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"The Battle of Plum Creek"

Bois d'ark wood with resin inlay from Kelly Springs battle site

The greatest battle that Texas had with a combined force of Comanches and Kiowa Indians was the battle of Plum Creek, following what was known as "The Great Raid of 1840."  

And although the Indians greatly outnumbered the Texans, the battle was a crushing defeat for them.

Any trust between the Texans and Indians totally collapsed following the loss of twelve of their war chiefs and many warriors in San Antonio during what became known as the "Council House Fight."  It had started out as a peace mission to negotiate the return of all captured women and children.  But only 16 year old Matilda Lockhart and several mexican children were brought in.  The chiefs told the Texas commisioners that any other captured whites were being held by different tribes that they had no control over, but Matilda Lockhart, who had been physically abused by the Indians, discreetly told the captain that they were holding the other captives back in their camp and were going to attempt to ransom them one at a time.  With this news, the captain told the Chiefs that they, and all of the warriors and squaws with them, would be held there under guard until the other captives were brought in.  This quickly turned into a fight inside the council house, which spilled out into the streets of San Antonio, and ending with the death of seven texans, and over thirty-five Indians.

San Fernando Cathedral in the Main Plaza in San Antonio.  The council house is the small building on the right.

Over the next few months, the Indians began making plans for retaliation.  About five to six hundred infuriated Comanches and Kiowa from combined tribes were led by Chief Buffalo Hump, well armed and mounted on their best horses they moved down out of west Texas, carefully avoiding the settlements in the Guadalupe valley. 

Chief Buffalo Hump

At the time of the “Great Comanche Raid," it was late summer and the August days were hot, dry, and harsh.  The vast open spaces of Texas were thinly dotted with farms, small towns and settlements, and was still very much a raw frontier.  Here the people were conscious each day of living in close proximity to an Indian-Mexican frontier. The entire male population was armed, and experienced horsemen.  A boy got his first gun and learned to shoot it accurately at the age of six or seven. For all their small numbers, the tiny companies of Minute Men and Rangers were not made up of soft-handed clerks or humble farmers, they were frontiersmen who had been accustomed to violence most of their lives. Their leaders were almost never rich or professional people, but rather that cool, grim, hardened men who had grown up along the frontier, who reacted calmly and purposefully to violent emergencies.

Buffalo Hump rode by the rising moon, and his tactics were flawless. He penetrated the borderlands undetected with hundreds of Comanches, and was deep into southeast Texas before their trail was discovered.

Great Comanche Raid Warriors Gather in Comancheria

The Baptist preacher Rev. Z.N. Morrell was travelling over to Bastrop in a wagon when he came across the beaten path made by hundreds of unshod horses.  He quickly returned to La Grange and told Captain Ed Burleson what he’d seen.  The sight of this beaten path also raised an alarm in the town of Gonzales, some sixty miles southeast of San Antonio.  The experienced Ranger Captain Ben McCulloch read the sign perfectly.  Grimly, McCulloch sent riders in all directions to cry the alarm and to call out the militias.  He estimated that they were already two days behind them.

Ben McCulloch

Edward Burleson

Meanwhile, the Comanches had reached Victoria, taking the settlement completely by surprise.  While many of its citizens stayed behind cover, the Comanches attacked the town and killed fifteen others.  Buffalo Hump directed warriors to ride up the streets, attacking and setting fire to houses.  The men of Victoria had now positioned themselves up on the roofs and in second story windows and opened fire on the attackers. The warriors quickly retreated, but in the process, drove off many mules and horses with them.

Leaving the shaken town behind, the Comanches poured across the Guadalupe River and down Peach Creek. The warriors left a path of destruction to the sea, surrounding houses, killing surprised settlers, and setting fire to homes and barns.  This was an Indian raid such as no living Texan had ever experienced. It was like Santa Anna's march four years earlier, leaving smoldering desolation in its trail.

Ben McCulloch's messengers were now riding far and wide, warning the scattered homesteads, and gathering up armed men from the towns. But until they organized together, McCulloch had no choice but to move slowly and carefully in the Comanches wake.  Other Ranger parties were doing the same as well.

The Comanches were sweeping rapidly toward Lavaca Bay on the Gulf.  They were now nearing tiny port town of Linnville, a small settlement on the bay that served as a port for San Antonio and the surrounding region.  At Nine Mile Point, his riders seized Mrs. Crosby who was travelling in a buggy with her baby.  Mrs. Crosby was the granddaughter of Daniel Boone, the great Kentucky frontiersman. They threw her over a horse and took her and her baby captive.  They later killed her baby when it began crying.

As they neared the town, the warriors hung over onto the sides of their horses, concealing themselves.  To the residents of Linnville, it looked like a typical arrival of Mexican traders bringing in some horses.  Once into town, they rose up and the attack started.  Five men were immediately killed, including Mrs. Crosby’s husband Cyrus. As the mayhem and screaming broke out, some residents ran to the shoreline and began wading out into the bay and scrambling into boats to try to get out of the reach of danger.  Major Watts, the customs collector and his young bride were frantically wading out together hand in hand towards one of the boats when he was killed by a warrior, who then caught Mrs. Watts and dragged her back onto shore.  Along with Mrs. Watts, a black woman and her young daughter were also taken as captives. 

Out in one of the small boats, Judge John Hays became so angry watching the ransacking and destruction of Linnville, that he jumped out and waded ashore waving an old muzzle-loading shotgun above his head, bravely challenging the galloping warriors.  The Comanches, thinking the man must be crazy, or "bad medicine," for facing them as he did, simply rode around him and acted as if he didn’t exist.  When the Judge finally gave up and waded back out to his boat, he was shocked when he realized that he had never loaded the shotgun. 

John Linn

The Comanches found John Linn's warehouse, which was packed with goods awaiting shipment to San Antonio.  Bolts of red cloth, boxes of fashionable stovepipe hats, umbrellas, and assorted ladies' finery. The warriors outfitted themselves in what they'd found and presented a ludicrous sight. The naked warriors dressed themselves in the stolen clothing, with tall top hats and fancy frock coats with tails.  But they had them on backwards with the buttons going up their backs.  They spread the calico over their horses, and tied hundreds of yards of brightly colored ribbons into their horses' manes and tails, and a few were carrying fancy ladies parasols opened for the shade.   

"Comanche Spoilers"  By Howard Terpning

Ben McCulloch’s Rangers had caught up to Buffalo Hump's rear scouting parties, but many of his men had been riding for days and were exhausted.  He realized that the Comanches would have to cross "Big Prairie" near Plum Creek, which is a small tributary of the San Marcos River.  Ben directed a small group his most exhausted riders to continue following and, if possible, harass the rear of the Comanche column. He then rode for the settlements higher on the Colorado, short-cutting the enemy. Dusty messengers raced across the coastal prairies, alerting men in every bottom, ordering every able-bodied man to muster at Plum Creek.

"Big Foot" Wallace

Gen. Felix Huston

One by one the tiny companies came in from the brushy bottoms along Plum Creek.  They were led by a score of hard-bitten Captains.  John Tumlinson, Matthew Caldwell, John Moore, Edward Burleson, William “Gotch” Hardeman, and William "Big Foot" Wallace.  All men who had previously faced Comanches along the Colorado frontier.

The Texas Army of the Bastrop militia arrived, and Brigadier General Felix Huston set up his headquarters.  As the ranking regular officer, he took command of all Rangers, militias, and volunteers.

McCulloch's original party from Gonzales stayed close on the Comanches' heels and continued to fire on it. The Texans' horses died one by one as they were ridden out, but the group maintained so much pressure on the Comanches that some of the loot loaded pack mules began tiring badly as well. They started passing mules shot on the trail, and then the trail began to be strewn with abandoned loot, chests of ribbon, and bolts of calico.

But the Comanches still clung to the bulk of their loot and the large number of horses in the center of their column. They slowly approached “Big Prairie”, a few miles from the site of present day Lockhart, trailed by a large dust cloud.  Some of the Comanche warriors had dispersed to guard and manage the difficult horses and drive the tiring mules, and other warriors were scattered throughout the column with the herd. Only a handful were stationed as outriders along the flanks.

The site of the main battle- Kelly Springs at Plum Creek

In a short four years, the Texas Ranger captains had become experts. They had anticipated the Comanches' moves.  Now, almost casually, they prepared for the battle.

The captains dismounted their men along the tree lines and rested them in the shade while the Comanche horde moved in their direction. They checked the men’s weapons, making the volunteers discard useless items.   As the dust cloud of the approaching column got nearer, the captains stood the troops and their horses and led them at a walk out onto “Big Prairie.” They formed two long parallel lines that enclosed and converged upon the oncoming Comanches.  General Huston was technically in command, but the real command lay with Burleson, Caldwell, and the Ranger officers who rode at the head of their troops.

The Comanche outriders wheeled and pranced, engaging in mounted acrobatics, shouting out their prowess, performing feats of horsemanship possible only to those raised on horseback. To the Texan volunteers, there was a strange grotesqueness to the warrior’s appearance and actions. They trailed long red ribbons from their horses' tails. Some carried opened umbrellas, contrasting weirdly and ridiculously with their fierce, horned headdresses.  The Captains, however, weren’t distracted by the sight. They were calculating the enemy’s actions.

"Battle of Plum Creek"  By Lee Herring

Matthew Caldwell

 Matthew Caldwell, who was known as "Old Paint" from his grizzled beard and mottled complexion, knew that the enemy was deliberately putting on a show hoping to delay the battle until after the mule train and horse herd had passed. Caldwell, as well as Burleson and McCulloch, knew the time to strike was now, and they called out to Huston to order a charge.  But General Huston continued to wait, and watched as a tall Chief in a feather headdress rode out and yelled insults, daring the white men to single combat.

Caldwell, unimpressed by savage chivalry told one of his men to shoot him. A long rifle cracked and the warrior tumbled from his horse.  At the sight of this, the Indians let out a loud wail as other warriors ran out to retrieve the Chiefs body.

“This is not the way to fight Indians!” Caldwell yelled over to Huston. ""Now, General!  Charge 'em!"

Huston gave the order and the Texas horsemen emptied their rifles at the Comanche throng.  Then, themselves shrieking like warriors, spurred their horses towards the flanks of the long column. They struck down the few skirmishers on the flanks and crashed into the main body. The great horse herd and mules were stampeded and plunged forward out of control. The mule train ran into a spot of marshy ground, tired an overloaded they piled up and were unable to go any farther, and then the huge mass of horses crashed into them.

Individual warriors could not maneuver their horses out of the mass.  A few warriors escaped by leaping across the backs of the bogged-down horses and running for the nearby creek bottom.  

The Comanches scattered and fled in all directions. Some warriors did put up a desperate fight, but the heart had suddenly gone out of them. Hardeman's horse was speared, and several Rangers were severely wounded, but as the fight became a pursuit the Texans had the upper hand.

The captives were now a burden to the Comanches, who wanted to move fast, and they quickly began killing the prisoners that they had tied to horses, shooting them with arrows.  Mrs. Crosby jumped from the horse she was on a ran for the trees, but a warrior rode up on her and shot two arrows that went "clean through her."

Mrs. Watts was knocked from her horse and a warrior shot an arrow at her breast, but the whalebone corset she was wearing stopped it from going through her.

The account of Ranger Robert Hall.  

Robert was wounded in the lower leg and fell from his horse into the prairie grass.  He was able to get up in time to shoot an Indian off his horse just as he was about to lance another Ranger.  

  While Robert was scrambling about trying to staunch the blood that was flowing from his leg, he came across a very large black woman hiding in the grass along with her terrified child.  They had been taken hostage along with others from Linnville.  She cried out, "Bless God!" when she saw that Robert was a Texan, and not an Indian.  

Moving along together through the grass a bit farther, they found the body of Mrs. Crosby, another hostage.  There were two arrows protruding from her body that had passed completely through her, and she was gasping her last breathes as they knelt next to her.  The Indians were trying to kill their hostages and be rid of them.  
 

Another Ranger named Isham Good had now joined them as they kept moving across the prairie, and soon they came across Mrs. Watts lying in the grass.  Her arms were very sunburned, and an arrow had been shot at her breast, but her whalebone corset saved her life.  It had entered her body, but the steel bands in her corset had slowed the arrow such that it didn't penetrate past her breastbone.  Robert and Isham quickly fastened a pocket knife onto the arrow and were able to pull it out.  

Hall said that, "She possessed great fortitude, for she never flinched, though we could hear the breastbone crack when the arrow came out."

She turned over on her side and some blood flowed out, but she soon recovered.  Mrs. Watts' started describing how her husband had been killed as the Indians sacked Linnville, and she was taken away with them.  In one of the boxes that they had stolen were some books, and while in camp at night, they would gather around Mrs. Watts and ask her to explain the pictures and to read to them.  

Grasping onto Robert's arm, she began asking about Mrs. Crosby and if she had been rescued.  He told her that they had found her, but that she couldn't be saved.  Mrs. Watts was so distraught upon learning that she had been killed.  Through her tears she told them how the Indians had whipped the poor woman because she couldn't read.

 

Hall said that it was a mystery to why the Indians became so demoralized in this battle, being that it was fought on an open prairie, and they could easily see that they greatly outnumbered the Texans.  He thought that they would try to make a stand.  The warriors flourished their white shields, and the young chiefs galloped about the field with the colorful ribbons streaming from their hats and floating in the air, exhibiting great bravado.  Some of them raced their horses very close to the Texans, and two or three of them lost their lives in this display of valor.  The Texas finally let out a loud yell and charged the Indians.  They held their fire until they got very close to the Indians, who were then panic stricken and fled across the prairie. The Texans followed them for fifteen to twenty miles putting an end to their colorful day.

Other Texans immediately went to work capturing what was left of the Indian pack train.  The mules were loaded with household furniture, wearing apparel, and general merchandise.  There were five hundred of these pack mules. The government had just received a supply of stores at Linnville, and the Indians had captured these.

 

Although they still got away with a number of mules and horses, it was because they were driving some many animals that made it hard for them to quickly escape this battle as they normally could.  

 

During the battle of Plum Creek, a number of Indian woman and children were captured, and around eighty Indians lost their lives.  The Texans had one man killed and seven wounded.  

 

The town of Linnville never recovered, and many of its residents moved to Port Lavaca, which was being established a little over three miles to the southwest.

Paraphrased and edited from online content from the following sites;

Council House Fight- Texas State Historical Association
Battle of Plum Creek - Wikipedia
The Council House - Wikipedia
Battle of Plum Creek - Texas A&M University
The Battle of Plum Creek- Lone Star Junction
The Great Comanche Raid and the Battle of Plum Creek by Jeffery Robenalt

Comanches, The Destruction of a People, by T.R. Fehrenbach:

Indian Depredations in Texas- J.W. Wilbarger

Modern wet plate photography by Tom Cavness