Henry Wax Karnes was a soldier in the Texas Revolution and later was a Texas Ranger. He was born in Tennessee in 1812 and grew up in Arkansas. He first came to Texas on a visit in 1828 and later returned for good in 1835 when he enlisted in the army under Captain John York. One of the first battles he is known to have participated in was the Battle of Concepción (on the grounds of Mission Concepción) and later in the Siege of Bexar. He was also associated with Erastus “Deaf” Smith and is thought to be the first to deliver the news to Sam Houston of the fall of the Alamo mission to Santa Anna.
Karnes is known to have participated in other battles and skirmishes, including the defeat of 20 Mexican soldiers at Rocky Creek near Gonzales on March 20, 1836. He served as a scout for Sam Houston leading up to the Battle of San Jacinto and during the battle, he served as captain and second in command to Mirabeau B. Lamar in the Texas cavalry. His cavalry group pursued the scattered Mexican soldiers after the battle. As a result of his actions at San Jacinto, he was awarded the rank of colonel.
Karnes was then sent to Matamoros, Mexico later in 1836 in an effort to exchange prisoners, only to be imprisoned himself by the Mexican authorities. In time, he escaped to return to Texas and was put in command of 8 companies of Texas Rangers to serve in the defense of the frontier. On August 10, 1839, he and 20 other rangers fought about 200 Commanches near Arroyo Seco. The Rangers were successful but Karnes was shot with an arrow and did not ever completely recover. He succumbed to yellow fever in San Antonio on August 16, 1840, shortly after having been named to head up the Santa Fe Expedition.
Karnes was interred outside the former Campo Santo cemetery in San Antonio, now the site of the Santa Rosa Hospital. Karnes was a Protestant and Campo Santo was reserved for deceased who were Catholic. Individuals having known burial sites in the area were reinterred at San Fernando cemetery #1. Karnes’ remains were apparently never located, but the State of Texas placed a memorial in his honor at Milam Park.
Karnes’ will is recorded in the probate records of Bexar County. In part, it directed that his prized possessions, two swords, be given the Congress of the State of Texas, that one piece of property known as Rinco de Perieda be given to his sister Amanda, that his clothing be given to his friend William O. Winston and that the remainder of his property be sold for payment of his expenses. The document was recorded in Bexar County and signed by Col. William H. Daingerfield on his behalf, as Karnes himself was likely too ill to sign. He named the following as his executors: Thomas H. O’S Addicks, William O. Winston, John W. Smith and John C. Hays.
At the time of his death, he was only about 28 years old. His parents were George and Hannah Wax Karnes. Henry was one of 11 children. Little is known of his family life once he reached Texas, however. Some accounts show him as having had a relationship with a Josepha Maria Wright with whom he had a daughter who was born and died in 1823. To the best of our knowledge, the couple never married nor had any other children.
In the 2015 miniseries “Texas Rising” the part of Henry Karnes was played by actor Christopher McDonald. In the miniseries’ story line, Karnes is depicted as being a Texas Ranger, second in command to Erastus “Deaf” Smith, throughout the episodes.
Karnes City and Karnes County in southeast Texas (located roughly between San Antonio and Corpus Christi) are both named for him. Falls City, Karnes City, Kennedy and Runge are located there.
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