Historic tree marks unsolved crime dating back to Civil War

'Hanging Tree' in Bandera County listed among Texas' most famous trees

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BANDERA COUNTY, Texas – It's a dark mystery that dates back to the U.S. Civil War.

Seven men were hanged and one was fatally shot just outside the town of Bandera. 

"I don't say it's the most famous, but it's on page one of the 'Famous Trees of Texas'," Phil Watkins, a San Antonio attorney, said of the tree that sits on his property.

As trees go, the "Hanging Tree" has quite the history behind it. Its importance is not lost on Watkins. 

"We have family members show up here regularly, or they'll call," Watkins said. "I just got a call about two weeks ago from some family."

Among the people who call Watkins are the many descendants of the eight men listed on the gravestone at the rocky grave, just below the tree. 

"The eight of them, in 1863, rode through Bandera, stayed a day or two, and were on their way to Mexico," Watkins said.

The men carried $900 with them, a fortune in those days. 

A young boy was also with the men, who were German-Americans traveling from the Austin area. 

It's with their perceived mission where stories begin to diverge.   

"Some say they were deserting [from the Confederate Army]. Some say they were going to buy cattle," Watkins said.

Soldiers at nearby Camp Verde believed they were deserters of the Confederate Army. A group of soldiers detained them near Hondo. 

On their way back, a few of the soldiers decided the men should die for their actions. Not all of them agreed, and some of them left the scene before the crime occurred.

Seven of the men were hanged. One of them was shot after he begged the soldiers not to hang him. The young boy was released.

It wasn't until residents found the men days later that an investigation was launched.

"The Bandera County grand jury indicted all of the soldiers," Watkins said. "And to this day, there is still an active grand jury indictment."

The soldiers were never found and a trial never occurred. But the tree and grave remain on Watkins' property.  

In another twist of intrigue, Watkins believed that the tree labeled as the "Hanging Tree" likely is not the tree where the alleged crime occurred. He believed the hangings happened at a larger tree, nearby, along a creek that is also on his property. 

As for the young boy, legend has it that he returned home alone and never spoke of the incident to anyone.

Watkins held a 150-year anniversary at the tree in 2013, with descendants of the eight men attending.  

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