THE COUNCIL HOUSE FIGHT AND AFTERMATH
Marshall J. Doke, Jr.
One of the most important events in the early history of the Republic of Texas is not well known and is not generally included in Texas history talks. Texans like to think we always wore the “white” hats and were the “good guys,” but we can’t claim that here. Some have suggested the Council House “Fight” should be called the Council House “Massacre” of Comanche Indians.
The background for this story begins with the two different views on how Texas should deal with the Indians. The first President of our new Republic, Sam Houston, had a policy of negotiating treaties and boundaries with our various tribes. Houston even had lived with the Cherokees two times and was adopted by the tribe (and some alleged he had married one).
Our second President of the Republic, Mirabeau Lamar, opposed Houston’s unpopular policy. His view was that the only solution to the Indian problem was to expel the tribes from Texas and kill those who refused to leave. When Lamar became President, a soldier actually attempted to assassinate Houston in an Austin hotel in 1840. Texas Rangers and volunteers began punitive expeditions against the Comanches – the fiercest foes faced by Anglo settlers.
The Comanches were not a unified “nation.” There were as many as thirty-five independent roving “bands” with each having its own “chief.” Texans never understood why a treaty with one Comanche chief did not bind all the Comanches, who believed all settlers were invaders to their territory and, therefore, fair game for Comanche raids. Sam Houston said,
If I could build a wall from the Red River to the Rio Grande, so high that no Indian could scale it, the white people would go crazy trying to devise means to get beyond it.
In 1840, the Comanches had reasons for wanting peace. They were concerned about Cheyenne and Arapaho attacks along the northern frontier of their territory, called the Comancheria. The Penateka (Pee Nee´tee ka) Comanches (Honey Eaters) also had been decimated by several smallpox and cholera epidemics, and the Texas Rangers had been successful in their raids against them. For these and other reasons, three Penateka Comanche chiefs rode into San Antonio in January 1840 to arrange a “parley” and proposing to negotiate a lasting peace. The Texans agreed to negotiate, but only if the Comanches brought in the thirteen captives the Texans knew they had. The Texans planned to hold the Comanche chiefs hostage until the captives were released.
Texas Secretary of War, Albert Sidney Johnston, appointed three “Commissioners” to negotiate with the Indians. He also ordered two companies of Texas regular soldiers to San Antonio with orders to seize the Comanches as hostages if they failed to deliver their captives. The Commissioners also were to insist the Comanches abandon Central Texas, cease interfering with Texas incursions, and avoid all white settlements.
The peace meeting was a “truce” which occurred on March 19, 1840, in the San Antonio “Council House” (which then served as a court house). It was a large, stone, one-story building with a dirt floor located directly across the Plaza from the San Fernando Cathedral. Twelve war chiefs and the great Comanche peace chief Maguara (Mag ur´ ah) (“Spirit Talker”) arrived for the meeting with fifty-two other warriors, women, and children. They came with only one white captive – sixteen year-old Matilda Lockhart, who had been captured six years earlier.
Matilda said she had been a victim of torture and rape. Her appearance outraged the Texas officials. Her nose had been burned off to the bone. Her nostrils were wide openings without flesh. She never recovered and died several years later.
The meeting opened with the Commissioners reminding the Comanches (speaking through an interpreter) that they had promised to return all their prisoners, not just one. Chief Maguara said they brought the only white captive they had, and the rest were held by other Comanche bands, which they did not control. He said he couldn’t negotiate for the other bands, but he believed they could be ransomed for a great deal of supplies. But, Matilda said she had seen thirteen other captives in their camp a few days ago which they planned to use, one or two at a time, for more ransom payments.
After a long pause, Maguara said (through the interpreter) “how do you like that answer?” The Texas Commissioners were offended by that answer as arrogant. As yet, however, historians have not considered that the Chief’s answer may not have been interpreted properly. Could the Chief’s answer actually have meant, “do you understand why we couldn’t bring the other captives with us today?” In any event, the Commissioners told the interpreter to tell the Chiefs that the women and children could leave, but the Chiefs would be held as hostages until the other captives were returned.
The interpreter at first refused to interpret that statement to the Chiefs saying it would cause a fight. When the Commissioners insisted, he translated the message and then bolted out the door. The Comanches instantly, in one accord, let out a screeching war-whoop, strung their bows, and pulled out their knives (they didn’t bring any guns because it was a “truce”). One Chief ran to a door, stabbed the guard, and was gunned down by the soldiers. The soldiers then were ordered to fire. Within moments, after hand-to-hand combat, all the Chiefs had been killed. Several troops had been killed or injured. Fighting continued outside the Council House.
The official report filed the following day stated that, of the sixty-five Comanches, thirty-five were killed (thirty adult males, three women, and two children). Twenty-nine were taken prisoners, and one escaped. Seven Texans died, including a judge, a sheriff, and an Army lieutenant.
The Council House fight outraged the Comanche sensibilities and was considered high treason because participants to a truce were considered immune from acts of war and untouchable. The immediate result was the thirteen other white captives the Comanches had were all roasted alive or tortured to death in hideous and lingering ways.
The Texans believed the Comanches caused their own deaths by fighting instead of yielding themselves as hostages until they had returned the other captives, as promised. The Comanches believed the Texans had lured the Penateka chiefs under false pretenses in a fit of high treachery and conducted under a white flag of peace.
In Comanche culture, if an Indian was killed, the “blood” cried out for vengeance. Only revenge could even the score. Any attack had to be countered. And, the retaliation had to be commensurate with the offense. For several months, people who lived in and around San Antonio lived in a state of terror. The Comanche retribution did not take long.
In less than six months, one of the last surviving war chiefs of the Penateka Comanches, Buffalo Hump (who was portrayed in the movie, Lonesome Dove), led the largest raid ever made by Native Americans on white cities in the United States. Actually, “Buffalo Hump” is an incorrect, “pc” translation of his Comanche name (better translated as “he who needs no Viagra”). The raid was under what Texans still call a “Comanche Moon,” meaning a bright full moon providing sufficient light for night raids. The raid included an estimated 500-600 warriors along with wives and young boys along to provide comfort and do the work. Altogether, there may have been 1,000 Comanches and Kiowas that set out in what was later called the “Great Raid of 1840.”
The war party went southeast and first attacked the town of Victoria (about half way between Galveston and Corpus Christie). The Texans hid in buildings, but the Comanches killed a dozen or so townspeople. The Indians departed when rifle fire began from the Texans in the buildings. The Comanches continued to the southeast driving a herd of nearly 2,000 stolen horses and mules ahead of them and killing and burning as they went.
On the morning of August 8, the war party targeted the small, seaport town of Linnville. By the time the inhabitants realized the Indians were hostile and preparing to attack, there was nothing they could do but row small boats to larger boats safe from the warriors. Some were killed and scalped before they reached the water. The Comanches spent the entire day pillaging and burning Linnville warehouses, which were packed with goods destined for shipment to San Antonio. The goods included top hats, fancy coats, and colored cloth that delighted the Comanches, who dressed themselves and paraded with parasols and women’s dresses.
When Buffalo Hump decided the Comanches were fully revenged, the Indians finally left with well over 2,000 horses, about $10 million in goods (in today’s dollars), and 500 loaded pack mules. In all, the raiders killed over 20 people. The Comanches made a serious mistake by returning on the same trail the war party used to begin their raid.
Texas Rangers had been trailing the Comanches, but they could not engage the Indians because of their numbers. However, the time spent in Victoria and Linnville allowed various militia units, together with Texas Ranger companies, to organize about 200 men to attack the Indians. The Texans caught the Indians on August 12th at Plum Creek (some 30 miles southeast of Austin) and achieved a resounding victory.
The Indians seemed that it was more important to protect their stolen horses and goods than to defeat the Texans. When an Indian chief rode forward challenging an individual battle, he was hit by a Texan’s bullet that knocked him off his horse. To the Comanches, this was “bad medicine” and took the fighting heart out of the warriors. There followed a running skirmish for over 15 miles until the Indians scattered, mostly abandoning their stolen horses and taking to the thickets. By that time, some 88 Comanches lay dead along the 15-mile battlefield with only one Texan killed. There was a total of 33 settlers killed in the “Great Raid of 1840,” including all the Comanche’s captives.
President Lamar now was convinced that the Comanches must be taught a lesson and ordered the Texas Rangers to take the fight deep into the Comancheria. Unfortunately, the Indians continued raiding and counter-attacked until the end of the Red River War when the U.S. Army, with 1,400 soldiers in 1875, encircled the Indians and slowly starved them to death.
Old Buffalo Hump stopped earlier, however, and asked for a house and farmland in 1859. He died a farmer in 1870.