13. June 2013 · Comments Off on The Fight at Plum Creek · Categories: Old West · Tags: , , ,

The historian T.H. Fehrenbach postulated that the unique character of Texas came from one thing which differentiated it from other trans-Mississippi states; that it was in a constant state of war for the best part of half a century and so the readiness to fight for life at a moment’s notice became ingrained. Most usually, the fight was with the Comanches, who lived for war, plunder and ransom. While the Anglo settlers occasionally took a break from fighting to farm or ranch, or take up some peaceable trade, the Comanches never did; There was no other means of advancement in their culture, save being a fearless warrior and raider. At the high noon-time of their peak, they were the lords of the southern plains, from the Arkansas River to the Balcones Escarpment, having ruthlessly pushed other tribes out – the Tonkawa, Lipan Apache, the Karankawa and others. The Comanche ranged and raided as far as they pleased, occasionally interrupted by a fragile peace treaty.

Council House - San AntonioA relative period of peace between the Penateka, or southern Comanche, and the Republic of Texas came to a spectacularly violent end in the spring of 1840 during the course of what had been intended as a peace conference in San Antonio. A contingent of chiefs and Texan peace commissioners met in a large building adjoining the town jail, on Main Plaza and Market Street. In token of their good faith, the chiefs had promised – or led the Texans to believe they had been promised they would turn over a number of captives, and sign a treaty. They turned over only a few, one of them a teenaged girl, Matilda Lockhart, who had been savagely abused, raped and mutilated during a year of captivity. She told the disappointed and outraged Texan officials that the Comanches camped outside the town held more than a dozen other captives, including her own sister, but meant to extort large ransoms for each. When the chiefs and the peace commissioners met again, the commissioners asked about the other captives. The leader of the chiefs answered that they had brought in the only one they had. The others were with other tribes. And then he added, insolently, “How do you like that answer?”

The short answer was the Texans did not. There were already soldiers standing by: they were ordered to surround the Council House. The chiefs were told they were held hostage until their warriors returned to their camps and brought back the rest of the hostages. Almost as one, the chiefs drew knives and rushed the soldiers guarding the doors of the Council House. The warriors waiting outside in the yard entered the fray and a short running fight erupted in the street leading down to the San Antonio River. The Council House fight vigorously re-ignited the war between Comanche and Texan, both sides accusing the other of bad faith and treachery. That fall, a huge contingent of Penateka Comanche led by a war leader named Buffalo Hump came roaring down from the Llano Estacado, sweeping down the empty country between the Guadalupe and Lavaca Rivers. They terrorized the town of Victoria and burned Linnville on Lavaca Bay. The citizens of Linnville watched from the refuge of boats offshore, as the Indians looted the warehouses and homes. Then the Penateka departed, with two hundred horses all heavily laden with plunder, but what happened on the return from that spectacular raid set in motion a gathering of forces and personalities who would eventually reduce the proud lords of the Southern Plains to a handful of desperate, starving beggars.

It was not as if the Texans were entirely defenseless; poor in cash, poor in practically everything but land, frontier Texas had attracted large numbers of the restless and adventurous, who were not inclined to accept any sort of insult lying down. With no meaningful standing army, defense of local communities depended on their militia … usually composed of every able-bodied male. The sheer size of Texas and the nature of war waged by the horse-lords of the Southern Plains made it imperative that at least a portion of the militia be mounted. Over the twenty years after the founding of Stephen Austin’s colony the practice evolved for a mounted militia, ready to ride in pursuit of raiders within fifteen minutes after an alarm being sounded. Sometimes they were able to retrieve captives, or stolen horses. More often, the raiding Indians split up and melted like smoke into the wilderness, leaving their pursuers frustrated and fuming. It became quite clear, as more Anglo settlers poured into Texas, that the best defense was in the offense; to field a mounted patrol out ranging the back-country, looking to forestall Indian raids.

Such a Corps of Rangers was formally established on the eve of Texan rebellion against Mexico. Distinct from the militia and the regular army, the mounted ranging companies continued to serve after the war, in various forms, most of them locally supported. The citizen-rangers of the local companies assembled for short periods of time in response to specific dangers, their numbers ever-flexible. They supplied their own arms, horses and equipment. By the time of the Linnville Raid, most of them were veterans of the War for Independence, and had years of experience in the field otherwise; men like Mathew “Old Paint” Caldwell of Gonzales, and the McCulloch brothers, who had handled Sam Houston’s two artillery pieces at the Battle of San Jacinto. Ben McCulloch had even been trained in outdoor skills by no less than Davy Crockett himself. In response to the sack of Linnville, volunteer companies from settlements along the Colorado assembled under Edward Burleson, including Chief Placido and twelve Tonkawa Indians, who had their own score with the Comanche to settle, and twenty-one volunteers from Port Lavaca. Other volunteers gathered from Bastrop, Cuero, Victoria and other towns scattered along the river valleys between the coast and the start of the limestone hills.plum creek fight

Barely a week after the burning of Linnville, companies of volunteer Texans were closing in inexorably on the withdrawing Comanche raiding party, at an open plain by Plum Creek, a tributary of the San Marcos River near present-day Lockhart. Burdened by loot, captives and a slow-moving herd of stolen horses and mules, the raiders had not split up and scattered as was their usual custom – and now they had become the hunted. Buffalo Hump’s war party were closely pursued by part of McCulloch’s Gonzales company, who began seeing exhausted pack animals shot and left by the wayside. Caldwell and the other leaders had deduced the route by which they were returning, and had arranged their forces accordingly. They let the Comanche column pass, under a great cloud of dust and ash, for the prairie had recently been burned over. Not until the Texans rode out from cover in two parallel lines converging on them, did the Comanche warriors even know they had been followed. Some of their gaudily adorned chiefs rode out to put on a show, intending to cover the withdrawal, taunting the waiting Texans, riding back and forth. A Texan sharp-shooter brought down the most flamboyant of the chiefs, and when several warriors rode out to carry his body away, the order for a charge was given. The Texans smashed through the line of Comanche fighters from both sides, and into the loot-laden horse and mule herd. As the herd stampeded, the whole raid dissolved into a rout, a hundred bloody running fights, with the Comanche fighters penned in and ridden down. The battle ran for fifteen miles, with some of the survivors chased as far as Austin. It was later estimated that the tribe lost about a quarter of their effective fighters, and much of the loot.

Meusebach treatyThe Penateka never raided again so far into the settled lands, and fifteen years later Buffalo Hump would be one of the Penateka chiefs who signed a peace treaty with John Meusebach. That treaty lasted, although epidemics of diseases like cholera eventually reduced the Penateka. There is a monument in Fredericksburg, Texas, commemorating that treaty as one which was never broken, and in most years there is a gathering of Comanche and descendants of German settlers to commemorate the event.

(A description of the treaty negotiations between John Meusebach and the Penateka is part of Adelsverein-The Gathering, and the aftermath of the Plum Creek fight is included in Deep in the Heart.)


A number of summers ago, when I was still stationed in Spain, I packed up my daughter, and a tent and all the necessary gear, and did a long looping camping tour of the southern part of Spain, down through the Extremadura, and to the rock of Gib al Tarik, and a long leisurely drive along the Golden Coast – I had driven from Sevilla, past the sherry-manufacturies around Jerez La Frontera (on a Sunday, so they were closed, although the Harvey’s people should have given me a freebie on general principals, I had sipped enough of their stuff, over the years), made a pit stop at the Rota naval base for laundry and groceries. I had driven into Gibraltar, done a tour of the historic gun galleries, seen the famous Gibraltar apes, and then waited in the long customs line to come back into Spain. We had even stopped at the Most Disgusting Public Loo on the face of the earth, at a gas station outside of San Roque, before following the road signs along the coastal road towards Malaga and Motril, and our turn-off, the road that climbed steadily higher into the mountains, the tall mountains that guarded the fortress city of Granada, and the fragile fairy-tale pavilions of the Alhambra.

The road followed the coastline, for the most part, sweeping through towns like Estepona and Marbella as the main thoroughfare, always the dark blue Mediterranean on the right, running wide of the open beaches, hugging the headlands, with new condos and little towns shaded by palm and olive trees, splashed with the brilliant colors of bougainvillea, interspersed with the sage-green scrublands. The traffic was light enough along the coastal road, and I began to notice a certain trend in place names; Torre de Calahonda, Torremolinos, Torre del Mar, Torrenueva – and to notice that most of the tall headlands, rearing up to the left of the road, were topped by a (usually) ruinous stone watchtower. Forever and brokenly looking out to the sea, and a danger that might come from there, a danger of such permanence as to justify the building of many strong towers, to guard the little towns, and the inlets where fisher-folk would beach their boats and mend their nets.

This rich and lovely coast was scourged for centuries by corsairs who swept in from the sea, peacetime and wartime all alike, savage raiders with swords and torches and chains, who came to burn and pillage – and not just the portable riches of gold, or silver, but those human folk who had a cold, hard cash value along the Barbary Coast, in the slave markets of Algiers and Sale. It was a scourge of such magnitude that came close to emptying out the coastal districts all along the Spanish, French and Italian coasts, and even reached insolently into Cornwall, Wales, Ireland and Iceland. The raiders from the port of Sale (present-day Morocco) grew fabulously wealthy form their expertise in capturing and trafficking in captured Christians from all across coastal villages in Western Europe, and from ships’ crews taken in the Mediterranean and the coastal Atlantic waters. This desperate state of affairs lasted into the early 19th century, until the power and reach of the Barbary slave-raiders was decisively broken. For hundreds of years, though, families all along this coast and elsewhere must have risen up from bed every morning knowing that by the end of the day they and or their loved ones might very well be in chains, on their way to the slave markets across the water, free no longer, but a market commodity.

This kind of life-knowledge is out of living memory along that golden Spanish coast, but it is within nearly touchable distance in Texas and other parts of the American West, where my own parent’s generation, as children in the Twenties and Thirties would have known elderly men and women who remembered the frontier – not out of movies, or from television, but as children themselves, first-hand and with that particular vividness of sight that children have, all that adventure, and danger, privation and beauty, the triumph of building a successful life and community out of nothing more than homesteaded land and hard work.

There was no chain of watchtowers in the harsh and open borderlands of Texas, watching over far-scattered settlements and little towns, and lonely ranches in a country never entirely at peace, but not absolutely at war. The southwestern tribes, Comanche, Apache and their allies roamed as they wished, a wild and free life, hunting what they wanted, raiding when they felt like it, and could get away with it. Sometimes, it was just a coarse game, to frighten the settlers, to watch a settler family run for the shelter of their rickety cabin, fumbling for a weapon with shaking hands, children sheltering behind their parents like chicks. But all too often, for all too many homesteading and ranching families, it ended with the cabin looted and burned, the adults and small children butchered in the cruelest fashion, stripped and scalped.

And the cruelest cut of all, to survivors of such raids in Texas and the borderlands, was that children of a certain age— not too young to be a burden, not too old to be un-malleable (aged about seven to twelve, usually) were carried away, and adopted into the tribes. Over months and years, those children adapted to that life so completely that even when they were ransomed back and brought home, they never entirely fitted in to a life that seemed like a cage. They had been taken as children, returned as teenagers or adults, to an alien life, to parents and family they could no longer see as theirs. Some of them pined away after their return, like the most famous of them, Cynthia Ann Parker, others returned to their Indian families. For parents of these lost children, that must have been so cruel, to lose a much-loved child not just once, but upon finally get them back, and then discovering that they were no longer yours, they had not been a slave, a captive … and now they longed to be away, roving the open lands as free as a bird.

(The connection between these two topics is that I was reading Giles Milton’s White Gold, and Scott Zesch’s Captured at more or less the same time.) The Captured gave me a fantastic idea for a plot twist in Book Three – Adelsverein … who knows, I might yet write more about that character?

Ok, so the look-inside feature isn’t bolted on yet, but the Adelsverein Complete Trilogy has gone live at Amazon and Barnes & Noble, as of yesterday – and in Kindle and Nook editions. Now that it’s well-launched, I’m back to the next two projects: the sequel to Daughter of Texas – which will be called Deep in the Heart and be ready for launch at the New Braunfels Weihnachtsmarkt, which will be held at the end of November. And just in case there is not quite enough to on all of that, Watercress Press is going to do a second print edition of To Truckee’s Trail . . . which I have wanted to do, both because it would be at Watercress and at a slightly lower retail price than previously . . . and because I had found out from a descendent of one of the real-life people that I wrote about – that he had actually been to California two decades before crossing the Sierra Nevada with the Stephens-Townsend Party in 1844. The character of Old Man Hitchcock, the mountain man and fur-trapper was painted as an entertaining teller of tall tales . . . but in this one instance he had been telling the absolute truth. So – the second edition in print will be out by mid-October. And one last thing – I’ve been asked, in person and via email, if there wasn’t a way to have the Adelsverein Trilogy translated into a German edition, as there would be a terrific audience among all those Karl May fans, who absolutely eat up anything to do with adventures in the 19th century American west. Anyone know anyone in the literary agent world who pitches to German-language publishers, and wants to negotiate rights to a German translation of the Trilogy? Any agent looking to explore that option would make out like a bandit, even at 15%. Fortunes in the book-world these days favor the nimble. It may be a bit of a niche market relative to American publishing – but owning a large chunk of a niche market is not bad.

19. August 2011 · Comments Off on Indians · Categories: Uncategorized · Tags: , , , , ,

  A few weeks ago, my daughter drew my attention to this story in the UK Daily Mail, with considerable amusement; both for the breathless sense of excitement about the headline – about something that was very, very old news to students of Texas history – and the matchless idiocy reflected in some of the resulting comments – the kind of crystalline-pure idiocy that can only be achieved  from learned every darned thing they know about the aboriginal inhabitants of North America from having watched Dances With Wolves.  I’ve always given handsome credit to that bit of cinema as excellent and almost anthropologically detailed peep into the world of the Northern plains Sioux in the mid-1860s  . . .  did anyone else ever notice how all the tribes-folk are always doing something, while carrying on a conversation in the side? Almost without exception, they are working at something. Pay no attention to the plot, just watch the people, and realize that they are just one tribe, among all the native peoples.

Anyway, this bit of Brit excitement seems have been inspired by this book – which came out over a year ago, and is pretty fascinating on it’s own. But reading the story and the comments exasperated me yet again, reminding me of my own particular exasperations with the popular culture version of the American frontier. As far as movies and television go, pretty much the whole 19th century west of theMississippi is a big-one-size-one-location-just-post-Civil-War generic blur. And all the Indians in these generic Western adventures were also pretty much generic, too  . . .  which means that historical knowledge gleaned from TV and movie westerns is  – to be kind –  not to be relied upon.

 Because the tribes varied enormously as to culture and capabilities, as any anthropologist will tell you. I’m not one myself, but I have had to read pretty thoroughly in the course of writing about the American west – and that is one of the things that emerges almost at once; the various Tribes fell into a wide range of cultural and technological levels. This range went all the way from the hunting/gathering peoples, like the various divisions in California (who being in a temperate and generous land did very well) and in the deserts of the Great Basin (the Utes and Paiutes did rather less well) to the Cherokee of the southeast who farmed, traded, and swiftly adopted an alphabet for their language, and embraced printing presses and higher education. In between these two extremes were those tribal divisions who farmed, like the Mandan and others of the Ohio-Mississippi-Missouri River basin, and the sedentary tribes of the Southwest; the Hopi and Navaho – farmers, weavers, potters and basket-weavers  . . .  all of whom, at somewhat of a squint, were not all that remote, technology-wise, from the white settlers, although one thing they all did have in common was a lack of resistance to the diseases which Europeans brought with them.

And then there were the hunter/gatherer tribes of the high plains, those who were the first to take full advantage of the horse  . . .  the horse, which ironically, had been brought into North America by the Spanish. The various Sioux divisions, the Kiowa, and most especially the Comanche – became peerless horsemen, hunters and warriors. They took the plains as their own, hunting the vast herds of buffalo who made their home there – all the land between the mountains and forests to the north and west, the Mississippi on the east, and nearly as far as the Gulf Coast to the south. For nearly two hundred years, the horse-tribes of the plains took it all for theirs, and lived for the hunt  . . .  and for war.

No, war did not come with the white settlers – it had been there all along. The various tribes warred vigorously, frequently and with every evidence of keen enjoyment upon each other; for the rights to camp and hunt on certain tracts, for booty and slaves, for vengeance and sometimes just for the pure enjoyment. The Comanche warred with such brutal efficiency on the Apache, that the eastern Lipan Apache were nearly wiped out, and pushed along with the Tonkawa, into alliance with the new-come Texian settlers. But for about fifteen years, the Penateka Comanches held a peace treaty with Texas German settlers – as allies against other enemies – a peace treaty which held for a lot longer than anyone might have expected, which goes to show that reality is almost always stranger than fiction. From the mid-1830s on, the Comanche’s traditional enemies in Texas, Lipan and Tonkawa warriors served with the Texas Rangers on various battlefields against the Comanche. In the Northern plains, the Sioux likewise warred with the Crow – with the result that the Crows were very pleased to serve with the US Army in the west, as scouts, guides and fighters. During the Civil War itself, the Cherokee split into Union and Confederate factions. Indeed, one soon gains the impression from the accounts of early explorers encountering various tribes and peoples, that those peoples were most interested in enlisting the European and American explorers – with their strange new gunpowder technology – as allies against their traditional tribal enemy.

This all made a very much more complicated and nuanced picture. Individuals and tribal groups reacted in practically as many different ways that there were individuals and groups; the whole spectrum of adaptation, resistance, and acquiescence, or even in combination and in sequence. The stories are endlessly varied, with heroes and villains, triumph and heartbreak aplenty  . . .  on all sides.