Excerpt from The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Worst Hard Time

The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl

by Timothy Egan

The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan
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  • First Published:
    Dec 2005, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2006, 352 pages

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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 post–Civil 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, 1872–1873, 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 was 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 1874–1875 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.  

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