War With the Comanche

Duncan Hengest, American Renaissance, July 2010

Fort Sill, north of Lawton, Oklahoma, is home to the Army’s Field Artillery School as well as many field artillery brigades. Over the decades, thousands of Americans have learned how to crew cannon there, and I am one of them. A posting to Fort Sill allowed me to explore what remains of the Wild West when I was off duty. I’d always been a fan of Westerns and of the real history of America’s pioneering conquest of the continent, and the Lawton area was and is the center of Comanche territory.

Comanche Warrior

A 19th century Comanche warrior.

During the early days of the Texas Republic, the Comanche were the world’s best light cavalry. In fact, they were such fantastic fighters that the Spanish never even tried to subdue them, and the Comanche halted the expansion of settlements into the panhandle and northern Texas for nearly 50 years. Yet the Comanche today are a pitiful group, the defeated remnants of a terrible racial conflict.

Everywhere you go in Lawton, you see obese Indians. In Oklahoma each tribe has its own license plates, so you can tell a person’s tribe by watching him get into his car. (I tried to get a license plate that said “Comanche” but the DMV would not give me one.) Sometimes it seems as though all the Comanche are unhealthy; the white man’s diet does not seem suited to a people adapted to living on game from the North American prairie. When the Comanche get sick they go to the Public Health Service Indian Hospital at the eastern end of Lawton. If you drive by you are likely to see ancient Indians — poor and disheveled — holding out their thumbs for a ride. Their hands tremble.

It seems that the Comanche are as badly adapted to the white man’s economy as to his diet. I once watched a heavy Comanche woman slowly pushing pennies towards a white cashier. She carefully slid each coin across the counter as though it was very difficult to part with.

The Comanche’s misery is the result of their absolute defeat during a fierce conflict with whites in the 19th Century. The Comanche War, as that conflict has come to be known, was lengthy and cruel. This terrible war that cursed both the Indians and the Americans was largely inherent in their circumstances; different races and cultures, especially aggressive ones, should not try to share the same territory.

Always against us

The name Comanche is a Spanish corruption of the Ute word Kohmahts, meaning enemy, stranger, or those who are always against us. Like many tribes, the Comanche called themselves simply “the people,” or Numunuh in their own language. They are an offshoot of the Shoshone, who hail from the area of today’s southern Idaho. Sometime during the 1500s, they left the mountain northwest and settled in southwest Oklahoma. There, they acquired horses from the Spanish, and began to dominate the high plains of western Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle, and Eastern New Mexico. This vast territory was well watered and its grasslands fed the Comanche’s horses, endless herds of buffalo, and other smaller game. With the horse, the Comanche could travel rapidly on the planes, and easily kill buffalo.

In the mountain Northwest, the Comanche had been a poor, foot-bound people; with the horse they became lords of the western plains. Their population exploded. There was no census, but estimates of their numbers vary from 10 to 30 thousand. As they grew more powerful, they started raiding their neighbors. They raided the Apache and Pueblo in Arizona and New Mexico, and the Pawnee in Eastern Kansas. They traded with the Spaniards around Santa Fe but also raided settlements in Mexico and Texas. They often took captives in Mexico and ransomed them back to traders in Santa Fe for finished goods. Neither the Spanish Empire nor the Mexican Republic had the means to stop this well-organized piracy.

Despite constant raiding, some time around 1790 the Comanche made a lasting alliance with the Kiowa. Like the Comanche, the Kiowa had come from the mountain Northwest, moved into the southern plains, and acquired the horse. The Kiowa and Comanche spoke different languages, but lived in a very similar manner. The Kiowa were a much smaller tribe, and perhaps they fitted into a special niche: not worth raiding and too small to be a threat, but useful allies. This alliance between two extremely warlike people held year after year. The two tribes raided together so consistently that Comanche raids were often Comanche-and-Kiowa raids.

The Comanche came to the attention of Americans when Texas became free of Mexico. Shortly after independence, in 1838, the new republic signed its first peace treaty with the Comanche — a treaty that was probably doomed from the start. It was made with only one Comanche band, it did not define a boundary between Texas and Comanche lands, and it was never ratified by the Texas Senate. Essentially it required that the Comanche stop attacking whites — a not unreasonable demand — and some Comanche may have intended to abide by it. However, the Republic of Texas was a young, independent state with relatively wealthy white newcomers living in isolated settlements. They were irresistible targets for raiders, and the treaty was soon broken.

Comanche raids were striking examples of military precision and stealth. Raiding parties could number up to 1,500, and could move undetected across the grassland. Attacks on this scale had proven brilliantly successful against traditional Comanche targets: larger villages of mostly unarmed Mexicans or other Indians. These villages had no way to fight off the Comanche or pursue them as they retreated.

Raiders were most active during the full moon, when they could see at night. The waxing of the moon became a source of dread for Texas whites, who began to call the full moon a “Comanche moon.” When they sacked Texas farmhouses they usually killed the men and captured the youngsters and women. Comanche women often tortured and mutilated older girls and women to make them less attractive. The women also took the lead in torturing men. They might cut the skin off their feet, tie them to a horse, and make them walk behind until they collapsed and were dragged to death.

By 1840, just two years after the treaty, relations between whites and Comanche were murderous and getting worse by the day. In March, the Texas government sent Colonel Henry W. Karnes at the head of a group to meet a delegation of Comanche chiefs at the San Antonio Council House. Karnes was charged with recovering Texas captives and trying to improve relations. The Texans estimated that the Comanche held some 200 captives, and promised that their return would be taken as a gesture of goodwill.

The meeting went badly. The Comanche arrived with only one of the promised captives, a young girl whose nose had been burned off. She was badly bruised from beatings, and said she had been repeatedly gang-raped. Texan soldiers, who were already angry over the raids and the broken treaty, killed the chiefs outright. Other whites opened fire on the Comanche who were outside the courthouse.

To the Comanche, the Council House slaughter was treachery of the lowest sort. What the Texans considered savagery — raiding, torture, and slaughter of captives — were to them the normal practices of war. From this mutual incomprehension, and from the slaughter of the chiefs, the seeds of long-term hatred were planted. The Comanche never forgave the Texans. Throughout the decades they were pillaging Texas, Comanche could have raided Kansas — it was no farther away than many parts of Texas — but they saved their wrath for Texas.

The Comanche did not wait long for revenge. In early August they launched a massive attack on the coastal towns of Victoria and Linnville. In Victoria, the local militia, often called “Minutemen,” managed to drive off the attackers. They fired from inside buildings, and the Comanche, unused to city fighting, retreated. At Linnville, the raiders killed some 20 residents; the others survived only by boarding ships and moving just off shore, where they watched as the Comanche burned the town to the ground. Linnville never rebuilt, and the area is now a residential part of Calhoun County.

Linnville and Victoria are hundreds of miles from the center of Comanche territory in Oklahoma, and the attacks demonstrate the extraordinary reach and mobility the raiders enjoyed. At that time, the Comanche often hunted and camped in territory as far south as Austin. The barbed wire fence had yet to be invented, so there was little to stop them. Indeed, Texans had settled only the eastern and coastal parts of the state, so the coast was well within range of inland tribes.

The warfare that began with the council house killings and the revenge raids on Linnville and Victoria lasted until the late 1870s, and this nearly 40-year war can be divided into three stages. The first, which lasted until Texas joined the Union in 1845, pitted the Comanche against locally-organized whites supported by a Texas government that was highly sympathetic to them. The second, from 1845 until 1861, was much like the Cold War in that the federal government contained the Comanche but did not destroy their ability to make war. In the last stage of the conflict, after the Civil War, a vindictive Reconstruction government ignored bloody and repeated Comanche attacks on disarmed whites and supported the Comanche through a myriad of welfare and reform policies. Only after the post-Civil War elite was directly threatened did it take action, permanently ending the Comanche threat in 1879.

Texans strike back

Immediately after the great raids on Linnville and Victoria, the Texans called out the militia and assembled Ranger companies, and defeated the retreating Comanche force at the Battle of Plum Creek on August 14, 1840. The Comanche were slowed by the burden of their loot from Linnville, and also faced an enemy that was better armed and organized than their earlier Indian and Mexican antagonists. Since the 1830s, Texas Rangers had carried six-shooter revolvers as well as long rifles. The Comanche were still mostly armed with bows and arrows as well as lances, and usually retreated on their fast horses in the face of sustained gunfire. When the mounted Rangers could catch them, they would ride next to the Indians and inflict terrible losses with their six-shooters.

Another important ingredient in subsequent successes against the Comanche was the leadership of the dynamic and aggressive Texas president, Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar. Lamar was a Georgian who had moved to Texas to escape disappointments in his career and personal life. He fought at the Battle of San Jacinto, where the Mexican Army was defeated and Texas won independence. The Texas constitution allowed for a single presidential term in office, and Lamar was elected to succeed Sam Houston. One of the new president’s first challenges was the Comanche. As he put it, “The fierce and perfidious savages are waging upon our exposed and defenseless inhabitants, an un-provoked and cruel warfare, masacreing [sic] the women and children, and threatening the whole line of our unprotected borders with speedy desolation.”

After the victory at Plum Creek, Lamar began a policy of retaliatory raids on villages in the Comanche sanctuary in the Texas Panhandle and Oklahoma. Colonel John H. Moore, accompanied by Lipan Indian scouts, led the initial foray. The Rangers moved on an area that is now Colorado City, Texas, and the Lipans discovered a village with little security. Moore sent a detachment to cover a likely escape route, and ordered the main body of his command to attack. He caught the Comanche by surprise and killed 50 in the village. The ambush detachment killed another 80 retreating Indians. The killing was somewhat indiscriminate and included women and children. Moore’s tactics of attack and ambush were duplicated by the Rangers, and later, by the US cavalry.

(Interestingly, this was the same basic plan George Custer used at Little Big Horn in 1876. The difference was that the Sioux village was massive. The Indians also had lever-action rifles and pinned down the ambush detachment while sending a larger force to overwhelm the 7th Cavalry’s main attack. Custer never had a chance.)

Lamar saw the conflict as a race war, and made no secret of his desire to rid the state of all Indian tribes. He probably would have exterminated the Comanche if he could have, but took different measures against less war-like tribes. His administration pointedly sent no aid when diseases swept through Indian territory. He began the process that moved the Cherokee, Caddo, and Tonkowa onto reservations in Oklahoma, but once they were settled peacefully, he never harried them.

Against the Comanche, Lamar developed both defensive and offensive strategies. The Rangers’ ability to defeat large groups prevented the Comanche from forming large raiding parties, and the Minutemen in the Texas settlements — almost like local crime watches — defended against smaller raids. The system was not perfect, but the raids became smaller and less frequent. Rangers also continued to maul Comanche villages. As T. R. Fehrenbach wrote in his definitive Comanche: A History of a People, there were many retaliatory actions “no one bothered to report.”

Part of the tragedy of the war is that although the Comanche had raided for generations, they had never faced an opponent like the Texans and did not understand them. Spaniards and Mexicans were disorganized prey, and could not mount a full-scale defense. Nor did they have a militia to call out. The Comanche assumed that white men were like themselves, loosely organized bands for whom an offence against one was not an insult to all. Texans saw things differently, and united against what they considered a threat to the entire state.

Until they took on the Texans, the Comanche had always been safe from reprisal raids, so for them, the war was over when the raiding party came home. The Texans were different. Months after a raid, they would surprise an offending — or completely innocent — Comanche village and put it to the torch. Also, Comanche movements were limited by the seasons and buffalo hunts, whereas the Texans could campaign any time of year. By the end of Lamar’s administration a generation of Comanche warriors was dead. T.R. Fehrenbach estimates that from 1838 to 1840, a quarter of the braves had been killed, most of them in the actions following the Council House fight.

What saved the Comanche and kept the war alive were larger questions of geopolitics. The Texans were going broke. The country’s finances were unsound, and the Comanche campaign was just one of several conflicts Lamar had to finance. There were constant Mexican incursions, and Lamar even sent troops into Mexico at great expense. The United States was receptive to annexation, so Texas joined the Union in 1845. The expensive Ranger companies were cut back and federal troops took over their job. At first, the Army sent only infantry to forts along the frontier, and they could not stop the Comanche from moving freely over the prairies. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis formed a cavalry regiment to send to Texas, which managed to prevent some raiding. Its efforts were helped by a cholera epidemic the “Forty-niners” brought when they crossed the plains during the Gold Rush. It is estimated that the Comanche population dropped from 20,000 to 12,000 during this time.

Whites began to push the internal Texas frontier forward. The east and south were settled by then, but the north and west — where Wichita Falls and Amarillo are today — were still raw frontier. With the Comanche more or less under control, white settlers began to fill the empty parts of the state.

By 1860, the Comanche were on the defensive — reduced by plague and harried by the US Cavalry. Their final defeat would have been just a matter of time, but the Civil War changed the balance of power. The federal troops left, and Confederate forces went East. The pressure lifted, and midway through the war the Comanche started raiding again. They went back to their old ways of rape, plunder, and torture, but with a new twist. They soon found they could steal Texas cattle and trade them with Comancheros — Hispanic traders in the Rio Grande Valley — for lever-action rifles. The Texans lost the advantage in firepower they had always enjoyed. The Comanche had always been able to get a few modern weapons, but massive industrial production and increasing trade made them much easier to get.

The Texas Reconstruction government therefore inherited a new Comanche war that was blowing with a terrible fury, but did not take it seriously. The carpetbag elite was less interested in fighting Indians than in enriching itself at local expense and supporting the newly freed blacks. Things only got worse as the 1860s wore on, and T.R. Fehrenbach writes that by 1870, “long-settled regions were regressing toward depopulation. Only hundreds of settlers were being killed, but meanwhile thousands were deserting the frontier. The panic was very real.” The frontier retreated — an early form of white flight — as farmers left their properties for safer areas. Those who stayed behind turned their haciendas into fortresses. The effect was to hold back growth; the panhandle could not be settled until the 1880s. Lyndon Baines Johnson’s ancestors were among those the Comanche harried.

Even as the Comanche were murdering white homesteaders, the government attempted a sanctuary, welfare buy-off, faith-based assimilation program that is reminiscent of modern times. During the final Comanche War from 1865 to 1879, Texas whites were disarmed by the Reconstruction government, and prevented by law from retaliatory raiding into Comanche territory. They could do little more than lobby a hostile occupation government for aid — not always to much effect. Pro-Indian liberals in government as well as East Coast sentimentalists even prevented several murderous Indian chiefs from being hanged. Ironically, the attack those chiefs led was the very incident that caused the Army and federal government finally to act decisively.

More humane policy

One of the causes of federal inaction was a genuine desire to handle Indian troubles in a humane way. East of the Mississippi, Indian wars had been bloody affairs that ended with the Indians absolutely destroyed or confined. If anything, Northerners were slightly more violent than Southerners. Yankees tended to wipe out Indians and remove any survivors to small, out of-the-way reservations. In upstate New York, the Continental Army destroyed more than 40 Iroquois villages and left survivors to starve or seek aid from the British. In 1794 at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, American troops defeated an Indian force and then removed all remaining Indians from Ohio. After victories in the Midwest, whites paid the surviving Indians paltry sums for their land and sent them West with essentially no support. Abraham Lincoln’s sole experience as a soldier was a brief period of garrison duty with the Illinois Militia in the otherwise bloody Blackhawk War, in which the Sac and Fox Indians were destroyed and forced out of Illinois and Wisconsin.

In the South, the Cherokee were the source of the longest-running conflict, and held lands in Georgia long after the northeastern states had destroyed their Indians. As tensions with whites mounted, relocation became the favored solution rather than war and ad hoc expulsion, and was carried out mainly though an admittedly one-sided legal process. Cherokee removal was a relatively peaceful and fair solution to two incompatible peoples living close to each other with a long history of violence. Stand Watie, a Cherokee chief who later became a Confederate general, supported the move from Georgia to Oklahoma, and brought his band West well before the now-notorious “Trail of Tears.”

In that context it is understandable that after the Civil War, many pressure groups in the East, no longer threatened by Indians, pushed for more peaceful measures. Also backing the changes was the Office of Indian Affairs, which wanted more control over Indians at the expense of the Army. President Grant therefore tried to treat Indians as wards of government rather than independent nations, and to assimilate and civilize them rather than destroy them.

In the past, Indian wars were often sparked when a dishonest Indian Agent stole government aid to the Indians for his own profit, so in 1869, Grant charged religious groups with carrying out his new policy of turning Indians into peaceful farmers. The denomination that got the Comanche assignment was the Society of Friends, or Quakers. Quakers are one of America’s oldest and most influential founding groups. They live a life of piety and thrift, and disavow fancy dress and military action, but it may have been a mistake to pick a group religiously opposed to war in any form.

President Grant’s agent to the Comanche was Lawrie Tatum of Iowa, who had probably never seen an Indian before he answered his Church’s call and headed West. Tatum arrived at Fort Sill in 1869 and enacted a sort of Great Society program. He started schools, gave deeds of farmland to the Comanche with instructions for farming, and established a mill for grinding grain. The Comanche also got free coffee, sugar, and blankets, and lived in safety. Soldiers secured Fort Sill and the agent’s supplies, but did not interfere with Comanche activity or take to the field. Quakers would not use the military to keep the Comanche on their reservation and avoid war.

Tatum worked hard to teach the Comanche to be civilized farmers but was defeated by circumstances. The Comanche culture’s central focus was on warfare and raiding. Wealth and status could only be acquired through war, and Quaker pacifism was too foreign to graft onto their way of life. Also, welfare handouts are always unsatisfying. The Comanche were not happy with reservation rations and it was far more rewarding to plunder Texans. The Fort Sill Reservation became a sanctuary from which they could wage war. In 1871 there were even scalpings within a short distance of Army posts. Whites had sent a capable and honest agent to deal with the Comanche and bring about peace, but the Comanche were not willing to be peaceful.

Sherman and the Comanche

Just as it is today, it was whites who lived furthest from the menace who were convinced they knew best how to handle it. In Philadelphia or New York it was easy to talk about humane Indian policies, but on the frontier, whether in Confederate or Yankee territory, sentiments were different. In Minnesota in 1862, Sioux Indians attacked whites, killing hundreds. Many whites were fresh from northern Europe or descended from the very liberal Puritan and Quaker colonists. Yet they rallied and pushed the Sioux out of the state.

In Colorado in 1864, Methodist minister and volunteer army officer John Chivington, a fervent abolitionist, led a force of mostly settler militia against a group of Cheyenne after a series of murderous raids. His militia massacred Indians without compunction but his force also included a few regulars from the East who were appalled by the killing and raised a stink. Chivington also made a bad mistake: He attacked a peaceful band of Indians, not the hostile Dog Soldiers, an out-of-control offshoot of the Cheyenne, who were actually doing the raiding.

Also in 1864 an Army unit under Kit Carson fought the Comanche at the Battle of Adobe Walls, in Hutchinson County, Texas. The Indians surrounded the force but were held off with two mountain howitzers. The cannon were decisive. Carson’s men were outnumbered nearly ten to one, but killed nearly 100 Indians for a loss of six whites.

Texans therefore eventually got help from people who knew Indians first hand. Help arrived, ironically, in the form of William T. Sherman, who never had much faith in Grant’s Indian policy. In 1871 he toured Texas to inspect damage from Comanche raids, and had a near encounter with Indians that had an effect on policy. A group of braves led by Set-tainte, Set-tank, and Big Tree attacked a wagon convoy of Army supplies that passed just minutes behind Sherman’s lightly guarded inspection tour. The dozen men on the convoy fought back, but seven were killed, scalped, and mutilated. One man died after being tied upside down to a wagon wheel with a fire set under his head.

Sherman was shaken by this close call, and sent out the cavalry under Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie to investigate. With information from Agent Tatum, Mackenzie cornered the three ringleaders. Set-tank died resisting arrest, but the other two were sent back to Texas for trial.

Set-tainte and Big Tree were sentenced to death, but not executed. The trial became a circus, with the two Indians at the center of a political struggle they must have found bewildering. As T.R Fehrenbach explains, “There was much popular sentiment in the East against hanging the aborigines; more important, the Indian Bureau and Department of the Interior strongly resented the army’s interference in Indian affairs.” President Grant wired the Reconstruction governor Edmond J. Davis and asked him to commute the sentences to life in prison. Davis did so. Eventually the two were released after serving less than a year. Texans were outraged. Even Quaker Tatum, who by this time was thoroughly disillusioned with the peace policy, was indignant.

Although President Grant had pushed for a pardon, he reconsidered the peace policy and quietly let Colonel Mackenzie take the field. Mackenzie brought along Gatling guns, which gave his men a real edge over larger forces. (Rapid-fire weapons were rarely used against mass charges of Indians — they were too smart to try that — but having them meant Mackenzie’s men rarely had to face such charges. Things might have turned out differently for Custer if he had taken Gatling guns.)

Mackenzie drove ruthlessly into Comanche territory. He was a hard man, who pursued Indians wherever they fled — even into Mexico — and his men certainly killed women and children. One of his harshest tactics was to capture any Indians he could — women, children, elders — and hold them hostage. This meant Comanche war parties were forced to move with their entire villages, lest their families wind up in prison camp or dead from a trigger-happy trooper. The Comanche had even more to fear from the militia. Local men who may have known people killed in raids were invariably more vengeful than professional soldiers.

This policy of interning non-combatant Indians was part of one of the last full-scale campaigns against the Comanche, starting in August 1874, when Mackenzie pursued a force led by Chief Quanah Parker into the Llano Estacado of the Southern Plains. In late September, Mackenzie’s men captured a New Mexican Comanchero trader and made him talk by stretching him over a wagon wheel. He revealed the location of a large Comanche village in a canyon. Mackenzie’s men rode all night and stormed the canyon, capturing the horses, food stores, and teepees. The braves, always excellent fighters, held off the army until the women and children climbed out of the canyon, but Mackenzie burned their supplies and killed their horses. Over the next several days, he pursued and defeated the hungry, foot-bound Comanche. Many braves surrendered and returned to the reservation.

These tactics greatly reduced the Indian menace by the end of 1875, but the Comanche faced yet another threat. The expanding railroads brought whites armed with new buffalo guns onto the prairie to hunt the buffalo for their skins. The result was a slaughter that nearly wiped out the great herds on which the Comanche had depended for generations. The hunters themselves were dangerous; one group defeated a larger force of Comanche with their excellent rifles in 1874, at the Second Battle of Adobe Walls. Constantly pursued by the Army, starving for want of game, by 1879 the Comanche were a beaten people and never again threatened Texas. From a possible high of 30,000 at the start of the 19th century, the Comanche were reduced to roughly 1,500 by 1878. A once-proud people finally submitted permanently to the reservation.

The Comanche War is now history, its many tales preserved in movies and books. No Texan now living ever feared a Comanche moon. Today, tribal conflict takes different forms, and it is incursions from the South that are pushing back the white frontier. Clashes are not so sharp as those in the 19th century, but the outcome is no different. The destiny of Texas is being decided through immigration and demographics rather than armed conflict, but the questions remain the same: who will populate and who will rule? Earlier Americans understood what was at stake; today’s Americans have been numbed into acquiescence.

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