Woodland, John [Jack] (ca. 1826–1861)

By: Ben E. Pingenot

Type: Biography

Published: September 1, 1995

Updated: April 1, 2021

John (Jack) Woodland, frontiersman and guide, was born in London, England, around 1826 but emigrated as a small child to United States with his mother, settling in Ohio. He came to Mexico with the volunteers during the Mexican War and later joined the Texas Rangers. After the war he remained in Texas, where he worked as a scout for the government and as a guide and interpreter. He served on the Boundary Commission with John Russell Bartlett; later he nearly reached the Gulf of California. In his wanderings he was captured by Comanche Indians and held prisoner for a month before escaping. Between 1854 and 1856 Woodland lived in the Leona River settlement (Uvalde) near Fort Inge, where he worked for Reading W. Black. In April 1854 Woodland was employed by Frederick Law Olmsted and his brother to guide them to Eagle Pass on the Mexican border and then into Mexico. Olmsted described Woodland as "neat, quiet, and orderly; good-natured without being obtrusive, and communicative without being garrulous and tiresome-a combination of good qualities we found in no other frontiersman." In 1856 Woodland served as post guide at Fort Davis. There he met and became friends with Lt. Zenas R. Bliss. Bliss described Woodland as "small but wirey, and as brave as a lion." In May Indians stole some stock from the post, and Bliss, with a detachment of twenty men, was ordered in pursuit. Guided by Woodland, the command followed the Indians' trail to the vicinity of the Guadalupe Mountains. Vastly outnumbered, their water and food gone, and their animals used up, Bliss followed Woodland's advice, abandoned the chase, and headed for Fort Bliss, which they reached after much suffering for want of water. They were the first party of White men, so far as they knew, to cross that section of West Texas. In the late 1850s Woodland served as post guide at Fort Hudson on the Devils River. As part of his duties, he carried the mail to Fort Clark on mule back. Once he and a corporal with him were attacked by a small party of Indians. Both men were wounded, and their mules were lost to the attackers, but the mail was saved when the Indians gave up the fight. In 1859 Woodland returned to Cincinnati, Ohio, to visit his mother. There he met and fell in love with a girl who promised to marry him, but first he said he had to return to Texas and settle his affairs.

By the spring of 1861 Woodland was again at Fort Davis. The Secession Convention, called in February, had voted for secession, and Gen. David E. Twiggs, commanding the Department of Texas, agreed to surrender all federal forces in the state. By the end of April United States forces had abandoned Fort Davis. The sutler, Alexander Young, a native of Pennsylvania, chose to accompany the troops when they left and was obliged to dispose of his inventory at bargain prices. Woodland, although a strong Union man, saw a chance to make his fortune and decided to remain in Texas. He invested $3,000 in Young's merchandise, which he intended to sell in the border settlements. With the anticipated profits, he would then return to Ohio and marry his fiancée. Lieutenant Bliss said his parting with Woodland was a sad one, and he warned him to look out for the Apaches. In early August 1861 Indians attacked the fort, killing two guards and driving off a number of horses and livestock. The Confederate detachment at Fort Davis then only numbered twenty men with Lt. Rueben E. Mays in command. Mays assembled half of his troops, ten men including himself, to go in pursuit of the Indians. Two Mexicans were employed as guides, and Woodland, along with another civilian, were persuaded to go along to augment their numbers. On August 5 Mays and his party headed south from Fort Davis toward Mitre Peak, and thence southward toward Cathedral Peak, where they struck a well-watered canyon leading toward the Rio Grande. The Indian's trail was plain and well-marked. The ably mounted detachment passed through Persimmon Gap, where the trail turned southwest toward Corozona Peak. On August 10 a horse herd of 100 head was overtaken and captured without a fight. The next day Mays and his men caught up with a small number of Indians whom they engaged in a running fight leading toward a great canyon. Against Woodland's advice, the Texans charged into the canyon where the Indians lay in wait from vantage points along the rocky canyon walls. Too late, Mays saw the trap and tried to retreat, but a withering fire from rifles and arrows killed or wounded every man in the detachment. Woodland was one of the first hit, and the bullet broke his arm. One of the Mexican guides assisted him in getting to a rock ledge, but in the effort Woodland received still another shot. The two men lay concealed until nightfall. Woodland gave the guide his rifle and told him to try to get away as he felt he was "done for." He had two loaded pistols and said he would fight to his last load, at which time he would kill himself rather than risk capture and being tortured. Under cover of darkness the Mexican guide made his way out of the canyon and continued on foot to bring the news of the massacre to Fort Davis. Days later a relief party of nineteen men from Fort Stockton, including the surviving guide, reached the scene of the battle. On the field were a few buttons, belt buckles, and pieces of clothing. The Mescaleros had done a thorough job of disposing of their victims, as only the body of one man was found. Some months later, Woodland's sleeve buttons were seen in the possession of an Indian at a scalp dance at San Carlos.

Zenas Randall Bliss, Reminiscences, 1886, 1894, 1945 (Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin). Ike Moore, comp., The Life and Diary of Reading W. Black: A History of Early Uvalde (Uvalde, Texas: El Progresso Club, 1934). Frederick Law Olmsted, A Journey through Texas (New York, 1857; rpt., Austin: University of Texas Press, 1978). Carlysle Graham Raht, The Romance of the Davis Mountains and Big Bend Country (Odessa, Texas: Rahtbooks, 1963). E. E. Townsend, "The Mays Massacre," West Texas Historical and Scientific Society Publication 5 (1933). The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.

  • Peoples
  • English
  • Native American
  • Captives and Victims of Attack
  • Founders and Pioneers
  • Military
  • Soldiers
  • Exploration
  • Guides, Scouts, and Interpreters

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Ben E. Pingenot, “Woodland, John [Jack],” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 26, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/woodland-john-jack.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

September 1, 1995
April 1, 2021