Comanches not easy pickings for buffalo hunters

Acting like the Paul Revere of the Texas Panhandle, Pat Garrett rode from camp to camp on Feb. 22, 1877 warning fellow buffalo hunters, “The Comanches are coming!  The Comanches are coming!”

That, of course, was not altogether true.  The Indians had been in the vicinity for weeks but posed no real danger to white hunters with sense enough to keep their distance.

The Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867 set aside the so-called “Staked Plains,” much of western Oklahoma and all of the Texas Panhandle, as a buffalo preserve for the tribes whose very existence depended upon the shaggy herds.  But the pact proved impossible to enforce, and the federal government, which wanted the Indians penned up instead of running free, only went through the motions.

Even though Texans considered hunting an inalienable right, many were soon sickened by the senseless slaughter of the bison herds.  A bill was introduced in the state legislature to protect the buffalo from the butchers that killed the beasts for their hides and probably would have passed had not a famous general added his two cents’ worth.

In a speech to Lone Star lawmakers, Philip Sheridan argued that the buffalo hunter was doing God’s work by “destroying the Indians’ commissary.  For the sake of a lasting peace, let them kill, skin and sell until the buffaloes are exterminated.  Then your prairies can be covered with speckled cattle and the festive cowboy.”         

Sheridan changed enough minds to defeat the wildlife conservation bill.  The bison bloodbath continued and, just as he predicted, the red nomads were forced to give up their way of life and relocate to the Indian Territory.

When government food rations did not arrive on time in December 1876, Comanche chief Black Horse refused to stand by and watch his people starve.  He led 170 warriors and their families off the reservation and into the Texas Panhandle, where they camped for the winter in a secluded canyon.

Although no specific incident provoked Pat Garrett’s ride, anxious hunters heeded his advice to head for Charlie Rath’s place in present-day Stonewall County.  By Feb. 23, three hundred had gathered at the trading post on the Double Mountain Fork of the Brazos River.

Everyone was accounted for except Marshall Seole, a popular Englishman, and his two skinners.  A search party went looking for the missing men and returned a day later with Seole’s mutilated remains and one of his helpers, who gave an eyewitness account of his boss’ demise at the hands of the Comanches.

Ever since hearing about the Little Bighorn massacre eight months earlier, the buffalo hunters had been itching for the chance to avenge Custer and the Seventh Cavalry.  It made no difference that it had been the Sioux and Cheyenne that wiped out the soldiers.  Any Indian would do in a pinch.

From dozens of enthusiastic volunteers, 45 were picked for the punitive expedition.  Practically all had fought in the Civil War, several were veterans of the Indian Wars and every man jack of them was a crack shot with the Sharps buffalo gun.

Command was given to Big Hank Campbell, and he chose Limpy Jim Smith, Rath’s bartender, and Joe Freed as his lieutenants.  With 30 on horseback and 15 on foot, they left the trading post at first light on Feb. 26.

On the fourth or fifth day, a scout sighted the canyon stronghold of the Comanches.  He did not bother to take a head count nor did Campbell ask for an estimate.  The 28 buffalo hunters and a woman, who held off 700 Indians at Adobe Walls, had proved the size of the enemy did not matter one bit.

After a good night’s sleep two miles from the Comanche camp, Campbell divided his tiny force into three groups for the attack.  Limpy Jim would strike first with half of the cavalry and scatter the Indians’ ponies.  Then Campbell would lead a merciless mopping-up operation with the other 15 riders and the infantry.

Limpy Jim and his comrades never reached the village.  Alerted by loud Rebel yells, the Comanches grabbed their rifles and stopped the hunters in their tracks.

The retreating first wave ran headlong into the second.  Unprepared for the stiff resistance, Campbell ordered everyone to fall back to the draw where they had spent the night.

The 100 Comanches the overconfident buffalo hunters had expected turned out to be 300 that were quickly joined by a large war party of Mescalero Apaches.  Instead of another Adobe Walls, it was starting to look like a second Little Bighorn.

That all but one of the buffalo hunters lived to tell about the foolhardy adventure was due to their ability to keep the Indians at bay with long-distance firepower. Unwilling to waste lives and precious resources in such an insignificant skirmish, the Comanches and their Apache allies simply withdrew and moved on to happier hunting grounds.

Bartee’s three books and ten “Best of This Week in Texas History” column collections are available for purchase at barteehaile.com. 

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