There are those who lament and deplore the atrocities foisted upon American Indians as Anglo-settlers moved westward through the present-day United States. Looking at these events through the rose-colored lenses of the twenty-first century, one might argue that (a) white people started this problem by moving into lands “belonging” to the Amerind, (b) whites were unnecessarily cruel to the native population, and/or (c) the whites embarked on a program of genocide, which caused the Indian populations to defend themselves and their families. Such arguments do have some merit, but they do not tell the complete story. There were atrocities committed by Anglo pioneers —but such acts, as much as we may deplore them today, were both provoked and, in the context of the times, warranted.
As a reminder, one of the reasons Spanish-Mexico invited Anglo settlers to the Southwest in the first place was because, for 350 years, the Comanche, Kiowa, and Apache made the settlement of present-day Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Oklahoma, and Kansas untenable for Spanish/Mexican colonists. After the War of Mexican Independence, Mexico realized that it could not claim to control lands that were mostly unpopulated. Besides, the Americans weren’t the only people with an eye on Texas, and so early Mexican leaders decided that it would be far better to allow Anglo-settlements, where Mexico would be in a position to control their size and locations than to run the risk of an effort by the United States to annex Texas or to have to contend with a profusion of French colonies.
Populating Texas was a priority, but so too was populating it with people who might be able to contend (deal) with hostile Indians. The number of Indians living between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains in 1830 has been estimated at around 110,000. The Comanche alone is said to have numbered around 45,000 people, although since many the Kiowa bands merged with the Comanche, this number could be larger.
The story of the southwestern United States between 1850-1912 is one of perpetual Indian depredation. As we learn about the events of the Elm Creek Raid and understand that it was but one among hundreds of others, we must take care not to judge these events by our modern concept of morality. Doing so will fail us on two levels: (1) It is doubtful that the Plains Indians ever equated their behaviors to a western standard of ethicality, and (2) the Plains Indians behaved toward white settlers in the same way they acted toward other Indian tribes.
As a further reminder, Texas became the 28th state to join the Union in 1845. Statehood precipitated the Mexican-American War (1846-48). It was a turbulent time —and then came the American Civil War (1861-65). In 1865, no one north or east of Texas cared about the plight of Texas settlers —not even after desperate pleadings by the Texas Judiciary . The American frontier was a low priority in the United States at a time when everyone in Washington was trying to figure out how to put the nation back together. Still, while this was going on, the realities of the American southwest in 1864 were:
- In 1860, the U. S. Army began withdrawing all regular troops from frontier forts; in 1864, there was no immediate plan to reoccupy them.
- Texas was the only place in the United States where large numbers of white settlers lived within reach of horse-mounted hostiles.
- Local militias and “minutemen” were inadequate to confront the hostilities of the Plains Indians.
- The Amerind generally, and the Kiowa and Comanche in particular, did not understand the Civil War. What they did understand was the fact that there were no military forces in the Southwest. When their raids went unopposed, the number of raids and depredations increased exponentially.
- In total, the Comanche-Kiowa bands killed more white people than any other American Indian tribes—a fact that is not well known in this country.
- As a result of Indian depredations, the Texas frontier was in full retreat in 1865 —with no relief in sight for frontier settlers.
- Between 1865-74, the United States pursued a “peace policy,” through which the hostile tribes were to be placed on and sustained by government-funded reservations, educated and Christianized .
Between 1850-68, Texas settlers lived their lives “forted up” —they were in constant danger from hostile Indians. They fought a hundred unseen and unrecorded battles; they suffered the death, injury, mutilation, rape, and kidnapping of thousands of loved ones, family members, and close friends. The events of Young County, Texas in October 1864 is representative of this terror. History remembers it as the Elm Creek Raid.
With the removal of Indians who were willing to live on reservations , the population of white settlers in West Texas grew at a rapid rate. Young County had been organized by 1864, but just barely; there was no mechanism for the protection of settlers. In truth, Young County, Texas was on the edge of nowhere. Settler Francis Peveler was one of the county’s earliest settlers. He noted in his journal, “We were right on the frontier —nothing north of us but the North Star.” Mr. Peveler was wrong about that because north of Young County were bands of Comanche  and Kiowa  hostiles who roamed the land as freely as the wind.
Texas militia captains Buck Barry and Jim Bourland tried to get the people to “fort up,” but not everyone was interested in doing that. Constructing fortified cabins was hard work, and suitable logs were difficult to obtain. At nearby Fort Belknap, long abandoned by the Army, Captain Barry constructed cabins in 100-yard long squares. A similar structure was thrown up at Fort Murrah 1858. Within these stockades, settlers lived almost exactly the way their forebears lived in early Kentucky and Tennessee in the 1750s.
Ten or twelve families lived at Fort Murrah; they were Anglo-Celtic clans from Kentucky who had migrated through Missouri; in all, between 60 to 80 white settlers lived along Elm Creek.
In the late summer or early fall of 1864, large parties of Kiowa moved into the Llano Estacado. They fell under the influence of a young Comanche brave named Little Buffalo, an ambitious chief with a thirst for horses, loot, and prestige. A careful planner, Little Buffalo scouted the territory along the upper Brazos. Observing the widespread farms and ranches of the white eyes, he determined that the time was right for raiding. He circulated among the northern bands of Comanche and Kiowa and the Kiowa-Apache on the Wichita range. He spoke to his Indian allies of great victories ahead of them. After all, there were no horse soldiers in Texas. And, because their numbers were so small, there was nothing to fear from Texas Rangers. Hundreds of warriors signed on for the raid —including the Kiowa war leader Aperian Crow. Having gathered extra mounts, the Indians streamed into northern Texas.
On 13 October, Little Buffalo reached the Brazos River where it joined Elm Creek, approximately ten miles above Fort Belknap. Riding behind him were seven-hundred braves. This is where the killing began. There are numerous versions of what happened that bright and clear day, explained by the fact that everyone affected told their own version of how they remembered it.
The Indians rode down both banks of Elm Creek at midday. They first came across Joel Myers and his young son, who was out looking for strayed oxen. The Myerses never had a chance; they were killed, stripped of their clothing, and their remains mutilated. The Indian war party moved on. Next came the Fitzpatrick homestead. As a number of the men were away, gone to the trading post at Weatherford for supplies, only three women and their children remained behind: Elizabeth Fitzpatrick, her daughter Susan Durgan, and a Negro woman named Mary Johnson, the wife of Britt Johnson .
As howling Indians surrounded the Fitzpatrick place, Susan Durgan grabbed a rifle and went outside. The gutsy woman put up a good fight, but was quickly overwhelmed by Comanche warriors who cut her down, stripped her naked, raped her, and then mutilated what was left of her. The Indians then flooded inside the house and seized the remaining people. Two braves quarreled over which of them had captured and was therefore entitled to enslave Mary Johnson’s oldest boy, aged 12 years. Unable to resolve this problem, the braves amicably killed the boy. Other warriors threw Elizabeth Fitzpatrick, Mary Johnson, and four of their children onto the back of horses and rode off.
Not far away was the Hamby Place, where Thomas (Doc) Wilson also lived with his family. There were three men at the homestead when the Indians arrived, including Thornton Hamby (a wounded/recovering Confederate veteran soldier). When the men heard the commotion at the Fitzpatrick place, they rushed their women into a hiding place in a cave along the nearby bank. Then, these men mounted up to warn neighbors of approaching danger.
The William Bragg family warned of approaching danger, hid in thick brush and avoided contact with the marauders. Doc Wilson rode hard while the Hamby’s fought a rear-guard action to keep the rampaging Indians at bay. Wilson reached Judge Henry Williams’ ranch and gave the alarm. One of the men at the Williams ranch grabbed a horse and carried the alarm forward.
Two women visitors and their children were with the Williamses, also a young man named Callan. When Callan understood the severity of the situation, he seized his horse and rode away to warn others. Mrs. Williams herded her five children and her guests across Elm Creek where they lay down in the screening brush; Sam Williams, aged fifteen years, stood guard with a shotgun. The Williamses weren’t discovered by the hostiles when they arrived, but their homestead was sacked.
Thornton Hamby (the wounded veteran} and his father rejoined Doc Wilson at the Williams place, then rode for the George Bragg ranch, a short distance further on. George Bragg’s home was a two-room cabin built for strength. Arriving at the Bragg homestead, the Comanches were in full fury after the Hamby’s. They leaped from their ponies in Bragg’s yard and rushed to the cabin door. Doc Wilson didn’t make it —a Comanche arrow struck him through the heart. He staggered into the cabin and said, “Hamby, I am a dead man.” He jerked the missile out of his body and died.
George Bragg was inside the house with five white women, a Negro girl, and a great brood of children. The Hamby had thought to fort up here since they expected to find more men to defend, but now they were surrounded by hostile Indians who wanted their blood. They were committed to a defense whether they wanted it or not. There was no escape. Thornton Hamby later said: “I might have jumped under the bed —had it not been occupied by three families of women and children who made their way to the ranch for protection.” This is the statement of a cool man. When the Indians, blowing a captured or discarded bugle, advanced on the blockhouse, it was young Hamby who took charge of the defense. The older men were excited, but Thornton had been under fire before. He ordered the women to load the rifles and pistols, which task they undertook with great vigor.
Within mere seconds, the Comanches rushed the house, howling like madmen. The elder Hamby killed an Indian with a pistol shot but received four wounds in return. The Bragg defense devolved on Thornton, whose coolness under fire helped everyone maintain their wits. He stayed at the firing ports, killing or wounding Indian after Indian; the women recharged his weapons and pressed them into his hand. Although struck by an Indian bullet, he kept fighting. In the afternoon, Hamby brought down Little Buffalo with a well-aimed shot. Little Buffalo’s demise demoralized the attacking Indians. Within a short time, the savages mournfully withdrew, carrying off their dead and wounded.
A few hours later, after dark, Thornton Hamby and George Bragg went to the Fitzpatrick ranch to see what had happened. They buried the bodies. Meanwhile, the Peveler & Harmonson clans had assembled at Fort Murrah, a pioneer settler’s fortification. Little Buffalo had not known that the stockade existed as it had only just been built. From the top of the fort, the defenders scanned the countryside through a spyglass and found it writhing with hostiles. Francis Peveler saw the Indians playing with something in the mesquite brush. What he observed were hostiles toying with Old Man McCoy and then finally killing him and his son. The McCoy’s lived about a mile distant on Boggy Creek and were unable to make it to the fort.
The war party did not try to storm the fort; if the Indians had learned one thing from the Texans, it was never to charge Texas rifles. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Carson of Bourland’s border regiment ranged near Fort Belknap with about twenty men. The Indians may have avoided the fort, but when Carson and fourteen men attempted ingress to the Elm Creek area, they soon found themselves facing three hundred braves. Five of Carson’s men were killed outright, with several more wounded. Carson’s after-action report indicated that he and his men behaved themselves with courage, but the fact was that his troops fired once and then raced away for their lives. It was probably the wisest course of action. It was either that or painful death.
During his retreat, Carson and his men passed by Isaac McCoy’s house and picked up the two stranded McCoy women. Riding double, militia and women made it safely to Fort Murrah but a number of the horses had arrows protruding from their necks and rumps. Fort Murrah prepared for a siege: the women brought in milk and water from the spring branch and the men passed around ammunition. As night fell, the defenders could see Indians on three sides —a large fire blazed in the North.
The Peveler clan, who was still mourning the death of one of their men a few days earlier —and the Harmonson’s— agreed that a dawn attack was likely. Someone should try to ride to Fort Belknap for assistance. Carson’s men refused to ride out, so Francis Peveler and a man named Fields from Gainesville saddled up. On the way out, they passed by a picket who was standing guard outside the fort—the young man was but 17-years old. Staying off the high ground to avoid detection, the two riders passed a white object on the ground —it was the remains of Joel Myers. A short distance further on, they came across a horse, pinned to the ground with a lance but still alive and trembling. They could not stop to shoot the pitiful animal for fear of bringing attention to themselves. They galloped six miles into Fort Belknap only to find that all the border regiment men had gone —it was said that they were on a scout looking for Indians. Chester Tackett volunteered to ride to Veal’s Station, the next nearest settlement seventy-five or so miles away. Tackett, who was about nineteen years old, rode out at 1 a.m. the next morning. Changing horses at every white clearing he passed, he finally arrived at his destination at 9 a.m. He found no help at the Station but the exhausted Tackett had to stop for a rest. Another rider hastened on to Decatur, another thirty miles.
At sundown, Major Quayle at Decatur, commanding a company of militia, learned that Fort Murrah was besieged. Quayle’s command mounted up —destination Fort Murrah, some 80 miles distant. At dusk the following day, Quayle was within twenty miles of the fort when he met a rider who told him that the Indians were gone. Quayle detached a few of his men to track the hostiles, which they did for about 100 miles, but to no avail.
In all its details, the Elm Creek Raid was a classic hostile raid —its only difference being in the number of Indians involved, which in this case was huge. Eleven settlers were killed, eleven homesteads were destroyed, and seven women and children were carried off. The settlers defended themselves as best they could have, either by flight or by forting up. The cavalry was, as usual, worthless. The winter of 1864–65 was difficult for the survivors of Elm Creek, of which only three homesteads remained intact. Food, clothing, bedding, furniture, and most of their horses were all lost. The Indians had ripped up bedding to amuse themselves watching the feather ticking float in the air. They dumped out 500-pound sacks of flour for the flour sacks, which they prized.
In furtherance of endnote 2 and the so-called Quaker Peace Policy, it is true that having located themselves within Indian territory, white settlers became the aggressors, although no more or less than the Spanish-Mexican settlers before them. It is also true that frontier Texans developed an intense hatred for “red vermin.” These are facts, untempered by modern-day moralistic judgments. Human migration into areas long-populated by “indigenous” persons (no matter what their skin color) has been an often-repeated fact of history for thousands of years and the strongest tribe always wins.
In the same way, the Plains Indian assaulted Spanish/Catholic settlements, their clash with Anglo-American settlers was inevitable. The whites weren’t going to “go away,” and the Southwest tribes weren’t going to give up their territories without a fight . One interesting observation, however, is that the plains Indians were willing to sit down and negotiate with representatives of the US government (the Americanos), but they refused to meet with any Texan. I have often wondered if this was not the result of the Council House Fight.
Nevertheless, the willingness of the hostile tribes to negotiate with the United States government was a mistake of epic proportions. What the US government wanted after 1866 was to remove the Indians as threats to westward expansion by confining them to reservations. Confinement is an incorrect word in this instance because the provisions of the Quaker Peace Treaty permitted Indians to leave the reservations at will, to hunt and war with other Indian tribes. Since many of the Indian agents were corrupt , withholding food supplies as but one example, hunting off the reservations was necessary. At the same time, some Comanche and Kiowa bands used their “hunting excursions” as an opportunity to conduct raids on white settlers on the frontier —a known fact.
To achieve relocating all Southwest Indians onto reservations, and making them dependent upon their “white father” in Washington, it was first necessary to create circumstances that would convince a rational man that reservation life was preferred to starvation. The increase in Indian violence upon white settlers after 1866 —the result of a triumph of Washington theory over stark reality in the Southwest United States— led General Phil Sheridan and General William T. Sherman to conclude that there could be no solution to the Indian problem for as long as these Indians could support themselves off the reservation. With this in mind, the United States Congress authorized the U. S. Army to pursue a policy of extermination of the American Buffalo.
- Mooney, J. Calendar History of the Kiowa Indians: Summer, 1871. Seventeenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1898.
- Fehrenbach, T. R. Lone Star: A History of Texas and The Texans. Open Road Media, Kindle Edition.
- Tatum, L. Our Red Brothers and the Peace Policy of President Ulysses S. Grant, Philadelphia: Winston & Company, 1899.
- Greene, J. A. Indian War Veterans: Memories of Army Life and Campaigns in the West, 1864-1898. New York: Savas Beatie, 2007.
- Kessel, W. And Robert Wooster. Encyclopedia of Native American Wars and Warfare, 2005.
- Wooster, R. A. The Military and United States Indian Policy, 1865-1903. Published 1988.
- “For a long time have this people endured an almost uninterrupted warfare bloody and savage at the hands of Indians. But, sir, those depredations have been growing from bad to worse until they are perfectly alarming to our people. I might give your Excellency scores of instances of recent dates of murder, rape, and robbery which that have committed alone in the counties composing my judicial district. It has been but a few days since the whole Lee family, consisting of six persons were inhumanely butchered, three of them being females were ravished, murdered, and most terribly mutilated. Then Mr. Does, the Justice of the Peace of Palo Pinto County was but last week murdered and scalped; his ears and nose were cut off. Mr. Peoples and Mr. Crawford of the said county met the same fate. Wm. McCluskey was but yesterday shot down by those same bloody Quaker Pets upon his own threshold. I write to your Excellency, as to one who from your Exalted position in our nation can if you will protect us from this inhuman butchery. Your humble correspondent believes your Excellency to be endowed with at least a moderate amount of human feeling and a mind that cannot be trammeled by this one dread insane Pseudo humanitarian policy, called the Quaker Indian Peace Policy. Am I mistaken?” Signed, Charles Howard, Judge of the Thirteenth Judicial District, addressed to President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant.
- In devising this peace policy, not a single US official had ever studied the fate of Spanish missions or the failure of this peculiar ideology on the eighteenth-century frontier. No matter how well-intentioned this policy may have been, “It [policy] was a form of idiocy, because it completely failed to halt Kiowa-Comanche depredations on the Texas plains. The policy brutalized the Anglo-Saxon frontier, and it prolonged the agony of the American Indians.”
- These were Indians fooled into believing their white Indian agents, who promised the Indians a utopian existence but delivered nothing even remotely similar. Promised food stores, the Indians were starved; promised blankets, they were occasionally supplied with blankets infected with smallpox. One can conclude from this sad story that socialism didn’t work for the Indians, and it hasn’t worked for America’s ethnic/racial minorities, either. Life on the reservation was hell to the Indians, just as life in the “projects” is hell to the minorities who are imprisoned there.
- The movement of Comanche was part of a larger phenomenon known as the Shoshone Expansion during which the language family spread across the Great Basin and across the mountains into Wyoming. These nomadic people following the bison as their primary food source. After the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, the Comanche acquired horses and mules, which transformed them from mere nomadic Indians into a distinctive Comanche culture. It may have been the search for horses that caused the early Comanche to break away from the Shoshone and move southward into the Great Plains.
- The Kiowa likely shared their ethnic origin with other Amerinds of the Kiowa-Tanoan language family. As hunter-gatherers, the Kiowa are likely to have originated from the northern Missouri River Basin, moved southward seeking more land of their own, ending up in the Black Hills region of the Dakotas, and in turn, driven further south by the Cheyenne and Sioux. They eventually dominated the area of western Kansas, eastern Colorado, most of Oklahoma, and the Llano Estacado. At a council meeting in 1790, the Kiowa and Comanche agreed to share the hunting groups of the Great Plains and to support one another in mutual defense.
- Legally, Britt Johnson was a slave in 1864, but on the West Texas plain, no one cared about that. He had lived as a free man for most of his life. Most people referred to him as “Nigger Britt.”
- As noted in endnotes (above), the Comanche themselves were comparatively recent arrivals in the areas of the present-day Southwestern United States. Moreover, they attacked with equal ferocity any other “encroachers,” whether white, brown, or other red men. At one stage, Comanche and Kiowa bands targeted the Tonkawa Indians for extermination—the point is that modern-day readers should dispense with this notion of the Southwest tribes being cruelly and unfairly set upon by white settlers. In the judgment of rational thinkers, they reaped what they sowed.
- Indian Agent corruption was a problem almost from the beginning of the United States. Numerous examples exist within the Congressional Record of hearings and investigations into allegations of furnishing Indian populations with inferior goods, raking off food stores and selling them to other than Indian populations, selling Indians whiskey, and pocketing government appropriations. See also, U. S. Congress, House, Transfer of the Indian Bureau to the War Department, House Report 241, 45th Congress, 1878 (Serial 1822), and U. S. Congress, House, Report of the Indian Peace Commission, House Executive Document 97, 40th Congress, 1868 (Serial 1337).