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  • Texas | Columns | "Charley Eckhardt's Texas"

    Robin Hood of the Tonkawa

    by C. F. Eckhardt
    The original teller of this story, John C. Jacobs, told it in Pioneer magazine in the teens of the last century. It was later reprinted by J. Marvin Hunter in the original Frontier Times. Jacobs never gave the man’s name. He called him, simply, ‘Robin Hood.’

    He was a man of considerable refinement when he came to Fort Griffin Flat in the buffalo days. Jacobs describes him as a ‘Chesterfield.’ Long before that was a brand of cigarettes, Lord Chesterfield of Britain was considered the ultimate in personal refinement. He was a paragon of manners and behavior, as was the man Jacobs calls ‘Robin Hood.’

    Unlike many easterners who came to the Flat, stayed a few days or weeks, then left, Robin Hood took to frontier life as though born to it. The harder life got on the frontier, the better he liked it. When the Comanches or Kiowas raided, he was the first in the saddle in pursuit. Jacobs says “…he never knew when to quit.” That’s extremely high praise from a man who grew up on the frontier.

    He was a pharmacist by profession. He opened a drug store in the Flat. Jacobs records a barbecue held there. There were no chairs, so the ladies were seated on boxes. ‘Robin Hood’ pulled out the boxes and seated the ladies, much to the astonishment of both the ladies and the hardened frontiersmen at the gathering. No one had ever done that before.

    He was fascinated by the Tonkawa camp near the Flat. He began spending time there. He apparently fell head over heels in love with a young Tonkawa girl whose name Jacobs gives as ‘Kitty Gray.’ His infatuation with her was so strong that he all but abandoned his drugstore. If you needed drugs or ‘notions,’ you had to find ‘Robin’ at the Tonkawa encampment.

    Eventually he closed his drugstore completely, married the young Tonkawa maiden in the Tonkawa fashion, and moved permanently to the Tonkawa camp. He became a Tonkawa in all but skin color. He let his hair grow, plucked his eyebrows in Tonkawa fashion, and wore the same clothing as his adopted people. He even mastered their language, a dialect of Uto-Aztecan, also spoken by Comanches, Shoshonis, Utes, and Aztecs, though the dialects differed. The Tonkawa dialect may have been the root language of Uto-Aztecan. Jacobs says only one other White man managed to master the dialect, but that would have been ‘in the area.’ Many Whites spoke one or more of the Uto-Aztecan dialects.

    He became one of the leaders of the tribe. He sat in the council and advised the Tonkawa in their dealings with the Whites. He became their interpreter and negotiator in all dealings with Whites. When the Tonkawa tribe was removed by the government to the Sac-Fox reservation in what was then Oklahoma Territory, ‘Robin’ went along.

    ‘Robin Hood’ stayed with the Tonkawa for twelve years. Then the great love of his life, his Tonkawa wife ‘Kitty,’ died. In the meantime, his eastern family had moved west, to Arizona. He hitched a couple of his ponies to a wagon and followed them. He cut his hair, washed off his paint, put on White-man clothes, and returned to the life he’d abandoned for the love of his Tonkawa wife twelve years earlier. What happened to him after that we don’t know.

    The Tonkawa tribe is essentially extinct today. When I was stationed at Fort Sill in the 1970s I used some of my free time to try and find a remnant of the Tonkawa. The closest I came was a Kiowa who told me “You know, I knew a guy whose grandmother was a Tonkawa—but he’s been dead nearly forty years.” The tale of ‘Robin Hood of the Tonkawa’ is apparently lost save for John C. Jacobs’ recounting of it. As my Choctaw storyteller friend Tim Tingle says when he ends a story, “Now the story is yours.”


    © C. F. Eckhardt
    January 27, 2012 column
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