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
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.
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."
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 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.
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
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.
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.
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
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 hunters
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.
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,
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.
The Civil War gave young Comanche and Kiowa warriors their
last opportunity to inflict vicious punishment on the white settlements.
The victorious Union struggled for years in an effort to negotiate a
peace with the Plains tribes. At one point, the cunning Kiowa were given
the Texas Panhandle and though the 1868 Medicine
Lodge Treaty canceled that deal, the chiefs were given a full hearing
including Satanta's famous oratory and such advantageous terms that
for years the tribe continued their raiding practically unmolested until
the 1871 Warren Wagon Train Massacre.
In the first year of the Red River War, 1874, Thomas Battey,
a Quaker school teacher, displayed a gadget called a stereoscope which
his Kiowa and Comanche charges could view photographs. First he showed
them mountain landscapes from Colorado which even the young boys and
girls were familiar then he showed city scenes including buildings and
trains which startled the Kiowa chiefs who had not believed the stories
told by their peers who had visited the United States over the previous
decades which included Chief Sun Boy, who cried "You think they're
all lies now? You still think all chiefs who've been to Washington are
"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!"