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The Rutervilles College Student Who Became Santa Anna's Adopted Son

The unincorporated town of Rutersville has several historic markers focusing on some aspect of Rutersville College, the short-lived Methodist college that was the focal point for the town and residents. Last week we posted a deep dive into Rutersville College's sordid history, but this week, we want to look more closely at the residents and student body, some of whom have their own historic markers, like Asa Hill, who captured a Mexican boy (Jose Mendes) during the Battle of San Jacinto, raised him with his other sons and later sent him to school at Rutersville College.

Historic Markers for Rutersville and Asa Hill

According to one historian, "Rutersville College produced ... students whose lives were productive beyond what one might have predicted from the frontier circumstances" (Jones 2006, 18). Eight of these students were children of Asa Hill, who is commemorated in this historic marker. The Hill family is most famous in the state of Texas for their role in the infamous Mier Expedition and the subsequent Black Bean Episode of 1842-1843 (these two events are frequently referred to with no explanation on historical markers - we didn't know what they were either, but don't worry we'll get there). Rutersville College has a surprisingly strong connection to these two events, as many of its male students were involved. This makes a little more sense when you factor in that most male students seem to have spent their time pursuing Native Americans in retaliative hunting parties rather than studying. So, when, in 1842, General Rafael Vasquez, commander of the Mexican forces, captured San Antonio, the Rutersville College male student body did what they did best and "took up their arms and hurried to the standard of the Lone Star", according to an 1842 letter by Thomas Bell. Apparently some of the female students even left the school to join the cause as well.

By the time the Rutersville students got to San Antonio, Vasquez was gone.

Vasquez had a simple, clear goal in mind when he captured San Antonio: to prove that Mexico could invade and regain control of their former territory at any time. In 1836, Texas defeated the Mexican forces and established an independent Republic ("Deep in the Heart of Texas" should now be blaring from your speakers - please feel free to clap along). After the end of the war, Mexico allied with Cherokee forces and continued to attack Texan military outposts and settlements between the Rio Grande and Nueces Rivers. The Mexican government promised Native Texan groups land titles in exchange for this alliance, and the various forces were united against a common enemy: the newly formed Republic of Texas.

The Native American groups in their area were in a vulnerable position: it was a time of intense unrest with the Anglo-American settlers, and the tribes had been attempting to survive removal efforts from both the Republic of Texas and the Mexican government. Both governments were attempting to send the remaining Native Americans in Texas to reservations in Oklahoma (The Texas-Indian Wars are an important and complex historical subject in their own right - this brief summary does not do the subject justice, but it will eventually be the primary subject of future posts). These tensions came to a head in 1839 with the Battle of Neches, which took place near what is modern-day Tyler, Texas. The Cherokee and Delaware tribes were being forcibly removed for their lands, and Texan forces planned to move them to Oklahoma under an armed guard. On the morning of July 15th, when Texan forces arrived to force the tribes out of Texas, the tribes resisted, and violence broke out. At the end of a long day of fighting, 100 Cherokee and Delaware, and 5 Texans, had been killed, and the remaining tribal members agreed to the alliance with Mexico, to fight Texan forces in exchange for land grants from the Mexican government.

TLDR: Despite losing the war with Texas (1836), Mexican and Cherokee forces (who had been forcibly removed from their lands and repeated defeated by the Texas forces) continued to attack Texas forces and settlements eventually taking San Antonio (1842).

The Fall of the Alamo by Robert Jenkins Onderdonk

So, fast-forward to the Rutersville student body hurrying towards the newly, and briefly, captured San Antonio to defend the Lone Star cause (hit the "replay" button on "Deep in the Heart of Texas", cue up "God Blessed Texas" to play next, and grab yourself a Shiner). Again, when they arrived, they found that the Mexican forces had abandoned the city. At this point, we probably would have just shrugged our shoulders and headed home, because this level of sustained retaliation sounds exhausting. But these Rutersville students had been practicing their retaliation at a collegiate level. These were not studious bookworms who had been trapped with their homework every Friday night; these frontier college students knew a thing or two about retaliatory expeditions and decided that no way in hell could they let this insult pass by unchallenged. Enter the Somervell Expedition.

In October 1842, President Sam Houston ordered Alexander Somervell to organize a combined group of militia and volunteers to embark on a punitive expedition against Mexico. They were to invade Mexico only if their leader felt they had any reasonable hope of success. Volunteers, including the subjects of our historical marker Asa Hill, and his sons Jeffery and John Christopher Columbus Hill (what a name), as well as Thomas Bell (who, spoilers, later went on to write a compelling account of his time as a prisoner in Mexico), flocked to the cause, and soon the expedition forces numbered around 700 men. The Somervell Expedition successfully recaptured Laredo in December and forced the capitulation of Guerrero a few days later. Shortly thereafter, Somervell ordered his expedition to disband and return home. He feared that his expedition would end in disaster; it quickly became apparent that the expedition was ordered as a political move to appease those calling for an invasion of Mexico and to reveal the folly of attempting to mount a sustained military action against Mexico without an adequate military force.

Some of the Texans in the expedition were so disappointed by the order to return home, that they decided to separate from their command. Five officers and most of the men from the Somervell Expedition (including the subjects of our historical marker) set out on December 20, 1842, forming the Mier Expedition, what would become the last raiding expedition mounted during the Republic of Texas. The force mounted an attack on the town of Cuidad Mier, and it actually went pretty well for the Texan forces.

It went pretty well, that is, until a large detachment of Mexican forces arrived in the town. (The whole event probably wasn't great for the locals of Cuidad Mier). Outnumbered almost ten to one, the Texan expedition gave them a run for their money, but with their powder supplies almost exhausted, and with hunger and thirst setting in, the Texans surrendered. The number of casualties was staggering: 600 Mexican soldiers killed and another 200 wounded, compared to only 30 Texans killed or wounded.

Drawing of the Black Bean Episode by Fredrick Remington

This brings us to the Black Bean Episode, and the reality of this slightly amusing name is actually pretty dark. During their transport to Mexico, the Texan prisoners did manage to escape but didn't make it very far as they quickly ran out of food and water. Within a month, 176 were recaptured or had surrendered. President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was so outraged by the escape that he ordered the execution of all the escapees. The governor of Coahuila, Francisco Mexia, refused to carry out the order, and eventually moved Santa Anna to mercy. Kind of. Instead of ordering the execution of all of the prisoners, he ordered their decimation: one out of every ten men would be executed, and they would be chosen at random. The prisoners themselves would choose their fate by drawing beans from a jar - a black bean would earn a prisoner an execution and a white bean would earn him imprisonment. Those lucky enough to draw a white bean were marched to Perote Prison in Mexico City, where most were held prisoner until 1844 when Santa Anna released them. One of the unlucky 16 that drew a black bean was a Rutersville student, J. N. McD. Thompson. The college awarded him a posthumous degree in 1845 and listed him among their graduates for that year.

Close-up of Asa Hill's Historic Marker

However, the fate of John Christopher Columbus Hill, the son of Asa Hill and another Rutersville student, had a vastly different outcome. John had joined the expedition at the tender age of fourteen. Apparently, he showed such courage and bravery at the Battle of Mier that the Mexican officers there decided to send him under special escort to Santa Anna. When John joined the Mier Expedition, his older brother had given him a rifle that he had used at the Battle of San Jacinto, with the instruction that John never surrender it to a Mexican. When the Texans surrendered at the Battle of Mier and were forced to throw down their weapons, John, remembering what his brother had told him, destroyed his rifle with a rock rather than hand it over. The Mexicans who witnessed this outburst decided that this was adorable, and sent him off to Santa Anna.

Once in Mexico City, John was introduced to Santa Anna, and two other powerful political figures, Valentin Gomez Farias and Jose Maria Tornel, who were so impressed with him that they asked him to remain in Mexico. John agreed, on the condition that his father and brother (still imprisoned after the Black Bean Episode) were released from prison and sent back to Texas. John thrived in Mexico, changing his name to Juan Cristobal Gil, and attending Colegio de Mineria, a prestigious college in the country. He eventually became one of Mexico's foremost engineers, designing county roads and mining operations, and later married the daughter of a Spanish general, with whom he had four children. He was even adopted by Santa Anna, although, legend has it, that when Santa Anna offered to adopt him and make him a soldier, John replied "Your excellency, I can't be your son, I have a good father. And I can't be a soldier in your country, because I am a Texan" (Soodalter 2016). (Take a drink of your Shiner.) After the death of his wife in 1891, he returned to Austin and married a "sweetheart of his youth"(Jones 2006, 18). In retrospect, it seems like John/Juan was the only member of the Mier Expedition to come out of the event ahead.

And interestingly, his father, Asa Hill, who had captured the Mexican boy Jose Mendes at the Battle of San Jacinto to raise as his own, and who sent Jose to Rutersville College, eventually lost his Texan-born son, another Rutersville College student, to the Mexican President and general, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.

For further reading please see:

Jones, W. 2006. To Survive and Excel. The Story of Southwestern University. Georgetown: Southwestern University.

Soodalter, R. 2016. "The Strangest Adoption in the History of the West".

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