Part of our in-depth series exploring the forts of Comancheria
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 either 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.
Ranger Captain Ben McCulloch
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 African 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 Africans 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 African. 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.
The following version of the Battle of Plum Creek is from J.W. Wilbarger's book, Indian Depredations in Texas.
Join the discussion