(To make up for not having finished this for last Friday, this Friday’s history post is extra-long! Yes, my refuge from current events this week is the 19th century. As far as I know, this is not illegal, yet. Incidentally, both these people are walk-on characters in the next book – excerpt here.)
As I have often noted before, the past is a vastly more complicated and more human place than the watered down history textbooks would have us believe. Yes, complicated and curious, and not nearly as bigoted as those who foment pop culture would think. Kipling might have been more right than he’s been given credit for in the late 20th century when he wrote, “…But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!”
A pair of men from 1840s Texas – the time of the Republic of Texas illustrates this point obliquely, although I don’t have any evidence that they ever met face to face. They possibly might have – Texas was a small place then – and practically everyone knew each other.
Late in October of 1837, a Comanche war party descended on a small farm near modern-day Schulenburg, Texas, owned by a recent arrival in Texas, one James Lyons, who worked the farm with the aid of his wife, four sons, a married daughter and her husband. The youngest son was Warren, then about eleven or twelve years old. James Lyons and Warren were milking cows in the early morning when the Comanches came; the other family members hastily barred the windows and doors and escaped harm. But the raiders killed and scalped James, snatched Warren and half a dozen horses and vanished with the boy and livestock into the vast hunting grounds to the north and west. His mother never gave up hope for her son, although the other members of the family sorrowfully resigned themselves that he was gone – since all efforts at locating and ransoming him were unsuccessful.
Warren was spotted at least twice over the next ten years, first by another captive who was later ransomed – he was at least thirteen or fourteen by then, and had already made his preference plain. He was, she said, in and out of the camp where she was held – participating in raids, although probably not as a full-fledged warrior, but rather as an auxiliary, minding the horses. An Indian agent met with a camp of Yamparika Apache on the upper Washita in 1846, and tried to convince Warren to return with him. But Warren did not want to return, apparently believing that the rest of his family had also been killed. The next year, a party of surveyors working near present-day Mason encountered a band of Comanche whom they were certain were about to kill them all. But one of the warriors was Warren, who overheard the surveyors discussing their apprehensions and told them they weren’t in danger. They would be let go the next day. The surveyors – one of whom was an acquaintance of Warren Lyons’ mother – tried to convince him to come with them. Again – he refused to leave the Comanche. But the next year, a party of Comanche came to either Fredericksburg or to San Antonio to do some peaceful trading. The story varies in several sources. Since this occurred during the period of a truce brokered by John Meusebach on behalf of the German settlers in the Hill Country, the Fredericksburg version sounds likelier – but San Antonio was a larger and more cosmopolitan place, the economic hub of the region and not on the edge of the far frontier at the time. By coincidence, two neighbors of the Lyon family were there, recognized Warren, and approached him, pleading that he should return – at least, visit his mother. The third time was the charm, apparently – even though he claimed that he had two wives among the Comanche and did not wish to leave them. But the friend of his mother presented him with a pair of fine red blankets, and Warren gave each wife a blanket, telling them that he would return.
If he did, the stay was brief, for upon returning to the Lyons farmstead, Warren was overcome with emotion on seeing his mother again, although she did not at first recognize him. His family and the little community which had grown up nearby – now called Lyonville – welcomed him back, joyful and generous.
One of his older brothers convinced him to stay in the white world, by talking him into serving as a Ranger, in the contentious borderlands between Texas and Mexico. Doubtless this served two purposes by allowing him to fight another party than the Comanche who had lately been his comrades, and to provide a substitute for the free-roving and untrammeled life he had become accustomed to. Some time later, though, Warren was in a Ranger company led by Edward Burleson and did participate in a bitter skirmish against the Comanche, so hard-fought that the Rangers were certain they were about to be overrun. No, said Warren – who had been listening to the Comanche warriors shouting to each other – the Comanche were giving it up, and withdrawing. Relieved, the Rangers packed up their dead and wounded. Doubtless, having gotten this out of his system, Warren Lyons resigned from the Rangers, and settled down in Johnson County. He married one Lucy Boatwright in 1848, raised a family of children and prospered quietly, although he did retain certain eccentricities of behavior – as in preferring moccasins to boots when it came to a fight, during his Ranger service. Warren Lyons died at a relatively young age in 1870.
As for the second of the white Comanche adoptees – he was never a captive, but came along willingly. Robert S. Neighbors was a native Virginian, born in 1815 and left as an orphan at the tender age of four months by the deaths of his parents. He was raised and educated by a guardian, and like many another restless youth of the time, sought adventure and fortune in Texas in the fateful spring of 1836, when he was just twenty-one. He found adventure, all right, serving in the Republic of Texas’ tiny professional army as quartermaster. When his hitch was done, he gravitated to San Antonio and another kind of military service as a member of Jack Hays’ volunteer Ranger company. When the Mexican Army under General Adrian Woll made a lighting-fast raid on San Antonio in September 1842, Bob Neighbors had the ill-luck not to be out on patrol. Instead, he and more than fifty other Anglo men – either local residents or in town for a session of the civil court – were taken captive and packed off into Mexico for a stint of imprisonment in the San Carlos Fortress – Perote Prison. There he spent two years, before being released and returned to Texas. Presumably a quiet life operating a hotel in Houston was a little too quiet; within a short time he was off again in another service to the Republic of Texas; as an Indian agent with primary responsibility for the peoples of two tribes noted for volunteering as guides and combatants with the Rangers – the Lipan Apache and the Tonkawa. Both these tribes were traditional enemies of the Comanche – peerless and brutal warriors who had swept down from the Rocky Mountains once they acquired mastery of the horse and made the Southern Plains their own. He developed one rather unusual practice as Indian agent – he went to the various tribal villages and dealt face to face with leaders there, rather than wait for them to come to him at the agency headquarters. Neighbors developed a fluency in the various languages, a grasp on the subtleties of tribal cultures – and more importantly, the friendship of many. It was said that no white man in Texas had more friends or a greater influence among the Tribes.
One of his field visits to a Tonkawa camp coincided with a visit by a Comanche war party on their way into Mexico to raid for horses. For once the Comanches were in a rather more friendly mood towards the Tonkawa than usual – demanding only hospitality in the form of food for themselves and their horses and some entertainment for the evening. Fearlessly, Bob Neighbors asked for an introduction to their leader, Mopechucope or Old Owl, which was granted. Old Owl admired Bob Neighbors’ fine coat, and knowing that was expected, Bob promptly took it off and gave it to Old Owl. Strangely enough, Old Owl took an immediate liking to Bob Neighbors; instead of Bob making a civilized man out of him, Old Owl suggested – he would make a good horse thief out of Bob and adopt him, if he came along with the war party. Bob Neighbors didn’t hesitate, this being an invitation that few Texans would ever be offered and even fewer would consider accepting. He went with the raiding party, returned safely and departed from Old Owl’s camp with gratitude and with his scalp intact – the only occasion where an official in the service of the Republic of Texas went on a raid with a Comanche war party.
The friendship with Old Owl and the Penateka paid off in the years immediately following. Bob Neighbors was one of the negotiators at the peace conference which led to a peace treaty between the Penateka Comanche and the German settlers who arrived on the Texas frontier through the auspices of the Mainzer Adelsverein.
When Texas was finally admitted as one of the United States, Bob Neighbors was one of those assisting in the negotiations between the US Indian commissioners and representatives of those tribes living in Texas – and received a federal appointment as an Indian agent. In the spring of 1849, he was tasked by Major General William Worth, commander of the 8th Military Department to explore, survey and establish a wagon route to El Paso from San Antonio. He led a mixed command of Rangers (including Robert Salmon “Rip” Ford) and US Army troops, as General Worth correctly figured that Bob Neighbors was about the only man in Texas who could venture into Comanche lands and return again to tell the tale. In fact, the expedition traveled with the good-will and for a time the presence of Buffalo Hump, a prominent Penateka war chief. The expedition was a success in mapping out a route eventually used by the Butterfield Stage lines in the following decade, and by the modern highway. In between these bouts of public service, Neighbors found the time and inclination to marry, and establish a home on the Salado Creek, for his wife and children.
The position as federal Indian agent was a political patronage job, and the election of a Whig administration late that year brought an end to that duty. But Neighbors served as a state commissioner and in the state legislature, and there he sponsored a resolution to establish – with the concurrence of the federal government – reservations for those Indian tribes with a presence in Texas: not just the Penateka Comanche, but the Caddo, Shawnee, Anadarko, Tonkawa and a handful of smaller divisions. With another national election in 1853, Bob Neighbors was back to work with a federal appointment as supervising agent for the Texas reservations; one on the Salt Fork of the Brazos River, the other on the Clear Fork. And one would have thought it would have been clear sailing for Neighbors, as a stout champion of his Indian friends and their welfare, as well as being respected in his own right as an explorer and Ranger. Alas, he had become hated by white settlers for his championship of the Indians. Those tribes which had settled on the Brazos reservations were often and vociferously blamed for continued raids on white settlements. Those Indians – especially Comanche who continued to range freely – held the reservation Indians in grand contempt, and often deliberately routed their own raids on white communities so as to implicate the Reservation Indians in the atrocities committed.
John Baylor, who had been one of Neighbors’ sub-agents in spite of his detestation of Indians, became one of Neighbors’ most bitter enemies on being dismissed from that position, and never missed the opportunity of inciting the anger of white settlers against the Reservation Indians. At one point, Bob Neighbors had to call on federal troops stationed at Camp Cooper and Fort Belknap, to protect the Reservation against a Baylor-led attack by white vigilantes. By late 1859, Neighbors came to realize that his Indian charges were no longer safe in Texas. He organized the evacuation of the Brazos reservations. With four troops of federal soldiers and Robert Neighbors himself as escorts, nearly 1,500 Reservation Indians were conveyed to a new federal reservation in present-day Oklahoma. He achieved this without any loss of life, but on his return to Fort Belknap to file his final report as the superintendent of Indian affairs, he was assassinated – shot down from behind, in retaliation for his friendship and championship of the Indians. He was buried in the Fort Belknap cemetery. In the space of the next year, Texas seceded, joined the Confederacy, and federal troops were withdrawn from the frontier – creating a whole new war along the frontier. But that is another story.
7 thoughts on “History Friday: Two Adopted Comanches”
Fascinating, thanks for posting!
It has always fascinated me that such adventurers actually existed, and did more than the creator of any fictional character could dare to invent.
Oddly enough, even though the metrosexual modern press cannot imagine it, such people still undertake adventures every bit as daring, but, since they’re mostly military, they’re generally ignored.
That’s what makes writing HF so much fun, VR – there are people out there in the historical record who an author couldn’t possibly make up. They were real, they did stupendous and exciting things … but hardly anyone who isn’t a history nut knows about them.
I was thinking how traumatic that must have been fitst, as a child to be abducted with your family killed – then years later, acclimated to Indian life, to move back to the while world, twice abandoning everything you knew.
It was, Bill – especially for those taken very young and adopted. Scott Zesch has a great book about this – The Captured. He went back and documented a dozen children who were taken in the 1860s or so. One was his great-great-uncle. Those that he did follow did have adjustment problems, but I think he selected his examples rather carefully. There were just as many who were taken, managed to escape or were ransomed, and couldn’t shake the captivity dust off their feet fast enough.
” even though the metrosexual modern press cannot imagine it, such people still undertake adventures every bit as daring, ”
When my older son was applying to college, he had to write an essay about his most significant experience, or some term like that. He asked what I would suggest and I told him to write about sailing to Hawaii with me when he was 16. His counselor was angry with that and asked him if he really wanted to go to college. I’m sure a day at the food bank would have been more favorably received.
I used to interview medical school applicants for UC, Irvine. I always favored those with some real world experience instead of the phony volunteering in an ER which is what most applicants seem to do. One had been in the Iranian army in the Iran-Iraq War. That experience convinced him to come here, learn English, go to college and work at the same time. He was working the night shift at Sun Microsystems while getting his pre-med at San Jose State. I don’t know if he got in but he should have.
This is like taking coals to Newcastle for Sgt. Mom, but for those readers who are not yet aware of Empire of the Summer Moon, the story of Quanah Parker here is the Amazon link. Quanah Parker was the last Comanche chief and the son of a white woman whom the Comanches had kidnapped from her parents’ home in 1836.
When my older son was applying to college, he had to write an essay about his most significant experience, or some term like that. He asked what I would suggest and I told him to write about sailing to Hawaii with me when he was 16. His counselor was angry with that and asked him if he really wanted to go to college.
Which is one argument for simply deciding college admissions on the basis of SATs and grades: you don’t have to bare your soul or jump through hoops for those clowns in the admission offices. Nonetheless, it is a good idea for a prospective college student to have an idea of what his academic strengths and weaknesses are, and what his academic likes and dislikes are. If writing college admission essays will help the prospective college student clarify those matters, they may be useful.
By the end of high school, I knew that I liked math and was good at it, and I that I HATED writing papers. [By contrast, I enjoyed what few expository writings we had to do in class.] Though it took me 9 years to get my degree, those initial judgments had a strong influence on where I ended up.
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