Comanche

 

 

 

COMANCHE

The Comanches, it is thought, separated from other Shoshonean-speaking peoples of the Great Basin and western Wyoming,

migrating southeastward till they reached the southern plains, at least by the late 17th century.

Their range, after they had evolved into horse-mounted Plains hunters, came to include what is now northern Texas, eastern Oklahoma, southwestern Kansas, southeastern Colorado, and eastern New Mexico.

The Comanches on the whole were probably the most skilled of Indian horsemen—athletic riders, expert breeders and trainers, they maintained the largest herd.

They were also among the most warlike people, a hazard to voyagers through their domain as well as to settlers beyond it, frequently mounting raids into northern Mexico for slaves, horses, and women.

After 1790, they were often accompanied by their allies the Kiowas, who settled immediately to their north.

As inveterate raiders, both tribes played a key role in halting Spanish expansion northward.

In fact, European traders were happy to supply them with arms for this very purpose.

Mexican Independence in 1821 -- the change in the political affiliation of their territory—proved irrelevant to Comanche power, at least for the time being.

The United States Army had an encounter with the Comanches as early as 1829, during Major Bennett Riley’s reconnaissance of the Santa Fe Trail.

Comanche warriors, along with some Kiowa allies, attacked Riley’s wagon train and killed one soldier.

Such attacks were common throughout the period, as more and more Anglo-Americans ventured into Comanche territory.

The principal function of the Texas Rangers—from their formation during the Texas Revolution from Mexican rule in 1835, through the Revolution of Texas period, and after American annexation in 1845 until 1875 -- was to contain the Comanches.

In most early encounters, the Indians had the upper hand, as in 1837, when the Texas Rangers found themselves suddenly attacked by the very warriors they were pursuing and lost half their outfit.

The next year, in the Council House Affair, the rangers managed to kill 35 of their nemeses, but not in the field.

The rangers seized as hostages a number of chiefs who had come to San Antonio to parley, in order to force the release of whites held by the Indians.

After the resulting fight and Comanche loss of life, warriors swept down from their homeland north of the Red River along the Guadalupe Valley, all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, under Chief Buffalo Hump.

Linnville was attacked and two dozen settlers who didn’t reach their boats in time were killed;

Victoria was burned.

The rangers ambushed the Indians on their return northward at Plum Creek, near Lockhart, and managed to kill some more warriors,

but their breaking the truce at the Council House had proven much more costly to whites than Indians.

The tide began to turn somewhat after 1840, when John Coffee Hays joined the Texas Rangers.

He not only improved discipline and morale, but also armed his men with Walker Colt six-shooters instead of single-shot guns.

During the Battle of Bandera Pass in 1841, the Indians came up against the "new rangers" and were repelled.

But the contrast between the Indians and whites was still basically a standoff, although more white settlers were arriving all the time.

In 1848, Texas officials defined a boundary between the two groups, with Texas Rangers ordered to apprehend trespassers from both sides, but to no effect.

Both groups violated the line.

Army regulars moved in to help prevent Indian raids and, from 1849 to 1852, erected a chain of seven forts, from the Red River to the Rio Grande.

And in 1853, the same officials who had negotiated the Fort Laramie Treaty to protect the Oregon Trail from raids (see "Sioux" ) -- David Mitchell and former Mountain Man Thomas Fitzpatric—

negotiated the Fort Atkinson Treaty in Kansas to protect the Santa Fe Trail,

meeting with those chiefs of the Comanches, Kiowas, and other southern and central plains tribes willing to attend.

The most damage the whites had inflicted of the Comanches had been indirectly, through a cholera epidemic beginning in 1849, at the time of the California Gold Rush and increased travel through their lands.

A new offensive was mounted against the Comanches in 1858 by both the Texas Rangers, reorganized by Governor Hardin Runnels who gave the command to Captain John "Rip" Ford, and the army, directed by General David Twiggs.

On May 11, Ford’s rangers, accompanied by Tonkawa, Kichai, Shawnee, and Anadarko scouts from the Brazos reserve in Texas, crossed the Red River into the Indian Territory, attacking a Comanche village in the Canadian River Valley flanked by the Antelope Hills.

Suffering only four casualties, the force killed a reported 76 Comanches, including a chief by the name, of Iron Jacket, took 18 prisoners, and captured 300 horses.

Next, the army launched the Wichita Expedition, led by Major Earl Van Dorn, which struck at Buffalo Hump’s encampment at Rush Springs on October 1, 1858, killing 58.

Then they ambushed a band of Comanche warriors at Crooked Creek further to the north, in Kansas, on May 13, 1859.

Yet the Comanches were not close to being pacified.

During the Civil War years, with regulars and militiamen both pulled out of Texas, most of them fighting for the South, the various bands increased their activity.

In fact, Confederate officials even armed some Comanche and Kiowa bands that had recently been their enemy, encouraging attacks on Union forces and sympathizers.

In November 1864, just 19 weeks before the Confederate surrender at Appomattox,

Colonel Christopher "Kit" Carson, who under the command of General James Carleton had recently defeated Apaches and Navajos (See "Apache" and "Navajo" ),

also led his New Mexico volunteers and the auxiliaries against a combined force of Comanches and Kiowas at Adobe Walls, a former trading post in the Canadian River Valley of the Texas Panhandle.

Using 12-pounder howitzers, Carson’s men managed to drive off the Indians and burn their winter stores.

Ten years later, there would be another clash at this location.

After the Civil War, during General Sheridan’s 1868-69 campaign against the tribes of the central and southern plains (see "Cheyenne" ), Sheridan’s southern column—

under Major Andrew Evans out of Fort Bascom, New Mexico—

located a combined Comanche-Kiowa encampment on the north fork of the Red River.

In the Battle of Soldier Spring on Christmas Day, 1868, again white forces killed more men then they lost, driving the Indians away from their tepees and lodges,

destroying their shelter and food, and serving notice that winter was not a time of security for raiding tribes.

During his campaign, Sheridan established a combined Comanche-Kiowa reservation in the southern part of the Indian Territory, just north of the Red River, to be guarded by troops at Fort Still.

This period was the beginning of President Ulysses Grant’s so-called Peace Policy toward the Indians, in which he appointed men of the church as Indian agents.

Yet raiding for the Comanches and Kiowas was a way of life and would persist, despite white attempts at acculturating, Christianizing, and pacifying the Indians.

The final showdown between the United States military and the Comanche-Kiowa warriors occurred in the so-called Red River War of 1874-75.

However, the new phase of Indian hostilities and the subsequent army mobilization began in May 1871.

While on a raiding expedition into Texas, one of the most influential of the militant Kiowa chiefs, Satanta, and his warriors set up a trap along the Butterfield Southern Route

(which led from St. Louis through the Southwest to California) on the Salt Creek Prairie near Jacksboro.

The war party let a small army ambulance wagon train pass, then attacked a train of 10 army fright wagons following behind.

The Indians killed eight of the 12 defenders, routed the rest, and plundered the wagons, which turned out to contain not arms or ammunition but corn.

Seizing the mules, the Indians fled northward.

As it turned out, General William Tecumseh Sherman, the commander of the army, had been riding in the ambulance train, and when he learned of the incident at Salt Creek

—firsthand evidence that Grant’s Peace Policy was not working

—he resolved to make a move on Kiowa and Comanche militants.

First, he sent Colonel Ranald Mackenzie and his Fourth Cavalry across the Red River onto the tribes’ reservation, where they managed to scatter some bands, but little else.

Then, with the help of Lawrie Tatum, the Quaker Indian agent at Fort Still, he lured three of the known participants in the raid for a council

—Satanta, Satank, and Big Tree

—and proceeded to arrest them.

Satank was killed in a fight that broke out; the other two were taken and later convicted of murder, sentenced to die by the Texas state court.

Because of pressure from both the Quakers, who disapproved of Tatum’s conspiracy, and federal proponents of the Peace Policy, the governor of Texas commuted the sentence;

in 1873, he allowed the Kiowas to return to their reservation.

The action, it was hoped, would appease the agency bands and lead to the cessation of raids.

But despite a large peace faction among the Kiowas, led by Kicking Bird, the militants still rode into Texas for booty.

Quanah Parker had by this time established himself as one of the foremost Comanche chiefs.

He was a mixed-blood whose mother, Cynthia Parker, had been captured as a nine-year-old by Caddos who gained entrance, through trickery, into Parker’s Fort near Mexia, Texas, in 1836.

They sold her to the Comanches.

As a teenager, she had become the wife of the Nocona Comanche chief Peta Nocona.

She remained his only wife (although Comanche men were generally polygamous), bearing him three children.

Content in her life as a Comanche, she had been recaptured unwillingly by white solders in 1860 and died four years later, broken-hearted.

Quanah had lost his father in the same period from an infected wound inflicted by whites, and his brother died soon after that from a disease carried by whites.

He had then joined the powerful Kwahadie band, who lived on the edge of the Staked Plain in the Texas Panhandle, and had grown up fighting whites with a vengeance, despite sharing their blood.

In September 1871, as a follow-up to the entrapment of the Kiowa chiefs, Mackenzie’s Fourth Cavalry invaded the Staked Plain.

In search of Kwahadies, they came up against the wily, fearless Comanche leader, who personally led two charges against the solders—

the first right through their camp at Rock Station, stampeding and capturing many of their horses;

and the second, attacking a scouting party in which Quanah himself killed and scalped the one casualty. Mackenzie continued his futile pursuit, finally ordering his men back to base with the first blizzard.

They returned in the spring of 1872.

On this expedition into the Staked Plain, they traveled from waterhole to waterhole, as the Indians did, and managed two successes.

They captured a number of so-called Comancheros, New Mexican traders, thereby exposing the Comanche-Kiowa source of arms and ammunition.

And they also defeated the Kotsoteka Comanche band camped near McClellan Creek, a tributary of the North Fork of the Red River, killing at least 30 and capturing 124.

They also seized about 1,000 horses and burned all tepees and possessions.

Quanah Parker and the Kwahadies were still at large, however, as were Satanta, Lone Wolf, and their militant Kiowa bands.

The ensuing Red River War of 1874-74 is sometimes referred to as the Buffalo War.

The Indians had been witnessing the wholesale of the buffalo—their staple food—

on the northern and central plains for some time.

The white hunters previously had killed the animals during winter months, when their fur was long, skinning their hides mainly to sell for ruglike robes.

By 1870, however, a new tanning process had been invented that made short-hair summer hides workable as well.

Also by that year, the hunters carried high-powered telescopic Sharp rifles that could kill the massive animals at 600 yards.

The rate of slaughter accelerated.

The hunters soon depleted the Kansas plains and moved into the Staked Plain of Texas, settling up base with their skinners at the abandoned trading post of Adobe Walls, on the South Canadian River.

Their economy and whole way of life threatened, the Comanches and Kiowas talked in council of war.

A Kwahadie mystic by the name of Isatai called for an alliance of tribes and a major offensive against the whites, promising to protect the warriors from bullets with magic paint.

He urged Quanah to hold a Sun Dance, not a traditional Comanche custom, and invite other Plains tribes.

Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors, recently defeated by Sheridan (see "Cheyenne" and "Arapaho" ), came from their neighboring reservation.

During the ceremony, a war party of 700 warriors from all four tribes was organized. Quanah Parker would lead it.

On June 26, 1874, the Indian force crept up under cover of darkness to Adobe Walls—

the site of Kit Carson’s fight with Comanches and Kiowas a decade before.

The 28 buffalo hunters, aroused by a warning signal, managed to take shelter behind the adobe walls with their high-powered Sharp and Remington buffalo guns plus plenty of ammunition.

The Indians charged repeatedly but, despite their overwhelming numbers, could not reach the hunters.

Fifteen dead and many more wounded, they withdrew.

Afterward, in a state of frustration, perhaps now seeing the inevitable change of life-style in their near future, the Indians began a campaign of violence against the white settlers.

Sherman gave Sheridan free reign for a massive offensive that July. Sheridan launched troops from a number of surrounding posts in Kansas, Texas, and New Mexico.

In the field were Ranald Mackenzie and Nelson Miles. In the bitter heat of an extreme summer, they converged on the Staked Plain, forcing a number of inconclusive skirmishes and keeping the Indians on the run.

Finally, on September 28, 1874, Mackenzie dealt a crushing blow to the Indians in an attack on their stronghold, the Palo Duro Canyon, where many had taken refuge.

Although he killed only three braves, he captured or killed most of their horses—an estimated 1,500 -- and destroyed their tepees.

By the following October, demoralized and destitute refugees began surrendering to the garrisons at Fort Reno and Fort Sill.

Of the Kiowas, Lone Wolf and 250 followers held out the longest—until February 25, 1875.

Then, on June 2, the last of the Comanches, yielding to the pressures of relentless pursuit and the wilderness, also came in under a flag of truce, led by Quanah Parker.

The so-called "Lords of the Southern Plains," as they are sometimes called—the Comanches and Kiowas—had been conquered once and for all.

The fates of the participants varied. Lone Wolf was among those sent to Fort Marion, in St. Augustine, Florida, where the military now deported warriors whom they considered dangerous.

Kicking Bird of the Kiowa peace faction was given the unfortunate task of identifying those for deportation.

He died mysteriously soon afterward, perhaps poisoned by a Kiowa medicine man, Mamanti, whom he had selected.

Lone Wolf, having contracted malaria in Florida, was finally allowed to return to his homeland, where he soon died.

Satanta was imprisoned in Huntsville, Texas, for violating his parole for the earlier Salt Creek incident.

In 1878, in a state of depression, he killed himself by jumping headfirst from the second-story balcony of the prison hospital.

As for Quanah Parker, the stubborn Comanche war leader who, unlike the majority of the other militant chiefs, never once signed a treaty with the whites until his ultimate surrender,

he quickly adapted to his new reality as a reservation Indian, continuing to play an important role as leader of his people.

He never gave up his Indian identity, but he learned the ways of the whites, such as the leasing of lands and rights-of-ways, to improve his tribe’s lot.

He also came to play a major part in spreading the pan-Indian religion that started up around the peyote ritual and came to be charted as the Native American Church.