Frontier Reporter Dirt asks...
Tonkawa Scout Johnson answers....

Question by Frontier Reporter, Fall 1867:

Hey there, you with the wagon. What brings you to Fort Griffin?

William Ledbetter answers:

I've come to barter with the United States Army. See, they've got something I want; I've got something they want. Come and see what I brought to trade.

Do you see all those burlap bags piled high, stenciled with my trademark? Try and lift one. Heavy, right? That's salt in there—salt—that precious mineral, so essential to life. I produce tons of it down at my saltworks on the Salt Branch of Hubbard Creek. I've been in business over five years now.

photo of Ledbetter's cabin

Settlers come from miles around to get salt from my place—and risk their lives doing so. With Comanches continually raiding my saltworks and murdering innocent people, no one is safe. A couple of years ago, poor Phil Reynolds had just left my place when Indians ambushed his wagon and killed him. But despite the danger, people keep coming back to get their salt. They can't exist without salt. Salt is not just used to make food taste better. Way out here, we have no ice to keep meat fresh. We need salt to preserve beef and pork to make it last a long time. We need salt to make butter. Horses and cows have to have it, too, or they will die.

Soldiers also need salt. General Sherman himself once declared that salt is more important than gunpowder to the army. Without it, he said, armies cannot survive. I think these new Ft. Griffin soldiers will agree with the general.

photo of cannon

Today I have come to meet with the commander of the Sixth Cavalry. I plan to propose a trade—one of their cannons for my salt. With the protection of a small cannon, I can defend my saltworks against any future raids the Comanches might be planning. Without a heavy gun, though, I cannot continue. I'll just load my iron kettles and all my equipment onto my wagon, shut down my operation, and move on. If that happens, we all lose. There's not another source of salt anywhere near this settlement.

Here comes Colonel Sturgis. Good, he looks like a reasonable man. Sorry, I must take leave of you and strike my deal. I just must have that cannon.

Because Ledbetter's salt was so important to the people of Fort Griffin and The Flat, William Ledbetter got his cannon at the fort that day. The next time his salt works were attacked by Indians, he fired his cannon until he ran out of ammunition. As the Indians retreated, he loaded a heavy metal bolt into the cannon and fired again. But the attacks on the isolated settlement continued, in spite of the firepower from the cannon. In 1870, Ledbetter's youngest son wandered off from school at the Lynch Ranch. The settlers thought he must have been carried away by Comanches. A party of citizens and soldiers searched the area but could find no trace of the missing boy. Another man was killed in an attack the following day. Ledbetter's young son was never found. Ledbetter held out for another 10 years and the moved to the nearby town of Albany, finally abandoning his saltworks.

photo of Ledbetter's saltworks

Making Salt on the Prairie

Making salt was a simple process if you had a source of salty water. Ledbetter had a spring on his place near the Salt Branch of Hubbard Creek. First he pumped salty water from the spring into his heavy iron pots. Then he lit a wood fire under the pots and let them cook until all the liquid boiled away, leaving salt on the bottom. After it dried in the sun, the salt was put in burlap bags, ready to sell.

Credits: Character dialogue by Lisa Waller Rogers; top painting by Charles Shaw; photos of Ledbetter cabin, site of salt works, salt kettles, and sign, all by Bob Stiba;

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