Friday, February 18, 2011



        On our recent trip down the center of Texas we did not find the story of the Comanche, the most powerful tribe at one time in Texas, in any one place. Instead we found pieces of their story in three major museums, The Texas Rangers Museum and Hall of Fame, The Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, and The Institute of Texan Cultures with some additional information from our guide at the State Capital in Austin.
        As we visited these museums it became clear that the Comanche played a major role in how the state was settled and its later independence. In the tradition of unexpected consequences having a marked influence many years later it may have been the Comanche getting horses from the Spanish around 1680 that led not only to the independence of Texas from Mexico, but our taking the southwestern part of the US from them.
        Getting the horse turned the Comanche from being hunter-gatherers to warriors who were mainly reliant on hunting buffalo for practically everything they needed. They became excellent horsemen and used their weapons so effectively that the Spanish and later the Mexicans could not cope with them. With the horse Comanche had become major players in the story of the 19th Century Texas. They had separated from the Shoshone in the southern Rockies and become the premier warriors of the plains.
        We were first introduced to their influence in history at the Texas Ranger Museum and Hall of Fame in Waco.
        They fought with other tribes and new Mexican settlers who were taking over their territory. The Mexicans had major problems coping with these warriors and invited American settlers into the part of the country that is now Texas to serve as a buffer between them and the Comanche. Mexico sought help from Americans because they were more effective against the Comanche.

A Texas Ranger, Surveyor stands in the Texas Ranger Museum

        Stephen Austin who had come to Mexico in 1821 to colonize northern Mexico originally organized the Texas Rangers to do two main jobs, one was to protect the frontier from Indian raids, and the other was to survey the land. The Comanche didn’t understand the concept of a private individual claiming to own a particular piece of land, but they did understand that these men with the strange equipment intended to take this land away from them. Therefore the surveyors had to also be armed and ready to defend themselves.
        These surveyors were sometimes not paid in money, but in land for doing the surveying so being a Ranger became a good way to get some of the best land to settle on. The Rangers became a standing army in 1836 working for independence from Mexico and from 1845 to 1860 went back to defending the frontiers, mostly against the Comanche.
        Initially the Comanche had an edge in battle, given their expertise on horse back and the fact that they could shoot six arrows in the time it took a Ranger to load a rifle once. The breakthrough came when Samuel Cole developed the five shot revolver called the Patterson after the city where it was manufactured. In 1842 these handguns became the main weapon of the Texas Rangers giving them fire power against the Comanche that turned the tide of battles. The Texas Ranger Museum highlights the guns importance in the Battle of Bandera Pass. Samuel Walker of the Rangers became a major proponent of the Colt Revolvers and pushed for an improved model that was named after him, the Walker Colt.
        The Comanche called the Texas Rangers “Los Diablo’s Tejanes,” the devil Texans.” In 1861 to 1865 the Rangers served in the Civil War by continuing to protect boarders, but some groups were formed to fight the Union who were called the Texas Rangers because the reputation had an impact. From 1870 to 1874 the Rangers were frontier forces, but with the calming of the Indians they got into Special Forces again criminals.
        The Texans were not sympathetic to Indians owning land in Texas and either killed them or drove them into Oklahoma and New Mexico. The last battle the Rangers had on Texas soil was not with Comanche, but with Mescalero Apaches who were pursued by the Rangers after they raided a stagecoach. The rangers killed eight and sent the rest running.
        At the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum the story of Texans relationship with Native Americans goes back further than the Comanche. The story starts with the Spanish and their problems with dealing with the Indians who recognized that the Spanish were bringing in diseases that were killing them off. The Indians in the area got short shift from the settlers who were brought into the area from the U.S. by the Mexicans to form a barrier against the Indians. Most of the tribes who disappeared had names I didn’t even recognize. In a section given over to the Indians in Texas a TV set up in a Tipi on which the story of the settlement of the area is given from the Comanche’s point of view as to how their way of life was destroyed.
        At the capital we learned that it had been placed so far into what was then wilderness because of the Comanche problem. The capital was to form an outer protective border for the civilized part of the state. This did result in some problems with legislators traveling such long distances to get to the capital so sessions were two months long because some of the representatives took almost two months to make it to the session on horseback and two months to get home.

An exhibit on Comanche life style at the Institute of Texan Cultures

        Our last contact with Comanche history came as a surprise to me and was unexpectedly impressive. The Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio is run in association with the Smithsonian and like so much in Texas was in a modern large building with lots of space for it exhibits that had been carefully selected. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. The goal is to show the variety of people who contributed to the development of Texas and share their stories and some of the objects they brought to enrich Texas culture. Great sized wall painting introduces us the Native Americans who were here over time starting with the Clovis people. Again the tribes I had not previously heard of are covered.
        The Battle of Adobe Walls in June of 1874 was the last major military campaign against Indians. A Kiowa and Comanche war party led by Quanah Parker had attacked buffalo hunters who were camped in the abandoned trading post. At the end of the battle three hunters were dead and thirteen Indians. This encounter provoked the military action of 1875 that forced the last Indians living east of the Pecos River into Oklahoma territory.

Comanche (right) trying to lance Osage warrior. Painting by George Catlin 1834.

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