Dead Man’s Hole – A Sad Tale of James Duff’s “Reign of Terror”

From time to time, we like to dive into our email bag and answer a reader question….

I’d like to learn more about the Civil War incident where Captain Duff and his Partisan Rangers captured four Kerr County residents, Sebird Henderson, Gus Tegener, Frank Scott, and Hiram Nelson, took them to Spring Branch near Harper in Gillespie County, hung them, then threw their bodies into the creek in what is now called “Dead Men’s Hole.” What was the actual date of the incident? Is the gravesite marked, or has it been obliterated by the passage of time?” Nathan Sebird Henderson, Jr., Fresno, CA

The four men that you mention were among the numerous victims of what some historians have described as a reign of terror carried out by James Duff’s Confederate Partisan Ranger Company in the Hill Country between May 1862 and March 1863. Duff’s unit was ordered to the Hill Country by General Hamilton Bee to suppress activities that were considered disloyal to the Confederacy among the German settlers there, who had formed a “Union Loyal League.”

Duff’s activities are described in Don Biggers, German Pioneers in Texas, Guido Ransleben, A Hundred Years of Comfort in Texas, and R. H.. Williams, With the Border Ruffians. Ransleben’s book includes a letter written in 1908 from Howard Henderson to J. W. Sansom that says, in part, “I know that J. W. Duff and his company of murderers killed many of my neighbors and friends. My uncle and cousins, Schram Henderson, my wife’s father and brother, Turknette, were murdered, my neighbors, Hiram Nelson, Frank Scott, and his father, Parson Johnson, and old man Scott were all butchered by Duff and his gang. Rocks were tied to their feet and they were thrown into Spring Creek” (p. 119).

R. H. Williams, who was one of Duff’s men, describes going to the abandoned farm of “a northern man named Henderson” sometime between July 20 and August 10, 1862 (p. 238). According to a map entitled “Hill Country, Texas, Tourist Guide,” published in 1993 by American Drafting Services, 414 S. Broadway, Tyler, Texas 75702 , the four men you mention are buried in Spring Creek Cemetary, on the west side of Spring Creek and the north side of Old Harper Road just west of its eastern junction with US 290.

There was still a good deal of bitterness about Duff’s activities in the Hill Country when I was doing research there in the 1960s. They were remembered as the haengerbund (hanging gang) and were best known for their part in the Battle of the Nueces on August 10, 1862, when they attacked a group of about sixty Germans under the leadership of Fritz Tegener who were trying to avoid the war by going to Mexico. Nineteen of the Germans were killed outright and Duff’s men then shot nine wounded prisoners and left all of the bodies unburied. There is a monument to the dead in the town of Comfort, inscribed “True to the Union”.

Treue der Union Monument in Comfort, TX

About Lyman

Lyman Hardeman has held a deep interest in Texas history. He spent his youth in College Station, Texas and received a degree in Electrical Engineering at Texas A&M in 1966. In 1995, Lyman created Lone Star Junction, a popular Texas history website that later merged with Lyman is a life member of the Texas State Historical Association and the author of Texas A&M The First 25 Years.