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 evil 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 the tribes.
Stanley Noyes, Los Comanches, The Horse People 1751-1845
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 near present day Fort Sill where they struck a Kiowa camp, 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 visit the United States' Fort Gibson near modern Muskogee, Oklahoma. Through the next year he met with them twice and they promised to visit the fort but failed. The Plains tribes were reluctant to enter the Cross Timbers were they would be vulnerable due to the lack of mobility of their horses. Also, 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 a decade.
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 Spaniards.
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
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