04. February 2007 · Comments Off on Comancheria: Part 2 · Categories: General, History, Military, Old West, Pajama Game

(Part 1 is here)

It was not as if the Texans were entirely defenseless against a surprise attack like the Great Linnville Raid. Poor in cash, poor in practically everything but land, the conditions of the frontier had attracted large numbers of the restless and adventurous, who were not inclined to accept any sort of insult lying down. With no meaningful standing army, defense of local communities depended on their militia… usually composed of every able-bodied male. The sheer size of Texas and the nature of war waged by the horse-lords of the Southern Plains made it imperative that at least a portion of the militia be mounted. Over the twenty years after the founding of Stephen Austin’s colony the practice evolved for a mounted militia, ready to ride in pursuit of raiders within fifteen minutes after an alarm being sounded. Sometimes they were able to catch up and retrieve captives, or stolen horses. More often, the raiding Indians split up and melted like smoke into the wilderness, leaving their pursuers frustrated and fuming, their horses exhausted. It became quite clear, as more Anglo settlers poured into Texas, that the best defense was in the offense, to field a mounted patrol out ranging the back-country, looking to forestall Indian raids.

Such a Corps of Rangers was formally established on the eve of Texan rebellion against Mexico. Distinct from the militia and the regular army, the mounted ranging companies continued to serve after the war, in various forms and degrees of effectiveness, most of them locally supported. The citizen-rangers of the local companies assembled for short periods of time in response to specific dangers, their numbers ever-flexible. They supplied their own arms, horses and equipment. By the time of the Linnville Raid, most of them were veterans of the War for Independence, and had years of experience in the field otherwise; men like Mathew “Old Paint” Caldwell of Gonzalez, and the McCullough brothers, who had handled Sam Houston’s two artillery pieces at the Battle of San Jacinto. Ben McCullough had even been trained in outdoor skills by no less than Davy Crockett himself. Companies from settlements along the Colorado assembled under Edward Burleson, including Chief Placido and twelve Tonkawa Indians, who had their own score with the Comanche to settle, and twenty-one volunteers from Port Lavaca. Other volunteers gathered from Bastrop, Cuero, Victoria and other towns scattered along the river valleys between the coast and the start of the limestone hills.

Barely a week after the burning of Linnville, companies of volunteer Texans were closing in inexorably on the withdrawing Comanche raiding party, at an open plain by Plum Creek, a tributary of the San Marcos River near present-day Lockhart. Burdened by loot, captives and a slow-moving herd of stolen horses and mules, the raiders, a huge party of Penateka Comanche, led by a war chief called Buffalo Hump, had not split up and scattered as was their usual custom. Unknowing, Buffalo Hump’s war party were closely pursued by part of McCullough’s Gonzales company, who began seeing exhausted pack animals shot and left by the wayside. Caldwell and the other leaders had deduced the route by which they were returning, and had arranged their forces accordingly. They let the Comanche column pass, under a great cloud of dust and ash, for the prairie had recently been burned over.

Not until the Texans rode out from cover in two parallel lines converging on them, did the Comanche warriors even know they had been followed. Some of their gaudily adorned chiefs rode out to put on a show, intending to cover the withdrawal, taunting the waiting Texans, riding back and forth. A Texan sharp-shooter brought down the most flamboyant of the chiefs, and when several warriors rode out to carry his body away, the order for a charge was given. The Texans smashed through the line of Comanche fighters from both sides, and into the loot-laden horse and mule herd. As the herd stampeded, the whole raid dissolved into a rout, a hundred bloody running fights, with the Comanche fighters penned in and ridden down. The battle ran for fifteen miles, with some of the survivors chased as far as Austin. It was later estimated that the tribe lost about a quarter of their effective fighters. They never raided so far into the settled regions of Texas again, in such numbers… and after the Plum Creek fight learned to give a wide berth to volunteer Ranger companies.

One such company was based in San Antonio, composed of local volunteers and funded by local businessmen, many of whom also participated in the patrols. The captain of that company was a surveyor by profession, born in Tennessee and raised in Mississippi, who would live to a ripe old age as a politician and lawman in California. Quiet, modest, self-effacing, Jack Hays became the very beau ideal of a captain of Rangers. He had been among the volunteers at Plum Creek, but made his name in the decade afterwards, astounding people who knew only his reputation upon meeting him for the first time. He was slight, short and refined in appearance, and looked about fourteen years old. But he was a also gifted leader of irregular fighters, possessed an iron constitution, and procured for his men an innovation which allowed them to carry the fight against the Comanche Indians on something like equal terms… the Colt Revolver.

(to be continued)

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