Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Antelope Hills Expedition of 1858

The years 1856 to 1858 on the Texas Frontier were particularly vicious and bloody as the settlers continued to encroach into the "Comancheria." Settlers plowed under valuable hunting grounds, and the Comanche lost grazing land for their herds of buffalo and horses. 

In addition, the United States had done a great deal to block the Comanche's traditional raids into Mexico. Finally, the Comanches struck back with a series of ferocious and bloody raids against the settlers.
The Antelope Hills Expedition was a campaign from January 1858 to May 1858 by the Texas Rangers and members of other allied Native American tribes against Comanche and Kiowa villages in their homeland known as Comancheria.

For me, I see it as a black mark on the history of the Texas Rangers. The campaign began in western Texas and ending in a series of fights with the Comanche tribe on May 12th, 1858 at a place called Antelope Hills by Little Robe Creek, a tributary of the Canadian River in what is now Oklahoma.

The hills are also called the "South Canadians," as they surround the Canadian River. The fighting on May 12th, 1858 is often called the Battle of Little Robe Creek.

As the American Civil War drew closer, federal forces were moved about even more and the 2nd Cavalry was transferred from Texas to Utah. Eventually the U.S. Army disbanded the 2nd Cavalry as it fell apart when the Civil War began in 1860.  All in all, the U.S. Army proved wholly unable to stem the Comanche violence.

Not only were units being transferred, but believe it or not federal laws and numerous treaties barred the Army from pursuing Indians into the Indian Territories while the raids took place. Although many Indians, such as the Cherokee, were trying to farm and live as settlers, the Comanche and Kiowa continued to live in that part of the Indian Territories which was traditionally the Comancheria, while raiding into Texas. The loss of federal troops led Governor Hardin R. Runnels in 1858 to reestablish disbanded Frontier Battalions known as Texas Rangers.

Because of this, on January 27th, 1858, Governor Runnels appointed John Salmon "Rip" Ford, a veteran Ranger of the Mexican-American War and frontier Indian fighter, as Captain and overall Commander of the Rangers, Militia, and Allied Indian Forces. Ford was ordered to carry the battle to the Comanches in the heart of the Comancheria.

John Salmon "Rip" Ford
Ford, whose habit of signing the casualty reports with the initials "RIP" for "Rest In Peace,” was known as a ferocious and no-nonsense Indian fighter. Commonly missing from history books is John Salmon "Rip" Ford's proclivity for ordering the wholesale slaughter of any Indian, man or woman, that he could find.

Governor Runnels issued very explicit orders to Ford:

"I impress upon you the necessity of action and energy. Follow any trail and all trails of hostile or suspected hostile Indians you may discover and if possible, overtake and chastise them if unfriendly."

Ford then raised a force of approximately 100 Texas Rangers and State Militia. I read where Ford had "repeating rifles."

Repeating rifles were a significant advance over the preceding breech loaded single-shot rifles used for military combat of the time because they allowed a much greater rate of fire. Repeating rifles saw use in the American Civil War during the early 1860's.

The Spencer repeating rifle was a manually operated lever-action, repeating rifle fed from a tube magazine with cartridges developed in 1860. It was adopted by the Union Army, especially by the cavalry, during the American Civil War, but did not replace the standard issue muzzle-loading rifled muskets in use at the time. Other than a few rotating cylinder rifles and such, there were not a lot of what we would consider reliable "repeating rifles" in 1858.

Ford's Rangers had muzzle-loading rifled muskets, buffalo guns, and Colt revolvers. What he needed was additional men, so he set out to recruit ones he did not have to pay as he did his Rangers and Militia.

Among the traditional enemies of the Comanche were the Tonkawa Indians, then living on a reservation on the Brazos River, in Texas. The books that immortalize and praise the Tonkawa as friends and allies of the settlers generally downplay the fact the Tonkawa were cannibals, who the Comanche and virtually every other Indian tribe despised and loathed.

Yes, at least one American Indian tribe was indeed cannibalistic. In fact, the word in the Comanche and Kiowa language used for "Tonkawa" meant the same thing "eaters of humans". Ford had no reservations about using cannibals to help him as long as they were eating Comanches and not Rangers.

On March 19th, 1858, Ford went to the Brazos Reservation, near what today is the city of Fort Worth, Texas, to recruit the Tonkawa to join him.

An Indian Agent, Captain L. S. Ross, father of the future Governor of Texas, Lawrence Sullivan Ross, called Chief Placido of the Tonkawa to a war council where Ross stirred Placido's anger against their mutual enemy. He succeeded in recruiting 120 or so Native Americans to join his campaign, 111 of whom were "eaters of humans" the Tonkawa under Chief Placido. Ford hailed them as the "faithful and implicitly trusted friend of the whites".

The others were the Anadarko and Shawnee. They joined with approximately an equal number of Texas Rangers to move against the Comanches.

Ford's orders from Governor Runnels were to follow any and all trails of hostile and suspected hostile Indians, inflict the most severe punishment, kill them and their families, destroy their homes and food supplies, and to allow no interference from “any source”. "Any source" meant the United States, whose Army and Indian Agents might try to enforce federal protections in the way of treaties and federal law against trespassing on the Indian territories in Oklahoma.

Ford was a real gem of a human being. He wouldn't let law, treaty, the probability of cannibalism, or the killing of women and children get in his way. He was the type of white that gave other whites a bad name. Actually, he was the type of human being that makes rattlers look wonderful in comparison.

At dawn on May 12th, 1858, Ford attacked a small Comanche village in the Canadian River Valley, flanked by the Antelope Hills. Later that day they attacked a second village. Those Indians provided much stiffer resistance until its Chief Iron Jacket was killed. His son, Peta Nocona, arrived with reinforcements, which led to a third distinct clash between the Texas forces and the Comanche. 

At day's end the Rangers and their allies retreated back to Texas as the Comanches though in retreat were gathering reinforcements as more of their tribe arrived, together with Kiowa and Kiowa Apache allies. Having suffered only four Ranger casualties, plus over a dozen Tonkawas, the force killed a reported 76 Comanche and took 16 prisoners and 300 horses. 

Ford had ordered Iron Jacket's village and the original small village which they had attacked both burned to the ground. There is only limited mention in history, and none in Ford's official reports on the battle, but it is true that the Tonkawa actually ate their dead Comanche rivals on the night of May 12th, 1858, in what is referred to as a "dreadful feast." Of course, a few years later the Tonkawa would suffer in what became know of the Tonkawa Massacre of 1862.

After the Battle of Little Robe Creek, Ford returned to Texas and immediately requested that the Governor empower him to raise additional Rangers so that he could return north at once to continue his campaign in the heart of the Comancheria. Thankfully for the Indian women and children in the Comancheria, Governor Runnels had exhausted the entire budget for defense for the year and was forced to disband Ford and the Rangers.

Although Ford was unable to continue this campaign, he changed the face of Indian fighting on the plains and marked the beginning of the end for the Comanche and Kiowa. Fact is, it was only the Civil War that delayed the inevitable for the Indians.

All in all, it was the first time that Texan or American forces had penetrated to the heart of the Comancheria and attacked both Comanche and Kiowa villages with impunity. Yes, it set the stage for what would take place in the future.

Tom Correa

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