Published on February 24, 2013 by Amy
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.
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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.
Settlers in Texas had suffered horrible depredations at the hands of these Indians including having their children’s brains bashed out, their wives and daughters repeatedly raped and then tortured to death. They had reached the end of their patience.
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. According to witnesses, including Mary Maverick, who helped care for the girl, she had been beaten, raped and suffered burns to her body. Her face was severely disfigured, with her nose entirely burned away. Matilda informed the Texians that more than a dozen abducted whites were available for release 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 Texians 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. However Gary Anderson declares in his book The Conquest Of Texas: Ethnic Cleansing In The Promised Land, 1820-1875 that 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, etc)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 Russian 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.
The Comanche were shocked and disgusted by the actions of the Texians. In his book Los Comanches, historian Stanley Noyes notes that a ” violation of a council represented an almost unthinkable degree of perfidy. 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.