Council House Fight
|Council House Fight|
|Part of the Indian Wars|
The Plaza and the Council House in San Antonio
|Texas Rangers, Militia||Comanche|
|Commanders and leaders|
Captain George Thomas Howard
Mathew Caldwell W
|Approximately 100||33 chiefs and warriors, and 32 family members and/or retainers|
|Casualties and losses|
|7 killed & 10 wounded, most from friendly fire||35 killed
29 caught and imprisoned
The Council House Fight was a conflict between Republic of Texas officials and a Comanche peace delegation which took place in San Antonio, Texas, on March 19, 1840. The meeting took place under a truce with the purpose of negotiating peace after two years of war. The Comanches sought to obtain recognition of the boundaries of the Comancheria, their homeland. The Texians wanted the release of Texian and Mexican captives held by the Comanches. The event ended with 12 Comanche leaders shot to death in the Council House, 23 shot in the streets of San Antonio, and 30 taken captive. The incident ended the chance for peace and led to years of hostility and war.
On January 9, 1840, a small group of influential Comanches visited Colonel Henry Wax Karnes in San Antonio, Texas and presented the possibilities of negotiating a peace treaty in exchange for the return of Texas settlers who were being held as captives.
Texas officials, with the exception of Sam Houston, did not understand that the Comanche were not a unified nation in the sense of a nation like Mexico or the United States. There were at least 12 divisions of the Comanche, with as many as 35 independent roaming bands, also known as rancherías or villages. Although bound together in various ways, both cultural and political, the bands were under no formalized unified authority.
The absence of a central authority meant that one band could not make another band return their captives. Chiefs Buffalo Hump and Peta Nocona never agreed to return any captives. Among the Comanches, captives were often incorporated into the society and adopted into families. The Comanche made little distinction between people born Comanche and those adopted. The Comanche practice of taking captives dated back to at least the early 18th century and raids into Spanish New Mexico. Women and children were preferred, and in a significant number of cases young captives grew up as Comanches and did not wish to leave.
In 1840, after several years of war and a major smallpox epidemic, the Comanche sued for peace and sent emissaries seeking peace talks. They returned a white boy as a show of sincerity. Texian officials pressured them to return all white captives and invited the principal chiefs to visit. In March, Muguara, a powerful eastern Comanche chief, led 65 Comanches, including women and children, to San Antonio for peace talks. They only brought one captive and Albert Sidney Johnston, the Texas Secretary of War, had ordered San Antonio officials to take the Comanche delegates as hostages if they failed to deliver all captives. Therefore the Comanches were taken to the local jail. Muguara refused to deliver more captives on the grounds that they were held in the rancherías of other chiefs over which he had no authority.
The delegation had hoped to negotiate a recognition of the Comancheria as the sovereign land of the Comanche. Other chiefs, such as Buffalo Hump, warned that the whites could not be trusted.
The Comanche arrived in San Antonio on March 19. Expecting a council of peace, the 12 chiefs brought women and children as well as warriors. They were dressed in finery with their faces painted. The Comanche chiefs at the meeting had brought along one white captive, and several Mexican children who had been captured separately. The white captive was Matilda Lockhart, a 16-year-old girl who had been held prisoner for over a year and a half. Mary Maverick, who helped care for the girl, wrote almost sixty years after the event that Matilda Lockhart had been beaten, raped and had suffered burns to her body. Allegedly, her face was severely disfigured, with her nose entirely burned away, a detail which has been commonly included in Texas history descriptions of the incident since the 1890s. Reports of abuse are, however, conspicuously missing in primary documents authored by eyewitnesses immediately after the event. Neither Col. Hugh McLeod mentioned any abuse in his report of March 20, 1840 (commenting on the intelligence of the girl but nothing like a missing nose) nor any other Texas officials at the time nor Matilda Lockhart's own sister-in-law, who was in San Antonio, in a letter written to her own mother shortly after the release. Anderson writes: "While published in the 1890s, this description has been used by historians to claim that the massacre came about as a result of the justifiable rage of Texas men. Yet none of the Texas officials claimed this to be the case at the time; evidence of abuse is conspiciously missing in the primary documents. Maverick may have exaggerated Lockhart's condition because of the growing criticims of Texas in the American and European Press. The most significant source on Matilda's condition is a brief statement made in a letter by her sister-in-law, Catherine Lockhart, who was in San Antonio. Catherine describes Matilda's release but says nothing of abuse.". Asked about the more than a dozen abducted whites expected to be available for release, Matilda informed the Texians that she knew only about a Mrs. Webster and her two children (who, unknown to her, had just made their escape) and that the Comanche chiefs had decided to ransom them. The Texians believed this was against the conditions for the negotiations which they believed stated that all abducted whites had to be released before the council. The Comanche of course had a different view, since the Chiefs and Bands not in attendance were under no obligation to release anyone, as they had never agreed to anything.
The talks were held at the council house, a one-story stone building adjoining the jail on the corner of Main Plaza and Calabosa (Market) Street. During the council, the Comanche warriors sat on the floor, as was their custom, while the Texans sat on chairs on a platform facing them. Lockhart had informed them that she had seen 15 other prisoners at the Comanche's principal camp several days before. She maintained that the Indians had wanted to see how high a price they could get for her, and that they then planned to bring in the remaining captives one at a time.
The Texians demanded to know where the other captives were. The Penateka spokesman, Chief Muguara, responded that the other prisoners were held by differing bands of Comanche. He assured the Texians that he felt the other captives would be able to be ransomed, but it would be in exchange for a great deal of supplies, including ammunition and blankets. He then finished his speech with the comment "how do you like that answer?" The Texian militia entered the courtroom and positioned themselves at intervals on the walls. When the Comanches would not, or could not, promise to return all captives immediately, the Texas officials said that chiefs would be held hostage until the white captives were released.
The interpreter warned the Texian officials that if he delivered that message the Comanches would attempt to escape by fighting. He was instructed to relay the warning and left the room as soon as he finished translating. After learning that they were being held hostage the Comanches attempted to fight their way out of the room using arrows and knives. The Texian soldiers opened fire at point-blank range, killing both Indians and whites. The Comanche women and children waiting outdoors began firing their arrows after hearing the commotion inside. At least one Texian spectator was killed. When a small number of warriors managed to leave the council house, all of the Comanche began to flee. The soldiers who followed again opened fire, killing and wounding both Comanche and Texians.
Armed citizens joined the battle, but, claiming they could not always differentiate between warriors and women and children, since all of the Comanche were fighting, shot at all the Comanche. According to Anderson such "confusion" between Native American men and women was convenient to the Texians, who used it as an excuse to kill women and children. The Texians most likely were responding to seeing the horrible torture that Matilda Lockhart had endured (burns over most of her body, her nose completely burned off, she had been raped) and the Comanche "children" referenced were actually fighting and killed some Texians. As combatants it was fair that the Texians fought back. The Texians were not "confused". According to the report by Col. Hugh McLeod, written March 20, 1840, of the 65 members of the Comanches' party, 35 were killed (30 adult males, 3 women, and 2 children), 29 were taken prisoner (27 women and children, and 2 old men), and 1 departed unobserved (described as a renegade Mexican). Seven Texians died, including a judge, sheriff, and an army lieutenant, with ten more wounded.
A German surgeon surnamed Weidman helped to treat the citizens who had been wounded in the fight. Weidman was also a naturalist and had been assigned by the czar of Russia to make scientific observations about Texas and its inhabitants. Two days after the battle, San Antonio residents discovered that Weidman had decided to take the heads and bodies of two Indians to Russia. To obtain the skeletons, he had boiled the bodies in water, and dumped the resulting liquid into the San Antonio drinking water supply.
The day after the fight, a single Comanche woman was released to return to her camp and report that the Comanche prisoners would be released if the Comanche released the 15 Americans and several Mexicans who were known to be captives. They were given 12 days to return the captives. On March 26, a white woman, Mrs. John Webster, came into town with her three-year-old. She had been a Comanche captive for 19 months and had just escaped, leaving her 12-year-old son with the Indians. Two days later, a band of Indians returned to San Antonio. Leaving the bulk of the warriors outside the city, Chief Isanaica (Howling Wolf) and one other man rode into San Antonio and yelled insults. The citizens told him to go find the soldiers if he wanted a fight, but the garrison commander, Captain Redd declared that he had to observe the 12-day truce. Redd invited the Indians to come back in three days, but, fearing a trap, Isanaica and his men left the area. Another officer accused Redd of cowardice for refusing to fight, and they both died following a duel over the insult.
Of the 16 hostages the Texians were determined to recover, 13 were tortured to death as soon as the news of the Council House Fight reached the outraged Comanches. The captives, including Matilda Lockhart's 6 year old sister, suffered slow roasting among other tortures. Only the 3 captives who had been adopted into the tribe, and by Comanche custom were truly part of the tribe, were spared. This was part of the Comanche answer to the breaking of a truce.
On April 3, when the truce deadline had ended, another band of Comanches appeared again to bargain for a captive exchange. They had only three captives with them, including Webster's son Booker, a five-year-old girl, and a Mexican boy. Booker told them that the other captives had been tortured and killed when the Comanche woman had returned to camp with news of the Council House Fight. These three captives were returned after their adoptive families agreed to give them up.
The Comanche captives were moved from the city jail to the San Jose Mission, then to Camp Cooke at the head of the San Antonio River. Several were taken into people's homes to live and work, but ran away as soon as they could. Eventually, all of the Texians' Comanche captives escaped.
Contemporary newspaper account
The Texas Sentinel of March 24, 1840, gives an account of "a recent battle with the Comanches at San Antonio":
|“||On the 19th March, a body of 65 Indians arrived at that place bringing Miss Lockhart, a little girl, take(n) by them a year and a half since from the Gandaloupe(Guadalupe) for the purpose of holding a council with the agents of our government. Miss Lockhart stated that she had seen all the other prisoners at their camp a few days before she left. Col. W. G. Cooke, acting Secretary of War, being present, thought it proper to take hostages for the safe return of the prisoners and Col.Fisher was ordered to march two companies and place them in the immediate vicinity of the council room. After some parleying in relation to the prisoners, one company (w)as ordered to march into the room and the other to the rear of the building where the warriors were assembled. The Chiefs were then told that they were prisoners and would not be liberated until they restored their white prisoners. One sprang to the back door and attempted to pass the sentinel who presented his musket when the Indian drew his knife and stabbed him. A general rush was then made for the doors. Captain Howard caught one by the collar and received a severe stab. He then ordered the sentinel to shoot the Indian which was instantly done. They all then drew their knives and bows for battle and the whole twelve Chiefs were immediately shot.
In the meantime Capt. Reed's company was attacked by the warriors in the rear of the yard who fought with desperation. The Indians were driven into the stone houses from which they kept up a galling fire with their bows and rifles. Whenever their arrows struck, it was with such force that they penetrated to the feather. A small number succeeded in gaining the opposite side of the river but Col. Wells pursued them with a party of mounted men and killed all with the exception of a renegade Mexican. A single warrior took refuge in a stone house, refusing every offer of life sent him through the squaws and after killing several of our men, the building was fired at night and he was shot as he passed the door.
The whole number of warriors, excepting the Mexicans, amounting to 35, were killed besides two women and three children. Our loss was 7 killed, Lieut. W. M. Dunnington, privates Kammiski and Whitney, Judge Thompson of Houston, Judge Hood of Bexa(r)s, Mr. Cayce of Matagorda and a Mexican. Wounded, Capt. G. T. Howard, lst infantry, Mathew Caldwell, 1st infantry, Lieut. E. A.Thompson, private Kelley, Company 1, Judge Robinson, Mr. Higginbotham, Mr. Morgan and Mr. Carson, total wounded 8, Howard, Thompson and Kelley, very severely. At the request of the prisoners, a squaw was liberated and well mounted, to go to the main tribe and request an exchange of prisoners. She promised to return in four days with our captive friends and Cols. Cooks and McLeod will wait her return.
We learn from Mr. Durkee who arrived from Austin this evening that Col. Burleson has been called upon to organize an expedition forthwith to operate against the Comanches. He will raise one company on the Colorado and at Austin and take with him the company which left Houston a short time since under Capt. Pierce and a body of Tonkwa Indians.
The Comanche were shocked and disgusted by the actions of the Texans. In his book Los Comanches, historian Stanley Noyes notes that a " violation of a council represented an almost unthinkable degree of perfidy. The council was sacred not only to the [Comanche] People but to all Native Americans". In response to the unforgivable insult, the captives the Texians sought were killed, and then Buffalo Hump launched the Great Raid of 1840, leading hundreds of Comanche warriors on raids against many Texian villages. The Texians had endured several years of native American murder and capture of their children and were disgusted at the condition of Matilda Lockhart At least 25 settlers were killed in the Great Raid, with others taken prisoner, including a Mrs. Crosby, a granddaughter of Daniel Boone, who was later murdered by her captors. Hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of goods were taken; one city was burned to the ground and another damaged. The Texian militia responded, leading to the Battle of Plum Creek, but were unable to stop the raids.
the Comanche found their match with the Texas Rangers. Brilliantly portrayed in the Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove books, the Rangers began to be recruited in 1823, specifically to fight the Comanche and their allies. They were a tough guerilla force, as merciless as their Comanche opponents.
They also respected them. As one of McMurtry’s Ranger characters wryly tells a man who claims to have seen a thousand-strong band of Comanche: ‘If there’d ever been a thousand Comanche in a band they’d have taken Washington DC.”
The Texas Rangers often fared badly against their enemy until they learned how to fight like them, and until they were given the new Colt revolver.
During the Civil War, when the Rangers left to fight for the Confederacy, the Comanche rolled back the American frontier and white settlements by 100 miles.
Even after the Rangers came back and the U.S. Army joined the campaigns against Comanche raiders, Texas lost an average of 200 settlers a year until the Red River War of 1874, where the full might of the Army — and the destruction of great buffalo herds on which they depended — ended Commanche depredations. 
The Comanche, rather amazingly, become one of the most economically successful and best assimilated tribes.
As a result, the main Comanche reservation was closed in 1901, and Comanche soldiers served in the U.S. Army with distinction in the World Wars. Even today they are among the most prosperous native Americans, with a reputation for education. 
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