THE COMANCHE WAR TRAIL
- AN AVENUE TO GLORY, A TUNNEL OF DEMONS -
Copyright (c) Jay Sharp
Glenwood Gazette hardcopy publish date: September 2010
The Comanche War Trail, 1000 miles in length, ran across the short grass prairie of the eastern High Plains Region, through the Monahans Sands, the basin and range country of Texas' Trans Pecos Region, and more than four hundred miles deep into northeastern Mexico's Chihuahuan Desert. The trail served as an avenue to glory, plunder and adventure for the Comanches, who, with the Kiowas, had driven the Apaches from Texas' High Plains and Rolling Plains during the first half of the eighteenth century. It became a tunnel of demons for the ranchos, haciendas, villages and towns of northeastern Mexico.
The main trunk of the trail began in the Texas Panhandle, near the headwaters of the North Fork of Red River. It ran generally south for 250 miles along the eastern escarpment of Texas' Caprock Plateau, or Llano Estacado, over the High Plains prairie, across the canyons, to Mustang Springs. It swung southwest for 60 miles through the southernmost High Plains to Willow Springs, located in the midst of the arid Southern Plains' Monahans Sands. It turned southeast for 50 miles past Castle Mountain on the eastern horizon and to the Horsehead Crossing at the Pecos River. It veered southwest again for 30 miles to Comanche Springs. From there, it ran 8 miles due west to Leon Springs then turned south nearly 60 miles to the head of San Francisco Creek. It continued south for 80 more miles, through Persimmon Gap, past Bone Springs, east of Big Bend's Chisos Mountains, to the Rio Grande and "The Grand Indian Crossing" just south of the range.
The Comanche War Trail, like something alive, grew branches and tendrils, and it crossed and overlay other pathways along its length. For example, branches extended upward from the head of the trail to the Arkansas River in southwestern Kansas, the northernmost reaches of Comanche country. A major branch ran from Sulfur Springs Draw, about 50 miles north of Mustang Springs, up to the Wichita Mountains in southwestern Oklahoma. Another branch ran from Horsehead Crossing on the Pecos River eastward through Castle Gap then north to Big Spring about 30 miles northeast of Mustang Springs. ("...a fine spring of water" Randolph B. Marcy called Big Spring in 1849, "...and there are remains of lodges in every direction.") Yet another branch forked off at San Francisco Creek and headed southwest along Terlingua Creek to cross the Rio Grande into Mexico at Lajitas. Raiders might join or leave the trail to plunder anywhere along its main trunk or along its branches. Once in Mexico, the trail fanned out into a network of pathways to the settlements, all potential victims of Comanche raids.
The Comanches, who called themselves "The People," left their Shoshonean ethnic relatives and their traditional homeland between the Yellowstone and Platt Rivers sometime around 1700. The People struck southeastward in bands, probably intermittently, cemented, not by political unity, but rather by common language and cultural roots.
They invaded Texas' High Plains and Rolling Plains, ranges for the Athabascan-speaking people who would become known as the Apaches. The People drove the Apaches out, to the south and west, and they carved out an empire that extended from the Arkansas River in southwestern Kansas southward to the Edwards Plateau region of Texas, from the Pecos River in New Mexico eastward to the Western Cross Timbers of Texas' Oak Woods and Prairie Region.
In 1790, the Comanches hammered out an alliance with the Kiowas, a much smaller tribe migrating southward from the Northern Plains, and the two peoples not only shared the range and fought common enemies, they kept the peace between themselves into modern times. Together, they grew so powerful that they discouraged American settlement of the Southern Plains until the last quarter of the nineteenth century.
About Jay Sharp
Looking back on my life, I realize that I've never known what I wanted to be when I grow up. (Still don't.) As a consequence, I could never hold a steady job.
Raised in a small and isolated farm and ranch community in the Rolling Plains of north Texas, I went off to University of Texas at Austin ("The University," we called it, just to irritate the Texas Aggies) in 1954, and I graduated (with supremely ordinary grades) in 1958 with a BA degree in Arts and Science, with a major in English and minors (as best I can recall) in math, history and Spanish.
After Martha (an extraordinarily tolerant woman) and I married in 1959, we lived - while having two sons - in eight different cities in 15 different apartments or houses while I worked at 15 or 16 different staff or contract jobs for 10 or 11 different organizations. I worked in city government, heavy industry, the defense industry, the manned space flight industry, the maritime industry and the natural gas industry. I spent considerable time on assignments across the United States and in Scandinavia, Western Europe, Algeria and various other places. (My wife and I have also traveled a good deal in the U. K., France, Spain and Mexico.)
Among a lot of other things I've done over the course of my working career, I have written some 250 documentary motion pictures, including an outdoor television series that ran in 111 markets over three years. I have sold probably 250 articles and numerous photographs to regional and national print and Internet magazines. I edited a regional popular magazine and a couple of scholarly journals. I did a book called Texas Unexplained for Texas Parks & Wildlife.
Always more comfortable behind a camera than in front of one, I can only offer here one of the few pictures that exist of me. It speaks vividly to my sophisticated upbringing.
From the crucible of war, the Comanches staked out a new homeland, and from the back of the horse, they forged a new culture. They emerged from the millennia-old cocoon of hunting, foraging and scavenging on foot, and they unfolded new cultural wings in the form of the Spanish pony. To the thunder of hooves, they wove raiding and warfare, merciless vengeance, the audacious coup, the buffalo hunt, restless movement, the horse drawn travois, the teepee lodge, into a new cultural and religious tapestry. They became a tribe of the Plains.While the trail helped channel their history and sculpt their character, the horse defined the Comanche soul. The Comanche and his horse seemed more centaur - the half man, half horse of Greek mythology - than two separate beings.
George Catlin, the artist and ethnologist who traveled with the U. S. military through Comanche country in 1835, said, "The Camanchees are in stature, rather low, and in person, often approaching to corpulency. In their movements, they are heavy and ungraceful...but the moment they mount their horses, they seem at once metamorphosed and surprise the spectator with the ease and elegance of their movements. A Camanchee on his feet is out of his element...but the moment he lays his hand upon his horse, his face, even, becomes handsome, and he gracefully flies away like a different being."
Catlin said that, as a tactic in warfare, the Comanche "lies in a horizontal position behind the body of his horse, with his heel hanging over the horse's back; by which he has the power of throwing himself up again, and changing to the other side of the horse if necessary. In this wonderful condition, he will hang whilst his horse is at the fullest speed, carrying with him his bow and his shield, and also his long lance of fourteen feet in length, all or either of which he will wield upon his enemy as he passes; rising and throwing his arrows over the horse's back, or with equal ease and equal success under the horse's neck."
The Comanche warrior measured his wealth by the size of his horse herd.
The People measured the Comanche warrior's stature by his daring and success in battle.
GOING AWAY TONIGHT
The Comanches took to the trail to raid and make war for fame, treasure and just sheer excitement. Battle lay at the core of the Comanche warrior's psyche much like sports lie at the center of the professional athlete's psyche. Success, especially spectacular success branded with flair and courage, translated into recognition, fortune, thrills and winter campfire tales. The basic difference between the Comanche warrior and the professional athlete is that the Comanche bet his life on the outcome of the contest.
A Comanche raid usually began in the mystical realm of a leader's vision or dream, a supernatural experience or sign which foretold success in battle.
Armed with supernatural power, or "medicine," the leader called tribal elders and his comrades to his lodge to eat and discuss a raid. He passed a sacred pipe. Those who smoked would join the raid. Those who refused, would not.
The leader then painted his face black, signifying death for enemies. He dressed in his war regalia, including - if warranted by his stature in the tribe - a horned or, perhaps, a feathered headdress. From within his lodge, he began to drum and sing. His committed followers, themselves now dressed for war, soon joined him. They hung their buffalo hide and feather bedecked shields, sacred to the Comanche warrior, on lances outside their lodges to absorb the magical power of the sun.
When night approached, they mounted their ponies. Painted and dressed for war, they paraded through the village, singing the songs of battle. Often, the entire village joined in the songfest.
Once full darkness fell, the raiding party began its War Dance, which encircled a fire. The villagers surrounded the dancing warriors, joining in the singing, electrified by the beat of drums.
They sang of battle...and of love:
Going away tonight,
Be gone a long time.
While I'm gone,
I'll be thinking of you.
Deep in the night, one by one, the warriors drifted away from the dance. Each said his good-byes. He collected his bow and arrows, his lance, his shield, ceremonial paints, extra clothing, a buffalo robe, a lariat and emergency rations (usually dried buffalo meat and mesquite bean meal). He mounted a favorite horse for the ride. He gathered others as spares. He moved to a designated rendezvous point.
For the larger forays -- like the annual raids into Mexico in the month of September during the middle of the nineteenth century -- women often accompanied the raiders on the trail. They packed camp equipment, buffalo paunch water bags, bedding and lodges and lodge poles on travois pulled by horses. They would tend to the arms and see to the sacred shields, which must never touch the ground. They might even join the fighting.
Sunrise found the party on the trail.
ON THE TRAIL
The People traveled the Comanche War Trail throughout the year, sometimes in parties of hundreds of warriors and women, to raid across the Mexican states of Chihuahua, Durango, Coahuila, Nueva Leon and Zacatecas.
Usually vested with the medicine of his vision or dream, the leader held absolute power. He determined the targets of the raid, set the strategies for attacks and retreats, selected sites for camping or rest, assigned warriors to scouting and sentry duty, and divided the plunder.
The leader, like any military commander, expected his party to obey him without question, although a warrior could leave the raiding party at any time, without shame, should he lose faith in the mission or his medicine.
On the trail, which the raiders usually traveled by day, the leader assigned scouts to ride in advance of the party by some miles, keeping watch for enemies, campsites, game or problems. In camp, he assigned sentinels to keep watch from strategic locations.
The party marched in a ragged column, with the travois plowing furrows through the soil, the spare horses leaving a blanket of hoof prints.
Typically, on the trail, a warrior wore a cloth or buckskin breechclout; close fitting buckskin leggings which reached from the foot to the hip; and heavily fringed buckskin moccasins with heavy buffalo hide soles. He carried a three- to four-foot-long bow and the arrows, a lance, and his sacred war shield. A woman wore a buckskin dress with a two-piece skirt and a poncho-like blouse, which were laced together with buckskin thongs. She wore elaborately beaded moccasins and leggings. Both the warriors and the women carried buffalo robes for protection from foul weather.
The raiders, who carried little food, lived primarily from the hunt – the buffalo, deer or antelope they killed along the trail. From a fresh buffalo carcass, they ate raw brains, leg bone marrow, liver and kidneys. They drank fresh blood. If they cooked the meat, they impaled it with sticks and roasted it over hot coals. Depending on the season, they also ate grapes, plums, prickly pear cactus fruit, juniper berries and numerous other plant foods. Sometimes, when a hunt and the land failed, the raiders went hungry. They often went thirsty.
In camp at night, the leader and his warriors smoked the sacred pipe. He and the most experienced raiders discussed strategies, trail routes, the upcoming jornadas (a Spanish word, jornada means “a day’s journey”), and possible retreat tactics. They drew maps on the ground to show the plains, canyons, basins, ranges, rivers and springs. They taught the inexperienced warriors about the topographic details of the country. Sometimes they sang and danced, imploring their deities to give them courage and wisdom.
September meant terror in northeastern Mexico. September, more than any other month, meant Comanches. September meant the scourge of large raiding parties who had spilled out of the war trail, across the Rio Grande crossings from Texas, to strike out of darkness like mala gente, bad spirits from the underworld. It was on the nights of September, just after the moon had shone full, that the people of northeastern Mexico braced for attack. They barricaded their communities and their homes. They penned and tethered their livestock. They gathered their women and children. They cleaned and oiled their firearms. They posted extra guards. They dispatched sentinels to keep watch on the Comanche War Trail. They lived in a sea of fear. The Mexicans called September's full moon, a herald of potential attack, the "Comanche Moon," a season laden with a sense of coming death and loss. On the nights in September just after the moon had shone full, The People prepared to attack. The warriors had come to Mexico to make their mark in battle. They had come to Mexico to take horses and captives. They dressed in their war regalia. They painted their faces and chests with black designs. They painted their horses with black designs. They strung their bows and readied their lances. Poised for the strike, they thrilled to the moment of danger.