Philip Nolan surely would have enjoyed the attention if he could have lived another couple of centuries.
So many want to know so much about where he died.
The state of Texas thinks he passed on where the present Highway 174 crosses what is now the Nolan River. That’s the location of a Nolan marker.
Many historians think he breathed his last closer to Mustang Creek, a deep-water tributary of the Nolan.
At least one, Blum native Chuck Lummus, thinks the eye of the storm was the present Live Oak Cemetery, the earliest known burial grounds in Hill County.
An 1807 Spanish map seems to bear him out. It shows the Brazos River diverging into a less significant waterway. Adjacent to a dot are the words Fuerte Nolan, pinpointing the location of Nolan’s fort or stockade.
Live Oak Cemetery is less than 100 yards away. Lummus believes that’s where Nolan was killed, that he was buried where he fell, and that he became the cemetery’s first resident.
Proving that is difficult, maybe impossible.
But that’s only part of what this weekend’s Philip Nolan festivities are about.
At 9 a.m. Saturday at the Johnson County Courthouse, the county Historial Commission Museum will officially receive a collection of 200 books donated by Hewitt Clarke, a Civil War historian and vice president of the Texas Heritage Society, Inc. In addition, Mary Alice Williams of the Heritage Society will present 150 books on Texas history to the museum. Those books were previously donated by the Dan Williams family.
Representing Johnson County at the ceremonies will be County Judge Roger Harmon, museum curator Sandy Sims and other dignitaries.
One will be Clarke, who said, “Nolan’s grave site and battlefield is still hotly debated. We are hoping an expedition to the area near the Texas Historical Marker in honor of Philip Nolan will provide artifacts from the battle between Nolan and the Spaniards.”
Which is where Lummus and his group come in. They will metal-detect at several undisclosed locations.
“We may find something,” Lummus said. “We may find nothing.”
This is no wild goose chase.
But it is a reach into history. Think provincial Spain.
“We have a 1934 affidavit from Lowell “Stretch” Smith’s aunt [Mrs. Rosa Sandusky Smith] about what she remembers hearing as a little girl,” Lummus said.
According to “The History of Hill County” by Weldon B. Hartsfield, Mrs. Smith reported, “When I was very small, my grandfather often told me about Nolan’s expedition. He would show me Nolan’s grave when we went to church. We went to Old Live Oak Baptist Church ... Behind the church was a cemetery. In the southeast corner of this cemetery, near the second bank of the Nolan River, was the grave of Philip Nolan.
“It had a rusted, smooth wire around it. This wire was looped around four posts, one at each corner. The grave lay east and west. At the west end was a tree with two trunks. About 200 yards east of the grave and in a little draw was, and still is, a good spring from which we got water if we needed any at the church.”
That water source was often referred to as Battle Creek by nearby residents.
“Below the spring,” Mrs. Smith continued, “was a slight cave in the bank with a very low rock wall built above it. Many times, we children would play below the church and often found Indian arrows, and sometimes the boys would climb the trees and dig out bullets.
“About 1870, three Mexicans came to our house late in the evening and asked my father to go with them and show them where he thought Nolan’s grave to be. They had a map which father examined closely. He said that it was a very complete chart of the region around Live Oak Church.”
It had long been rumored that Nolan buried as much as $100,000 in gold near the site of the stockade.
“They offered him a portion of Nolan’s treasure, if it were located, for his help,” Mrs. Smith said. “Mother persuaded father to refuse to go with them because it was nearly night, and she was afraid the Mexicans would do away with him after he had shown them the grave.
“A few days later, father found where they had dug. They dug a few feet nearer the river than father thought the grave was. However, the grave and the treasure were almost certain to have been buried in different places.”
Mrs. Smith was the granddaughter of Henry Franklin Menefee, one of the first settlers of Hill County and a veteran of the Battle of San Jacinto. He received a land grant near present-day Blum in return for his war services.
Does Lummus believe the rumor about the gold? Not really.
“Gold or silver didn’t do you any good if you were trading with the Indians,” he said. “The Indians wanted guns and knives.”
In the end, it was the Spanish that got Nolan on March 21, 1801.
In “The History of Texas from 1865 to 1892,” Vol. I (1892), John Henry Brown wrote:
“Opinions differ as to where Nolan was captured ... from the diary of the Spanish lieutenant (Lt. M. Muzquiz, leader of the Spanish soldiers who killed Nolan). However, it was evidently northwest of and quite a distance from the head of the Navasota and east of the Brazos; most probably in Johnson County, on what is now known as Nolan Creek.”
Muzquiz wrote in his diary about approaching Nolan’s entrenchment and hearing Nolan warn in a loud voice not to come closer. Soon thereafter, “Nolan and his men commenced firing,” Muzquiz wrote. “The fight lasted until 9 a.m. when, Nolan being killed by a cannonball, his men surrendered.
“Nolan’s Negroes asked permission to bury their master, which I granted, after causing his ears to be cut off in order to send them to the governor of Texas.”