The Comanches: Lords of the South Plains

The Comanches: Lords of the South Plains

by Ernest Wallace
     
 

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The fierce bands of Comanche Indians, on the testimony of their contemporaries, both red and white, numbered some of the most splendid horsemen the world has ever produced. Often the terror of other tribes, who, on finding a Comanche footprint in the Western plains country, would turn and go in the other direction, they were indeed the Lords of the South

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The fierce bands of Comanche Indians, on the testimony of their contemporaries, both red and white, numbered some of the most splendid horsemen the world has ever produced. Often the terror of other tribes, who, on finding a Comanche footprint in the Western plains country, would turn and go in the other direction, they were indeed the Lords of the South Plains.

For more than a century and a half, since they had first moved into the Southwest from the north, the Comanches raided and pillaged and repelled all efforts to encroach on their hunting grounds. They decimated the pueblo of Pecos, within thirty miles of Santa Fé. The Spanish frontier settlements of New Mexico were happy enough to let the raiding Comanches pass without hindrance to carry their terrorizing forays into Old Mexico, a thousand miles down to Durango. The Comanches fought the Texans, made off with their cattle, burned their homes, and effectively made their own lands unsafe for the white settlers. They fought and defeated at one time or another the Utes, Pawnees, Osages, Tonkawas, Apaches, and Navahos.

These were "The People," the spartans of the prairies, the once mighty force of Comanches, a surprising number of whom survive today. More than twenty-five hundred live in the midst of an alien culture which as grown up around them. This book is the story of that tribe—the great traditions of the warfare, life, and institutions of another century that are today vivid memories among its elders.

Despite their prolonged resistance, the Comanches, too, had to "come in." On a sultry summer day in June 1875, a small band of starving tribesmen straggled in to Fort Sill, near the Wichita Mountains in what is now the southwestern part of the state of Oklahoma. There they surrendered to the military authorities.

So ended the reign of the Comanches on the southwestern frontier. Their horses had been captured and destroyed; the buffalo were gone; most of their tipis had been burned. They had held out to the end, but the time had now come for them to submit to the United States government demands.

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“Ernest Wallace and E. Adamson Hoebel, historian and anthropologist, . . . have re-created the life of the bold, confident people who . . . dominated the prairies of the Southwest. All of it is here: the toil and stress and joyous ingathering of the buffalo harvest, the exultant feats of horsemanship, the happy sociability of the tepee village, the excitement of war and raiding. Then military defeat and the loss of the buffalo, the frustrations of the reservation experience with the failure to bring back the old order by dancing and ‘medicine,’ and finally the mystical escape through Father Peyote. . . . In its interpretation of the Comanches’ way of life, the book achieves its aim of satisfying both the general reader and the anthropologist. It is a good story well told, without romanticizing, but with understanding and detachment. Here [is] a people perfectly adapted to their environment, loving their life and their wild land and sky.”—Angie Debo, in the New York Times Book Review

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780806120409
Publisher:
University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date:
09/28/1987
Series:
Civilization of the American Indian Series
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
418
Sales rank:
383,529
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.93(d)

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The Comanches

Lords of the South Plains


By Ernest Wallace, E. Adamson Hoebel

UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS

Copyright © 1986 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5020-8



CHAPTER 1

Comanchería


ON a sultry summer day in June, 1875, a small band of starving Comanche Indians straggled in to Fort Sill, near the Wichita Mountains in what is now the southwestern part of the state of Oklahoma. There they surrendered to the military authorities.

So ended the reign of the Comanches on the Southwestern frontier. Their horses had been captured and destroyed; the buffalo were gone; most of their tipis had been burned. They had held out to the end, but the end was now upon them. They had come in to submit.

For a good 150 years, since first they had come down from the north, at first alone and later with the aid of their Kiowa allies, the Comanches had been the lords of the Southern Plains. They had decimated the pueblo of Pecos, within thirty miles of Santa Fé, New Mexico, so that in 1838 a pitiful surviving handful of this once-great pueblo abandoned it entirely. The Spanish frontier settlements of New Mexico had long been happy enough to let raiding Comanches pass without hindrance to carry their terrorizing forays into Old Mexico, a thousand miles down to Durango. They had fought the Texans, made off with their cattle, burned their homes, and effectively made their own lands unsafe for the white intruder. They had joyously fought and whipped at one time and another the Utes, Pawnees, Osages, Tonkawas, Apaches, and Navahos.

These were the "Spartans of the Prairies," of whom Thomas J. Farnham had written seven decades before, "their incomparable horse manship, their terrible charge, the unequalled rapidity with which they load and discharge their firearms, and their insatiable hatred make the enmity of these Indians more dreadful than that of any other tribe of aborigines."

These are the people of whom this book is written.

To themselves the Comanches are "The People." They call themselves n]??]m]??]n]??], from the root n]??]m, meaning "human beings." It is not that they failed to recognize other peoples as human, too (they had no racist dogmas), but other tribes were less than Comanches, and they were "The People."

The English language had no word for them originally, of course. Nor did the Spanish. But the Spaniards of New Mexico enjoyed first contact with the Comanches and gave the tribe the name by which they were later to be known by Spaniard and American alike.

Early French explorers and the few Americans who penetrated the Great Plains early in the eighteenth century knew the Comanches under their Siouan name, Padouca. But Lewis and Clark, in 1804, knew them only by hearsay and older records. They mentioned the great Padouca nation, "who occupied the country between the upper parts of the river Platte and the river Kanzas," and who "were visited by Bourgemont, in 1724, and then lived on the Kanzas river. The seats, which he describes as their residence, are now occupied by the Kanzas nation; and of the Padoucas there does not now exist even the name." The Padouca had dropped out of existence for the Americans until they were met again as Comanches far to the south a generation later.

It was the Spaniard who taught us to know the Comanches as Comanches. For many years the meaning of the new tribal name was obscure; for it had no roots in the Spanish tongue. Then, nine years ago, Marvin K. Opler unlocked the door to the mystery with a simple key. "Comanche" means "enemy"—not in Spanish but in Ute. In Ute, the word is more exactly rendered Komántcia, which in a fuller sense means "anyone who wants to fight me all the time." Generically the Utes applied this term to the Comanches, Arapahos, Cheyennes, and Kiowas—all of whom they fought. After 1726, however, the Comanches became the special enemies of the Utes, who fixed the word Komántcia on them. The Spaniards picked up the word from the Utes, and the Americans from the Spaniards.

In the sign language of the plains, the Comanches are known as the Snakes. The term is still in general use by older members of the tribe. The gesture is made by placing the right hand palm downward, with forearm across the front of the body, and moving it to the right with a wiggling motion. There are two known oral traditions purporting to explain the origin of this term. One, as reported by Quanah Parker, the last Comanche war chief to surrender to the Americans, attributes it to a band of Comanches who were migrating across the mountains to the northwest in search of better hunting grounds. After several days' journey a number of the people became dissatisfied, principally because of the colder climate. The leader called a council to calm their fear, but a part of the group could not be persuaded. In a fit of anger the leader compared his followers to a snake backing up in its tracks. From that day the universal sign language for Comanche has been "snake going backwards."

The other version relates that when a wolf howled in front of a band of Comanches traveling south, part of the group considered it a warning to go no farther. They turned back. The rest selected a new leader and continued their southward migration. Afterwards the southern group referred to those who turned back as "Snakes," the term soon being broadened to include all who remained in the north-land, Utes and Shoshones alike.

The Comanches were relatively late arrivals in the South Plains. It has been suggested that they were encountered by Coronado and that previously they had made inroads on the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico, but the evidence is thin. When first definitely identified by the whites, they were so closely associated with the Shoshones culturally and linguistically that it was impossible to distinguish between the two. At that time the "Shoshones" covered a vast area, including most of Wyoming, the entire central and southern parts of Idaho except for a portion occupied by the Bannock, northeastern Nevada, a small strip of Utah west of Great Salt Lake, the headwaters of the Snake and Green rivers, the upper Platte down to the vicinity of the junction of the North and South forks, part of western Kansas, and the Missouri River from the headwaters eastward for some distance. Lewis and Clark in 1805 found bands of Shoshones on the headwaters of the Missouri in what is now western Montana. They had been driven from their eastern home along the Missouri by the hostile Atsinas and Siksikas, who had by that time obtained firearms from traders to the east.

The language and culture of the Comanches point directly to a Shoshonean origin for the tribe. History also substantiates an origin in Shoshone country. According to Crow tradition, the Comanches once inhabited the Snake River region. Omaha tradition places them on the Middle Loup River probably until the beginning of the nineteenth century. By 1700, a noticeable shift toward the south had begun to take place. La Sever's map (1701) places the Comanches near the headwaters of the Arkansas, principally on the north side, at about its closest point to the Grande Rivière Cansez (Kansas River). Étienne Veniard de Bourgemond in 1724 found Comanche villages on the upper Kansas River along the route that later became the Santa Fé Trail, and located the tribe as occupying the territory between the headwaters of the Platte and the Kansas rivers.

According to their own accounts, the Comanches came from the Rocky Mountain country north of the headwaters of the Arkansas to the valley of that stream in what is now eastern Colorado and western Kansas about 1700, having previously occupied the more northern region with the Shoshones. Their account is fairly well substantiated by historical records, and they were unquestionably identified in New Mexico in 1705. So devastating were their incursions into New Mexico in the following years that a punitive expedition was sent against them into Colorado in 1719. No Comanches were found, but rumors were heard of French traders who were active among them to the northeast. Consequently, in the following year the Villasur expedition was dispatched to check the French. The venture met disaster on the Platte, and before the Spaniards could recover, the Comanches had moved into the territory of present eastern Colorado, southern Kansas, western Oklahoma, and northwestern Texas. For control of this territory the Comanches waged a long but successful triangular war with the Jumano allies of the French on their east, the Spaniards and their Indian allies in New Mexico, and the Apaches to the south. The Jumanos were never very formidable; Spanish power in the north was on the decline, and the Spanish system of control was not adequate to the Great Plains. The Apaches, after fierce resistance, were defeated. They retreated, leaving much of their Texas territory to the Comanches. Although Governor Don Juan Bautista de Anza of New Mexico as late as 1786 still held the opinion that the Comanche stronghold was in what is now the state of Colorado, north of the Napestle (Arkansas) River, the Comanches, two decades before that time, had established their supremacy as far south as the San Saba country of Texas. Soon after the turn of the century, American explorers reported them between the Arkansas and the Río Grande, extending from the headwaters of the latter eastward into the Great Plains.

The backbone formed by the Rocky Mountain chain was apparently the shielded route used by most of the Comanches in their movement toward the South Plains, for Pike, Lalande, Pursely, Chouteau and DeMun, James, and others mention the Comanches' and Snakes' using trails along the edge of the mountains on their frequent journeys from the Platte to the Arkansas River and to New Mexico. Bandelier recorded that in 1744 thirty-three Frenchmen visited a Comanche village near Taos on a tributary stream near the head of the Canadian and traded the inhabitants guns, but a few years later the stronghold of the latter was to the east in what is now Oklahoma and Texas.

Any attempt to explain why the Comanches and the Shoshones separated is largely inferential. But if we may accept one Comanche tradition, the split occurred as the result of a dispute over the distribution of a bear which the Comanches had killed. The misunderstanding is supposed to have occurred on Fountain Creek north of Pueblo, Colorado, in the edge of the mountains. Unable to reconcile their differences, the Comanches drifted southward while the Shoshones gradually shifted to the north and west.

A somewhat more plausible legendary account was given to the Santa Fé Laboratory of Anthropology group in 1933 by Post Oak Jim, then aged sixty-four. It is as follows:

« « « Two bands were living together in a large camp. One band was on the east side; the other on the west. Each had its own chief.

Every night the young boys were out playing games—racing, and so forth. They were having a kicking game; they kicked each other. One boy kicked another over the stomach so hard that he died from it. That boy who was killed was from the West camp. He was the son of a chief.

When this thing happened, the West camp cried all night. In the East camp it was silent. Next day, they buried that boy.

The boy's father, the chief, had his crier go around announcing that there would be a big fight to see which camp was best so as to settle the question of his son's death. There was big excitement. Both sides had good warriors. The East camp ran to its horses. "If they really mean what they say, they will kill us," they cried.

The two sides lined up, and the chiefs met in the center. Then an old man from the East camp came up into the center. He wept and told them it wasn't right for them to fight among themselves like that. They took pity on him. Then other old men came out and gathered with him. "You have plenty of enemies to fight," they cried. "These were just boys playing a game. Don't take this thing so seriously. You are setting a bad example for the children. Whatever this chief wants to keep the peace, we'll do it."

That chief called it off. He said he did not realize what he was doing. So the East camp brought them horses and other things.

After that the chief had his announcer tell the people it was time to move camp. "We have had bad luck here. There has been hard feeling." While they were still there, smallpox broke out.

Then they broke up. One group went north; those are the Shoshones. The other group went west. » » »


Simple legendary explanations never tell the whole story, however, for many factors are at work when a people is on the move. It is most probable that the Comanche migration to the South Plains was in part forced by the incursion of more powerful tribes equipped with muskets coming from the northeast. Quarrels may have given no more than the impetus to split the groups.

It was an aggressive southward movement of the Blackfeet and a western advance by the Crows and other eastern tribes that forced the peoples occupying the western fringe of the plains between latitudes forty-three and fifty-two to retire toward the south, west and northwest. According to Flathead tradition, shortly after this eastern impact the Shoshone-Comanches disappeared from the vicinity of the Missouri.

However, the southward migration cannot be explained altogether as the result of superior enemy pressure alone. The Comanches had obtained the horse, being among the first tribes of the plains to do so, and the desire for a more abundant supply of horses was certainly an important motive for moving closer to the source of supply: the Southwest.

Of the Shoshones, starving and pitiful, whom Lewis and Clark finally found in the mountains of Idaho, the captains observed, "Within their own recollection they formerly lived in the plains, but they have been driven into the mountains by the Pawkees, or the roving Indians of the Sascatchawain, and are now obliged to visit occasionally, and by stealth, the country of their ancestors." And in explanation of this state of affairs, "they [the Shoshones] complain that the Spaniards refuse to let them have firearms.... In the meantime, say the Shoshonees, we are left to the mercy of the Minnetarees, who, having firearms, plunder them of their horses and put them to death without mercy."

The gun was the crucial factor, as was clearly recognized by the headman, Cameahwait, who declared fiercely, "But this should not be, if we had guns; instead of hiding ourselves in the mountains and living like bears on roots and berries, we would then go down and live in the buffaloe country in spite of our enemies, whom we never fear when we meet them on equal terms."

The Comanches escaped this pressure by drifting southward into relatively unoccupied areas, where they finally consolidated their position against all comers. Furthermore, once they had horses, they could really launch forth on a buffalo-based economy, and the buffalo was ever present to the south. Thus, "I do not believe the Comanches were driven into the country," declares Professor R. N. Richardson. "On the contrary, it seems that they visited it, found that it was well suited to their mode of existence, and proceeded to fight for it and take it." While taking the more desirable country, they abandoned the less desirable northern territory, and they were better off because of this action.

By 1836 the Comanches claimed and occupied all the country from the Arkansas River on the north to the Mexican settlements on the south, and from the Grand Cordillera on the west to the Cross Timbers on the east, according to the report of the United States Indian agent for the Osages. Actually, however, the territory occupied was hardly that extensive. Comanchería, the land of the Comanches, may reasonably be said to have been in the mid-nineteenth century the vast South Plains area bounded on the north by the Arkansas River, on the west by a line extending from the headwaters of the Arkansas River southward near the Mexican settlements of Taos and Santa Fé, on the southwest by the Pecos River, on the southeast by the white settlements in the vicinity of San Antonio, Fredericksburg, and Austin, and on the east by the Cross Timbers, or approximately along a line slightly west of the ninety-eighth meridian: an area more than six hundred miles from north to south and four hundred miles from east to west. Although they shared parts of this vast country with the Kiowas and the Wichitas, it was theirs to have and to hold. Outsiders, red or white, who entered it did so at their peril.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from The Comanches by Ernest Wallace, E. Adamson Hoebel. Copyright © 1986 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Erneast Wallace was Professor of History in Texas Tech University.

E. Adamson Hoebel was Emeritus Professor of Anthropology in the University of Minnesota. He had many opportunities to observe Indian tribes, including Cheyennes, Comanches, and Shoshones. Besides this book and others, he was coauthor of The Comanches: Lords of the South Plains also published by the University of Oklahoma Press.

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