Indians and Rangers in 19th Century Texas
Christina Claridy, Research Librarian
Texas Ranger Research Center
A pervasive myth in Texas Ranger history is that Rangers have always been Anglo, white males. Since 1823, however, Rangers have counted Hispanics, African Americans, and especially in the early years, American Indians in their ranks.
It is common to assume that all American Indian tribes had an adversarial relationship with the Texas Rangers, that all tribes fought with and despised the men who ranged the frontier. To be sure, many tribes did actively resist the Rangers throughout the frontier era. There were, however, several tribes who aligned themselves with the Rangers and effectively assisted them in many well-known battles. Tribes like the Tonkawas, Lipan Apaches, and the Wacos, all provided much needed service to the state of Texas. The tribes collaborating with the Rangers shared a common goal: the defeat of the extremely powerful Comanche Nation. To the Rangers, the Comanche tribe was hindering American advancement and settlement into Texas. To the allied tribes, Comanche dominance of the region threatened their existence as well as their own settlement. The alliance between the Rangers and the tribes was an alliance created out of necessity, born of the basic nseed to survive. Separately they struggled against the tenacious warriors, combined they presented a serious threat to the Comanche Nation.
The various tribes living on the Texas frontier were a mixture of different cultures. There were coastal tribeswho existed as hunters and gatherers, tribes who were primarily sedentary farmers, and nomadic hunters typical of the Great Plains culture. Many of the tribes were traditional enemies with one another, but each tribe knew whose territory was whose. The arrival of colonists and settlements, however, threw the tribal geography of Texas into disarray. Tribes fought the settlers and Rangers in an attempt to thwart their encroachment into their lands and also fought other tribes who were unwillingly squeezed out of their respective lands and into other tribes’ territories by the increasing number of settlers. This constriction of land boundaries between tribes instigated many smaller tribes into an alliance with the Texas Rangers, settlers and military.
One of the tribes the American
colonists initially encountered was the now obscure Karankawa
tribe. Hunters and gatherers, the
Karankawas lived along the swampy marshlands of the Gulf
Coast between Galveston Bay and Corpus Christi Bay. The first
recorded European contact with this coastal tribe occurred in 1528 when
a Spanish vessel, commanded by Cabeza de Vaca, shipwrecked near Galveston
Karankawas embraced the Spanish explorers who lived among
the tribe for six years. Subsequent contact with Europeans and
Anglo Americans was not so conciliatory, however. The population
began experiencing a downward shift after Spanish missions were constructed
in Karankawa territory in the 18th century. The missions did not
just bring Christianity; they brought diseases that quickly spread throughout
the tribe. By 1821, the tribe’s numbers, already small, were in
serious decline as a result of an 1819 battle with pirates off of Galveston
Island. The arrival of the Americans in 1822 caused further irritation
and disruption into their way of life.
Stephen F. Austin and his colonists had a tense and adversarial relationship with the Karankawas and spoke scathingly and derisively about the tribe and their culture. Contrary to popular assumption, it was the fear of Karankawa attacks, not Comanche, which led to the formation of what evolved to become the Texas Rangers in 1823. In The Conquest of the Karankawas and Tonkawas, Kelly F. Himmel cites Austin’s 1821 journal in which he describes an encounter with Karankawas while surveying land for his new colony. In spite of the fact that the meeting was friendly, Austin astonishingly ends his narrative by calling the Karankawas “enemies to man” and concludes his description by advocating extermination as the policy to be used in future interactions with the tribe. Very simply, the small, close-knit bands lived in the immediate region where the colonists wanted to settle.
Tensions between Austin’s colonists and the Karankawas surfaced almost immediately. The Karankawas resented the colonists desire to transform their fishing and hunting grounds into croplands which led to violent and deadly confrontations with the settlers. Settlers disregarded the occupation of the Karankawas and constructed settlements within the boundaries of their territory. The settlers did not seem to want to co-exist; rather they wanted the Karankawas permanently absent from the scene and actively pursued such an agenda against the tribe. The Karankwas launched offensive and retaliatory raids into the American settlements. The bands could not compete numerically or technologically, however, with the arrival of more American emigrants. The colonists were equipped with far more sophisticated weapons than the Karankawas possessed. After Austin led a campaign against them in 1824, several bands of the Karankawas entered into a treaty with the colonists, whereupon the Karankawas agreed to stay out of a specifically designated area. The treaty was impossible to keep, however, as the tribe was a nomadic, hunting and gathering tribe. For their own survival they had to move with the seasons while still remaining in their own territory. They had to fight the settlers and Rangers in their country, but if they ventured out of their territory, they had to fight the Comanches or Tonkawas into whose territory they had been pushed. The Karankawas every day existence was filled with danger and fear.
Within a few years of contact with Anglos, the increasingly outnumbered Karankawas were forced to continually flee the expanding Texan settlements and hostile colonists in search of a place to settle. By the time Texas achieved independence from Mexico in 1836, the Karankawas had ceased to be a major threat. The once formidable tribe, still adhering to their traditional way of life, became scattered along the Texas Coast and south of the Rio Grande constantly fleeing settler aggressions. After a final attack by ranchers in Rio Grande City in 1858, the Karankawas were essentially made extinct as a cohesive tribe.
A surprisingly little noted tribe in Texas is the nomadic Tonkawa tribe, whose origins commence around the eighteenth century with the consolidation of various smaller bands into a unified tribe. This group inhabited central Texas near present day Austin and San Antonio and became steadfast friends and allies of the Anglo Texans. The first recorded European contact occurred in 1687 when French explorers wrote about the smaller bands that preceded the formation of the Tonkawa tribe. In the years after initial European contact, the Tonkawas suffered a devastating decline in population, likely as a result of newly introduced diseases and constant warfare with other tribes. Numerically weak, they allied themselves first with the Spanish and then Anglo-Texan colonists against their enemies. The Tonkawas became and remained strong allies of the Texans and assisted them in numerous expeditions against other American Indian tribes, especially their hereditary enemy, the Comanches. Many Tonkawa men enlisted as Texas Rangers or served with volunteer companies scouting Comanches. The August 12, 1840 Battle of Plum Creek was such a campaign. After a massacre of Comanche chiefs in San Antonio in 1840, several bands of Comanches initiated a retaliatory excursion into Texan settlements. After demolishing the town of Linnville on August 8, the departing bands were met with a volunteer army, Texas Rangers and Tonkawa Scouts, including their chief, Placido. So dedicated were the Tonkawas to their Texan allies, they joined the chase on foot, jogging while the Texans rode horses.
Another battle in which Tonkawa Texas Rangers played a critical role in attaining a Texan victory was the 1858 fight with Chief Iron Jacket’s band of Comanches during the Canadian River Campaign, also known as the Antelope Hills Expedition. One hundred thirteen American Indians from the Brazos Reservation, including many Tonkawas under Chief Placido, served under Shapley Ross in a campaign with John Salmon “RIP” Ford into Comanche country. Through the combined efforts of the Brazos Reservation Rangers and Ford’s Rangers, a major victory against the Comanches was achieved. Indeed, it was the reserve Rangers who located the Comanche camps and who initiated the first fight with the Comanches by operating as decoys for the Texans in order to draw the Comanches into a battle. It was Brazos Reservation Rangers who fired the shots that killed Iron Jacket, one of the principal leaders of the band, temporarily stunning the advancing warriors. The American Indian Texas Ranger’s exemplary service in this battle did not go unnoticed. In a report to the Governor detailing the results of the campaign, shown in Ford’s memoirs, Rip Ford’s Texas, Ford said that the Indian allies “behaved most excellently on the field of battle. They deserve well of Texas and are entitled to the gratitude of the frontier people.”
The Tonkawas maintained a friendship with the Rangers even through the 1854-1859 Brazos Reservation years. Chief Placido often joined the Rangers and actively encouraged his men to enlist as well. They served honorably often for little, if any, pay. Despite the valuable skills of scouting and tracking that the Tonkawas possessed, which were desperately needed by the Texans, it is possible they were recruited in the early and Republic years because it was economically beneficial for Texas. Early Ranger muster rolls reveal that the fledgling Republic did not pay the American Indian Rangers as much as they paid the Anglo Rangers, not that the Anglo Rangers were paid all that well, either. There was little recourse, however, for the Tonkawas to demand payment, even if they contemplated a desire to do so. Of note, however, is that the Rangers practiced diversity in the nineteenth century, if not equality.
Though many Tonkawas continued to aid the Rangers and U.S. military while living on the Brazos Reservation, and were recruited and trusted by both entities, there were others who were not pleased with the concept of Indians living near white settlements. Violent anti-Indian sentiment permeated the region around the reservation to such an extant that the Brazos tribes were not safe outside the reservation and barely safe inside its borders. The sentiment turned to action when a large group of settlers, led by occasional Ranger John R. Baylor, attempted an attack on the reservation. They were confronted by the United States Military who held the settlers at bay. This volatile situation led Supervising Indian Agent of Texas, Robert S. Neighbors, and Agent Shapley Ross to quickly pack up the tribes on the reservation and flee to Indian Territory in present Oklahoma. The Tonkawas were among the tribes compelled to vacate the reservation in order to preserve their safety against the hostilities perpetrated by the settlers and the Baylor faction. Agent Ross and Supervising Agent Neighbors worked diligently to save the reservation tribes. After securing their safety, both returned to Texas whereupon Neighbors, well-known and respected among the Brazos tribes, was shot and killed within days of crossing the Texan border.
Even while living in Indian Territory, far removed from their homes, the Tonkawas remained allies of Texas. Following the secessionist Texan government, the Tonkawas assumed pro-Confederate sympathies during the Civil War. In 1862, they suffered a deadly attack by pro-Union tribes. Multitudes of Tonkawas, including Chief Placido, were killed. Those who survived the attack fled back to Texas where they attempted to re-settle. Many worked as scouts for the military before the U.S. government removed them once again to Indian Territory.
The Tonkawa tribe attempted to remain on their lands by allying themselves with whatever dominant power happened to be fighting Comanches. They became loyal friends to the Anglo Texan settlers and served both Texas and the U.S. Government with honor. The U.S. military and Rangers used the essential skills the Tonkawas possessed to assist them in defeating their shared enemy, the Comanches. The Tonkawas in turn used the military and the Rangers to strengthen their own position in their efforts to crush the dominant Comanches. Both parties saw in each other a much needed ally. Separately they would surely have struggled against the Comanches for a much longer period. Combined, they were able to force the surrender of a powerful nation.
The Tonkawas paid a high price for their friendship and assistance, however. They were first pushed onto and confined to a reservation in Texas, and then they were forced to a reservation far away from the lands they had helped Texans claim. Their unwavering allegiance earned them the derision of other tribes and the settlers near the reservation who objected to sharing space with Indians. Instead of rewarding the tribe, which the military and Rangers depended on for success against the Comanches, the state of Texas instead permanently removed them beyond its borders.
One of the most well-known tribes in Texas is the Comanche tribe. The first documented European contact with Comanches occurred around 1743. Originally part of the Shoshone tribe, the Comanches arrived on the plains of Texas from present Wyoming and Colorado around 1723. A contest for dominance of the region ensued with the Apaches who inhabited the area. After an extremely unusual and grueling nine-day battle in West Texas, in which the Apaches lost, Comanche dominance was firmly established. By 1750, Comanches controlled all of the southern plains in an area that came to be known as Comancheria (Land of the Comanches). The tribe was quite large with as many as twelve bands within its ranks. Nomadic and frequently referred to as “Lords of the South Plains,” the Comanches were widely regarded as expert horseman and aggressive, skillful warriors.
The Comanches depended upon the buffalo as an essential component to the structure of their society. The meat served as the primary food source, not just for the Comanches, but many plains tribes as well. The buffalo hide was used to make lodge covers, clothes, moccasins, and robes. Nearly every part of the buffalo was used in Comanche culture. The process of preparing the hides was arduous labor, but the tribe relied on the sustenance the labor produced. The buffalo literally fed, clothed and housed them. To supplement their meat diet, the Comanches often traded with more sedentary tribes for plant foods and gathered edible, wild foods that grew on the plains; foods such as nuts, berries and roots.
Unlike other smaller tribes in Texas, the Comanches had no political need to ally themselves with the settlers or the military. In the beginning of Anglo settlement, they did not initially pose a threat to the American colonists. Indeed, in the very early years of colonization, the Comanches were somewhat indifferent to the settlers. They were the problem of other tribes. In an 1833 letter in The Writings of Sam Houston, Houston describes the relationship between the Comanches and Stephen F. Austin’s colony as friendly. It was not until the settlements expanded into Comanche lands that the tribe began to aggressively resist such an encroachment. They vigorously defended their lands and their dominance over those lands against all enemies, regardless of nationality.
Maintaining dominance of Comancheria was not necessarily an ego-driven need to feel superior over other tribes. Dominance of the region also included dominance of the important resources the land contained. The Comanches recognized that the land provided fodder for their horse and buffalo herds, and in fact sustained the large horse herds the Comanches owned and the enormous bison herds they followed. It also provided water for all life on the dry, boundless plains. The bands ferociously defended these important resources, as it was the resources that enabled them to live the free, nomadic existence they so cherished. They attempted to repel both European settlement and American Indian advances into their territories. A natural by-product of the need to maintain control of the land was the necessity to become skillful in warfare to preserve such control.
The Comanches were not only prominent participants, but actually exemplified the horse culture of the Plains. The introduction of the horse to the Southern Plains in the 1600’s drastically altered the lives of the tribes inhabiting the region. Tribes became far more mobile with an added ability to improve their hunting practices. They could travel greater distances and kill more game once they were located. The horse could manage the burden of carrying large loads. The increased numbers of animals killed improved the lives of the tribes. Large animals, such as the buffalo, provided lodge coverings, food, clothing and other staples. With an ability to hunt more game, such comforts as larger homes and easily obtained food became possible.
The horse also allowed the tribes to become more aggressive in warfare. Tribes like the Comanches could expand their territories as they could not only travel greater distances to hunt; they could travel greater distances to conquer. The accumulation of many horses also became a symbol of status among the Plains tribes, especially among the Comanches. Horses could be taken from an enemy during a fight and a courageous warrior could prove his bravery by assembling a large horse herd. The necessity of sustaining such large horse herds also contributed to the fierceness with which the Comanches defended their lands. The expanse of open plains they inhabited maintained their herds and so had to be kept under Comanche control.
Many of the most famous Texas frontier battles involved one or more bands of the Comanche tribe. The U.S. military and Texas Rangers often battled with the Comanches as settlements advanced into Comancheria. The Comanches periodically attacked settlements, killing settlers, taking their horses and sometimes abducting inhabitants of the settlements. The settlers ranged the plains constantly on the lookout for Comanche hunting or war parties. Their ranging activities prompted many skirmishes and battles with various bands and atrocities were committed by both the tribes and the settlers. In 1840, bands of the Penateka Comanche sought peace with the Texas government who entered into negotiations with the bands. Twelve chiefs, along with members of their bands and their families traveled to San Antonio to meet with the Texans. The bands were instructed to bring in all white captives to be released to the government. The bands brought one white female captive and several Mexican captives. The teenage girl, Matilda Lockhart, was in poor physical condition and showed obvious signs of extreme abuse. When no other white captives materialized, the intended peace negotiations soured. The government officials ordered the chiefs held until the other captives were returned. The chiefs immediately resisted and the military opened fire, killing all twelve chiefs. To the Comanches, violence during peace negotiations was a serious breach of etiquette. The Texans, for their part, did not realize that one band could not speak for an entire nation; they simply wanted the white captives returned. Shortly after the massacre many bands of Comanches participated in retaliatory raids into Texas. Battles such as the previously discussed sacking of Linnville and the skirmish at Plum Creek, all were immediate results from what came to be called the ‘Council House Fight” in San Antonio.
In 1858, a combined force from the Brazos Reservation, Texas Rangers, and the U.S. military took the settler’s fight into Comancheria and attacked a Comanche camp along the Canadian River. The Rangers from the Brazos Reservation were led by Texas Ranger Hall of Fame inductee Sul Ross. This fight is significant in that it brought the battle straight into Comancheria, the home of the Comanches. Thereafter, the Rangers, Indian allies, and military attempted to bring the battles to the Comanche homelands.
A serious campaign against the Comanches, however, was stalled by the Civil War and the Reconstruction era immediately following the Union victory. During this turbulent time in Texas history, manpower along the frontier was minimal and security became more about defense and protection and less about offensive tactics. As stability returned, the military and Texans once again turned toward expansion into Comancheria. Remembering the pre-Civil War victories in the Comanche heartland, they employed tactics such as destroying the bison and horse herds that the bands depended so heavily upon, this contributed greatly to the eventual surrender of the last nomadic bands on the southern plains in 1875 at the conclusion of the Red River War.
Waco tribe is another American Indian group who had close
contact with the settlers and Rangers. The agrarian Wacos
were a division of the Wichita tribe. The Wichita arrived in Texas
around 1700 and by 1772 permanently inhabited an area
in Central Texas along the fertile Brazos River in the present city
of Waco. This
opportune site allowed the tribe to engage in extensive
agricultural pursuits as well as the hunting of buffalo. Although
the Wacos, like the Karankawas, lived near water, they did not fish
or otherwise extract the bounty from the river. Rather, they utilized
the rich soil to cultivate several hundred acres of land.
The nomadic Lipan are one of several branches of Apache and the one most closely associated with the southern plains. The Apache originated in Canada and arrived in Texas around 1530. Prior to the introduction of the horse, the Apaches settled in villages and were primarily agricultural. The arrival of the horse enabled the Apaches to hunt buffalo with more efficiency allowing it to become their primary food source. By the late 1600’s the Lipan were established in Texas and bitterly resisted Spanish colonization. The Apaches dominated this area until the arrival of the Comanches. After the battle with Comanches in 1723, the tribe split and the Lipan migrated toward the southeastern part of Texas. Many Lipans allied themselves with Texas against their enemy, the Comanche, and enlisted as Texas Rangers.
The Lipans enjoyed a long standing friendship with the Texans from the beginning of colonization. Texas Ranger units composed entirely of Lipan Apaches under Chiefs Castro and Flacco can be found in Ranger muster rolls as early as 1839. They also recognized the need to form an alliance against the more powerful and numerous Comanche tribe. By allying themselves with the Texans and actively working with them as Scouts and Rangers, they also created protection against their enemies and allowed them to at least partially sustain their position on the plains. Their incalculable support of the settlers and Texas government did not go unnoticed. The impact of Lipan Apache friendship in the early years of Texas settlement is recognized and appreciated to this day. In 2001, the Texas State Senate adopted a resolution publicly recognizing the enormous contribution made by the Castro family, among whom many served as Texas Rangers, for their invaluable assistance to the settlement of the state.
Each tribe discussed attempted to hold onto their lands and life-ways utilizing their own unique methods. Tribes like the Karankawas, formidable enough at the onset to instigate the formation of the Texas Rangers, but prevented from mounting a long-term struggle against the colonists because of their small population, still tried to maintain their traditional coastal culture of hunting and gathering. To be sure, the Karankawas did not passively accept non-Karankawa settlement of their lands simply because they were at a numeric disadvantage. Once colonists began pouring into their region they reacted aggressively. Numerically and technologically, though, they were unable to compete with the ever-increasing settlers.
Enlistment of American Indian Rangers decreased, however, once the nature of Ranger service shifted from primarily frontier defense to that of a law enforcement organization. Texas Rangers no longer had need of the tribes to help them against the Comanches and so no longer sought their services.
Most bands of Comanches, especially the northern tribes, fought the on-rush of Texan settlement and the Rangers protecting the on-rush, until the U.S. military stepped in after Reconstruction. Once the Rangers and military began destroying the bison and horse herds, the Comanches ceased to remain a viable threat. The nearly fifty years of fighting non-Comanche settlement, the combined forces of Texas Rangers, American Indian Rangers, as well as tribal warfare and settlers had taken its toll on the once powerful tribe.
In the early years of Ranger history, American Indian involvement with the organization was vital to the success of Texan settlement. The Rangers depended on the assistance of their Indian allies and the allies depended on the Rangers to achieve their shared goal of crushing the Comanches. In the end, though, the Rangers benefited the most from the alliance. Despite the valuable assistance given to the Rangers and the state of Texas, the Indian Rangers were not allowed to remain in the state they had helped both entities to claim.
SOURCES, SUGGESTED READINGS
Benner, Judith Ann. Sul Ross: Soldier, Statesman, Educator. College
Ford, John Salmon. RIP Ford’s Texas. Ed.
Stephen B. Oates. Austin: University of
Himmel, Kelly F. The Conquest of the Karankawas and the Tonkawas,
Hodge, Frederick Webb, ed. Handbook of American Indians
North of Mexico, Vol. II.
Moore, Stephen L. Savage Frontier: Rangers, Rifleman, and Indian Wars in Texas, Vols. I-III. Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2002, 2006 and 2007.
Neighbors, Kenneth Franklin. Robert Simpson Neighbors and
the Texas Frontier 1836-
Newcomb, W.W., Jr. The Indians of Texas from
Prehistoric to Modern Times. Austin:
Smallwood, James M. The Indians of Texas. College
Station: Texas A&M University
Williams, Amelia W. and Eugene C. Barker, eds. The Writings
of Sam Houston, Vols I-
Research Center Topics
Hall of Fame & Museum