Rulers of the Caprock
|A Comanche camp of the Horse-Backs Band at Fort Sill, 1873. Photo by John Soule, LOC.
|Unlike the Caddo and Wichita tribes who lived along the Red River, the Comanche did not originate from earlier cultures along the
watershed. Instead, these nomadic people wandered into the Texas panhandle from their original homelands in Wyoming. They reached to
the Balcones Fault (near present-day Austin), thus claiming a very large territory that encompassed over half of Texas. Their relatives are
other Numic speakers, like the Shoshones and the Utes. Their main occupation was war, and upon coming into their new territory, they
pushed tribes like the Apaches and Wichitas away through sustained warfare. Interestingly, their rise to power coincided with the rise of
the Spanish empire, and they actually piggy-backed off the Europeans when they discovered how useful horses were. The Comancheria -
the Empire of the Comanches - became a formidable force for both the European and Anglo American colonizers.
In the Comanche language, the word for themselves is Nermernuh, which translates to simply "people." While they had language in
common, the Comanches were actually much decentralized. Several bands of family clans made up the Comancheria. Some bands remained
friendly with each other, while other bands might be at war with based on with whom one of the bands allied. The Comanches named their
bands based on an idiosyncrasies. Some band names (translated to English) were: Yap Eaters, Antelopes, Those who moved often,
Liver-Eaters, Onion-Eaters, Honey-Eaters and Buffalo-Eaters.
In Comanche, the band "Those who moved often" is Nokoni. This was Chief Peta Nokona's band. After Nokona was killed at the Battle of
Pease River in 1860, the band's name was changed, as it was taboo to use a dead man's name (Peta Nokona was the husband of Cynthia Ann
Parker; see her history further down this essay). The Honey-Eaters are the Penatekas. This was a band that sought peace with the Texans in
1840, but were massacred instead when Texans demanded that the Comanches release kidnapped people. The Penatekas could not
guarantee what other bands were doing, but the Texans refused to understand the nature of Comanche decentralization and declared war
on all Comanches instead.
|Until the end of the Red River Wars in 1875, the Comanches ruled Texas. In this portion of a much larger map from 1841, both the mapmaker,
John Arrowsmith, and the geographer William Bollaert mention a number of features associated with the Comanches - including the Spanish
mission at San Saba, which the Comanches raided with the Taovayans in 1757. Link to the map is here. (LOC)
The Comanche bands existed primarily on the warrior's choice of their leader. Chief positions were hereditary, though successful warriors
not from the leader class could challenge new chiefs. Another important aspect of the Comanches were vision questions. Both men and
women undertook vision quests by sweating, then fasting (sometimes; this was not a prescribed regimen), ingesting a hallucinogenic like
peyote, and then retreating to a high place in the hopes of achieving a vivid dream. The vision they hoped to attain would lead them to
their destiny, either as a great warrior, leader, or healer. Upon receiving a vision that satisfied them, a person might change his or her
name, thus cementing the new identity. If a man had been a successful warrior or hunter prior to his vision, he could trade his previous
name to another man who might find better luck under a new name.
After a vision question, successful warriors and hunters lobbied other warriors to convince them to join his destiny in spite of the
established chief. This was not guaranteed; new chiefs had to continuously prove themselves worthy of being followed, and older chiefs
might challenge them. Many boys went to the Medicine Mounds near Chillicothe, Hardeman County, Texas to undergo this ritual; others
tried their luck on top of Comanche Peak near Granbury, Texas or Mount Scott near Lawton, Oklahoma. Prior to vision quests as well as
during times of sickness or before a battle, Comanches spent time in sweat lodges to cleanse themselves and hold prayers.
The Comanche belief system relied on medicine. Medicine men and Medicine women were the healers and soothsayers who helped
individuals if they were sick, needed some metaphysical assistance (like love potions and the like), or desired guidance. The medicine
people received tributes and in return, offered tokens that could act as medicine, such as a pouch filled with herbs or a special rock. Like
the Wichitas, the Comanches revered meteorites as medicine. They prayed and offered tributes to at least three meteorites in the North
Texas prairies, which they named. The largest of these stones was po-a-cat-le-pi-le-carre, a 1,600 lbs iron boulder that was stolen in 1806
by Henry Glass, an Anglo American trader, whose expedition may have been paid for by John Sibley, the Indian Agent based in
Natchitoches. This meteorite was also used by the Taovayans for medicine; it's interesting to note that the theft of the medicine stone
coincided with increased disease and warfare for both the Wichitas and the Comanches.
Both women and men could partake in vision quests to cure sicknesses, learn healing, or to find guidance, but only men were destined to
become leaders. The Comanches had a highly gendered hierarchy. Since they were a nomadic people who sustained themselves through
hunting and territorial warfare, both male occupations, men naturally usurped the primary power roles. Unlike the Caddos and Wichitas,
Comanche families were patriarchal. Upon puberty, brothers lived in separate tipis next to their parents. Unaccompanied brother and
sister contact was strictly taboo in Comanche culture, which had strong aversion to any hints of incest - cousin marriage was also strictly
prohibited. Marriage was arranged between the fathers of each party; once married, the woman moved to her husband's tipi. As the
couple became successful, the wife built a tipi for her own family, which may include subsequent wives as Comanche men practiced
polygamy. Though a favorite wife received special privileges, most women were the workhorses of the tribe. They carried all supplies
from camp to camp, set up the camps, made tools, worked the animals and the hides, and did all manual labor. Anglo men recounted that
the Comanche men treated the women 'like dogs' and laughed at their labors, even encouraging fights amongst the women.
It is small wonder that in this environment, the Comanche women welcomed slaves. Comanches, like other Plains tribes, practiced kidnap
slavery. This differed from the southern, plantation-style slave system, because slavery perpetrated by Indians was temporary; if the
ransom was high enough, a kidnapped person was released. Also, kidnapped children were often adopted into the tribe, and were treated
like the native-born children, except they couldn't take any leadership roles.
Comanche men raided an enemy camp or settlement and killed the men, older women, infants, and sometimes, the male children. They
took with them young women and children. The young women suffered gang rapes and faced torture before being put to work inside
Comanche camps, where they toiled under the non-sympathetic eyes of the Comanche women. Young kidnapped children, however, were
raised like Comanche children. They were spoiled (Comanche children did not suffer corporal punishments), taught the ways of the
Comanches, and learned the language. These practices often occurred between warring tribes, but after European contact, the
Comanches perpetrated these kidnapping raids against Mexican, Texan, and American settlements.
One of the most famous kidnappings happened near today's Mexia, Limestone County, Texas in 1836. The Parker and Plummer families had
built a protective fort around their farm, but the Comanches raided it, anyway. They killed most of the men and women and kidnapped
Rachel Plummer, Cynthia Ann Parker, James Plummer, and John Parker. While Cynthia Ann, James Plummer, and John Parker were adopted
into the tribe and learned to live as Comanches, Rachel Plummer's fate was horrific. The Comanche men dragged her newborn baby
through cactii until it was dead, and she endured repeated "outrages" (rapes). Once inside the camp, Rachel was forced to work as a hide
tanner. For over two years she moved with the Comanche band from camp to camp, at times finding kindness and at other times having to
fight for her life. The Parkers and Plummers, with help from Sam Houston, ransomed for the children they could find, including Rachel.
She was successfully ransomed through a series of traders until finally, she was reunited with her kin. Her return to Anglo society did not
last long, however; she died within two years of her rescue.
Cynthia Ann Parker fared much better. She grew up to be a physically strong woman, a trait that was highly valued in Comanche society.
She married Peta Nokona and had several children with him. During a battle at the Pease River between Nokona's band and Texas
Rangers, Nokona died, the rest of the band dispersed, and Cynthia Ann was captured when it was discovered that she had "blue eyes, like
a white woman." Cynthia Ann, along with her daughter Topsannah, was reunited with her Anglo family. However, Topsannah perished from
disease, and Cynthia Ann longed for her Comanche sons, one of whom was the famous Quanah Parker (they would never see each other
again). Cynthia Ann, like her cousin Rachel, only survived two years after her reintroduction to the Anglo world. She is buried at Fort Sill.
|The famous image of Cynthia Ann Parker with her daughter
Topsannah after her return to the white woman's world.
She cut her hair as a sign of mourning her dead husband.
Copyright holder of this photograph is unknown.
The Horsemen of the Plains
Their incredible talent with horses kept the Comanches in control of their vast
empire even as the Europeans invaded their territory. The Spanish
government left the Comancheria alone, especially after its defeat at Spanish
Fort. Spanish traders brought goods and ransomed kidnapped people back
and forth, and also inter-married with the tribe; these men became known as
Comancheros. They meted out merciless warfare on sworn enemies, like the
Tonkawas, whom they tortured before killing. Interactions with Anglos and
African Americans varied. The Penatekas, for example, sought peace but were
attacked by the Texans at San Antonio in 1840. Comanche bands staged
depredations upon ranches and farms. According to Texans, raids were
continuous and unbearable. Thus, by the 1850s, the US army established a
defensive line of forts along the "frontier" (borderlands) between the
Comancheria, Texan, and Choctaw/Chickasaw settlements: close to the Red
River Valley were camps Johnston, Worth and Cooper and forts Arbuckle,
Belknap and Phantom Hill. The soldiers stationed at the forts, which included
Robert E. Lee and William Tecumseh Sherman, did not see any combat,
however. The Comanche warriors knew to stay away from areas where they
could be outnumbered and outgunned. This is why Texas accused the U.S.
government of not protecting them from Indians in their 1861 secession
During the Civil War, Comanche raids in Cooke, Montague, Tarrant, Clay, Jack,
Young, Palo Pinto, and Parker counties, as well as inside Indian Territory and
the Texas panhandle, increased. Texas dispatched troops to deal with this
problem - some men, like Charles Goodnight, served in the Confederate Army
as Indian fighters and in return, received large swaths of land.
War on the Comanches
After the war, the federal government sought to wipe out the Plains Indians in
multiple ways in order to populate the Great Plains with farmers through the
Homestead Act of 1862. One way was that in 1867, the Medicine Lodge Creek
Treaty between the United States and the Comanche, Kiowa, Arapaho, Apache,
and other tribes attempted to assure peace by setting aside lands in Indian
Territory. These lands, by the way, had been part of the Chickasaw, Creek,
Seminole, and Cherokee nations; the U.S. government had voided prior
treaties with the tribes it removed from the southeastern U.S. in the 1830s due
to their divided loyalties during the Civil War. Another way was through the
merciless hunting of the bisons, which also assisted in railroad building and
cattle driving. Yet another way was by re-establishing frontier forts: the army
built Forts Sill, Richardson, and Griffin, and Camp Aurgur to monitor
reconstruction efforts and enforce Indian removals into Indian Territory.
The Comanches, Arapahoes, Apaches, Cheyennes, and Kiowas resisted. While some peace-bands acquiesced to the treaties, the war
bands continued their raids. Some of these forays were staged from inside the reservations.
Part of the treaties stipulated that the Plains Indians must give up their nomadic lifestyle - that meant that hunting and trading was no
longer allowed. The tribes were supposed to stay on their reservations to become farmers and await their monthly allotments. The men
became restless and the women and children started to go hungry; alcoholism became a scourge in the tribes. Seeing this slow-moving
destruction, soldiers in Fort Sill did not stop the men from leaving the reservation to go on expeditions. In May of 1871, several hundred
Kiowas and Comanches , who considered themselves on the warpath, left Fort Sill to hide out along the old stagecoach road by the Salt
Creek in Young County. The Indians allowed a contingent of troops, led by William Tecumseh Sherman, to pass unmolested; however, they
ambushed a group of teamsters from the Warren Wagon Train Company who were delivering supplies to Fort Griffin and killed seven.
Red River War
Upon returning to Fort Sill, the Indians were arrested and faced a criminal trial. The U.S. had changed Indian Policy during the Civil War to
treat any acts of violence perpetrated by Native Americans as crimes rather than acts of war. The consequences of the Salt Creek
Massacre had a much father reach: they set the stage for the 1874-1875 Red River Wars, in which William Tecumseh Sherman charged
Ranald S. MacKenzie to wage a war of attrition - including killing all of the tribe's horses and bison - to force them onto the reservations.
The Red River War of 1874-1875 coincided with the introduction of the Winchester Rifle. This repeat-action weapon out-gunned the tribes;
the sheer number of troops out-manned them, too. Famous "last chiefs" participated in this war: Geronimo of the Chiricahua Apaches,
Quanah Parker (son of tragic Cynthia Ann) of the Comaches; and Lone Wolf of the Kiowas.
After the Battle at Palo Duro in 1875, the war ended. The Comanches, Kiowas, Apaches, Arapahoes, and Cheyennes trickled into Fort Sill,
where the warriors were arrested and sent to prison at Fort Marion in Florida. Upon their return (if they survived), they remained on the
reservation to become farmers. Their children were sent to boarding schools to learn the ways of the "Americans." Even their religious
practices were curtailed. When the Ghost Dance Revival movement came to Fort Sill in 1890, the army outlawed the rituals. Sweat lodges,
vision quests, and Sun Dances became forbidden, too. The U.S. was hell-bent on killing the Indian, and the nation almost accomplished it.
After Oklahoma Territory was carved out of Indian Territory in 1890, their reservations were opened for land lotteries, which allowed the
whites, who were already chomping at the bit to gain access to Indian Territory lands, to stake land claims. The Supreme Court upheld the
federal government's rights to do this in spite of the Medicine Lodge Creek Treaty in its decision, Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock (1903):
according to the Supreme Court, the U.S. had the right to abrogate any and all treaties it signs. It has no obligation to honor any of them.
|Funeral of Quanah Parker, last of the warrior chiefs, near Cache, Oklahoma in February 1911 (LOC).
|A relic from another era: Comanche warrior shield, 1891. (LOC)
|The Plains tribes were thoroughly defeated. However, the catastrophes of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, which affected the
tribes at a much higher rate than the non-natives in Indian Territory, convinced the federal government to grant self-control to the tribes.
The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 stabilized the tribes and re-established some tribal autonomy.
Today, the Comanche Nation still calls Fort Sill its home; their national headquarter is in Lawton. A revival of Native American culture from
the 1970s onward has helped the tribe hang onto their identity. While they can no longer claim the Medicine Mounds nor Comanche Peak
as their own, tribal members still attend sweat lodges, go on vision quests, and participate in ceremonial dances.
Comanche Ethnography: Field Notes of E. Adamson Heobel, Waldo R. Wedle, Gustav G. Carlson, and Robert H. Lowie; compiled & edited by Thomas W. Kavanaugh.
Comanche Nation online
Handbook of Texas
The Comanches: Lords of the South Plains by Ernest Wallace and E. Adamson Hoebel