Council House Fight
Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston requested a conference with the Southern Comanche in an attempt to recover the dozens of Texas captives. Twelve principal chiefs came to San Antonio expecting tribute as the Mexican and Spanish had always provided at such gatherings. They hoped to receive some Colt revolving pistols that had provided Hays and his men "a shot for every finger" in their stunning victories against their tribe. They were told there would be an exchange of captives so they brought two stolen children to start negotiations. The revulsion of the Texans when confronted with the mutilated, half-living creatures incited immediate and bloody revenge.
From the book, Comanches, The Destruction Of A People, T. R. Fehrenbach wrote:
The two peoples also had utterly divergent concepts of honor. Comanches believed themselves honorable warriors. The Texans considered them vicious savages. The Comanches, like all Plains Indians, lived by codes and customs that allowed people to wage the most ferocious wars of extermination against each other, but also required them to honor declared truces. Whites had similar codes, but the Texans were not really prepared to sit down and bargain with a folk they saw as either wild beasts or cunning criminals.
The attitude of Texan officers was starkly revealed in the report that Henry Karnes filed with his superior, Albert Sidney Johnston, Texas secretary of war. Colonel Karnes wrote that he had no faith in these Indians, and the only reason he had not arrested the three Comanche chiefs on the spot was because "they were too few to assure the future"-that is, the bulk of the Comanche murderers were still free, and three chiefs were insufficient hostages to guarantee the tribe's conduct. Karnes, like most Texans, could never see a Comanche, even under the most friendly conditions, without visualizing the barbarities the Indian had done, or might do under different circumstances. The colonel had no taste for bargaining with the savages. He understood government policy, however, and therefore he recommended that commissioners be appointed to deal with the Comanches-but that these officials be empowered to act decisively, without pussyfooting, and further, that troops of the regular Texas army be sent to watch over the council. He urged that if the Comanches did not surrender the prisoners, all the Indians who came to council be seized and held as hostages until the captives were released.
Johnston, a superior soldier but an officer with little sympathy for or understanding of Amerindians, agreed fully. On his recommendations, President Lamar appointed colonel William G. Cooke, acting secretary of war, Colonel Hugh McLeod, the Texas adjutant general, and Lieutenant Colonel William S. Fisher of the 1st Texas Regiment, as Indian commissioners. Three companies of regular troops under Fisher's command were dispatched to San Antonio. The commission was therefore completely military, and reflected the Lamar-Johnston attitude toward Amerindians. The three officers received detailed instructions: if the Comanches brought in all white captives, this was to be taken a s sign of good faith; the commissioners could then offer them the Texas terms. The Comanches might have peace on three conditions: they must remain west of a line drawn through central Texas; they must never again approach settlements or white communities; and they must not interfere with any white efforts to settle "vacant" lands anywhere in Texas. Further, the custom of giving presents was to be "dispensed with." There would be no ransoming of captives, and if the captives were not freely offered up, Fisher and his soldiers were to seize the chiefs and hold them until the captives had been released.
If these terms were arrogant, actually an ultimatum, the great men of Pehnahterkuh approached the Anglo-Texans with no less arrogance. They believed that the Texans, like the Mexicans, were eager to buy peace, and that they could wring a great price from the white men for the captives. Mook-war-ruh, the Spirit Talker, a great par-riah-boh or civil chief, convinced the band leaders that the captives should be offered up one by one, with hard bargaining. The old, bald headman, like all his rank, was a facile orator, and he was to be group spokesman. The Comanches who had by then attended many councils with enemies both European and Amerindian, never envisioned violence or treachery. A declared council was sacred. Therefore, the twelve war chiefs who accompanied Mook-war-ruh to San Antonio on March 19, 1840, brought their wives and families. Councils were normally lengthy affairs; sixty-five Comanches arrived to set up their lodges.
Pursuant to their strategy, they brought in only two captives. One was a Mexican boy, who meant nothing to the Texans; the other was a sixteen-year-old girl, Matilda Lockhart, who had been carried away with her three-year-old sister in 1838. The release of the Lockhart girl to the Texan authorities at San Antonio was a terrible blunder; it would have been far better had the chiefs brought in no captives at all. For Matilda Lockhart had been hideously abused in her captivity, and her very appearance was to turn this day, as one of the ladies of the town, Mary Maverick, wrote, into a "day of horrors."
The wife of Samuel Maverick, a prominent merchant, she was one of the women who bathed and dressed Matilda after her release. She described the girl's condition: "Her head, arms, and face were full of bruises, and sores, and her nose was actually burnt off to the bone. Both nostrils were wide open and denuded of flesh." Among the women, the girl broke into tears and said she was "utterly degraded, and could not hold up her head again." She described the horrors she had endured. Beyond her sexual humiliations, she had been tortured terribly by the women, who had held torches to her face to make her scream. Her whole thin body bore scars from fire. To make things worse, she was an extremely intelligent girl; she had learned the Comanche tongue and had actually overhead the Comanches discussing their council strategy. She knew of some fifteen more white captives in the camp she came from. She revealed this, while begging that she be hid away from curious eyes.
When the council was opened in the small, one-story limestone building next to the San Antonio jail on the main plaza-a courtroom that ever afterward was called the "Council House"-all was ostensibly calm and peaceful. The twelve war chiefs, led by Mook-war-ruh, arrived in their finest attire, painted for a ceremonial occasion. They squatted on the dirt floor across from the delegation of Texan commissioners and local officials, exchanging greetings through an interpreter. Outside, in the courtyard, the Comanche women, also painted and dressed in their most colorful costumes, squatted patiently; the young boys began to play war games in the dusty street. A large crowd of curious spectators, Anglos and native San Antonio Mexicans, gathered to watch the proceedings. Men tossed coins in the air for the Comanche boys to use as marks for their miniature arrows. The mood of the onlookers was not hostile, but overwhelmingly curious-everyone wanted to see the strange and dreaded Indians.
But inside the Council House, the Texas officials were seething with barely suppressed fury. The treatment of the Lockhart girl was in no way unusual; the Comanches were oblivious of its stunning effect on the Texans. Most of the Texans came from the southern states and had experience with various tribes of Amerindians-but in all the wars and troubles of the nineteenth century, they had not encountered the forms of savagery that were virtually second nature to the Plains Indians. The "semicivilized" tribes of the East, while they had burned men, since the previous century had almost never abducted, raped, or tortured white women. Such practices were unknown among Choctaws and Cherokees and the more advanced Amerindians. And the fury was by no means peculiar to the Texans; it was a common American reaction. The settlers on the Mankato in Minnesota, in 1862, reacted with hysterical cruelty against the Santee Sioux who raped and killed captive women. A similar hysteria pervaded Denver in the summer of 1864, when scalped and mutilated bodies of settlers and their wives and children, victims of the Cheyennes, were put on public display-an event that led to Chivington's expedition.
The chiefs settled themselves comfortably on the packed earth, fondling their favorite weapons, watching the white commissioners impassively. The Texans immediately asked why no more captives had been returned. Mook-war-ruh spoke up eloquently and evasively: there were more captives, but they were in the camps of Comanches over whom he had no jurisdiction. This was a partial truth, for many of the captives had been taken by other bands than Pehnahterkuh. Then Mook-war-ruh stated that he believed that all the captives could be ransomed. It never occurred to him that the captives were anything but spoils of war, or that the Texans had any inherent right to claim them. He began to indicate the price: a great store of goods, ammunition, blankets, and vermilion. Mook-war-ruh honestly believed his argument was impregnable. He ended his oration calmly with a question: "How do you like that answer?"
Colonel Fisher showed how he liked it by ordering a file of Texas soldiers into the Council House. These men took up positions along the walls, one guarding the door, while the chiefs stirred restively. Then Colonel Coke, the senior officer, instructed the interpreter to tell Mook-war-ruh that he and the other chiefs were to be made captives, to be detained until every white prisoner of the Comanches was returned. Only after the captives were released would it be proper to discuss presents; the Texans would not be held to ransom.
The interpreter, a former captive of Comanches, turned pale, obviously frightened. He refused to deliver such a message. He said the chiefs would fight to the death before they allowed themselves to be made captive. Cooke was adamant. The man finally translated the Texan statement, then ran from the room before anyone could stop him.
The thirteen prominent Comanches shrieked their war cries, leaping up in outrage. One rushed to the doorway and pushed his knife into the sentinel who barred it. Someone screamed for the troops to fire. The soldiers' rifles filled the room with noise and smoke and ricocheting balls; both white men and Amerindians were struck down. Old Mook-war-ruh stabbed a Ranger captain, Tom Howard, in the side before he was shot to death. Another Ranger, Matthew Caldwell, a mere onlooker at the council and unarmed, was struck in the leg by a wild bullet, but he grabbed a musket from on the chiefs, blew his head off with it, then beat another Comanche to death with the butt. The Council House reverberated with shots and screams, and reeked of hot blood and powder smoke. In the melee, several of the chiefs made a valiant effort to fight their way outside. As they emerged, their shouts aroused the Comanches in the courtyard to fury. While the white onlookers, confused and understanding nothing of what was happening, stood dazed, the Comanche women and children seized weapons and turned on them. A child shot a toy arrow into the heart of a visiting circuit judge, killing him instantly. The soldiers who surrounded the area but who had kept in the background then opened fire on all the Indians milling in the courtyard. Indian women and children fell, but the fusillade also killed or wounded several fleeing spectators.
The Comanches, heavily outnumbered, always fearful of fighting in closed spaces, tried to flee. Most ran for the river, while a few tried to seize horses, or take shelter in nearby houses, but by now all the population in the streets, most of whom habitually went armed, were firing on the Comanches. The flight became a bloody slaughter.
The soldiers, idle Rangers, and townspeople instinctively took up the chase, killing without thinking. Several warriors died in the streets, trying to cover the retreat. Others were shot down as they attempted to enter houses. Comanche women an children were shot down with the chiefs and men-but as all observers agreed, the women and children fought viciously, and were as dangerous as the warriors themselves. The whites killed every frightened Comanche who did not surrender.
In the last stages, the fight became a hunt. Two warriors who barricaded themselves in a cookhouse were surrounded by angry whites. When they refused to come out, the little building was set afire with turpentine. As the two were forced out by the flames, one's head was split by an ax, the other shot. No Comanche escaped the soldiers and mob.
Thirty-three chiefs, women, and children died in this massacre. Thirty-two, all women and children, many wounded, were seized and thrown into jail. Seven whites had been killed, including an army officer and the San Antonio sheriff. Ten others were badly wounded, and many whites, officials and onlookers, had suffered minor hurts. In the shocked aftermath of the bloodbath, the single surgeon in San Antonio, an immigrant German, worked through the night to save the injured whites.
Early the following morning, while San Antonio still buzzed with shock and rumor and the great mass of the people stayed behind barred doors, the commissioners took one woman-the wife of one of the greatest dead chiefs-from the jail and put her on a horse. She was given food and instructed to seek the camps of her people, to tell them that the survivors of the "Council House Fight" would be put to death unless the Comanche bands released the white captives described by the Lockhart girl. From where the sun now stood, she had twelve days to give this word to the Comanche nation. The woman listened impassively and was released to ride out of San Antonio. But, though no Texas understood it, from where the sun now stood there would never again be true peace between the tejanos and the People of the plains.
The Council House Fight would be seen by all of the People as nothing but the vilest treachery-the breaking of a solemn truce, a crime almost beyond the Amerindians' comprehension.
The chief's widow appeared howling and wailing in the great Comanche encampment set up many miles from San Antonio. She had begun her mourning rites, but she was coherent enough to inform all in the camp of the fate of the delegation. The Comanches were thrown into the most violent confusion. The losses-for the camp counted prisoners held in San Antonio as lost, too-were horrendous by Comanche standards. All but one of the greatest chiefs of the Pehnahterkuh band were dead-a loss from which, in fact, the southern Comanches never recovered.
The women, wives, daughters, and mothers, practiced the rites of mourning. They wailed and screamed through the night, ripping open faces and breasts, chopping off fingers; some injured themselves fatally. The men rocked and moaned in their robes; they sheared their sacred hair. The profound shock of the massacre at San Antonio upon the Pehnahterkuh was shown in the immolation of the dead chiefs' horse herds, which took two days. Such destructive rites had long gone out of style on the plains, but were now revived in the excess of grief.
The grief soon turned to fury against the Texans, and vengeance was wreaked upon the hapless captives in the camp. One white women-a Mrs. Webster, who had been taken with her son and infant daughter a year before during a raid in which her husband and several other men were killed-stole a horse and escaped, riding into San Antonio on March 26th. She rescued her baby but had to leave her son, Booker Webster, behind. However, the boy had been formally adopted into a Comanche family, and, of all the captives in the camp, only he and an adopted five-year-old girl named Putnam survived. Booker Webster later revealed what happened to the other whites.
They were tortured to death. One by one, the children and young women were pegged out naked beside the camp fire. They were skinned, sliced, and horribly mutilated, and finally burned alive by vengeful women determined to wring the last shriek and convulsion from their agonized bodies. Matilda Lockhart's six-year-old sister was among these unfortunates who died screaming under the high plains moon.
When the moon set over the charred corpses, there could never again be peace between the People and the Texans, so long as any of the People stood on Texan soil.
Battle of Plum Creek
The following story is from the book, 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 whit 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.