History Friday: The Fight at Plum Creek

The historian T.R. 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. 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 advancing 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.

A 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 – to turn over a number of captives, and sign a peace treaty. But the Penateka only released one; 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.

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 Buffalo Hump’s warriors were returning to their regular hunting grounds, 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. The 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 version of this story is included in my collection of essays about Texas history, The Heart of Texas.)

12 thoughts on “History Friday: The Fight at Plum Creek”

  1. Let me second Bill’s compliment.

    Also let me endorse T. R. Fehrenbach’s “Lone Star.” It’s a great read and, best of all, avoids politically correct claptrap.

    One insight from “Lone Star” was the Texans were not making much progress in their wars with the Comanches for decades. The problem lay in the single shot guns the Texans had – they just couldn’t fire rapidly enough to deal with the Comanche warriors on horseback armed with lances.

    It wasn’t until the Colt revolvers were introduced that a Texan had enough rapid firepower to overcome Comanche attacks and turn the tide.

    The Spanish started the ascendency of the Comanche with the introduction of the horse to the Great Plains. That destabilized political and economic balances between the tribes and the Comanche embraced a style of total war against their neighbors in a particularly barbaric manner. Resentment against them amongst other Indian tribes remains to this day.

  2. I’ll add a third Sgt Mom.

    Funny how none of the folks who endlessly whine about how the USA treated the “natives” conveniently forget about the Commanches. who as Whitehall said were also much hated by other Indian tribes too.

  3. Thanks, guys – and actually, next week’s post will touch on how using the Colt revolvers made things a bit more even for the early Rangers – and how an engraving of a set-to with the Comanches wound up as an ornamental element on Colt revolvers for many years.

    The Comanches were very much the agressors, once they adopted the horse. They are originally a branch of the Shoshone, but once they came roaring down into the plains – it was game, set and match for every other tribe in their way. The Lipan Apache and the Tonkawa actually allied themselves enthusiastically with the Texans. I left out what Chief Placido’s Tonkawa did after the Plum Creek fight – they butchered, roasted and ate the flesh of some of the Comanche dead. Needless to say, the Texans who saw this were pretty grossed out.

  4. Plum Creek was also covered in Empire of the Summer Moon, as Sgt. Mom already knows. An immigrant from the UK, of the “give peace a chance” contingent, said that reading the book gave her a much different perspective on the frontier.

    On the other side of the country and from another century, The Boy Captive of Old Deerfield is the story of a boy in the early 1700s who was kidnapped from his home in Deerfield, Mass [No MA for me,thank you].Ironically, Deerfield is overrun these days by the “give peace a chance” crowd. My eighth grade teacher read the book to us early in the morning to help us settle down. While at the time I viewed my eighth grade teacher as a battleax, I now see that her sometimes brusque methods to control a difficult age group gave her the opportunity to teach us. Which she did. I also note that she intervened to stop unjust treatment- tongue lashing sufficed.

    The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity discusses the first major Indian war in the US, a war which inflamed New England in 1675.

  5. “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.” There are plenty of stories from the Dark Ages of peace councils ending up with one side capturing or killing the other. Usually historians deprecate such behaviour, but I suppose we white men will blame the Comanche; hell they were insolent after all.

  6. Dearieme, the Texans were particularly outraged for several reasons before the ‘insolent’ answer. They had been under the assumption that the Comanche were going to turn over fourteen or fifteen white captives as a token of good intent. Instead, they freed only one badly mistreated teenager, with her nose about burned off her face (Mary Maverick was one of those who tended to the poor girl upon her release). Matilda Lockhart had begun to understand the Comanche language, and she told them that all the other captives were right there, in the Comanche camps nearby, and that a huge ransom was going to be extorted for each one. Bad faith, abusing captive girls – insolence on top of an outright lie was just the cherry on top of the whole sordid sundae.

  7. Let me endorse learning about King Philip’s War too. It was particularly gruesome with the early Indian attacks pushing back settlement many years, especially in the upper Connecticut River valley as whole Puritan villages were slaughtered. The final battle was in a swamp in eastern Connecticut (or western Rhode Island) and resulted in death to a thousand of King Philip’s followers.

    These were existential wars and both sides resorted to genocide.

  8. }}}Bad faith, abusing captive girls – insolence on top of an outright lie was just the cherry on top of the whole sordid sundae.

    Dammit, Sarge, the liberal twit has an axe to grind, and here you are putting a brake on the grindstone!! :-D

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