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Spanish Invasion

The history of North America is closely tied to the wild horse herds that spread across the plains following an Indian uprising, resulting in Spanish expelsion from Santa Fe in the late 1600s.

Coronado and his conquistadors arrived in the middle 1500s on stallions in their search for gold. Thus mounted, conquering a continent void of horses was embarrassingly easy. The one bugaboo confronting a cavalry on stallions was losing control when meeting an opposing force that included mares in heat, and that, of course, was just not possible in America.

The Spanish, like other European and Asian nations, had long been victimized by horsebacked barbarians. They didn't intend for this to reoccur in America, so decades passed before reluctant authorities nervously granted permission to the colonists in Santa Fe to teach their Pueblo-Hopi slaves the equestrian skills necessary to ride herd on the breeding stock. Apparently some of these new vacqueros deserted, taking horses, bridles and saddles to Apache camps. Spanish records reported the first mounted Apache attacks in 1650, eventually resulting in a Pueblo-Hopi uprising and the Spaniard's decade-long abandonment of their New Mexican rancheros.

The Horse

In the early 1700s, knowledge of the horse had spread to Indians throughout America. The Spaniards had returned to the remains of their rancheros and the Comanches were among many tribes who had roamed into the Taos/Santa Fe area in search of horses. Comanches' exceptional skills at horse riding, stealing and breeding eventually enabled them to expand their herds until they dominated the Southern Plains. They became the role models to the other thirty or so tribes that adopted the nomadic horsebacked life of the raid and the hunt.

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.

Painting by Alfred Jacob Miller
Subject was Sioux warrior demonstrating Comanche riding technique.

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."

Picture of Plains Warriors

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.

Buffalo Hunt by Horseback

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.

The average 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. Not content to take away the Apaches brief control of the Plains horse trade, the Comanches doggedly pursued their enemy, eventually resulting in the 1750s attack on the Spanish mission at San Saba, which had become a sanctuary to the Lipan Apache.

Spain had only recently become interested in Texas because of the French success on the Mississippi. New Orleans and San Antonio were both established in 1723 . The French port flourished while the Spanish colony struggled under the effects of hostile weather, animals, insects and natives. The massacre at their little outlying mission caused the Spanish to retaliate with a punitive force of five hundred. The army marched to the Red River where they found the Old Spanish Fort defended by more than a thousand Comanche and Wichita warriors, as well as French soldiers. The Spanish troops were easily routed, abandoning much of their armor and weapons, including two cannons in their panicked retreat down the Grand Prairie toward their barracks in San Antonio. The Spanish realized they had waited too long to conquer the Plains and resigned to farming and tending their herds under armed guards in their South Texas colonies.

Through the next century, the Comanches effectively owned the hunting grounds, fields and people abutting their buffalo range. Their serfs were expected to provide them with gifts and supplies, including manpower in time of war.

Comanche Alliances

In the late 1700s, increased westward migration across the Mississippi and a show of strength by the Spanish military in Santa Fe compelled the Comanches to make treaties first with the governor of Santa Fe and then with the Kiowas. These alliances provided the Comanche with a dependable market to the west and a strong buffer to the north. Their powerful hold on the Southern Plains was even stronger a century and a half later when Texas became a Republic and white settlements began to sprout up along the middle Colorado and Brazos rivers.

Kiowa/Comanche Painting by Monroe Tsa-Toke

    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

Comanches Drying Meat

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.

Picture of Two Hatchet, Kiowa Warrior
Two Hatchet, Kiowa

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.

Map of 1840 Plains Tribes
Plains Tribes, 1840 Map

Mounting Comanche battlefield losses, as well as deaths due to cholera and small pox, once again compelled a new strategic alliance. This time it was with the Cheyenne and Arapaho, who were more than agreeable since all shared common enemies including Osage, Utes and the displaced civilized tribes from the eastern seaboard.

Little Mountain painted by George Catlin in 1834

The proud and aloof Comanche chiefs allowed their gregarious Kiowa allies to host the Great Peace held at Bent's Fort. The highlight of the event was Master of Ceremony Little Mountain's presentation of several thousand Comanche/Kiowa horses. This deed greatly strengthened their former enemies and was an indication of Comanche confidence in their own superiority.

1840 Plains Tribes Map

The following is from the book, Los Comanches, The Horse People, 1751-1845 by Stanley Noyes:

    ...the Comanche and Kiowa warriors had been in a vicious war with the Cheyenne. The Great Peace was called at Bent's Fort. The allies gave ordinary Cheyenne men and women four to six horses apiece but reserved the most and the best for the chiefs. Satank gave the most, about two hundred-fifty head of horses. The allies gave so many ponies that the Cheyenne and Arapaho didn't have enough ropes. The next night the Cheyenne threw a feast and gave the allies brass kettles, blankets, cloth, beads and guns. Trading agreements were made that lasted as long as the tribes kept their freedom.


    By 1725, Most of those lands east of the Southern Rockies that the Spaniards had called Apacheria had become Comancheria, the domain of the Comanches. The terrible, buffalo-horned warriors on horseback had seized an enormous new empire. This territory was comprised of all the lands between the Spanish frontier and the Arkansas River, lying between the Grand Cordillera and the Cross Timbers of Texas. Its core covered six hundred miles from north to south, four hundred miles from east to west, lying entirely on the southern portions of the Great Plains from the ninety-eighth meridian to the foothills of the Rockies.

    …The infrequent rivers-The Arkansas, Cimarron, Canadian, Washita, Red, Pease, Brazos, Colorado, Pecos and their canyons, and the more frequent springs in the arroyos, made fertile oasis. They gave life to great cottonwood trees, and their sandy banks were covered with wild plums and mustang grapevines. To the east, downstream, appeared thickening strands of pecans and walnuts, interspersed with ash, elm, chinaberry, hackberry, bois d'arc or Osage orange, willows, and oaks. Redbud and haws and persimmon bushes sprouted. The land was not barren anywhere; even in the driest portions, clumps of mesquite struggled to suck sustenance from the soil.

    The proof of richness was the teeming wildlife, the greatest concentration of animals on the North American continent.

    Coronado found the Llano Estacado swarming with buffalo, in “numbers impossible to estimate,” as he wrote to his king. The Spanish, disillusioned at not finding the Seven Cities of Cibola on the plains, named the native herbivores cibolos. Some Spaniards guessed that individual herds numbered in the millions. There were also hundreds of thousands of pronghorn antelope, bear, cats and great elk in the canyons. There were peccaries and hares and rabbits and, soon, wild horses, with wolves and coyotes to prey upon them. The high plateaus of Texas lacked the variety of animals in Africa, but because the great predators were fewer, these grasslands held more game.

    Picture of Comanche with Wild Horses
    Picture of Comanche with Wild Horses

    In this vast territory, Comanches found everything they required for their way of life. The grazing beasts provided meat, horns and hides. The river banks offered wood, forage and fruits, nuts and berries, food and raw materials. The bears gave up fat, fur, and sinews. The canyon brakes made superb, protected camp sites.

    The winter blizzards were passing things. Here, the sun shone in all seasons. The deep winter months were seldom hungry ones, as so often in the north, for the bison massed on the southern ranges in cold weather. The Comanches had found, and seized, a natural hunter’s paradise for horse Amerindians. Compared to most Amerindian peoples, they were now highly secure upon their new territories. Their vast striking range, new and fearsome reputation, made all other tribes give Comancheria a wide berth. Buffalo-hungry Caddoans in the east and starving Apaches and Tonkawas in the south rarely dared to venture onto the Comanche range.

The above story is from the book, Comanches, The Destruction of a People, by T. R. Fehrenbach.

Comanche/Kiowa-Texas/U. S. Relations

Colonel Dodge and his dragoons came to the Wichita Mountains in 1834 to establish peace between the Kiowa/Comanches and U. S. allies and trading partners, the Osage. The previous year, Osage Chief Clermont led three hundred of his warriors east of the Cross Timbers in the vicinity of Fort Gibson across the plains to the Wichita Mountains. They struck a Kiowa camp near present day Fort Sill, killing one hundred and thirty women, children, and old men; placing some of their heads in cooking pots to be found by the returning Kiowa hunting party.

The United States began their effort to establish relations with the Comanche in 1832 when President Jackson sent Sam Houston to San Antonio to invite Comanche leaders to council with the United States at Fort Gibson near modern Muskogee, Oklahoma. Houston urged the Comanches to meet several times through the next year and they readily agreed to the benefits of making peace with the Osage but they were reluctant to enter the Cross Timbers due to the immobility of their horses. The Comanche wanted all the room they could get because many Osage warriors topped seven feet in height and were considered the fastest runners in North America. Comanche warriors bobbed the tails of their ponies in anticipation of an Osage battle because of the warriors ability to chase them down and stab them in the back or knock down their horses within a fifty yard sprint. In the end, Kiowa negotiators represented Comanche interest at councils at Fort Gibson and the resulting treaty lasted over 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.

Stephen F. Austin
(Photo from the book, The Men Who Wear The Star, by Charles M. Robinson, III)

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.

    David G. Burnet

    In 1824, the Cincinnati Literary Gazette began printing a series written by future Texas President David G. Burnet about the Comanche Indians. Young Burnet was not that impressed with the Comanches he had seen in Texas. He acknowledged the speed of their ponies and their rider's knowledge of the geography which served to inspire the warrior's with an artificial fearlessness that endowed them, yet Burnet wrote "all one really had to do was oppose Comanche warriors with decision and energy and they would crouch like the spaniel or fly like the stricken fawn." One wonders if these words haunted him later when each mile advanced into Texas frontier cost seventeen white lives. Burnet held the women responsible for "the largest portion of the nation's barbarity." He went on to state flatly that they were "infinitely more cruel and ferocious than the men." Certainly if a sense of injustice (probably safely unconscious), as well as long-endured overwork and frustration, make for anger and cruelty, most of the women of the tribe had plenty of motivation to even accounts with the world in the form of a helpless enemy, especially when that enemy was a man. They took a "peculiar delight," wrote Burnet, "in torturing the adult male prisoners." It was Burnet's Texas experiences in 1818 & 1819 that he wrote about in 1824.

The Sentinel, painted by Frederic Remington in 1908

Local tribes led by Choctaw Tom raided the Colorado settlements as far south as Bastrop. Whether the Comanche were drawn in to help their subjugates or simply angered by the new settlers, Comanche and Kiowa warriors attacked Parker's Fort in the summer of 1836, beginning their fateful four-decade war with the Texans.

The following is from the book, The Men Who Wear the Star, by Charles M. Robinson, III:

    In July, 1835, a company of men under Capt. Robert M. Coleman attacked a Tawakoni village in what is now Limestone County, east of Waco. Though surprised, the Indians outnumbered the whites, forcing them to retreat to Parker's Fort, seat of the Parker clan, some forty miles east of Waco. Coleman sent for help and was reinforced by three companies under Col. John H. Moore. The Indians retreated. Moore's Rangers combed the countryside as far as the present site of Dallas before returning home. These various skirmishes, insignificant on their own, would have far-reaching repercussions, not only with the local tribes but with the powerful Comanches of the Plains.

Congress of Republic of Texas agreed to appoint Noah Smithwick as commissioner to try and work out an agreement with the Comanches but they specified that there could be no "fee simple" right of soil to be acknowledged. The Comanches maintained they would hold all the country north of the Guadalupe Mountains and would kill any surveyors that came into their area. Smithwick recalls that he and Houston eventually "fixed up" a treaty with the five chiefs but he claimed he didn't recall the terms but emphasized what peace it bought only allowed the settlers to resume fighting amongst themselves. By early 1838 settlers moved into Comanche country and surveying parties began to probe further west of the settlements. On August 10th, two hundred Comanches unsuccessfully attacked Colonel Henry Karnes and twenty-one of his men. On October 20th, another war party struck surveyors within five miles of San Antonio, killing two of them and eight residents of the local settlement.

Following the Council House Fight and several additional Ranger victories, the exhausted Comanche agreed to terms with Houston under the Bird's Fort Treaty. Texas had established trading houses at Waco, Presidio San Saba and Comanche Peak in 1842. Pragmatic Comanches appreciated the value of trade over expensive revenge. By 1845, roads west of the Cross Timbers from Fort Gibson, Fort Smith and the Red River were crowded with wagons as several thousand settlers per week passed onto the Plains. In the spring of 1846, the United States Commissioners met with the Comanches chiefs and negotiated a new treaty to succeed the one of 1835 but by the fall gifts promised by the U. S. failed to arrive and hostilities resumed. The eventuality of the United States' victory was never in doubt but the ambitions of the young warriors postponed the inevitable for nearly thirty years.

Kiowa Warrior

The Civil War gave young Comanche and Kiowa warriors their last opportunity to inflict vicious punishment on the white settlements. The victorious Union struggled for years in an effort to negotiate a peace with the Plains tribes. At one point, the cunning Kiowa were given the Texas Panhandle and though the 1868 Medicine Lodge Treaty canceled that deal, the chiefs were given a full hearing including Satanta's famous oratory and such advantageous terms that for years the tribe continued their raiding practically unmolested until the 1871 Warren Wagon Train Massacre.

Native American children on horse with travois

In the first year of the Red River War, 1874, Thomas Battey, a Quaker school teacher, displayed a gadget called a stereoscope which his Kiowa and Comanche charges could view photographs. First he showed them mountain landscapes from Colorado which even the young boys and girls were familiar then he showed city scenes including buildings and trains which startled the Kiowa chiefs who had not believed the stories told by their peers who had visited the United States over the previous decades which included Chief Sun Boy, who cried "You think they're all lies now? You still think all chiefs who've been to Washington are fools?"… "Look-see what a mighty, powerful people they are! We're fools! We don't know anything! We're just like wolves running wild on the plains!"

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