Lords Of The South Plains

Lords Of The South Plains

By Norman B Wiltsey

“I would rather stay out on the plains and eat dung than live on the white man’s reservation”


Early in the 18th century, far-ranging French explorers encountered on the Great Plains a tribe of Indians called the Padoucas.  Moving south and fighting the native Indians as they went, the Padoucas became known as the Comanches — a Ute appellation meaning Enemy. Originally the Utes also applied the term to the Cheyennes, Arapahoes, and Kiowas, but after about 1726 the name was firmly affixed to the Padoucas alone.  Of Shoshonean stock, the Comanches were also referred to in the universal sign language of the Plains Indians as the Snakes. The Shoshones proper were also called snakes by other  tribes and by the early mountain men and fur traders. The Comanches themselves ignored these various names, calling themselves simply the people the tribal term being Nerm or Nimma.

Picture of Flower," the mother and sister of Chief Quanah Parker

Cynthia Ann Parker and baby “Prairie Flower,” the mother and sister of Chief Quanah Parker

The tribe was divided into bands. The Penetekas, or Honey Eaters, inhabited Texas during the later Spanish and the Anglo- American periods. Other tribal bands were the Yamparikas, or Root Eaters; the wild Kwahadis, or Antelopes, who inhabited the Llano Estacado (Staked Plain); and the Kotsotekas, or Buffalo Eaters. All Comanches ate buffalo meat, of course, but the Kotsotekas roamed the Canadian Valley, where buffalo gathered in vast numbers; hence the name. These tribal divisions had no central government, and this loose setup often caused the Comanches to be charged unjustly with failure to keep their treaty obligations. The Comanches were probably the first of the Plains tribes to obtain the horse. The Frenchman Bourgmont, visiting a Comanche Village in Kansas in 1724, found the warriors amply equipped with horses. They informed him that they had obtained their mounts from the Spanish, Far to the south. (They neglected to mention whether by raiding or through barter, and Bourgmont was smart enough not to ask.) These Comanches were already superb horsemen at the time owned horses for years. Though the statement is disputed by some writers, the Comanches are generally rated as the best horsemen of all the Plains tribes. The artist Catlin, having seen most of the “horse Indians” in action, declared that the Comanches outclassed them all in daring horsemanship.

By 1836, according to P.L Choutteau, agent for the Osages, the Comanches were well established in a wide sweep of country, from the Arkansas River on the north to the Mexican settlements on the south, and from the Grand Cordillera on the west to the Cross Timbers on the west. Ernest Wallace and E. Adamson Hoebel, in their authoritative book, The Comanches, specifically placed Comancheria in the middle eighteenth century as “bounded on the north by the Arkansas River, on the west by a line extending from the headquarters of the Arkansas southward near the Mexican settlements of Taos and Santa Fe, on the southwest by the Pecos River, on the southeast by the white settlements in the vicinity of San Antonio, Fredericksburg, and Austin, and on the wast by the Cross Timbers . . . an area more then six hundred miles from north to south and four hundred miles from east to west.” Kiowas, Kiowa-Apaches, Wichitas and Wacos shared this vast hunting ground with the Comanches, but against all other men, red or white, the hard-riding tribesmen held their land with savage possessiveness.

On the western reaches of this broad land, the Llano Estacado formed a vast natural barrier against the Spanish and Pueblo settlements of New Mexico. Comanche war parties struck at the settlements; then retreated across the staked Plain, defying pursuit. South of Comancheria lay the rugged country of the Big Bend, and this served too as a natural barrier between northern Mexico and Comanche land. The warriors swooped out of the Big Bend and raided the Mexican settlements for captives for captives and horses. Mexican soldiers prudently refrained from trailing the fierce raiders into the bleak expanse of the Big Bend. It was a soft racket for the Comanches, and they worked it steadily for decades. Varying their raid pattern occasionally, the Comanches hit the Texas settlements. Flitting like shadows out of the covering hills and breaks, savage warrior bands harried the settlements for years before the Texas Rangers, the Colt revolver, and the fast-dwindling buffalo herds formed the deadly combination of factors that put them out of business.

Picture of Quanah Parker, Chief of the Kwahadi Comanches.

Quanah Parker, Chief of the Kwahadi Comanches.

All this warlike activity began with the Comanches’ acquisition of the horse. The date cannot be pinpointed, although most authorities agree that tribesmen were capable horsemen as early as 1700. Before the arrival of the horse, the Comanches—like all Plains tribes—lived in settled villages near water and grew vegetables for food. The men hunted on foot, and the only way they could make a mass kill of buffaloes was to drive a number of the great beasts over a cliff. All this changed when the Comanches acquired the fabulous creature they solemnly named the “God-dog.” Suddenly mobile, they could range far afield hunting the buffalo, raid other tribes or strike deep into Mexico. Wallace and Hoebel point out that “the horse provided both the means and the They were the first exponents of the “horse culture” that was to spread to all the Plains tribes and convert them from settled agriculturists to roving hunters and raiders, and-in the words of admiring U.S. military officers-“the best light cavalry the world has ever seen.” The Comanches became the wealthiest in horses of all the tribes, with some warriors owning hundreds. The question of how these horses originated has long puzzled historians, although it is considered probable that many were descended from stock stolen or strayed from the early Spanish explorers. Coronado and De Soto brought the first modern horses to the Plains before the middle of the sixteenth century, but there was little resemblance to the big Spanish horses in the wiry mustangs that later roamed the praire in vast herds. George Bird Grinnell, in his book, The Cheyenne Indians, gives us a description of the corral method in universal use by the Plains tribes to capture wild horses. The stout enclosure, oval in shape, was usually situated in an opening in the scrubby blackjack timber frequented by the mustangs. The fence was a stockade formed of blackjack posts set close together on end, with brush and limbs of trees piled against the outside of the fence. The wide-spreading wings, made of brush, were heaped up so high and wide that a horse could neither see nor jump over them. Driven inside the corral, the horses were trapped.  The breaking of these mustangs was, by present-day standards, a brutal performance. The horse was first choked until he could no longer fight back, then thrown to the ground. The warrior doing the breaking then knelt by the helpless mustang’s head and blew his breath into its nostrils. This strange ceremony was supposed to aid in the mustang’s subjection. The brave then pulled the “wild hairs” from around the horse’s eyes. A rawhide rope was looped around the lower jaw and tied about the neck, and the first harsh phase of the training was completed.

Trapping wild horses, however, was always secondary with the Comanches to stealing horses already broken. Why risk your neck rasseling a wild horse when you might deftly steal a horse already trained? That was the way the practical Comanches figured, and they quickly became the most accomplished horse thieves on the Plains of the Great West, tells of a Comanche’s extraordinary skill in stealing into an armed camp and making off with horses. A brave would creep soundlessly as a shadow into a “bivouac where a dozen men were sleeping, each with a horse tied to his wrist by a lariat, cut a rope within six feet of the sleeper, and get away without waking a soul.”

The Comanches charged out of the smoke-filled draw. Illustration by Randy Steffen

The Comanches charged out of the smoke-filled draw. Illustration by Randy Steffen

Colonel Dodge further called the Comanches “the most cunning, the most mischievously artful of all the United States Indians.”

A Comanche boy learned to ride as a small child and his training continued all the rest of his life, for he never stopped practicing until he could no longer straddle a horse. One trick of horsemanship which few white men were ever able to master, was the spectacular stunt of swinging over the “off” side of a mount in battle and using the horse’s body as a shield. By hooking a leg over the horse’s back and hanging in a rope loop attached to his saddle or plaited into his horse’s mane, the warrior had both hands free to use bow or rifle or to pick up a wounded comrade.

The Comanche warrior trained his horses with two objectives in mind: war and hunting. The war horse was picked for endurance and a level head under fire, the buffalo horse for speed in catching up with his quarry. A rawhide thong looped around the lower jaw-or, in some cases, merely the knee pressure of the rider-directed the buffalo horse. The hunter rode up on the selected quarry from behind, coming in fast at the side and usually aiming his arrow just back of the last rib. The shaft ranged forward and downward, toward the low-hanging heart. A good hunter on a good horse could often kill up to one hundred buffaloes a day in this manner. Lances were also used to kill the lumbering beasts.

In warfare, the Comanche was unsurpassed. He fought the white man or his fellow Indians with equal ferocity. The Cheyennes, the Arapahoes, and the Apaches all fought the Comanches at various times or simultaneously. The Apaches, in particular, began fighting the Comanches around 1700 years. In the strange manner of Indian wars, this situation did not prevent the separate hostile tribes from negotiating occasional peace treaties, which lasted sometimes for years. By means of gifts and conciliation, the Spanish managed to co-exist pretty well with the Comanches. The fierce tribesmen stole horses and goods from the Spanish, and abducted women and children whenever they wished, but the apprehensive dons seemed to consider it a small price to pay for even a shaky peace with the wild raiders. Appeasement was the order of the times; yet the Comanches raided at will.

About 1820, Anglo-Americans began pushing west in considerable numbers. Settlers moved into Texas, and the Comanches quickly became alarmed at seeing these hardy whites, so different from the Spanish, build cabins on their hunting grounds.

Picture of Comanche sub-chief, name unknown.

Comanche sub-chief, name unknown.

The next disturbing happening was the exile of the displaced Eastern Indians to the west. The angry Comanches threatened to kill any Eastern Indians caught poaching on their hunting grounds. The U.S. Government took the Comanche threat seriously, and decided to try to pacify them. Sam Houston, a Government agent, was sent in 1832 to discuss peace with the disgruntled tribesmen. The council was held at San Antonio. Nothing concrete in the way of a treaty was accomplished, however. In 1835, another council was held and this time the Comanches agreed to share their hunting grounds with the Eastern tribes Citizens of the United States were to be permitted to pass and repass through Comanche country without molestation, and restitution was to be made by either party of property stolen from the other. This was certainly a fine-sounding treaty. There was only one flaw to be found in it—it never worked. Both sides quickly forgot their pledged word, and Comanches-Anglo-American treaty of 1835 became just another scrap of paper. Comanche raids upon the Texas settlements started up worse than ever. On May 19, 1836 a war party of Kiowas and Comanches attacked Fort Parker on the headwaters of the Navasota River in Limestone County in northern Texas. The settlers fell for the flag of truce trick, and allowed the Indians inside the fort. Nearly forty whites were killed in the ensuing massacre. The Indians carried off Cynthia Ann Parker and her two-year-old son, John. Rachel Plummer and her two-year-old son were also captured in this raid.

The massacre at Fort Parker spurred Texas officials into action. Major Le Grand visited the northern Comanches to negotiate a treaty with them. He met with the chiefs, smoked with them, gave them presents—and then watched them walk out of the council when he proposed signing a treaty. President Sam Houston, of the Texas Republic, then sought to institute a system of regulated trade with the Comanches. “Even a Comanche won’t fight if he can get things he wants,” argued Houston. Sam’s theory was practical, but the Texas Congress did not agree. The lawmakers ignored Houston’s suggestion and hurried to enact laws to “protect the frontier.” The laws failed to function and the intermittent raiding continued.

Treaties were made and treaties broken during the next four years. On March 19, 1840, Twelve Comanche chiefs met with Texas commissioners at Bexar. The council began with angry denunciations on both sides and ended in a savage fight between troops and warriors. Nearly forty braves were killed, including the twelve chiefs. The Comanches fled, carrying off their wounded and vowing vengeance. Sharp raids on outlying settlements followed during the summer. The village of Linnville, deep on the Gulf Coast, was destroyed in one of these attacks.

Picture of Captain Jack Hayes

Captain Jack Hayes, whose Texas Rangers demoralized age-old Comanche fighting methods with the Colt revolver.

Shortly after the Linnville tragedy, the Texas Congress passed a law authorizing President Mirabeau B. Lamar to “appoint and commission three persons to raise Ranger companies.” Jack Hayes, who was to become the hated nemesis of the Comanches, was one of the three. Little “Captain Jack” led a force of 120 men against an estimated 1,000 Comanches and whipped them to a stand still in one of the most amazing battles in frontier history. Thirty Rangers were killed in the fight, but several hundred Comanches fell in the day-long struggle. The discouraged Indians withdrew at nightfall, leaving the Texans in command of the field. Never again did the Comanches raise such a force to fight the white men.

Later, at Plum Creek, Jack Hayes and his Rangers for the first time in history used the Colt revolver in warfare. Twenty-six Rangers, armed with .34 caliber Paterson Colts, whipped one hundred Comanches in a sizzling scrap. This fight has been called an “epic milestone in Plains warfare.” Mounted Indians, armed with bows and lances, never again held the advantage over mounted white men armed only with muzzle-loading firearms.

But the Comanches learned their lesson the hard way. In 1844 they were still trying to beat the Rangers at their own bloody game. On June 8, the “little white devil” Jack Hayes and fifteen Rangers were involved in another incredible scrap in the Pedernales River country. Hayes and his handful of men holed up on a brushy hilltop and waited calmly while the large Comanche war party circled them at gallop, firing arrows and insults. Finally they charged. The sixteen Rangers fired a volley from their rifles into the mass of oncoming warriors, then mounted their horses and charged in turn, their “five-shooters” blazing. (The cylinder of the Colt Paterson carried five cap-and-ball loads.) The resultant shock to the Comanches was more psychological then deadly, for this particular band apparently had never heard of the white man’s “Many shots” guns. A. J. Sowell, author of Early Settlers and Indian fighters in Southwest Texas, wrote:

“Never was a band of Indians more surprised than at this charge. They expected the Rangers to remain on the defense and to finally wear them out and exhaust their ammunition. . . . In vain the Comanches tried to turn their horses and make a stand, but such was the wild confusion of running horses, popping pistols and yelling Rangers that they abandoned the idea of a rally and sought safety in flight.” The Rangers pursued the Indians for more than three miles. Sowell quoted a Comanche chieftain as saying that he never wanted to fight Jack Hayes and his Rangers again, as they had a “shot for every finger on the hand.”

Discouraged by the suddenly increased fire-power of the Texans, the Comanches became wary of attacking them. Mexico was still a wide-open target for raids, however, and they redoubled their activities in that direction. Below the border they stole cattle and horses and brought them north to sell to white traders. What with incessantly raiding the Mexicans and fighting off the sudden influx of Eastern Indians upon their hunting grounds, the Comanches were busy enough. The Government had moved hundreds of partly civilized Indians from their homes east of the Mississippi to the new homes along the eastern borders of the Great Plains. Delawares, Shawnees, Seminoles, Cherokees, and Kickapoos—all came to the wide-flung prairie to resume their old trade of hunting. These invaders from the East were mighty fighters, as the Plain tribes quickly discovered.

In the spring of 1853, Fifteen hundred Comanches, Osages, Apaches, Kiowas, Arapahoes, and Cheyennes united for the sole purpose of killing all the Eastern Indians on the Plains. One hundred Sauk and Fox warriors met this huge war party in battle near the Kansas River and whipped them soundly. The tactics they had learned from the white soldiers. Each of the Eastern warriors was armed with a good rifle and each was a good shot. They formed into a double line facing the Western Indians, and after the men in the first line had fired their riles, they dropped behind the second line to reload before stepping forward to protect their mates after they in turn had fired. Faced with such discipline and marksmanship, the great allied war party suffered a humiliating defeat and heavy losses. The Eastern tribesmen lost only six of their number.

1858 marked the beginning of the end for the Comanches as a free people. They were hit hard on May 12 of that year when a force of 102 Texas Rangers and113 Indian scouts attacked a village of seventy lodges north of the Canadian River on Little Robe Creek. Seventy-six warriors were killed and the village utterly destroyed in the fight. Among the Comanche Slain was Chief Iron Jacket, famed for his coat of Spanish mail, which was supposed to be impervious to rifle fire. A Tonkawa scout, using a large caliber rifle with a heavy charge of powder, put slug through the ancient mail coat, to finish off Iron jacket and explode the myth of his invulnerability to bullets.

Three times in 1858 the Comanches were badly beaten in battles with the whites before the disordered remnants of the tribe fled to the Agency on the Arkansas to sue for peace. Here they huddled in despair, dully accepting whatever food and clothing the white officials handed out. Yet—and this was always the exasperating problem with the Comanches—even while the older men humbly begged food for their women and children, the wild young braves were out raiding the white settlements. Small, hard-riding war parties of from ten to thirty warriors attacked settlements all the way from the Red River to Corpus Christi. These savage raids made it difficult for the settlers to accept any Indians as friendly, and the peaceful reservation Indians paid dearly for the depredations of the hostiles. In 1859, the bedeviled Government removed the “friendlies” to a tract of land near Anadarko in the Leased District—land which had been leased from the Choctaws and Chickasaws. The raids by the hostiles continued.

The onset of the Civil War in 1861 found both sides courting the Comanches. The chiefs signed treaties with both Federals and Confederates, according to which side had the most presents to offer. Sometimes one chief signed three or four different treaties with as many different emissaries of the two Great White Fathers in Richmond and Washington. To the Comanches, the white men were all crazy anyhow— and this silly business of TWO supreme white chiefs only proved it all over again.

The Civil War afforded the Comanches a breathing spell. The departure of the garrisons from frontier military posts for far-off battlefields soon halted the invasion of emigrants into Comanches hunting grounds. Relieved of the double pressure of troops and emigrants, the warriors took things easy for the duration of the war. They became expert cadgers, deftly wangling food and supplies from both sides. They did nothing to prepare themselves for the renewed surge of emigrants after the war as over, and angrily took to raiding settlements and attacking wagon trains again. Raiding and skirmishing went on until the Government commissioners met with the Comanches, Cheyennes, Arapahoes, Kiowas, and Kiowa-Apaches in the great treaty council at Medicine Lodge in Kansas in 1867. This treaty council, like the famous 1851 council with the northern Plains tribes at fort Laramie, was hopefully designed by the white men to “wipe war forever from the prairie.” Held on the bank of the Arkansas River seventy miles south of Fort Larned, it was the last of the picturesque “Grand Councils” ever held on the Plains.

Many noted frontiersmen and scouts attended the vast gathering. Jesse Chisholm was there, and the farmed frontier trader, George Bent. Aging Black Beaver, the great Delaware scout and guide, watched the proceedings, with never a smile or show of emotion on his somber face. The Beaver, the sorry remnant of whose people had been driven westward from their beloved eastern forest, must have thought long, dark thoughts as he observed the white men smooth-talking his red brothers. The scene was a familiar and bitter one to the Delaware; he had heard the white man talk in council many times and the theme of his speech was always the same: “Give us your lands and get out!”

The commissioners arrived in Army ambulances in the center of a large wagon train protected by five hundred soldiers. Several newspaper reporters accompanied the train, and one of these— Alfred A. Taylor, who later became Governor of Tennessee—wrote a graphic description of the colorful maneuvers with which the Indians greeted the trains. “. . . Thousands of mounted warriors could be seen concentrating and forming themselves into a wedge-shaped mass, the edge of the wedge pointing toward us. In this sort of mass formation, with all their war paraphernalia, their horses striped with war paint, the riders be painted red, came charging in full speed toward our column. . .

“. . .When within a mile of the head of our procession, the wedge, without hitch or break, quickly threw itself into the shape of a huge ring or wheel without hubs or spokes, whose rim consisted of five distinct lines of these wild, untutored, yet inimitable horsemen. This ring, winding around and around with the regularity and precision of well-oiled machinery, approached nearer and nearer to us with every revolution. Reaching within a hundred yards of us at breakneck speed, the giant wheel or ring ceased to turn and suddenly came to a standstill.”

This spectacular performance, in the nature of psychological warfare, was shrewdly designed by the allied tribesmen to be a “test of the white man’s good faith.” If any soldier had lost his nerve at the crucial moment and fired a shot in panic, the disastrous result would have been instant battle.

Picture of Ten Bears, noted chief and great orator of the Comanches at the age of 80.

Ten Bears, noted chief and great orator of the Comanches at the age of 80.

Satanta, Kiowa chief, spoke first. Representing himself as a man of peace, Satanta reminded the commissioners that the Indians were hunters and warriors- not farmers, like the white settlers. Claiming all the country south of the Arkansas for the Kiowas and their allies, the chief spurned all suggestions of soldiers’ camps, “medicine lodges” (hospitals), reservations and houses for the Indians. “This building homes for us is all nonsense; we don’t want you to build any for us,” Satanta cried. “We would all die! Look at the Penetekas. Formerly they were powerful, but now they are weak and poor.” (The Penetekas had endured contact with the whites longer than any other division of the Comanche Nation.) “I want all my land, even from the Arkansas south to the Red River. My country is small enough already. If you build us houses, the land will be smaller. Why do you insist on this? What good can come of it? I don’t understand your reason. Time enough to build us houses when the buffaloes are all gone. . . . Tell the Great Father (the President) that there are plenty of buffaloes yet, and when the buffaloes are all gone, I will tell him. This trusting to the agents for my food I don’t believe in.” Ten Bears, chief of the Yamparika division of the Comanches, spoke for the Comanche Nation and for its allies as well. The chief rose and stood looking out over the mighty assemblage of his race for a long moment, as if he realized that never again would there be such a vast gathering of free Indians upon the Plains. Finally he raised his right hand and impressively delivered a speech that has been acclaimed as one of the most splendid examples of Indian oratory in the long history of the Red Man, ranking with the speeches of Logan, Tecumseh, and the noble Seneca, Red Jacket. The sonorous voice of Ten Bears rolled out over his rapt audience “like the majestic tones of an open diapason organ stop,” as one awed young newspaper reporter wrote to his paper. The speech itself richly deserves repeating word for word.

Read Ten Bears’ speech here.  *** link coming soon ***

Ten Bears’ speech was a futile gesture, as in his heart he must have known it would be. The relentless tide of white expansion westward was set in motion against the red man and his ancient way of life, there was no saving him from being overwhelmed by it. The gulf between the Stone Age and the Steam Age was bridgeless; the people of each could not understand the other. Hopelessly, the Comanche and Kiowa chiefs signed the treaty provided the exact things they had said they did not want—houses, farms, agricultural tools, “medicine lodges,” and military posts. There was nothing else they could do. It was either sign the treaty or fight the soldiers; unlike the eastern tribes who had been pushed westward into Comanche country, the Comanches and their allies had no place left to go. The blood dash red sun setting behind the cottonwoods of the council placed grimly symbolized the dark destiny of the Comanches. The Kwahadis, the Comanches of the Llano Estacado, were the last division of the tribe to bow to the white man’s yoke.

Roaming about in the remote depths of the staked plain, Kwahadis lived by hunting and by stealing stock from the ranchers and settlers from Texas and Arkansas. Mexican traders from New Mexico, called Comancheros, brought them goods to exchange for the stolen stoke. Whisky, guns, and ammunition were eagerly sought by the Kwahadis. Clinton Smith, a white boy held captive in the camps of the Kwahadis, later wrote of the frenzied trading that took place when a party of Comancheros arrived with goods:

“. . . Those fool Indians would let the Mexicans pick their mules for a keg of whiskey; ten pounds of coffee was accepted for a pack horse, five pounds of tobacco would get a mule, and a buffalo robe would be exchanged for little or nothing. The traders stayed with us two or three weeks. The only way the Indians would let them come into camp was with packed loaded down on the jacks, but they would let them take back (presumably after they were drunk) what they had traded to them.” It is impossible to estimate the number of cattle and other livestock stolen by the Kwahadis over the years of white settlement in the southwest, but the toll must have been tremendous. Noted rancher Charles Goodnight believed that at least 300,000 head of Texas cattle had been stolen and sold or traded to New Mexicans during the Civil War period alone. Goodnight, who had lost 600 cattle in one raid, may have overestimated, but in any case they were heavy and continuous from 1850 to 1873.

Gradually, under pressure from the irate ranchers and from the army, the crafty Comancheros were forced to cut down on their lucrative traded options with the Kwahadis. Feeling the pinch, the Staked Plain Comanches moved into the agencies demanded food and presents. The operations of the Comancheros dwindled repeatedly and finally ceased altogether. The agencies, lacking sufficient supplies for their own Indians, refused to give anything to the Kwahadis. The band trailed back into the Staked Plain and resumed raiding outlying ranches as before. In 1871, the army began sending expeditions into the Llano Estacado to “punish” the Kwahadis for their misdeeds. Colonel R. S. Mackenzie moved out from Fort Richardson on August 19 to attack the Comanches holed up in the rugged canyons on the eastern border of the Staked Plain. After reorganizing and training for field duty at Camp Cooper, the command was ready for action October 1. Mackenzie, with six hundred men, entered Comanche country early in October. The Kwahadis struck first, attacking Mackenzie at night on the Fresh Water Fork of the Brazos. The daring Comanches rode right into camp and stampeded his horse herd, making off with seventy head. Mackenzie pursued the raiders and hit them near the mouth of Blanco Canyon. The Comanches, ably directed by their half-breed chief Quanah Parker, son of Cynthia Ann Parker, held off the troops until the women and children escaped. The Kwahadis withdrew onto the plains, where Mackenzie lost contact with them in a bitter norther. Mackenzie trailed back to Fort Richardson, disconsolate.

The muddled Indian situation continued to worsen. Indians who had kept their pledged treaty word and come into reservations to live, were disgruntled because they did not receive the goods and treatment promised them. The wild bands continued to stay off the reservations and raise hell whenever the mood hit them. On July 25, 1872, a unique all-Indian council was held on the prairie in hope that some solution could be worked out. Cherokees, Seminoles, Creeks, Delawares, Comanches, Apaches, Caddoes, Wichitas, Cheyennes, and Arapahoes attended. Eloquent speeches were made. Colonel John Jumper, a “white” Indian, exhorted the tribesmen to be brothers to each other and to live at peace with all men: “When God created man on earth, he made the red and white and the black; the Creator is one, He made all, and if we live in peace He will love us all.”

Old Black Beaver, who had seen so much of tragedy in his long lifetime, arose to plead with his Indian brothers to behave themselves and to act like men instead of children. He reminded them that the buffaloes were going fast, and that when they were gone, the Indian was doomed unless he “took the white men’s road.”

Picture of Lone Wolf, fierce Kiowa chief.

Lone Wolf, fierce Kiowa chief who fought Colonel Mackenzie in the Battle of Palo Duro Canyon.

A band of Kiowas, under Lone Wolf and White Horse, came whooping in to the council. Encouraged by the presence of these fierce allies, a spokesperson for the Yamparika Comanches declared scornfully: “If the delegates here from the civilized tribes are the representative men, we have but little respect for them, they are old and dirty . . . hardly capable of managing their own affairs . . . . We have heard enough of their talk . . . we don’t want to hear these White Indians any more.”

The Kiowa chiefs then spoke, electrifying their audience by bragging boldly about the raids they had made on the whites. Ten Bears made a speech next, but the great orator of the Comanches seemed tired and discouraged and his words carried no conviction. The council broke up a note of discord and failure. The scattered tribesmen were called together on September 6, 1872, in another in the interminable series of councils with the white men, at Leeper’s Creek, six miles up the Washita from the Wichita agency. A reporter for the New York Herald described the meeting in this manner:

“Fronting the table were the Yam-pa-ri-ko Comanches: Ten Bears, Iron Mountain, Little Crow, Gap-in-the-Woods; and close by them Chewing Elk or Quirto-Quip. To the right of these sat, smoking the pipe of peace, the representatives of the Arapahoes: Little Raven, Big Mouth, Yellow Bear, Left Hand, Spotted Wolf, Curley, White Crow, Yellow Horse and Little Neck, and on their extreme left Mrs. Keith, the half-breed, who lives with them and acts as their interpreter . . . . Opposite and the Arapahoes, on the left of the table and on the outer edge of the circle of chiefs, sat Pacer, chief of the Apaches; Tawhaw, head medicine man, and seven minor dignitaries of that tribe: Horse-back, Milky Way, Mow-way and Black Beaver, of the Delawares (an old man, nearly white, and famous as the guide of Audobon), and Wah-Saupie (Guadalupe) second chief of the Caddoes. George Washington, an old, shrewd and well-to-do man, of dark complexion and gaudy dress, occupied a log in the right foreground, and near him sat Interpreters Jones and McCluskey (Philip McCusker), Agents Richards and Miles. Your Commissioner sat at the table. This was the position at the moment. Very shortly after, the bushes were parted and young warriors galloped up, and dismounting formed a second and third circle; and then a party of Kiowas under Running Bear . . . strode up and took position under a shady oak. . .”

Captain Henry Alvord opened the council by telling the Indians bluntly that the Great Father was angry with them for their raiding and misconduct of recent months. In the words of the Great Father, “the good Indians will be fed and well treated, but the bad Indians will be punished.” With that undiplomatic opening, Alvord sat down. Milky Way, of the Penetekas, arose and reminded the Captain that “Washington’s” agents had not kept their word to the Indians. Alvord ignored the complaint, declaring sharply that the Government was through dawdling and would henceforth sternly punish both raiding Indians and their friends and protectors.

Voice-of-the –Sunrise, a chief of the Yamparika Comanches, roared in reply: “. . . I have kept out on the plains because the whites were bad. Now you (Alvord) come here to do good, you say, and yet the first thing you do is to pen us up in a narrow territory. I would rather stay out on the plains and eat dung than come in on such conditions!. . . I was on the war path but now I am not. . . . I don’t want to hear such talk about having me penned up on a reservation.”

The talks continued, but their tenor remained the same; the “white Indians” pleading with the “out” bands to come in and the Comanches insisting that they would never come in to live on the reservations. Old Ten Bears injected a note of the sardonic humor into the proceedings by suggesting that, since the United States Government had moved the Indians so often with such poor results, it might try moving the Texans. Shortly thereafter the council broke up. Tangible results were few, consisting of the surrender of some stolen stock and a few captives by the Indians, and a temporary improvement in the conduct of the wild prairie bands.

Throughout the early 1870’s the same pattern was repeated over and over: the Indians came into the reservations during the cold winter months for rations, and moved back on the prairie in spring to hunt and raid as they had always done. The buffaloes were rapidly disappearing under the steady barrage of the white hide hunters; yet the Comanches and Kiowas turned to a powerful medicine man, a spiritual leader, to bring back the old days with his mighty medicine.

Picture of Mow-way (or Hand-Shaker's) camp.

Mow-way (or Hand-Shaker’s) camp.

Ishatai (Coyote Droppings), a young medicine man seemingly possessed of hypnotic powers, convinced the tribal leaders that he had “ascended above the clouds, where he had communed with the Great Spirit.” He claimed, in addition to being bullet-proof himself, the ability to bullet-proof all who believed in his powers. Amazingly, Ishatai was also a clever—or lucky—weather prophet and astronomer. He predicted that a comet flaring over the Southwest early in 1873 would disappear in five days. It vanished on the fifth day. He also announced that a severe summer-long drought would follow the disappearance of the comet. The drought followed precisely on schedule. All in all, he was just the man to influence the disillusioned Comanches and Kiowas, and when he told them to go to war and kill off the white men his advice was easy to take. So hoodwinked were the Indians by this crafty trickster that several of them actually “saw” him belch forth a wagon-load of cartridges and swallow them again!

The bitter spring of 1874, with the buffaloes thinning out alarmingly and the gaunt specter of famine stalking every lodge, was the time the Prophet picked to sweep the white men from the plains. He announced that a great Medicine Dance would be held, at which time strategy would be formed for the attack on the whites. R. N. Richardson, in his book The Comanche Barrier to South Plains Settlement, writes: “. . . the call for a Comanche medicine dance and celebration was widely heralded, and when the tribesmen assembled in May at a point on Red River near the agency boundary, every band was represented, several of them by almost one hundred per cent of their people. For the first time in tribal history, nearly all the Comanches had been brought together at one time and in one place by the magnetism of a youthful medicine man.”

The Medicine Dance—which took the form of a simplified Sun Dance—lasted for days. Leading off with a fiery speech, Ishatai warned the Comanches of the terrible fate in store for them if they bowed meekly to the white man’s edict to go in to the reservations. “Look at the Caddoes and Wichitas and the other white Indians!” he thundered. “They are miserable—they are going down hill fast. I have visited the Great Spirit, and he has told me that if the Comanches and their allies go on the war path and kill off all the whites, the buffaloes will come back!” This was what the young braves of the tribe wanted to hear. Only the Penetekas remained unconvinced. These Texas Indians—who had endured white domination longer than any of the others—decided to go back home and have no part Ishatai’s crackpot plans. But if the Penetekas refused to be drawn into a hopeless struggle to regain their lost hunting grounds from the whites, there were hundreds of warriors who welcomed the opportunity. Kiowas, Arapahoes, and Southern Cheyennes succumbed readily to the spell of the Prophet’s eloquence, and painted for war. A few of the older chiefs counseled against Ishatai’s wild schemes, but were howled down by the eager warriors.

In this month of June, 1874 the country north of the Arkansas had been hunted clean of buffaloes, and the insatiable hide hunters had pushed south of the river into Indian territory. Hide men had entered the Texas Panhandle; and twenty-eight hunters, including famed Bat Masterson and the youthful Billy Dixon, had located at Adobe Walls on the South Fork of the Canadian in Hutchinson County, Texas. The twenty-eight hunters and one white woman—a Mrs. Olds, wife of one of the party—occupied three buildings: Myers and Leonard’s store, Rath and Wright’s store, and Hanrahans’s saloon.

About two o’clock on the morning of June 27, the two men sleeping in Hanrahan’s saloon were awakened by a report like a gunshot. The ridgepole of the building had broken under the weight of the heavy dirt roof. Mike Welch, one of the men awakened by the noise, summoned help from the other buildings. A dozen men worked throughout the night repairing the shattered ridgepole. Billy Dixon and Billy Ogg went out at dawn to round up horses, for the journey back to their camp on the prairie. Ogg saw the attackers first—and he gave a piercing yell and dashed for the buildings. Dixon heard a sound like rolling thunder and glanced up to see a sight that never faded from his memory. In The Life of Billy Dixon, arranged and edited by his wife Olive K. Dixon, Billy vividly described what he saw:

“There was never a more splendidly barbaric sight. . . .Hundreds of warriors, the flower of the fighting men of the Southwestern plains tribes, mounted upon their finest horses, armed with guns and lances, and carrying heavy shields of thick buffalo hide, were coming like the wind. Over all was-splashed the rich colors of red, vermilion and ocher, on the bodies of the men, on the bodies of the running horses. Scalps dangled from bridles, gorgeous war-bonnets fluttered their plumes, bright feathers dangled from the manes and tails of the horses, and the bronzed half-naked bodies of the riders glittered with ornaments of silver and brass. Behind this headlong charging host stretched the plains, on whose horizon the rising sun was lifting its morning fires. The warriors seemed to emerge from this glowing background.”

But young Dixon didn’t linger very long after catching that first thrilling sight of the charging allied war party. He lit out for Hanrahan’s saloon, and barely made it in time. Inspired by Ishatai and led by Quanah Parker, the great war party of Comanches, Kiowas, Cheyennes and Arapahoes charged right up to the building and hammered on the doors with their war-clubs. The deadly Sharps rifles of the defenders dropped three warriors at the first volley, and the body of Indians split and swept on past, reuniting to circle the sod-walled houses at a gallop. A bugle blared some where out in the maelstrom of dust and smoke and racing horses and the Indians charged again. Seven hundred warriors were believed to have composed the attacking war party, but it is extremely unlikely that more than three hundred were involved. The Indians themselves claimed but 250 braves in the battle. The warriors were directed by bugle calls until their Negro bugler  was killed late in the afternoon of the first day’s fight. This trick boomeranged on the Indians, since the calls had been copied from the U.S. Army and were understood by the hunters. Thus they were tipped off to every coming maneuver of the Indians.

The first day saw most of the real fighting, and the battle had practically ceased by four o’clock. Three white men had been killed, and the bodies of thirteen Indians were left near the buildings. The warriors hung around for several days, but the powerful Sharps rifles of the hide hunters kept them at a respectful distance. Billy Dixon, at a reported range of seven-eighths of a mile, dropped one brave from his horse among a party of mounted Indians watching from a bluff. All the Indians drifted away soon after.

The defeat was a terrific setback for the Comanches and their allies after the impassioned buildup by Ishatai. The medicine man got himself off the hook by explaining the failure of the attack as the result of a Cheyenne, on the way to Adobe Walls, killing and skinning a skunk. This messy business, according to the Prophet, had broken the charm and nullified his magic powers.

Despite their failure at Adobe Walls, the Indians stayed on the war path. Near Buffalo Springs, about fifty miles north of the Cheyenne Agency, a party of Cheyennes and Comanches attacked and burned a train of three wagons and killed four men. Early in July, the Cheyennes and Comanches swept through the ranch country of southern Colorado, burning buildings, running off stock and killing between thirty and sixty people. This band later attacked the settlements in the vicinity of Sun City and Medicine Lodge, Kansas. Other flying war parties attacked settlements in Texas. The whole frontier was in a turmoil, demanding that the Army move at once to destroy the hostiles.

The widespread Indian raids in 1874 quickly canceled out the limping Peace Policy, and official Washington took the handcuffs off the Army and told it to go in and clean up the hostiles. Troops poured into the stamping grounds of the Comanches and Kiowas. Colonel Nelson A. Miles’ hard-bitten command jumped off from Camp Supply and moved south; Major William Price’s column struck east from Fort Union in northern New Mexico; Lieutenant-Colonel J. W. Davidson’s outfit swung toward the west from Fort Sill. Other military forces in the field were the command of Colonel G. P. Buell, marching up Red River in the Davidson-Mackenzie area. The troops were jubilant, for –after months of chafing inactivity–they were marching again. The general orders given to their commanders were starkly simple: “Drive all the Indians onto the reservations or kill them.”

Picture of Ronald S. Mackenzie, Colonel Fourth Cavalry; famed frontier Indian Fighter.

Ronald S. Mackenzie, Colonel Fourth Cavalry; famed frontier Indian Fighter.

Colonel Mackenzie was first to contact the hostiles. A large band of Kiowas under Chief Lone Wolf had taken refuge in Palo Duro Canyon, in northern Texas. At noon on the 28th of September, Mackenzie’s Seminole and Tonkawa scouts exchange shots with the enemy near Tule Canyon. The enemy scouts melted into the wild country between Tule and Palo Duro Canyons, and Mackenzie camped that night a few miles down- canyon from where the first skirmish had occurred. All night Kiowas harried the troops by sneaking close in the darkness and taking pot shots at the sentries. Kept awake all night by these tactics, the troops were in an angry mood next morning. Sergeant Charlton and two Tonkawa scouts took the trail of the hostiles promptly after breakfast. The signs finally indicated clearly that they were approaching a large Indian village, and Lone Wolf’s stronghold deep in Palo Duro Canyon was discovered about midday. Far down in the canyon, strung along a creek, the scouts could see the long rows of tepees and the vast grazing horse herd that indicated a large concentration of Indians. The three men studied the scene carefully from the canyon’s lofty brim. “Take a good look, boys,” said Charlton. “It won’t be long before a sight like this will be gone forever from the Plains.”

The three scouts reported back to Mackenzie shortly after nightfall. The Colonel had his men in the saddle immediately, and the command rode all night to catch the Kiowas off guard. At sunup the troops deployed in cover along the canyon brim, while the scouts searched diligently for a trail leading to the bottom. Finally Tonkawa scout found a faint trail clinging precariously to the side of the steep canyon wall. The troops started the perilous descent, with Lieutenant Thompson leading the way. It was Mackenzie’s hope to surprise the hostiles in their hideout, but halfway down the crude trail his luck ran out. A trooper dislodges a boulder, which kicked up a small landslide as it bounded and crashed to the bottom of the canyon. Instantly the Kiowas rushed out of their lodges to give battle. Mackenzie’s advance scouts barely had time to reach the canyon floor before the warriors were upon them. Hastily they took cover behind trees and rocks, and prepared to hold off the raging Kiowas until the main body of the troops had got down the trail.

Under the accurate screening fire of the scouts, Mackenzie made it. Shouting orders in his bull-like voice, the Colonel led the charge up the valley toward the Kiowa village. Stubbornly the warriors resisted, fighting desperately to give the women and children time to escape. In this they were successful, for at sunset the troops still had not reached their goal. Full dark had fallen before Mackenzie won through to the village—and by that time Lone Wolf and his band had vanished. Mackenzie captured one hundred empty tepees and fourteen hundred horses and mules. The Colonel fired the lodges. The following morning he drove the stock to the Tule Valley, and there shot them all.

The vast roundup of the Comanches and Kiowas continued without a let-up. On October 9, Colonel Buell attacked and destroyed a Kiowa camp on the Salt Fork in Greer County. Four days later, Major Price attacked and defeated another band of hostiles in Hemphill County. The hard-driving Miles rounded up the survivors of these various engagements deep in the Staked Plain, where they had fled in the false hope of sanctuary.  Hunger and cold weather finished what the troops had begun. Without supplies or enough horses, the Indians could not get through the winter. Band after band came in to surrender unconditionally and be placed in a stockade on Cache Creek. Some warriors were locked in an unfinished icehouse. Once a day an Army supply wagon pulled beside the icehouse, and troopers tossed chunks of raw meat over the walls as if they were feeding dangerous wild beasts. All remaining horses, mules, and weapons were stripped from the captives. Over 5,000 horses and mules were sold at an average of four dollars each. Many others were given to white soldiers and settlers and Indian scouts.

The end was not long in coming for the Comanches still free upon the Plains. Over 400 came in before May of 1875, and on June 2, Quanah Parker rode in to Fort Sill to surrender his band. An official enrollment made later that summer disclosed that 1,597 Comanches and 1,076 Kiowas were on the reservations. It was estimated that only about fifty Comanches were still skulking about, avoiding capture at the time of the enrollment.

Yet the war-like spirit of the Comanches was not yet entirely dead. In 1876, buffaloes still ranged in limited numbers on the Staked Plain, and their presence there made the Comanches at Fort Sill restless. The Indians knew that the white hide hunters were engaged in killing off this last remnant of the great southern herd that once had supported them, and their yearning to return to the old independent life of the hunter became too great to bear. Late in December, 1876, Chief Black Horse and 170 of his followers bolted the reservation at Fort Sill and headed for the Staked Plain. They were determined to enjoy one last bellyful of buffalo meat, and if the white hunters got in their way they would know what to do with them.

Illustration of Ten Bears' speech. By Randy Steffen.

The vast assemblage of Indians and white men was silent as Ten Bears began his speech. Illustration by Randy Steffen.

Cavalry pursued the fleeing band, but a heavy snowstorm hid their trail and the baffled troops turned back. Black Horse and his band went into camp in Thompson’s Canyon, a wild and lonely spot on the edge of the Staked Plain. There was plenty of game, including buffaloes. The cooking pots soon were bubbling with meat over the lodge fires, and the women crooned with happiness as they set out food for their hungry families. The thin, hollow-cheeked children filled out again and looked once more like healthy, normal Indian kids. Truly it seemed that the Great Spirit was good and the old days had returned!

The dream ended in February when Comanche hunters stumbled upon a camp of hide men south of the Red River. Shots were exchanged, but nobody on either side was hit. Later that day, Indians killed Marshall Soule in his camp a few miles away and raided the camp of Bill Devins. Supplies and badly needed ammunition were taken from Devins’ camp, but Bill and all his men escaped injury.

That was one of the war trails for the Comanches. As with the other Plains tribes, the almost total destruction of the buffaloes had finally conquered them. Hunger had drained the fighting spirit from their gaunt bodies and left them broken and subdued. It would be pointless to follow this proud warrior people into the monotonous, stifling routine of reservation life—to observe them, ridiculous in ill-fitting white man’s clothing, sitting stolidly in the sun waiting for death to release them from bondage.

Today the Comanches have conformed to civilization; their feet are set firmly on “the white man’s road.” But true lovers of the Old West prefer to recall the wild Comanches as they were on that bleak winter day in 1877 when they charged out of the smoke into the deadly fire of the buffalo guns in the Battle of the Canyon. Lithe bronze bodies a top racing ponies; red-fluttering lances; a wounded warrior falling to the prairie and a comrade braving death to rescue him in a superb feat of horsemanship at full gallop these are the things for which the Comanches are best remembered; these are the memories that will never fade.

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