Comanche War Trail
Comanche and Kiowa Raiding Parties
When fall came, the cloud of fear always present darkened; and towns, villages, haciendas and ranchos of the Mexican state of Chihuahua sent riders northward through the desert, across the Rio Grande and into Texas’ Big Bend area. The riders ascended to mountain lookout sites above river fords. They set up small camps. They gathered wood for signal fires. They waited. They watched.
They knew that Comanche and Kiowa raiding parties would come soon, like schools of barracuda on the hunt, following the infamous Comanche War Trail from Texas’ High Plains into Chihuahua’s desert lands to steal livestock, plunder homes, kidnap children and young women, kill and scalp men and older women, and win battle glories and honor. When the raiding parties appeared on the trail, the Mexican sentinels would torch their wood piles to raise signal fires and smoke columns to warn of the coming danger, the human thunder from the north. The word rippled from north to south across Chihuahua. Frantic settlements would post guards, gather arms, shelter families, secure homes, and pen and tether livestock.
Comanche and Kiowa warriors favored the fall for raiding in Mexico. Fierce summer heat had abated. Southwest winds had calmed. Grazing remained plentiful and nutritious. Wild plums, berries, cactus fruit and other plant foods had ripened. Buffalo and other game had fattened.
Raiding parties followed tributaries from southwestern Kansas, western Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle to the Comanche War Trail’s main trunk, which ran south along the eastern escarpment of Texas’ Caprock Plateau, the High Plains.
It turned southwest, across the southern end of the Great Plains to the Monahans sand dune field and its sequestered Willow Springs, the area which marked the northeastern margin of the Chihuahuan Desert. "…it seems," said a chronicler, Brad C. Fowler in 1853, "that nothing but sand is to be seen, until winding through a circuitous route you can see the tops of the Lone Willow: there is that pure beverage God gave to man…what a blessing and comfort."
From Willow Springs, the trail led fifty miles south southeast to the Pecos River’s Horsehead Crossing, in an area as "hot and dry as Yuma," said folklorist J. Frank Dobie, "…infested with rattlesnakes… the Pecos country was tough."
From Horsehead Crossing, the trail ran thirty miles southwest to Comanche Springs (now Fort Stockton, Texas) and eight miles west to Leon Springs. Comanche Springs, said early trail breaker Captain Whiting, emerged from the desert floor as "a clear gush of water…unperceived until the traveler is immediately upon it." Leon Springs, said another traveler, consisted of "two bodies of water welling up from the bosom of the earth…"
From Leon Springs, the Comanche War Trail turned south for nearly one hundred and fifty miles across the desert, through the heart of Texas’ Big Bend country, past San Francisco Creek, Persimmon Gap, Bone Springs and the Chisos Mountains. It forded the Rio Grande at the Grand Indian Crossing, a major Comanche and Kiowa gateway to Mexico.
As they crossed the desert, the raiders rode over rocky slopes covered with creosote and over flats populated by mesquite, prickly pear cactus and yucca. They passed east of the Chisos Mountains and could see the pinon pine and juniper growing on the lower slopes and ponderosa pine and Douglas fir growing on the highest peaks.
After fording the four-foot deep Rio Grande at Grand Indian Crossing, which river explorer John Love described as "very wide, well beaten…[resembling] a much traveled thoroughfare…," the war parties branched off, some pushing hundreds of miles south or west to raid the Mexican settlements.
Comanche and Kiowa warriors, the progeny of warring peoples with warring traditions, raided for treasure, captives and fame. A leader, with dreams of plunder and glory rising from a vision, summoned followers to a raid, which began with ceremony, ritual, chants and dance.
As he prepared his weapons and horses to leave, a Comanche warrior sang:
Going away tonight
Be gone a long time.
While I’m gone,
I’ll be thinking of you.
On the trail, a leader commanded unquestioning obedience of his followers. He set marching orders, assigned scouting and sentinel duties, chose camp sites, selected raid objectives, developed and directed attack strategies and divided plunder. He would win glory in conquest or suffer humiliation in defeat.
Typical raiding parties ran from as few as three or four warriors to as many as dozens of warriors. The larger parties often took women, who tended camps and gear, and apprentice warriors, who served the full warriors and learned the profession. A warrior, wearing buckskin breechclout, leggings and moccasins, carried a three- to four-foot long bow, perhaps two dozen arrows, a ten- to twelve-foot long lance, and a sacred two- to two and one-half-foot diameter war shield. If lucky, he carried a rifle or a pistol.
By a campfire on the trail at night, a lonesome Kiowa warrior sang:
O you warriors, you have loved ones
Longing for you, longing for you;
Rich are ye.
O you warriors, you have maidens
Longing for you; none have I…
Those Comanche and Kiowa raiders who sang of loneliness and love as they traveled the Comanche War Trail down through the plains, across the Big Bend and into Mexico would fall on their victims with wild ferociousness.
Often, attacks came with stunning suddenness, an eruption of violence just at dawn. At one moment, a Mexican settlement’s all-night guards nodded with sleepiness; herdsmen fed horses, mules and cattle within protective pens; women stoked breakfast fires in their kitchens; and children still slept in their beds. The next moment, the Mexicans fought or ran or begged for their lives. In a swirl of nightmarish images, they saw elaborately painted, howling Comanche or Kiowa warriors, wearing lavish feathered headdresses, lance and scalp men and women, snatch up children, grab possessions, stampede livestock and disappear into the desert, having, in a matter of minutes, changed lives forever.
George Ruxton, an English adventurer who traveled across the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts in the fall during the mid-nineteenth century, said: "Upwards of ten thousand head of horses and mules have already been carried off, and scarcely has a hacienda or rancho on the frontier been unvisited, and everywhere the people have been killed or captured. The roads are impassable, all traffic is stopped, and ranchos barricaded, and the inhabitants afraid to venture out of their doors. …intelligence is brought in daily of massacres and harryings."
Ruxton told of an attack on a small settlement south of Ciudad Chihuahua: "This rancho, in the fall of last year, was visited by the Comanches, who killed several of the unfortunate peones, whom they caught in the road and at work in the milpas, and carried off all the stock… On the spot where the rancheros were killed and scalped, crosses are erected, and the little piles of stones, which almost bury [the crosses], testify to the numerous Ave Marias and Pater Nosters which their friends have uttered when passing…"
In the aftermath of a raid, the warriors returned to a base camp. They divided and cached livestock, captives and plunder. They tended their wounded. They recounted their experiences during the raid. They searched for other raiding opportunities.
Finally, they could feel the songs of the trail intruding into their thoughts:
Going away tonight
Be gone a long time…
They remembered families:
O you warriors, you have loved ones
Longing for you, longing for you…
They decided to go home. They headed north, toward the Rio Grande and the Comanche War Trail, their avenue back to the plains. They rode hard, driving herds of stolen livestock, expecting pursuit by Mexican militia, feeling the call of home, leaving behind dead or dying animals and sometimes dead or dying captives. Finally, they came to the Grand Indian Crossing.
Fording the river, they drove north, rejoining the Comanche War Trail, past the Chisos Mountains on their left, back past Bone Springs, Persimmon Gap, San Francisco Creek. They pushed eastward, to Comanche Springs, where they watered their animals. They ran hard, thirty miles east across the open, dry desert, to Horsehead Crossing on the Pecos River "the Pecos country was tough" and their animals plunged into the water to slake a terrible thirst or they died on the river banks of heat stroke. The litter of horse skulls gave the ford its name. Finally, the raiders left the Chihuahuan Desert behind, returning to the grassy oceans they called home.
Over years of incessant raiding, said the Mexicans, the Comanches and Kiowas took many hundreds of children and young women captive. They stole hundreds of thousands of horses and mules, driving them north up the Comanche War Trail. They, with the equally rapacious Mescalero and Chiricahua Apaches, terrorized and impoverished a region which lay so remote from Mexico City that the capital could offer little protection.
The raiders, their fortunes swollen with livestock, plunder and captives, their reputation burnished by warfare, came home to celebration. The Comanche villages raised a scalp pole. Men painted themselves red, women, black. They lit a great fire as darkness fell. The rumble of drums surged across the grassy plain. Warriors and women danced and sang deep into the night. Kiowa villages staged similar celebrations.
The Mexicans, meanwhile, erected crosses and piled stones around them to commemorate their dead, and they cursed the Comanche War Trail, that conduit for thunder from the north.
Text and Photos by Jay W. Sharp
Dobie, J. F. The Mustangs. New York, Bramhall House, 1952.
England, N. "Coronado in Texas." Texas Highways. December, 1997.
Haley, J. E. "The Great Comanche War Trail." Panhandle-Plains Historical Review, Volume XXIII, 1950.
Horgan, P. Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History. Texas Monthly Press, 1984.
Mayhall, M. P. The Kiowas. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1989.
Mooney, J. "Calendar History of the Kiowa Indians." Seventeenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, 1895-96.
Newcomb, Jr., W. W. The Indians of Texas from Prehistoric to Modern Times. Austin, University of Texas Press, 1965.
Ruxton, G. F. Adventures in Mexico and The Rocky Mountains. Glorieta, New Mexico, The Rio Grande Press, 1973.
Wallace, E. and Hoebel, E. A. The Comanches: Lords of the South Plains. Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1969.
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