Antelope Hills

Michael has a BA in History & American Studies and an MSc in American History from the University of Edinburgh. He comes from a proud military family and has spent most of his career as an educator in the Middle East and Asia. His passion is travel, and he seizes any opportunity to share his experiences in the most immersive way possible, whether at sea or on the land.

Part of our in-depth series exploring the forts of Comancheria

Picture of Rip Ford
"Rip" Ford
Photo from the book, Texas Ranger Tales II, by Mike Cox

Much of the Second Cavalry was reassigned to Utah, fortunately Governor Runnells was able to reestablish the Ranger battalion in 1858, appointing John S. "Rip" Ford captain. Nicknamed "Rip" because of his habit of signing the casualty reports with the initials "RIP" for "Rest In Peace." Ford established Camp Runnells near Belknap. He reportedly employed the Indian agent Ross' teenage son, Sul Ross, to organize an auxiliary troop of Indians, and together they prepared to raid into Indian territory. Ford's orders were to follow any and all trails of hostile and suspected hostile Indians, inflict the most summary punishment, and to book no interference from any source. (That source was interpreted to mean the United States, who might try to enforce its law against trespassing on Indian territory.) Ford led his men across the Red River, stating later that his job was to find Indians, not to learn geography. At first light on May 12th at Antelope Hills in Indian territory, Ross' men attacked a Comanche camp they had located. His men engaged the fleeing enemy close, effectively using their pistols, destroying them during their retreat. Still the Comanche managed a successful defensive action, protecting their women and children, but at the cost of many warriors' lives. Most devastating—their chief, Iron Jacket, was killed in the melee. The Spanish mail he wore in battle had earned him a reputation of invincibility.

There are conflicting reports on the battle as it proceeded. One report has Ross returning to Ford after a long pursuit of Iron Jacket's warriors through the morning, only to find Ford's troops lined out in battle formation with a larger band of Indians led by Peta Nocona stretched across the horizon. The conflict reportedly started with individual warriors riding forward, challenging the Texans to individual combat. Ford commented:

"the mind of the spectator was vividly carried back to the days of chivalry, the jousting tournaments of the knights, and to the combatants whose scenic exhibitions of gallantry. The feats of horsemanship were splendid. The lances and shields were used with great dexterity, and the whole performance was a novel show to civilized men."

Just the same, he called a halt to the Tonkawa's futile attempts to fight with the Comanche. Too many of his Tonkawa's had been killed in senseless exhibition. The Nocona and Ford rearranged their men several times until finally the two forces engaged. Again the revolvers proved to be deadly effective in close combat with the Indians.

Ford's men routed the Comanche, killing over seventy five through their pursuit of the force during the afternoon. Victorious, Ford returned to Texas, only to have Governor Runnells inform him that the treasury was empty and that the Rangers were disbanded. Perhaps Ford's greatest contribution to the war effort was his establishment of Camp Radziminski. Its location allowed soldiers and Rangers through the course of the war the ability to at least monitor, if not control, Indian movements between the reservations and the Staked Plains.

The following story is from the book, Indian Depredations, by J.W. Wilbarger:

    Brave Colonel Ford, the commander and ranger bold,
    On the South Canadian did the Comanches behold,
    On the twelfth of May, at rising of sun,
    The armies did meet and battle begun.

    The battle of the South Canadian, or "Antelope Hills," fought in 1858, was probably one of the most splendid scenic exhibitions of Indian warfare ever enacted upon Texas soil. This was the immemorial home of the Comanches; here they sought refuge from their marauding expeditions into Texas and Mexico; and here, in their veritable city of refuge, should the adventurous and daring rangers seek them, it was certain that they would be encountered in full force.

    Pohebits Quasho Iron Jacket, so called from the fact that he wore a coat of scale mail, a curious piece of armor, which doubtless had been stripped from the body of some unfortunate Spanish knight slain, perhaps, a century before-some chevalier who followed Coronado, De Leon, La Salle-was the war chief. He was a big medicine man, or prophet, and claimed to be invulnerable to balls and arrows aimed at his person, as by a necromantic puff of his breath the missives were diverted from their course, or charmed, and made to fall harmless at his feet.

    Peta Nocona, the young and daring husband of Cynthia Ann Parker, was in command.

    About the first of May, in the year above named, Colonel John S. Ford ("Old Rip,"), at the head of one hundred Texan rangers, comprising such leaders as Captain S.P. Ross (the father of General L.S. Ross), W.A. Pitts, Preston, Tankersley, and a contingent of one hundred and eleven Tonkawa Indians, the latter commanded by their celebrated chief, Placido-so long the faithful and implicitly trusted friend of the whites-marched on a campaign against the marauding Comanches, determined to follow them up to their stronghold amid the hills of the Canadian river, and if possible surprise them and inflict a severe and lasting chastisement.

    After a toilsome march of several days the Tonkawa scouts reported that they were in the immediate vicinity of the Comanche encampment. The Comanches, though proverbial for their sleepless vigilance, were unsuspicious of danger; and so unsuspected was the approach of the rangers that on the day preceding the battle Colonel Ford and Captain Ross stood in the old road from Fort Smith to Santa Fe, just north of the False Washita, and watched through their glasses the Comanches running buffalo in the valleys still more to the north. That night the Tonkawa spies completed the hazardous mission of locating definitely the position of the enemy's encampment. The next morning (May 12) the rangers and reserve, or friendly Indians, marched before sun rise to attack.

    Placido claimed for his red warriors the privilege of wreaking vengeance upon their hereditary enemies. His request was granted, and the Tonkawas effected a complete surprise. The struggle was short, sharp and sanguinary. The women and children were made prisoners, but not a Comanche brave surrendered. Their savage pride preferred death to the restraints and humiliations of captivity. Not a single warrior escaped to bear the sorrowful tidings of this destructive engagement to their people.

    A short time after the sun had lighted the tops of the hills, the rangers came in full view of the hostile camp, pitched in one of the picturesque valleys of the Canadian, and on the opposite side of the stream, in the immediate vicinity of the famous Antelope Hills.

    The panorama thus presented to the view of the rangers was beautiful in the extreme, and their pent up enthusiasm found vent in a shout of exultation, which was speedily suppressed by Colonel Ford. Just at this moment a solitary Comanche was descried riding southward, evidently heading for the village which Placido has so recently destroyed. He was wholly unconscious of the proximity of an enemy. Instant pursuit was now made; he turned and fled at full speed toward the main camp across the Canadian, closely followed by the rangers. He dashed across the stream and thus revealed to his pursuers the locality of a safe ford across the miry and almost impassable river. He rushed into the village beyond, sounding the notes of alarm; and soon the Comanche warriors presented a bold front of battle line between their women and children and the advancing rangers. After a few minutes occupied in forming line of battle both sides were arrayed in full force and effect. The friendly Indians were placed on the right and thrown a little forward. Colonel Ford's object was to deceive the Comanches as to the character of the attacking force and as to the quality of arms they possessed.

    Pohebits Quasho, arrayed in all the trappings of his war toggery-coat of mail, shield, bow and lance, completed by a head dress decorated with feathers and long red flannel streamers and besmeared in war paint-gaily dashed about on his war horse midway of the opposing lines, delivering taunts and challenges to the whites. As the old chief dashed to and fro a number of rifles were discharged at him in point blank range without any affect whatever, which seeming immunity to death encouraged his warriors greatly and induced even some of the more superstitious among the rangers to enquire within themselves if it were possible that Old Iron Jacket really bore a charmed life? Followed by a few of his braves he now bore down upon the rangers, described a few charmed circles, gave a few necromantic puffs with his breath and let fly several arrows at Colonel Ford, Captain Ross and Chief Placido, receiving their fire without harm. But as he approached the line of the Tonkawas, a rifle directed by the steady nerve and unerring eye of one of their number, Jim Pockmark, brought the Big Medicine to the dust. The shot was a mortal one. The fallen chieftain was instantly surrounded by his braves, but the spirit of the conjuring brave had taken its flight to the happy hunting grounds.

    These incidents occupied but a brief space of time, when the order to charge was given; and then ensued one of the grandest assaults ever made against the Comanches. The enthusiastic shouts of the rangers, and the triumphant yell of their red allies greeted the welcome order. It was responded to by the defiant "war whoop" of the Comanches, and in those virgin hills, remote from civilization, the saturnalia of battle was inaugurated. The shouts of enraged combatants, the wail of women, the piteous cries of terrified children, the howling of frightened dogs, the deadly reports of rifle and revolver, constituted a discordant confusion of infernal noise.

    The conflict was sharp and quick-a charge; a momentary exchange of rifle and arrow shots, and the heart rending wail of discomfiture and dismay, and the beaten Comanches abandoned their lodges and camp to the victors, and began a disorderly retreat. But sufficient method was observed to take advantage of each grove of timber, each hill and ravine, to make a stand against their pursuers, and thus enable the women and children to make their escape. The noise of battle now diverged from a common center like the spokes of a wheel, and continued to greet the ear for several hours, gradually growing fainter as the pursuit disappeared in the distance.

    But another division, under the vigilant Peta Nocona, was soon marching through the hills north of the Canadian, to the rescue. Though ten miles distant, his quick ear had caught the first sounds of battle; and soon he was riding, with Cynthia Ann by his side, at the head of five hundred warriors.

    About one o' clock of the afternoon the last of the rangers returned from the pursuit of Pohebits Quasho's discomfited braves, just in time to anticipate this threatened attack.

    As Captain Ross (who was one of the last to return) rode up, he inquired "What hour of the morning is it Colonel?" "Morning!" exclaimed Colonel Ford, "it is one o' clock of the afternoon." So unconscious is one of the flight of time during an engagement, that the work of hours seems comprised within the space of a few moments.

    "Hello! What are you in line of battle for?" asked Ross. "Look at the hills there, and you will see," calmly replied Colonel Ford, pointing to the hills some half a mile distant, behind which the forces of Peta Nocona were visible; an imposing line of five hundred warriors drawn up in battle array.

    Colonel Ford had with two hundred and twenty-one men fought and routed over four hundred Comanches, and now he was confronted by a stronger force, fresh from their village still higher up on the Canadian. They had come to drive the "pale faces" and their hated copper colored allies from the captured camp, to retake prisoners, to retake over four hundred head of horses and an immense quantity of plunder. They did not fancy the defiant state of preparations awaiting them in the valley, however, and were waiting to avail themselves of some incautious movement on the part of the rangers, when the wily Peta Nocona, with his forces, would spring like a lion from his lair, and with one combined and desperate effort, swoop down and annihilate the enemy. But his antagonist was a soldier of too much sagacity to allow any advantage to a vigilant foe.

    The two forces remained thus contemplating each other for over an hour; during which time a series of operations ensued between single combatants illustrative of the Indian mode of warfare, and the marked difference between the nomadic Comanche and his semi-civilized congeners, the Tonchua. The Tonchuas took advantage of ravines, trees and other natural shelter. Their arms were rifles and "six-shooters." The Comanches came to the attack with shield and bow and lance, mounted on gaily caparisoned and prancing steeds, and flaunting feathers and all the gorgeous display incident to savage finery and pomp. They are probably the most expert equestrians in the world. A Comanche warrior would gaily canter to a point half way between the opposing lines, yell a defiant war whoop, and shake his shield. This was a challenge to single combat.

    Several of the friendly Indians who accepted such challenges were placed hors de combat by their more expert adversaries, and in consequence Colonel Ford ordered them to decline the savage banters, much to the dissatisfaction of Placido, who had conducted himself throughout the series of engagements with the bearing of a savage hero.

    Says Colonel Ford: "In these combats the mind of the spectator was vividly carried back to the days of chivalry; the jousts and tournaments of knights; and to the concomitants of those scenic exhibitions of gallantry. The feats of horsemanship were splendid, the lances and shields were used with great dexterity, and the whole performance was a novel show to civilized man."

    Colonel Ford now ordered Placido, with a part of his warriors, to advance in the direction of the enemy, and if possible, draw them in the valley, so as to afford the rangers an opportunity to charge them. This had the desired effect, and the rangers were ready to deliver a charge, when it was discovered that the friendly Indians had removed the white badges from their heads because they served as targets for the Comanches; consequently, the rangers were unable to distinguish friend from foe. This necessitated the entire withdrawal of the Indians. The Comanches witnessed these preparations, and now commenced to recoil. The rangers advanced; the trot, the gallop, the headlong charge followed in rapid succession. Lieutenant Nelson made a skillful movement, and struck the enemy's left flank. The Comanche line was broken. A running fight for three or four miles ensued. The enemy was driven back wherever he made a stand. The most determined resistance was made in a timbered ravine. Here one of Placido's warriors was killed, and one of the rangers, young George W. Paschal, wounded. The Comanches left some dead upon the spot, and had several more wounded. After routing them at this point, the rangers continued to purse them some distance, intent upon taking the women and children prisoners; but Peta Nocona, by the exercise of those commanding qualities which had often before signalized his conduct on the field, succeeded in covering their retreat, and thus allowing them to escape. It was now about four p.m.; both horses and men were almost entirely exhausted, and Colonel Ford ordered a halt and returned to the village. Brave old Placido and his warriors fought like so many demons. It was difficult to restrain them, so anxious were they to wreak vengeance upon the Comanches. In all of these engagements seventy-five Comanches bit the dust. The loss of the rangers was small-two killed and five or six wounded.

    The trophies of Pohebits Quasho, including his lance, bow, shield, head dress and the celebrated coat of scale mail, was deposited by Colonel Ford in the State archives at Austin, where, doubtless, they may yet be seen, as curious relics of bygone days.

    The lamented old chief, Placido, fell a victim to the revengeful Comanches during the latter part of the great civil war between the North and South, being assassinated by a party of his enemies on the reservation, near Fort Sill. The venerable John Henry Brown, some years since, paid a merited tribute to his memory through the columns of the Dallas Herald. Of Placido it has been said that he was the "soul of honor," and "never betrayed a trust." That he was brave to the utmost, we have only to refer to his numerous exploits during his long and gratuitous service on our frontiers. He was implicitly trusted by Burleson and other partisan leaders, and rendered invaluable services in behalf of the early Texan pioneers; in recognition of which he never received any reward of a material nature, beyond a few paltry pounds of gun powder and salt. Imperial Texas should rear a monument commemorative of his memory. He was the more than Tammany of Texas! But I am digressing from the narrative proper.

    "Doubtless," says Rose, "Cynthia Ann rode from this ill starred field with her infant daughter pressed to her bosom, and her sons-two youths of about ten and twelve years of age-at her side, as fearful of capture at the hands of the hated whites, as years ago, immediately after the massacre of Parker's fort, she had been anxious for the same."

The following indented paragraphs are from the book, Comanches, The Destruction of a People, by T.R. Fehrenbach:

    The Rangers had not been discovered by the Amerindians. They moved differently from the army, quietly, grimly, making cold camps and without all the military jangle and furor and constant bugle signals of the cavalry. Like most old Rangers, Rip Ford fought Indian-fashion: surprise the enemy and, if possible, kill them in their lodges. His plan, however, was almost ruined by some Tonkawa allies, who, overeager, attacked and demolished a small outlying encampment of five lodges, which lay about three miles beyond the main Comanche concentration. Two Comanches escaped on horseback, crying the alarm.

Ford charged. His men were ordered to engage the enemy in close, preventing the Comanches' traditional swirling and circling maneuvers; maximizing the effectiveness of his rangers. A running battle covered six miles until the superior Indian force, outgunned and demoralized, disengaged. Ford and his men followed them all afternoon, wreaking havoc on the disorganized warriors. After seven hours, their horses were nearly blown. They killed seventy-six Indians and captured three hundred horses, eighteen women and a few children and they lost two men.

    Ford arrived back on the Brazos on May 21st. Here he wrote a report to Runnels, stressing the fact that he had proved so bloodily: that the Comanches could be pursued, found, and defeated by a properly organized expedition anywhere in the western territory. Ford and a hundred Rangers had smashed a force of three hundred Comanches, whom at this time the army considered the most fearsome opponents on the plains. His company had penetrated a region the Spanish had not dared to enter for a century, and in which American military forces were reluctant to undertake extended operations. Ford requested permission to continue his campaign through the summer and winter, in a effort to destroy the Comanche threat forever.

    His victory was hailed, but his request was denied. Ford had spent all of the funds authorized in the month-long campaign, and the governor now disbanded his little army.

Fortunately, Ford's accomplishment tweaked the pride of the U.S. Army. The Texas Military District Commander, Brigadier General David Twiggs, begged President Buchanan to return the second cavalry to Texas. Along with Governor Runnels and Agent Neighbors, the case was made that there would be no peace on the frontier until the Indians were searched out and destroyed. In addition, the president was aware that the Comanche and the Kiowa were now raiding the Santa Fe trail and the Kansas frontier, so he allowed Major Earl Van Dorn to lead four companies of the second cavalry and a company of infantry into Indian territory.

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