The Comancheria — the Comanche Empire — became a formidable force for both the Europeans and Anglo American colonizers.
Unlike the Caddo and Wichita tribes who lived along the Red River, the Comanche did not originate from earlier cultures along the watershed. Instead, these nomadic people wandered into the Texas panhandle from their original homelands in Wyoming. They reached to the Balcones Fault (near present-day Austin), thus claiming a very large territory that encompassed over half of Texas. Their relatives are other Numic speakers, like the Shoshones and the Utes. Their main occupation was war, and upon coming into their new territory, they pushed tribes like the Apaches and Wichitas away through sustained warfare. Interestingly, their rise to power coincided with the rise of the Spanish empire, and they actually piggy-backed off the Europeans when they discovered how useful horses were. The Comancheria — the Comanche Empire — became a formidable force for both the European and Anglo American colonizers.
In the Comanche language, the word for themselves is Nermernuh, which translates to simply "people." While they had language in common, the Comanches were actually much decentralized. Several bands of family clans made up the Comancheria. Some bands remained friendly with each other, while other bands might be at war with based on with whom one of the bands allied. The Comanches named their bands based on an idiosyncrasies. Some band names (translated to English) were: Yap Eaters, Antelopes, Those who moved often, Liver-Eaters, Onion-Eaters, Honey-Eaters and Buffalo-Eaters.
In Comanche, the band "Those who moved often" is Nokoni. This was Chief Peta Nokona's band. After Nokona was killed at the Battle of Pease River in 1860 (this fact has been disputed) the band's name was changed, as it was taboo to use a dead man's name (Peta Nokona was the husband of Cynthia Ann Parker; see her history further down this essay). The Honey-Eaters are the Penatekas. This band sought peace with the Texans in 1840, but were massacred instead when Texans demanded that the Comanches release kidnapped people. The Penatekas could not guarantee what other bands were doing, but the Texans refused to understand the nature of Comanche decentralization and declared war on all Comanches instead.
The Comanche bands existed primarily on the warrior's choice of their leader. Chief positions were hereditary, though successful warriors not from the leader class could challenge new chiefs. Another important aspect of the Comanches were vision questions. Both men and women undertook vision quests by sweating, then fasting (sometimes; this was not a prescribed regimen), ingesting a hallucinogenic like peyote, and then retreating to a high place in the hopes of achieving a vivid dream. The vision they hoped to attain would lead them to their destiny, either as a great warrior, leader, or healer. Upon receiving a vision that satisfied them, a person might change his or her name, thus cementing the new identity. If a man had been a successful warrior or hunter prior to his vision, he could trade his previous name to another man who might find better luck under a new name.
After a vision question, successful warriors and hunters lobbied other warriors to convince them to join his destiny in spite of the established chief. This was not guaranteed; new chiefs had to continuously prove themselves worthy of being followed, and older chiefs might challenge them. Many boys went to the Medicine Mounds near Chillicothe, Hardeman County, Texas to undergo vision quests; others tried their luck on top of Comanche Peak near Granbury, Texas or Mount Scott near Lawton, Oklahoma. Prior to vision quests as well as during times of sickness or before a battle, Comanches spent time in sweat lodges to cleanse themselves and hold prayers.
The Comanche belief system relied on medicine. Medicine men and Medicine women were the healers and soothsayers who helped individuals if they were sick, needed some metaphysical assistance (like love potions and the like), or desired guidance. The medicine people received tributes and in return, offered tokens that could act as medicine, such as a pouch filled with herbs or a special rock. Like the Wichitas, the Comanches revered meteorites as medicine. They prayed and offered tributes to at least three meteorites in the North Texas prairies, which they named, signifying their importance. The largest of these stones was po-a-cat-le-pi-le-carre, a 1,600 lbs iron boulder that was stolen in 1806 by Henry Glass, an Anglo American trader, whose expedition may have been paid for by John Sibley, the Indian Agent based in Natchitoches. This meteorite was also used by the Taovayans for medicine; it's interesting to note that the theft of the medicine stone coincided with increased disease and warfare for both the Wichitas and the Comanches.
Both women and men could partake in vision quests to cure sicknesses, learn healing, or to find guidance, but only men were destined to become leaders. The Comanches had a highly gendered hierarchy. Since they were a nomadic people who sustained themselves through hunting and territorial warfare, both male occupations, men naturally usurped the primary power roles.
Unlike the Caddos and Wichitas, Comanche families were patriarchal. Upon puberty, brothers lived in separate tipis next to their parents. Unaccompanied brother and sister contact was strictly taboo in Comanche culture, which had strong aversion to any hints of incest — cousin marriage was also strictly prohibited. Marriage was arranged between the fathers of each party; once married, the woman moved to her husband's tipi. As the couple became successful, the wife built a tipi for her own family, which may include subsequent wives as Comanche men practiced polygamy. Though a favorite wife received special privileges, most women were the workhorses of the tribe. They carried all supplies from camp to camp, set up the camps, made tools, worked the animals and the hides, and did all manual labor. Anglo men recounted that the Comanche men treated the women 'like dogs' and laughed at their labors, even encouraging fights amongst the women.
It is small wonder that in this environment, the Comanche women welcomed slaves. Comanches, like other Plains tribes, practiced kidnap slavery. This differed from the southern, plantation-style slave system, because slavery perpetrated by Indians was temporary; if the ransom was high enough, a kidnapped person was released. Also, kidnapped children were often adopted into the tribe, and were treated like the native-born children, except they couldn't take any leadership roles.
Comanche men raided an enemy camp or settlement and killed the men, older women, infants, and sometimes, the male children. They took with them young women and children. The young women suffered gang rapes and faced torture before being put to work inside Comanche camps, where they toiled under the non-sympathetic eyes of the Comanche women. Young kidnapped children, however, were raised like Comanche children. They were spoiled (Comanche children did not suffer corporal punishments), taught the ways of the Comanches, and learned the language. These practices often occurred between warring tribes, but after European contact, the Comanches perpetrated these kidnapping raids against Mexican, Texan, and American settlements.
One of the most famous kidnappings happened near today's Mexia, Limestone County, Texas in 1836. The Parker and Plummer families had built a protective fort around their farm, but the Comanches raided it, anyway. They killed most of the men and women and kidnapped Rachel Plummer, Cynthia Ann Parker, James Plummer, and John Parker. While Cynthia Ann, James Plummer, and John Parker were adopted into the tribe and learned to live as Comanches, Rachel Plummer's fate was horrific. The Comanche men dragged her newborn baby through cactii until it was dead, and she endured repeated "outrages" (rapes). Once inside the camp, Rachel was forced to work as a hide tanner. For over two years she moved with the Comanche band from camp to camp, at times finding kindness and at other times having to fight for her life. The Parkers and Plummers, with help from Sam Houston, ransomed for the children they could find, including Rachel. She was successfully ransomed through a series of traders until finally, she was reunited with her kin. Her return to Anglo society did not last long, however; she died within two years of her rescue.
Cynthia Ann Parker fared much better. She grew up to be a physically strong woman, a trait that was highly valued in Comanche society. She married Peta Nokona and had several children with him. During a battle at the Pease River between Nokona's band and Texas Rangers, Nokona died (again, a disputed fact), the rest of the band dispersed, and Cynthia Ann was captured when it was discovered that she had "blue eyes, like a white woman." Cynthia Ann, along with her daughter Topsannah, was reunited with her Anglo family. However, Topsannah perished from disease, and Cynthia Ann longed for her Comanche sons, one of whom was the famous Quanah Parker (they would never see each other again). Cynthia Ann, like her cousin Rachel, only survived two years after her reintroduction to the Anglo world. She is buried at Fort Sill.
The Horsemen of the Plains
Their incredible talent with horses kept the Comanches in control of their vast empire even as the Europeans invaded their territory. The Spanish government left the Comancheria alone, especially after its defeat at Spanish Fort. Spanish traders brought goods and ransomed kidnapped people back and forth, and also inter-married with the tribe; these men became known as Comancheros. They meted out merciless warfare on sworn enemies, like the Tonkawas, whom they tortured before killing. Interactions with Anglos and African Americans varied. The Penatekas, for example, sought peace but were attacked by the Texans at San Antonio in 1840.
Comanche bands staged depredations upon ranches and farms. According to Texans, raids were continuous and unbearable. Thus, by the 1850s, the US army established a defensive line of forts along the "frontier" (borderlands) between the Comancheria, Texan, and Choctaw/Chickasaw settlements: close to the Red River Valley were camps Johnston, Worth and Cooper and forts Arbuckle, Belknap and Phantom Hill. The soldiers stationed at the forts, which included Robert E. Lee and William Tecumseh Sherman, did not see any combat, however. The Comanche warriors knew to stay away from areas where they could be outnumbered and outgunned. This is why Texas accused the U.S. government of not protecting them from Indians in their 1861 secession document.
During the Civil War, Comanche raids in Cooke, Montague, Tarrant, Clay, Jack, Young, Palo Pinto, and Parker counties, as well as inside Indian Territory and the Texas panhandle, increased. Texas dispatched troops to deal with this problem — some men, like Charles Goodnight, served in the Confederate Army as Indian fighters and in return, received large swaths of land after the war. Interestingly, many of the supposed attacks in these counties may be greatly exaggerated tales (this is a topic the Red River Historian will explore further).
War on the Comanches
After the Civil War, the federal government sought to wipe out the Plains Indians in multiple ways in order to populate the Great Plains with farmers and industry through the Homestead Act of 1862. One way was that in 1867, the Medicine Lodge Creek Treaty between the United States and the Comanche, Kiowa, Arapaho, Apache, and other tribes attempted to assure peace by setting aside lands in Indian Territory. These lands, by the way, had been part of the Chickasaw, Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee nations; the U.S. government had voided prior treaties with the tribes it removed from the southeastern U.S. in the 1830s due to their divided loyalties during the Civil War. Another way was through the merciless hunting of the bison, which also assisted in railroad building and cattle driving. Yet another way was by re-establishing frontier forts: the army built Forts Sill, Richardson, and Griffin, and Camp Aurgur to monitor reconstruction efforts and enforce Indian removals into Indian Territory. The Comanches, Arapahoes, Apaches, Cheyennes, and Kiowas resisted. While some peace-bands acquiesced to the treaties, the war bands continued their raids. Some of these forays were staged from inside the reservations.
Part of the treaties stipulated that the Plains Indians must give up their nomadic lifestyle, which meant that hunting and trading were no longer allowed. The tribes were supposed to stay on their reservations to become farmers and await their monthly allotments. The men became restless and the women and children started to go hungry; alcoholism became a scourge in the tribes. Seeing this slow-moving destruction, soldiers in Fort Sill did not stop the men from leaving the reservation to go on expeditions to secure food. In May of 1871, dozens of Kiowas and Comanches, who considered themselves on the warpath, left Fort Sill to hide out along the old stagecoach road by the Salt Creek in Young County. The Indians allowed a contingent of troops, led by William Tecumseh Sherman, to pass unmolested; however, they ambushed a group of teamsters from the Warren Wagon Train Company who were delivering supplies to Fort Griffin and killed seven. The barbarity of this act proved to be the last ounce of goodwill towards the Comanches.
Red River War
Upon returning to Fort Sill, the leaders of the raiding party were arrested and faced a criminal trial. The U.S. had changed Indian Policy during the Civil War to treat any acts of violence perpetrated by Native Americans as crimes rather than acts of war. The consequences of the Salt Creek Massacre had a much father reach: they set the stage for the 1874-1875 Red River Wars, in which William Tecumseh Sherman charged Ranald S. MacKenzie to wage a war of attrition — including killing all of the tribe's horses and their food source, the bison —to force them onto the reservations.
The Red River War of 1874-1875 coincided with the introduction of the Winchester Rifle. This repeat-action weapon out-gunned the tribes; the sheer number of troops out-manned them, too. Famous men participated in this war: Geronimo of the Chiricahua Apaches, Quanah Parker (son of tragic Cynthia Ann) of the Comaches; and Lone Wolf of the Kiowas.
After the Battle at Palo Duro in 1875, the war ended. The Comanches, Kiowas, Apaches, Arapahoes, and Cheyennes trickled into Fort Sill, where the warriors were arrested and sent to prison at Fort Marion in Florida, where its unsuitable climate led to several deaths. Public outcry by concerned whites led to their quick return to the Plains, where they remained on the reservation to become farmers. Their children were sent to boarding schools to learn the ways of the "Americans."
Even their religious practices were curtailed. When the Ghost Dance Revival movement came to Fort Sill in 1890, the army outlawed the rituals. Sweat lodges, vision quests, and Sun Dances became forbidden, too. The U.S. was hell-bent on vanquishing the Plains Indian, and the federal government almost accomplished it. After Oklahoma Territory was carved out of Indian Territory in 1890, their reservations were opened for land lotteries, which allowed the whites, who were already chomping at the bit to gain access to Indian Territory lands, to stake land claims. The Supreme Court upheld the federal government's rights to do this in spite of the Medicine Lodge Creek Treaty in its decision, Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock (1903): according to the Supreme Court, the U.S. had the right to abrogate any and all treaties it signs. It has no obligation to honor any of them.
The Plains tribes were thoroughly defeated. However, the catastrophes of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, which affected the tribes at a much higher rate than the non-natives in Indian Territory, convinced the federal government to grant self-control to the tribes. The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 stabilized the tribes and re-established some tribal autonomy. Today, the Comanche Nation still calls Fort Sill its home; their national headquarter is in Lawton. A revival of Native American culture from the 1970s onward has helped the tribe hang onto their identity, and casinos bring some wealth to the nation. While they can no longer claim the Medicine Mounds nor Comanche Peak as their own, tribal members still attend sweat lodges, go on vision quests, and participate in ceremonial dances beyond the gaze of the federal government. While they hold "pow wows" that are open to the public, these are for meant for tourists.