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The Life of Ten Bears: Comanche Historical Narratives

The Life of Ten Bears: Comanche Historical Narratives

by Francis Joseph Attocknie, Thomas W. Kavanagh

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The Life of Ten Bears is a remarkable collection of nineteenth-century Comanche oral histories given by Francis Joseph “Joe A” Attocknie. Although various elements of Ten Bears’s life (ca. 1790–1872) are widely known, including several versions of how the toddler Ten Bears survived the massacre of his family, other parts have not been as widely publicized, remaining instead in the collective memory of his descendants. Other narratives in this collection reference lesser-known family members. These narratives are about the historical episodes that Attocknie’s family thought were worth remembering and add a unique perspective on Comanche society and tradition as experienced through several generations of his family.

Kavanagh’s introduction adds context to the personal narratives by discussing the process of transmission. These narratives serve multiple purposes for Comanche families and communities. Some autobiographical accounts, “recounting” brave deeds and war honors, function as validation of status claims, while others illustrate the giving of names; still others recall humorous situations, song-ridicules, slapstick, and tragedies. Such family oral histories quickly transcend specific people and events by restoring key voices to the larger historical narrative of the American West.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803286726
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 05/01/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 264
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Francis Joseph Attocknie (1912–84) was the great-great-grandson of Ten Bears. Thomas W. Kavanagh is the author of Comanche Ethnography: Field Notes of E. Adamson Hoebel, Waldo R. Wedel, Gustav G. Carlson, and Robert H. Lowie (Nebraska, 2008) and The Comanches: A History, 1706–1875 (Nebraska, 1996).

Read an Excerpt

The Life of Ten Bears

Comanche Historical Narratives

By Francis Joseph Attocknie, Thomas W. Kavanagh


Copyright © 2016 Francis Joseph Attocknie
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-8672-6


The Life of Ten Bears

| ca. 1790–1872 |

[This chapter was compiled from several manuscripts and typescripts.]

ca. 1790

Ten Bears was born to a household from the Ketahto family clan of the Yamparika band of the Comanche Tribe. The year of Ten Bears' birth was estimated from Thomas C. Battey's A Quaker among the Indians. Battey was a Quaker teacher who knew Ten Bears. According to Battey, Ten Bears was "upwards of eighty years" when he died at Fort Sill in 1872.

ca. 1792

A Sioux war party annihilated a small camp of Comanches that had separated from its main band for the purpose of cutting fresh tipi poles. Only two survived the bloody action, a boy several years old, and his baby brother, who was walking but still fed from his mother's breast. The Sioux took the older brother captive but, thinking the baby too small to survive without its mother, abandoned it at the battle scene.

Other Comanches found the destroyed campsite and the bodies of the victims. At a nearby stream, they found baby tracks and hand imprints freshly made. A path had been made that led from the stream, and the Comanches following it came to a dead woman's bloated body. At the side of the mother was the baby boy, its skin around its mouth was covered with dead skin which had peeled from off of its mother's breasts.

The Comanches took the baby, and its relatives later recovered it. Since Comanches were sometimes known by several names, it is not known just how long Ten Bears had this name; according to one source, Ten Bears received his name for living ten days in the wooly countryside like a bear cub, before he was found by a Comanche war party which eventually returned him safely to his relatives.

Ten Bears grew up to young manhood and became familiar with the story of the fate of his father, mother, and brother.

ca. 1805

At the age of fifteen, Ten Bears, with Pohenahwatpatuh, Umahkitipuanuhkitu, Hawahtee, and other very young Yamparika Comanches, were holding the Comanche war-party Pre-Departure Swaying Dance, nuhuhtsawe. This dance, being strictly reserved only for those going into enemy country, the youthfulness of these warriors and their female dance companions (some of whom accompanied the young war party all the way and back), plus their objective — enemy Ute scalps — caused the rest of the village to belittle the young warriors' intentions, saying, "There's nothing wrong with these young folks going out west. In fact, it may turn out to be good for the village. The young folks may see and tell the village of a wild horse herd from which we may be able to get some good horses."

So it was the village skeptics'/wiseacres' own words that the successful war party sang aback at them in the kwahikwuuhtikuru victory ceremony when returning with mountain Ute scalps. The young war party had cut off and killed out the straggling rear element of a large, traveling Ute village. Ten Bears, the war-party leader, composed a victory scalp song to commemorate this event. That victory song is known to Ten Bears' present-day descendants. The words say, "So then, around here, do wild horses shoot guns with wormy stocks, and sobbingly yell?"

ca. 1806

Although the Comanches had other enemies, the enemies that stood foremost in the mind of Ten Bears were the Sioux who had killed his family. Ten Bears haunted and harassed the Sioux camps with mounted war parties, sometimes alone.

His most successful method was to wait just out of sight of the Sioux camp and to attack the first Sioux that left camp at early morning. He would chase the surprised early riser and lance him off of his horse almost within the camp. The other Sioux who by then had mounted and gave chase to this early-morning killer were led into a Comanche war party's ambuscade.

These daybreak attacks grew so successful that Ten Bears could lance off a Sioux and turn his horse and ride away at a leisurely lope as though a strong Comanche group lay in wait just out of sight of the Sioux camp, although sometimes Ten Bears would be all alone. By the time the enemy had got a strong force together, he would be a safe distance away. Sioux camp criers warned of the Comanches and the battle horses with the quivering flanks that were probably awaiting dawn and the first Sioux to leave camp. Early risers were thus warned not to leave camp alone.

The names of several other highly successful employers of these feared early morning exercises have reached us from over a century ago, and the following names can be written in gold on the beautiful green that covers the Comanches' beautiful country after the spring rains: Nohkahnsuh, Pekwinowosaru, Wahawoinu, Nahvotuhtaskoo, Puhiwitoya, and Kepasuake.

Nohkahnsuh was a crippled Comanche, almost helplessly lame when not on horseback. He made celebrated daybreak spear attacks on the Sioux and other enemy tribes. During truce visits, enemies who had witnessed Nohkahnsuh's deeds were astonished at his crippled condition.

Besides their favored head-on frontal battle charges, the Comanche horse-warriors employed the ages-old war tactic ohtatokahmah or ohtatsahkahmah, both of which mean "to lie hidden, ready aimed, to shoot the approaching victim or enemy." Sometimes, especially against the white man, decoys were picked and sent out to entice the enemy into these Comanche dead-falls or death-traps which effectively dealt death to the would-be killers. The aboriginal ambuscades played on the white man's weakness for easy picking. This led to the same, where with upraised cavalry sabers, blue-dressed regular U.S. Army troops would exultantly experience the soldiers' supremely thrilling hard and hot chase after a fleeing enemy redskin.

What must be kept foremost in mind is that the herein mentioned battle maneuvers are certainly not to be utilized or even considered by any force which was not confident that they would prevail, which is to say that the weak do not entice or decoy the strong into full-pitched battle.

ca. 1810

Once Ten Bears and another young Comanche came upon a large Sioux camp. Unlike other camps of Plains Indians, this one did not move about but for some reason seemed to stay at this one location. Another thing the two Comanches noticed was that one certain camp in the middle of the village kept its campfires burning all night long.

After several days of this, Ten Bears said he was going to go see what was the reason for these unusual facts. His friend said that he was ready to go too. That night when all was quiet, the two Comanches headed for the middle of the camp and the tipi with the lit campfire.

They came right up to the lit tipi and Ten Bears peeped into it. He saw a solitary Sioux silently sitting at the back end of the lit tipi. Not seeing anyone else, Ten Bears opened the tipi door-flap and walked in, his companion following. They were ready to knife the Sioux if he made any move or noise. If the Sioux was surprised, he gave no sign of it.

The Comanches sat down, the Sioux looked them over then asked in the sign language who they were. They gave the sign of the snake crawling backwards, denoting they were Comanches.

He asked them what they were looking for. They told him they had come to find out why it was that the village did not move about as other Plains Indian villages and why after all the other campfires went out for the night, this one tipi would keep its fire going all night.

The Sioux let them know that he understood their questions and that he was going to give them the answers. He told them that he was the head chief of the whole village of Sioux. He then reached over to what looked like an unoccupied bed and pulled away the cover, revealing an extremely emaciated human figure. This figure on the bed was his only son and was therefore the answer to both questions of the Comanches.

The Sioux chief said he expected each night he sat up with his son to be the very last but the sickness of exhaustion (i.e., tuberculosis) was a slow killer of man. The whole village of Sioux was helplessly awaiting the death of their chief's son.

The Sioux told the two Comanches he was glad something had took pity upon him and sent the two Comanches to him. His son had been the greatest war chief of the Sioux, his son had killed very many Comanches and owned more Comanche horses than any other Sioux. He then told the Comanches he wanted his son to escape the unhonorable death of death by disease, especially while still a young man. All the Sioux in the village would respect and obey his word and allow them to leave the village unharmed if the Comanches would give his son, the dying Sioux war chief, the most glorious death of all, death at the hands of a mortal enemy, the Horse People of the South, the Comanches.

After considering this unusual request the Comanches told the Sioux they would kill his son but they wanted to do it after sunrise as they wanted their God, the Sun, to watch them kill their enemy. This was reasonable to the Sioux father who then said he was going to start the preparations. He awoke his wife and daughter from the next tipi. When they came into where the two Comanches were, he cautioned them as they were startled at the sight of the two enemy. His wife and daughter sat listening as he told them of the night's events. They wept when he told of what he had asked the two Comanches to do.

Then the chief said that morning was near and ordered food prepared and placed before the Comanches. While the Comanches ate, the Sioux stepped outside and started calling out and arousing the sleeping village.

As he called and talked to the village, the Comanches could tell when he referred to them for an excited murmur went up through the morning air. As the chief talked on, the excitement subsided. The chief got through talking to the now wide awake Sioux and came back into where the Comanches were sitting after finishing their meal.

They watched them bathe the dying war chief, and as war paint was applied to face, his hair was combed and he was dressed for battle.

All was ready just before sun-up when the Comanches stepped outside. The young chief's herd of horses had been driven up near the front of the tipi. His weapons and other personal possessions had been loaded on packhorses. The Sioux of the village had gathered around the chief's camp in a large circle, leaving an opening through which the Comanches could depart.

Ten Bears said for the entrance of the tipi to be enlarged so the Sun could have an unobstructed view. He waited for the sun to come up and rise free of the horizon. Then he gave his battle cry and advanced at the opened tipi in the zigzagging assault hop of the Comanche fighting on foot. His companion following suit. They killed the dying war chief with their lances and scalped him.

As a great wail went up from the Sioux village, the Comanches mounted on two of the dead Sioux chieftain's horses and drove the rest ahead of them. The Sioux of the village true to their chief's word made no move to hinder the Comanches' departure.

Ten Bears and his companion eventually arrived at the Yamparika Comanche country in what is now Kansas, driving their big herd of horses and told their almost unbelievable story.

During one of the temporary truces, groups of Sioux and Comanches substantiated their story and revealed that Ten Bears' older brother had grown to manhood and had children by his Sioux wife.

ca. 1820

After emergence as prominent tribal leader, Ten Bears was honored over sixteen times by visiting tribes with the leader's (or hero's) Shake-Down Ceremony, known as the Medicine Pipe or Eagle Ritual. How rarely this honor was bestowed can best be indicated by the fact that the noble Quanah Parker received only one such honor.

Ten Bears was married by this time, although the wife's name has not been passed down. This wife died about 1830, and Ten Bears remarried; that wife's name also was not remembered. About this time a daughter was born, the mother of Cheevers (born 1842) and Querherbitty (born 1843).

Another wife was Tahsookoo. She was the mother of Coaschoeckivit and a daughter. Coaschoeckivit was killed at the First Battle of Adobe Walls in 1864. The daughter was mother to Pasewa, who was another grandchild of Ten Bears.


Summer. The Osage tribe, which had to cope with Comanche resentment in order to obtain buffalo meat from the plains, was ever on touch-and-go, precarious peace relations with the northern Comanche Yamparikas. Despite numerous truces, and even intermarriages, there was much warfare between the northern Comanches and Osages. One such bloody battle incident was reported and recorded by Col. Matthew Arbuckle, military commander of the Indian Territory, in his own written words, thus, "The Comanchy Indians had a short time since, killed 20 or 25 Osage warriors." During periods of happier intertribal relations, Comanches and Osages joined forces to battle their common enemies, with Osages sometimes even going with Comanches into interior Mexico.


The Comanche Horn Dance, aanuhkaru, a war ceremony sometimes called Buffalo Dance, seemed to be one of Ten Bears' favorites. His Horn Dance reminded onlookers of the rocking, loping motion of a running buffalo, his fur bonnet's horns that he gently rolled in time to the music was a sight that was remembered. Incidentally, this Buffalo Horn Dance was the dance of welcome performed by the Comanches when the horse-less, manually pole-dragging tribe of Kiowas, with nothing but their backs and strong dogs as burden carriers, made truce and first visited the Yamparika Comanches near the upper Arkansas River area.

* * *

Ten Bears and Patuuya were past prime warriors about age thirty-five or forty when the truce Kiowas appeared, which places the event between 1825 and 1830 instead of the misinformed date of 1790 preferred by Kiowas.

The initial Comanche-Kiowa truce contact was made at a trading post, the truce arranged through the efforts of the white trader. The leading Comanche participant was the past prime Yamparika warrior Patuuya. Before the Comanches came into the trading post, the trader concealed the Kiowas. When the old Comanche arrived, the trader obtained from him a commitment that Patuuya would not open hostilities with any Comanche enemies within the confines of the trading post. When the old Comanche gave his word, the scheming trader then brought out the Kiowas and had the erstwhile enemies to shake hands.


July 16 — U.S. Dragoons under Col. Henry Dodge came to Camp Comanche, at the east edge of the Esitoyapit, the Wichita Mountains. Comanches from the past appear here to make friends with the U.S. troops: Isakoni, the gigantic Tabekwina, and Pohenahwatpatuh — which in one written account is badly translated as "Buffalo Leaf-Fat"2 — all greet the U.S. troops with friendliness; Pohenahwatpatuh had been along when Ten Bears gained his first victory over the Utes.


August 24. Comanches and the Wichita tribe sign peace treaty with the United States at Camp Holmes, eastern border of Grand Prairie, near Canadian River. During this period of his middle age, Ten Bears held a tribal ekonuhka, Buffalo Tongue Feast and Dance Ceremony, in east Texas, about the Ebiokwe, Blue-Green River, or Brazos River area.


Excerpted from The Life of Ten Bears by Francis Joseph Attocknie, Thomas W. Kavanagh. Copyright © 2016 Francis Joseph Attocknie. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Introduction by Thomas W. Kavanagh,
Ten Bears–Attocknie Genealogy,
Preface by Francis Joseph Attocknie,
The Dated Narratives,
1. The Life of Ten Bears | ca. 1790–1872,
2. Peace with the Kiowas | ca. 1825,
3. Uhta Hookne: The Robe Entrenchments | 1837,
4. Nahwakatahnohpetuhupu: When the Enemies Camped Together | 1838,
5. Piakoruko's War against the Apaches | 1840,
6. Where the Comanches' Saddle Packs Were Captured: Isakwahip's Tragic Victory | ca. 1845–50,
7. The Badger's Mirror | 1855,
8. Disaster in Coahuila | 1856,
9. The Red-Striped Saddle Blanket | 1856,
10. The Battle at Little Robe Creek | 1858,
11. Wutsuki | 1858,
12. Tuhtahyuheekuh Evens the Score against the Osages | 1868,
13. Onawia Takes a New Wife and Goes to Mexico | 1868,
14. Buckskin Charlie versus Kiowas and Comanches | July 1868,
15. The Battle of the Washita | November 26, 1868,
16. The Battle of McClellan Creek | September 24, 1872,
17. The Battle of Adobe Walls | 1874,
18. The Last Sun Dance, the Last Raid | July 26, 1878,
The Undated Narratives,
19. Esitoya's Loyalty,
20. Pukumahkuh's Two Escapes,
21. The Pukutsinuu: The Comanche Contrary Warriors,
22. Mubsiihuhtuko: The Peaceful Nephew,
23. A Fight between Cavalry and a Comanche War Party,
24. Attocknie Gets Half a Scalp,
25. A Cripple and a Blind Man Form a Friendship,
26. Violation of a Dance Ground,
27. Pohocsucut and the Two Kiowas,
28. The Mule,
29. Querherbitty,
30. Comanche Pictographs,
31. Miscellaneous Religious Matters,
32. Fragmentary and Incomplete Narratives,
Appendix: Lexicon,

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