Empire of the Summer Moon

Page 13 of 52

The pure, unadulterated picture of a North American Indian, who, unlike the rest of his tribe, scorned every form of European dress. His body naked, a buffalo robe around his loins, brass rings on his arms, a string of beads around his neck, and with his long, coarse black hair hanging down, he sat there with the serious facial expression of the North American Indian which seems to be apathetic to the Europeans.8

Though no photograph of Buffalo Hump exists, there is one of his son, who was said to look like him. It shows a strikingly handsome young man of perhaps twenty with shoulder-length hair; wise, calm eyes; epicene features; and the thousand-yard stare that Indians always assumed for the camera. Buffalo Hump had one of those Comanche names—there were a large number of them—that the prudish whites could not quite bring themselves to translate. His Nermernuh name, properly transliterated, was Po-cha-na-quar-hip, which meant “erection that won’t go down.”9

Buffalo Hump’s dream vision was uncommonly powerful. In the weeks of rage and mourning that followed the massacre in San Antonio, in the crushing heat of the high Texas summer, when riders spread the news throughout Comancheria, it held enormous, raw appeal. The vision, like many visions experienced by war chiefs, was, at its core, an idea for a raid. But this would not be just any raid. Driving the Texans into the sea would take a military expedition such as the Comanches seldom ever mounted.

Throughout July, Buffalo Hump gathered his forces. He sent messengers to the distant bands—Yamparika, Kotsoteka, Nokoni—but succeeded in getting only a few recruits. The northern bands were leery of the idea, both because of the magically powerful disease that had just swept through their southern brethren and because of the deaths of so many war chiefs. There was far too much bad medicine in the South. They also had their own troubles in the North: Cheyennes and Arapahoes had pushed southward into the buffalo ranges between the Arkansas and Canadians rivers, a direct assault on Comancheria. And perhaps they understood, too, what they would understand so well later on, which was that the Penatekas, in their proximity to the white man, were no longer traditional Comanches. They were becoming something different, something degraded.

But most of the other Penateka chiefs, including Isimanica, Little Wolf, and Santa Anna, agreed to follow. Some Kiowas came, too. Kiowas had trouble refusing a good fight; they had some mystical kinship with the Comanches even though they spoke a different language and had a culture that was more complex than anything the Comanches had. By midsummer Buffalo Hump had more than four hundred warriors and some six hundred camp followers. The latter—boys and women—were necessary, because driving all of the Texans into the sea and watching their blood spill into the blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico was going to take longer than a few weeks. This was going to be a war against the Tejanos, and Buffalo Hump needed logistical support.

On August 1, they rode, one thousand of them, down from the hard, stream-crossed limestone battlements of the Balcones Escarpment, down along the gorgeous cypress-lined banks and crystalline pools of the Blanco River, down to its confluence with the spring-fed San Marcos and out onto the blackland prairie of south-central Texas.10 Their destination: the towns and settlements strung out along the rivers and creeks that swept southward toward the grassy plains and shallow bays of Texas’s coastal bend. As they got farther south they moved by night. On August 4 they rode by the light of the rising Comanche moon, penetrating beyond the line of the frontier and deep into the settlements of Anglo-Texas.

When Texas Ranger Ben McCulloch crossed their trail two days later near the town of Gonzales, he could scarcely believe his eyes. One thousand riders had passed almost completely unnoticed through territory that, while not thickly populated, contained many homesteads and settlements. No one in south Texas had ever seen anything like this. The people who had spotted the invaders were mostly dead. One of them was a man named Tucker Foley, who had encountered a screen of twenty-seven warriors. They cornered him at a water hole, roped him and dragged him out, cut the bottoms of his feet off, made him walk around the burned prairie for a while for their entertainment, then shot and scalped him.11 McCulloch and a small force of volunteers shadowed the Indian force. There were far too many to fight.

What followed is known to Texans as the Great Linnville Raid. In history it is often twinned with the event that it precipitated, famous as the Battle of Plum Creek. They happened within the span of two weeks. Together they form a singular and often surreal piece of Texas history, a spasm of anger and violence on a scale rarely seen in the West. It was Buffalo Hump’s greatest—and worst—moment, and it was one of the first moments of true greatness for the men who were beginning to call themselves Texas Rangers and who would soon, in those very same hills and prairies, having learned how to fight from the Comanches themselves, change the nature of frontier warfare in North America.

At four p.m. on August 6, 1840, just short of five months after the Council House Fight, Buffalo Hump’s army slammed into the town of Victoria, about one hundred miles southeast of San Antonio and twenty-five miles from the coast. The town had received no warning, and the Indians entered easily. They killed a dozen people, swirled through the streets as the citizens fled to rooftops and windows, and opened up with rifle fire. Here, as usual, Comanche medicine detoured what might have been a wholesale slaughter. The Comanches did not close in for the kill and simply proceed, house by house, to kill all of Victoria. Instead, they circled the town as though it were a herd of buffalo, stole horses and cattle, carried off a small black girl, and generally made mischief. The sheer number of horses, which you can think of in modern terms as sequences of one-thousand-dollar bills deposited instantly into your checking account, distracted them. They were not materialistic except when it came to horses. Horses they valued, for themselves and for what they would bring in trade. Meanwhile, the residents of Victoria had time to build barricades. The Comanches attacked again in the morning, but were discouraged by rifle fire. They buzzed like hornets on the outskirts of town for a while, stole somewhere between fifteen hundred and two thousand horses, and, leaving thirteen corpses and many wounded behind, spurred on for the coastal road. They did not have any special idea where they were going, but they were following Buffalo Hump’s vision. They were riding to the sea, with as many as three thousand horses.

The tribe cut a bloody swath of violence across the coastal lowlands, looting, killing, and burning on their way to Matagorda Bay, and sweeping the entire country of horse stock as they went.12 They took captives, too, including a Mrs. Nancy Crosby, the granddaughter of Daniel Boone, and her baby. Since she could not quiet the child, they killed it, spearing it in front of her.13 On August 8 the army rode in a spectacular crescent formation into the coastal town of Linnville, instantly enveloping it. Now, quickly, Buffalo Hump’s vision seemed to be fulfilled. The panicked inhabitants fled before the thundering Comanches in the only direction they could—toward the sea, and into the only possible safe haven—sailboats, several of them, anchored in shoal water about a hundred yards from shore.14 Many fleeing townspeople were cut down in the water, including one Major H. O. Watts, the young customs inspector, who had just gotten married. His wife, described by one witness as “a remarkably fine looking woman,”15 was captured. When the Indians tried to strip her, the usual first move with any captive, they encountered the mysterious and formidable obstacle of her whalebone corset, which they could not undo. Frustrated, they strapped her to the back of a horse and took her along with them. Many residents saved themselves by boarding a large schooner that was also anchored just offshore.

The Indians, meanwhile, had discovered the miraculous contents of the warehouses: cloth and fabric, umbrellas, hats, fine clothing, and hardware. Linnville was an important shipping center; the merchandise was destined for San Antonio and the Mexican trade. The Indians removed all they could carry from the warehouses, then set them on fire. The townspeople watched from the boats—there was not a breath of wind that day, so their boats were becalmed—as their homes, th

eir business offices, and all but one of the warehouses went up in flames.16 As the town burned, the Indians whooped and danced and herded cattle into pens where they hacked and shot them to death. This description comes from John J. Linn, a resident of Victoria at the time of the raids:

These Indians made free with, and went dashing about the blazing village, amid their screeching squaws and “little Injuns,” like demons in a drunken saturnalia, with Robinson’s [a local merchant] hats on their heads and Robinson’s umbrellas bobbing about on every side like tipsy young balloons.17

After burning the town, which was so thoroughly destroyed that it was never rebuilt, the Indians departed, heading back the way they had come.18 If their antics in the town seemed like a bad dream, what happened next suggested a full-scale hallucination. The truth was that Buffalo Hump had lost control of his army. Vengeance had dissolved into something that more closely resembled pure fun. It had started with the orgy of horse-thieving in Victoria—even for Comanches, three thousand horses was an immense haul. Then came the astonishing discovery of the Linnville warehouses, stuffed with the accoutrements of bourgeois life. The Nermernuh had arrived in town in buckskins and breechclouts. They left wearing stovepipe hats, high leather boots, and expensive pigeon-tailed coats with bright brass buttons worn backward and buttoned up from behind.19 They had taken the calicoes and bright ribbons from the warehouses and festooned their lances with them and plaited them into the tails of their horses. The group that moved off down the Victoria road was not just picturesque, a splash of brilliant color in the thornscrub of south Texas, but heavy with all the swag they could carry, which included iron hoops and less frivolous hardware for making weapons. It was all packed on horses and mules. Whether Buffalo Hump believed that his vision had been fulfilled is not known. Whatever he thought, the plan for a glorious extended war against the Tejanos had been replaced by a singular urge to get back home with a previously unimaginable quantity of loot.

The Texans were completely aware of this. Such a huge train, packed with stolen goods and tipis and containing women and children and even a few old men, moving so ponderously across the wide-open, dun-colored prairie, was not something easily missed. Nor was it an opportunity to be squandered. Three separate companies of men were formed to fight the invaders. One of them, consisting of 125 recruits from the Guadalupe River settlements under Captain John J. Tumlinson, intercepted the army near Victoria. They did what most taibo soldiers of the era had been taught to do: They dismounted and prepared to fight. In a fight with Comanches, dismounting on open ground was like signing your own death warrant. Men on foot against mounted men moving at 20 or 30 miles per hour who could shoot twelve arrows in the time it took to reload a rifle and fire it once was not a fair fight. It was only a question of how long the men on foot might live, and how lucky they might get in shooting a few Comanches out of the saddle. Tumlinson’s men were quickly surrounded by swirling, circling Comanches. They should have been slaughtered where they stood. But on this day the Comanches had other interests. Mainly, the defense of their groaning caravan. Tumlinson’s men retreated as quickly as they could, and the Indians drew off, more concerned with their women and packhorses than with Tumlinson’s pathetic attack.

The army continued north, toward the hill country, in the searing heat that had turned most of the prairie brown. In a normal raid, especially a big one, Comanches would attack, then split up into small groups and ride hard for the hinterlands. This was old, established practice among mounted Plains Indians. Now they did neither; in their arrogance they lumbered up the most obvious trail home. Having absconded with such prodigious poundage of material goods, perhaps they had no choice. On August 12 they were spotted by scouts near present-day Lockhart, moving in a northwesterly direction through the long grasses and dark loam of one of Texas’s loveliest prairies. Eyewitness John Henry Brown describes the sight. They had

a full view of Indians passing diagonally across our front, about a mile distant. They were singing and gyrating in divers grotesque ways, evidencing their great triumph, and utterly oblivious of danger. Up to the time they had lost but one warrior; they had killed 20 persons.20

They had been expected. In addition to his other errors of command, Buffalo Hump had committed the sin of being perfectly predictable. The white men knew where he would cross the Guadalupe and other rivers. Awaiting him, thus, were an assortment of two hundred men who had arisen spontaneously from the towns of Gonzales, Lavaca, Victorai, Cuero, and Texana. (Tumlinson’s men would not make the battle.) None were soldiers in the normal sense of the word. They included in their ranks many young men who had arrived in Texas after the Battle of San Jacinto looking specifically for adventure, violence, and glory. They were not sodbusters who shouldered long rifles only when danger approached. They were sharp-eyed, audacious, and fearless twenty-four-year-olds with little sense of their own mortality and a distinct taste for combat. “They were drawn to the West by the wildness and danger and daring of the frontier life,” wrote Mary Maverick in her memoir.21 They were highly motivated to track Indians and kill them and happily did it without pay or reward. Comanches, of course, had never seen anything like this breed of men. There were Tonkawa Indians, too, spoiling as always for revenge. All were under the command of Major General Felix Huston, the head of the state militia, a soldier of the old school who had once fought a duel over military promotion with Secretary of War Albert Sidney Johnston.22

Huston now proceeded to make his own large blunder. Perhaps predictably, it was the same one Tumlinson had made two days before: He ordered his men to dismount on the open plain, and form a “hollow square” battle line. As before, mounted warriors encircled them, firing arrows and using their thick, buffalo hide shields to deflect bullets (which they did quite effectively). Dismounted men were wounded, horses were killed. According to Brown

This was the fatal error of the day. There we remained for thirty or forty precious minutes, during which time the warriors were dexterously engaging us, while their squaws and unarmed men were pressing the immense cavalcade of pack animals and loose horses forward to the mountains of the Rio Blanco and San Marcos. At the same time, their sharpshooters were inflicting on us and our horses serious damage.23

As things got worse, Major General Huston was implored by his more experienced Indian fighters, notably Ben McCulloch and Matthew Caldwell, to order a mounted charge. While Huston was pondering his deteriorating situation, something remarkable happened: One of the Comanche war chiefs, who had charged very close to the Texans, using his shield with great skill, was hit by a bullet and fell from his horse. He was soon seized by two comrades and carried away. There was a moment when the frenzy of the Comanche attack seemed to abate. From their ranks came an eerie, wolflike howling sound. Something had gone wrong with the medicine; perhaps, as was sometimes the case, the Indians believed that the warrior’s puha would make him invulnerable to bullets.

Caldwell, fully grasping the moment, yelled to Huston, “Now, General! Charge ’em! They are whipped!” And for perhaps the first time in history, a large group of nonuniformed, mounted, lightly armed men galloped forward to confront a mounted Plains Indian tribe on its own terms and in its own style of combat. Even more important, the attack marked the first time that a representative of traditional fighting—General Huston—had given way in military tactics to the buckskin-clad Indian fighters of the frontier, represented by McCulloch and Caldwell. The Battle of Plum Creek, as it would go down in history, signified the beginning of the shift in fighting style that would find its true form in the next few years in the Texas Rangers. It is noteworthy that one of the men fighting for Texas at Plum Creek was John Coffee Hays—one of those fearless young men who had come looking for adventure. He was destined to become the most legendary Ranger of them all.24

Mounted now, and screaming like Comanches, the Texans spurred forward and crashed into the long column, holding their fire until the last moment, and unleashing a volley that dropped fifte

en Indians. They stampeded the herd of loose horses, which then slammed broadside into the packhorses, many of whom were carrying heavy loads of iron and were bogged down on muddy ground. The pandemonium was such that Comanche warriors, already spooked by the bad medicine of the chief’s death, now found themselves unable to maneuver. They panicked and began to flee. What ensued was a fight between retreating Comanches and advancing Texans that straggled on over fifteen miles of ground. It was a bloody fight. The Indians stopped long enough to kill their captives, including Daniel Boone’s granddaughter Nancy Crosby, who was tied to a tree and drilled with arrows. Mrs. Watts was more fortunate. She, too, was tied to a tree and shot, but her whalebone corset deflected the arrow. She escaped the murderous events of the day with a flesh wound and terrible sunburn.25 White soldiers could be equally unforgiving. One of them who came upon a dying Comanche woman was seen stamping her with his boot, then impaling her on an Indian lance.

The Texans considered the battle a major victory. Whether it was or not remains, to this day, very hard to tell, mainly because, as usual, the Indians never offered their own version of events. While historians agree that the Texans charged and the Indians fled and that one Texan was killed and seven wounded, there is little agreement on how many Indians died, or how successful their escape was. Estimates of Indian dead were variously given as 25, 50, 60, 80 and 138, though the number of bodies actually recovered was somewhere between 12 and 25.