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Comanche Indians

The Comanches, exceptional horsemen who dominated the Southern Plains, played a prominent role in Texas frontier history throughout much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They were originally a mountain tribe who roamed the Great Basin region of the western United States as crudely equipped hunters and gatherers. Sometime during the late seventeenth century, the Comanches attained horses, and that drastically changed their culture. Their new mobility allowed them to leave their mountain home and their Shoshone neighbors and move onto the plains of eastern Colorado and western Kansas, where there were plenty of animals to hunt.

The Comanches had a band structure of family groups. The band structure of Comanche society was not rigid, and bands came together and broke apart, depending on the needs and goals of their members.

The Comanches remained a nomadic people throughout their free existence. Buffalo, their lifeblood, provided food, clothing, and shelter. Because of their skills as traders, the Comanches controlled much of the commerce of the Southern Plains. They built Plains-type tepees constructed of tanned buffalo hide stretched over sixteen to eighteen lodge poles. Their clothing, made of bison hide or buckskin, consisted of breechclout, leggings, and moccasins for men, and fringed skirt, poncho-style blouse, leggings, and moccasins for women.

The arrival of the horse changed the Comanche way of life. It gave them mobility to follow the buffalo herds and the advantage of hunting and conducting warfare from horseback. Horses also became a measure of Comanche wealth and a valuable trade commodity. Comanche children learned to ride at an early age, and both men and women developed exceptional equestrian skills.

Democratic principle was strongly implanted in Comanche political organization. Each tribal division had both civil or peace chiefs and war chiefs. Tribal decisions were made by a council of chiefs presided over by the head civil chief, but individuals were not bound to accept council decisions. Comanche society permitted great individual freedom, and that autonomy greatly complicated relations with European cultures.

By the mid-eighteenth century, the armed and mounted Comanches had become a formidable force in Texas. Spanish officials, lacking the resources to defeat them militarily, decided to pursue peace with the Comanches. The peace policy used trade and gifts to promote friendship and authorized military force only to punish specific acts of aggression. This policy had mixed results for the remainder of Spanish rule in Texas.

When Texas won its independence from Mexico in 1836, the Comanches and their allies were still in absolute control of the Texas plains. They frequently conducted raids on frontier settlements from San Antonio to northern Mexico. President Sam Houston instituted a policy aimed at establishing peace and friendship through trade. The Texas Congress, however, refused to agree to the Comanche requirement for a boundary line between Texas and Comanchería. When Houston left office in late 1838, Texan-Comanche relations were rapidly deteriorating.

President Mirabeau B. Lamar abandoned Houston’s peace policy in favor of waging war on the Comanche nation. Lamar's policy led to the Council House Fight, which occurred in San Antonio in the spring of 1840 when Texas officials attempted to arrest a Comanche peace delegation. Fighting broke out, and thirty-five Comanches, including twelve chiefs, were killed. The violence was not over. In late summer Comanches launched a retaliatory raid, devastating the towns of Victoria and Linnville and killing twenty-five Texans. When the Comanches made their escape to the north, they were intercepted at Plum Creek and defeated by Texan forces. In October, a Texas expedition traveled up the Colorado River and destroyed a Comanche encampment. Having suffered a tremendous loss of leadership and manpower, the Penatekas moved beyond the Red River and out of the range of Texas forces. Lamar's policy had succeeded in removing the Comanches from the borders of Texas, but at a terrible cost to both sides.

Texas was annexed to the Union in 1845, and the U.S. government took over the administration of Texas Indian affairs. Federal agents and Comanche leaders attempted to preserve peace despite frequent outbreaks of hostilities, as white settlement continued to encroach on Comanche hunting grounds. In 1849 the army established a line of forts to protect the frontier, but settlers rapidly moved beyond the established barrier. To protect both settlers and Indians, two reservations were established in Texas in 1854.

In 1859, the reservation Comanches were moved to Indian Territory, where they were given a tract of land near Anadarko and assigned to the Wichita Agency. Indian raids by tribes not on reservations increased during Civil War, which left the frontier unprotected.

When the war ended, the federal government renewed frontier defenses and its treaty-making with the Plains tribes. The treaties were designed to open the region to white travelers and settlers by locating the nomadic tribesmen on reservations. A 1867 treaty established a reservation for the Comanches, Kiowas, and Kiowa Apaches in southwestern Indian Territory between the Washita and Red rivers. The treaty did not greatly improve conditions in Texas, however, because the Comanches would not stay on the lands allotted them and continued to conduct destructive raids in Texas.

The Comanche population, according to an 1875 reservation census, had been reduced to 1,597. Reservation life forced a complete restructuring of Comanche society as the government attempted to transform the hunters and warriors into farmers and stockmen. Their cultural values and beliefs were under constant attack as they were encouraged to take up the white man's ways. Unable to support themselves and receiving little support from the government, Comanches suffered terribly.


Source: Comanche Indians
Copyright © Texas State Historical Association

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