The Greatest Raid

Introduction

Between 1700 – 1875, 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.  The Indians called it Comancheria — it was 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 … a word meaning “enemy.”  The Comanche was everyone’s enemy.  How violent were these people?  The reputation of the Comanche warrior was terrifying enough to keep Spaniards from settling in Coahuila y Tejas for nearly 300 years.

In 1836, a Comanche and Kiowa war party numbering around 300 braves attacked the Parker settlement (known as Fort Parker) near present-day Mexia, Texas.  At the time of the assault, John Parker and most of the settlement’s able-bodied men worked in adjoining fields.  Unfamiliar with the Comanche, these men went to work without firearms.  The war party slaughtered the men and kidnapped several women and children, including Cynthia Ann Parker and Rachel Plummer.  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.  Cynthia became the wife of the Comanche war chief Peta Nocona and mother of Comanche war chief Quanah Parker.[1]

In 1838, Comanches kidnapped 14-year-old Matilda Lockhart and four children of Mitchell Putnam from a field surrounding the settlement.  Two expeditions attempted to locate Mattie and the Putnam children, but both ended in frustration.  During the year of her captivity, Matilda continually suffered physical and mental abuse.  Indian men raped her, and Indian women tormented her and burned her body, including burning off a portion of her nose, and the bottoms of her feet.[2]

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 previously served as Sam Houston’s spymaster.  Karnes was 28 years old.[3]

As a demonstration of good faith, the emissaries released one of their white hostages to Karnes, a young teenage boy.  He was one of the Putnam children.  The Indians informed Karnes that they would return in 23 days to negotiate peace with the Texians.  Karnes listened to what these emissaries had to say and agreed to meet again at the prescribed time — and sternly informed these Indians that no lasting peace would be possible until the Comanche returned all of their white captives.  Karnes believed that the Comanche held between 13 – 16 other white prisoners.

After his meeting with the Indians, Colonel Karnes notified the Texas Secretary of War, 37-year-old Albert Sidney Johnson, of the impending negotiation.  Johnson ordered Karnes to proceed as follows: once the Indians returned, detain them until the Comanche returned all white hostages to their families.

On 19 March 1840, Comanche chieftain Muguara (Muk-wah-rah) led 65 Indians (including 33 other chiefs) and their families into San Antonio.  The Indians expected to bargain with the Texians for an exchange of their hostages for goods (blankets, muskets, gunpowder, food) and for Texian recognition of the Comancheria as the sovereign land of the Comanche.[4]

Under the terms of the January agreement, Muguara returned to the Texians in San Antonio the 15-year-old hostage named Matilda (Mattie) Lockhart.  Mattie was turned over to the care of Mary Ann Adams-Maverick, the wife of Samuel A. Maverick, who resided in San Antonio near the council house.  Mrs. Maverick recorded in her journal that Mattie was in a terrible physical condition and mental state.  Maverick bathed Mattie and dressed her in the clothing worn by Texian females at the time.  Maverick recorded that Mattie had been badly tortured and was utterly degraded as a human being.  She could not hold up her head.  Her head, arms, and face were full of bruises and sores.  Her nose was burned off to the bone with the fleshy end of her nose gone entirely and a great scab formed on the end of the bone.  Both of Mattie’s nostrils were wide open and denuded of flesh.

Maverick recorded Mattie’s story — a piteous story of how dreadfully the Comanche had beaten her, how they would awaken her by sticking a chuck of fire into her flesh.  Her body contained many scars to validate the charges.  During her captivity, Mattie had learned to understand some of the Comanche languages.  She informed Texian authorities that the Indians still held 13 other captives and that they planned to bring them in one by one and bargain for each in exchange for ammunition, blankets, and other supplies.[5]  By the time Colonel Karnes and armed rangers met with the Indians at the Council House, no one was in the mood to show the Comanche any courtesy whatsoever.

The day following the Council House Fight, Texians released one of the Comanche female prisoners to carry a verbal message back to her band.  The Texians demanded that the Comanche release their 13 remaining hostages in exchange for the safe return of the Indian women and children in their custody.  A prisoner exchange was not what the Comanche had in mind, however.  They opted for revenge, instead.  The Comanche skinned alive all remaining white hostages and then roasted them to death over a fire.  Mattie’s sister was one of them.[6]

The Indian depredations were only the beginning.  According to long-held Indian traditions, “council” meetings were nearly sacrosanct.  Council was an opportunity for adversaries to meet in peace to discuss terms for ending hostilities.  No one violated council protocols without significant repercussions.  To avenge what the Comanche viewed as a bitter betrayal by the Texans, Buffalo Hump raised a massive war party of many Comanche bands.

Buffalo Hump was the Penateka Tribe’s First War Chief.  He had no intention to moan about the Texian’s betrayal.  With the participation of other Comanche bands, Buffalo Hump began planning what became the largest Indian war party in U.S. history — well over 1,000 Indians.  At the beginning of the summer, a war party consisting of between 400 – 500 warriors raided white settlements between Bastrop and San Antonio.  In mid-July, Comanche from the Nokoni, Kotsoteka, Yamparika,  and Kwahadi bands joined the marauders.  The raid, known in history as The Great Raid of 1840, began in West Texas and made its way to the Gulf of Mexico — to Victoria and Linnville.

On 6 August, even though Texas Rangers were shadowing the war party, a large group of Indians split off and headed for Victoria before the Rangers could warn the settlement of approaching danger.  The Indian onslaught commenced without warning; Indians rode through the town’s streets killing indiscriminately.  Terrified citizens hid inside buildings.  When armed citizens began shooting back, the Indians concentrated more on looting the town and stealing horses.  After the assault on Victoria, the Comanche camped for the night along Spring Creek.

The next day, the war party continued toward Lavaca Bay, camping that night along Placido Creek, 12 miles from Linnville.[7]  Early in the morning of 8 August, the Indians surrounded the small port settlement (then the second largest port in the Texas Republic).  Knowing that the plains Indians had no experience on the sea, terrified citizens prudently boarded boats and rowed offshore beyond the range of arrows and musket fire.  When the Indians finished looting businesses and private homes, they set fire to the entire settlement.  The settlement that was once located only 1.3 miles from present-day Port Lavaca ceased to exist on 8 August 1840.

One witness to the Linnville raid was the store owner named James Robinson, who noted in his diary, “Those the Indians made free with, and went dashing about the blazing village, amid their screeching squaws and `little Injuns,’ like demons in a drunken saturnalia, with Robinson’s hats on their heads and Robinson’s umbrellas bobbing about on every side like tipsy young balloons.”  The Indians retreated from the smoldering remains of Linnville in the late afternoon.

The word spread throughout East Texas and eventually, Texians began to flock toward the Texas Ranger companies.  Enough was enough.  Volunteers mustered from Gonzalez under Mathew Caldwell,[8] and from Bastrop under Ed Burleson.[9]  Ranger companies from east and central Texas combined to intercept the Indians.

They all came together at Plum Creek, near the town of Lockhart on 12 August 1840.  The Comanche, normally a fast and deadly light cavalry, were overburdened by their human captives and hundreds of pounds of plunder.  Contending with dozens of mules loaded with loot, many prisoners, and driving between 2,000 and 3,000 stolen horses, the Comanche had turned back toward the Comancheria.  Sated in their lust for blood and white man’s goods, particularly the horses, Comanche warriors rode for the high plateau.  They were in no position to resist a Texian assault.

Not far behind them, dusty riders pounded through the coastal prairie — every able-bodied man turned out, from Lavaca, Gonzalez, Victoria, and Cuero —  and a hundred widely dispersed independent farms all across East Texas.  Their captains were such men as Jack John J. Tumlinson, Ben McCulloch, Mathew Caldwell, and Edward Burleson.

One company of rangers pressed the Indians hard from the rear of their formation, firing into them at times, but they lacked the personnel strength, and firepower to close with or engage the Indians in sustained combat.  But the Indians ignored them for as long as possible.  While this was going on, other Texans rode toward the Colorado River settlements seeking additional volunteers.  The plan was for all volunteer defenders to gather at Plum Creek, two miles outside Lockhart, Texas.

On 12 August, Edward Burleson and a hundred men under Henry Jones, William A. Wallace, William P. Hardeman, Adam Zumwalt, and Clark Owen rode into Plum Creek.  They were the Bastrop militia.  Tonkawa scouts under Chief Placido kept the Texas Rangers informed of the Comanche’s positions.  They were moving slowly toward the Big Prairie and would cross over it near Plum Creek.[10]

As the Indian column began to pass by Plum Creek, the old Indian fighters, Caldwell, Burleson, and McCulloch, wanted to press their attack, but the less experienced General Felix Huston hesitated.  One hundred dismounted Texians concealed themselves in the dense brush along the creek and waited for their commander’s orders.  Finally, as the Indian cavalcade moved into the plain, General Huston, Colonel Burleson, and Captain Caldwell rode out from the bush, bringing with them two long lines of Texian horsed rangers.

One of the Bastrop men was John H. Jenkins.  He later described the feints and challenges displayed by the Indian warriors as a prelude to blood-chilling combat: “They arrayed in all the splendor of savage warriors and finely mounted, bounded over the space between the hostile lines, exhibiting feats of horsemanship and daring none but a Comanche could perform.”

Mr. Jenkins described it as a marvelous spectacle — so many mounted horsemen preening before a fight.  He was no doubt impressed, but the seasoned Texians were not.  They watched the Comanche with angry, determined, skeptical eyes.  Both Burleson and Caldwell knew what the Indians were doing: trying to delay the fight until they had moved their stolen herds ahead of them.  Even more important than the horses, however, was the stolen loot.  The horses, while highly prized by the Comanche, became a barrier to rapid egress; the horses forced the Indians to stay on the trail back to the Comancheria.

Finally, a Comanche war chief in magnificent attire rode out to challenge the Texians.  He shouted at them, dared, and taunted them.  Within a few moments, a Texian sharpshooter sent him into the promised land.  Caldwell urged — charge them, General!

When Huston gave his order, Texian cavalry spurred their horses into the Comanche flank, stampeded the massive herd, and dispersed the Comanche into disarray.  Horses and mules bunched up in a boggy stretch, trapping Indian horsemen and making the field a confusing mess.  Caldwell led his men around the left flank and began methodically killing every Indian in his path.

The fight started and went on, as a running battle, for nearly twenty miles.  The combat was close and cruel — more massacre than a battle.  The Comanche killed one Texan.  The Texans killed eighty Comanche.  Texian captives of the Indians were not as fortunate.  Several females were tied to trees and used as a sport for Comanche braves — their bodies were later found pierced with several arrows.  One prisoner, the wife of the slain customs inspector was shot as well, but her whalebone corset saved her life.

After the battle, Texians recovered great quantities of silver, bolts of cloth, jugs of whiskey, cuts of tobacco, and many horses.  The Battle of Plum Creek punished the Penateka severely and afterward, no Comanche ever attacked a Texas settlement within the coastal plain.  The raid, while understandable from the Indian’s point of view, made it less likely that any Texian would greet them in friendship — and the Texians remained deeply angry for many years.  As an illustration of these dark feelings, President Lamar dispatched Colonel John Moore and 110 men into the Comanche territory.  Within a month, Moore’s rangers located a Comanche village and set upon them.  When the shooting was done, thirty minutes later, 125 Indians lay dead.

Sources:

  1. Bial, R.  Lifeways: The Comanche.  Benchmarks books, 2000.
  2. Brice, D. E.  The Great Comanche Raid: Boldest Indian Attack on the Texas Republic.  McGowan Books, 1987.
  3. Cox, M.  Texas Ranger Tales: Stories that need telling.  Republic of Texas Press, 1997.
  4. Fehrenbach, T. R.  The Comanches: The Destruction of a People. Knopf Books, 1974.
  5. Fehrenbach, T. R.  Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans.  Open Road Books, 2000,
  6. Frazier, I.  Great Plains.  Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1989.
  7.   Wallace, E., and E. A. Hoebel.  The Comanches: Lords of the Southern Plains.  University of Oklahoma Press, 1952.

Endnotes:

[1] Cynthia Parker was re-captured in 1860.  She passed away in 1871. 

[2] Mattie Lockhart (1825 – 1841) was the daughter of Andrew Lockhart who immigrated to Texas with her family from Illinois.  They settled in the DeWitt Colony on the Guadalupe River.  While in captivity, Mattie suffered so much abuse that she was utterly destroyed as a human being.  She died within a year of her return to San Antonio.

[3] Karnes’s youth was an issue; he was a 28-year-old colonel who was fuller of beans than brains.  He did not know enough about the Comanche to enter into a successful negotiation.  He did not know, for example, that the Comanche bands were independent entities that owed no allegiance to any other Comanche band.  Karnes’ demand that Muguara return white hostages that he did not control was ludicrous.  

[4] Importantly, a couple of high-ranking Comanche chiefs refused to attend the meeting: Buffalo Hump, Yellow Wolf, and Santa Anna.  They would not attend the council because they did not trust the white man.

[5] Mattie Lockhart did not survive her ordeal.  She died in 1841, very likely the result of her no longer having the will to live her life as a Comanche-damaged freak. 

[6] I do not know what the Texians did with their remaining Comanche hostages after the Council House Fight.

[7] Named for John J. Linn (1798 – 1885), a merchant, statesman, soldier, and historian.  In 1822, he set up his own goods store in New Orleans and became interested in Texas during a business trip to Mexico.  In 1829, he migrated to Victoria where he maintained his residence and business outlet.  In 1831, he established a small settlement along Lavaca Bay, naming it New Port, where he constructed a wharf and warehouse.  New Port later changed its name to Linnville in John’s honor.  Linn was fluent in Spanish and became an important liaison between Mexican and Irish colonists.   

[8] Caldwell (1798 – 1842) was a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence and a soldier in the Texian Army.  Known also as “Old Paint,” President Lamar appointed Caldwell a Texas Ranger Captain —

[9] Edward Burleson (1798 – 1851) was an experienced combat officer, a veteran of the War of 1812, and of Missouri and Texas militias.  He served as major general of Texas volunteers in 1835, and colonel of Texas regulars of the First Volunteer Infantry.  During the Battle of Plum Creek, then-Senator Burleson helped to coordinate the Texian response force.

[10] A branch of the San Marcos River.


About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in American Frontier, American Indians, Comanche, History, Indian Territory, Indian War, Texas. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Greatest Raid

  1. bunkerville says:

    Interesting story… thanks.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.