LAND GRAB: The disenfranchisement of a people
“My heart is filled with joy when I see you here, as the brooks fill with water when the snows melt in the spring; and I feel glad, as the ponies do when the fresh grass starts in the beginning of the year. My people have never first drawn a bow or gun against whites. There has been trouble on the line between us, and my young men have danced the war dance. But it was not begun by us. It was you who sent out the first soldier and we who sent out the second. The blue dressed soldiers and the Utes came out from the night when it was dark and still, and for campfires they lit our lodges. Instead of hunting game, they killed my braves, and the warriors of the tribe cut their hair for the dead. So it was in Texas. They made sorrow come in our camps, and we went out like the buffalo bulls when the cows are attacked. When we found them we killed them and their scalps hang in our lodges.
The Comanche are not weak and blind, like pups or a dog when seven sleeps old. They are strong and farsighted, like grown horses. We took their road and we went on it. The white women cried and our women laughed. But there are things which you have said which I do not like. They are not sweet like sugar, but bitter like gourds. You said that you wanted to put us upon a reservation, to build us houses and make us medicine lodges. I do not want them. I was born upon the prairie, where the wind blew free and there was nothing to break the light of the sun. I lived like my fathers before me, and like them I lived happily.”
These words were spoken in 1867 by the Chief Paruasemena (Young Bear) of the Yamparikas Comanche at the Medicine Lodge Treaty negotiations. There were three treaties signed at Medicine Lodge, Kansas, and all were abysmal failures. [i]
Settlers, the United States military and the tribes all failed to honor a number of articles in the treaties. The agreements were caught up in a bitter dispute between the House of Representatives and the Senate over which body had control of treaty making with the Nations. Then as now, politics was the fly in the ointment. Unresolved acrimony and political posturing spelled an end to treaty attempts after 1870. It also disrupted promised appropriations and rations for reservations. This made a bad situation worse as the rations were wholly inadequate in the first place. The result was famine and sickness for the natives on the reservations. Discontented young men left the reservation with their families, returning to the old way of raiding settlements, both out of anger for the dishonesty of the government’s agents, and to alleviate their starving conditions. It wasn’t long before the wars reached fevered pitch.
The previous brief history describes the beginning of the end of the story. The origin of the story harkens from prehistoric times. Abundant evidence has been unearthed suggesting that primitive human society existed on the American continents for some 12 millennia, but with their origins remaining somewhat a mystery. [ii]
Evidence of these peoples has been found in scattered locations across the North American Great Plains. For several years we called these natives the Clovis people. The first and most abundant evidence was discovered near that New Mexico city. We have since determined that there were three separate and unrelated DNA lines that appeared on these continents within a few thousand years of each other. They were of different bloodlines, but all were foot nomads. It was the Clovis bloodline that was ancestor to the Shoshonean nations, from which the Comanche are descendant.
The early nomads were hunters who ventured onto the plains in search of large game. They hunted mammoth, musk ox, reindeer, elk, bear and primitive horses. After about 3,000 years the focus shifted to the early bison; predecessor of the buffalo. The people migrated in search of game, but returned every year to traditional, high ground locations to prepare for the coming winter. These traditional camps and the artifacts found there are where much of our knowledge originates.
This lifestyle continued in one form or another for centuries, but then along came the European invasion.
It started with the Spanish, followed soon afterwards with the French, Dutch and English. The western march of settlements brought strangers with strange customs into regular contact with native tribes. Many of the tribes and bands were friendly to the newcomers, receiving the new settlers with good grace and offering trade. Other resisted contact and simply moved further west. The Euro-Christian concept of Manifest Destiny and the Homestead Act of 1862 provided false justification for settlers to push further west, creating more competition for a finite lands and hunting, creating tension between the settlers and the Natives.
Many treaties were signed in futile efforts to assuage conflict, promising land, rations and peace, but the treaties were almost never honored. The Christian concept of manifest destiny manifested as bigotry in these situations, and the natives were treated as savages. The natives responded in kind.
The Comanche tribe provided one of the main sources of resistance. The Comanche were famous for their horsemanship and ferocity. The roving bands became notorious for raids on homesteads and towns, and for kidnapping settler women and children, the most famous of whom was Cynthia Parker; mother of Quanah Parker. This resistance served only to heighten tensions between the settlers and the natives.
With the outbreak of the Civil War, some Indian tribes attempted to align themselves with what they believed would be the winning side. In the case of the Comanche, that side was the Confederacy. When the war ended with the Greycoats losers, the Comanche were brought to Fort Smith in Arkansas and made to swear loyalty to the United States government.
The humiliation did not long last and soon came a resurgence of the Comanche as rulers of the plain. They spread out over large expanses of the southern plains, took what they had learned from the white man and began to expand both militarily and economically. They fought both diplomatically and violently to maintain power in their areas of control. In the Treaty of Little Arkansas in 1865, the tribe was awarded a large piece of land spanning parts of Oklahoma and Texas. Some parts of this region, known as Comancheria, later became part of the reservation system.
The tribe continued their raids and soon the United States government took action. The Comanche Campaign is a term used by the government to describe the organized effort to drive the Comanche off their land. The Comanche redoubled their resistance in a series of violent clashes with the settlers between 1867 and 1875.
The government was intent on taking the Comanche land. In 1871 Col. Ranald “Bad Hand” Mackenzie was given command of the Fourth Cavalry Regiment and sent to Texas to force the Comanche onto the reservation. Over the next few years, using large bodies of troops, Mackenzie engaged in dozens skirmishes with the Comanche in the area known as the Llano Estacado. Mackenzie was determined to force the tribe off its land. [iii]
In the early morning hours of Monday, September 28, 1874, in a deep Red River canyon in the Texas Panhandle, 400 troops led by Mackenzie attacked a still sleeping camp of Kiowa, Comanche and Cheyenne. The women and children not killed in the initial attack retreated up the canyon while the men engaged the soldiers allowing their families to escape. The engagement lasted hours, and by noon the surviving natives had escaped. They left lodges, horses and supplies gathered for the coming winter behind. Mackenzie ordered the lodges burned and the supplies destroyed. Next he slaughtered 1,048 horses and mules leaving the natives afoot. Without horses, shelter or food, the natives faced a killing winter. [iv]
The Palo Duro Canyon fight was the largest engagement in the Red River Wars. It marked the end of the Southern Plains Indians' military resistance. The once proud Comanche surrendered and were forcibly resettled onto the reservation. A proud people was dispossessed of land that had been their ancestral birthright for over 12,000 years. To this day locals visit the Palo Duro to collect meal from the decomposed bones of the horses, many of them oblivious to the history upon which they stand.
[i] Jacki Thompson Rand, “Medicine Lodge Treaty (1867),” Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, <http://digital.library.okstate.edu/encyclopedia/entries/M/ME005.html> (Accessed 2014.04.27).
[ii] W. Fitzhugh, I. Goddard, S. Ousley, D. Owsley, D. Stanford. "Paleoamerican Origins." Encyclopedia Smithsonian, Science and Technology. Anthropology Outreach Office, Smithsonian Institution, 1999. <http://www.si.edu/Encyclopedia_SI/nmnh/origin.htm> (Accessed 2014.04.27).
[iii] Ernest Wallace, "MACKENZIE, RANALD SLIDELL," Handbook of Texas Online <http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fma07> (accessed 2014.04.27), Uploaded on 2010.06.15, Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
[iv] T. R. Fehrenbach, Comanches: The Destruction of a People”, 1974, LCCN 73-20761. Republished in 2003 as Comanches: The History of a People, ISBN 1-4000-3049-8, LCCN 2003-267713