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“My Real Friend, Joe”

July 2024
4min read

George Catlin painted a moving portrait of friend Joseph Chadwick just before his friend's untimely death in the Texas Revolution

George Catlin's portrait of his friend Joe Chadwick became a treasured possession of the Chadwick family after Joe's death. Here it is reproduced for the first time.
George Catlin's portrait of his friend Joe Chadwick became a treasured possession of the Chadwick family after Joe's death. Here it is reproduced for the first time.

Death came early and violently to Joe Chadwick. He was barely twenty-four when he died at Goliad, Texas, in 1836. Only a few weeks before, he had sent his mother a portrait of himself just painted by his good friend George Catlin, the great artist of the early American West. Catlin was pleased with the picture, which he made in St. Louis late in 1835. “I rejoiced to find,” he wrote, “that I had given to it all the fire and all the game look that had become so familiar and pleasing to me in our numerous rambles in the far distant wilds of our former campaigns.”

One campaign, the basis of the almost fraternal fondness between Chadwick and Catlin, had narrowly missed disaster. It was the expedition under Colonel Henry Dodge, sent in the summer of 1834 from Fort Gibson, Indian Territory, into the lands of the Comanches, Kiowas, and Wichitas of Texas, to explore and to make peace treaties. Catlin went along as a civilian observer and pictorial reporter; Chadwick went as his assistant. They were in good standing with Colonel Dodge, General Henry Leavenworth (who accompanied the regiment of dragoons as far as the Texas border), and such young officers as Lieutenant Jefferson Davis. Everything went splendidly at first: there were exciting buffalo hunts, pleasant evenings around the campfire, and the extraordinary beauty of the unspoiled country.

The idyl did not long continue. A cholera epidemic suddenly hit both men and horses. General Leavenworth, himself mortally sick, ordered Colonel Dodge to move on into Texas with the 250 dragoons still unaffected; Catlin and Joe Chadwick went with them. In the days that followed occurred the friendly but sometimes nervous dealings with the rough-riding Comanches that resulted in Catlin’s famous series of drawings and paintings of that little-known tribe.

Walt Whitman, in “Song of Myself,” wrote of the men who were slain at Goliad:

“They were the glory of the race of rangers,” wrote Walt Whitman of the men killed at the Battle of Goliad.

But the expedition still had not escaped the cholera. It broke out among the Americans in their camp near a large Comanche village; and now Catlin, too, caught the germ. Another detachment of the healthy pushed farther west to seek out the Pawnees and the Kiowas, leaving the artist and dozens of sick soldiers in Comanche country. Catlin sent Chadwick as his substitute, and although soldiers continued to succumb along the way, Joe not only managed to keep a daily journal but even sketched a Pawnee village well enough so that Catlin later made the drawing into an illustration for his North American Indians (1841).

Quite aside from the cholera, it was a venturesome trip, and Chadwick was acutely aware of the danger should the Indians not feel inclined toward peace: "… two thousand or more of these wild and fearless-looking fellows were assembled, and all, from their horses’ backs, with weapons in hand, were looking into our pitiful little encampment, of two hundred men. . . . ” It was a situation he may have recalled just before he died, less than two years later. Instead of attacking, however, the Indians agreed to a treaty, and Joe and the soldiers who survived the sickness returned safely to the United States’ border, whereupon the whole expedition began to limp back toward Fort Gibson.

Chadwick found Catlin far from recovered, and was obliged to nurse the painter on most of the return march. “My real friend, Joe,” Catlin wrote, “has constantly rode by my side, dismounting and filling my canteen for me … evincing … the most sincere and intense anxiety for my recovery; whilst he has administered, like a brother, every aid and every comfort that lay in his power to bring. Such tried friendship as this, I shall ever recollect. . . .” A year and a half later, when the two met again in St. Louis, they spent happy hours “talking over the many curious scenes we have passed together,” while Catlin painted Joe’s portrait.

But by that time Texas was in revolt against Mexico, and Joe Chadwick had volunteered to go and fight for Texan independence. He dispatched the Catlin portrait to his family in Exeter, New Hampshire, and in December, 1835, joined the command of Colonel James Walker Fannin at the mouth of the Brazos River, on the Texas coast. He had a commission as a captain; and although he was a New Englander in a company of Georgia volunteers, he very soon became popular. Fannin chose him as his adjutant shortly after the volunteer battalion arrived at the fortress town of Goliad, in February, 1836.

March came, and with it came Mexican armies. History was made at the Alamo, and the stand taken there by the beleaguered Texans was dramatically heightened by Fannin’s failure to send them reinforcements from Goliad. His turn was not long in arriving. On March 19, having been ordered to abandon the town, he marched his four hundred volunteers out onto the Texas plain. After a few miles of progress he called a rest halt—and there, without access to drinking water, they were trapped by over two thousand Mexican soldiers under General José Urrea. Fannin’s men fought hard for a day and a night, but on March 20, desperate from thirst, they surrendered to the enemy.

On Palm Sunday, March 27, 1836, over three hundred unarmed Americans filed out of Goliad under the illusion that they were starting for the United States to be paroled. Without warning, platoons of Mexican guards opened fire, and within minutes the prisoners had been slaughtered.

Amid the horror and confusion a very few managed to escape by breaking through the Mexican lines. Joe Chadwick was not one of them. A survivor told later how he had urged Joe, not yet hit, to make a run for it: “No! [Chadwick] said, his friend [Fannin’s assistant adjutant, John Brooks] was lying wounded, and he would not desert him in his helpless situation to save his own life; but . . . he would remain and protect his friend, or share his fate!”

And so “my real friend, Joe” stayed on, and died with the others. Walt Whitman, in “Song of Myself,” wrote of the men who were slain at Goliad:

They were the glory of the race of rangers,
Matchless with horse, rifle, song, supper, courtship,
Large, turbulent, generous, handsome, proud, and affectionate …

Joe Chadwick probably would have found that rather romantic. But even Whitman’s eulogy could hardly have exaggerated the flame of personal loyalty that burned within him — never to be forgotten by George Catlin, who kept Joe’s face for history.

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