7/16/10 - comanches

In today's excerpt - in the seemingly inexorable subjugation by Americans of Native Americans and their march westward from the original thirteen colonies to California, they were turned back dramatically only once—in a war with the most fierce tribe of them all, the Comanches of Texas and the Llano Estacado:

"Six years after the end of the Civil War, the western frontier was an open and bleeding wound, a smoking ruin littered with corpses and charred chimneys, a place where anarchy and torture killings had replaced the rule of law, where Indians and especially Comanches raided at will. Victorious in war, unchallenged by foreign foes in North America for the first time in its history, the Union now found itself unable to deal with the handful of remaining Indian tribes that had not been destroyed, assimilated, or forced to retreat meekly onto reservations where they quickly learned the meaning of abject subjugation and starvation. ... No tribe in the history of the Spanish, French, Mexican, Texan, and American occupations of this land had ever caused so much havoc and death [as the Comanches]. None was even a close second.

"Just how bad things were in 1871 along this razor edge of civilization could be seen in the numbers of settlers who had abandoned their lands. The frontier, carried westward with so much sweat and blood and toil, was now rolling backward, retreating. Colonel Randolph Marcy, who accompanied [Civil War hero and general in chief of the army William Tecumseh] Sherman on a western tour in the spring, and who had known the country intimately for decades, had been shocked to find that in many places there were fewer people than eighteen years before. 'If the Indian marauders are not punished,' he wrote, 'the whole country seems in a fair way of becoming totally depopulated.' This phenomenon was not entirely unknown in the history of the New World. The Comanches had also stopped cold the northward advance of the Spanish empire in the eighteenth century—an empire that had, up to that point, easily subdued and killed millions of Indians in Mexico and moved at will through the continent.

"Now, after more than a century of relentless westward movement, they were rolling back [European] civilization's advance again, only on a much larger scale. Whole areas of the borderlands were simply emptying out, melting back eastward toward the safety of the forests. One [Texas] county—Wise—had seen its population drop from 3,160 in the year 1860 to 1,450 in 1870. In some places the line of settlements had been driven back a hundred miles. If General Sherman wondered about the cause—as he once did—his tour with Marcy relieved him of his doubts. That spring they had narrowly missed being killed themselves by a party of raiding Indians. The Indians, mostly Kiowas, passed them over because of a shaman's superstitions and had instead attacked a nearby wagon train. What happened was typical of the savage, revenge-driven attacks by Comanches and Kiowas in Texas in the postwar years. What was not typical was Sherman's proximity and his own very personal and mortal sense that he might have been a victim, too. Because of that the raid became famous, known to history as the Salt Creek Massacre.

"Seven men were killed in the raid, though that does not begin to describe the horror of what [was] found at the scene. According to Captain Robert G. Carter, who witnessed its aftermath, the victims were stripped, scalped, and mutilated. Some had been beheaded and others had their brains scooped out. 'Their fingers, toes and private parts had been cut off and stuck in their mouths,' wrote Carter, 'and their bodies, now lying in several inches of water and swollen or bloated beyond all chance of recognition, were filled full of arrows, which made them resemble porcupines.' They had clearly been tortured, too. 'Upon each exposed abdomen had been placed a mass of live coals. ... One wretched man, Samuel Elliott, who, fighting hard to the last, had evidently been wounded, was found chained between two wagon wheels and, a fire having been made from the wagon pole, he had been slowly roasted to death—'burnt to a crisp.' "


S.C. Gwynne


Empire of the Summer Moon: Quannah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Camanches, the most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History


Scribner a division of Simon & Schuster


Copyright 2010 by S.C. Gwynne


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