COMANCHE INDIANS (Extract from the Handbook of Texas Online article Indians.)

The term tribe should be used with caution in regard to the Comanches. Though they had a common language and way of life, they had no political institutions or social mechanisms by which they acted as a unit. Comanche families formed bands that acted autonomously from each other. Bands have generally been delineated geographically-as "northern," "middle," "southern," and "Llano Estacado"qv-but Comanche bands did not really adhere to any distinct territorial boundaries. Furthermore, Comanche bands were not fixed institutions; they broke apart, reformed, and merged over the years. A man's connection to a band was one of free association, and he moved from one to another at will. Band populations fluctuated with the popularity of their leaders, mainly based on success at procuring horses and defeating enemies. Because of this type of social organization, no band leader could really control the behavior of individuals, as the Spanish (and later the Americans) learned. Comanche rank and social status were determined by war honors and the accumulation of horses taken from enemies. Horses were the most important type of property, a medium of exchange, and the measure of one's worth. Horse culture promoted decentralized and nomadic living arrangements because of the pasture needed by large horse herds. Horse raiding and trading characterized the Comanche role in Texas. It was not in the Comanches' interest to destroy or drive away Europeans; by using the margins of Spanish (and later Mexican and Anglo) settlement as sources of plunder, they enriched themselves while retarding colonial expansion into their region. In their middleman role, Comanches supplied horses and goods derived from buffalo huntingqv in exchange for the agricultural surplus of other groups, such as the Wichita bands, and firearms from European-American traders.

Increased Comanche raids led Mexico City to conclude that peace treaties were useless. Only one or two bands of Comanches had actually made peace with the Spanish, and their social structure had no way of preventing bold young men from going off to attain wealth and war honors. Raiding enabled the Comanches and other groups to circumvent Spanish attempts to control trade and regulate access to horses. Spanish power in Texas further unraveled in the beginning of the nineteenth century due to events in elsewhere in the empire.

The republic's relations with the Comanches changed drastically in the late 1830s. As mentioned earlier, whites knew relatively little about them at first; Anglo-American settlers lived far enough away from them not to be victimized by Comanche raids but close enough to be considered by the Comanches as a market for horses taken from Mexico and buffalo robes. But the relentless advance of white settlement, the new government's refusal to recognize Comanche territorial sovereignty with established borderlines, and the fact that white Texans took a much harder line against the Comanches than the Mexicans previously had taken resulted in unyielding warfare by 1840. With the westward advance of white settlement, the Comanches had new communities to raid. In the summer of 1836, Comanches took more than 100 horses from settlements, taking advantage of the unstable state of affairs during the war for independence. The first serious counterblow occurred in February 1839, but with mixed results. A company of rangers assisted by the Comanches' Lipan Apache enemies penetrated the Comanche heartland, something that had never been done before. The Lipans, who originally proposed the expedition, found a Comanche camp on a creek in the San Saba valley, and they and the rangers charged into it at dawn, "throwing open the doors of the wigwams or pulling them down and slaughtering the enemy in their beds," reported the commander, Col. John H. Moore.qv The Comanches regrouped and counterattacked as the Texans reloaded their firearms, and Moore was forced to pull back. Soon the Texans found themselves surrounded by hundreds of Comanches, who rode up with a white flag and proposed a prisoner swap. Later, as the rangers rode toward home, the Comanches stole their horses, and they had to walk home the last 100 miles, carrying their wounded.

The incident that most irreparably altered Texan-Comanche relations was the Council House Fightqv of 1840. The Comanches went to San Antonio to negotiate a land treaty and return white captives. Secretary of War Albert Sidney Johnston,qv however, instructed negotiators not to make any promises that would compromise the republic's ability to decide unilaterally the conditions of residence of any Indian tribe, and further to hold the Comanche delegation hostage until all "American Captives" were surrendered (see INDIAN CAPTIVES). At the Council House in San Antonio, a traditional meetingplace for Indian negotiations, the Comanches delivered up a teenage girl, who told the Texans that she had seen many other white captives in the large Comanche camp outside of town. Muke-war-wah, the main Comanche spokesman, claimed, "We have brought in the only one we had; the others are with other tribes." Given the decentralized Comanche society, the girl may indeed have been the only captive in Muke-war-wah's band, and he had no authority to deal in captives held by others. Whatever the truth may have been, the Texans assumed he was lying and told the Comanche delegation that they were going to be hostages until more whites were brought in. The delegation rushed the door, stabbing soldiers, and all twelve Comanches in the Council House were shot to death. The gunfire prompted the warriors outside the building to take up the fight, and a general melee ensued through the streets of San Antonio. When the battle ended, thirty-five Comanches and seven whites had been killed, 100 horses and a great number of buffalo hides had been taken by the whites, and some twenty-nine Comanche women and children had been taken prisoner. In turn, the fight provoked the largest Indian raid since the attack on the San Saba mission eighty-two years earlier. Five hundred Comanches sacked Victoria and Linnville and raided all the way to the Gulf of Mexico (see LINNVILLE RAID OF 1840). On their return to their own territory, however, they were cut off by militia companies from the Colorado River counties and defeated at the battle of Plum Creek.qv

Later that year, Colonel Moore conducted another campaign well into Comanche territory, much more successful than his attack a year earlier. Once again, he took his troops far from white settlements and attacked a Comanche camp discovered by his Lipan allies. The villagers fled the attack by running into the river, but the steep banks on the other side proved difficult to climb. Texan marksmen killed them as they slipped and scrambled on the banks. Twice as many Indians were killed in the river than in the initial attack on the village, and approximately 120 bodies littered the site.

The Council House Fight loomed in the memories of Comanches; government officials often found themselves negotiating with men who had lost family members in the battle. Comanches were leery of sending representatives to meetings because they did not want to prominent leaders to be taken hostage. They declined to send a delegation to one council unless four whites were sent to them as hostages guaranteeing the safety of the four chiefs who would attend. Though bitter warfare seemed unavoidable, Sam Houston,qv upon regaining the presidency in 1841, continued to pursue peace overtures. He wanted to establish territorial boundaries for the Comanches, but Congress always voted down such provisions. The 1844 treaty of Tehuacana Creek (see TEHUACANA CREEK COUNCILS), for example, drew a line from the Cross Timbersqv to Comanche Peak (now in Hood County) to the ruins of the San Saba mission, then southwesterly to the Rio Grande, but this boundary provision was deleted from the ratified version. Even when treaties were made, the Republic of Texas learned what had plagued Spain and Mexico earlier-that an agreement with one Comanche band had no bearing on the half dozen or so others that continued to raid. The Comanches learned that white settlers would continue to encroach on their territory, and that the government could not stop them even if it was so inclined.

Statehood. Texas entered the United States in 1845-46 (see ANNEXATION), and the situation for Indians was altered. For one change, raiders such as the Comanches, Kiowas, and Wichitas had to learn that the Americans and Texans were one people now, and that they could not rob one and sell the loot to the other, although unscrupulous frontier traders did this for a while. For another, the United States was obligated by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgoqv to block Indian raids into Mexico, a part of the agreement that the Comanches did not respect because they had not been consulted. The United States army built forts along the border and tried to maintain a forceful presence in the area. Ecological and demographic changes also took place in the late 1840s and 1850s. With entry into the Union, immigration to Texas rose considerably. The state's population tripled between 1850 and 1860, the country west of San Antonio, Austin, and Dallas filled up with settlers, and the new army forts attracted settlements that sprang up near them. The influx of newcomers and the passing caravans of Forty-niners on their way to the goldfields of California also brought a new wave of disease that laid waste the Indians. The Comanches were hit by smallpox in 1848 and cholera in 1849, when by some estimates half their population died, including such leaders as Santa Annaqv and Mopechucope (Old Owl), who had been influential advocates of peaceful relations. If this were not enough, the buffalo population began declining during the same period. Partly, the expansion of white settlement and the federally sponsored "Indian removal" program that put 50,000 eastern Indians on the margins of the South Plains reduced available buffalo range and increased the number of people hunting them. But the Indians' hunting style also contributed. They preferred to hunt buffalo cows because their meat was more tender and their hides easier to process into finer robes; the overhunting of breeding-age females contributed to the decline of the buffalo. As the herds shrank, Comanches took to eating their horses, and this depletion of their most important form of property impelled them to increase their cattle raids on both sides of the Rio Grande. They also attack outsiders who hunted buffalo.

The most important change affecting Indians when Texas joined the United States, however, had to do with relations between the state and federal governments. The federal government, constitutionally mandated to be in charge of Indian affairs, took over that role in Texas, but the new state retained control of its public lands.qv In all other new territories, Washington controlled both public lands and Indian affairs and so could make treaties guaranteeing reservations for various groups. In Texas, however, the federal government could not do this. The state adamantly refused to contribute public land for Indian reservations within the boundaries of Texas, all the while expecting Washington to bear the expense and responsibility of Indian affairs.

Only once did the Texas legislature relent in its opposition to reservations. In 1854 state officials gave in to federal requests and established two small reservations on the Brazos River near Fort Belknap (see BRAZOS INDIAN RESERVATION and COMANCHE INDIAN RESERVATION). On one, remnants of Caddo and Wichita bands and the Tonkawas, with a few Shawnees and Delawares who had married into the Caddos, established themselves. On the other the Comanches were supposed to settle. Only a small group of Comanches, elements of the Penateka band, came to the reservation, while their kinsmen continued to live freely and raid the frontier. The reservation plan might have worked had the area not filled up with white settlers almost immediately. Since the whites established horse and cattle ranches, the area naturally became a target for Comanche, Kiowa, and Kickapoo raids; whites believed the proximity of the reservations had something to do with the raids, and blamed the reservation population for either conducting or abetting them. There may be some justification for accusing the reservation Comanches, since they entertained nonreservation Comanche visitors and their social structure could not prevent young men from leaving the reservation to live with other bands. The Indians of the other reservation, however, had also been the victims of stock raids. They even contributed to two important Texan victories north of the Red River. In May 1858, Rip Ford led a force of Texas Rangers and Brazos reservation warriors to the heartland of Comanche country, and the reservation Indians supplied more men than the rangers. The reservation Indians found a Comanche trail, hunted buffalo along the way to feed the expedition, and found two large Comanche camps. In the ensuing battle, seventy-six Comanches, including the celebrated chief Iron Jacket, were killed.

The growth of cattle ranching added a new target for raiders, who drove off cattle for resale to the Comancheros,qv traders from New Mexico who ventured onto the Llano Estacado to buy from the Comanches.

With the defeat of the Confederacy and the length of time it took United States troops to return to the frontier, Indians noticed the unorganized status of the frontier and increased their raids in late 1865. Federal officials tried to settle frontier affairs in the traditional manner-with a land treaty. In October 1865, the Kiowas and a few Comanche bands signed the treaty of the Little Arkansas, in which the federal government promised them a large reservation comprising the Panhandleqv and most of West Texas (from the southeastern corner of New Mexico to the junction of the North and South forks of the Red River). But the war had not changed the unique legal situation of Texas or the attitudes of its officials. The state still controlled its own public land, and even Republican lawmakers in the Reconstructionqv state government, heavily influenced by military occupation, refused to cede any land to Indians. In 1867 the Kiowas and Comanches negotiated another reservation treaty at Medicine Lodge Creek, which secured for them less land in the Indian Territory. Although ten Comanche chiefs signed the treaty, as was customary, they spoke only for the people they represented (less than half of all Comanches) and could not speak for all bands. Therefore, even with the establishment of a reservation, the government still had to use force on the recalcitrant bands.

The final subjugation of the South Plains Indians involved a combination of economic and military measures, in which the destruction of the Indians' trade and subsistence base became primary to their acceptance of reservation life. The suppression of the Comanchero trade in the early 1870s removed an important market for raiders. The arrival of increasing numbers of white buffalo hunters all but destroyed the great South Plains herds; the newly constructed railroads brought not only more hunters but sent hides to eastern markets faster. Furthermore, William T. Sherman,qv commander of the United States Army, and Philip H. Sheridan,qv commander of United States troops in Texas, understood from their experiences in the Civil War (Sherman's march through Georgia and Sheridan's campaigns in the Shenandoah valley of Virginia) that victory comes not just from the defeat of enemy armies but from breaking the people's will to resist by destroying their ability to feed and supply themselves. With this strategy in mind, the generals looked to the buffalo. Sheridan encouraged commercial hunters and even tourists to hunt buffalo, and he trained new recruits in marksmanship with buffalo targets. Buffalo meat also supplemented the poor food at many army posts. These attacks on the Indians' economic base coincided with inducements to get them to accept reservation life. The government promised to provide food and shelter. Food shipments to the reservation, however, were sporadic, and on one occasion bureaucrats in Washington ordered the reservation agent to withhold food until the Comanches surrendered some suspected raiders to authorities. The uncertainty of rations therefore failed to make the reservation as attractive as the government would have liked, and actually provoked some Comanches to leave the reservation and continue raiding for subsistence.

Militarily, the army conducted winter campaigns, something not previously done. The Indians learned they had no sanctuary and could find their tepees and food stocks destroyed during the harshest time of the year. Frequently this was done with the help of Indians working for the government, most notably Tonkawas and Lipans working out of Fort Griffin. They received pay and rations as regular cavalrymen while on duty and were allowed to live near the fort for their own protection. The Tonkawas benefited from this relationship because they had no where else to go-all other Indian groups except the Lipans despised them for helping the whites and for their ritual cannibalism. Their arrangement with the military was mutually advantageous; they could be safe only with army protection, and the army needed their scouting skills. A great breakthrough for the army came in 1872, when Col. Ranald S. Mackenzie, with a captured Comanchero from New Mexico leading the way, crossed the Llano Estacado, the final redoubt of the Comanche resistance. He noted the trails and areas with abundant grass, wood, and fresh water to support cavalry movements through the area. He put his new knowledge to work immediately by locating and destroying a Comanche camp on McClellan Creek in October 1872; more than twenty Indians were killed, and 124 women and children were captured and subsequently held prisoner at Fort Sill to induce others to surrender. Mackenzie tried to return to his fort with the Indians' 3,000 horses, but the Comanches harassed him so severely while he was driving them off that afterward his policy was to shoot all captured horses. In this additional way, more a result of exasperation than planning, the Comanches found their ability to survive outside the reservation fading away.

The last large military campaigns, and the Comanches' last sustained effort to continue their old way of life without government dependency, occurred in 1874. In the early summer, a medicine man named Isa-taiqv had a vision in which he learned that Comanches must resist whites or else be reduced to the dependent state of nearby groups like the Wichitas and Caddos; the performance of a Sun Dance was to be the means by which Comanches would be delivered from white domination. Comanches from all bands attended the dance, a ceremony previously unknown to the Comanches and probably learned from the Kiowas. It took place at the time when women and children were being held prisoner to compel good behavior by Comanche men, and when rations at the reservation were being withheld as punishment. At the gathering, the Comanches determined to take action. Their two main problems were military pressure and the destruction of the buffalo herds. First they considered attacking the Tonkawas at Fort Griffin to make an example of them that might compel the government to renegotiate the conditions under which the Comanches would live, but this idea was rejected in favor of an attack on buffalo hunters. These were a far more important target, given the economic crisis the Comanches found themselves in with the loss of trade opportunities, the loss of customary subsistence, and the specter of dependency on the government. As the Kiowa leader Kicking Birdqv explained, "The buffalo was their money[,] their only resource with which to buy what they needed and did not receive from the government. The robes they could prepare and trade. They loved them just as the white man does his money, and just as it made a white man's heart feel to have his money carried away, so it made them feel to see others killing and stealing their buffalo." In June 1874 the Comanche war party, led by Quanah Parker,qv chose to assault a gathering of buffalo hunters encamped at Adobe Walls, the ruins of an abandoned trading post in the Panhandle. The hunters managed to get behind the walls before the attackers could inflict serious damage and return fire with their new, long-range rifles. The Comanches charged repeatedly but could not breach the walls or withstand the hunters' accurate marksmanship. At the end of the day, the Comanches withdrew, having killed three hunters and lost thirteen warriors. This second battle of Adobe Wallsqv slowed only temporarily the ingress of commercial buffalo hunters. After it, events were increasingly determined by the army rather than any initiative on the part of the Comanches. Military pressure on the bands outside the reservation increased during the summer and fall of 1874 and caused greater destruction of the Indians' subsistence base. On the Salt Fork of the Red River cavalrymen burned 500 Comanche lodges, and although only one Indian was killed, the destruction of their supplies compelled many Comanches to turn themselves in at Fort Sill. Colonel Mackenzie led his command into Palo Duro Canyon in late September and destroyed five Comanche villages; although there were few casualties on either side, the cavalry captured 1,400 horses, which Mackenzie ordered shot (after his Indian scouts selected some as prizes). Most Comanches off the reservation surrendered by the onset of winter, and by 1875 the last small bands came in. The Lipans and Tonkawas who assisted the government in the final subjugation of the groups resisting reservation life were themselves moved out of the state and put on reservations in the early 1880s.

George Klos

 Citation: "Comanche Indians," extract from The Handbook of Texas Online, Texas State Historical Association, 2001, <> [Access Date].

For bibliography and complete article go to Indians.
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