Houston 101: A Rare, Perhaps Unique Tale of a Human Killed by a Texas Alligator

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Over the weekend I took my son out to Brazos Bend State Park. That's him in the foreground of the photo after the jump, sitting on an embankment about ten feet away -- and four feet above -- an alligator that looked to be about ten feet long.

Brazos Bend is a surreal place. The horseshoe lakes, palmetto frond-dotted sloughs, stalking ibises and herons, and lazy-moving creeks and big Brazos itself take you back to what feels like dinosaur times, and that's before you even come across your first gator. 

We saw about half a dozen along a heavily-traveled trail near one of the lakes. These ranged in size from about two feet to a fairly large one that was lurking underneath one of the observation decks that jutted out over the lake. Hikers and gators coexist casually -- most people are transfixed by their first couple of gators, but it gets fairly humdrum after you take in three or four. (Except when you stray from the trails and venture along the banks of Big Creek and come across a big one mano a mano, as my son and I did. Not that we condone that action, of course.)

After all, these aren't usually the most dynamic animals in the world. If you were to make a pie chart of a gator's life, the slice that denoted "laying around with eyes half closed barely breathing" would be by far the largest.

Except sometimes they do stir themselves into frenzied, lethal motion. After all, a gator's gotta eat. But according to Chronicle wildlife writer Shannon Tompkins, there is no documented example of a human being killed by an alligator in Texas. He wrote that virtually all of the gator-related mayhem you hear about, and you really don't hear about too much given their numbers and the proximity in which they live to humans, takes place in Florida, where, according to Tompkins, the natives apparently don't respect the big lizards the way people in Texas and Louisiana do. (While Texas has half the gator population of Florida, Louisiana has an equal number. The number of attacks in Louisiana is much lower than that of the Sunshine State.)

It might not be scientifically documented, but we have found an account of a fatal attack in Texas. It happened a long time ago.

In fact, it was just after the Runaway Scrape of 1836, that time of terror when virtually every Anglo in Texas was fleeing Santa Anna's avenging army after the fall of the Alamo. Eventually most of those settlers returned home, and Mrs. Dilue Rose Harris related the following horrific incident from that homeward trek. If our geography is correct, we believe it took place just east of the Harris / Chambers county boundary.

After crossing the river we had a disagreeable time crossing the bay. It had been raining two days and nights. There was a bayou to cross over which there was no bridge, and the only way to pass was to go three miles through the bay to get around the mouth of the bayou. There were guide-posts to point out the way but it was very dangerous. If we got near the mouth of the bayou there was quicksand. If the wind rose the waves rolled high. The bayou was infested with alligators. A few days before our family arrived at the bay a Mr. King was caught by one and carried under water. He was going east with his family. He swam his horses across the mouth of the bayou, and then he swam back to the west side and drove the cart into the bay. His wife and children became frightened, and he turned back and said he would go up the river and wait for the water to subside. He got his family back on land, and swam the bayou to bring back the horses. He had gotten nearly across with them, when a large alligator appeared. Mrs. King first saw it above water and screamed. The alligator struck her husband with its tail and he went under water. There were several men present, and they fired their guns at the animal, but it did no good. It was not in their power to rescue Mr. King. The men waited several days and then killed a beef, put a quarter on the bank, fastened it with a chain, and then watched it until the alligator came out, when they shot and killed it. This happened several days before the battle. We passed the bayou without any trouble or accident, except the loss of my sunbonnet. It blew off as we reached the shore. The current was very swift at the mouth of the bayou. Father wanted to swim in and get it for me, but mother begged him not to go in the water, so I had the pleasure of seeing it float away. I don't remember the name of the bayou, but a little town called Wallace [probably Wallisville -- JNL] was opposite across the bay. We saw the big dead alligator, and we were glad to leave the Trinity. 

So indeed it looks like it takes a lot -- horses, carts, screaming kids, terrified wives, repeated swimmings across their turf -- to rile up a Texas gator, not that poor Mr. King had much choice in the matter. Avoid stirring them up like that and you should be just fine.

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