The Battle of Plum Creek

Battle of Plum Creek Wikipedia

Battle of Plum Creek

Mirabeau B. Lamar, the second president of the Republic of Texas, maintained a harsh anti-Indian policy. Like many of the folks that elected him, Lamar claimed that the only good Indian was a dead Indian.

In January 1840, three Comanche chiefs entered San Antonio seeking a peace agreement that would recognize the borders of Comancheria—their ancient homeland. The Penateka, the southernmost band of Comanches, were feeling intense pressure as white settlement moved steadily westward. Smallpox, the white man’s disease, swept through the Indian camps. And Cheyenne and Arapaho from the north pushed into Penateka buffalo ranges.

Although they had no intention of halting westward expansion, Texas officials agreed to a council the following March 19, providing the Penateka return with all the white captives held by Comanches. Few Texans understood that Comanches were many separate bands without authority over hostages held by other groups.

On the appointed day, thirty-three chiefs and warriors accompanied by over thirty women and children—painted for the occasion and dressed in their finest feathers—came to the Council House in San Antonio. They brought only one captive, Matilda Lockhart, a sixteen-year-old girl whose body was covered in bruises and burns so horrible that her nose was melted away. During the eighteen months of captivity, she had learned the Comanche dialects, and she reported that she had seen at least fifteen hostages.

As previously arranged, Texas soldiers entered the Council House and the authorities informed the Indians that they were being held until all white captives were returned. Believing they had been tricked, the Comanches shouted for help to those waiting in the outer courtyard and tried to fight their way to freedom. Thirty of the chiefs and warriors were killed as well as about five women and children. Seven Texans were killed, ten wounded. One woman was released to deliver the message that all Comanche captives would be held for twelve days and then killed if the white captives were not returned. A young man who later was freed from captivity recounted that when the Comanches heard the news of the Council House fight, they grieved violently for days and then turned their revenge on thirteen captives—“roasted and butchered them,” including Matilda Lockhart’s six-year-old sister.

In early August under the leadership of Buffalo Hump, over 600 Comanche and Kiowa, including women and children, swept down across Central Texas in the “Great Comanche Raid.” At Victoria, they killed several people and stole about 1,500 horses that were corralled outside town. They raced on to Linnville, a seaport village on Lavaca Bay. Residents clambered into boats anchored in the shallow water and watched in horror for an entire day as the warehouses, businesses, and homes burned while the Indians—warriors, women and children—shrieked in glee, gathering all the loot they could carry from the burning structures. Three people were killed and three taken hostage. The plunder valued at $300,000 consisted of goods just in from New Orleans waiting to be sent to San Antonio.

By the time the Indians retreated, only one structure remained. Joyous in their triumph, the Comanche began the long trek back across Central Texas as word of the raid spread among white settlements.

On August 12, volunteer militias and a company of Texas Rangers gathered at a crossing on Plum Creek, 120 miles inland from the coast. The whites watched the approach of the great army of Indians and horses stretching for miles across the prairie, singing, gyrating, and adorned in the booty from Linnville. Brightly colored ribbons waved from the horses’ tails. One chief wore a silk top hat and a morning coat turned backward with shiny brass buttons glistening down his back.

Stories vary as to the outcome of the ensuing battle. Some accounts claim that Texans discovered silver bullion on the pack animals and stopped pursuing the Indians. Others say that eighty Comanches died (twelve bodies were recovered). One Texan was killed, seven injured. The Battle of Plum Creek ended the Comanche presence in settled regions of Texas. They were finally driven from the state in the campaigns of 1874-75—another story for another day.

Texas’ First Historian

In 1527, six years after the Spanish conquest of Mexico, Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca had not planned to become a historian when he set sail as the second in command of the Pánfilo de Narváez 600-man expedition.

Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca

Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca

After desertions in Santa Domingo and a terrible hurricane in Cuba, the Spaniards spent the winter re-outfitting the expedition. About 500 Spaniards and five ships struck out again in April. Available maps of the Gulf of Mexico were so inaccurate that when they reached Florida’s west coast, Narváez, believing they were near the River of Palms in Panuco Province (present Tampico, Mexico), —a miscalculation of about 1,500 miles—ignored Cabeza de Vaca’s protests and put ashore an exploring party of 300 men and forty horses.

After slogging along the coast for a month, suffering from Indian attack and food shortage, they realized that they must return to the sea for their travel. The Spaniards’ lone carpenter guided the construction of five rafts using deerskin and hollow pieces of wood as bellows. They melted stirrups and bridle bits to cast primitive saws and axes for felling trees and shaping crude planks that they caulked with pine resins and palmetto fibers. They fashioned sails out of their shirts and trousers and wove rigging from the hair of horse manes and tails. They tanned the skin from the legs of horses to form bags for carrying fresh water. They fed themselves by killing a horse every third day. On September 22, 1528, they loaded fifty men on each raft and set out along the Gulf, remaining within sight of the shore.

Soon after passing the mouth of the Mississippi River, strong winds separated the rafts, eventually driving all ashore between Galveston Island and Matagorda Peninsula. About ninety Spaniards and at least one African slave named Estevanico landed two rafts west of Galveston Island on a beach Cabeza de Vaca soon named la Isla de Malhado (the Isle of Misfortune). The exhausted and starving men were terrified to see six-foot giants towering over them. Using sign language the Karankawas, who occupied the islands along the coast, indicated that they would return the following day with food. Cabeza de Vaca wrote that the next morning, after taking their fill of food and water, the Spaniards tried launching their rafts only to have them capsize and drown three men before tossing the others back onto the shore. When the Karankawas saw the terrific loss of men and all their possessions, Cabeza de Vaca said the Spaniards were stunned when these “crude and untutored people, who were like brutes,” sat down with the survivors and cried, weeping and wailing for half an hour.

Still believing they were close to the province of Panuco, four strong swimmers were sent ahead with an Indian guide. Over the winter Cabeza de Vaca observed the Karankawas, noting that when a child died the entire village mourned the loss for a full year. He observed this same sensitivity to everyone in their society except for the elderly, whom they viewed as useless, occupying space and eating food that the children needed. He also wrote that during the first winter, five Spaniards became stranded on the mainland. As they reached starvation they began eating one another until only one man was left. The Karankawas were revolted by the cannibalism and horrified that the Spaniards were so disrespectful of their dead that the survivors feared the Indians were going to kill them all. By spring 1529, exposure, dysentery, and starvation had decimated the wayfarers. Only Cabaza de Vaca and fourteen others had survived.

Cabeza de Vaca set out alone to explore inland, and became seriously ill. When he did not return as expected, he was given up for dead, and twelve of the survivors decided to move on down the coast toward Mexico. Two men refused to go because they could not swim and feared having to cross the waterways along the coast.

Meantime, Cabeza de Vaca recovered from his illness, and for almost four years he traded with the Indians, carrying seashells and sea snails to interior tribes, which they used to cut mesquite beans, in exchange for bison skins and red ochre, a dye prized for body paint by the coastal Indians. The natives gave him food in exchange for what they believed were his healing powers. He blew his breath on the injured or afflicted parts of the body and incorporated prayers and the Catholic practice of crossing himself, which he reported almost always made those receiving the treatment feel better. Each winter he returned to Malhado to check on the two survivors who steadfastly refused to leave.

In 1532, when one of the men on Malhado died, the survivor Lope de Oviedo, agreed to journey down the coast after Cabeza de Vaca promised to carry him on his back if they had to swim across streams. At Matagorda Bay a tribe Cabeza de Vaca called Quevenes threatened to kill them, which caused Oviedo to turn back with a group of native women and disappear. Despite their threats, the Quevenes told Cabeza de Vaca the names of “three Christians like him” and agreed to take him across the bay. Upon reaching the other side, he traveled to the “River of Nuts,” present Guadalupe and found three of his former companions being held as slaves, the other nine having died as they made their way along the coast.

For the next eighteen months the four endured slavery under the Coahuiltecans, always planning to escape at their first opportunity. During their captivity they heard stories of the fate of their expedition. Some had died of exposure and hunger; others succumbed to violence among themselves or from natives, and some of the survivors resorted to eating the flesh of their companions. In late summer 1534, they slipped away separately and headed toward the Rio Grande. Despite the odds, they soon met again and joined friendly Indians southwest of Corpus Christi Bay, where they remained for the next eight months.

They crossed the Rio Grande into Mexico near present Falcon Dam Reservoir, but upon hearing of hostile Indians along the Gulf coast, turned back across northern Mexico to the Gulf of California and the Pacific Ocean. Four men out of the original 300 reached Mexico City in July 1536, almost eight years after setting foot on the Florida Gulf coast.

Route of the Cabeza de Vaca Expedition

Route of the Cabeza de Vaca Expedition

Cabeza de Vaca had not completed his service to the crown. He was assigned the governorship of present-day Paraguay in Central South America. His experience in Texas, despite mistreatment and slavery, had made him a champion of the native people. When he tried to initiate policies that would help the local tribes—removing Indian slaves from cruel masters and placing them with kinder owners, instituting restrictions against holding Indian women as concubines, and adding modest taxes, settlers determined to exploit the native population removed him from office and sent him back to Spain in chains.

During his six-year trial, conviction, and his subsequent pardon, Cabeza de Vaca wrote Relación (Account), his detailed description of his Texas experiences as merchant, doctor, ethnologist, historian, and observer of plants and animals. He recorded Native American’s incest taboos, dietary habits—spiders, ant eggs, worms, lizards, and poisonous vipers—when nothing else was available, and methods used for insect repellent. He even recorded his profound distaste for sodomy among the hunting and gathering culture. His description of the buffalo was the first written account of those wild creatures.

Cabeza de Vaca died about 1559, but his extraordinary adventures and his detailed documentation have earned him the title of Texas’ first historian. He performed one other amazing task as he and the other castaways walked barefoot across Mexico. His description of removing an arrowhead lodged in the chest just above an Indian’s heart earned Cabeza de Vaca fame as the “Patron Saint” of the Texas Surgical Society.

Politics and Salt Did Not Mix

Travelers driving east from El Paso may find it difficult to imagine the longtime controversies that took place in the shadow of the

Guadalupe Peak

Guadalupe Peak

majestic Guadalupe Peak rising from the desert floor. The tallest mountain in Texas soars 8,751 feet above its western flank where an ancient salt flat sprawled across 2,000 acres. The salt and gypsum formed dunes that flowed from three-

Dunes in the Salt Flat

Dunes in the Salt Flat

to sixty-feet above the desert landscape. This treasure, lying about 100 miles east of present El Paso, was so important for the region’s Native Americans that for centuries they viewed it as a sacred place where they secured salt for tanning hides, for use as a condiment, and as a preservative. Things began to change when the Spanish discovered the site in 1692 and the villages, such as San Elizario that developed along the Rio Grande near present El Paso, viewed the Salt Flats as common land to be used by all the peoples of the region. The Indians, especially the Apaches, did not welcome the intruders who defied Indian attack to gather the precious resource. Even after the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended Mexican-American War and drew Mexico’s boundary with Texas at the Rio Grande, the Tejano farmers and ranchers supplemented their meager incomes by selling the salt as far away as the rich mining regions in Northern Mexico where it was used in smelting the silver.

More problems arose after the Civil War when El Paso came under the control of prominent Republicans who tried to claim the Salt Flat and charge a fee for Mexican Americans to gather the salt that had been free for many generations. Meantime, Charles H. Howard, a Democrat, arrived in El Paso in 1872 with the intention of turning the Republican stronghold into a Democratic electorate. Howard was successful for a time, got himself appointed district attorney and worked against the Republicans and the “Anti-Salt Ring.” Then, Howard changed course, filed on the salt deposits in the name of his father-in-law, which infuriated the El Paso area Hispanics who felt besieged by the Republicans and the Democrats. When Howard had the sheriff arrest local Tejano men to keep them from collecting the salt, a group of enraged local citizens held Howard prisoner until he agreed to relinquish all rights to the salt deposits.

Eventually in frustration over the attempted control of their community and their economic future, the Tejano people of San Elizario, closed all the county government and replaced it with committees (community juntas). The Anglos, who numbered less than 100 out of a population of 5,000, called on the governor who sent a detachment of Texas Rangers. When the Rangers arrived in the company of Howard, a two-day siege occurred ending with the surrender of the Texas Rangers, the first time in its history that a company of Rangers surrendered to a mob. Howard and the ranger sergeant and two others were executed. The disarmed Rangers were sent out of town, the Tejano leaders fled to Mexico, and residents looted the buildings. Twelve people were killed and fifty were wounded. No one was ever charged with a crime.

San Elizario paid a hefty price for its demands: the county seat was removed to El Paso, the 9th Cavalry of Buffalo Soldiers re-established Fort Bliss to patrol the border and watch the local Mexican population, the railroad bypassed San Elizario, the population declined, and the Mexican Americans lost their political influence in the area.

By the 1930s, floods had deposited silt across much of the flats and salt gathering came to a halt. Today the ghost town of Salt Flats, which consists of a scattering of mostly deserted buildings, edges the highway. Scattered vegetation grows where silt covered the old salt beds, but barren white stretches still offer a glimpse of the precious early-day resource.

Clash of Cultures

Over two years ago, I posted “Heartbreak on the Texas Frontier,” the story of nine-year-old Cynthia Ann Parker, her younger brother, and other family members who were taken prisoner by the Comanches on May 19, 1836. I recounted the tragedy of Cynthia Ann’s life after she was “rescued” in 1860 and returned to her white family. No one understood that she had adopted the ways of the Comanches, married a chief, bore three children, and was happy in her nomadic life. Cynthia Ann eventually died of influenza brought on by self-starvation.

While Cynthia Ann’s story was sensationalized, followed by people all over this country, a less well-known tragedy was taking place—the

Fort Parker in 1936

Fort Parker in 1936

recounting of which played a significant role in understanding the culture and psyche of the Comanche. On that May morning in 1836, when the Comanche raiding party swooped down on Fort Parker, Rachel Parker Plummer was seventeen, expecting her second child, and caring for her fourteen-month-old son James Pratt Plummer. Her husband Luther, her father James Parker, and eight other family members were working in the field about a mile from the fort. In her book Rachel Plummer’s Narrative of Twenty One Months Servitude as a Prisoner Among the Comanche Indians, Rachel wrote that “one minute the fields (in front of the fort) were clear, and the next moment, more Indians than I dreamed possible were in front of the fort.” Her Uncle Benjamin Parker, not really believing the white flag carried by the Indians was to be trusted, walked out to meet the Indians, hoping to give the women and children in the fort time to run out through the back entrance. Rachel had delayed leaving with the others because she feared she could not carry her son and keep up with them.

It only took the sound of their whooping to realize the Indians were coming into the fort. As she ran carrying her son, she saw her Uncle Benjamin being stabbed with lances. Rachel said, “a large sulky Indian picked up a hoe and knocked me down.” He dragged her by her long red hair until she finally managed to get up on her feet. A Comanche squaw on a horse had taken little James Pratt. She saw her grandfather tortured and killed and her grandmother raped, speared, and left for dead. The Comanches rode away from Fort Parker with three children—Cynthia Ann, her brother John, and Rachel’s son—and two women— Rachel and Elizabeth Kellogg (who was returned three months later when Sam Houston paid the $150 ransom).

Rachel wrote that four Indians found a bottle of her father’s pulverized arsenic and thinking it was white paint, dissolved the powder with their saliva and smeared it all over their faces and bodies. All four died, probably in agony.

That first night, the war party held a ritual dance dangling the scalps of the slain men before the captives. They beat and kicked the women and children. When the children cried, they “were soon hushed by blows I had no idea they could survive.” The women were stripped naked and bound so tightly that their arms bled. Then they were repeatedly raped while the children watched. Rachel wrote, “To undertake to narrate their barbarous treatment would only add to my present distress, for it is with feelings of the deepest mortification that I think of it, much less to speak or write of it.”

The next morning, all the captives were strapped to their horses and for the next five days the Comanches rode hard, denying them food and allowing only small amounts of water. On the sixth day, the Indians divided them, with Rachel and baby James going with a separate group of Comanches. However, as soon as the Indians realized James had been weaned, they ripped him from Rachel’s arms, and she never saw him again.

They rode for weeks into the high plains above the timberline. She described a journey through the snows of the Rocky Mountains where she rarely had anything on her feet and very little covering her body. Her job as a slave was to tend the horses, and to prepare buffalo skins. If she failed to meet her quota, she was beaten. The work entailed scraping the flesh off the skin, applying lime to absorb the grease, and rubbing the buffalo brains on the skin until it was softened.

At the time of the raid Rachel was four-months pregnant and gave birth the following October to a second son. Her master thought the baby kept Rachel from her work and when he was seven weeks old, several men held Rachel while another man strangled the baby. When he still showed signs of life, they tied a rope around his neck and dragged him behind a horse until he was “literally torn to pieces.”

Rachel continued to write about the country and the animals and plants that she saw as the tribe traveled. She noted Comanche folkways, the nightly dances, the worship of pet crows, and taboos. She learned the language and listened to plans for attacks. Eventually she lost all hope of being rescued, and finding that she was unable to kill herself, she decided to provoke the Indians to do it for her. When her young mistress ordered her to get a tool from the lodge, Rachel refused. The mistress ran screaming at Rachel, and instead of cowering in fear, she fought back, threw the girl on the ground, and beat her on the head with a buffalo bone. All the time she fought, Rachel expected a spear to be driven into her body. Instead, a crowd gathered and began screaming, but making no effort to stop Rachel from beating the girl. When it was clear Rachel had won the fight, she picked up the girl, carried her back to camp, and washed the blood from her face. The girl’s mother was furious and threatened to burn Rachel, which she had done in the past. But this time Rachel fought back. The two struggled so furiously around the fire that both were badly burned. They continued to fight until they burst through the side of the tipi. Again, the men watched and did not interfere even as Rachel won. When the council met to discuss the fight, all three women gave their account. Rachel was told she must replace the lodge pole she had broken. Sensing a new place in the community, Rachel refused unless the younger woman helped her. The council agreed. Rachel discovered that the Comanches respected those who fought back, who defended themselves, who did not cower in the face of danger.

Once Rachel realized she would not be killed, she decided her only hope lay in finding someone to buy her. Eventually she met Comancheros, Mexicans who traded with the Comanches. To her surprise, when the Comanchero asked to buy Rachel, her master agreed. The Comancheros who ransomed Rachel was working for William and Mary Donoho, a wealthy couple in Santa Fe who had given them instructions to pay any price to ransom white women. The Donohos and the citizens of Santa Fe warmly welcomed Rachel, however, a Pueblo Indian uprising caused the Donohos, in fear for their lives, to take Rachel with them as they fled Santa Fe. They traveled to their home in Independence, Missouri—a two-month journey of 800 miles across the heart of Comanche territory. Upon her arrival, Rachel was reunited with a family member who immediately set out in the cold winter weather on the 1,000-mile trip to her father James Parker’s home. They arrived in Huntsville on February 19, 1838.

Rachel was reunited with her husband who, unlike many men whose wives had been abused by the Indians, welcomed her home. She soon was pregnant with her third child. Near the end of her pregnancy, the family was forced to flee to Houston to escape vigilantes who were threatening her father. The trip in the dead of winter must have been more than Rachel Plummer’s body could tolerate. Soon after reaching Houston, her son, Wilson P. Plummer, was born on January 4, 1839. Rachel died the following March 19 and her son died two days later.

Rachel’s book has served historians well. It was among the vast resources used by S.C. Gwynne in Empire of the Summer Moon, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Gwynne’s account is a must read for anyone wishing to understand the culture of the powerful Comanche Tribe. Gwynne deftly employs the raid on Parker’s Fort and the subsequent events, to weave the fascinating tale of the power and decline of the great Comanche Warriors.