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Cover Story May 15th, 2008

  Untitled Document

title

by lyle e davis

They could be mean, savage, bloodthirsty, and most certainly, they were feared. But, as you shall see, they were also capable of tenderness, loyalty, and devotion.

They were the Comanche.

Today, it is estimated there are only about 11,000 people of Comanche descent living in the United States.

The Comanches on the whole were probably the most skilled of Indian horsemen-athletic riders, expert breeders and trainers, they maintained the largest herd. They were also among the most warlike people, a hazard to voyagers through their domain as well as to settlers beyond it, frequently mounting raids into northern Mexico for slaves, horses, and women.

It was probably not surprising, this warlike tendency. It's a cultural thing. From infancy, young men were trained to become warriors. It was unthinkable for a young man to want to do anything besides gain warrior status. Those who fell short were disposed of, usually by the warriors who had raised them. There were no adult male non-warriors hanging around the Comanche camps. In another break with what the white community saw as tradition, the Comanche did not have Chiefs. Only warriors. Other warriors might follow one individual warrior so he was treated much like a chief, but there was no such title till the latter years.

If a youngster kidnapped from an enemy tribe or from white settlers obtained warrior status, he was a Comanche warrior, regardless of the color of his skin or the color of his hair, and he was not considered different from the natural-born Comanche warriors. It is interesting to consider that a baby kidnapped from the Comanche's most bitter enemy, the Apaches, and then raised as a Comanche could become a highly respected Comanche warrior, or the wife of a highly respected warrior who hated Apaches.

After centuries of these kidnappings, first from the other enemy tribes and then from the Spanish and other Europeans, there wasn't really a pure-bred Comanche left. What made them Comanche was their lifestyle and the way they were raised. Bloodlines had no more meaning than hair or skin color.

The Comanche way of life was extremely dangerous and the life expectancy amazingly short, perhaps 30 years. The warriors could die from injuries received in the hunt, in war, or from something as innocent as a scratch from a thorn that became infected.

A Catholic priest who encountered one of these warriors and offered him the job of plowing fields, planting seeds and becoming the loyal servant of the great Catholic God, first of all, wouldn't live very long if the warrior could quit laughing long enough to kill him. The priests had about the same experience with the Apaches.

Eventually the Spanish, the priests and the docile Indians began raising horses and cattle. The Comanche and to some extent the Apaches fell in love with the Spanish horse. They saw right away that the horse would change their life for the better.

To obtain these horses they didn't even have to raise them; all they had to do was steal them from the unarmed ranchers. While they were stealing horses they also took the cattle, which they didn't need, just to eat on the way home. On the high plains that were home to the Comanche, there were an estimated 50 million buffalo, a food supply that appeared to be inexhaustible.

The Comanche ate mostly meat. Buffalo was his preferred food, but he would sometimes eat antelope, deer or stolen cattle. If their regular meats became scarce Comanche would eat horse, dog, coyote, or wolf, but never birds unless they were on the verge of starvation. Birds were bad medicine. That also eliminated the feathered headdress stereotype shown in the movies, as far as the Comanche were concerned.

A Comanche raiding party wouldn't leave anyone alive if it could help it, because the survivors of a raid might have followed them, seeking revenge.

photoTheir deaths were usually slow and painful. The Comanche were not as artistic with torture techniques as some other tribes, especially the Kiowa, but they were good enough. If they brought some of the unmarried Comanche women along on the raid, as was often the case, they let the women do the torturing. These women were far more expert with the torture than any of the men, including the Kiowa, and they could sometimes keep the person they were torturing alive for several days.

One of their favorite techniques was to cut off the victim's eyelids and bury him up to his chin in the blazing sun. Another was to stake him out spread-eagled on top of a red ant bed, after first removing some of his more private parts, putting them in his mouth, and sewing his lips together.

In addition to torture, scalping was standard procedure and was a way the warrior could take home evidence of his powers for bragging rights. This was something that had been going on in the Americas for thousands of years -- despite the claims of some historians that the Indians learned scalping from the white man.

Since torture was an expected consequence of his wars, the Comanche warrior would always fight to the death, if cornered. For the same reason, they nearly always tried to retrieve their wounded.

After the first raids were reported as early as the late 16th century, the Spanish military sent about a hundred soldiers to punish the Indians and found very quickly that when a hundred Spanish soldiers carrying muzzle loading muskets faced a hundred Comanche, they were effectively outnumbered ten to one. After a Spaniard fired once, the Comanche could easily swoop in and fire ten arrows before he could reload. Thus the Comanche warrior felt it was a lot easier to kill a Spanish soldier than a buffalo -- and much less risky.

The Comanche became expert horsemen almost overnight, developing a style of warfare that would put to shame every civilized army they would meet for generations to come.

The most surprising development after the horse was obtained was the rapid growth of the Comanche population. The warriors could hunt over a tremendously larger territory and kill the buffalo much more easily, putting a lot more meat on the table. He could also raid over a much larger area and bring home more captured people to fill the ranks. During the 17th Century, the Comanche population zoomed to more then twenty thousand, while the Apache population fell.

Easier hunting gave the Comanche warriors more time to make war against their Apache enemies, bringing a lot more kidnapped children home to raise as Comanches. It also let them raid their other hated enemies; the Crow and the Blackfoot, whose hunting range included some of the Comanche high plains, north and east of their territory.

In about 1820, a former U.S. citizen, Stephen F. Austin, who was then a loyal Mexican, proposed a scheme that would offer free land to Americans in exchange for land and a pledge of allegiance to the Mexican government. When the Mexicans agreed, a flood of settlers moved into Texas. While the Mexicans saw this as a way to keep the French and Comanche at bay, they didn't realize they had bought themselves a much bigger problem.

The Comanches started raiding the new Texans almost immediately. To their great surprise, the Texans had guns. Although the Indians could usually overpower them, the Comanche often lost some warriors. A warrior getting shot was not their definition of a good raid. The European mentality of standing up and charging firing guns and losing dozens of men in the process was not the Comanche way, even though Western movies depict the Indians that way.

For this reason the Texans became the Comanche's most hated enemy. But they stopped their daylight raids, and used the full moon as the time to sneak up on the Texans. Between moons the Comanche bypassed the Texans and raided in Mexico, where they wouldn't be shot at. The full moon came to be known by the Texans as the Comanche moon. (Even today, a lot of old-timers still call it that).

The Comanche wanted to sneak up on an unsuspecting Texas family, cut their throats and pull their scalps before any firing started. If an alert Texan spotted them coming in and fired at them, they would often withdraw, leaving the impression that they were cowardly.

When this happened, the Comanche would move on to another farmhouse. The Texans soon realized the Indians were going to sneak up on someone else, so they rode on warning missions to alert their neighbors. This further increased the Comanche hatred of Texans.

All in all, the Texans didn't fare any better than the Spanish before them. With their muzzle loading Kentucky rifles they had only one shot before death, and if they were on horseback they had to dismount to reload. The Texans had mostly big working horses unable to keep up with the fast little Indian ponies, and they were not nearly the horsemen the Comanche were.

photoThe Comanche did kidnap a lot of Texas children. The Texans hated the raiding and thought the torture and scalping were terrible, but they considered the abductions worse still. When a child was taken, a vigilante party was often assembled to attempt a rescue.

In some cases the Texans found the raiders and the child but lacked enough manpower to subdue the Indians. They would then try to ransom the child. The Comanche soon found he had a brand new business -- kidnapping for profit

In the spring of 1836, a young Texan girl, Cynthia Ann Parker, 9, and her brother John, 6, were taken. On that raid two women, Elizabeth Kellogg and Rachel Plummer, and Plummer's 15-month-old son, James, also were taken.

Plummer, after several years, was spotted in a Comanche camp by Comancheros who traded for her, but not the children. She was taken to Santa Fe and ultimately back to Texas.

The position of a returned female captive, however, was always ambiguous during that time. The frontier's puritanical views and rigid racial and sexual shibboleths made it impossible for such unfortunate women to be accepted gracefully back into their communities. They were objects of sincere pity, but they were also considered dirty and disgraced, for they had been the playthings of what was considered to be animals. Ironically, most returned women suffered more real shame and humiliation among their own people than among the Comanches.

John Parker and James Plummer were located and ransomed in 1842. The Plummer boy spoke no English, but he was still young enough to make the second transition. John Parker, however, had become too much of a Comanche ever to be reassimilated with his own kind. He was 12, and he felt close ties only with his sister, whom the bands refused to return, for she had become a Comanche wife. John stayed with the Texans only until he was big enough to run away, and then he moved across the plains, seeking Cynthia Ann.

He was in no danger. If he met Comanches, he could state that he was one of the People, despite his blue eyes and fair skin. He never found Cynthia Ann, and he eventually took a captured Mexican girl as his wife. He settled in the desert below the Rio Grande.

A raiding party made up of Texas ranchers and some soldiers found a Comanche camp and went in to kill them all.

One of the ranchers was Charles Goodnight. As he was charging through the camp shooting anyone he could, including squaws, who were every bit as dangerous as a warrior, he saw one squaw fleeing at top speed with her robes flying in the breeze. As she ran, Goodnight spotted white skin on her backside and warned the others not to shoot. They had found a white woman.

The woman was subdued, and some of the ranchers who knew the Parkers well said she definitely had the family features. She did not remember any English, but when the ranchers called her Cynthia Ann she reacted to the name and started crying. They brought her back to the Parker family. They found Cynthia Ann had a Comanche husband and two sons and wanted desperately to get back to her Comanche family. The Parker family refused to let her go, thinking she would eventually become "Texan" again. When Cynthia Ann later learned that one of her sons had been killed . . . and then when her daughter died from the flu, she refused to take another bite of food and starved herself to death.

The United States Army had an encounter with the Comanches as early as 1829, when the Comanche warriors, along with some Kiowa allies, attacked an Army patrol that was surveying the Santa Fe Trail. Such attacks were common throughout the period, as more and more Anglo-Americans ventured into Comanche territory.

Indeed, one of this nation's most celebrated law enforcement arms came into being because of the Comanche. The principal function of the Texas Rangers-from their formation during the Texas Revolution from Mexican rule in 1835, through the Revolution of Texas period, and after American annexation in 1845 until 1875 -- was to contain the Comanches.

In most early encounters, the Indians had the upper hand, as in 1837, when the Texas Rangers found themselves suddenly attacked by the very warriors they were pursuing and lost half their outfit.

The tide began to turn somewhat after 1840, when John Coffee Hays joined the Texas Rangers. He not only improved discipline and morale, but also armed his men with Walker Colt six-shooters instead of single-shot guns.

The most damage the whites had inflicted of the Comanches had been indirectly, through a cholera epidemic beginning in 1849, at the time of the California Gold Rush and increased travel through their lands.

A new offensive was mounted against the Comanches in 1858 by both the Texas Rangers and the Army. During the Civil War years, with regulars and militiamen both pulled out of Texas, most of them fighting for the South, the various bands increased their activity.

The final showdown between the United States military and the Comanche-Kiowa warriors occurred in the so-called Red River War of 1874-75.

A major move toward the destruction of the plains Indians was an economic development. Buffalo hides, it was discovered, had a market value of about three dollars and fifty cents. This was at a time when twelve hours of back-breaking work was worth one dollar.

Almost overnight there were hundreds of buffalo hunters on the plains. This didn't mean much to the Comanche at the time, because he thought the buffalo was an endless resource. But within two years the buffalo numbers had decreased markedly. In another two years they were virtually gone.

As the buffalo disappeared, the Comanche's fate was sealed. There were not enough other animals on the plains to sustain them. And if they left the hunting/raiding life, they were no longer Comanche.

Ironically, the last surviving tribe was led by Quanah Parker, eldest son of Cynthia Ann Parker. He continued to raid and live on the plains. He either defeated or evaded every army sent against him, relying on tactics that were brilliant and deadly. All the other Comanche were being killed, and it appeared inevitable that the U. S. Army, seeking revenge, would finally pin him down and kill him. But it didn't happen.

At the end the army sent a message to Quanah Parker, offering forgiveness if he would come in voluntarily. He could be the spokesman for his tribe, seeking the best course for them, and live without further threat.

Since there were no buffalo left and the Comanche life was dead, Quanah took the offer. On June 2, 1875, the last of the Comanches, yielding to the pressures of relentless pursuit and the wilderness, also came in under a flag of truce, led by Quanah Parker.

Quanah Parker, the stubborn Comanche war leader who, unlike the majority of the other militant chiefs, never once signed a treaty with the whites until his ultimate surrender, he quickly adapted to his new reality as a reservation Indian, continuing to play an important role as leader of his people.

He never gave up his Indian identity, but he learned the ways of the whites, such as the leasing of lands and rights-of-ways, to improve his tribe's lot. He also came to play a major part in spreading the pan-Indian religion that started up around the peyote ritual and came to be charted as the Native American Church. He ended up living to a ripe old age among the hated Texans.

comancheThe so-called "Lords of the Southern Plains," as they are sometimes called-the Comanches and Kiowas-had been conquered once and for all.

Therein lies the story of the Comanche. They were a nomadic splinter group of the Eastern Shoshoni Indians, and lived on the North-American Southern Great Plains during 1800-1900s. The name "Comanche," comes from their Ute name "Kohmahts," meaning: those who are against us, or always want to fight us. The Comanche People call themselves "Numunuh", which means: The People.

Their range, after they had evolved into horse-mounted Plains hunters, came to include what is now northern Texas, eastern Oklahoma, southwestern Kansas, southeastern Colorado, and eastern New Mexico.

Originally, the Comanche had primarily been a hunter-gatherer people. Then they acquired the horse . . . and moved to the Southern Great Plains around the 1700's. Once they moved they began attacking and taking over territory occupied by other tribes including the Crow, the Cherokee, the Creek, the Choctaw, and the Apache. The area they controlled became known as "Comancheria".

It is believed the Comanche were the first people of the Plains to use horses in their travels and conquests; they even supplied Americans with horses to reach California during the Gold Rush of 1849. The Comanche were also dependent on the Buffalo for food and clothing.

Since the Comanche Indians were more involved in warfare than storytelling and keeping historical records, most of what we know of them is through often biased third party account.

Sources:
T.R. Fehrenbach's Comanche: The Destruction of a People
Comanche Holocaust, Book Review, Jack Davis
An example of how cruel the Comanche could be is the dragging to death of an infant child (see woodcut above) of a captured white woman, a Mrs. Plummer.

They were a colorful, but savage, warlike nation. Today, they are few in number . . . but they retain their heritage.

warrior
A Comanche Warrior


 

 

 

 

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