September-October 2013

Hunting for history

K. ­Sunshine Stanek

Assistant Criminal ­District Attorney in ­Lubbock County

Investigators in the Lubbock County Criminal District Attorney’s Office have a fascinating hobby:  They are researching the site of an 1871 battle between American soldiers and Comanche Indians in Crosby County.

In October 1871, a small group of 4th Cavalry soldiers found themselves under attack by a large group of Comanche Indians in Crosby County, Texas. Leander Gregg of Belmont, Ohio, was killed and buried near the spot where he fell. His grave and the battle site were lost to history.

    In 2012, investigators from the DA’s Office in Lubbock set out to locate this site and have Gregg’s grave and the battle site get the recognition it deserved. Applying the skills developed in their law enforcement career, these investigators have conducted countless hours of research and spent many weekends with “boots on the ground,” tracking and identifying this location. I talked with several of these folks (my colleagues) about their investigation.

Who from the Lubbock County office is involved in the 4th Cavalry project?

Todd Smith: Primarily it has been Jimmy Isbell, Mike Mitchell, Robert Noah, and me, although several others have been out and hunted the site with us using metal detectors and helped in researching various pieces of this puzzle.

How did you get interested in this event and hobby?

Mike Mitchell: We like to refer to ourselves as the DA Forensic Metal Detecting Team (it sounds good and helps justify the amount of time we spend talking about it around the office). But actually for the last several months we have been historic metal-detecting. It takes hundreds of hours to hone your skills with these machines, and we are beginning to feel like we are at a level of competency to use them in actual police work.

Robert Noah: As a kid, my father used to take me along as he metal-detected at old homesteads and parks, and that got me interested in it. Age forced him to retire from the hobby, and he passed his metal detector on to me. Looking for historical artifacts and solving the battle-site mystery has been my motivation.

Jimmy Isbell: As an almost lifelong resident of Crosby County, I got interested in this from a local history standpoint. There was a site already declared to be this battle location, but our initial research indicated several things had been overlooked by other historians. Being able to actually prove the location of the battle site and set the record straight became my main interest.

Todd Smith: I really had no idea that  this kind of history was around here, and the thought of Gregg’s grave being out there unrecognized appealed to the investigator in me.

What types of objects have you recovered?

Jimmy Isbell: Shell casings, bullets, arrowheads, infantry buttons, military buttons, Calvary spurs, square nails, saddle rings, Indian “jingles,” and horseshoes. All these items have been found in a way that gives a clear picture of the battle that matches the descriptions of the participants.

What do you plan do with the items after you recover them?

Mike Mitchell: Right now, all artifacts are photographed and logged using their GPS coordinates. We are on private property, so each item belongs to the ranch, but most likely these artifacts will end up in a display at the Crosby County Pioneer Museum.

Do you think you have or will locate the grave and battle site?
Todd Smith: At this point, I think our evidence and the research is overwhelming that we have the battle site located. A hundred and forty-two years of erosion has probably ended any chance at finding Gregg’s exact burial spot, but I think we can get close enough to eventually recognize Gregg’s sacrifice.

Have you ever used your skills in a work-related environment or to assist other law enforcement agencies in trying to recover items?
Robert Noah: We have assisted Lubbock police in an attempt to find some shells that a capital murder suspect threw from the window of his vehicle in Amarillo. Chief Smith and I were also called to assist the Lubbock County Sheriff’s Department on a double homicide and successfully found shell casings at the scene.

What has been the most enjoyable and most difficult part of this project?

Robert Noah: I think that the most enjoyable part is to be able to help recreate a battle that most folks never knew happened. You find yourself quite often just staring off in the wind actually imagining the Indians and the U.S. Cavalry fighting at this spot. Sounds funny but I know all my partners shared the same experience. The hardest part is when you have hunted all day and find nothing. It’s hot, cold, or raining but you keep on going—knowing at any minute you might get the big find.

Todd Smith: I think the best parts have been meeting and learning from a group of historians in this area and being able to recover things that were left so long ago in such a significant event. The hardest part has been researching and identifying ballistic evidence (make, model, and caliber) and other items found at the location.
Jimmy Isbell: The most enjoyable part has been being outside and getting away from it all. That and meeting new people and re-connecting with some folks I haven’t seen in years. The hardest part is making the time to get out and go do it.

Mike Mitchell: One of the most enjoyable aspects of this hobby is getting to know the history of this area and about the artifacts we have found. I never imagined I would learn the calibers and make of post-Civil War rifles and pistols while tracking the 4th Cavalry across this part of Texas. It is also great to get back outdoors after spending most of the week behind a desk. It is usually a long and exhausting day, but the hard work is worth the reward.