In the beginning of the eighteenth century, the
Comanche came to the mountains around Santa Fe in search of
horses. They revered the horse and when first encountered they
thought it was a wonderful, large dog. Like Romans, the tribe
related mythologically to the wolf and between each other were
kind and playful, packlike. Their fighting abilities on horseback
soon earned them fearful respect throughout the southwest. In
one of their earliest raids they stole a herd of over fifteen
hundred. Their herds swelled to tens then hundreds of thousands.
Soon no respectable chief would have less than a few thousand
and it wasn't that uncommon for any warrior to own over a thousand.
Comanche men loathed walking anywhere. When a
warrior desired to go somewhere, a wife brought his horse right
to his teepee's entrance. Boys were placed on horseback before
they could walk and could catch and saddle their own ponies
by the time they were five. Comanches parents were exceptionally
kind and loving to their children. So tenderhearted in fact
that grandfathers or uncles assumed the responsibility for the
young boy's rigorous martial training. Some legends proclaim
that the most promising young warriors attended leadership school.
A woman served as commandant at a camp established for this
purpose and prominent war chiefs visited, lecturing the boys
on weapons, communications and tactics. Texas Ranger Noah Smithwick
was appointed Texas Comanche agent and spent a considerable
amount of time living with the tribe in the late 1830s. He noted
the boys were constantly engaged in contests that developed
their riding, hunting and fighting skills. Young warriors would
sometimes pursue a young buffalo bull simulating a hunt.
"The hunters would begin by shooting
arrows into the animal's hump. When it became infuriated and
charged one of them, another would gallop beside it and jerk
an arrow from its hump. At the fresh pain the bull would turn
and attack its new tormentor. It was then that a well-trained
horse was essential. Smithwick recorded seeing old bulls whirl
so quickly that it was "all the Indian's pony could do
to get out of the way." But then another warrior would
race in and snatch an arrow, and the bull would turn on him.
The hunters would keep this up until the animal was exhausted,
when they would dispatch it and retrieve their arrows. They
also enjoyed competing at roping deer, mustangs, buffalo calves
and wild turkeys."
Young warriors also played a variety of games
involving racing, dismounting and retrieving each other but
roping skills were most valuable when it came to capturing horses.
Colonel Dodge observed, some years after his 1833 encounter
with a large band of Comanche in the Wichita Mountains, that
"the Comanche were not only the best horse thieves, but
the best horse breeders in America." The band treated Dodge
and his dragoons in an aloof and indifferent manner but they
showed an acute interest in the army's heavy horses. They preferred
paints and emphasized strains that would produce better traveling,
hunting or war ponies. The Comanche didn't steal Dodge's horses
though the heavy strain would surely breed in distance and comfort.
They learned through a century of dealing with foreign nations
that new generals and their armies would soon return with horses
and weapons as tribute for an alliance.
Just as horses trained for the hunt knew to turn
away at the sound of a bow twang to avoid possible goring, war
ponies were trained to respond to the lightest touch of the
knee or foot. The warriors tied a rope around the horse's neck
with a loop on the opposite end which held his ankle. On approaching
the enemy, the Comanche could lean over the side of his horse
at a full run, firing from underneath the horse's neck while
using the animal's body as a shield. These skills gave the Comanche
a tremendous advantage on the battlefield, forcing their opponents
to take a defensive position and dismount in order to fire accurately.
Contrary to the movies, only the Comanche tribe attacked in
battle on horseback.
A mounted Comanche warrior could circle a modern-day
football field at a full run while accurately shooting twenty
arrows at targets on the opposite side of the field and this
was done in the time it took to reload a gun. They usually attacked
in concurrent circles of five to eight warriors. The circles
were coordinated through a complicated communication system
involving oral commands as well as hand and mirror signals.
They swarmed their enemy, alternating between arrows, lances
and short arms (guns, swords, and tomahawks) depending on the
range of their enemy.
The Comanche Nation
The Comanche needed markets to sell stolen captives
and horses. In early 1720, they found they were unwelcome at
the trade fair at Taos. They took this opportunity to show the
New Mexicans their version of a hard bargain. They grabbed a
number of local citizens and in plain view of their former trading
partners began torturing and killing. Every cry drove home their
bargaining points until their "shopping" privileges
were reestablished. The tribe recognized the value of terror
and took every opportunity to exhibit cruelty, establishing
fear in the hearts of their opponents.
Spanish maps began to refer to the Southern Plains
as Comancheria., a nation jealously protected
by it's namesake. They drove the Lipan Apache across the Rio
Grande in an effort to exterminate the former South Texans and
devastated the Spanish mission at San Saba for attempting to
protect them. The next year they routed a punitive army of over
five hundred at the Battle of Old Spanish
Fort. Their efforts eventually brought them a profitable
and lasting trade agreement with Santa Fe Spaniards and a valuable
alliance with the Kiowa empire.
In 1806, the Comanches participated in an
event of great consequence to them. The event is recorded
in a story passed down from one generation to the next among
the Kiowas; their tradition has it that two separate parties
of Comanches and Kiowas, enemies at that time, arrived at
the house of a New Mexican, possibly a comanchero, who was
on good terms with both peoples. This nuevomexicano was able
to arrange a parley between the hostile groups of warriors.
During the talk, a Comanche chief, Pareiya (Afraid-of-Water),
invited a Kiowa chief, Gui-k'-ati (Wolf-Lying-Down), to return
with him to his camp and spend the summer there. During that
time they could talk about peace between the two peoples.
Wolf-Lying-Down, the second most important Kiowa in the tribe,
accepted the invitation. But he told his braves to return
to the trader's house when the leaves turned yellow. If he
were not there, the Kiowas were to avenge his murder.
The party of Kiowas left. Wolf-Lying-Down rode
off with Afraid-of-Water and his warriors. They traveled south
of Pareiya's camp on the Brazos River, where the Kiowa spent
the summer among the Comanches. The People entertained him
as a guest. That fall Wolf-Lying-Down met his warriors, as
agreed upon, at the trader's house, and there was peace between
Stanley Noyes, Los Comanches, The Horse
The Comanches came to the Southern Plains as roaming
scavengers, whereas the Kiowa had been there for over a thousand
years and developed a rich culture which yielded an accurate
calendar, making them wealthy farmers. To their credit, at least
in the Comanches eyes, they abandoned their ancestral corn fields
for the nomadic life of the hunt and the raid. They had developed
a pictorial writing which enabled them to accurately pass down
accounts of successful battles, treachery of their enemies and
perhaps most appreciated by the Comanche, stories of revenge
achieved through insidiously elaborate tortures and murders.
There were other aspects to the Kiowa that the
Comanches surely envied and admired. Kiowa's raided at a greater
distance than any other tribe and probably impressed the Comanche
with tales of Central America's monkeys and parrots. The Kiowa
maintained a rigid warrior society; the most honored entered
the brotherhood of the Ten Bravest. Members wore a long, red
sash which they anchored to the ground with an arrow when fighting
became intense. This signified they would remain until death,
encouraging their warriors to renew their efforts.
A Comanche motto proclaimed "The brave die
young." Possibly the single remark most revealing of Comanche
attitudes was one made by chiefs to Governor de Anza of New
Mexico in late 1786 or early 1787, after their treaty and alliance
with the Spaniards. Learning that delegations of Lipan Apaches
had been visiting New Mexico to sue for peace, they begged de
Anza not to grant a treaty to this mutual foe; otherwise, they
pleaded, they would have no enemies to fight and, as a result,
would become effeminate.
Colonel Dodge and his dragoons came to the Wichita
Mountains in 1834 to establish peace between the Kiowa/Comanches
and U. S. allies and trading partners, the Osage. The previous
year, Osage Chief Clermont led three hundred of his warriors
east of the Cross Timbers in the vicinity of Fort Gibson across
the plains to the Wichita Mountains. They struck a Kiowa camp
near present day Fort Sill, killing one hundred and thirty women,
children, and old men; placing some of their heads in cooking
pots to be found by the returning Kiowa hunting party.
The United States began their effort to establish
relations with the Comanche in 1832 when President Jackson sent
Sam Houston to San Antonio to invite Comanche leaders to council
with the United States at Fort Gibson near modern Muskogee,
Oklahoma. Houston urged the Comanches to meet several times
through the next year and they readily agreed to the benefits
of making peace with the Osage but they were reluctant to enter
the Cross Timbers due to the immobility of their horses. The
Comanche wanted all the room they could get because many Osage
warriors topped seven feet in height and were considered the
fastest runners in North America. Comanche warriors bobbed the
tails of their ponies in anticipation of an Osage battle because
of the warriors ability to chase them down and stab them in
the back or knock down their horses within a fifty yard sprint.
In the end, Kiowa negotiators represented Comanche interest
at councils at Fort Gibson and the resulting treaty lasted over
The nature of the Comanche was widely commented
on by their opponents during the centuries of warfare. Texas
Indian Superintendent Robert S. Neighbors said in the 1850s
"the Comanches had a gay cast of mind and from the liberality
with which they dispose of their effects" on ceremonial
occasions, "it would induce the belief that they acquire
property merely for the purpose of giving it to others."
Decades earlier in New Orleans, the Marques de Rubi similarly
stated that the Comanches and other Indians of the north were,
"because of generosity and gallantry," the "least
unworthy" of the native nations to be the enemies of the
Stanley Noyes makes several references to famous
Texans' opinions of the Comanche:
If the presence of Americans on the eastern frontier of northern
New Spain made Spanish officials increasingly uneasy, the
evidence suggests that the Comanches, on the other hand, held
a largely favorable attitude toward the newcomers. In 1822,
for example, Stephen Austin, "the father of Texas,"
was traveling between San Antonio and Mexico City. In Mexican
Texas, near the Nueces River, a war party of fifty Comanches
captured him and a companion. But when the Comanches learned
the two men were Americans, they returned nearly all of their
belongings and released them. That same month, in a letter,
Austin interpreted the incident by noting that the Comanches'
"partiality for Americans [was] explained by their illicit
trading relations with certain Americans," who were probably
operating mainly in the vicinity of Natchitoches. Also indicative
of the People's attitude toward americanos was the fact that
three years later, when Comanches were raiding San Antonio,
they left Austin's little colony alone.
Stephen F. Austin
(Photo from the book, The Men Who Wear The Star, by Charles
M. Robinson, III)
In 1824, the Cincinnati Literary Gazette began
printing a series written by future Texas President David
G. Burnet about the Comanche Indians. Young Burnet was not
that impressed with the Comanches he had seen in Texas. He
acknowledged the speed of their ponies and their rider's knowledge
of the geography which served to inspire the warrior's with
an artificial fearlessness that endowed them, yet Burnet wrote
"all one really had to do was oppose Comanche warriors
with decision and energy and they would crouch like the spaniel
or fly like the stricken fawn." One wonders if these
words haunted him later when each mile advanced into Texas
frontier cost seventeen white lives. Burnet held the women
responsible for "the largest portion of the nation's
barbarity." He went on to state flatly that they were
"infinitely more cruel and ferocious than the men."
Certainly if a sense of injustice (probably safely unconscious),
as well as long-endured overwork and frustration, make for
anger and cruelty, most of the women of the tribe had plenty
of motivation to even accounts with the world in the form
of a helpless enemy, especially when that enemy was a man.
They took a "peculiar delight," wrote Burnet, "in
torturing the adult male prisoners."
It was Burnet's Texas experiences in 1818 & 1819 that
he wrote about in 1824.
David G. Burnet
The following is from the book, The Men Who
Wear the Star, by Charles M. Robinson, III:
In July, 1835, a company of men under Capt. Robert M. Coleman
attacked a Tawakoni village in what is now Limestone County,
east of Waco. Though surprised, the Indians outnumbered the
whites, forcing them to retreat to Parker's
Fort, seat of the Parker clan, some forty miles east of
Waco. Coleman sent for help and was reinforced by three companies
under Col. John H. Moore. The Indians retreated. Moore's Rangers
combed the countryside as far as the present site of Dallas
before returning home. These various skirmishes, insignificant
on their own, would have far-reaching repercussions, not only
with the local tribes but with the powerful Comanches of the
Congress of Republic of Texas agreed to appoint
Noah Smithwick as commissioner to try and work out an agreement
with the Comanches but they specified that there could be no
"fee simple" right of soil to be acknowledged. The
Comanches maintained they would hold all the country north of
the Guadalupe Mountains and would kill any surveyors that came
into their area. Smithwick recalls that he and Houston eventually
"fixed up" a treaty with the five chiefs but he claimed
he didn't recall the terms but emphasized what peace it bought
only allowed the settlers to resume fighting amongst themselves.
By early 1838 settlers moved into Comanche country and surveying
parties began to probe further west of the settlements. On August
10th, two hundred Comanches unsuccessfully attacked Colonel
Henry Karnes and twenty-one of his men. On October 20th, another
war party struck surveyors within five miles of San Antonio,
killing two of them and eight residents of the local settlement.
The following is from the book, Los Comanches,
The Horse People, 1751-1845 by Stanley Noyes:
...the Comanche and Kiowa warriors had been
in a vicious war with the Cheyenne. The Great
Peace was called at Bent's Fort. The allies gave ordinary
Cheyenne men and women four to six horses apiece but reserved
the most and the best for the chiefs. Satank gave the most,
about two hundred-fifty head of horses. The allies gave so
many ponies that the Cheyenne and Arapaho didn't have enough
ropes. The next night the Cheyenne threw a feast and gave
the allies brass kettles, blankets, cloth, beads and guns.
Trading agreements were made that lasted as long as the tribes
kept their freedom.
Following the Council House Fight and several
additional Ranger victories, the exhausted
Comanche agreed to terms with Houston under the Bird's
Fort Treaty. Texas had established trading houses at Waco,
Presidio San Saba and Comanche Peak in 1842. Pragmatic Comanches
appreciated the value of trade over expensive revenge. By 1845,
roads west of the Cross Timbers from Fort Gibson, Fort Smith
and the Red River were crowded with wagons as several thousand
settlers per week passed onto the Plains. In the spring of 1846,
the United States Commissioners met with the Comanches chiefs
and negotiated a new treaty to succeed the one of 1835 but by
the fall gifts promised by the U. S. failed to arrive and hostilities
resumed. The eventuality of the United States' victory was never
in doubt but the ambitions of the young warriors postponed the
inevitable for nearly thirty years.
The Civil War gave young Comanche and Kiowa warriors
their last opportunity to inflict vicious punishment on the
white settlements. The victorious Union struggled for years
in an effort to negotiate a peace with the Plains tribes. At
one point, the cunning Kiowa were given the Texas Panhandle
and though the 1868 Medicine Lodge Treaty
canceled that deal, the chiefs were given a full hearing including
Satanta's famous oratory and such advantageous terms that for
years the tribe continued their raiding practically unmolested
until the 1871 Warren Wagon Train Massacre.
In the first year of the Red River War, 1874,
Thomas Battey, a Quaker school teacher, displayed a gadget called
a stereoscope which his Kiowa and Comanche charges could view
photographs. First he showed them mountain landscapes from Colorado
which even the young boys and girls were familiar then he showed
city scenes including buildings and trains which startled the
Kiowa chiefs who had not believed the stories told by their
peers who had visited the United States over the previous decades
which included Chief Sun Boy, who cried "You think they're
all lies now? You still think all chiefs who've been to Washington
"Look-see what a mighty, powerful
people they are! We're fools! We don't know anything! We're
just like wolves running wild on the plains!"