30. January 2007 · Comments Off on Comancheria · Categories: General, History, Old West, Pajama Game

In his one-volume history of Texas “Lone Star”, T.R.. Fehrenbach cites one particular reason for Texas having such a distinctive culture relative to the other states. And there is a distinctly different “feel” to living here; of all the places in the States where I have lived or visited; only Utah and Hawaii came even close to it, for similar reasons. Hawaii is an island, and was once itself an independent kingdom. So was Utah, metaphorically speaking: an island of Mormon separatists in empty vastness of the Great Basin. They are still generic American places, although one has frangipani and fabulous beaches, and the other has spectacular mountains and religious conformity.

Texas is more of a reduced and concentrated American essence; a demi-glace as it were. Like Utah and Hawaii, Texas started as independent political entity and did experience a certain degree of isolation, especially in the early years of settlement by Spanish, Mexican and American arrivals, but Fehrenbach cites one more reason; that Texas was at war for a good fifty years.

This war was fought mainly on one front (occasionally varying the program with other hostile factions), and a bitter and protracted fight it was too, beginning with the early days of Stephen Austin’s colony in the 1820ies. It had something of inevitability about it, for it was fought mostly against the Comanche Indian tribes; only in the early days of the American colonies east of the Appalachians s had there been a war as prolonged and vicious. In most of the other territories later become states, either the Indians were not particularly warlike, settlements were sparse and easily defended— leaving the resident Indians to withdraw to the back country— or such conflict between settlers and tribes was briskly concluded within a few years and to the settler’s decided advantage. But in Texas, war with the Indians lasted until the last ragged band surrendered to the reservation life in 1875; a period of fifty years during which no settler ever felt entirely secure, even in the center of what were larger towns at the time.

There was a dreadful inevitability in the collision of restless Anglo-American borderers, many of them that contentious Scots-Irish breed of whom it is usually said that they were born fighting, with the Comanche. But the Anglo-Texan borderers occasionally took a break from fighting; to farm, or ranch, to plant cotton or practice some more peaceful trade; the Comanche never did. For the Comanche lived entirely by war, by ransom and plunder—especially for horses, which they valued over practically anything else. They were restless and ever-moving, accustomed to hardship, feared by other tribes, whom they pushed out of the way, taking what they wanted, when they wanted it. There was no other occupation; no other means of advancement save by being a fearless warrior and raider. Such a harsh life eliminated the unfit brutally, as brutally as they eliminated their own enemies. At the high noon-time of their peak, they were the lords of the harsh and beautiful country of the southern plains, from the Arkansas River, to the Balcones Escarpment. They ranged and raided as far as they pleased, occasionally interrupted by a fragile peace treaty.

One of these treaties came to a spectacularly violent end, in the middle of San Antonio in the spring of 1840, during the course of what had been intended as a peace conference. In token of their good faith, a contingent of Penateka Comanche chiefs were supposed to surrender a number of captives, and sign a treaty. They turned over only a few, one of them a teenaged girl who had been savagely abused during a year of captivity. She told the Texan officials that the Comanche held more than a dozen other captives, but intended to extort a large ransom for each, one by one. When the chiefs and the peace commissioners met in a large building known as the Council House, the commissioners asked after the other captives who whose release had been promised. The leader of the chiefs — who had promised to bring in all the captives— answered that they had brought in the only one they had. The others were with other tribes. And then he added, insolently, “How do you like that answer?”

The short answer was the Texans did not. There were already soldiers standing by: they were ordered to surround the Council House, and the chiefs informed that they would be held hostage until their warriors returned to their camps and brought back the rest of the hostages. Almost as one, the chiefs drew knives and rushed the soldiers guarding the doors. The fat was then in the fire, as the warriors who were waiting outside in the yard entered the fray, and a short and vicious running fight erupted in the street leading down to the San Antonio River. The Council House fight vigorously re-ignited the war between Comanche and Texan, when a huge Comanche war party came down from the hills in the fall, sweeping down the empty country between the Guadalupe and Lavaca Rivers. They terrorized the town of Victoria and burned Linnville on Lavaca Bay. The citizens of Linnville watched from the refuge of boats offshore, as the Indians looted the warehouses and homes. They departed, with two hundred horses all laden with plunder, but what happened on the return from that spectacular raid set in motion a gathering of forces and personalities who would eventually reduce the proud lords of the Southern Plains to a handful of desperate, starving beggars.

(to be continued)

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