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.

Comancheria 001

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.

Runnels HR 001

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.

FORD JS 001

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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One Response to Battle in Antelope Hills

  1. kid says:

    A very enjoyable and educational read.

    Like

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