The Council House Fight

Background

Between 1700-1875, the Comanche, Kiowa, Wichita, Caddo, Bidai, Karankawa, Eastern Pueblo, and Apache Indians dominated a massive swath of land in the area of present-day Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, and Arizona.  It was called the Comancheria.  It was also the unchallenged domain of the fiercest society of warriors that ever existed on the backs of horses.  They called themselves Numunuu; everyone else called them Comanche (enemy).  How violent were these people?  Their reputation was enough to terrify Spaniards from wanting to settle in Coahuila y Tejas for nearly 300 years.

Following the French and Indian War (1754-1763), Spanish authorities in New Spain realized that the Spanish Crown could not legitimately claim lands they did not control through human settlements.  Land that the Spanish did not populate was land “for the taking” by the French or British.  France’s agreement to sell Louisiana to the Americans in 1803 did not reduce tensions within the Viceroyalty of New Spain.

In 1819, the United States and Spain signed the Adams-Onis Treaty, which ceded Florida to the United States in exchange for the U.S. recognition of Spanish boundaries.  The treaty also allowed the Spanish Crown to focus on the independence movements throughout Latin America.

Late in 1820, a failed American businessman named Moses Austin seized upon an idea of a free trade arrangement with the government of New Spain.  He traveled to San Antonio to begin negotiations in an enterprise that might improve his economic situation.  Austin’s primary intention was to create a trading venture on the coast of Texas to allow the United States to trade with New Spain.  He submitted a formal petition to Governor Antonio Maria Martinez, seeking permission to bring 300 families to a port in Texas.  Austin assured the governor these settlers would be former subjects of Spain (from Missouri) and would be willing to defend Tejas against foreign enemies.

Much transpired in Texas between 1820 and 1840: Mexico achieved its independence from New Spain and then embarked on the complicated process of sorting out political differences to establish a new Republic.  But that wasn’t the only thing going on in Mexico and Texas.

In 1833, Josiah Walbarger rode with five others near the present site of Austin, Texas, when they came under heavy attack by Comanche Indians.  Walbarger’s companions were murdered, and their bodies mutilated; Josiah was scalped while still alive and left for dead.  According to Josiah’s brother, this incident was the first incident between Texians and Comanches; it was the beginning of the bloodiest era of the American Southwest.

In 1836, a Comanche and Kiowa war party numbering around 300 braves attacked the Parker community (near present-day Mexia, Texas).  John Parker and most of the men, lacking sufficient knowledge of the Comanche, worked in the adjoining field unprotected.  The Indians slaughtered the men, kidnapped Cynthia Ann Parker, and Rachel Plummer (and five others), and destroyed the fortification.  While in captivity, Rachel gave birth to a half-cast child.  When the child was six months old, an Indian brave took the child from its mother and murdered it by dragging it behind a horse.

Also, in 1836, those loyal Spanish settlers, known as Texians, declared their Independence from Mexico — which began a permanent disconnect between Texas and the people of Mexico.

In 1838, Comanches kidnapped Matilda Lockhart and four Putnam children from a field surrounding the settlement.  During the year of her captivity, Matilda continually suffered physical (burning her body and the bottom of her feet with hot irons) and sexual abuse.  When she finally returned to her family a year later, Matilda was a physical and mental wreck.  She died within two years of her release.

In that same year, a ten-man survey party began their work near New Braunfels.  One of the men, an experienced frontiersman, disgusted that the party had become too careless of their safety, left the group.  He later found the entire survey group murdered.  One man named Beatty had managed to carve his name into the base of a tree before he died.

_______________

Comanche

Neolithic people banded together in support groups, but all such groups were sized to facilitate the group’s survival.  In most cases, the size of these human groups was between 40-60 people.  Above that number, people were encouraged to leave the band to form a new group.  There was no one leader of tribes and bands; it was a shared responsibility between elders, shamans, hunters, and war leaders.  But the Comanche (as with most Indian groups) were independent-minded people.  No chief could force anyone to do anything they didn’t want to do.  The only consequence of refusing to abide by an elder’s wishes was an exile from the tribe or band.

Although bound together in various cultural and political ways, Comanche bands were not responsible for any formalized unified authority.  Texians didn’t understand this about the Comanche.  In their minds, a chief was a supreme leader, a chief spoke for all Comanche.  Nothing was further from the truth.  There were at least 12 divisions of the Comanche, with as many as 50 independent roaming bands.  In the absence of a centralized authority, no Comanche chief could guarantee the safe return of a white hostage held by another band.

For ten or so years, the Comanche fought against their enemy, the Apache.  They raided Mexican haciendas and Texian settlements.  They suffered the effects of warriors lost in battle and from debilitating European disease.  It was enough to want to start talks with the white eyes.

Seeking Peace

On 10 January 1840, three Comanche emissaries surprised everyone in San Antonio by walking into the city and announcing that they wanted to arrange peace with the whites.  These emissaries met with Colonel Henry W. Karnes, who had served during the Texas War of Independence as Sam Houston’s spymaster.  Karnes was 28 years old.

The emissaries released one white boy to Karnes — a measure of good faith.  He was the Putnam lad.  The Indians informed Karnes that they would return in 23 days to negotiate peace with the Texians.  Karnes listened to what they had to say and agreed to meet again at the prescribed time, but he also admonished these men that no lasting peace would be possible until the Comanche returned their white captives.  Karnes estimated that the Comanche held 13-16 white prisoners.

Karnes promptly notified Secretary War, 37-year old Albert Sidney Johnson, of the impending negotiation.  Johnson ordered Karnes to detain the Indians once they arrived and retain them in custody until the Comanche returned all white people to their families.

The Fight

On 19 March, the powerful Eastern Comanche Chief Muguara (also: Mukwooru) (translation, Spirit Talker) led 65 people into San Antonio, including 12 other chiefs, their women and children, and warriors.  The Indians were dressed in their finest clothing to present their best appearance.  Chief Muguara wanted most Texian recognition of the Comancheria as the Indian’s dominion.[1]

The Comanche brought along a captive female, 16-year old Matilda Lockhart, taken in 1838.  Matilda had been sold to several Indian men.  Mary Maverick, the wife of Sam Maverick, cared for Matilda once Muguara turned her over.  Maverick testified that the Indians burned off Matilda’s nose in addition to other disgusting abuses.  The girl was an absolute mess.

Muguara was upset because the Texians did not offer him guns and ammunition for Miss Lockhart; he needed provisions to continue raiding.  Karnes wasn’t buying it, and he was none too happy about the condition of Matilda Lockhart.

Colonel Hugh McLeod questioned Matilda about what she knew of the thirteen kidnapped whites that Muguara promised to trade for provisions — as part of the peace negotiations.  Matilda informed the Texians that she knew of the existence of Mrs. Dolly Wester, her children, Booker and Patsy, Thomas Pierce, a child named Lyons, and the three remaining Putnam children.

When it was clear that Muguara was stalling, Karnes and McLeod believed that the Comanche negotiated in bad faith.  Karnes had made it clear that the Comanche must release all abducted whites before the council meeting.  The Comanche, however, had a different view.  Comanche, who held those captives, had never agreed to anything of the sort — and especially not to meet with Texians.

When the Indian delegation failed to produce the expected number of captives, Texians escorted its members to the jailhouse and retained them there until the meeting began at the Council House.  The Council House was a one-story stone building adjoining the jail at Main Plaza and Calabosa (Market) Street.[2]  Karnes, armed with the knowledge of Matilda Lockhart’s testimony that she had seen 15 other white captives at the Comanche’s main camp a few days earlier.  She reported that the Indians wanted to see how high a price they could get for their hostages.  The Indian plan was to bring in the remaining captives one or two at a time to maximize their value.

The Texians demanded to know where the other captives were.  Chief Muguara, the Comanche spokesman, informed the Texians that various bands held the other prisoners.  He assured Karnes that he was confident that the other captives would be released in time, in exchange for a significant amount of supplies, of course — including rifles, ammunition, and blankets.

Chief Muguara was undoubtedly fluent in Spanish but less fluent in English.  When he was finished speaking his terms in Spanish, which was translated into English, he finally spoke in English, saying to the Texians, “Now how do you like that answer?”  Neither Karnes nor any other leading Texian liked it at all.  Texian militia, summoned to enter the Council House, stationed themselves at intervals along the walls.  When the Comanche could not or would not promise to return the remaining captives forthwith, Karnes announced that the Texians would hold these chiefs as hostages until the Comanche returned all remaining white prisoners.

The interpreter hesitated before relaying this message.  He warned Karnes that the Comanche would attempt to escape by fighting if he delivered this message.  Karnes ordered him to relay the message.  When the interpreter had given the notice, he quickly left the room.

As soon as the Comanche understood the Texian’s words, they arose and began attacking the militia and fighting their way out of the Council House.  Texian militia opened fire at point-blank range, killing both Indians and whites.  Upon hearing the commotion inside the Council House, Comanche women and children waiting outdoors began shooting arrows indiscriminately at white people.  At least one Texian spectator was killed.

When a small number of warriors managed to escape from the Council House, all of the Comanche began to flee.  Texian militia in pursuit opened fire, also haphazardly, also killing and wounding both Comanche and Texians.  Armed civilians joined the battle.  Every Comanche Indian joined the fight, including women and children.  Gunsmoke created a haze on the streets and near buildings.  Everyone was getting shot.

Inside the Council House, all of the Indians drew their concealed weapons.  Militia Lieutenant Dunnington drew his pistol to fire but was shot by an arrow from the principal squaw, who dressed similar to a warrior.  Her pull was so strong the arrow passed through his body.  Dunnington stumbled backward but managed to get a shot off before dying.  His bullet passed through her forehead and her brains splattered against the walls.  He then fell over and expired twenty minutes later.  Dunnington’s last words were, “I killed him, but I believe he has killed me too.”  Dunnington never knew a woman had killed him.

Colonel McLeod’s report, prepared on 20 March 1840, claimed that of the 65 members of the Comanche delegation, 35 died violently (30 adult males, three women, and two children), and 29 were taken captive (27 women and children and two elderly men).  One renegade escaped, and five unaccounted for, presumed to have escaped.  Seven Texians died, including a judge, a sheriff, and Dunnington, and ten more received severe wounds, including Old Paint Caldwell.

Aftermath

The day after the fight, a single Comanche woman was released to return to her camp and report that the Comanche prisoners would be released if the Comanche released the 15 Americans and several Mexicans who were known to be captives.  The Texians gave the Comanche 12 days to return the captives.

On 26 March, Mrs. John Webster walked into San Antonio with her three-year-old.  She had been a Comanche captive for 19 months and had just escaped, leaving her 12-year-old son with the Indians.  Two days later, a band of Indians arrived on the outskirts of San Antonio.  Leaving the bulk of his warriors outside the city, Chief Howling Wolf and one other man rode into San Antonio and yelled insults at the white citizens, who told him to go and find soldiers if he wanted a fight.  Howling Wolf thereafter left town and did not return.

To suggest that the Comanche were incensed by the Council House fight would be a gross understatement.  Of the sixteen or so hostages the Texians seemed determined to recover, the Comanche tortured to death 13, including Matilda Lockhart’s six-year-old sister, who they roasted to death.  The Comanche spared only three whites — and only because they adopted them into the tribe.  These murders were the Comanche’s answer to the Texian ultimatum.

On 3 April, another Comanche band appeared in San Antonio.  They brought Booker Webster, a five-year-old girl, and a Mexican boy.  From Booker Webster, the Texians learned of the murder of 13 white hostages.  These were the three adopted whites whom the Comanche spared.

The Comanche were both shocked and incensed by the perfidy of the Texians at the Council House.  Buffalo Hump, Yellow Wolf, and Santa Anna organized what became known as the Great Raid of 1840.  Nearly a thousand Comanche descended upon the Texian settlements, destroying the colonies, taking horses and cattle, everything the Indians could carry, killing 25-30 white settlers, and taking additional white hostages.  One of those was Mrs. Crosby, a granddaughter of Daniel Boone.  Her captors later murdered Crosby.

Buffalo Hump’s assault on East Texas culminated in the Battle of Plum Creek.

Conclusion

In 1890, author J. W. Walbarger published an account of more than 250 Indian attacks between 1821-1875.  Responding to criticism of eastern writers who censored Texans for their treatment of the Indians, Walbarger wrote, “Such writers probably never saw a wild Indian in their lives — never had their fathers, mothers, brothers, or sisters butchered by them in cold blood; never had their little sons and daughters carried away by them into captivity, to be brought up as savages, and taught to believe that robbery was meritorious, and cold-blooded murder a praiseworthy act, and certainly they never themselves had their own limbs beaten, bruised, burnt, and tortured with fiendish ingenuity by ‘ye gentle salvages,’ nor their scalps ruthlessly torn from their bleeding heads, for if the latter experience had been theirs, and they had survived the pleasant operations (as some have done in Texas) we are inclined to think the exposure of their naked skulls to the influences of wind and weather might have so softened them as to permit the entrance of a little common sense.”

Sources:

  1. Anderson, G. C.  The Conquest of Texas: Ethnic Cleansing in the Promised Land.  University of Oklahoma Press, 2005.
  2. Brice, D. E.  The Great Comanche Raid: Boldest Indian Attack of the Texas Republic.  Eaken Press, 1987.
  3. Noyes, S.  Los Comanches: The Horse People, 1751-1845.  University of New Mexico Press, 1993.
  4. Wilbarger, J. W.  Indian Depredations in Texas: Reliable Accounts of Battles, Wars, Adventures, Forays, Murders, Massacres, etc., etc., Together with Biographical Sketches of many of the most noted Indian fighters and frontiersmen of Texas.  Available online as a PDF, 1890.

Endnotes:

[1] Three Comanche chiefs did not attend: Buffalo Hump, Yellow Wolf, and Santa Anna — the fiercest war chiefs.

[2] All Indian tribes had their own cultural traditions, but one that appears consistent across several Indian cultures involved protocols for holding council meetings.  Men might raise their voices and storm out of the meeting, but under no circumstance would Indians who attended council in peace resort to violence while in council.  To do so was a supreme affront to “civilized” behavior. 


About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in American Frontier, American Indians, American Southwest, Comanche, Feuds & Rivalries, History, Indian War, Mexican Revolution, Politicians, Texas, Texas Rangers. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to The Council House Fight

  1. Andy says:

    An excellent article. It highlights the clash between two entirely different cultures, neither of which understood the other. Such a situation was bound to end in violence and bloodshed.

    Enjoyed reading this one. Well done.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. bunkerville says:

    A bit of a different take on the Noble Savage. Interesting post.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I believe some of this has been extrapolated into science fiction regarding the clashing of alien races.
    Well written here.
    It was perfidious of us to violate the council.
    I am once again reminded of The Seekers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      I have often argued that from a cultural standpoint, it would be easier to get a camel through the eye of a needle than to find common ground between Texans and Comanche (or any Indian, for that matter). Looking at the Council House fight through our 21st-century lenses, what the Texans did was unquestionably bad juju — but they weren’t motivated to make friends with the Comanche; they were motivated to get their kidnapped relatives back. As it turned out, the Texan strategy didn’t accomplish that, either, and (in fact), achieved just the opposite. It was the worst of all possible outcomes.

      Thank you for stopping by, Ed.

      Like

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