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Lords of the Plains by T.R. Fehrenbach
Michael Burgess of the Comanche
Calvert Nevaquaya plays traditional Comanche flute music.
Moving into Texas, the Comanche exterminated the eastern Apaches or drove them from the plains into mountains. By about 1750, the Comanche were the "Lords of the Texas Plains", controlling a vast area in Texas from the eastern timberlands westward to the Rockies. They were a terror to neighbors, especially the Spanish, on whom they inflicted the worst defeat by any Indian people in the history of that empire.

The Comanche barrier clearly thwarted the imperial ambitions of Spain in Texas and northern Mexico. Many of the ruins depicted in films set in northern Mexico are the relics of Comanche depredations, a history not well known to North Americans. A major reason that first Spain, then Mexico, made a deal to give uninhabited lands to Anglo-American settlers in Texas in 1821 was the hope of erecting a buffer against the Indians. In 300 years Spain had been able to plant only a few thousand colonists in Texas due to Indians and other problems. But by 1835, Anglos outnumbered them 10 to one, leading to the Texas Revolution.

The American colonization of Texas eventually created war with both Mexicans and Comanche. The Comanche started it with a raid in 1836, when they killed, raped, and carried away children. Thus began 40 years of white-Amerindian brutalities, the bloodiest on the continent since the 17th century. It was war without niceties or mercy, against all sexes and infants, on both sides. The Indian mode of warfare aroused vast hatred among frontier whites and they answered in kind.

In Texas, settlers and ranchers as such rarely fought the Comanche, but rather they were mostly victims. The Texas Rangers, in effect semi-professional state troops, carried on early warfare. When Texas became a state, the U.S. Cavalry fought along side the Rangers. In the early days of statehood, the Comanche problem was paramount; the army posted two-thirds of its strength in Texas and created its first cavalry branch. The Rangers were often more effective because they adopted Indian tactics, spared neither age nor sex, used native scouts and were made more than equal by the new Colt six-shooter. The Comanche, never very numerous, were losing both people and territory by 1861. Yet, this was no easy victory. The Anglo advance cost 17 white lives per mile.

The Civil War reversed matters. The white ranching frontier was pulverized, as troops were withdrawn and the Confederacy never organized an effective defense. The settlement frontier recoiled 200 miles. Much like in Daniel Boone's Kentucky, the settlers gathered in one place and often put up a stockade, or "forted up." At the war's close, matters did not improve immediately. The government was slow to restore the frontier forts. It wanted to make peace with the Comanche and others. Texas newspapers were filled with notices of depredations, murder raids, and virulent complaints about the lack of government action.

For many years, more than 100 men, women, and children were killed or carried off on the thinly settled frontier. Cowboys and Indians were for real. In addition to drought, freezes, bugs and bad water, the western ranches had an Indian problem. In 1876 there was no white ranch or settlement north of Big Spring, purely due to Comanche terror. This meant that the Comanche barred settlement of most of Texas South Plains and the whole Panhandle, a territory larger than many Eastern states.

In the 1870s federal policy changed, due to settler pressure to remove Indians and to end the continual skirmishing with the "wild tribes." President Grant ordered the army to gather all free tribes into reservations, leading to the last big Indian wars. Northern tribes defeated Custer at the Little Big Horn during this campaign. In Texas, the Army fought a series of actions against the Comanche, finally driving them into their last sanctuary deep in the Texas Panhandle, Palo Duro Canyon and capturing their horse herd.

With the Comanche surrender, a way of life ended. The buffalo had already been destroyed as a source of food by the guns of buffalo hunters. Cattle not buffalo, roamed across the land, soon to be followed by the plow and civilization.


T.R. Fehrenbach is the author of COMANCHES, THE DESTRUCTION OF A PEOPLE

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TEXAS RANCH HOUSE