How Comanche Indians butchered babies, roasted enemies alive and would ride 1,000 miles to wipe out one family
Comanche Indians were responsible for one of the most brutal slaughters in the history of the Wild West
The 16-year-old girl’s once-beautiful face was grotesque.
She had been disfigured beyond all recognition in the 18 months she had been held captive by the Comanche Indians.
Now, she was being offered back to the Texan authorities by Indian chiefs as part of a peace negotiation.
To gasps of horror from the watching crowds, the Indians presented her at the Council House in the ranching town of San Antonio in 1840, the year Queen Victoria married Prince Albert.
‘Her head, arms and face were full of bruises and sores,’ wrote one witness, Mary Maverick. ‘And her nose was actually burnt off to the bone. Both nostrils were wide open and denuded of flesh.’
Once handed over, Matilda Lockhart broke down as she described the horrors she had endured — the rape, the relentless sexual humiliation and the way Comanche women had tortured her with fire. It wasn’t just her nose, her thin body was hideously scarred all over with burns.
When she mentioned she thought there were 15 other white captives at the Indians’ camp, all of them being subjected to a similar fate, the Texan lawmakers and officials said they were detaining the Comanche chiefs while they rescued the others.
It was a decision that prompted one of the most brutal slaughters in the history of the Wild West — and showed just how bloodthirsty the Comanche could be in revenge.
S C Gwynne, author of Empire Of The Summer Moon about the rise and fall of the Comanche, says simply: ‘No tribe in the history of the Spanish, French, Mexican, Texan, and American occupations of this land had ever caused so much havoc and death. None was even a close second.’
He refers to the ‘demonic immorality’ of Comanche attacks on white settlers, the way in which torture, killings and gang-rapes were routine. ‘The logic of Comanche raids was straightforward,’ he explains.
‘All the men were killed, and any men who were captured alive were tortured; the captive women were gang raped. Babies were invariably killed.’
Not that you would know this from the new Lone Ranger movie, starring Johnny Depp as the Indian Tonto.
For reasons best know to themselves, the film-makers have changed Tonto’s tribe to Comanche — in the original TV version, he was a member of the comparatively peace-loving Potowatomi tribe.
And yet he and his fellow native Americans are presented in the film as saintly victims of a Old West where it is the white settlers — the men who built America — who represent nothing but exploitation, brutality, environmental destruction and genocide.
Depp has said he wanted to play Tonto in order to portray Native Americans in a more sympathetic light. But the Comanche never showed sympathy themselves.
When that Indian delegation to San Antonio realised they were to be detained, they tried to fight their way out with bows and arrows and knives — killing any Texan they could get at. In turn, Texan soldiers opened fire, slaughtering 35 Comanche, injuring many more and taking 29 prisoner.
But the Comanche tribe’s furious response knew no bounds. When the Texans suggested they swap the Comanche prisoners for their captives, the Indians tortured every one of those captives to death instead.
‘One by one, the children and young women were pegged out naked beside the camp fire,’ according to a contemporary account. ‘They were skinned, sliced, and horribly mutilated, and finally burned alive by vengeful women determined to wring the last shriek and convulsion from their agonised bodies. Matilda Lockhart’s six-year-old sister was among these unfortunates who died screaming under the high plains moon.’
Not only were the Comanche specialists in torture, they were also the most ferocious and successful warriors — indeed, they become known as ‘Lords of the Plains’.
They were as imperialist and genocidal as the white settlers who eventually vanquished them.
When they first migrated to the great plains of the American South in the late 18th century from the Rocky Mountains, not only did they achieve dominance over the tribes there, they almost exterminated the Apaches, among the greatest horse warriors in the world.
The key to the Comanche’s brutal success was that they adapted to the horse even more skilfully than the Apaches.
There were no horses at all in the Americas until the Spanish conquerors brought them. And the Comanche were a small, relatively primitive tribe roaming the area that is now Wyoming and Montana, until around 1700, when a migration southwards introduced them to escaped Spanish mustangs from Mexico.
The first Indians to take up the horse, they had an aptitude for horsemanship akin to that of Genghis Khan’s Mongols. Combined with their remarkable ferocity, this enabled them to dominate more territory than any other Indian tribe: what the Spanish called Comancheria spread over at least 250,000 miles.
They terrorised Mexico and brought the expansion of Spanish colonisation of America to a halt. They stole horses to ride and cattle to sell, often in return for firearms.
Other livestock they slaughtered along with babies and the elderly (older women were usually raped before being killed), leaving what one Mexican called ‘a thousand deserts’. When their warriors were killed they felt honour-bound to exact a revenge that involved torture and death.
Settlers in Texas were utterly terrified of the Comanche, who would travel almost a thousand miles to slaughter a single white family.
The historian T R Fehrenbach, author of Comanche: The History Of A People, tells of a raid on an early settler family called the Parkers, who with other families had set up a stockade known as Fort Parker. In 1836, 100 mounted Comanche warriors appeared outside the fort’s walls, one of them waving a white flag to trick the Parkers.
‘Benjamin Parker went outside the gate to parley with the Comanche,’ he says. ‘The people inside the fort saw the riders suddenly surround him and drive their lances into him. Then with loud whoops, mounted warriors dashed for the gate. Silas Parker was cut down before he could bar their entry; horsemen poured inside the walls.’
Survivors described the slaughter: ‘The two Frosts, father and son, died in front of the women; Elder John Parker, his wife ‘Granny’ and others tried to flee. The warriors scattered and rode them down.
‘John Parker was pinned to the ground, he was scalped and his genitals ripped off. Then he was killed. Granny Parker was stripped and fixed to the earth with a lance driven through her flesh. Several warriors raped her while she screamed.
‘Silas Parker’s wife Lucy fled through the gate with her four small children. But the Comanche overtook them near the river. They threw her and the four children over their horses to take them as captives.’
So intimidating was Comanche cruelty, almost all raids by Indians were blamed on them. Texans, Mexicans and other Indians living in the region all developed a particular dread of the full moon — still known as a ‘Comanche Moon’ in Texas — because that was when the Comanche came for cattle, horses and captives.
They were infamous for their inventive tortures, and women were usually in charge of the torture process.
From earliest documentation to the time the Arapaho were put on reservations ,they were fighting with the Shoshoni, Ute, Navaho, and Pawnee tribes. After 1840, the Arapaho were at peace with all other Plains Tribes.
The Arapaho were often allied with Comanche and Kiowa, not to mention the ever-present Cheyenne.
One of the Comanche rivals were the Caddoan people in New Mexico. The Comanche and Caddoan fought repeatedly until 1746, when the French succeeded in making a peace alliance between them. After that, the comanche and Caddoan were generally war allies.
As the Comanche moved further into Oklahoma, they began fighting the Kiowa. In 1790, the two tribes held a council, and made a peace agreement that has never been broken by either tribe since then.
The Osages had fought many battles against other tribes to hold their land. They were considered by many to be one of the most warlike tribes in all North America. Nuttall, an early explorer of their region, said that scarcely any Indian nation had encountered more enemies than the Osages. He reported that as late as 1818 they still flattered themselves by saying they were seated in the middle of the world, and that although surrounded by enemies, they had maintained their usual population and their domain.
There were reportedly 17 Osage villages in 1680, according to Hennepin and 17 or 18 villages in 1770, according to Coxe. Ashe, another explorer of their region stated that in 1805 they could still muster a thousand warriors.
For a description of the savage Osages, as they were sometimes called, let us examine the reports of the early explorers who observed them in their native state before European influences. Morse reported them to be of, "remarkable height, not many being less than six feet high, and of fine figure. Some would have been perfect models for a sculptor." "They are in appearance," says Jones, "as noble a race of people as I have ever seen." "Well formed, athletic and robust men of noble aspect," were the words of Audubon. "The Osages," says Bradbury, "are so tall and robust as to almost warrant the appellation of the term gigantic. Few of them appear to be under six feet, and many are above it. Their shoulders and visages are broad which tend to strengthen the idea of their being giants." "The activity and agility of the Osages is scarcely credible," says Nuttall. Instances of deformity were rare among them.