My husband is from Austin. We both went to the University of Texas. Austin holds family and friends and we visit there often. The question is how to make that tedious five hour trip from Paris more interesting. I discovered the answer in a recently released book on the Comanche Indians called Empire of the Summer Moon by S.C. Gwynne.
Interstate 35 from San Antonio through Austin, Waco, and into Dallas is a kind of fault line, separating East Texas with its rain and forests from the scrub and dry plains of north and west Texas. This division also marked the frontier edge of Comanche territory. To the east, sedentary tribes farmed and hunted for game. Nacogdoches was a Caddo Indian village when the Europeans arrived.
On the west side of I-35, the Comanches lived off millions of buffalo who provided food, clothes, tools, and warmth in the winter. At its height, 20,000 members of the various bands of the tribe rode over 240,000 square miles through Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, and Oklahoma to trade and to fight. The Comanches muscled out the Apaches and other Plains tribes and traded with nearby tribes on their own terms.
Driving south on I-35, one encounters Waco, named after the Huaco tribe who had inhabited the area for hundreds of years. At the Waco village, the tribe had 400 acres under cultivation and grew corn, beans, pumpkins, melons, and peach trees. Modern day Waco was built on the Mexican land grant that surrounded the old Waco village site. These tribes feared the Comanches as much as early settlers and also tried to avoid them.
The Spaniards never resolved how to conquer the fast moving Indians on their well-trained mustangs who loved to steel horses in Mexico and Texas. Standing to shoot didn’t work as a Comanche could fling twenty arrows in the time it took one gun slinger to reload. The war parties attacked at night and would vanish if they encountered resistance. Their purpose was to keep settlers and Friars out of their hunting territory. Spanish expeditions simply avoided the vast middle area of Texas and parts north.
But then Texas opened up to settlers with offers of free land. East Texas filled up first. When the Parker family from Illinois arrived in 1833, they constructed a fort 30 miles east of Waco, past the then edge of settlements. On May 19, 1836, Comanches literally rode up to this personal fort and started killing and taking hostages, including the most famous of all, Cynthia Ann Parker. Take the Highway 164 exit at Waco, and you can visit a replica of this fort in Groesbeck, Texas. Cynthia Parker later married Pete Nacona, an Indian chief. Her son, Quanah Parker, was the one and only chief of all the Comanches bands. After her “rescue” many years later, she reluctantly lived in the Tyler area with Parker relatives until her death.
Much of the fighting over the years happened on either side of our highway. In 1749, priests were killed in a raid on the San Saba mission, near Menard,. In 1840, a leader, Buffalo Hump, brought 400 warriors down the Balcones Escaprment, along the spring-fed waters of San Marcos in Hays County, on his way to a raid near Victoria, Texas. Curiously, Hays County is named after John Coffey Hays, who was a savvy Indian hunter and one of the first Texas Rangers.
The last connection to this story on our trip is actually our own Lamar County, named after Mirabeau Lamar, president of the Republic of Texas from 1838-1841. He followed Sam Houston whom he considered soft on the Indians. Houston believed in negotiations and wouldn’t authorize frontier forts. Mirabeau was pro-slavery and felt all Indians should be expunged or killed – “extinction or expulsion”- i.e. no right to any land. He managed to get rid of the peaceful tribes of East Texas and moved them to Indian Territory or Oklahoma but the Comanches lived on for another 30 years.
The book is well worth reading and fills in the details of the Cynthia Ann and Quanah Parker story as well as life with the Comanches. For the next trip to Austin, I will wonder what it would be like to scan the horizon for a Comanche raid from the west. It’s certainly more romantic than watching out for a highway patrol.