Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Comanche: "Lords of the Plains" Or "Butchering Savages"?

Dear Friends,

I've been reading about things that would give us a pretty good picture as to why the Comanche were so feared, and I have to say that the Comanche sound the most fierce of any tribe.

Some sources say there may have been close to 50,000 Comanches in the late 1700's. By the end of the 1800's, their numbers were drastically reduced to what is believed to have been less than 5,000.

The question as to if they were the "Lords of the Plains," or "Butchering Savages," or maybe a combination of both is one that is not easily answered. Looking at the beautiful  Needle Parker, who was the daughter of Chief Quanah Parker, one would never think her tribe would be capable of doing what they reportedly did.

While Americans have focused on their fighting American settlers, we forget they were the dominant tribe on the Southern Plains and often took captives from weaker tribes as a result of the wars they waged on those other Indian nations.

In fact, I was very surprised to find out that compared to the thousands of captives made up of Americans, Spaniards, and Mexicans, the vast majority of their captives actually came from other tribes. And while they did sell their captives as slaves to the Spanish and later Mexican settlers, the Comanche actually traded their captives as slaves with other tribes.

Of the sources that I've been reading, there is no doubt that among Indian nations at the time, the Comanche nation did in fact rule the Southern Plains.

One reason they were so feared is that the Comanche always fought to the death simply because they expected to be treated like their captives. Comanche boys, including captives, were raised to be warriors and had to endure bloody rites of passage. And yes, it is said that Comanche women often fought alongside the men - but not as warriors or on raids.

Is it possible the viciousness of the Comanche was a by-product of their violent encounters with notoriously cruel Spanish colonists, as well as with Mexican bandits and soldiers? Fact is, anything is possible. But another theory is that the Comanche’s lack of central leadership prompted much of their cruelty. The Comanche bands were loose associations of warrior-raiders, sort of like a confederation of small street gangs.

As to the question about their brutality? Well, sources talk a great deal about how the Comanche butchered women and children, even babies, and how they roasted their enemies alive. It is believed that they rode hundreds of miles in some cases just to conduct raids.

As for babies being killed in raids, it should be noted that the Spanish and even the U.S. Army murdered Comanche women and children. So no, if someone reading this thinks that I'm pointing the finger at the Comanche saying that they were the only ones doing such horrible things, that's not the case.

I agree that there were atrocities on all sides, that means the Comanche, other tribes, Spanish, Mexican, American, French, English. All sides over the years.

As for their cruelty?  Well, take the example of the story about a 16-year-old girl’s once-beautiful face and how it had become grotesque because she had been disfigured beyond all recognition in the 18 months she had been held captive by the Comanche Indians.

Crowds who saw her as she was being offered back to the Texan authorities by Comanche chiefs as part of a peace negotiation - gasped in horror. Their gasps didn't stop the Comanche from presenting her at the Council House in the ranching town of San Antonio in 1840.

"Her head, arms and face were full of bruises and sores. And her nose was actually burnt off to the bone. Both nostrils were wide open and denuded of flesh," wrote one witness.

Once handed over, Matilda Lockhart broke down as she described the horrors she had endured — the endless rape, the relentless sexual humiliation, and the way Comanche women had tortured her with fire. It wasn’t just her nose, her thin body was hideously scarred all over with burns.

When she mentioned she thought there were 15 other white captives at the Comanche camp, all of them being subjected to a similar fate, the Texan lawmakers and officials said they were detaining the Comanche Chiefs to form a rescue party of the others.

It was a decision that prompted one of the most brutal slaughters in the history of the Wild West -- and showed just how bloodthirsty the Comanche could be in revenge.

No, it is no wonder that American settlers of all colors and races were utterly terrified of the Comanche in Texas.

Historian T R Fehrenbach, author of Comanche, wrote:

"The History Of A People, tells of a raid on an early settler family called the Parkers, who with other families had set up a stockade known as Fort Parker. In 1836, 100 mounted Comanche warriors appeared outside the fort’s walls, one of them waving a white flag to trick the Parkers.

"Benjamin Parker went outside the gate to parley with the Comanche," he says. "The people inside the fort saw the riders suddenly surround him and drive their lances into him. Then with loud whoops, mounted warriors dashed for the gate. Silas Parker was cut down before he could bar their entry; horsemen poured inside the walls."

Survivors described the slaughter:

"The two Frosts, father and son, died in front of the women; Elder John Parker, his wife ‘Granny’ and others tried to flee. The warriors scattered and rode them down.

"John Parker was pinned to the ground, he was scalped and his genitals ripped off. Then he was killed. Granny Parker was stripped and fixed to the earth with a lance driven through her flesh. Several warriors raped her while she screamed.

"Silas Parker’s wife Lucy fled through the gate with her four small children. But the Comanche overtook them near the river. They threw her and the four children over their horses to take them as captives."

So intimidating was Comanche cruelty, almost all raids by on any tribe were blamed on them. And yes, this increased their legend!

Texans, Mexicans and other Indians living in the region all developed a particular dread of the full moon. Still today, a full moon is known as a "Comanche Moon" in Texas because that was when the Comanche came for cattle, horses, and captives.

They were infamous for their inventive tortures, and believe it or not - women were usually in charge of the torture process. Did they actually roast captive American and Mexican soldiers to death over open fires, and castrate and scalped others while alive?

Well, in a word, yes. But really, some of the most agonizing Comanche tortures included burying captives up to the chin and cutting off their eyelids so their eyes were seared by the burning sun before they starved to death.

Contemporary accounts also describe them staking out male captives spread-eagle and naked over a red-ant bed. Sometimes this was done after excising the victim’s private parts, putting them in his mouth and then sewing his lips together. One band sewed up captives in untanned leather and left them out in the sun. The green rawhide would slowly shrink and squeeze the prisoner to death.

Fehrenbach quotes a Spanish account that has Comanche torturing Tonkawa Indian captives by burning their hands and feet until the nerves in them were destroyed, then amputating these extremities and starting the fire treatment again on the fresh wounds.

Scalped alive, the Tonkawas had their tongues torn out to stop the screaming.

In every society, teenage and twenty-something youths are the most violent, and even if they had wanted to - it is said that Comanche Chiefs had no way of stopping their young men from raiding.

Author S. C. Gwynne, who wrote Empire Of The Summer Moon about the rise and fall of the Comanche, said, "No tribe in the history of the Spanish, French, Mexican, Texan, and American occupations of this land had ever caused so much havoc and death. None was even a close second."

Gwynne was referring to the "demonic immorality" of Comanche attacks on American settlers, the way in which torture, killings and gang-rapes were routine. He explains their tactics as such: 

"The logic of Comanche raids was straightforward. All the men were killed, and any men who were captured alive were tortured; the captive women were gang raped. Babies were invariably killed."

And yes, we should remember that while the majority of American settlers were whites, Americans came in other races as well. And yes, all were fair game.

When the Comanche Chiefs in San Antonio realized that they were to be detained, they tried to fight their way out with bows and arrows and knives. They killed any Texan they could get at. In turn, Texan soldiers opened fire, killing 35 Comanche and wounding many more. There were 29 taken prisoner.

To say the Comanche were furious would be an understatement because the tribe’s furious response knew no bounds. When the Texans suggested they swap the Comanche prisoners for their captives, the Comanche immediately tortured every one of those captives to death.

"One by one, the children and young women were pegged out naked beside the camp fire," according to a contemporary account.

"They were skinned, sliced, and horribly mutilated, and finally burned alive by vengeful women determined to wring the last shriek and convulsion from their agonized bodies. Matilda Lockhart’s six-year-old sister was among these unfortunates who died screaming under the high plains moon."

The legacy of the Spanish Horse in America

Not only were the Comanche butchers in that they were specialists in torture, they were also successful horse soldiers. Yes, there ability atop a horse is a reason for their becoming known as the "Lords of the Plains." 

With a moniker like that, I can only suspect that some Dime Novelist who was trying to sell books gave it to them. While they were great atop a horse, and yes they were imperialist and genocidal, but since they lost more battles than were victorious -- I wonder about their being called "Lords of the Plains."

Granted when they first migrated to the great plains of the American South in the late 18th century from the Rocky Mountains, not only did they swiftly achieve dominance over the tribes there, in fact they almost exterminated the Apaches who were among the greatest horse warriors in the world, but they themselves were vanquished later by Americans.

Sure the U.S. Army and the Texas Rangers had a great deal to do with it, we shouldn't short change the American farmers and other settlers who refuse to bow to them.

The key to the Comanche’s brutal success against other Indian nations was that they adapted to the horse even more skilfully than the Apaches. Remember that there were no horses at all in the Americas until the Spanish conquerors brought them. And the Comanche were a small, relatively primitive tribe roaming the area that is now Wyoming and Montana, until around 1700, when a migration southwards introduced them to escaped Spanish mustangs from Mexico.

The Comanche was the first Indians to take up the horse, they had an aptitude for horsemanship akin to that of Genghis Khan’s Mongols. It's said that they may have introduced the animal to the other Plains tribes. Whether they did or not, combined with their remarkable ferocity, their ability on horseback enabled them to dominate more territory than any other Indian tribe.

Their territory was a place the Spanish called "Comancheria" and it spread over at least 250,000 miles. To give a better understanding of how big an area that was, please realize that Comancheria consisted of present day eastern New Mexico, southeastern Colorado, southwestern Kansas, western Oklahoma, and most of northwest Texas.

Yes, it was an Empire!

From there, they terrorized the Spanish in Mexico and brought the expansion of Spanish colonization of North America to a halt.

Spanish power in 1800s was perilously thin north of the Rio Grande. And yes, Spanish authority exercised in north-central New Mexico, southern and central coastal California, and the area around San Antonio in Texas was feeble at best. Spain exerted some authority over the modest former French outposts in the Mississippi Valley, but realistically most of their northern area had not even been explored by Spaniards - much less settled or subdued.

For Spain, frankly the Americas were too burdensome to maintain. And no, the Comanche raids didn't help the situation. Comanche raids into Mexico were a yearly event for many decades, with the warriors seeking weapons, cattle, horses, mules, women, goods and slaves.

At least one such raid went so far south into Mexico that the returning raiders spoke of seeing "little men in the trees who would not speak to us", referring to monkeys.

The Comanche raids were greatly feared. The Comanche mobility on horseback made these raids unstoppable until their final defeat by the United States. It is said that Spanish-speaking settlements in Texas had been so devastated by Comanche raids that the Mexican government felt compelled to open the struggling colony to Anglo settlers. The newcomers subsequently rebelled and established the short-lived Texas Republic.

The Comanche did find their match in the Texas Rangers.

The Rangers began to be recruited in 1823, specifically to fight the Comanche and their allies. They were a tough guerrilla force just as merciless as their Comanche opponents in many ways. They also respected them since it is a fact that the Texas Rangers often fared badly against them until they learned how to fight like them - and of course American technology in the shape a new Colt revolver arrived.

It is also fact that under the leadership of Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar, the Texans vowed to remove or exterminate the Comanches in 1838 - but in reality the resulting war proved mutually destructive to both sides.

When Sam Houston regained the presidency in 1841, Texas and Comancheria reached a settlement. Henceforth the Comanches would turn their pillaging energies on northern Mexico, while supposedly trading peacefully with Texas.

Comanche raiders eventually penetrated deep into central Mexico, returning with vast herds of stolen livestock. Horses and mules were in high demand in the United States, ensuring profits for the Native suppliers and providing American farmers with cheap stock.

Fact is that Comanche raids devastated much of northern and central Mexico, and actually helped clear the way for an easy U.S. victory in the Mexican-American War of 1846 to 1848.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War, addressed the issue of Comanche raids. The United States promised to stop the raids but was not able to do so for many years.

The raids did not stop.

And yes, during the raids, besides captives, they stole horses to ride and cattle to sell, often in return for firearms. Other livestock they slaughtered, and the people were not spared. Along with babies and the elderly, older women were usually raped before being killed. This left what one Mexican called "a thousand deserts".

As for retribution, revenge, and making things right as they saw it. It's said that when their warriors were killed they felt honor bound to exact a revenge that involved torture and death.

By the mid-19th century, the Comanche were supplying horses to French and American traders and settlers, and later to migrants passing through their territory on the way to the California Gold Rush, along the California Road.

The Comanche had stolen many of the horses from other tribes and settlers; they earned their reputation as formidable horse thieves, later extending their rustling to cattle. Their stealing of livestock from Spanish and American settlers, as well as the other Plains tribes, often led to war.

The Comanche also had access to vast numbers of feral horses, which numbered approximately 2,000,000 in and around Comancheria, and which the tribe was particularly skilled at breaking to saddle.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Comanche lifestyle required about one horse per person -- though warriors each possessed many more.

With a population of about 30,000 to 40,000 and in possession of herds many times that number, the Comanche had a surplus of about 90,000 to 120,000 horses. The horse was a key element in the emergence of a distinctive Comanche culture.

It was of such strategic importance that some scholars have suggested the Comanche broke away from the Shoshone and moved southward to search for additional sources of horses among the settlers of New Spain to the south -- rather than search for new herds of buffalo.

The Comanche may have been the first group of Plains natives to fully incorporate the horse into their warrior culture. And yes, their ruthlessness on horseback was legendary even at the time.

During the American Civil War, when the Rangers left to fight for the Confederacy, the Comanche rolled back the American frontier and white settlements by 100 miles. Even after the Rangers came back and the U.S. Army joined the campaigns against Comanche raiders, Texas lost an average of 200 settlers a year until the Red River War of 1874.
Yes, it wasn't until the full weight of the U.S. Army, and the destruction of great buffalo herds on which they depended for food, ended the Commanche attacks.

An interesting point about the Comanche is that though hostile to all other tribes and people they came across, they actually supplemented their numbers with young American and Mexican captives. These captives, once warriors, became full-fledged members of the tribe if they had warrior potential and could survive initiation rites. Weaker captives might be sold to Mexican traders as slaves, but more often were simply slaughtered.

The Comanches used their military power to obtain supplies and labor from the Americans, Mexicans, and Indians through thievery, tribute, and kidnappings.

Although powered by violence, the Comanche empire was primarily an economic construction, rooted in an extensive commercial network that facilitated long-distance trade.

Dealing with subordinate Indians, the Comanche spread their language and culture across the region. Their empire collapsed when their villages were repeatedly decimated by epidemics of smallpox and cholera in the late 1840s.

They were 45,000 in 1800, and 20,000 by the 1840s, then the population plunged from 20,000 to just a few thousand by the 1870s when the full weight of the U.S. Army was about to fall upon them. Of course, since the Comanches were at war at one time or another with virtually every other Native American group living in the Great Plains - that in itself didn't help them.

After the Second Battle of Adobe Walls in 1874, which was a disaster for the Comanche, the U.S. Army was called in to drive all the remaining Comanche in the area into the reservation.

Part of the U.S. Army's strategy was to literally starve them out of existence. Yes, as I said before, there were atrocities on both sides -- intentionally starving an entire race of people is one of them.

Did it work? Well, within just ten years the buffalo were on the verge of extinction. And yes, this horrible tactic effectively ended the Comanche way of life as hunters -- and made them dependent on the reservation system if they wanted to stay alive.

Thankfully by 1906, the Comanche reservation closed and the tribe assimilated into American society. The Comanche distinguished themselves in World War II and have a long history of serving in our military. And yes, today they are among the most highly educated native groups in the United States.

About half the Comanche population still lives in Oklahoma, centered around the town of Lawton. This is the site of the annual pow-wow, when Comanches from across the United States gather to celebrate their heritage and culture.

Tom Correa


  1. Good read Tom, thanks for posting.

  2. This was an amazing history lesson.

  3. Thanks for all this information. Some of it i knew already, some is new to me. I read the Rachel Plummer narrative of "Twenty-one months captive among the comanche indians". But i don't understand why Rachel's story of the murder of her new-born infant should not be true? Some claim she invented that story to make the comanche look bad, but why should it not be simply true? Her son Pratt who was also abducted at Parker's fort in 1836, she never met him again!

  4. I'm married to a 1/4 comanche. Her mother is 1/2 and grandmother is full comanche. They've only tortured me a few times and it really wasn't that bad.

    1. too bad the old ways are forgotten

  5. Wow. Thank you Tom. That was very informative. It is easier to look atthe big history picture when you have pieces of information like this. Thanks again.

  6. Sweet article, Tom. I read every part of it.

  7. I know that the Comanches learned how to torture from the Spanish treatment of them but still no one can justify the brutality of this tribe in what they did to so many innocent victims. Shame on them for their historical culture will be remembered for that.

    1. Actually, the Comanche and other tribes did not learn torture from the Spanish. They were doing it to each other for thousands of years before Europeans ever set foot on North American soil.

  8. How were any of the settlers innocent? We did not go to europe, and wage war? We did not go to your land, and murder, and steal because we wanted it?

    1. Settlers were innocent in the same way that relocated tribes were. You speak as if you were one people instead of thousands of individual tribes which waged war upon each other for more than a single millennia. How many lands did your tribe go into and murder and steal because you wanted it? Read about how the tribes dismembered, scalped, killed women and children and made slaves of enemy tribes. Read about how the Pawnee were almost wiped out by the Sioux. Read about who kicked the Sioux out of Minnesota. Read about who waged war for the Black Hills before Europeans arrived here. Read about how Native American tribes waged genocidal war on each other before Europeans ever step foot on North American soil. No, you did not go to Europe, but you did fight and slaughter no differently than Europeans did to their neighbors. Those are facts. If Europeans "stole" land, who did you "steal" it from first?

    2. Tom Correa - 100% correct. Thank you for your reply!

    3. Excellent factual reply.
      Additionally, I greatly enjoyed your article!! Thank you for taking the time to share your knowledge!

    4. Over all good article. The book by SC Gwynne, while an enjoyable read, is not as well research or as good as the Comanche empire by Pekka Hamalainen. Gwynne's book has more errors and not as well received by historians. Few points to your reply here. The wars over the Black Hills really didn't start before the Europeans arrived here. From artifacts the Arikara are believed to be the first there in about 1500, followed by the Crow who arrived there about 1650, then Kiowa and Plains Apache, Cheyenne and ally Arapaho then Lakota the final group to hold in for 100 years. The exact order and time of arrival is somewhat debated by historians but that is the most common sequence. Justifying stealing land because someone else had stole it first is a rather juvenile argument, I expected better from you.

    5. While I also believe that "stealing" anything because someone else stole it first is a juvenile argument. That wasn't my argument. My argument is that people have fought over land for thousands of years as a matter of conquest. Humans have fought over land here in North America long before the Europeans arrived. Yes, the same as how people fought for land in South America, in Europe, Asia, Africa, since time began. While I can't speak to what they ALL had in mind over the years, I really don't think their idea of "conquest" was the same as their idea of "stealing" anything. To "steal" is to "take another's property without permission or legal right and without intending to return it." "Conquest" is "the subjugation and assumption of control of a place or people by use of military force." There is a big distinction, the Sioux slaughters the Cheyenne in their conquest of the Black Hills before the Europeans came West. The Sioux did not "steal" the land from the Cheyenne. Of course, there may be some Cheyenne who believe that the Sioux did "steal" what belonged to them. To think that the tribes didn't wage genocidal war on each other the same as what took place on every other Continent at the same time is naive. Evidence shows tribes slaughtered each other wholesale for land and spoils.

  9. History is best used as lessons in the Human Condition, not really suited for lessons in morality.


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