America through the naturalization process. His immigration year by one census report is given as the year 1870. He did however continue to practice medicine on both sides of the river. That is likely how he met and married, in 1884, the fourth of his wives. She was Maria del Pilar Trevino-Olivarez of Camargo.

Conflicting birth dates for her are 1855, 1858, and 1860. The 1855 date is the likely one as one reliable source gives her age at marriage as 28. According to the 1900 census they had married in 1882. This may have been a clerical error on the part of the census interviewer as Headley’s stated birth date of January 1845 certainly was. By that date Pilar’s mother, likely widowed 60 year old Eugenia Olivares, was living with them in Rio Grande City.

The same year as his fourth marriage Headley was among about one hundred individuals in the Valley counties who tried to organize the Brownsville, Rio Grande and Laredo Railroad. It never reached fruition.