Adobe Walls – the first battle

Hutchinson County TX 001

Hutchinson County, Texas

Francisco Vázquez de Coronado y Luján [1] was looking for the Seven Cities of Gold in 1541; his travels took him through what is today Hutchinson County, Texas.  Juan de Onate y Salazar [2] passed through the same area in 1601 as part of his Kansas Expedition.  For the next 269 years, this region was mostly populated by vast herds of American Bison.  The first Anglo-American to explore the panhandle of present-day Texas was Stephen H. Long [3], who mistakenly thought that the Canadian River was the Red River in 1820.  Later individuals included Josiah Gregg in March 1840, and Lieutenant Edward Beale in December 1858 (credited with constructing the first federally funded military road from Fort Smith, Arkansas to Los Angeles, California).

Migrating from Kansas, Thomas S. Bugbee established the Quarter Circle T Ranch in November 1876.  William Anderson’s Scissors Ranch took shape in 1878 near a place everyone called Adobe Walls.  Scotland-born entrepreneur James Coburn formed the Hansford Land and Cattle Company in 1881.  By 1883, Coburn had absorbed the Quarter Circle T Ranch, Scissors Ranch, and Turkey Track Ranch.

Prairie Schooner

The Conestoga Wagon

Twenty years earlier, however, there were other things going on in what would become Hutchinson County. White settlers were streaming into the western territories.  From the Native-American point of view, it was a dangerous flood of outsiders … dangerous because the arrivals of these settlers threatened to change forever the culture of indigent populations, people who had lived in this region for a thousand years.  It should be no surprise to anyone, then, that Indians of every persuasion developed hostile attitudes toward the whites.  The wagon trains were a frequent target for Indian assault because the whites were trespassers and because these whites killed for their own consumption the Buffalo that Indians needed to feed their families.

Wagon trains were caravans of wagons organized by settlers intending to immigrate to the western territories during the late 18th and most of the 19th centuries. These trains often included as many as 100 Conestoga wagons (also called prairie schooners) and they became the main method of long-distance overland transportation for people and their belongings [4].  Main routes included the Santa Fe Trail, Oregon Trail, Smoky Hill Trail, and the Southern Overland Mail route.  Typically, migrant groups would rendezvous at a town near the Missouri River. There, they would form companies, elect officers, employ guides, and collect essential supplies.  Key to their departure dates was weather; most wagon trains began their journey in May.  The caravans were protected by a few experienced frontiersmen on horseback, but more often than not, wagon trains stood little chance against the overwhelming force of the Plains Indians.  Indian attacks became more frequent after the start of the Civil War, but U. S. Army Brigadier General James Henry Carleton [5] was quite sure he could fix that problem.

General Carleton intended to put an end to hostile raids against white settlers; if not that, then at least remind those hostiles that Civil War would not prevent the US Army from protecting the westward movement of the American people.  General Carleton designated Colonel Christopher Carson [6] to lead an expeditionary force to deal with harsh attacks.  Carson, commanding the 1st Regiment of New Mexico Volunteer Cavalry, proceeded against Comanche and Kiowa Indians quartered in their winter encampments, believed to be located in the Palo Duro Canyons of the southern panhandle, south of the Canadian River.  Colonel Carson’s expedition was the second of its kind within the Comancheria following the Antelope Hills expedition.

Kit Carson 1864

Colonel Kit Carson, U. S. Army

The first battle of Adobe Walls occurred on 25 November 1864 in the vicinity of the ruins of William Bent’s abandoned trading post and saloon.  Adobe Walls was located on the north side of the Canadian River, 17 miles northeast of present-day Stinnett, Texas.  Colonel Carson clearly understood his orders: punish the Comanche and Kiowa for their attacks against wagon trains on the Santa Fe Trail.

On 10 November 1864, Colonel Carson departed Fort Bascom in the territory of New Mexico with 260 cavalry, 75 infantry, and 72 Ute and Jicarilla Apache scouts.  Two days later, Carson’s force, which also included two mountain howitzers, 27 wagons, an ambulance, and supplies for 45 days, headed south along the Canadian River into the Texas Panhandle.  Carson decided to march first to Adobe Walls because he was familiar with the terrain and, in fact, had worked for William Bent twenty years earlier.  Carson’s Indian scouts covered his flanks and performed scouting patrols ahead of the column. Progress was hampered by inclement weather.

On 24 November, the 1stCavalry reached Mule Springs, located about 30 miles west of Adobe Walls. Late in the day, Indian scouts reported sign pointing to a large Indian village.  Though darkness was upon him, Carson decided to conduct a night march of mounted troops and artillery, leaving the infantry behind to guard the supply train.  Carson rode with his Indian scouts, leaving a subordinate to command the cavalry unit. On the next morning, Carson ordered the artillery forward to join him in the vanguard element.

Comanche Lodge

Comanche Lodge c.1864

Arriving at the steep banks of the Canadian River, Carson deployed one squadron of cavalry on the north side of the river, while he continued with the remainder of his troops on the south side. Two hours after daybreak, the cavalry located and attacked a Kiowa village consisting of around 176 lodges. Several Indians were sent to alarm a nearby allied Comanche village, while Kiowa braves formed a protective screen around their women.  Meanwhile, Carson and his group arrived at Adobe Walls and established a perimeter defense around ruins that was once a hospital.  It was then that Carson realized that there were several nearby Indian villages —one of which was quite large.  Suddenly, a sizeable force of Comanche began pouring forward to engage the Americans; it was a much larger force than Carson expected [7].

Carson quickly dismounted his cavalry and set them into positions flanking the artillery pieces while the Indian scouts engaged around two-hundred Comanche and Kiowa warriors who were mounted and painted.  The first frontal assault came from the Kiowa, but the fighting turned into a fierce melee as Apache and Comanche joined forces and repeatedly attacked Carson’s position.  The Indians confused the Army’s bugle calls with a bugle of their own.  Carson’s force succeeded in repelling the attacks through the clever use of supporting fire from the howitzers.  The first salvo caused the Indians to withdraw from the battlefield, but they soon reappeared, and in greater numbers.

By mid-afternoon, Captain Pettis estimated that Carson’s expedition faced as many as 3,000 [8] really angry Indians.  After six to eight hours of continuous fighting, Carson was running low of ammunition and artillery shells.  Carson ordered a withdrawal to the Kiowa village in his rear.  The hostiles tried to block his retreat by setting fire to the grass and brush along the river, but Carson had the same idea and set backfires and affected his retreat to higher ground.  The two howitzers continued to hold off the Indians. With the arrival of twilight, Carson ordered the village burned.  After the soldiers helped themselves to finely finished buffalo robes, they withdrew from the village and returned to their supply train, which fortunately had not been molested by the Indians.  Carson’s scouts, meanwhile, killed four Kiowa who had been wounded in the initial assault —not out of hatefulness, but rather, to end their suffering.

Colonel Carson and his command rested in camp on 26 November, their enemy visible on a hilltop about two miles away.  The scouts continued to skirmish with Comanche and Kiowa, but no serious attack was mounted against the soldiers.  On 27 November, Carson ordered his men to mount up for a return march to New Mexico.  Several of his officers begged him to reconsider.  They wanted to renew the assault, but after consulting with his Indian scouts, Carson reaffirmed his order.

The Comanche and Kiowa were well aware of Kit Carson.  They respected him, but they didn’t fear him.  From the Kiowa perspective, they had defeated Carson.  Battle casualties were 6 US soldiers killed, 25 wounded; on the Indian side, there were an estimated 60 killed and wounded.  The Army declared themselves the victor at Adobe Walls, but the fact is that the Comanche and Kiowa remained firmly in possession of the Texas panhandle.  Indian attacks against wagon trains continued.

Carson’s decision to retreat was prudent.  He did prepare an exceptionally lethal defensive position, particularly given the number of Indians he faced on 25 November 1864, but it was probably the backfires and the decision to withdraw his men that saved his bacon.

The first battle at Adobe Walls would be the last time Comanche and Kiowa braves forced American troops to withdraw from a battlefield.  It also marked the beginning of the end for the Plains Indians.  The battle of Adobe Walls might have ended, but the war did not. There would be a second battle at Adobe Walls, and it would be the prelude to a much larger confrontation.

Sources:

  1. Texas State Historical Society, The Handbook of Texas
  2. Carter, H. L.  “Dear Old Kit”: The Historical Christopher Carson, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1968
  3. Guild, T. S., and Carter, H. L.  Kit Carson, Univesity of Nebraska Press, 1984
  4. Sabin, E. L. Kit Carson days (1809–1868) (Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co.), 1914

Endnotes

[1] A Spanish conquistador and explorer who led a rather large expedition from Mexico to present-day Kansas through parts of what is now the southwestern United States between 1540 and 1542.  He was searching for the Cities of Cibola (the term Seven Cities of Gold wasn’t used until the American gold-rush days in the mid-1800s).  His expedition marked the first time a European had seen the Grand Canyon and Colorado river.  He died in Mexico City in 1554, aged 43 or 44 years.

[2] Salazar was a conquistador and colonial governor of the province of Santa Fe de Nuevo Mexico, serving the Viceroyalty of New Spain.  His expedition included the Great Plains and lower Colorado River, where he encountered numerous native tribes.  Onate founded settlements throughout the southwest region of the present-day United States.  Following a dispute with native Americans, thirteen Spaniards died at the hands of the Acoma Indians, including his nephew, Juan de Zaldivar.  In retribution, Onate organized an attack against the Acoma Pueblo, during which the entire community was destroyed.  An estimated 800 to 1,000 Acoma Indians were killed.

[3] Stephen Harriman Long (1784-1864) was a U. S. Army explorer, topographical engineer, and railway engineer.  He is noted for his developments in the design of steam locomotives and for the fact that he was one of the most prolific explorers in the early 1800s. He covered over 26,000 miles in five expeditions, including his scientific campaign to the Great Plains, which he described as a great desert.

[4] The Conestoga wagon is a particular type of wagon and not a generic term for “covered wagon.” All covered wagons could be referred to as “prairie schooners,” but the Conestoga was far too heavy for use on the prairie.  Most wagons used for western movement were ordinary farm wagons fitted with a canvas covering and much lighter.

[5] An Indian fighter of some reputation, Carleton was first commissioned in the US Army in 1839.  He took part in the Mexican-American War, served in the US Dragoons in the American West, and participated in the 1844 expedition to the Pawnee and Oto.  In 1861, Carleton raised and was appointed Commanding Officer of the 1stCalifornia Infantry.  Later that year, he replaced Brigadier General George Wright as Commander, Military District of Southern California and the Department of New Mexico.  In April 1862, Carleton was promoted to Brigadier General and placed in command of the California Column.  Carleton’s resume included either leading or participating in the Apache Wars, Navaho Wars, and the Texas-Indian Wars.

[6] Christopher Houston Carson (1809-1868) (also known as Kit Carson) was a frontiersman, mountain man, wilderness guide, Indian agent, and an officer in the U. S. Army.  While many stories about Kit Carson were exaggerated, there is little doubt that the man was fearless in the face of danger, possessed superior combat skills, or that he had a profound impact on the westward expansion of the United States.

[7] Capt. Pettis (in charge of the howitzers) authored an after-action report within which he officially estimated the number of Indians between 1,200 and 1,400.  Carson’s forward element consisted of 330 men.

[8] Clearly an exaggeration.  There were probably not 3,000 Comanche and Kiowa anywhere near the battle site. Considering the number of lodges in the Kiowa and Comanche camps, the number of Indians Carson faced most likely did not exceed 1,500.  Still, given the size of Carson’s force, that is still a lot of Indians.

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Manifest Destiny and the American Indian

Historic revisionists may argue that arrogance is the exclusive domain of the American people, but it is not. A belief in superiority is illustrated by Imperialism [1], practiced by all of the colonizing powers of Europe: Great Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Germany, Denmark, and Sweden.  There is very little difference in the arrogance of these countries and that demonstrated by the United States’ Manifest Destiny.

John L O'Sullivan

John L. O’Sullivan

The idea of Manifest Destiny existed long before anyone called it that.  The first individual to use this term was John L. O’Sullivan.  He was the son of John Thomas O’Sullivan, who was an American diplomat and sea captain.  Descended from a long line of Irish expatriates and soldiers of fortune, John L. O’Sullivan had a strong sense of personal identity and self-worth. His father, the third baronet of the O’Sullivan name, became a naturalized American who served as a US Consul to the Barbary States.  After college, John L. O’Sullivan became a lawyer.  In 1837, he founded The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, which was based in Washington, D. C.  The magazine espoused the more radical forms of Jacksonian Democracy [2] and published essays by the most prominent writers in America at that time.  He was also an aggressive reformer in the New York legislature, where he led movements to abolish capital punishment.

In 1845, O’Sullivan published an essay entitled “Annexation,” which called upon the United States to admit the Republic of Texas into the Union.  In Washington, D. C., the conversation about Texas had been going on for a number of years; the US Senate was concerned about the expansion of slave states and the possibility of war with Mexico.  Nevertheless, Congress voted for annexation in early 1845, and everyone waited to see if Texas would accept the offer of statehood. Opponents of annexation were hoping to block it and it was at this time that O’Sullivan’s essay appeared in the July-August edition of his magazine.  O’Sullivan wrote, “It is now time for the opposition to the Annexation of Texas to cease.”  It was, he argued, a matter of the United States having a divine mandate to expand throughout North America.  He wrote, “… our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”  O’Sullivan used the same phraseology to address the United States’ ongoing boundary dispute with Great Britain in the Oregon territory.

Actually, the individual responsible for kick-starting America’s westward movement was none other than Thomas Jefferson.  It was a movement that began with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, became inspired by the expedition of Lewis and Clark (1805-1807), and one fueled by an explosive birth rate in the emerging United States —that, and sharp increases in immigration.

In 1800, the population of the United States was around five million people; it grew to 23-million by 1850.  Added to the explosion were two economic depressions: one in 1819 and another in 1839. Both of these had the effect of driving literally tens of thousands of Americans into the western territories.  Economically depressed citizens sought new opportunities to purchase cheap land and farm or ranch that land.  They did find opportunity in the west, of course, but they also discovered that along with these opportunities came great risk to themselves and their loved ones.

Even our earliest politicians intended to conquer the entire North American continent. The United States was a land of opportunity.  It was a land of vast resources.  All that needed to happen was for people to move west, to occupy and then defend these new territories.  In addition to sending Lewis and Clark on their mission to the Pacific, Jefferson also set his sights on Florida, then Spanish territory.  President Monroe settled this question in 1819, but left unsettled was a question of Texas, which, in 1824, became part of Mexico. Anglo-Americans who traveled to Texas found themselves involved in a war with Mexico in 1836.  They also found themselves confronted by tens of thousands of hostile Indians.

Texas became a Republic in 1836 and was admitted to the United States in 1845.  Manifest Destiny became the official philosophy of the United States and the refrain that fueled nineteenth-century territorial expansion.  The United States was destined by God to expand its dominion, spread democracy, and institute capitalism across the whole of the continent.

In 1846, the United States went to war with Mexico.  Several issues demanded settlement: admission of Texas and California as states, acquisition of additional lands in present-day Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming, and the placement of the United States’ southern border.  The United States won that war in 1848 but yet, to this day, people of Mexican heritage continue to believe that these lands were stolen from Mexico [3].

Manifest Destiny was also at the core of defining the United States’ northern border.  An 1842 treaty between Great Britain and the United States partially resolved this question but left open a decision about the Oregon territory, which included the area from the Pacific Coast to the Rocky Mountains, an area that now includes Oregon, Idaho, Washington State, and most of British Columbia.  War with Great Britain was avoided when both parties agreed to split the Oregon territory at the 49th parallel in 1846.

Along with acquired territory came questions about the people who lived in these lands, in some cases, for thousands of years.  What about them?  If the history of westward movement tells us anything at all, it is that (1) the American Indians were not willing to give up their lands without a fight, and (2) white settlers were not going to turn around and go home.  These new lands were the only home the settlers had.

Manifest Destiny caused the American people many problems, as well.  As western expansion continued, the American people found themselves increasingly more fractious over the question of slavery.  America’s splintered society led to an awful civil war.

If there is a frequent consequence to Manifest Destiny, it is conflict.  It led the United States to Central America (Cuba, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, and Haiti) and across the Pacific Ocean (Hawaii, Philippines, and China).  Of course, in war, people die —sometimes in the most horrible fashion— which leads us back to western expansion and the plight of the American Indian.

Stated plainly, the American Indian was in America’s way.  The Indians wouldn’t give up their land without a fight, and the people who pushed against native tribes had nowhere else to go.  Westward migration was no longer a mere trickle after 1850 —it was a waterfall.  The Indians were being steadily overwhelmed by massive numbers of whites and their technologies, and yet, the Indians refused to relent.  They too had nowhere else to go.

To dislodge the Indians, politicians, army officers, Indian agents, and traders committed the worst possible iniquities imaginable.  The Indians were offered blankets infected with smallpox. Thousands died from the white man’s diseases.  Destruction of the American Bison became official policy.  “Kill every buffalo you can —every dead buffalo is an Indian gone” was a common refrain.  Standing ready to help speed along the demise of the American Indian was General Phil Sheridan who carefully studied the Civil War strategies of General William T. Sherman.  No one knew more about a scorched earth strategy than Sherman.

Let us now momentarily return to the post-Civil War period.  After General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and General Joseph E. Johnston’s surrender in North Carolina, the only significant Confederate force remaining was in Texas, under General Edmund K. Smith.  General Ulysses S. Grant, then serving as Commander-in-Chief of the Union Army, appointed Phillip Sheridan Commander of the Military District of the Southwest on 17 May 1865.  The Grant’s orders to Sheridan were to defeat Smith without delay and restore Texas and Louisiana to Union control.  General Smith surrendered his forces before Sheridan arrived in New Orleans.

Sheridan 001

General Phillip Sheridan, U. S. Army

General Grant was also concerned about the situation in neighboring Mexico, where 40,000 French soldiers propped up the regime of Austrian Archduke Maximilian.  Grant authorized Sheridan to gather a large occupation force and occupy Texas.  Sheridan mustered 50,000 men in three army corps, rapidly occupied Texas coastal cities, and began to patrol the US-Mexico border.  In time, France abandoned its claims against Mexico.

On 30 July 1866, while Sheridan was still in Texas, a white mob broke up the state constitutional convention in New Orleans.  In the melee, 34 blacks were killed.  The incident did not provide Sheridan with a good impression of Texas. In 1867, Sheridan was appointed the military governor of the Fifth Military District, which included Texas and Louisiana. Sheridan limited voter registration among former Confederates and then ruled that only registered voters (including freed blacks) were eligible to serve on juries.  Sheridan’s heavy-handed reconstruction policy led to the removal from office high officials in both Louisiana and Texas, including governors James M. Wells (Louisiana) and James W. Throckmorton (Texas).

General Sheridan and US President Andrew Johnson did not see eye-to-eye.  Johnson, convinced that Sheridan was an unprincipled tyrant, removed him as military governor.  In this post-Civil War period, the protection of the Great Plains fell under the Department of Missouri, an administrative area encompassing one-million square miles: all the land between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains.  In 1866, Major General Winfield Scott Hancock was assigned to command this department, General Grant believed that Hancock had mishandled his campaign to pacify the Plains Indians.  Numerous Sioux and Cheyenne raids attacked mail coaches, burned stage stations, killed the employees, killed and kidnapped a large number of frontier settlers. Under pressure from territorial governors, Grant turned to Sheridan.  In September 1866, Sheridan began a campaign near Fredericksburg, Texas to subdue Indians in the Texas Hill Country.

In August 1867, Grant appointed Sheridan to head the Department of Missouri.  He was ordered to pacify the Plains Indians. His troops, even after being supplemented by state militia, were too few to have any real effect.  To achieve his mission, Sheridan devised a strategy of attacking Comanche, Cheyenne and Kiowa winter camps.  He confiscated their supplies and livestock and killed anyone who resisted.  Without livestock, the Indians would starve; they could avoid starvation by agreeing to live on an Indian reservation.

When, in 1869, Ulysses Grant became the 18th President of the United States, he appointed General William T. Sherman General of the Army.  Sherman appointed General Sheridan to command the Military Division of Missouri —which included all of the Great Plains.  Encouraged by Sheridan, civilian hunters, trespassing on Indian lands, killed more than four million American Bison by the end of 1874. Sheridan said, “Let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffalo is exterminated.”  The Texas Legislature considering outlawing the hunting of the buffalo on tribal lands, but General Sheridan personally appeared before the legislature and testified against such a policy.  He counter-argued, telling the Texans that they ought to give every buffalo hunter a medal, engraved with a dead buffalo on one side, and the image of a discouraged-looking Indian on the other.

Sheridan’s division conducted the Red River War, the Ute War, and the Great Sioux War of 1876-1877, which resulted in the death of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer.  In 1869, the Comanche War Chief Tosawi reportedly told Sheridan, “Tosawi good Indian.” Sheridan replied, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead [4].”

Sources:

  1. Pratt, J. W. “The Origins of ‘Manifest Destiny’,”The American Historical Review, July 1927
  2. Wilentz, S. The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln, New York: Norton (2005)
  3. Golay, M. The Tide of Empire: America’s March to the Pacific: Era of US Continental Expansion, United States House of Representatives.

Endnotes

[1] Imperialism is the policy of extending the rule of an empire or nation over foreign countries, or of acquiring and holding colonies and dependencies.  Imperialism advocates sovereign interests over those of dependent states.

[2] Jacksonian Democracy was a movement for more democracy in the United States government in the 1830s.  Led by President Andrew Jackson, the movement championed greater rights for the common man and opposed aristocracy.  The movement was aided by the strong spirit of equality among the people of newer settlements in the South and West.  It was also aided by the extension of the vote in eastern states to men without property.

[3] Mexicans conveniently ignore the fact that Mexico stole these same lands from Spain.

[4] In the book titled, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, author Dee Brown attributed this quote to Sheridan.  The author’s source was Lieutenant Colonel Charles Nordstrom, U. S. Army, who was present when the conversation with Tosawi took place and passed the words on until they were remembered as “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”  General Sheridan denied that he had ever said such a thing.

 

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Potsu-nakwah-ipu, Comanche War Chief

Buffalo Hump

Chief Buffalo Hump

In the absence of written records, there’s not much we can say about Buffalo Hump’s early life.  Historians believe that he was likely born in the 1790s.  In 1838, he and two other Comanches visited with Sam Houston to sign a treaty.  We ought to recall that Sam Houston spent many years among the Cherokee and given his Indian policies in the early days of the Texas Republic, many Texians suspected him of being more red than white, particularly when it came to Houston’s reigning in the efforts of Texas Rangers to suppress Indian depredations.

As stated, not much was known about Buffalo Hump (Indian name: Potsu-nakwah-ipu) until the Council House Fight of 1840.  To reiterate previous essays about the Comanche, they were not a unified nation in the same way as eastern tribal confederations. Comanche alliances were situational conveniences.  In the case of the Great Raid, the marauders were mostly of his own band and any whom he might have recruited from other tribes, including Kiowa.  Buffalo Hump didn’t object to the killing of the Indians at the Council House Fight as much as he objected to the betrayal of the concept of a council.  This is but one example where we can clearly see how differences in culture and misunderstanding can result in hostility.  The power behind the Texian negotiators in San Antonio was Sidney Johnson, who as far as I can tell, didn’t value anyone who wasn’t white.

The so-called Great Raid, led by Buffalo Hump, was a substantial foray into the land of the yellow hair.  It ranged from the West Texas plain into settlements as far east as Victoria and Linnville.  Established in 1831, Linnville was located at Lavaca Bay and by 1840, was the second largest port city in Texas.  Comanche raiders completely destroyed Linnville; it was never rebuilt.  The settlers that survived did so by getting into boats and rowing out into the bay. After the raid, Linnville residents established Port Lavaca, some three miles from what was once Linnville.

After the Indian assault on Texian settlements, Buffalo Hump and his band headed back to West Texas. En route, they were attacked by Texas Rangers and militia from Gonzalez and Bastrop.  This confrontation would become known as the Battle of Plum Creek, near Lockhart, Texas.  It wasn’t so much a fixed battle site as it was a running fight that went on for fifteen miles.  Texas Rangers had the advantage of being armed with the new Colt revolver.  Up to 80 warriors were killed in this dustup, likely an accurate figure even though only twelve bodies were recovered: Comanche routinely did not leave their dead on the field of battle.  The Indians that managed to get away did so with about 2,000 stolen horses and mules and a large assortment of plunder taken from the homes they destroyed.

Most of these Comanche may have initially escaped the Texas Rangers, but if one is looking almost exclusively at vengeance, white settlers had the last word.  In 1840, there were approximately 35,000 Comanche living in West Texas. Today, the Comanche number around 1,500; most living in and around the reservation at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

Buffalo Hump again met with Sam Houston in 1844 demanding that all whites remain east of the Edwards Plateau.  Houston tacitly agreed to these demands and to demonstrate his goodwill, which was an Indian tradition, Houston gave Buffalo Hump valuable gifts.  Looking back in time, Houston was either dishonest or naïve.  By this time, the flow of settlers to Texas could not be stopped.

When it became obvious that Houston could not or would not keep his agreement, the Comanche resumed their attacks upon white settlements.  Believing that the only solution to Indian depredations was the eradication of all Indians, the Texas Rangers exacted terrible revenge upon the Penateka rancherias. Within two years, Buffalo Hump sued for peace with the United States government at Council Springs.

In 1849, Buffalo Hump agreed to guide an expedition formed by John S. Ford and Robert S. Neighbors to explore and map the region between San Antonio and El Paso.  The expedition mapped the route and produced a valuable report of their findings.  The route they followed later became known as the Ford-Neighbors Trail.

Buffalo Hump continued his hostility toward whites until around 1856 when he led his people to the Brazos River Reservation.  None of these Comanche were happy at the reservation, however.  They were constantly threatened by horse thieves [1] and squatters.  They didn’t like the restrictions placed on their movements, and their lack of food forced Buffalo Hump to move his band away from the reservation in 1858.  While encamped in the Wichita Mountains, the Penateka were assaulted by US Troops under the command of Major Earl Van Dorn [2].  Dorn, unaware that Buffalo Hump had signed a peace treaty at Fort Arbuckle, killed around 80 Comanches during the attack.

In 1859, Buffalo Hump settled his remaining followers on the Kiowa-Comanche reservation near Fort Cobb in the Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma).  Despite the stressful nature of his forced existence, Buffalo Hump requested a house and land so that he could learn to farm and serve as a good example to his people.  Potsu-nakwah-ipu passed away in 1870.

Endnotes:

[1] It is likely that the horse thieves Buffalo Hump complained about were other Comanche.  No one was more adept at stealing horseflesh than the Comanche.

[2] Earl Van Dorn was a great-nephew of Andrew Jackson, an officer of the U. S. Army who served with distinction during the Mexican-American War, a skilled Indian fighter, and a general officer of the Confederate Army during the War of Yankee Aggression.  Van Dorn was killed in 1863, but rather from a union bullet, as one might expect, it was a bullet from the husband of the woman with whom he was having an affair.

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The Plainsman

In the manner of many old west personalities, Benjamin Crawford Dragoo was bundled up by his parents and carted off to Texas in 1838.  The Texas Revolution was won, Texas needed hardy folks to tame its wilderness, and the promise of cheap land acted as a magnet to adventuresome Americans.  John Ephraim Dragoo and his wife Mary Hughes Dragoo were two of these bold settlers.  They packed up their belongings in Washington, Illinois and headed off to Texas.  They had a brood of children before their departure, including Francis, Sarah, Edgar, William, Mary, Rachel, Temperance, Richard, Andrew, Hester, Theresa, Thomas, Drusilla, Lucinda, Joseph, Rhoda, John, Malinda, James, Melissa, Martha, and Ephraim.  My guess is that John Dragoo drove more than a single wagon.

Ben Dragoo 001

Young Ben Dragoo

At first, the family settled at Blossom Prairie, in Red River County, but within the next year they relocated to Titus County, four miles or so from Mount Pleasant.

As a young man, Ben served as a scout for Captain Lawrence Sullivan (known as Sul) Ross of the Texas Rangers and, as previously reported, participated in the Battle of Pease River.  There is no history like first-hand accounts.  From his own hand, he told us what it was like living in Texas in the olden days, and about his own experiences as a scout for the Texas Rangers.

“In 1855 [aged 20 years] I joined John R. Baylor’s [1] company of Texas Rangers.  While stationed at Cottonwood Creek, our scouts brought in word that they had discovered a large body of Indians passing up the country with a herd of horses.  About 40 of us under Captains Baylor, Dalrymple [2], and Ross were soon in the saddle and we were not long finding the Indians’ trail.  The Indians must have known that the rangers were in the country for they traveled for dear life.  We followed them day and night until we overtook them in some very brushy country and when we charged every red skin scoundrel took to the brush and got away. We captured about all the horses, some 60 head, which we took back to Belknap and delivered to their lawful owners.

“After my enlistment period expired, I returned to my home, which was six miles east of Waco village, as it was called in those days.  In a short time, Captain Sul Ross came to see me.  He was organizing a company to chastise the Comanches, who had been committing murders and depredations along the frontier, and he told me that he needed me and that I must join his company.  I told him that I was ready to start any day and that my younger brother, Jim Dragoo would also join his company.  The company went from Waco to a point where Fort Griffin was afterwards built.  Mr. F. M. Cassidy, who now lives at Llano, was in our company.  While in camp at the point mentioned, word was brought that the Indians had made a raid in Parker County and were on their way out.  They were driving out about 75 head of horses and had killed several people.  They had taken captive two girls and a boy.  The girls were about grown, and the boy was 8 or 9 years old.

“After being kept all night and being fiendishly outraged by these inhuman monsters, one of the girls was murdered; the other girl was subjected to the same brutality, only she was not killed.  As if the savages wanted the settlers to know of the atrocities they were capable of inflicting, they stripped every vestige of clothing from this girl and turned her loose.  She made her way back to the settlements, reaching a frontier cabin almost famished.  She concealed herself in bushes near the spring and saw a man pass near once or twice, but her modesty overcame her extreme suffering and forbade her calling to him. At length a woman came to the spring for water and the girl called to her.  This lady removed part of her underwear and clad in this, the girl was led to the house.  Of the boy, whom the Indians had captured, we never heard more.

“When the news of this raid reached our camp, most of us were out on duty. Seven others, under Lieutenant Callahan [3], the gallant ranger for whom Callahan County was named, and I had been out on a nine-days chase and for seven days of this period we had been without practically any food.  Orders soon came for us to take the trail and without taking time to change horses or to get a bite of grub, we lit out after those savages with a man by the name of Gray and I in the lead as trailers [scouts].  We soon struck the trail at the hay camp and pushed on until evening, when one of the boys killed a deer which we cut up into chunks and each man rode forward with one or more of these chunks tied on behind his saddle.  When night came, we continued the pursuit until a late hour, when we halted in order to give our horses a brief rest and a chance to graze.  We were not allowed to build a fire, as the Indians would see the light.  We had to eat our meat raw.

“After a few hours rest we hastened forward and kept up the chase for six days. The second evening out we halted on the banks of a creek where there were five or six large cottonwood trees. Here the Indians had camped, and the sign showed that there was a large body of Indians.  They had killed and barbecued a horse and the fires were yet smoldering.  The buffalo had eaten off the grass in that vicinity and we had to cut branches from the Cottonwood trees for our worn-out horses.  The place had evidently been a battleground, as we found a number of skulls and other human bones, which bore the appearance of having lain on the ground a long time.  Old fragments of leather from saddles were picked up and I found the bit of what had once been a part of a fine Mexican bridle.  The skulls were those of Indians or Mexicans, at least that was our conclusion.

“Six days and nights, I might say, we followed this trail.  The third day out we killed a buffalo and this we ate raw. On the sixth day, far up in the Pease River country, we saw a mot of small trees far ahead of us.  This mot was on a high elevation, and I saw a bunch of men ride into the mot, we halted until the command came up and we reported our observations to Callahan.”

Comanche 1860“With the utmost caution we continued our advance, bearing off to the left where Gray and I ascended an eminence from the summit of which we looked over into a valley and beheld a large body of Indians, well mounted and apparently lying in wait for us.  All at once the Indians began pouring over the ridge west of us.  There were at least 200 Indians.

“They gave some fiendish yells as they dashed toward us on freshly mounted horses, while only nine of us had horses that were not exhausted.  Our chase was now at an end and instead of us being the pursuers, we were pursued for six days.  In fact, it was the next thing to a running fight all the way back to Belknap. Lieutenant Callahan, one of the bravest of the brave, told us to keep close together and to never fire without orders.  The Indians would charge us more or less each day but would never come to close quarters. They would seek to ambush us and to block our way where the country was favorable but would always scatter or give back when we crowded them.  At night we had very little rest and no food and the last two days of our journey, our suffering from hunger and thirst became almost unbearable.  Our horses were weak, and our progress was very slow. The Indians knew all of this and if they had made a bold attack could have killed every one of us, but they were too cowardly.  In this condition we reached Fort Belknap, the place from whence we had started twelve days before, making in all twenty-one days in the saddle, and had, during this time, nothing to eat but raw venison and buffalo meat.”

The sorrowful tale of the Comanche kidnapping of Cynthia Ann Parker was previously told (in three installments).  I am always interested in events where there are two story-tellers.  Cynthia’s story has been offered by historians and official reports by Sul Ross (who eventually served as the governor of Texas).  To the extent to which Sul Ross may have embellished his account (for political purposes), we cannot know.  Nor can we decide which, among several modern historians, offers the most objective analysis of those events.  What we can do is turn to another participant: the man who served as chief scout under Captain Ross at the Battle of the Pease River.

Marvin J. Hunter tells us that Ben Dragoo had something to say about Pease River, as well.

“The Indians were more troublesome in the fall of ’59 than ever before; their raids were more numerous and covered a broader extent along the frontier.  Each of these invasions left its trail of blood along the border and the mutilated remains of its victims in its path.  In many instances it was reported that white men often led these raids and their cruelties were, if possible, exceeded by those of the savages.  It was claimed that these white men had been outlawed by their countrymen for crimes committed and had sought refuge among the Comanches, and having all the instincts of a savage and the shrewdness of the white man, they soon found favor and turned it to account by leading raids against the settlements, always careful not to expose themselves to danger, and driving off herds which commanded a good price in Kansas and New Mexico.

“Early in December the Comanches had raided Parker county again and had committed several murders. The authorities had every reason to believe that the murders had been the work of a band of Comanches whose headquarters were somewhere far up on the Pease River.  Ross’ company of rangers and Cureton’s company [militia] were started on the trail with the order [from Gov. Houston] to find the enemy’s village and break up the nest. The fighting strength of the Indians was estimated all the way from 500 to 1,000 warriors, and it behooved us to assemble a force amply sufficient to defeat them.  At Fort Belknap we were joined by a troop of U. S. dragoons, twenty in all and number one good fighters in close quarters.

“When we left Belknap, we took our time. The trail left by the Indians had grown cold; they had long since reached their headquarters and doubtless felt secure in their remote village.  To locate this village was our object; to preserve the strength and good condition of our horses was of the highest importance.  We knew we would tree our game, somewhere, and then, above all other times, we would need the strength and mettle of good horses.  Hence, we took our time while on the march.

“Peter Robertson, of Cureton’s company, Gray and myself were the advanced scouts and trailers.

“Unless on a hot trail ranger scouts seldom rode together. As in this case we rode far apart in the open country and still within signaling distance.  It being late in the season, it was bitter cold at times, and there were few buffalo on the plains. But deer were plentiful, and we couldn’t complain at the fare.

“On the 27th of December —I think that was the date, I am not quite sure, it has been so long ago— we found sign that indicated that we were not many days’ travel from the Indian village.  The sign was old, but to the eye of the frontiersmen, it was easily read and interpreted.  We reported this to Captain Ross and he ordered his men to keep closer together in readiness at any moment for a scrap. He instructed us to keep far in advance, three or four miles, and to save the wind of our horses.

“Late in the afternoon of the 28th we came in full view of the broad valley of the Pease river, and on a hill on which grew a mot of small trees, we discovered plenty of fresh signs.  In the loose sand there were innumerable tracks of Indians, women and children, who but a few hours before, had been gathering hackberries.  Nearby was the hide of a polecat, which had been killed and skinned, and the blood was scarcely cold, although it was miserably cold that evening.  Two of us remained at this mot as watchmen, or rather listeners, for by this time it was dark, while the other two hastened back to the command to report our find.

“When they found Ross, he had gone into camp but on hearing our report he ordered the men to saddle up and march in perfect silence, which they could easily do, as the country was of loose sandy soil and the horses’ feet produced little sound.  At the foot of the hill on which stood the mot where we had found the sign, the men were halted and ordered to dismount and move forward.  Not a saddle nor a pack was removed from the backs of those faithful animals that night, and after seeing that their guns were in trim, those who slept lay on the ground with bridle rein in hand.  As I said, it was bitter cold and as no packs were unslung, the boys would collect in groups of three, four and five and huddle together on the ground, forming the center of a circle, around which their horses stood. By this means they could preserve a small share of the animal warmth and get a little sleep.

“In the meantime, Gray, Pete Robertson and I were well to the front watching and listening. We proceeded about two miles when we came to a high hill and we felt assured, from the general contour of the country over which we had come, and the trend of the hills that this elevation was near the river and doubtless overlooked the long-sought Comanche village.  We could see no lights in the village, but this was no surprise.  We knew that at no time, winter or summer is a light ever seen in a Comanche village after nightfall.  Above the voice of the night winds that came hurtling down from the north, we heard, once or twice, what we took to be the neighing of a horse, but no other sounds indicating the near proximity of a human habitation was heard.

“It seemed a long night, but the early dawn revealed to us the Comanche village with its tepees and wigwams in full view and almost at our feet.  We moved back over the brow of the hill and signaled. Ross and his men moved up cautiously to the foot of the hill and halted.   Ross and Lieutenant Callahan ascended the hill with a field glass, then hastily descended and ordered the column forward. All rode in a slow trot until we turned the point of the hill next to the village and in full view and then the order to charge was given.

“The Indians had evidently discovered our presence before we turned the point of the hill.  They may have seen Ross and Callahan while they were on the hill; at any rate, they were in the utmost confusion when we charged into their wigwam village.  Some were trying to rally their braves, others were mounted, some on foot, women and children were screaming and above all this pandemonium rang the defiant war whoop, the yells of the rangers and the crack of the six-shooter.

“A portion of the Indian encampment was along the bank of the narrow, shallow river next to us when the charge began. The Indians in this quarter made a break for the opposite side. Just below I saw several mounted Indians make it across where the bed of the stream was dry and hard.  I rushed in among these, shooting right and left, and when I had reached some distance, say forty or fifty yards on the other side, I dashed alongside an Indian woman (as I supposed) mounted and carrying a babe in her arms.  I was just in the act of shooting her when, with one arm, she held up her baby and said “Americano!”  I then told her to dismount and go back but seeing she did not understand me, I motioned her to the rear and left her.  All this time there was all kinds of fighting going on around me.  Hand to hand and running fights, there was plenty to put a man on his metal.  A large Indian on foot seized my bridle reins near the bits, with one hand and was trying to lance me with the other.  At the same instant a mounted warrior was bearing down on me with poised lance.  It was all the work of an instant.  He was so close I believe I could have touched the point of the lance with the muzzle of my pistol.  I shot him and digging my spurs into the sides of my horse with great force, he sprang forward, jerking the Indian off his balance and as he reeled to one side, I made a good Indian of him.

“By this time the engagement had narrowed down to a running fight or rather a chase.  Every red skin that could procure a mount was flying in the face of that north wind with a ranger or a dragoon behind him trying to catch up, and this chase continued several miles.

“There have been many luminous stories told and written about Capt. Ross’ capture of Cynthia Ann Parker and his duel with her husband, the big Indian chief.  My purpose is to give facts in these matters and render honor to whom honor is due. I shall not dispute any man’s statement but will tell it as I saw it.

“Ross had a fight at close quarters with a chief, and it happened right in the village.  Ross had a Mexican body servant, a sprightly, good looking young Mexican and he was not afraid.  I think he had once been a captive among the Indians and could speak their lingo.  During the scrap with the chief, Ross was wounded and told the Mexican to shoot him.  The Mexican blazed away with an old Yagger[4]he carried and shot the Indian through the hips. This brought the chief to a sitting posture and while making the most horrid faces and defying his conquerors by grimace, and every other taunting gesture known to savages, one of our men, I have forgotten his name —ran up and knocked him on the head with his gun.  With a knife, and while the old savage was yet kicking, he made a quick incision around his head from ear to ear, and when he jerked off his scalp it popped like a rifle.  And as to that death song tale, if that chief sang a death song that day it was after we left him —dead.

“Some of the survivors of that battle have stated that Quanah Parker was not there at the time of the fight.  This is a mistake.  Quanah was then eleven years old and showed his pluck in that scrap.  He was present and shot away all his arrows and wounded two or three of our men.  When the fight was about over and the boy had nothing left in his quiver, Frank Cassidy, who now lives in Llano, rode up to where Quanah was crouching, patted his horse on the hip, and motioned the lad to mount up behind him, which the boy did without any hesitation, and from that day to this Quanah Parker has been the white man’s friend.

“After the battle when we had all collected around the captive Indian woman, I was watching her face and her movements.  I was satisfied that she was a white woman and there was something about her face that led me to believe that I had seen her somewhere in the past.  I studied and studied and finally I said to Ross: “Captain, I believe that woman is Cynthia Ann Parker.”  On hearing that name the woman seemed suddenly aroused.  That stoicism, peculiar to the Indian, and which she had acquired through long association, gave way, the scowl on her face was supplanted by a look of pleasing anticipation, and smiting herself on her breast she said in a strong clear voice: “Me Cynthia Ann!”

“In this fight we recaptured forty-eight U. S. mules and some forty or fifty horses.  And among others, we captured the gray mule the one that ran over me the night the Indians got away with Captain Buck Barry’s horses.

“Cynthia Ann told us, through an interpreter, that Buffalo Hump was six miles up the valley with a large force, but we went to his village and he and his entire outfit had hit the breeze.

Dragoo OLD

Old Ben Dragoo from WikiTrees and Kathi Stoughton-Trahan

“Cynthia Ann also told us of the captive boy, whose sister was so cruelly murdered, while another sister was deprived of all her clothing and turned loose.  She said the boy was stubborn, that he refused to eat, and would fight every Indian that crossed him, and for this, he was killed the day before we made the attack.

“On our return we left Cynthia Ann at Camp Cooper, where the ladies gave her clothing and the tenderest care.  Captain Ross took Quanah Parker to Waco.

“In conclusion, I want to say that no one particular individual is entitled to more honor in the capture of Cynthia Ann Parker than any other who was engaged in the battle of Pease River and my old comrades yet living, will bear me out in this assertion.”

Ben Dragoo passed away in the town of London, Kimble County, Texas on 17 February 1929.  He was 93-years of age.

Sources:

  1. Marvin Hunter, Frontier Times Magazine (1923)
  2. Marvin Hunter, Frontier Times Magazine (1928)

Notes:

[1] John Baylor was the nephew of R. E. B. Baylor, for whom Baylor University is named.  John served as a soldier, Texas Ranger, Indian fighter, officer in the Confederate States Army, the Confederate States governor of Arizona, farmer, sometime gunfighter, and Texas politician.

[2] William C. Dalrymple was a Texas Ranger and did command a company of rangers on the Texas frontier between 1859-1862.  There is no record that he participated with Sul Ross in the Pease River engagement. It is possible that Dragoo served with Dalrymple, but not during the Battle of Pease River.

[3] Mr. Dragoo appears to be somewhat confused at this point, referring to James Hughes Callahan (1812-1856), for whom Callahan County was named.  Callahan was already dead before the Ross Expedition chastised the Comanche in 1860.  He may have served with Callahan earlier, however.  Jim Callahan did serve as a lieutenant in the Somervell Expedition, and later led the Callahan Expedition into Mexico in 1855.  Callahan was killed in 1856 as a result of a feud with Woodson Blessingame.

[4] Model 1841 rifled musket produced by the Harpers Ferry Armory, which was owned and operated by Eli Whitney.  It was produced between 1841 to 1861.  It cost $16.00 new.  The weapon was variously referred to as the Mississippi Rifle, or Yagger.  The word Yagger referred to the rifle’s small size and similarity to German Jager rifles.

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The Searchers

Texas RangersA news article on 29 April 1846 described a visit by Colonel Leonard G. Williams’ trading party with a band of Tenewa Comanche near the Canadian River.  Williams reported that he had seen a young white woman about twenty years of age.  He reported that she appeared to be a married woman; he thought that it was possible that she was Cynthia Ann Parker.

A young white woman was observed again a year later by two federal officials, who were meeting with Yamparika Comanches near the Washita River.  In 1848, Robert S. Neighbors, a federal Indian agent for Northern Texas, was told that Cynthia Ann Parker had married a warrior from the Tenewa band. He was told that she had a family of her own and that she would never leave her husband, a chief by the name of Peta Nocona.  Nocona was famed for his daring raids on white settlements. Together, they had a son whom they named Quanah (translated variously as fragrant, stinky, or smelly).

The Texas Frontier was famous as a rumor mill.  For twenty-four years, the name Cynthia Ann Parker produced keen interest, if not outright excitement.  James Parker never rested in his quest to find her.

In the late 1850s, anticipating conflict between the Northern and Southern states, the US Army began to withdraw military assets from Texas. One of these was the 2ndCavalry Regiment, which left settlers on the Texas plain subject to hostile raids by Comanche and Kiowa Indians.  Texan settlers were not happy about this.  Governor Hardin Runnels, who had campaigned for office on a platform promise to end hostile raids, was stunned by the withdrawal of federal troops.

In 1860, a double murder attributed to the Comanche stirred the government of Texas to action, although at this time, Sam Houston was serving as governor; he was a known Indian-lover and in matters of hostile Indians, was slow to act.

One may recall that the Comanche were fierce warriors.  Whenever we speak of the Comanche Wars, we mean a long series of armed conflicts targeting Spanish, Mexican, Texian, and American settlers.  The wars began around 1705 and continued for another 150 years.  The Comanche were the dominant Indian group living on the Great Plains, even though they shared the Comancheria with Kiowa, Wichita, Apache, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians.

The ferocity of the Comanche was one of the reasons Mexico opened settlement of Texas to American immigrants.  There was nothing the Mexicans could do about the Comanche; maybe the American immigrants could deal with them.

Nocona - PARKER

War Chief Peta Nocona

Under Mexico’s immigration scheme, large tracks of land were allocated to empresarios, who recruited settlers from the United States, Europe, and the Mexican interior. Thousands of Americans realized the value of the opportunity for cheap land, but it brought them into conflict with the Comanche.  For their part, the Comanche resisted every attempt to settle within the Comancheria. If white settlers wanted to settle these lands, they would have to deal with the most lethal group of warriors in North America.  Whether fair or just, this is raw history.  The Comanche controlled the land, and the white settlers wanted to settle it.  Conflict was inevitable.

Early in 1860, Peta Nocona led several Comanche raids through Parker County, which had been named in honor of Cynthia Ann’s family.  After each raid, he returned with his war party to the sandstone bluffs of the Pease River near Mule Creek.  It was a favored site of the Comanche because it provided both cover from the severe winter winds and ample forage for their ponies; nearby buffalo herds provided food for the village.

In late October/early November 1860, Nocona led numerous additional raids in Palo Pinto County, west of Parker County.  Forty-six-year-old John Brown was tending his cattle near Keechi Creek when he was set upon by a Comanche war party.  Brown was knocked off his horse and murdered in a most distasteful fashion.  The raiding party drove Brown’s horse together with twenty other head previously stolen and headed north in Palo Pinto County.  The Indians moved quietly along the creek until they encountered the Sherman farm.  One warrior stayed with the horses while the others surrounded the farm house.

Nocona opened the door to the farmhouse and, leading his men inside, found the Sherman family of four having their noon meal at the table.  The Indians threw the family onto the floor and sat down to eat the prepared food.  Ignored, the Sherman’s slipped out the door and began running down the wagon rutted pathway.  As soon as the Indians finished eating, they began ransacking the house.

It wasn’t long before the Indians went in search of the Sherman family. They caught up with them on the road. Nocona grabbed Mrs. Sherman by her hair and pulled her up and over his horse and rode back to the farmhouse. Mr. Sherman sought to hide the children in the tall weeds in the field.  Sherman could hear his wife’s screams for a long while.  Realizing there was nothing he could do for his wife, Sherman took his children and ran to the nearest neighbor for help.  It took several hours for Sherman to reach his neighbor’s property.  Leaving his children in their care, he borrowed a horse and raced to town.

Hittson 1865

Sheriff “Cattle Jack” Hittson

After hearing Sherman’s report, County Sheriff John Nathan Hittson [1] and deputy James Hamilton Baker recruited a posse and rode north toward the Sherman family farm.  Hittson found the building in a shamble.  After taking a quick look around, Hittson’s posse tracked the war party northward.  Hittson was not certain how many Indians there were; he estimated between seven and ten.  A mile along the trail, Hittson found Mrs. Sherman’s body lying in a field.  She had been raped, scalped, stabbed, and she had two arrows protruding from her breasts.  In spite of her several injuries, all of which were serious, the pregnant woman was still breathing.

A portion of the posse treated her as best they could and removed her back to town. Hittson and the rest of his men continued tracking the Indians.  The next day, with their horses near to exhaustion, Hittson and his men returned to town.

Mrs. Sherman died four days later; her horrendous death served to galvanize the entire northwest frontier.  Hittson sent out messages of warning to Fort Worth, Dallas, and Austin.  It wasn’t long before well-armed men began showing up in Palo Pinto.  They wanted revenge and they wanted it now.

Sheriff Hittson sent an appeal to Governor Sam Houston for armed assistance and protection.  He wanted a Texas Ranger company assigned to Palo Pinto.  While awaiting the governor’s reply, Jack Cureton [2] formed a local militia cavalry unit.  Within a few days, 100 volunteers were encamped just out of town, all waiting for the governor’s reply.  Meanwhile, Hittson and his deputy sent word out to the outlying farms suggesting that the citizens come into town for protection.  With his civic duty done, Hittson subordinated himself to Cureton’s cavalry.  Townsfolk relinquished their best horses and offered weapons to those who needed them.

Sul Ross Civil War

Sul Ross Civil War Photo

Within a week, word arrived that Houston was sending a Texas Ranger force to Palo Pinto County under the command of Captain Lawrence “Sul” Ross.  When Ross appeared in Palo Pinto, having briefed the town folk on his mission, he asked the local militia to join his force, which they agreed to do.  Ross send out the scout Ben Dragoo and three others to scout north of the Trinity River. Ross needed to find the Indian trail, and if anyone could cut that trail, it was Ben Dragoo.

The work in preparation for such an undertaking was difficult; it took three weeks for the expedition to form, orient, train, and provision.  The reinforced Ranger company was finally formed by the second week in December. By then, the weather had turned bitterly cold.

Three columns of Texas Rangers and militia departed Palo Pinto on 14 December 1860.  Captain Ross’ company now consisted of 27 rangers, 18 mounted soldiers from the US 2ndDragoons —provided by Lieutenant Colonel Robert E. Lee at Camp Cooper, commanded by First Sergeant John W. Spangler.  Cureton’s militia now consisted of over 100 men.  Within two days, the ranger force had reached the West Branch of the Trinity River.  Forage in the winter was scarce, the horses needed a break —and so too did some of the older volunteers, the frigid weather taking its toll.  Ross ordered the expedition to encamp.  Meanwhile, Ben Dragoo and his scouts had left markings on trees which communicated to Ross the direction of their search.

By 18 December, the Ross expedition were 70 miles northwest of Palo Pinto. Ross’ scouts reported to him the presence of a fairly large hunting party and camp on the banks of the Pease River. Deteriorating weather suggested that it would be possible for Ross to approach the camp undetected.  As the Texas Rangers and dragoons broke camp that morning, Cureton elected to hold his men in camp.  The horses were beginning to die from the cold and exhaustion; several of his men were now on foot.

By 9:00 o’clock, Ross and his men were separated from the militia by a dozen or so miles.  Ross approached a series of cedar-covered hills, halted his men and had a council of war with his men.  Ultimately, he decided to send twenty men to position themselves behind a chain of sand hills to deny retreat from the northwest.  Ross cautiously approached the hills, again halting his men and directed the sharpest eyes among them to begin scanning the surrounding land, particularly the river bottom that ran in the distance below.

The Rangers soon spied several groups of people moving near the river about a mile distant.  Ross assumed that the formation was part of a Comanche war party engaged in the process of packing up their teepees.  Ross moved his Texas Rangers forward on the line and stationed the dragoons in a second rank.  The men unholstered their side arms.  When the men were ready, Ross charged down the hill.

As the rangers and dragoons approached the group, they began firing their weapons.  His attack was so sudden that the Indians were taken by surprise and a number of Indians were killed before they could organize a defense.  Women and children on foot scattered in all directions, with some young boys mounting ponies and galloping off on various tracks—with some of these riding directly into the line of waiting rangers; those who were not killed scattered off in new directions.

As rangers began to pursue the Indians, their line became fragmented and it didn’t take long before the attacking force had lost sight of one another. First Sergeant Spangler held his men in check while sending a few of his men to capture the Indian mounts —which numbered around 350 head.  Ranger private Charles Goodnight [3] gathered with a few of his friends near the corralled horses, jokingly wondering where the ranger officers had gone off to.

Captain Ross and two of his lieutenants were in the pursuit of two well-mounted Comanche warriors.  Ross fired his weapon at a well-dressed chief, who fell from his horse.  As Ross attended to the dispatch of the Indian, Lieutenant Kelleher continued his pursuit of another Indian.  Ross quickly remounted and followed.  After a long chase, Ross finally closed with what appeared to him as a bulky Indian and got off a shot.  To his surprise, a body fell from the horse, but left another mounted Indian.  Ross realized that he had shot a woman who was riding behind a warrior.

Ross continued the chase, firing several more times.  When the Indian’s horse began to stagger, the warrior leapt from his mount and began losing arrows at Captain Ross.  One of these struck Ross’ horse, which stung, began bucking. It was all Sul Ross could do to hold on. The warrior then attacked by running toward Ross’ horse and, grabbing its reigns, made an attempt to stab Ross with an arrow.  Ross desperately fired at the Indian several times, finally (and luckily) hitting him in the chest.  Stunned, the warrior dropped his arrow and began walking away.  He started to sing his death song.  Ross dismounted and began to tend to his horse.  When the animal had quieted, Ross approached the Indian, who was still singing, and asked him to surrender.  The Indian turned and spit at Ross … whereupon Ross killed him.

Returning to point of their initial attack, Ross noticed there were several captives, including a young, scared, and bewildered lad.  Ross, fearing for the safety of the boy, took him into custody and carried him back to where Goodnight and the others were gathered. Lieutenant Kelleher soon joined them with a captive Indian woman who had a baby strapped to her back.  Ross gave little thought to the woman at that time; he had more to worry about.  Since the incident had occurred on the Pease River near Mule Creek, Sul Ross named the boy Pease.  There were no casualties among the Texas Rangers or the dragoons.

Cureton’s volunteers finally caught up with Ross in the late afternoon.  Ross reported the presence of fifteen Indian, twelve of whom were killed, and three captives.  Pease, the Indian woman, and her infant child.  Ross ordered the men to make camp, and after the camp fires were started, Deputy Sheriff James Baker (Hittson’s deputy) took a closer look at the Comanche woman.  He noted that the woman was of white parentage; looked like an Indian but had blue eyes.  Questioned, she only responded, “Me Mericana.”  One of the men wondered, “Could this be Cynthia Ann Parker?”

PARKER C A 001

Cynthia Ann Parker, c. 1862

The next day, Ross led his expedition, the prisoners, and the captured ponies, to Camp Cooper.  Rancher George Evans’ wife was asked to care for the woman and her infant.  Ross sent a message to Austin asking that Isaac Parker be notified that his long-lost niece may have been recovered.  She eventually made her way back to her family, but the truth is that Cynthia Ann Parker had not only been adopted by the Comanche, but she had adopted them, as well.  The Parker family had to watch her carefully to prevent her running back to the Comanche territory.

The Ross expedition resulted in an increase in Comanche Raids, and one of these in particular, placed the entire town of Palo Pinto under an all-night siege.  The winter of 1860/1861 proved to be one of the deadliest in the history of Comanche violence.

There evolved two distinct and contradictory stories of Peta Nocona’s death. In the first, he died while trying to escape the attack at Pease River with his wife and infant daughter.  This was the official report tendered by Sul Ross. Ross’ story was supported by Antonio Martinez, the expedition’s Comanche language interpreter.  The other story is that Nocona died three years later from a sickness; this was the story told by Quanah Parker, the eldest child of Cynthia Ann and Peta Nocona.

The State of Texas granted Cynthia Ann a pension of $100/year and 4,000 acres of land.  She accepted the money but could not afford to have the land properly surveyed.  She spent the rest of her life mourning the loss of her husband and two sons; she refused to “go back” to her family, and she never re-learned the English language.

During the Civil War years, disease and sickness was rampant on the Texas frontier. On 15 December 1863, Cynthia Ann’s daughter Topusana died, aged 5 years, from complications of pneumonia. The broken spirited Cynthia Ann Parker passed away on 19 March 1871 from the influenza.  She was 46 years of age.

Notes:

[1] John Nathan Hittson, also known as Cattle Jack Hittson, would become one of the wealthiest cattlemen in the Old West.

[2] Jack Cureton (1826-1881) was one of the first settlers in Palo Pinto County.  He went to Texas to fight in the Mexican-American War with a regiment of Arkansas Volunteers.

[3] Charlie Goodnight was a frontier scout, member of local militia, a Texas Ranger, and later became one of the best-known cattle ranchers in the State of Texas.  He is often regarded as the “father of the Texas Panhandle.” Historian J. Frank Dobie has remarked that in his opinion, Charlie Goodnight “approached greatness more nearly than any other cowman in the history of the old west.”  The book and film Lonesome Dove were modeled on the life of Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving.

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Of Conflict and Sorrow

The hostile raid at Fort Parker included Comanche, Caddo, Waco, Kichai, Penetekas, and Wichita Indians.  During the raid, Cynthia Ann was witness to the murder of her baby sister, Orlena Parker.  The child was four months old.  When the baby would not stop its crying, a warrior seized the child and smashed her head against a tree.

Over the next six years, most of the captives had been ransomed, but not Cynthia Ann.  Cynthia was sold to a Comanche family who lived on the Panhandle region of Texas, in the vast reaches of the Llano Estacado.  At first, she was beaten and treated as a slave, but she was eventually accepted into the family.  They renamed her Nadauh.  She thus became part of the Tenewa Comanche band.

A few years later, in 1840, a Comanchero trader was conducting business with a Tenewa band when noticed the presence of a properly dressed squaw who appeared to have a white complexion.  He had heard about the kidnapping of Cynthia Ann Parker; he knew that a reward had been posted for information on her whereabouts.  The Comanchero attempted to converse with the young woman, but she spurned him.  Returning to New Mexico, the trader soon spread the word about his discovery. This information eventually made its way to Texas authorities.

Unrelated to this encounter, in January of the same year, a delegation of Comanches made their way to San Antonio.  They wanted to discuss terms for peace.  Years of war and smallpox epidemics had taken their toll upon the plains Indians.  The Comanche spokesman was a chief named Muk-wah-ruh (meaning: spirit talker).  He wanted Texas’ recognition of the Comancheria as the rightful homeland of the Comanche, and they wanted the Texians to keep settlers out of their home territory.  As a demonstration of their good faith, the Indians returned a white captive, a boy.

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Colonel Karnes

The delegation was received by Colonel Henry Wax Karnes, a distinguished veteran of the Texas Revolution.  Karnes listened to the chief’s story, and he agreed to a negotiation, but he warned Muk-wah-ruh that a lasting peace could only be possible when the Comanche gave up their white captives.  Karnes believed that the number of captives held were around 13, but there was no way he could be certain about this.

A further meeting was arranged for mid-March 1840.

Texians did not realize at the time that the Comanche were not a unified nation.  There were 12 formal divisions and 35 independent roaming bands, which were also called rancherias or villages.  While the Comanche were bound together in various ways, this did not include the authority of one group over any other.  This meant that Muk-wah-ruh could not speak or negotiate for any other Comanche group.  The Texians also did not realize that many captives were often assimilated into the tribes; they were adopted by tribal families and themselves became part of the Comanche culture —and were not, thereafter, considered white captives.

Meanwhile, Texas Secretary of War Albert Sidney Johnston instructed Karnes to take the Comanche delegation prisoner if they failed to deliver all captives.

Despite being warned by the war chief Buffalo Hump that the whites could not be trusted, Muk-wah-ruh led 65 Comanches, including women and children, to San Antonio on the agreed date for peace talks. The Indians were dressed in their finery, their faces painted, and they proudly strutted to the Council House. They brought with them one white captive, a female, and several Mexican children.

The white female was 16-year old Matilda Lockhart [1]; she had been held for 18 months.  She was placed in the care of Mary Maverick.  The Texians questioned Lockhart, who testified that she had seen 15 or so other captives at the Comanche’s principal camp several days before.  She told the Texians that the Comanche wanted to see how high a price they could get for her before deciding whether to bring in the other captives, one at a time. This was a point of contention among the Texians because they believed that it violated their agreement with Muk-wah-ruh.  The Comanche had a different view, since Muk-wah-ruh did not have authority to speak for other tribes.  The Texians took the Indian delegation to the Council House, which adjoined the local jail.

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The Council House Fight

At the Council House, the Texians demanded to know where the other captives were.  Muk-wah-ruh responded by saying the other prisoner were held by various bands of Comanche.  He assured the Texians that he felt sure that the other captives could be ransomed, but that it would cost the Texians a great deal of supplies, including ammunition, blankets, and cooking utensils.  He finished his talk by saying, “Now, how do you like these words? [2]

Pursuant to General Johnston’s instructions, Colonel Karnes ordered the Indians taken prisoner.  Immediately upon learning that they were to be held as hostages, the Indians drew weapons to fight their way out of the Council House.  Texians opened fire.  Comanche women waiting in the courtyard began losing arrows; one Texian spectator was killed. Texians fired on escaping Indians, shooting Indians without regard to whether they were Comanche or not, and without regard to age or sex.  Thirty-five Comanche were killed, including three women and two children. Twenty-nine were taken prisoner.  Seven Texians died, including a judge, a sheriff, and an army lieutenant; ten more received wounds.  The next day, the Texians released a single Comanche woman and instructed her to return to her camp and report that the remaining Comanche prisoners would be released if the Comanche released the 15 white captives and Mexicans who were known to be held captive.  The Comanche were given twelve days to return the captives.

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Comanche War Chief

As soon as news of the Council House fight reached the war chief Buffalo Hump, he ordered 13 of the captives tortured to death.  The captives included Matilda Lockhart’s six-year-old sister, who was roasted to death over a spit.  Only three captives were spared, those being whites that had been adopted into the tribe. It was in response to the Council House fight that Buffalo Hump initiated the so-called Great Raid of 1840, leading hundreds of Comanche warriors on raids against Texian villages. Twenty-five Texians were killed by rampaging Comanche.  Texian militia responded to the raid, leading to the Battle of Plum Creek [3] in August 1840, which ultimately stopped the murderous raids.

Notes:

[1] The Lockhart story has a confused history. Maverick later described her as woman horribly disfigured by her Comanche captors, but there are no known documents of the time that make this claim.  Matilda died in 1843, aged 18 years.

[2] It is unlikely that Muk-wah-ruh intended his words to sound arrogant, but that is how they were received by Texian officials and they are what initiated the violence at the Council House.

[3] Near Lockhart, Texas —no connection to Matilda Lockhart.

Continued Next Week …

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A Tearful Trail

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Battle of the Alamo, 6 March 1836

After gaining independence from Spain in 1824, the government of Mexico invited foreign settlers to sparsely populated Texas. The Empresario responsible for this planned migration was Moses Austin, who soon passed away, leaving the task to his son, Stephen F. Austin.  The original 300 settlers established homesteads along the Brazos River. Within a few years, settlers began to resent the heavy hand of Mexico’s government, which led these Anglo settlers to declare their independence from Mexico in 1835.  Initially, Texian volunteers were defeated by Mexico’s president, General Antonio-Lopez de Santa Anna, who forced an eastward retreat.  A small garrison of Texians at Goliad were coaxed into surrendering, and then summarily executed.  Another garrison of men were overrun and killed at the Battle of the Alamo on 6 March 1836.  The Alamo became a symbol of heroic resistance to the tyranny of Mexico.  On 21 April 1836, leading 800 highly motivated and vengeful Texians, General Sam Houston defeated Santa Anna’s force of 1,500 men at the Battle of San Jacinto.

These were eventful times.

John Parker was an American patriot, veteran of the American Revolution, a frontier scout, and a noted Indian fighter. Parker was born in Baltimore County, Maryland in 1758.  As a young man, he was an associate of the explorer Daniel Boone who scouted the territory of present-day Kentucky and Tennessee.  In 1777, the British recruited native Indians to participate in campaigns designed to force Americans from the western frontier.  Many of Parker’s family were brutally massacred as a result and Parker took up arms against the British.  In 1779, John Parker married Sarah White.  Their first child was born on 6 April 1781; they named him Daniel, after Parker’s friend Boone.

After the Revolutionary War, frontier Indians once more began attacking settlements.  For a time, the Indians succeeded in stemming the flow of new settlers. Fearing for the safety of their growing family, Sarah urged her husband to relocate to a less threatening environment. The Parker’s traveled to Georgia, only to find that Indian depredations existed there, as well—again, set in motion by Spanish and British colonial officials.  Parker again became a frontier ranger against Cherokee and other of the so-called civilized tribes.  In these battles, the Americans were the victors, and this opened much of Appalachia to further settlement.

In 1803, Parker again moved his family (including his wife, eight children, and his son Daniel’s family) to the small settlement of Nashboro (present-day Nashville).  By 1817, the Parker family had grown to eleven children, many of whom had married and had children of their own.  As Indians were further defeated in the area of present-day Southern Illinois, new lands opened to white settlement.  The family moved again, this time to Illinois.  In 1824, Sarah passed away.  In the next year he married a widow named Sarah Duty, who had several daughters that had married into the Parker clan.

Stephen Austin recruited the 74-year old Parker to help settle the frontier of Texas.  John Parker well understood that settlers were needed as a bulwark against the Comanche Indians.  After negotiations and preparation, Parker led most of his family, and allied families, to Texas in 1833.

In 1835, relying on his vast experience as a frontiersman, Parker established a settlement on the headwater of the Navasota River, near present-day Groesbeck in Limestone County.  This location abutted the frontier of the Comancheria. He constructed a fort, which he called Fort Parker.  He chose this area because it offered enough land to sustain the settlers; his fort was thought to be sturdy enough to provide protection to the settlement in the event of Indian raids.  It didn’t. Neither did John Parker have adequate knowledge of his prospective foe, the Comanche —the most ferocious of all plains Indians tribes.

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Silas Parker

On the morning of 19 May 1836, three weeks after Houston’s defeat of General Santa Anna, the Fort Parker men went to the fields, as they usually did.  They were quite suddenly confronted by up to 700 hostile warriors.  The attack was swift and brutal.  Families in outlying homes were burned alive, men fleeing toward their homes were cut down, and then the Indians headed directly for the fort. John Parker attempted to rally the community in their common defense, but the men, women, and children at Fort Parker were overwhelmed.  Parker ordered as many of the women and children as could be found sent off with hand-picked men, and then he led a sortie into the mass of hostiles to divert their attentions away from the escape group.  He succeeded in doing this, but these men, including John Parker, were swiftly killed.  The Fort was insufficient to hold off these devastating numbers of Indians.

Though Parker’s wife was wounded, she and a son escaped and eventually gave warning of the approaching Comanche raiders. Several of the Parker kin did escape, five remained in the hands of the Indians.  One of these was John Parker’s granddaughter, Cynthia Ann, aged 10 years.

The other captives were Elizabeth Kellogg, John R. Parker, Rachel Plummer, and James Pratt Plummer.  All of these were later ransomed, except for Cynthia Ann Parker. While in captivity, the women were repeatedly raped by their captors.

John R. Parker, Cynthia Ann’s brother, and their cousin, James Pratt Plummer, were ransomed in 1842.  John was unable to adapt again to white society and returned to the Comanche.  During a raid into Mexico, John contracted smallpox.  The war party left him with a captive Mexican girl; she was instructed to care for him.  When John recovered, he restored the girl to her family, eventually married her, and spent the remainder of his days in Mexico.  John passed away in 1915.

Rachel Plummer was the 17-year old wife of Luther, the daughter of James Parker, and a cousin to Cynthia.  She was held captive for two years before being ransomed. She later authored a book that was published in 1838, the first narrative about captivity among the Comanche.  The book horrified Texians and others throughout the United States.  Rachel died in childbirth in 1840.

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Old Fort Parker (Website)

James Pratt Plummer was ransomed by his grandfather in 1842.  He never rejoined his immediate family.  He died of pneumonia while serving with the Confederate Army in 1862.

Elizabeth Kellogg was transferred from one band of Indians to another.  The Delaware Indians purchased Elizabeth and sold her to her brother-in-law James W. Parker in August 1836 for $150.00.  She was eventually reunited with her sister, Martha Patsey Duty in September 1836.

James W. Parker, who was working in the field when the attack began, spent much of the rest of his life searching for his daughter Rachel, grandson James, niece Cynthia and nephew John.  After several near-death experiences, he finally settled down with his family.  John Wayne’s character in the film The Searchers, was modeled (somewhat) on the true life of James W. Parker.

Continued Next Week …

 

 

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Battle in Antelope Hills

The Expedition of Captain John S. Ford, Texas Rangers

Texas in the 1850s was a particularly vicious and bloody place.  The availability of productive land acted as a magnet to thousands of Anglo-Americans fleeing the economic malaise of the United States eastern and southern regions.

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The Comancheria, 1850s

In Texas, one could raise cattle or dabble in agriculture; it truly was a land of opportunity—but not without incurring some risk.  The further west they went, the more likely it was that white settlers would encroach upon Indian territory.  From the perspective of the Comanche, their valuable hunting grounds were suddenly plowed under for farming; the grazing ranges for much needed Buffalo began to disappear.  These white settlers were stealing food, denying the Indians any ability to feed their families.  The Texas plains Indian would not put up with this without a fight.  Consequently, the Comanche and Kiowa grew more hostile with each new white face dotting the Texas plain.

 While the settlers may have understood that the Comanche presented a clear danger to their settlements and their persons, they may not have given much thought to this situation from the Indian point of view. They soon found out, however, as the frequency of ferocious and bloody Comanche raids increased dramatically.

Before statehood in 1845, it was up to Texas to deal with the Indian problem.  After statehood, this responsibility fell under the authority of the United States.  However, the Mexican-American War began almost immediately following Texas statehood.  Under these circumstances, the United States found little opportunity to address Indian hostility.

During the 1850s, the United States Army proved itself wholly incapable of curtailing hostile Indian raids.  Part of the reason for this was that the Army fielded only a limited number of cavalry regiments.  Owing to manpower shortages, the War Department decided to establish a series of fortified garrisons manned by infantry troops—which placed the Army at a disadvantage against highly mobile Comanche horsemen whose skill in warfare exceeded that of the regular Army.  Beyond this, the US Congress demonstrated no willingness to develop realistic solutions to the conflict between the Comanche and white settlers.

Texas was also restricted from dealing with the Indians by federal law that prohibited state militia from operating within federally protected Indian territories [1].  Realizing this, Comanche and Kiowa tribes resided within the Comancheria, but raided white settlements, murdered the settlers, stole their horses and cattle, and then returned to their federally protected homelands.  The situation created unharmonious feelings between Texas officials and the US government.  Texas expected the federal government to assume responsibility for the costs of Indian affairs, but refused to cooperate with federal Indian agents on the issue of Indian homelands.

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Governor Hardin R. Runnels 6th Governor of Texas

As the possibility of a conflict between northern and southern states increased, federal forces were removed from the frontier in growing numbers.  Gone from Texas was the US 2nd Cavalry, which left much of the plains unprotected from Indian raids.  Texan settlers were not happy about this.  Governor Hardin Runnels, who had campaigned for office on a platform promise to end hostile raids, was stunned by the withdrawal of federal troops.  To make good on his promises, Runnels reestablished the Texas Rangers as a frontier battalion.  On 27 January 1858, Governor Runnels commissioned John S. “Rip” Ford [2] to command the Texas Rangers, state militia, and allied Indian forces and ordered him to carry the battle to the Comanches in their homeland, the Comancheria.

Captain Ford was a tough frontiersman —a man who stood up to the realities of fighting savage Indians.  Like the Indians, he gave no quarter.  Like the Comanche and Kiowa, he made no distinction in his treatment of warriors, women, or children; Texas Rangers under Ford were expected to fight to the death, never surrendering themselves as prisoners to their Indian foe.  There was one difference between Ford and the Comanche; he never permitted any of his men to rape Indian women.

Indian violence toward settlers cost about 17 settler lives per mile of settlement in the Comancheria.  Ford determined to meet this brutality with equal violence.  Governor Runnels gave his instructions: “I impress upon you the necessity of action and energy.  Follow any trail and all trails of hostile or suspected hostile Indians you may discover and, if possible, overtake and chastise them if unfriendly.  In this, allow no interference from any source [3].”  Captain Ford followed these instructions to the letter.

Ford raised a force of one hundred Texas Rangers and State Militia.  Even armed with modern repeating rifles, Buffalo guns, and modern Colt revolvers, Ford realized that his force was inadequate to the task.  He began to recruit unpaid volunteers —including men from among the Tonkawa tribe, which because they were cannibals, were despised by all other Indians in Texas. Given the fact that the Tonkawa hated the Comanche, Ford raised 120 volunteers who served effectively as scouts to locate Comanche camps north of the Red River in the Comancheria and in the Oklahoma territories.

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John S. “Rip” Ford

Ford pursued the Comanche and Kiowa to their strongholds amid the hills of the Canadian River, into the Wichita Mountains.  He intended to kill the Comanche and Kiowa wherever he found them, decimate their food supply, strike at their homes and families, and destroy their ability to make war.  In February 1858, Ford established Camp Runnels near the town of Belknap, one-half mile east of Fort Belknap [4].

In late April 1858, Ford led his rangers and Indian volunteers across the Red River into Indian territory and advanced into the Oklahoma Comancheria.  Later charged with violating federal law, Ford stated plainly, “My job was to find and fight Indians, not to learn geography.”

The first of three encounters occurred at sunrise on 12 May 1858.  In Ford’s mind, the campaign was a legitimate response to Comanche raids on settlers in Texas.  Neither Ford nor the Comanche ever observed rules of engagement or any prohibition on harming non-combatants.  Thus, at Antelope Hills on Little Robe Creek in the heart of the Comancheria, Captain Ford led his men in an attack on the first Comanche camp they found.  A few women and children got away; none of the men survived [5].

Captain Ford led his men forward, attacking a second encampment of between 70-100 lodges further upriver.  Fortunately for the Comanche, a member of the village saw the Texans’ advancing and had ridden to warn them.  Forewarned, the Comanche were able to establish a defense of their women and children. The number of Comanche dead was high, including the legendary Chief Phohebits Quasho (known as Iron Jacket). Iron Jacket had acquired his Spanish coat of mail during a battle years before.  It protected him from light weapons, but it did not save him from Jim Pockmark’s well-aimed shot from a Buffalo gun.  Iron Jacket was in his 60s at the time, but still exhibited a fierce fighting spirit during this, his last engagement.  His death demoralized the Comanche warriors, made worse by the fact that Iron Jacket’s second in command was also cut down.

Lieutenant Lawrence “Sul” Ross, serving as Captain Ford’s deputy, expected him to order an advance, but Ford instead ordered his men to hold fast and form a defensive perimeter.  Ford had seen movement in the surrounding hills and believed that a large force of Indians were nearing the battle site.  Ford was right.  Before his death, Iron Jacket had dispatched a runner to another village for reinforcements. The leader of the reinforcements was Peta Nocona, son of Iron Jacket, and the husband of Cynthia Ann Parker [6].  Nocona led between 100 and 125 warriors.  Realizing that his warriors were ill-prepared to engage the Texans, he attempted to lure the Texans into the wood surrounding Little Robe Creek.  Captain Ford wasn’t having any of that; he stood his ground.

Nocona and his warriors began to taunt Ford’s men, particularly the Tonkawa, and challenge them to individual combat.  After the Comanche killed a number of Tonkawa in personal combat, Ford ordered a halt to any of his men accepting further challenges.  Captain Ford later reported these challenges as follows:  “In these moments the mind of the specter was vividly carried back to the days of chivalry; the jousts and tournaments of knights; and to the concomitants of those scenic exhibitions of gallantry. The feats of horsemanship were splendid, the lances and shields were used with great dexterity, and the whole performance was a novel show to a civilized man.”

The Comanche

Comanche Warriors c. 1830s

However much Ford may have admired the spectacle, he had no intention of engaging any Comanche in single combat, nor allowing any of his men to do so.  He ordered the Tonkawa to attack the Comanche in mass formation, hoping to lure Peta Nocona into committing his forces.  The strategy failed when Ford discovered that the Tonkawa had removed their white head bands, which was the only way the Texans could distinguish between Tonkawa and Comanche.  Noting that the Tonkawa were losing the battle, Ford signaled them to retreat.  As the Tonkawa withdrew, Ford ordered his Texans to advance with precise rifle fire. Nocona observed that these Texans weren’t firing single shot weapons; they had repeating rifles.  An average Comanche could shoot six arrows in the space of a minute, but the repeating rifles gave the Texans an advantage in fire power.

Nocona had no intention of allowing the Texans to catch his men in the open.  He ordered a retreat.  The battle was thus transformed into a running gun fight over several miles.  This negated the Texan’s advantage in fire power and allowed Nocona to save most of the Comanche people of Iron Jacket’s village.

By this time, additional Comanche, Kiowa, and Apache warriors were arriving on the field of battle. With odds turning against him and dwindling ammunition, Ford ended the battle of Antelope Hills.  At dusk, Ford ordered a withdrawal back to Texas —but not before he destroyed the food stores, lodges, and other possessions discovered in Iron Jacket’s village.

In their day, the Comanche may have been the world’s finest light cavalry, but the Ford Expedition proved to be a turning point for the plains Indians.  The first factor was that the Texans had learned how to fight the Comanche way: nomad tactics, living in a cold camp, initiating and maintaining relentless pursuit all the way into enemy encampments.  At this point, the playing field was even.  The second factor proved to be the tipping point: rapid fire rifles and pistols, and Ford’s element of surprise.  Modern weaponry destroyed Comanche tactics; Ford’s determination proved to the Indians that there was a new sheriff in town.  It was the beginning of the end of the Indians of the Great Plains.

Sources:

  1. Texas State Historical Association
  2. Photographs retrieved from the public domain

Notes:

[1] After statehood, Texas retained its control over public lands as part of the language of admission to the United States.  Prior to statehood, Texas experimented with the idea of establishing Indian reservations, but every effort failed. Accordingly, the Texas legislature steadfastly refused to make public land available to the Indians after statehood. In contrast, the federal government exercised control over public lands and Indian affairs and was thus able to make treaties and carve out Indian reservations in all newly admitted states.

[2] John Ford was a veteran Texas Ranger with service during the Mexican-American War and a frontier Indian fighter. During the Mexican-American War, Ford developed a habit of signing casualty reports with the initials RIP (rest in peace), and this is how he gained the nickname Rip.  Ford was known as a ferocious, no-holds-barred Indian fighter.

[3] “Any source” meant the United States Army and any federal Indian agent who might try to enforce federal treaties and federal statutory law against the Texas Rangers.

[4] The town of Belknap was established in 1856 and became Young County’s first seat of government.  The US Army abandoned Fort Belknap during the Civil War. By 1870, owing to the frequency of hostile raids, only a handful of people remained.  It is a ghost town today.

[5] Historians have referred to this first encounter as a massacre of an entire sleeping village.  In John Ford’s memoirs, edited by Stephen B Oates, Ford stated that he was defending Texas by “whatever means were necessary.”  Historians too often view bygone events through their modern-day lenses.  John Ford did to the Comanche what the Comanche had long been doing to Texans since the mid-1820s (and to Mexicans before that).

[6] Cynthia Ann Parker (1825-1871) was the daughter of Silas Parker who, on 19 May 1836, was kidnapped by a large band of Comanche warriors.  She became the wife of Peta Nocona and the mother of famed Comanche War Chief Quanah Parker.  In 1860, Texas Rangers under the command of Lawrence Sullivan Ross repatriated Parker and returned her to her white family.  She attempted to escape white society on several occasions, but was forced to remain with them against her will until her death in 1871.

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Duval County Crime and Politics

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Duval County, Texas

The character of Duval County, Texas is one of “old Mexico.” It was first surveyed in 1804 by Jose Contrerras, who was the Surveyor-General of San Luis Potosi.  The area’s first recorded birth was that of Luis Muniz in 1828.  The more important colonists from Mexico came from Mierand Tamaulipas, Mexico.  Not much happened in present-day Duval County between the early 1800s and 1836 (The Texas Revolution), nor even statehood in 1845.  But in 1858, the Texas legislature established Duval County, named in honor of Barr H. Duval, a Texian killed in the massacre of Goliad.  At the time of its organization, Duval County had but four stock raisers and no one expected the population to rise much beyond that.

Around 1860, Anglo-American immigrants arrived in Duval County to raise sheep.  These settlers included people from England, France, Ireland, and Scotland.  As with all immigrants, the settlers brought with them their culture and traditions and Duval County residents soon hosted formal balls and haute cuisine [1].  The food was so good that people traveled to Duval County from Corpus Christi fifty-miles away.  The bad news about Duval County, however, was that in the 1880s, its rate of violence rivaled that of Tombstone, Arizona.  Some of these deaths were attributed to dueling, but most were due to foul play —and most of these victims were Mexican or Tejano.  In 1881, at a time of rampant crime and depredation, Duval County was short on law officers, judges, and jails.  A vigilante group was thus formed from Duval and McMullen counties. Their purpose was to defend citizens from Mexican bandits, cattle rustlers, and horse thieves.  One of these groups was making a routine scout when they stumbled upon a large pile of cowhides at a place near the two-county line.  The vigilantes (logically) concluded that these hides came from stolen animals.  Fifteen Mexicans were promptly lynched at that location.

As the county economy improved, ethnic and racial tensions eased somewhat.  The Texas-Mexican Railway brought a line to the county seat of San Diego in 1881, and the town soon became an important center for shipping hides, wool, and cotton.  For some odd reason, the sheep began to die out in 1886 and the economic boom faded away.

As was the case in many South Texas counties, Hispanic culture dominated Duval County, which became a stronghold of the Democratic Party [2].  Within a short time, Duval County would experience the rise of a political dynasty similar to that of Jim Wells in Brownsville.  Archer (Archie) Parr was a cattle rancher and politician who eventually became known as the Duke of Duval County.  He was the political and crime boss of Duval County from around 1914 to 1934.

Archie Parr was born on Matagorda Island in Calhoun County in 1860.  His father George was a veteran of the Mexican-American War in 1846.  Archie was still a youngster when his father died. Then in the third grade of school, Archie dropped out to work on his family’s ranch.  By the time he was 11-years old, Archie was wrangling horses. He was a drover by the age of 14, and at 17-years he was a trail boss on the Chisholm Trail.  He later worked as a school teacher in Rockport, in Aransas County, Texas.

Although an Anglo (white), Archie spoke fluent Spanish. He moved to Duval County in 1882 where he worked as a ranch hand and a manager at the Sweden Ranch near Benavides, Texas.  Within a few years, he purchased his own ranch.  In 1891, then 31-years old, he married Elizabeth Allen in Huntsville, Texas. She was, at the time, a student at Sam Houston State Teacher’s College, and five years his junior.  The Parr’s had a family of five children, including sons Given and George Parr.  All of his children spoke English and Spanish.

Archie realized that given the population of Tejanos in Duval County, political success might be possible if he could galvanize these people into a base of support.  Among Duval County Tejanos, it was probably better to be ignored by the Anglo than to be persecuted by him.  In any case, Anglo attitudes afforded Archie the opportunity of seizing the reigns of Democratic politics in Duval County.  He treated his own workers in the manner of a Mexican patron: he helped “his” people and their families, giving them favors and looking out for their welfare.  It wasn’t long before he had earned a positive reputation within the Tejano community.

PARR Archie 001In 1901, the Texas legislature forced the payment of poll taxes [3], which in effect politically marginalized blacks, poor whites, and most Tejanos.  This was a post-Reconstruction strategy designed to end any competition from Republican and Populist parties in Texas, and, as intended, it propelled the Democratic Party into dominating most of the state.  In the end, competitive elections were mostly restricted to primary elections.  After 1901, in the absence of Republicans or Populists, die-hard Democrats turned on one another.

As but one example of this, Duval County Tax Assessor John D. Cleary (a Democrat) managed to engineer a sweep of the county elections in 1906.  The next year, Cleary was found murdered with evidence of a shotgun blast to his back. The county was in an uproar and among some, Archie Parr was suspected in the death because Cleary was Parr’s main political opponent at the time.  Texas Rangers were called in to investigate but the murder went unsolved.  It was with Cleary’s death that Parr seized the reigns of the Democratic Party in Duval County.  To solidify his base among Tejanos, he established his own party, which he called El Guaracha (the sandal party, or party of the poor), and he labeled other Democrats as the rich, or La Bota (the boot) party.

Parr was first elected to political office in 1896, when he successfully ran for the office of county commissioner. He was re-elected to that position continually until 1906.

Tejanos formed Archie Parr’s political base, and for some this may have been enough, but inside the Parr machine, there was never any hesitation to use fraud and coercion to control county-wide elections.  Parr’s techniques were not necessarily unique: he orchestrated marked ballots, employed intimidating armed guards at polling places, and if needed, altered election results.  It was said that no one was more adept as stuffing ballot boxes than Archie Parr.

Having won election to the Texas State Senate in 1914, Archie Parr served in that office for nearly two decades.  Along with his seniority came tremendous power throughout the state and he easily aligned himself with the Democratic Party patronage system.  He was also instrumental in bringing cheap labor from Mexico to work the ranches and farms.  In time, Archie came to own the San Diego State Bank, the Dobie Ranch, Harcones Ranch, and was a silent partner of dozens of businesses in South Texas.  To say that he became a very wealthy man over his years in Duval County would be an understatement.

In 1928, Archie Parr led state democrats against US Congressman Harry M. Wurzbach, the only Republican elected to the House of Representatives from Texas since the end of Reconstruction. Wurzbach represented the 14thCongressional District, which included Guadalupe County, where German-Americans favored the Republican platform.  However, in this election the winner was a Democratic candidate. Wurzbach suspected election tampering and contested the election results.  The elections committee found in Wurzbach’s favor and he was finally seated in 1930. Wurzbach also won re-election, but then died while serving in office.

In 1932, Parr was indicted by the federal IRS for tax evasion.  His political opponent in the upcoming election successfully labeled him as a tax cheat [4] but in spite of these problems, Archie had hopes for reelection. Parr attempted to push through road construction project that would have put a modern highway from Duval County to Corpus Christi.  The Parr plan would have placed the highway on a track that extended through the King Ranch, but his long-time political ally (and the owner of the King Ranch), Robert Kleberg, Jr [5]., vigorously opposed the project and it was shelved.  Archie’s son George confronted Kleberg, saying, “You’re crucifying my father!  I’ll get you. I’ll gut you if it’s the last thing I do!”  When Parr was defeated in 1934, Kleberg became an enemy of the Parr machine.

In spite of Parr’s legal problems, his syndicate was a golden egg.  The discovery of oil in Duval County created ample opportunity for patronage and it allowed Archie Parr to add to his already substantial fortune.  In fact, the family political network continues to influence politics in Texas today, offering its patronage to both Democrats and Republicans alike.  As but one example, Jim Maddox [6] was a beneficiary of the Parr machine in his bid for State Attorney General; he garnered a majority of county votes despite the fact that he was running against a Hispanic.

In 1940, Archie Parr applied for a presidential pardon for the tax evasion conviction.  The pardon, if granted, would demonstrate to other political bosses in South Texas that Parr continued to wield power within the state. On the advice of then Congressman Richard Kleberg, US Attorney General Francis Biddle blocked it.  Archie Parr died in 1942; George Parr then mounted a campaign against Kleberg, throwing his considerable weight behind the candidacy of Major John E. Lyle, Jr. [7]  At the time, Lyle was serving on active duty in Europe during World War II.  When Tom Clark replaced Biddle as Attorney General, and with Kleberg out of the way, then-Congressman Lyndon Johnson lobbied President Harry S. Truman to approve Parr’s pardon, which he did on 20 February 1946. In any case, by the time of Archie’s demise, the Parr family had gained firm control of politics in Duval and Jim Wells County—the baton had been passed along to Archie’s his youngest son, George.

PARR George 001

George B. Parr

George Berham Parr [8] (1901-1975), like his father, became known as the Duke of Duval County.  His appetite for politics was wetted when he served as a page in the Texas Capital during one of his father’s terms.  He spent four years at the West Texas Military Academy and graduated from Corpus Christi High School in 1921.  He attended several colleges without much success, and attended the University of Texas Law School in 1923, but left without a degree.  In spite of this, he passed the Texas Bar in 1926 and was admitted to the practice of law.  In that same year, Archie appointed George to complete the term of his brother Given as Duval County Judge.  George’s first wife was Thelma Duckworth of Corpus Christi; he subsequently married Eva Perez, with whom he had two daughters.

The Parr political machine employed bribery, graft, and illegal donations.  Political support came from the southern-most counties in Texas.  The machine was able to produce large numbers of votes, legal or not, from among the impoverished and uneducated working-class Tejano population.  As a result of this arrangement, marginalized native Texan farmers moved away from Duval county.  County politics was thus left to the Parr machine and an easily bribed Tejano community; it made the county a bastion of Democratic crime and corruption.  Even so, George Parr was as charismatic as his father and equally fluent in Spanish.  Like his father, local Tejanos referred to George as “El Patron.”

LBJ 001

Lyndon B. Johnson

In 1948, Coke Stevenson, Lyndon Johnson, and others, competed for the United States Senate seat.  Stevenson and Johnson advanced to a runoff election.  For five days following the election, Stevenson appeared to hold a lead of 112 votes.  Then, Jim Wells County amended its return adding 202 additional votes —200 of which were for Johnson, who ended up winning the election by 87 votes.  This miraculous showing at the polls earned Johnson the sobriquet, “Landslide Johnson.”  It was dirty politics, pure and simple —but Parr did pay Johnson back for supporting his application for a presidential pardon.

By 1950, the Parr machine had become an irritation to Governor Allan Shivers and Attorney General John Shepperd.  Federal officials initiated an investigation in Duval County, which resulted in 650 indictments against the Parr Machine.  Three hundred of these indictments were rendered at the state level. George Parr eluded indictment, however. Later charged with fraud, the allegations were dismissed by a local judge.  Now under the protection of Lyndon Johnson, George Parr eluded every attempt to indict him for fraud, bribery, corruption, racketeering, and murder.  At the time John Shepperd was seeking indictments against Parr, he also served as a close political advisor to Lyndon Johnson.

In 1950, Jake Floyd, from Alice, Texas successfully lead the Freedom Party against the Parr machine and won. The result was the Parr operation lost an important office that was used to control their South Texas interests. Then, in 1952, Jacob “Buddy” Floyd, Jake’s 22-year old son, was murdered by a Parr assassin named Mario Sapet. Sapet’s intended target was Jake; it was a case of mistaken identity.  Sapet was arrested and later convicted, but everyone knew that the real culprit was never indicted for this crime.

Parr continued to be object of political reform movements in Duval and Jim Wells counties and in 1954, Governor Shivers declared war on the Parr faction.  Texas Rangers were sent to investigate George Parr.  He was charged with embezzlement but managed to beat the case against him.

In the early 1960s, a group of county women organized to clean up county politics.  They requested that the State Attorney General investigate voting fraud in Duval and Jim Wells Counties.  Several investigations were conducted, but without any meaningful change. With the end of the Johnson administration in 1968, Parr lost his primary protector.  Under the advice of Johnson and other prominent state democrats, George relinquished control the Parr apparatus to his nephew, Archer Parr III in the 1970s.

The law finally caught up with George Parr in 1974 when he was convicted of income tax evasion and received a ten-year prison sentence.  Determined not to go to jail, George committed suicide on 1 April 1975.  At this time, Archie Parr III was serving as the Duval County Judge; he stood down later that year and it wasn’t long after that that the Parr machine collapsed.  Even though a small land-owning minority attempted to retain control of county politics, the party was taken over by the large Tejano community.  In spite of all this, the family and its network remain significantly influential in Duval and Jim Wells counties —both of which remain one of the strongest and most consistently Democrat localities in Texas, frequently giving national and local Democratic candidates winning margins greater than 70 percent.

Notes:

[1] Also, Grande Cuisine, as may be served in gourmet restaurants, and luxury hotels.

[2] The last Republican to carry the county was Theodore Roosevelt in 1904.

[3] In the United States, poll taxes were implemented in some U.S. states and local jurisdictions; paying the tax was a pre-condition of voting.  Many southern states enacted poll taxes as a means of restricting eligible voters for exercising their right to vote.

[4] Convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to supervised parole, Parr eventually served nine months in the Federal Correction Institution at El Reno for violating his parole.

[5] Richard Kleberg served as a Democrat in the US House of Representatives for seven consecutive terms (1931-1945); he passed away in 1955 at the age of 67 years.

[6] Maddox was indicted for commercial bribery (an attempt to deliver corporate funds to an election campaign) in 1983.  In essence, Maddox received $125,000 from his sister, a Dallas lawyer.  She in turn received the funds from the Seafirst Bank in Seattle, which had close ties to Clinton Manges, who was a controversial South Texas rancher and the heir to the Parr machine in Duval County.

[7] Lyle replaced Kleberg in the US House of Representatives in 1945, serving through 1955.  He was a beneficiary of the Parr political machine.  He passed away in 2003, aged 93 years.

[8] George attended the 1928 Democratic National Convention in Houston, Texas with his father.  It was in Houston that he was introduced to Alvin Wirtz (State Senator), Ealy Johnson, Jr., (State Representative) and members of the Bexar County political machine. He was also introduced to Ealy’s son, then a college student by the name of Lyndon B. Johnson.

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A Dangerous Dandy

John King Fisher, known in his adult life as King Fisher, was born on an unknown date in October 1853.  His parents were Jobe and Lucinda Warren Fisher.  Jobe was a cattleman who owned and operated two freight wagons. Lucinda died when King was still an infant; his father later remarried a woman named Minerva.  At the end of the Civil War, the Fisher family moved from Collin County to Williamson County, just outside Austin, Texas, and a short time after that, Minerva also passed away.

Jobe Fisher relocated to Goliad, just west of Victoria, Texas. There, the Fisher’s were joined by Jobe’s mother, who helped her son raise the children.  As in many cases in early Texas, John Fisher had a rough childhood. As a young man, he was restless, handsome, popular with the ladies —and he associated with a rough crowd.  Around 1869, Jobe sent his son to live with his brother James.  Two years later, King Fisher was arrested for horse theft and was sentenced to two years in prison.  Because of his youth, however, he was released later in the same year.

FISHER JK 002

John King Fisher

After King’s release from jail, he began working as a ranch hand.  Incessant raids, lootings, and assaults directed toward Texas ranch and farm families by Mexican bandits led to King’s participation as a member of local sheriff’s possés.  He enjoyed this kind of activity, and he began to think of himself as a fast gun. His attire became somewhat ostentatious [1]; he carried ivory handled pistols, and with time he developed proficiency with sidearms.  In time, King Fisher began to associate with known outlaws which engaged in frequent rustling forays into Mexico.  As in one of the never-ending stories of crime life, the gang squabbled about how to divide their spoils.  More or less to emphasize his own point of view, one of the irate outlaws drew his pistol. In the gunfight that ensued, King Fisher shot the outlaw and two of his accompanying bandits.  Being the winner of this disagreement enabled Fisher to take charge of the gang, and over the course of several months, the Fisher gang killed seven more Mexican bandits.

King Fisher purchased a ranch on the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass, Texas. The ranch was right on the border with Mexico, perfectly placed as a base of operations in Texas and Mexico. Still, King rarely perpetrated acts of violence or theft against other Texas.  He preferred raids into Mexico, whether in retribution for Mexican raids into Texas or simply because the Mexican ranches were easy pickings, I don’t know.  What I do know is that this was a time of constant raiding back and forth between Texas and Mexico, a time of common place murder and mayhem, of looting and raping, and to the victor go the spoils.

In these days, there was not much law in South Texas.  Settlers, feeling ignored by state and county authorities, began to organize themselves somewhat in defense leagues—or, if you prefer, rival gangs.  All this really accomplished was increasing ill-will between Texans and Mexicans, and among Texans themselves.  The situation made it difficult for the Texas Rangers to establish lawful authority over South Texas.

The arrival of Leander H. McNelly in South Texas changed the foregoing situation.  Ostensibly, Captain McNelly’s focus was to quell the activities of Mexican bandit leader Juan Cortina, but at the same time, McNelly realized that King Fisher was also part of the problem.  McNelly led his rangers to the Fisher Ranch and arrested its owner.  McNelly didn’t want to take Fisher into custody, so he sat him down and made an agreement with him.  As a result, Fisher’s frequent raids into Mexico ceased and, whatever it was that McNelly told him, Fisher soon retired from his outlaw ways.  He became a legitimate and lawful rancher —the word lawful having a somewhat subjective connotation.

Fisher King never lost his edge with a side arm.  In 1878, an argument developed between Fisher and four Mexican vaqueros.  Fisher clubbed the first man with a branding iron; then, as the second man went for his gun, Fisher drew his own pistol and, shooting straight and true, killed the man instantly.  Fisher then spun around and shot the other two men, who evidently did little more than set themselves on the corral fence.  It was the kind of stuff one might find in dime novels of the time [2].

Fisher may have been a gentleman rancher, but he was never quite the good boy his grandmother hoped he would become.  He was arrested on several occasions for public altercations, several of these involving local lawmen.  On one occasion, he was charged with “intent to kill” —charges that were dropped when no witnesses came forward to tell what the knew.  In spite of being a hot head, he was well liked in South Texas.  In 1876, Fisher married Sarah Vivian; together they had four daughters.  It was time for King Fisher to settle down.

In 1883, Fisher served as acting Sheriff of Uvalde County.  During this service, he was called upon to investigate a stagecoach robbery that allegedly involved Tom and Jim Hannehan. He trailed these men to their ranch near Leakey, Texas.  Fisher wanted to question them about the allegations, but they resisted his arrest. Fisher shot and killed Tom, and the smarter of the two, Jim, surrendered.  Having taken Jim Hannehan into custody, Fisher discovered the stolen loot and returned it to the rightful owners [3].

San Antonio 1885

Jack Harris’ Variety Theater was in the rear of this building

In 1884, King Fisher traveled to San Antonio on business.  There, he came into contact with his old friend Ben Thompson [4].  Thompson was somewhat unpopular in San Antonio owing to the fact that he’d previously killed a popular theater-owner named Jack Harris.  A feud over that killing had been brewing between Thompson and friends of Harris—which is generally the way feuds work.  On the evening of 11 May, Fisher and Thompson attended a play at the Turner Hall Opera House.  At around 10:30 p.m., they went to the Vaudeville Variety Theater.  Local lawman Jacob Coy sat with them.  Thompson wanted to see Joe Foster, also a theater owner and a friend of the departed Harris.  Foster was also one of the fellows harboring a grudge against Thompson. Thompson set up a meeting with Foster’s partner, Billy Simms.  Simms directed Thompson and Fisher upstairs to meet with Foster.  Coy and Simms soon joined them in the theater box, but Foster refused to speak to Thompson.  Fisher noted that something was amiss.  Simms and Coy stepped aside; as they did, gunfire erupted from another theater box. A hail of bullets struck Thompson and Fisher.  Thompson fell on his side, and either Coy or Foster approached him and shot him in the head. He died immediately.  Fisher was hit thirteen times, but got off one shot, wounding Coy, and crippling him for life.  Foster, while drawing his pistol for the coupe deGrasse over Thompson, managed to shoot himself in the leg, which was later amputated.  Foster died shortly afterwards.

San Antonians, ever known for their peaceful nature, demanded that a grand jury investigate the shooting, but no action was ever taken.  San Antonio police and the local prosecutor showed very little interest in the case and it, along with Fisher, was laid to rest [5].  Fisher was 30 years old.

Notes:

[1] He was known to wear a sombrero with a gold braid, embroidered vests, silk shirts, and crimson sashes.  His most famous trademark was a pair of Bengal tiger skin chaps.  His silver mounted two-gun holsters sported ivory handled pistols. He also wore silver spurs mounted on silver bells that always announced his presence nearby.

[2] A reporter named Carey McWilliams once said that he asked King Fisher how many notches he had on the handles of his guns (denoting one kill for each notch).  Fisher is said to have replied, “Thirty-seven, but not counting any Mexicans.”

[3] For years after King Fisher’s death, Tom Hannehan’s mother traveled to Fisher’s grave, built a fire above it, and danced around singing chants of one kind or another —proving where the Hannehan brothers obtained their wackiness.

[4] Ben Thompson was an Englishman who immigrated to the United States in 1851.  He was a lawman and a gunfighter.  He once explained his success as a gunman: “I always make it a rule to let the other fellow fire first.  Now, if a man wants to fight, I argue the question with him and try to show him how foolish it would be.  If he can’t be dissuaded, why then the fun begins but I always let him have the first crack.  Then when I fire, you see, I have the verdict of self-defense on my side.  I know that he is pretty certain in his hurry to miss. I never do.”

[5] After Fisher’s death Deputy Sheriff Tom Sullivan of Medina County was asked his opinion about Fisher and Thompson.  After giving the question a measure of thought, he said, “They called King Fisher and Ben Thompson bad men, but they weren’t bad men —they just wouldn’t stand for no foolishness.”

 

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