Excerpt of The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan
(Page 3 of 9)
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The tribe had an agreement signed by the president of the United
States and ratified by Congress, the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867, which
promised the Comanche, Kiowa, Kiowa-Apache, and other tribes hunting
rights to much of the Great American Desert, the area south of the Arkansas
River. At the time, there was no more disparaged piece of ground in the coast-
to-coast vision of manifest destiny. The nesters and sodbusters pouring into
the postCivil War West could have the wetter parts of the plains, east of the
one-hundredth meridian and beyond the Texas Caprock Escarpment. To the
Indians would go the land that nobody wanted: the arid grasslands in the
west. Early on, Comanchero traders called the heart of this area "el Llano
Estacado" the Staked Plains. It got its name because it was so flat and
featureless that people drove stakes into the ground to provide guidance;
otherwise, a person could get lost in the eternity of flat. The Staked Plains
were reserved for the natives who hunted bison.
At the treaty signing, Ten Bears tried to explain why Indians could
love the High Plains.
"I was born upon the prairie where the wind blew free, and there was nothing
to break the light of the sun. I was born where there were no enclosures, and
where everything drew free breath. I want to die there, and not within walls . .
. The white man has taken the country we loved and we only wish to wander on the
prairie until we die."
Within a few years of the signing, Anglo hunters invaded the treaty
land. They killed bison by the millions, stockpiling hides and horns for a
lucrative trade back east. Seven million pounds of bison tongues were
shipped out of Dodge City, Kansas, in a single two-year period, 18721873, a
time when one government agent estimated the killing at twenty-five million.
Bones, bleaching in the sun in great piles at railroad terminals, were used for
fertilizer, selling for up to ten dollars a ton. Among the gluttons for killing
a professional buffalo hunter named Tom Nixon, who said he had once killed
120 animals in forty minutes.
Texans ignored the Medicine Lodge Treaty outright, saying Texas
land belonged to Texans, dating to the days of the Republic, and could not
be offered up as part of the American public domain. With the bison
diminishing, the Indians went after Anglo stock herds. Led by Quanah Parker
and other leaders, the Comanche also attacked the trading post at Adobe
Walls, just north of the Canadian River. Parker was regal-looking and
charismatic, with soft features that made him appear almost feminine. His
first name meant Sweet Smell, which is believed to have come from his
mother, a Texan kidnapped at age nine and raised as a Comanche. She
married into the tribe and raised three children, including Sweet Smell. After
Cynthia Parker had lived twenty-four years as an Indian, the Texas Rangers
kidnapped her back and killed her husband, Chief Peta Nocona. She begged
to be returned to the Indians, but the Rangers would not let her go home.
The Red River War of 18741875 broke the Comanche. In one
battle, in Palo Duro Canyon, six Army columns descended on an Indian
encampment, catching them by surprise. The natives fled. The Army
slaughtered 1,048 horses, leaving the Lords of the Plains without their
mounts for the remainder of the war. On foot and starving, they were no
match for General Philip Sheridan and his industrial-age weaponry. The
natives were sent to various camps in the Indian Territory of Oklahoma, and
some of their leaders were imprisoned in Florida. In his later years, Sweet
Smell married seven women and built a large house. He founded a native
religion based on vision quests through the hallucinogens peyote and
mescal, a practice the Supreme Court ultimately upheld as a protected form
of worship. The last bison were killed within five years after the Comanche
Nation was routed and moved off the Llano Estacado. Just a few years
earlier, there had been bison herds that covered fifty square miles. Bison
were the Indians' commissary, and the remnants of the great southern herd
had been run off the ground, every one of them, as a way to ensure that no
Indian would ever wander the Texas Panhandle.
Copyright © 2005 by Timothy Egan. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.