The story of Lilly's Escape and Unbelievable Ride
It was a bright June morning in 1867 when a settler named Babb said goodbye to his wife and three children and a family friend. He was taking a small herd of cattle, perhaps a dozen, to market in central Texas.
|Coal Mine. Residents never found much coal, however.|
The family friend was a pretty young widow of twenty-five years. Her husband had died a few months earlier, and she was spending the summer with the Babbs on their ranch near the headwaters of the Colorado River south of where Lubbock, Texas, stands today.
In 1867 the Babb Ranch consisted of nothing more than a snug little frame cabin in the sparsely populated region of West Texas. The nearest neighbor was 15 miles east, and for more than 100 miles to the south, west and north, there were no white settlements. It was unsettled land frequented by Indians, mostly Comanches.
Indians had not bothered the Babb family during the many months they had lived on the frontier. Whether Babb gave any thought to hostile Indians before he left is unknown. There is no indication that Babb feared leaving the women and children alone.
For a few days everything was fine. But then one morning after breakfast the two older children went outside the cabin to play in a nearby dry creek bed. Mrs. Babb and her friend-I will call her Lilly in this story-began the household chores.
About midmorning the children called to their mother and pointed toward the west. The mother, stepping outside the cabin, looked in that direction. In a flash a feeling of fear filled her body. A group of mounted horsemen were rapidly approaching the cabin. They were Comanches.
Mrs. Babb yelled for her two children to run to the cabin as fast as they could. Inside, hearing the alarm, Lilly had hurriedly climbed the ladder into the loft to hide. She reached the loft as Mrs. Babb entered the cabin and shut the door, but she didn't bar it. She was waiting for her two children to come dashing in before doing so.
What she didn't know was that the two children had hid in some brush near the dry creek bed. Before she realized they were not coming, it was too late. The Indians reined up outside the cabin. Some of them had seen the two children trying to hide and went after them, while others stormed into the cabin.
Mrs. Babb's third child, a baby of perhaps twelve months, was torn from its mother's arms and thrown to the cabin floor. The Indians, apparently resenting the mother's resistance, seized her by the hair, pulled back her head and slit her throat.
Above in the loft, Lilly, who was watching the scene below through cracks in the loft's floor, screamed as the Indians killed Mrs. Babb. Instantly two Indians vaulted up the ladder and overpowered Lilly.
Fearing for her own life, Lilly gave no resistance as she was dragged from the cabin. Outside were the two older Babb children guarded by other Indians. Lilly and the children were placed on horses and soon the Indians headed north leaving Mrs. Babb dead and the Babb baby, still alive, on the cabin floor.
Whether the baby lived is unknown.
For several days and nights the Indians and their captives rode rapidly northward stopping only long enough to graze and rest their ponies and to get a little food and sleep for themselves.
The captives were given little else but water. The children suffered from harsh treatment, fatigue and want of food, but Lilly was strong. She had been raised on the frontier and had a robust constitution. She fared much better than the children.
As the days passed the party continued north crossing the Brazos, Wichita, Red and the Canadian rivers. They covered many miles. The Indians guarded Lilly and the children carefully until they passed the Canadian River. Their guard then slackened and Lilly and the children were permitted to roam short distances from their nightly camps.
Realizing the Indians might slacken their guard even more, Lilly began to look for the opportunity to escape. She spent time studying the speed and endurance of the different Indian ponies. She knew good horseflesh and, having ridden from an early age, was an accomplished rider.
A few nights later the opportunity came after all the Indians were asleep. Lilly crawled out of camp and made her way to where the ponies were grazing. Quietly she tossed a lariat around the neck of the best pony, leaped upon its back and without saddle or bridle started off at a slow walk in the direction of the North Star.
As soon as she was some distance from camp, she jabbed the pony with her feet and took off at a gallop. All night she rode stopping only when necessary to let her animal rest.
At dawn she rode to the crest of a rise where she could see for miles around. There was not a human being in sight, only the broad open plains. Lilly felt free at last. The sensation of loneliness that one finds on the plains was a good feeling, in spite of the fact that Lilly did not know where she was.
She continued north using the sun as a guide during the day and the North Star at night. By the second day she would have given anything for sleep. She feared losing her horse and by then had tied the end of the lariat around her arm. Should she fall asleep and fall off the pony, she wouldn't lose the animal.
By the middle of the second day wolves had picked up the scent of her pony. Trailing Lilly, perhaps half a mile away, the pack of wolves grew in number. They kept their distance, perhaps hopeful that something would happen to Lilly or the pony.
As the third night began, Lilly realized her horse needed rest. He was barely able to continue at a slow walk. Toward morning she could go no farther. With the lariat tied to her arm, she slid off the pony's back and fell to the ground. The pony stopped. As Lilly fell into a deep sleep, the pony slowly grazed on the short grass around where Lilly slept.
How long she slept is unknown, but as the sun climbed high in the sky, her pony commenced dancing around. The lariat pulled on her arm. She sat up quickly only to find herself surrounded by a group of Indians.
When she came to a few minutes later, the Indians placed her on her pony and rode to their camp a few miles away. There Indian women gave Lilly food and put her to bed in a tepee. It was several days before she had sufficiently recovered and was able to walk about the camp. And it was then that she learned the Indians were Kiowas, part of Lone Wolf's band.
Although these Indians treated her with more kindness than had the Comanches, she was their captive. It was clear they intended to keep her. Again she began to think of escaping.
She became more optimistic about her chances of finding help when a small party of Indians left camp and traveled to the north. They returned six days later with ears of green corn. She knew the Kiowas did not grow corn and that chances were good the Indians had visited a white settlement only three days away.
A few nights later after the Indians were asleep, Lilly crawled out of camp toward where the Indian ponies were grazing. But the Kiowas had dogs. They began barking before she could reach the ponies and she slipped back into camp without being seen.
Two nights later she tried again and this time reached the ponies. She roped one of the better ponies, jumped on its back and slowly moved the animal away from the Kiowa camp. Soon she was galloping north, the direction the Indians had taken to obtain the corn.
Through the next day she stopped only to rest the pony. She kept riding as the last rays of sun disappeared in the western sky and the stars began to twinkle in the night sky above. There was something about riding at night that Lilly enjoyed. Perhaps it was the sensation of moving through the darkness. As she gave her pony his head, she kept her eye on the North Star.
About dawn she came upon a buffalo wallow. Here buffalo had rolled on the ground to remove their winter robe. The depression in the ground was perhaps two or three feet deep. In the center of the wallow rainwater had accumulated, but now only a couple of inches deep.
Lilly let her horse get a drink after she drank some from her cupped hands. The taste was awful but it was water.
Through that day and one more night she continued to ride north. About midmorning of the third day she reached a large river flowing across her line of travel. The river was bank full. The water was cold. Pausing a few moments, fearful of trying to cross the rapidly flowing stream, Lilly quickly realized she had little choice. She had to cross.
She directed her pony into the cold water. The animal hesitated but Lilly gave encouragement and forced the pony through the water to the other side. The stream wasn't as deep as she first thought. But the water nearly touched the pony's back.
Once on the river's northern bank, she paused to let the horse rest. She felt cold as the southerly breeze~blowing up from the Staked Plains of Texas brushed past her wet body. But she had met the challenge and won.
A few minutes later she began riding north again. A short distance from the river she struck a broad and well-beaten wagon road. It was the first evidence of the white man's civilization that she had seen since leaving Babb's ranch in Texas.
Moments later, as her eyes followed the wagon road toward the horizon, first to the west and then the east, she could hardly believe her eyes. To the east in the distance was a long train of wagons. They were coming toward her.
Half smiling, half crying, she galloped toward the wagons. The man in charge, Robert Bent, rode ahead to meet her. He was surprised to find a woman in the middle of nowhere. He stopped the train and immediately ordered that Lilly be given food and water. Robert Bent was the son of George Bent, a pioneer trader on the southern plains.
Bent asked Lilly where she lived. When she replied, "In Texas," Bent could hardly believe his ears. Texas was several hundred miles to the south. But it was easy to see that Lilly had been through some kind of ordeal.
It was then that Lilly told her story
When she finished Bent shook his head almost in disbelief. Re then told her she was in Kansas. And the stream she had just crossed was the Arkansas River. Bent said that about fifteen miles east on the trail was a settlement on Big Turkey Creek. He told her she could find help there and even offered to send someone with her. Lilly declined and cast a graceful kiss with her hand toward Bent as she got on her pony and slowly headed toward Big Turkey Creek.
The spot where Lilly met Bent appears to have been on the line between present Rice and McPherson counties in central Kansas. The location is not far from where the city of Hutchinson now stands.
Bent, meantime, continued west with his wagon train to Fort Zarah near where Great Bend, Kansas, is today located. There Bent told the Indian agent about Lilly and her story. Ironically, the Indian agent was then holding council with the band of Kiowa Indians from whom Lilly had last escaped.
The Indian agent immediately dispatched an employee to find Lilly at Big Turkey Creek and to escort her to Council Grove, Kansas, farther east. This was accomplished.
During the months that followed, Indian agents located the two captive Babb children still being held by Comanches. The children were ransomed and sent home to Texas and their father. As for Lilly, she supposedly stayed in Council Grove.
Although her real name is unknown, Lilly, it is said, met a young man at Council Grove and soon remarried. The couple was still living there late in the nineteenth century.
Randolph Marcy, the well-known plains soldier, trailblazer and map maker, who first related the story of Lilly's incredible adventure in 1872, said she traversed at least five hundred miles of the plains on horseback. "If any other woman, either in ancient or modern times, has performed as signal an equestrian achievement as this, I have yet to learn it."
Lilly's identity remains a mystery today. If it is ever learned, perhaps someone will build a statue to this noble plains woman whose courage and perseverance deserve a lasting place in the history of the American West.
Lilly's Escape and Unbelievable Ride
The only other published account of this tale, so far as I know, appeared in Henry Inman's Stories of the Old Santa Fe Trail published in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1881. The book, long out of print and rare, deserves to be reprinted.