By Ashley Kath-Bilsky
While writing and doing research for 'Spirit of the Wind', the second book of the Windswept Texas Romance Series, a great deal of time has been spent learning about the Comanche. Spirit of the Wind is the story of Ethan Blake (brother to Jordan Blake, featured in my best-selling time travel romance, Whisper in the Wind).
As the reader learns in Whisper in the Wind, Ethan was captured as a young boy by the Comanche after they raided and destroyed his family's home, stole prized breeding horses, and murdered his parents. The not-knowing what happened to his older brother haunted Jordan Blake his entire life, enough so that he became a Texas Ranger and Pinkerton detective to try and find Ethan. Unfortunately, he never did. It begged the question, "What happened to Ethan?"
In order to tell Ethan's story, I needed to gain accurate historical insight into the culture and thought process of the Comanche, as well as what effect growing up in their environment would have on Ethan Blake, emotionally, physically, and psychologically. Because of his young age, would Ethan adapt and willingly be adopted by the Comanche? Quite possibly, as was the case with Cynthia Ann Parker, the 19th century version of the "Stockholm Syndrome" could come into play whereby Ethan eventually became sympathetic to his captors and grew to love them. Or, would hatred and contempt burn inside his belly and drive him toward revenge? What I've discovered is not only how much I love this character, but the compelling complexities of his relationship with the Comanche and how (in good and bad ways) they shaped the man he would become.
Since Ethan's captivity began in April 1861 and the last of the free Comanche surrendered to military authorities at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in June, 1875, fourteen years of this character's life would be spent living with the Comanche. In essence, if done correctly, Ethan's story would be an eye-witness account (albeit in a work of fiction) to how the Comanche lived on the Southern Plains. Because of this, I wanted to address their history as accurately as possible.
First, although we frequently use the word 'tribe' when talking about Indians, the Comanche were not actually considered a 'tribe', but called themselves "The People". As a people, they were organized into individual bands. The names for some of these bands include Antelope, Wanderer, Buffalo-eaters, Yap-eaters, etc. Because they were hunter-gatherers, they were nomadic and lived in tee-pees, thereby enabling them to break up their camp and move to better hunting grounds when needed. Like their Kiowa allies, the Comanche usually camped near a running stream by open timber.
Much has been written about the fierce, ruthless raids by the Comanche against Spanish, Mexican, and white settlers, so I won't go into much detail here. Suffice to say that for 150 years they ruled the Southern Plains, which began in Nebraska and extended down to Texas. Once part of the Shoshone, the Comanche broke away from them and moved south. To get a foothold on the Southern Plains and claim new territory, they became skillful warriors and attacked anyone in the area (red or white).Among the Indians they attacked with relentless vigor were the Navajo, Pueblo and Apache. In 1838, they attacked the Pueblo in Santa Fe so badly that the 'handful of survivors' abandoned their village. As early as 1744, they attacked towns and ranches on the Rio Grande frontier, killing anyone who tried to defend themselves whilst stealing thousands of horses, mules, cattle, and (at that time) predominately Mexican children. This practice became their modus operandi. Without doubt, they had zero tolerance for anyone who settled on the land they ruled, but more often than not a primary motivation for their raids was stealing horses.
George Catlin [pictured] (1796-1872), author, extensive traveler, and American painter who specialized in paintings of Native Americans in the American West, described the Comanche as follows: "In their movements they are heavy and ungraceful; and on their feet one of the most unattractive and slovenly-looking races of Indians I have ever seen; but the moment they mount their horses; they seem at once metamorphosed, and surprise the spectator with the ease and grace of their movements."
The Comanche were, without question, the legendary master horsemen of the American West. They had horses when they migrated to the Southern Plains, using them to raid New Mexico in 1705. In a relatively short period of time, through capture and primarily horse-stealing raids from the Texans and Mexicans, during the first half of the 19th century, the Comanche became the richest Indians of the American West. Horses were the most valuable property a Comanche could own, enabling him to hunt the buffalo, go long distances to raid, fight in battle, and barter for trade.
Each Comanche warrior had a 'favorite' horse and set that horse above the total number of his herd. Often given a personal name, the 'favorite' was kept close to the tee-pee, while the rest of the herd grazed elsewhere. A Comanche named Post Oak Jim further elaborated on the importance of a 'favorite' horse by saying, "Some men loved their favorite horses more than they loved their wives.” Should someone kill a man's 'favorite' horse, it was considered the same as murder, and the owner could seek retaliation by killing people in revenge. In fact, it was customary to kill a warrior's personal riding horses on his grave when he died; however, the 'favorite' was often bequeathed to a friend.
A prized horse among the Comanche was the Mustang, and wild herds of them roamed free across the Southern Plains. In addition to being small, agile and fast, the Mustang had amazing eyesight and such an alert intelligence they signaled danger before their rider knew it existed. The Comanche had several techniques for capturing wild Mustangs. They might drive them into a specially built corral that had only one exit. With high stockade-type walls made of blackjack posts, brush and tree limbs were assembled so high and thick on the outside of the walls that the horses could not see through or jump over them. Another method (and one I shudder to mention) was called 'creasing'. Done only by an expert marksman, a shot would be fired through the muscle part of the horse's neck above the vertebrae. If the marksman hit the exact spot, the horse dropped to the ground temporarily paralyzed for 2-3 minutes, This enabled the Comanche to rope and tie the Mustang before it recovered. Research on this particular method said that once the wound healed, the horse had no lingering affects whatsoever. A much kinder means of capture occurred after a stallion drove young males from their herd, The Comanche would, in turn, entice and capture these young males by using gentle, older mares as a lure.
Of course, catching the wild horses was one thing. Training them was another matter and involved a great deal of effort and skill. A method used to break particularly strong-willed wild horses was to establish dominance over the animal. The Comanche warrior would choke the wild horse into exhaustion, pull it to the ground, and assert their dominance over the animal by blowing their breath into the horse's nostrils. Needless to say, although the Comanche loved the challenge of capturing a wild Mustang, they preferred stealing. Although they did do raids for no other purpose than to destroy their enemy and take their scalps, more often than not they wanted horses and other plunder. Ironically, despite how hard it was to capture and tame a wild Mustang, stealing horses was more prestigious for the Comanche because it also involved fighting an enemy as well as skill.
Comanche horses were never shod. However, if a man’s ‘favorite horse’ was tender footed, he would be fitted with a rawhide boot soaked in water and tied over the sore hoofs. Meanwhile, other riding horses were “walked back and forth near the heat and smoke of a fire” to toughen their hoofs.
To further illustrate how much the Comanche loved and valued horses, a onetime captive of the Comanche reported that despite having an extremely limited vocabulary they had developed words to describe different horses. A brown horse was dupsik’uma, a reddish brown horse was ekakoma, and a black horse was du uk’uma. They had words for every color imaginable, and their horse vocabulary went beyond just the color of the animal's body. For example, although a yellow horse was called ohaesi, a yellow horse with a black mane and tail was called dunnia.
Much as they valued each horse they owned, a Comanche warrior would never ride a mare, especially into battle. Mares were for children and women. The ability to ride a horse was important to every Comanche, and each person (including children) had their own horse. The first thing a Comanche child learned to do was ride. As infants they were strapped to their mother's back while she rode. Once able to walk, they were tied onto their mother's horse. Both boys and girls were taught to ride without a saddle, and girls also rode astride. By the age of four or five, they stopped using ponies and were given older, gentle mares. Understandably, it was essential for a Comanche boy to be a skilled rider and they underwent rigorous training from an early age. Each young boy was required to do daily drills that might be expected of a trick rider. One such drill included the young boy picking up objects off the ground while riding his mount at full speed. Small, light objects were initially used. Eventually, as the boy became older and stronger, the size and weight of the object increased until, if needed, he could pick up a heavy body on the ground and swing it across his horse. This ability was of great importance to the Comanche because it was considered a sacred duty to rescue any fallen warrior and not leave their body behind to be mutilated and desecrated by the enemy. As a result, every Comanche warrior was expected to be trained to perform this duty.
In battle, a Comanche warrior used his mount like a shield. Imagine the sight of a Comanche speeding toward its enemy, shooting arrows from beneath their horse's neck and having nothing but a leg hooked over the backbone of his mount. The key to performing this heart-stopping ability started in those daily drills as a boy. The warrior would use a loop of rope braided into his horse’s mane. He would then slip the loop over his head and under his outside arm, affording him the freedom to cling to the side of his horse and have both hands free for shooting or picking up heavy objects while also riding at incredible speed.
The details of the Comanche knowledge about and relationship to the horse is amazing. They were experts at breeding horses and, contrary to how some of their methods sound today, took great care of their animals. During the 19th century, T.A. Dodge of the United States Army once wrote that the Comanche "knows more about horses and horse breeding than any other Indian”. Dodge added the Comanche also was “far less cruel to his beasts, and though he begins to use them as yearlings, the ponies often last through many years.”
Although the Comanche were one of the most violent group of Indians in the American West, terrorizing, capturing, and killing countless pioneers as well as other Indian tribes, their tyranny over the Southern Plains finally ended in 1875. With their prized horses either captured or destroyed, the buffalo on the road to possible extinction, and their tee-pees burned, the last small band of a starving people surrendered at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. What happened after that is another story, but what cannot be denied is their remarkable reputation of superb nomadic horsemanship that was, ironically, copied by others including the United States Army and the Texas Rangers.
In closing, to substantiate the physical description earlier provided by artist George Catlin, a German scientist and world traveler named Baldwin Mollhausen visited the Southern plains in 1853. Here is his eye-witness account of the Comanche: “Indeed, he makes an awkward figure enough on foot, though he is no sooner mounted than he is transformed; and when with no other aid than that of the rein and heavy whip, he makes his horse perform the most incredible feats.”
Thanks for taking the time to visit today and allowing me to share some of what I have learned about the Comanche doing research for my upcoming book, Spirit of the Wind. ~ AKB
The Comanche: Lords of the South Plains – by Ernest Wallace and E. Adamson Hoebel;
University of Oklahoma Press (1952, 1986)
Los Comanches: The Horse People, 1751-1845 - by Stanley Noyes
University of New Mexico Press (1994)
Empire of the Summer Moon - by SC Gwynne
Simon & Schuster, Inc, (2010)