Published on February 25, 2013 by Carol
The Antelope Hills Expedition was a campaign from January 1858 to May 1858 by the Texas Rangers and members of other allied native American tribes against Comanche and Kiowa villages in the Comancheria. It began in western Texas and ending in a series of fights with the Comanche tribe on May 12, 1858 at a place called Antelope Hills by Little Robe Creek, a tributary of the Canadian River in what is now Oklahoma. The hills are also called the “South Canadians,” as they surround the Canadian River. The fighting on May 12, 1858 is often called the Battle of Little Robe Creek.
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The years 1856 to 1858 on the Texas Frontier were particularly vicious and bloody as the settlers continued to encroach into the Comancheria. They plowed under valuable hunting grounds, and the Comanche lost grazing land for their herds of horses. In addition, the United States had done a great deal to block the Comanche’s traditional raids into Mexico. Finally, the Comanches struck back with a series of ferocious and bloody raids against the settlers.
The Army proved wholly unable to stem the violence. Not only were units being transferred, but federal law and numerous treaties barred the Army from attacking Indians in the Indian Territories. Although many Indians, such as the Cherokee, were trying to farm and live as settlers, the Comanche and Kiowa continued to live in that part of the Indian Territories which was traditionally the Comancheria, while raiding into Texas.
As the American Civil War drew closer, federal forces were moved about even more and the 2nd Cavalry was transferred from Texas to Utah. (Eventually the US Army disbanded the 2nd Cavalry as it fell apart when the War began in 1860). The loss of federal troops led Governor Hardin R. Runnels in 1858 to reestablish disbanded battalions of Texas Rangers. Thus, on January 27, 1858, Governor Runnels appointed John Salmon “Rip” Ford, a veteran Ranger of the Mexican-American War and frontier Indian fighter, as captain and commander of the Ranger, Militia, and Allied Indian Forces, and ordered him to carry the battle to the Comanches in the heart of the Comancheria.
Ford, whose habit of signing the casualty reports with the initials “RIP” for “Rest In Peace,” was known as a ferocious and no-nonsense Indian fighter. Commonly missing from the history books was his proclivity for ordering the wholesale slaughter of any Indian, man or woman, he could find. Governor Runnels issued very explicit orders to Ford, “I impress upon you the necessity of action and energy. Follow any trail and all trails of hostile or suspected hostile Indians you may discover and if possible, overtake and chastise them if unfriendly. Ford then raised a force of approximately 100 Texas Rangers and State Militia. Realizing that even with repeating rifles, buffalo guns, and Colt revolvers, he needed additional men, he set out to recruit ones he did not have to pay, as he did his Rangers and Militia.
Among the traditional enemies of the Comanche were the Tonkawa Indians, then living on a reservation on the Brazos River, in Texas. The books that immortalize and praise the Tonkawa as friends and allies of the settlers generally downplay the fact the Tonkawa were cannibals, who the Comanche and virtually every other Indian tribe despised and loathed. Ford, however, had no reservations about using cannibals to help him, as long as they were eating Comanches, not Rangers.
On March 19, 1858, Ford went to the Brazos Reservation, near what today is the city of Fort Worth, Texas, to recruit the Tonkawa to join him. An Indian Agent, Captain L. S. Ross, father of the future Governor of Texas, Lawrence Sullivan Ross, called Chief Placido of the Tonkawa to a war council where Ross stirred Placido’s anger against their mutual enemy. He succeeded in recruiting 120 or so Native Americans in this campaign, 111 of whom were Tonkawa under Chief Placido, hailed as the “faithful and implicitly trusted friend of the whites”, the others being Anadarko and Shawnee. They joined with approximately an equal number of Texas Rangers to move against the Comanches. Ford’s orders from Governor Runnels were to follow any and all trails of hostile and suspected hostile Indians, inflict the most severe punishment, (kill them and their families, destroy their homes and food supplies) and to allow no interference from “any source”. (“Any source” meant the United States, whose Army and Indian Agents might try to enforce federal treaties and federal law against trespassing on the Indian territories in Oklahoma)