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The Comanches strongly resented white settlement at Austin which was in the Comancheria. Below is Webb's account of early Ranger activities in the vicinity of what would become the capital including perhaps the first Comanche raid on Texans. Fehrenbach's description of Buffalo Hump's bold raid to the sea follows and concludes with the Ranger's decisive defeat of the retreating Comanches at Plum Creek, south of Austin.
Walter Prescott Webb describes the following account in his book, The Texas Rangers:
Silas M. Parker was authorized to employ and direct the activities of 'twenty-five Rangers whose business shall be to range and guard the frontiers between the Brazos and Trinity rivers.' Garrison Greenwood was to establish ten Rangers on the east side of the Trinity; D. B. Frayar with twenty-five Rangers was to patrol the country between the Brazos and Colorado. These men were designated as 'superintendents,' and not captains. It seems that Isaac W. Burton was also a captain, though perhaps by a later appointment.
The committee of five, appointed to consider the resolution creating the Texas Rangers, recommended that the superintendents of the Rangers operating between the Colorado and Brazos and between the Brazos and Trinity should rendezvous at the Waco village on the Brazos. The company operating east of the Trinity should have its headquarters at Houston.
From this date until the end of the Revolution, it is possible to trace through the journals and minutes of the revolutionary bodies the existence of the Texas Rangers whose business seems to have been mainly to guard against the incursions of the Indians on the west.
When the consultation met on November 1, it received a report from the permanent council, the temporary body already described, of what had been done. The permanent council reported among other things the authorization of the volunteer Rangers to protect the frontier. On November 6 a resolution was offered providing that the 'route of the Rangers employed, or may be employed, to protect our frontier, be extended from the Colorado River to the Guadalupe.' A committee made a favorable report on November 9, and commissioned G. W. Davis to raise twenty men for this new service.
Having affirmed and approved what had been done, the consultation turned to the future. It provided for a complete military establishment to consist of the regular army, militia, and a corps of one hundred and fifty Rangers. These last were to be divided into three detachments, and when called in to the field were to form a battalion under the commander-in-chief.
The consultation was succeeded by the general council which it had created. The ordinance providing for a corps of Texas Rangers was read for the third time on November 24, 1835, and passed. It provided for three companies of fifty-six men, each company officered by a captain and a first and second lieutenant. The major in command was subject to the orders of the commander-in-chief. The privates were enlisted for one year and given $1.25 a day for 'pay, rations, clothing, and horse service.' The Rangers were to be always ready with a good horse, saddle, bridle, and blanket, and a hundred rounds of powder and ball. The officers were to receive the same pay as officers in the dragoons of the United States service, and in addition the pay of privates in the ranging corps.
On December 17, a resolution was offered asking for a 'special ranging company of ten men,' to range on the headwaters of Cumming's and Rabb's creek. The request was refused. Silas M. Parker, still in the field, wrote to the council inquiring about the employment of a surgeon, but the committee was of the opinion that the Rangers would need no other than the regular army surgeons.
In these rather tedious details we find the rudiments of what later became the established tradition. The Rangers were an irregular body; they were mounted; they furnished their own horses and arms; they had no surgeon, no flag, none of the paraphernalia of the regular service. They were distinct from the regular army and also form the militia
The officers of this ranging corps were elected on the night of November 28. The captains were Isaac W. Burton, William H. Arrington, and John J. Tumlinson. R. M. Williamson and James Kerr were nominated for the office of major. Williamson was elected. Noah Smithwick served under Tumlinson and R. M. Williamson, and has left us some account of what these Rangers did. Texas had an army of five or six hundred men, and was preparing to invade Mexico. The Indians took advantage of the situation and began to raid the frontier and murder the citizens. 'So,' says Smithwick, 'the government provided for their protection as best it could with the means at its disposal, graciously permitting the citizens to protect themselves by organizing and equipping ranging companies.' Since Smithwick's account gives such an excellent idea of the nature of the Rangers' work in this early period, it is given in his own words, as follows:
'Captain Tumlinson was commissioned to raise a company on the Colorado, and early in January, 1836, he reported for duty with a company of sixty mounted men, myself included. We were assigned to duty on the head waters of Brushy Creek, some thirty miles northwest of the site of the present capital, that city not having been even projected then. The appointed rendezvous was Hornsby's station, then miles below Austin on the Colorado, from which place we were to proceed at once to our post, taking with us such materials as were necessary to aid us in the construction of a blockhouse. We were on hand at the appointed time and, just as we were preparing for our supper, a young white woman, an entire stranger, her clothes hanging in shreds about her torn and bleeding body, dragged herself into camp and sank exhausted on the ground. The feeling of rest and relief on finding herself among friends able and willing to help her, so overcame her overtaxed strength that it was some little time before she could give a coherent explanation of her situation. When she at length recovered, she told us that her name was Hibbons; that, in company with her husband, brother and two small children, she was journeying overland up to their home on the Guadalupe, when they were attacked by a band of Comanches; the two men were killed, the wagon plundered, and herself and children made prisoners; she being bound onto one of their mules and her little three-year-old boy on the other.
'The other child was a young babe, and the poor little creature, whose sufferings the mother could not allay, cried so continuously that at length one of the Indians snatched it from her and dashed its brains out against a tree.
"The scene of the attack being a lonely spot on a lonely road, the cunning redskins knew there was little risk of the outrage being discovered til they were beyond the reach of pursuit; so, when a cold norther met them at the crossing of the Colorado about where the city of Austin stands, they sought the shelter of a cedar brake and lay by to wait for it to subside. Confident that Mrs. Hibbons could not escape with her child, and trusting to her mother's love to prevent her leaving it, the Indians allowed her to lie unbound, not even putting out guards. It was bitterly cold, and, wrapping themselves in their buffalo robes, they were soon sound asleep. But there was no sleep for Mrs. Hibbons. She knew, as did her captors, that there was small hope of rescue from the discovery of her murdered relatives, and, realizing that the only hope lay in herself, she resolved to escape and to rescue her child. There was no time to lose, as another day's travel would take her so far beyond the reach of the settlements that it would be impossible for her to procure help before the savages reached their stronghold; so she waited until assured by their breathing that her captors were asleep, then, summoning all her courage, she carefully tucked the robe about her sleeping child and stole away, leaving him to the mercy of the brutal barbarians.
'She felt sure the river they had crossed was the Colorado, and knew there were settlements below; how far down she had no idea, but that seeming to offer the only means of escape, she made straight for the river, hiding her tracks in its icy waters, hurried away as fast as the darkness would permit.
'Once she thought she heard her child call, and her heart stood still with fear that the Indians would be awakened and miss her. She momentarily expected to hear a yell of alarm, and, not daring to leave the shelter of the bottom timber, she meandered the winding stream, sometimes wading in the shallow water along the edge, and again working her way through the brush and briers, tearing her clothing and lacerating her flesh, never pausing in her painful journey til late in the afternoon, when she came upon the first sign of civilization in some gentle cows feeding in the river bottom.
'Perceiving that they were milk cows, she felt that she must be near a white settlement, but she dared not attempt to call assistance lest the Indians be in pursuit; so she secreted herself near the cows, which she surmised would soon be going home, and waiting till they had finished their evening meal, followed them into the station, having spent nearly twenty-four hours in traveling a distance of only ten miles on open ground.
'Fortunate, beyond hope, in finding the Rangers there, she implored us to save her child, describing the mule he rode, the band of Indians, and the direction they were traveling.
'Hastily dispatching our supper, we were soon in the saddle, and with a trusty guide (Reuben Hornsby), traveled on till we judged that we must be near the trail, and fearful of crossing it in the darkness, we halted and waited for daylight. As soon as it was light enough, our scouts were out and soon found the trail, fresh and well defined as if the marauders were exercising neither haste nor caution in their retreat; having no doubt spent a good portion of the previous day in a fruitless search for their prisoner. They did not seem to be at all alarmed as to the consequence of her escape, and it was about 10 o'clock in the morning when we came upon them, just preparing to break camp. Taken completely by surprise, they broke for shelter of a cedar brake, leaving everything except such weapons as they hastily snatched as they started. I was riding a fleet horse, which, becoming excited, carried me right in among the fleeing savages, one of whom jumped behind a tree and fired on me with a musket, fortunately missing his aim. Unable to control my horse, I jumped off him and gave chase to my assailant on foot, knowing his gun was empty. I fired on him and had the satisfaction of seeing him ball. My blood was up and, leaving him for dead, I ran on, loading my rifle a I ran, hoping to bring down another. A limb knocked my hat off and one of my comrades, catching a glimpse of me flying bareheaded through the brake on foot, mistook me for a Comanche and raised his gun to check my flight; but, another Ranger dashed the gun aside in time to save me. The brave whom I shot, lay flat on the ground and loaded his gun, which he discharged at Captain Tumlinson, narrowly missing him and killing horse; when Conrad Rohrer ran up and, snatching the gun from the Indian's hand, dealt him a blow on the head with it, crushing his skull.
'The other Indians made good their escape into the cedar brake, where it was worse than useless to follow them; but, we got all their horses and other plunder, and , to crown our success, we achieved the main object of the expedition, which was the rescue of the little boy, though the heedlessness of one of our men came near robbing us of our prize in a shocking manner. The Indians, careful of the preservation of their little captive-they intended to make a good Comanche of him-had wrapped him up warmly in a buffalo robe and tied him on his mule preparatory to resuming their journey. When we rushed upon them they had no time to remove him, and the mule, being startled by our charge, started to run, when one of our men, not seeing that the rider was a child, gave chase and, putting his gun against the back of the boy, pulled the trigger. Fortunately the gun missed fire. He tried again with like result. The third time his finger was on the trigger when one of the other boys, perceiving with horror the tragedy about to be enacted, knocked the gun up, it firing clear, sending a ball whistling over the head of the rescued child. Providence seemed to have interposed to save him. The boys held an inquest on the dead Indian and, deciding that the gunshot would have proved fatal, awarded me the scalp. I modestly waived my claim in favor of Rohrer, but he, generous soul, declared that, according to all rules of the chase, the man who brought down the game was entitled to the pelt, and himself scalped the savage, tying the loathsome trophy to my saddle, where I permitted it to remain, thinking it might afford the poor woman whose family its owner had helped murder, some satisfaction to see that gory evidence that one of the wretches had paid the penalty of his crime. That was the only Indian I ever knew that I shot down, and, after a long experience with them and their success at getting away wounded, I am not at all sure that that fellow would not have survived my shot, so I cant say positively that I ever did kill a man, not even an Indian.
'The scene of the rescue was on Walnut Creek, about ten miles northwest of Austin. Gathering up our booty, which was inconsiderable, we started on our return, and late in the afternoon rode into the station in triumph. There was a suspicious moisture in many an eye long since a stranger to tears, when the overjoyed mother clasped her only remaining treasure to her heart, and I could not help stealing a glance at Rohrer, and trying to image what his feelings would have been had not his gun refused to obey his murderous behests. The little one was too much dazed and bewildered by the many strange scenes through which it had passed so rapidly, to even know its mother
"We went on up to our appointed station, where we built the old Tumlinson blockhouse, making it our headquarters till the invasion of Santa Anna necessitated our recall, after which it was burned by the Indians and never rebuilt. And, save this old dismantled hulk, there is not, to my knowledge, one of those old Tumlinson Rangers now living.'
From Comanches, The Destruction of a People, by T. R. Fehrenbach:
The People had close communication, for all the looseness and autonomy of their social organization. Pehnahterkuh messengers rode through all the scattered camps and lodges on the south plains, crying the perfidy of the tejanos, bemoaning the losses and damaged pride, urging war against the white men. Hundreds of miles northwest of the scattered Texas settlements, council fires burned and medicine drums resounded through the hot nights. The warriors of the Pehnahterkuh met in solemn councils with representatives of the eastern and northern bands, debating strategy seeking portents. The mood of the Pehnahterkuh quickly became one of wild exaltation, for the omens seemed good. Signs had come to the great war chief, Buffalo Hump, that if he made war against the tejanos, they and their seed would be destroyed. Such terror would descend on the Texans that, like the Apaches and the Mexicans, they would ever afterward flee in fear at the Nermernuh's approach.
While the warriors danced, the women and old men went about the more mundane preparations for war; buffalo meat was dried and stored; weapons were forged or repaired.
But the People, the whole People from Balcones Scarp to the Arkansas, were not moved by the medicine chants, flutes, and drums. They did not come together. The distant Antelope band of the Llano Estacado was too remote, too aloof from tribal affairs. The great northern bands, the Yampahreekuh and Kuhtsoo-ehkuh, were occupied in peacemaking with the Cheyennes and Arapahos at Bent's Fort on the Arkansas, and with horse trading among their newfound friends. Bent, who had done so much to forge the Great Peace, used his influence against a southern war. Dozens of minor bands and families were scattered, hunting, or had ridden off to Mexico. All Comanches sympathized with the Pehnahterkuh, but most believed they had better things to do than to join the Southerners in their way. Only a few hot-blooded youths and some Kiowas rode south to Texas.
One great drawback to arousing the other bands was that the Pehnahterkuh no longer had famous war chiefs who record of successes could bring warriors flocking to them. The galaxy of leaders with proven medicine or prestige had died at San Antonio. There was only one important chief left to the Pehnahterkuh, the war leader who entered history not through his own name, Pohchanah-kwoheep, but its American version, Buffalo Hump.
Like many Amerindian names, Buffalo Hump's was rather scatological. The Comanches took their names without regard to sex and had no patronymics. Names were wither acquired, or bestowed, from a variety of sources. Children's pet names were replaced by adult appellations that reflected some medicinal phenomenon, an exploit, or a physical characteristic, the last of which always loomed large in primitive minds. Since Europeans rarely could catch or pronounce Shoshone names, they tended to use names given to the Indians by the Mexicans, or made up English approximations. Nineteenth-century writers, however, faced an embarrassing problem with Comanche and other Amerindian names translating into Bull's Pizzle, Wolf's Behind, or Coyote Dung. Often they refused to translate these, leaving accounts sprinkled oddly with both English and Amerindian terms, or else they bowdlerized names they considered either scandalous or lacking in dignity.
By any name, Buffalo Hump was highly successful. He assembled a vast force on the Edwards Plateau. No on ever counted them-the Comanches kept no muster rolls-but the warriors numbered at least four hundred, and with boys and women, his army probably came close to a thousand. The war party included People of all ages and sexes, because Buffalo Hump envisioned war with the tejanos much as the Pehnahterkuh waged it against the Mexicans. He planned an extended campaign, provided with both logistic support and all the comforts of the tipi.
By late July 1840, the Pehnahterkuh war band was ready, fortified with provision and dancing. On August 1, Buffalo Hump started down the trail from the high escarpment toward the level plains that fell away to the Gulf of Mexico. He carefully avoided San Antonio, with its bristling encampments of Rangers and soldiers, and its dangerous walls and alleyways. The old town was now bad medicine, a place to avoid. But below San Antonio, stretching to the sea, was a great, vulnerable scattering of towns, settlements, farms and ranches that the Texans had planted between the Colorado and the Guadalupe.
The Amerindian host passed near San Antonio during the night of August 4, moving south of the town, on a route between it and Gonzales. Buffalo Hump rode by the rising moon, and his tactics were flawless. He penetrated the borderlands undetected with a thousand Comanches, and was deep into Anglo-Texas before his trail was discovered.
The sight of this broad, beaten path made by the passage of thousands of unshod ponies raised instant alarm in the town of Gonzales, some sixty miles southeast of San Antonio. The experienced Ranger captain Ben McCulloch read the sign perfectly. Grimly, McCulloch sent riders in all directions to cry the alarm and to call out the militias.
A full understanding of the events of the next few days, which Texans came to call the "great Linnville raid," is possible only by picturing this frontier region. It was hot, dry, and harsh country of gently rolling coastal prairies and fertile river bottoms; its vast open spaces were thinly dotted with farms and small towns and settlements. This region, the great coastal crescent southeast of San Antonio, was still very much a raw frontier, like most of Texas. Its inhabitants were predominantly young, hardy freeholders, men and women who had moved westward with families and often with entire clans to acquire free lands. They were the descendants of old Americans, for the most part; beneath their veneer of civilization lay all the old brutalizations of the North American frontier. Here the people were conscious each day of living in close proximity to an Indian-Mexican frontier. These farmers and small-town men little resembled a European farming population, or the communities of Mexican peasants. The entire male population habitually went armed; a boy got his first gun and learned to shoot it accurately at the age of six or seven. Most settlers were experienced horsemen. For all their small numbers, the tiny companies of Minute Men and Rangers were not made up of Soft-handed clerks or humble hoemen; they were heavily salted with frontiersmen who had been accustomed to violence most of their lives. Their leaders were almost never rich, propertied, or professional people but rather that cool, grim, pistol-heavy breed of border riders who had grown up along the frontier, who reacted calmly and purposefully to violent emergencies.
Ben McCulloch realized that he had cut Buffalo Hump's trail two days behind the Comanche passage east. He began to assemble armed men on August 6, a few here, a few there from outlying settlements, and to press on grimly behind.
Meanwhile, the Comanches had already ridden around and surrounded the town of Victoria. Whooping warriors appeared out of the blue, taking the settlement by complete surprise, and cut down several luckless inhabitants on the outskirts. They killed a number of black slaves working in the fields. Had they ridden immediately into the town and been prepared to hunt down the whites on foot, there is little question that their hundreds could have slaughtered the entire population. But as always, this was not the Comanche way. Buffalo Hump's warriors circled the town like a bison stand, seizing horses and cattle, running down a small Negro child and carrying her away. And as always, such a medicine circle worked no magic against stout buildings. The walls stood, and the townspeople, alerted, had time to barricade their streets and houses.
The people of Victoria stayed behind cover while the Comanches mutilated the corpses of the dead, speared cattle, and rode around the outskirts in screeching triumph. The warriors kept up this game all day, and kept the town surrounded through the night. Then, on the 7th, when Buffalo Hump persuaded some of his men to ride into the streets, attacking and setting fire to houses, the townsmen opened up with blistering fire from roofs and windows. Quickly losing stomach for a house-to-house search, the warriors retreated, driving off some two thousand mules and horses. One group of Mexican traders in the town lost five hundred head, and the Comanches had killed fifteen people at Victoria.
Leaving the shaken town behind, the host poured across the Guadalupe River and ravaged down Peach Creek. Now, on August 7th, Buffalo Hump spread his warriors in a great advancing semicircle, a crescent sweeping open-ended toward the Gulf. The vast, thin line of warriors cut a swathe of destruction to the sea, surrounding houses, killing surprised settlers, setting homes and barns afire. This was an Indian raid such as no living Texan had ever experienced. It was like Santa Anna's march four years earlier, leaving smoldering desolation in its trail.
McCulloch's and other messengers were riding far and wide, warning the scattered homesteads, crying up the armed men from the towns. Militiamen assembled under Ranger captains at every crossroads settlement. But the veteran Indian fighters read sign; they understood grimly that Buffalo Hump's war party was too big to be engaged by scattered companies. The alerted Minute Men in the path of the host were warned not to try to stand and fight. Meanwhile, McCulloch was moving in cautious pursuit.
On August 6th, when he had cut the trail, McCulloch commanded only two dozen Rangers. He had no choice but to move slowly and carefully in the Comanche wake. He buried the dead and tried to determine the Comanche plan, while each hour he collected additional riders. Other Ranger parties, as yet without communication or coordination, were doing the same along the Comanche flanks. Following close behind the great crescent, Captain Adam Zumwalt's company was also recovering the dead. Zumwalt found the body of one white man whose soles had been sliced off by his torturers; the evidence of his shredded feet showed that he had been made to run behind a horse for miles on the exquisitely tender flesh before he fell exhausted and the Comanches shot and scalped him.
The Comanche army was sweeping rapidly toward Lavaca Bay on the Gulf. On August 8th, Buffalo Hump came upon Linnville, a small settlement on the bay that served as a port for San Antonio and the surrounding region. At Nine Mile Point, his riders seized a women who was a granddaughter of Daniel Boone, the great Kentucky frontiersman. They killed her baby immediately but threw the woman over a horse for more leisurely diversion.
Linnville was a tiny port whose few buildings provided scant protection. Three whites and two Negroes were killed as the Comanche vanguard reached the settlement. One of these men was the collector of customs, Major Watts. Warriors broke into the customs office and seized Watts's wife, a fair, very handsome woman. They immediately tried to strip her, but they were baffled by the sturdy whalebone corset she wore. Finally, in frustration, they tied her to a pony in her underclothes. This diversion allowed the other residents of Linnville to run to the shore and escape in boats.
One citizen, Judge Hays, was so enraged, however, at the sight of the warriors prancing on the shore that they leaped from his boat and waded back. He waved a shotgun, which was unloaded, and screamed imprecations at the amazed Comanches. They failed to kill him; in fact, they rode around the judge and pretended that they did not even see him, considering him either very courageous or a madman, and in either case armed with powerful medicine. Hays suddenly realized what he was doing, and retreated to safety, rescued by a circling boat.
The Comanches found few victims in Linnville, but they uncovered a different sort of bonanza. John Linn's warehouse was packed with goods awaiting shipment to San Antonio: bolts of red cloth, boxes of fashionable stovepipe hats, umbrellas, and assorted ladies' finery. The warriors, with the women close upon their heels, joyously broke up and despoiled a two-years' store of merchandise. The men put on the tall hats and galloped about trailing bolts of crimson cloth. Others opened umbrellas. Most of these goods were simply destroyed, but the women packed great quantities of things upon the stolen pack mules.
The horde spent the whole day looting Linnville, then set the town afire while its unhappy residents watched from far out on the bay. They were particularly sickened by the Comanche slaughter of the cows and other livestock. Unable to drive these off, the warriors lanced the animals for sport, roaring with savage humor as the beasts died.
Buffalo Hump here began to lose control of his army. The Comanches had ridden out for blood, but the unexpected windfall of loot was destroying the war chief's strategy. The Comanches had taken thousands of horses and mules, and wonderful spoils of every description. In addition to the finery which every warrior and his woman displayed, there were many practical things: pots and pans, ammunition, and a shipment of iron for barrel hoops. This last was loaded on muleback, to be used for gorging arrowheads. The Comanches also leaded a bag of law books. The paper leaves were used for fashioning cigarettes.
In theory, all spoils belonged to Buffalo Hump and were at his disposal; in practice, no war chief would have dared order their abandonment. The host had killed many enemies at virtually no cost to itself, and Buffalo Hump reasoned that the score with the tejanos was settled. The warriors and their women were eager to return to the plains, and Buffalo Hump, at this hour the most successful war leader in Pehnahterkuh legend, reluctantly gave the order.
The normal practice would have been to turn about and ride hard and fast for many hours, choosing a route through the least populated country, resting only when pursuit was far outdistanced. Normal practice, also, would have been to split the great war party into many small bands, each taking a divergent trail to baffle and confuse pursuers. These options were closed to Buffalo Hump-unless he abandoned his heavy loot, which had to be borne on the slow-footed mules, and also abandoned the immense stolen herd of at least three thousand horses. The pack mules and horse herd were slow and unwieldy; Buffalo Hump decided that they must be guarded by all the warriors. If he had turned south and retreated back to the plains by a route that passed below San Antonio, he would almost certainly have eluded all pursuit, because most of the settlements in this region lay north of the Guadalupe. But Buffalo Hump, perhaps now arrogant in victory, turned north, choosing to march homeward by the most direct route along the Colorado.
The war party was formed in a great column, moving slowly, ponderously northwest, accompanied by towering clouds of dust from the horses' hoofs.
McCulloch and his Rangers arrived at Victoria on August 8th, just as the Comanches were looting and burning Linnville. But here the townspeople swelled his party to more than one hundred, and McCulloch continued riding toward the coast till midnight. Setting out again early on the 9th, he ran into Buffalo Hump's rear scouting parties. One of his Rangers was killed in a brief action, and McCulloch broke off the fight. He and many of his men had been riding for days, and the Texans had only single mounts. Their horses were exhausted. McCulloch stayed well behind, trying to rest his men and animals.
By the 10th, McCulloch realized that the Comanches were also avoiding combat, except for rear and flanking actions. Obviously, they were trying to protect a main column; if they had wanted war, they would have turned upon his small group and destroyed it. Also, they were now moving northwest, toward the high country, and McCulloch did not need a map to visualize their route of march. He knew the country, and knew instinctively the route that Buffalo Hump must follow. The Indians would have to cross Big Prairie, near Plum Creek, which was a small tributary of the San Marcos River.
McCulloch ordered a small group of the most exhausted riders to continue following, and, if possible, harassing the Comanche column. He himself rode for the settlements higher on the Colorado, short-cutting the enemy. Dusty messengers raced across the coastal prairies, alerting men in every bottom, ordering every able-bodied man to muster at Plum Creek. By nightfall on August 10th, every Texan old enough to mount a horse and wield a gun had set out from Gonzales, Victoria, Lavaca, Cuero, and a score of smaller, scattered villages.
One by one the tiny companies came in from the brushy bottoms along Plum Creek on August 11th. They were led by a score of hard-bitten captains: Tumlinson, Matthew Caldwell (who had recovered from his leg wound), John Moore, Edward Burleson, Hardeman, and Big Foot Wallace-all men who had previously faced Comanches along the Colorado frontier. Men and horses arrived in continuous streams and set up a rough bivouac. The Bastrop militia, a large contingent, arrived early on the 12th. The night before, Brigadier General Felix Huston, Texas Army, set up his headquarters, and as the ranking regular officer, took command of all Rangers, militias, and volunteers.
This heterogeneous, buckskin-clad army had assembled none too soon. Behind buffalo Hump's host, Lieutenant Owens' troop, together with McCulloch's original party from Gonzales, pressed daringly close on the Comanches' heels. Mile after mile, over scores of miles, Owens forced his men forward, staying close to the great column, continually firing it. The Texans' horses died one by one, ridden out, but the group still maintained so much pressure on the Comanches that some of the laden mules were tiring badly. Owens began to pass mules shot on the trail by angry warriors, and significantly, the trail began to be strewn with abandoned loot, chests of ribbon, bolts of calico.
But the Comanches still clung to the bulk of their loot and the vast horse remuda in the center of their column. They slowly approached Big Prairie, a few miles from the site of the later town of Lockhart, on the morning of the 12th, trailed by a roiling dust cloud.
At the same time, fourteen Tonkawa warriors under their chief, Placido, arrived at Felix Huston's headquarters. Their chests were heaving; they had trotted thirty miles to join the Texans against the hated Comanches. They had no horses, but Huston realized the "Tonks," as the Texans called them, made splendid scouts. He ordered them to tie white rags to their arms to identify themselves as allies, then gave them the most arduous and dangerous task of the day-to scout the Comanche column on foot, and bring him continuous reports.
Thus at Plum Creek a Texan militia army, captained by seasoned Indian fighters, was drawn up to receive a Comanche horde that was peculiarly unprepared for savage combat. The Comanche warriors had dispersed to guard and manage the difficult horses and to drive the tiring mules; warriors were scattered throughout the column with the herd. Only a handful were stationed as outriders along the flanks. In a short four years, the ranging company captains had become expert. They had anticipated the Comanches' moves, and now they almost casually prepared for decisive combat. It would never have occurred to McCulloch, or any other frontiersman, to try to avoid the showdown. Every move had been directed toward forcing a battle.
The captains dismounted their men, many of whom had never actually been in battle, and rested them while the Comanche horde came up. They checked the man and weapons, making the volunteers discard useless impediments. Then, informed about enemy dispositions by accurate reports from the inexhaustible, valiant Tonkawa scouts, the captains stood their troops to horse and led them at the walk out onto Big Prairie. They formed two long parallel lines that enclosed and converged upon the oncoming Comanches.
General Huston was in nominal command; the real command lay with Burleson, Caldwell, and the Ranger officers who rode at the head of their troops.
A Bastrop volunteer, John Holland Jenkins, rode with the Texan line toward the Amerindians. Jenkins was one of those rare literate frontiersmen who found himself a warrior by circumstances. He was by nature a gentle soul, who found himself moving slowly into bloody action with heightened perceptions. He was bemused by the drama of the scene-the grimly converging, silent lines of white horsemen, the now-visible barbaric splendor of their savage enemy. The Comanche outriders wheeled and pranced, engaging in mounted acrobatics, shouting out their prowess and their mighty medicine, performing feats of horsemanship possible only to the people raised on horseback. Jenkins was caught up in admiration, and also struck by the grotesqueness of their appearance and actions. They trailed long red ribbons from their horses' tails; some carried opened umbrellas, contrasting weirdly and ridiculously with their fierce, horned headdresses.
The captains, however, were not bemused. They were calculating the Indian dispositions and actions. Matt Caldwell, who was known as "Old Paint" from his grizzled beard and mottled complexion, saw that the enemy was deliberately putting on a show, hoping to delay the battle until after the mule train and horse herd had passed. The few wheeling skirmishers could never halt a Texan charge. Caldwell, as well as Burleson and McCulloch, knew the time to strike was now, and said so. Huston, however, hesitated.
A tall warrior in a feather headdress rode out of the Comanche press and yelled insults, daring the white men to single combat. He was probably a Kiowa, or from one of the northern bands, who had taken up the practice of the Cheyennes and other northern Amerindians. Caldwell, unimpressed by savage chivalry, told someone to shoot him. A long rifle cracked and the challenger tumbled into the dust. A throaty moan rose from the passing Comanches; this was evil medicine.
"Now, General!" Caldwell snapped. "Charge 'em!"
Huston gave the order. The Texas horsemen emptied their rifles at the Comanche throng, then, themselves shrieking like Amerindians, they spurred into the flanks of the long column. They struck down the few skirmishers on the flanks and crashed into the main body. The great horse herd was stampeded by their shots and yells.
Horses and heavily laden mules plunged forward out of control. The mule train ran into a spot of marshy ground; tired an overloaded, they piled up, unable to go farther, and the huge mass of horses crashed into them. Instantly, the whole column became a struggling screaming mass of frightened animals, and the scattered Comanche herders were caught helplessly in the press.
Individual warriors could not maneuver their horses out of the mass. Some went down and were trampled as their mounts fell; others were shot out of the saddle as they struggled to break free. Scores died in this jam, for the Texans rode along the press, firing continuously. A few warriors escaped by leaping across the backs of the bogged-down horses, running for the nearby creek bottom. Even these men were pursued; Burleson and his men chased them, killing them one by one.
This was the battle. The rest was rout. The rear guard, and all the Comanches free of the press, scattered and fled in all directions. Some warriors did put up a desperate fight, but the heart had suddenly gone out of them. Hardeman's horse was shafted, and several Rangers were severely wounded, but, as the fight became a pursuit, all the losses were inflicted by the Texans.
Abandoning the loot that had spelled their doom, the Indians recovered as many dead and wounded warriors as possible, for even in panic the Comanches always tried to preserve their dead and wounded, and fled for their lives. The remainder of the battle was a hunt that eventually covered fifteen miles. Some groups of Indians were chased as far as Austin.
But as the fight dissolved into flight and pursuit, there were many scenes of bloody horror along the trampled trail. The Comanches began killing the prisoners they had tied to horses, both white and Negro. Some of these were tied to trees and filled with arrows, either as an act of defiance or in hope of delaying pursuit. The granddaughter of Daniel Boone died this way. Only one white captive survived, the widow of Major Watts of Linnville. Her captors fastened her to a tree trunk, then shot an arrow into her breast. The same formidable whalebone corset that had protected her chastity blunted the arrow's force and saved her life. She was cut down unharmed, except for a painful sunburn on her exposed limbs.
There was blood lust on both sides. Jenkins was appalled by one act of brutal cruelty he witnessed. A Ranger came across a wounded Comanche woman lying in the trail. This man dismounted, kicked the dying woman, then pinned her to the earth with a discarded Comanche lance. Jenkins later wrote that he was glad that this was not a "Bastrop man." However, there was no general massacre of captive Amerindians. A large number of the women and children in Buffalo Hump's force were ridden down and seized, but they were not killed. An abandoned baby, wailing in the brush, was retrieved and saved.
Afterward, the Texans counted more than eight dead warriors; they found the body of one Texan, whom some Comanche almost miraculously had found the time to scalp. Buffalo Hump's great war party had lost all its loot, and perhaps one-quarter of its effective men.
The victors casually divided the recovered spoils. Many of the original owners were dead; no effort was made to find them. The militia took sacks of silver and bolts of cloth back to their wives; some men also recovered cases of liquor and kegs of brandy, as well as stores of tobacco, all looted at Linnville, and all of which the Comanches prized. The victors also divided the surviving horses and mules, which were as much a treasure to white men as to Amerindians. Even the Tonkawas got their share, for after the battle every warrior appeared on a fine horse. They must have appreciated these far more than the splendid citation General Huston wrote out to reward them for their services.
No one knew what to do with the Comanche captives. They were finally parceled out to be trained as "servants." One boy was presented to the Comte de Saligny, the French minister to Texas. The diplomat trained the youth to care for one of his horses, but he soon escaped, taking the horse with him. Most of the others escaped in similar ways.
As the battle at Plum Creek ended and the loot was divided, the Texan army simply melted away. No one made much of it, except the gentle Jenkins. The fourteen Tonkawa allies held the only victory celebration. While the moon rose over Big Prairie, they danced abut their fire and boasted to each other. They closed the ceremony by roasting and ritually devouring several butchered Comanche arms and legs.