Stephen F. Austin State University

'Runaway Scrape' and old Chief Colita (October 2019)

'Runaway Scrape' and old Chief Colita

By Van Craddock

Colita, a wise old East Texas chief, saved the Texans' bacon in March 1836 during the Texas War for Independence.

After the Mexican Army captured San Antonio's Alamo on March 6, Santa Anna's troops swept toward the East Texas Piney Woods. Thousands of Anglo Texans fled their homes intent on crossing the Sabine River to the safety of the United States.

For several weeks, Colita and his people helped ferry panicked Texans across a flooded Trinity River - and other tributaries - in what has gone down in Texas history as the "Runaway Scrape."

Colita's Coushattas fed and cared for the grateful Anglos, then pointed them toward Louisiana.

Sam Houston, commander of the Texas Army, was most appreciative of Colita's help. On April 21, 1836, the Texans routed Santa Anna and his Mexican troops at San Jacinto, thus ensuring creation of the Republic of Texas. In September that year, Houston was elected president of the new nation.

Colita (sometimes spelled Coleto or Kalita) was born in Alabama and later relocated to East Texas. He served as chief of the Lower Coushatta Village and by the late 1830s was principal chief of all Texas Coushattas.

According to The New Handbook of Texas, Colita was "well known for tribal leadership" and for keeping friendly relations between Coushattas and Anglo setters.

Colita was a close friend of many Texas notables, including Stephen F. Austin, the "Father of Texas."

In July 1839, Texas President Mirabeau Lamar penned an unexpected letter to Colita, expressing regret there had been recent conflict between the Coushattas and Anglo settlers.

Relations between Native Americans and whites had been strained as more settlers arrived from the United States and established homesteads on East Texas lands claimed by the Coushattas, Alabamas, and Cherokees.

Lamar wrote a letter to Anglo leaders in Liberty County, urging local whites to reconcile with the Indians.

This was most definitely out of character for Mirabeau Lamar, who had been vocal in his dislike of East Texas Indians. He especially disliked the Cherokees. Lamar believed the hostile Mexican government had enlisted Cherokees to wage war against East Texas settlers. On June 27, 1839, just two weeks prior to his conciliatory letter to Colita, Lamar had declared war against the Cherokees.

By July, Texas militia had killed dozens of Indians and driven the Cherokees out of Texas. Why did Colita and the Coushattas not suffer the same fate as the Cherokees? There is speculation Lamar remembered Colita's kindness toward Texans during the "Runaway Scrape" of 1836.

By 1840, the Republic of Texas Congress had authorized East Texas land for the Coushatta and Alabama Indians, but Anglo settlers already on the disputed acreage refused to move. Still, Colita continued to work with Texas authorities to keep peace in East Texas.

When Colita died in early July 1852, it made national news. The New York Times reported:

"Colita, said to be the oldest Indian chief in Texas, died lately at Cushatta (sic) village on the Trinity River … It is supposed at the time of his death he was about one hundred and twenty years of age."

While likely not 120 years old, Colita was indeed a wise old chief.

The Telegraph and Texas Register of Houston said Colita not only was "the oldest chief of the Coushattas" but was "admitted by all to have been of greater antiquity than any other person in Texas … The life of this chief, traced back through all the revolutions and vicissitudes which he witnessed, and in many of which he participated, would probably furnish a more valuable history of Texas in early times than ever has or ever will be written."

In 1967 a state historical marker was dedicated to Chief Colita on Texas Highway146 in Liberty County. The marker's text reads simply, "Friend of the Pioneers."