DEATON, ELIAS L.

Stephen P. Pate
Gravestone of Elias Deaton.
Gravestone of Elias Deaton in Honey Creek Cemetery, Hamilton County. Texas. Image available on the Internet and included in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.

DEATON, ELIAS L. (1833–1899). Elias L. Deaton, Texas pioneer and author of Indian Fights on the Texas Frontier, was born in McNairy County, Tennessee, on August 4, 1833. He was the son of John Calvin Deaton and Catherine (Stewart) Deaton. As a ten-year-old, Deaton came to Texas with his family to join the Mercer Colony; they crossed the Red River at Brumit’s Ferry on March 25, 1843. He lived with his parents on a farm in what became Rains County. In 1851 he went to Fort Gates in present-day Coryell County, then on the edge of the Texas frontier. Working with his brother Thomas, he hauled goods for the federal government to early Central Texas settlements and forts, namely Fort Phantom Hill. In so doing, he and his brother had frequent encounters with the Comanche Indians, and he later wrote about these encounters.

By the spring of 1856 Elias and Thomas Deaton were among the first settlers of Comanche County, Texas. The first wedding license issued in Comanche County was issued to Elias Deaton and Mary (Polly) Wright on October 25, 1856. They had seven children. The Deaton brothers became prominent citizens in Central Texas. Thomas Deaton became the second sheriff of Comanche County and later sheriff of Hamilton County. Elias Deaton became a prominent cattleman in the area. Other Deaton brothers, such as Calvin, soon migrated to the area. The Deatons became known as a “locally notable” family who could be relied upon to aid in frontier defense, and they accompanied Sul Ross and Charles Goodnight in raids against Native Americans.

During the Civil War, Elias Deaton became part of the Texas State Troops and served as the captain of the Comanche County Company. This service was charged with protecting the Texas frontier from Comanche attacks when regular troops had been withdrawn. In that capacity, Deaton participated in the ill-fated battle of Dove Creek on January 8, 1865, when Texans attacked a band of heretofore peaceful Kickapoo Indians and were decisively defeated. Deaton was one of the Texans wounded in the battle.

After leaving Comanche County, Deaton moved several times and farmed in Bosque, Guadalupe, and Travis counties. He moved to the Honey Creek area of Hamilton County in the 1870s and by 1880 listed himself in the census as a farmer, rather than as a rancher. In 1880, after the death of his first wife, Elias married Harriet Olivia McCarty. He became politically active and was a leader in the Democratic party and served as a delegate to the 1888 state Democratic convention as a Grover Cleveland supporter. He became concerned with the plight of Texas farmers and became an active member of the Grange. Several historical articles quote letters from Grange leaders to him. He was especially active in seeking relief for farmers during the severe drought years of the late 1880s, and in 1887 he served as the Hamilton County Drought Relief Committee chairman. In 1894 he turned away from the Democratic party and became a strong Populist. He was a member of the Honey Creek Missionary Baptist Church in Hamilton County for more than twenty years and served as a deacon.

In the early 1890s, Deaton conceived the idea of writing a book about his early life on the frontier. He had read J. W. Wilbarger’s Indian Depredations in Texas. While he had great respect for Wilbarger, Deaton believed that, for want of information, Wilbarger had omitted many stories about Comanche, Hamilton, Brown, and Erath counties where there had been many encounters with Native Americans. To rectify this, Deaton wrote the now classic Indian Fights on the Texas Frontier, first published in 1894. Both Indian Depredations in Texas and Indian Fights on the Texas Frontier have been often cited together in articles and books discussing conflict between Texans and Native Americans. In later years, portions of Indian Fights on the Texas Frontier were often reprinted or cited in Texas newspapers and publications such as J. Marvin Hunter’s Frontier Times.

 As opposed to Wilbarger, Deaton had been present at many of the events he described and can thus serve as a primary source. His first-hand account of the battle of Dove Creek is often quoted. Though he never acknowledged that the Texans attacked non-hostile Kickapoos, he did write of the futility of the attack and noted that in assaulting the Kickapoo’s fortified position, the Texans “were laboring under great disadvantage.” He spoke mournfully of the retreat from the battle and of the wounded and dead. Deaton also wrote of Comanche attacks on his own family and his fears for their safety. Even if he was not present, his closeness to events aids the authenticity of his descriptions. His description of the killing of schoolteacher Ann Whitney by the Comanches while she was protecting her schoolchildren in Hamilton County in 1866 is often cited and is aided by the fact that his niece Dora had been one of Whitney’s students and his brother Thomas was part of the search party that recovered the schoolchildren abducted by the Indians. Almost all of the events Deaton related were experienced by himself, a close relation, or a neighbor. His personal description of the 1854 Indian Council at Fort Chadbourne, Texas, where government agents attempted to persuade Plains Indians to adopt reservation life, should be particularly recalled. Noting that he was then a young man with very little to do, he walked among the camps of the various tribes and observed their customs; he watched their war dances, sun dances, foot races, and shooting matches. He called what he saw “the grandest scene of my life.”

Like Wilbarger and many nineteenth century Texans, Deaton had disdain for the Native Americans he fought and referred to them as “savage” and “bloodthirsty.” However, in some respects he was more enlightened than others of his time. Early in his book he acknowledged that the senseless murder of a Native American boy by settlers had been the cause of a bitter reprisal. Some passages of his book offered sympathetic portrayals of Native Americans, such as his description of Comanche Chief Yellow Wolf. He also recorded Native American attacks against African Americans, something which is not always recorded in other accounts. As stated, he did not recount Dove Creek as a gallant fight against an overwhelming foe but as a misguided excursion.

Deaton died at his home in Hamilton County on December 18, 1899, and is buried in Honey Creek Cemetery, Hamilton County, Texas.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Comanche Chief (Comanche, Texas), February 17, 1922. Dallas Morning News, May 17, 1888; July 30, 1933. E. L. Deaton, Indian Fights on the Texas Frontier (Fort Worth: Pioneer Pub. Co. 1927). Dublin Progress (Dublin, Texas), January 5, 1900. “Elias L. Deaton,” Find A Grave Memorial (https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/21291221/elias-l.-deaton), accessed May 8, 2010. History of Texas, Supplemented with Biographical Mention of Many Families of the State (Chicago: Lewis, 1896). Gregory Michno, The Settler’s War: The Struggle for the Texas Frontier in the 1860s (Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Press, 2011). William C. William C. Pool, "The Battle of Dove Creek," Southwestern Historical Quarterly 53 (April 1950). Kenneth W. Porter, “Negroes and Indians on the Texas Frontier, 1834–1874,” Southwestern Historical Quarterly 53 (October 1949). Waco News-Tribune, October 10 1954. J. W. Wilbarger, Indian Depredations in Texas (Austin: Hutchings, 1889; rpt., Austin: State House, 1985). 

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Handbook of Texas Online, Stephen P. Pate, "DEATON, ELIAS L.," accessed November 18, 2018, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fdeat.

Uploaded on May 14, 2018. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

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