Council House Fight

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.

Bexar County, Texas
Picture of Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston
Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston
Texas State Library and Archives Commission

Colonel Albert Sidney Johnston requested a conference with the Southern Comanches in an attempt to recover dozens of Texas captives. Twelve principal chiefs came to San Antonio expecting such tribute as the Mexican and Spanish had always provided at these gatherings. They hoped to receive some Colt revolving pistols that 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 the Texans felt when confronted with these mutilated, half-living creatures incited immediate and bloody revenge.

From the book, Comanches, The Destruction Of A People, T.R. Fehrenbach writes:

    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.

    Picture of Henry Wax Karnes
    Sketch by painter Henry Arthur McArdle from the book, Savage Frontier II, by Stephen L. Moore

    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 as a 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 one of 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 and 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 woman-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.

A second version of the famous Council House Fight appears in J.W. Wilbarger's book, Indian Depredations in Texas:

Council House story by Wilbarger

Council House story by Wilbarger

Council House story by Wilbarger

Council House story by Wilbarger

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