and Handsome Wolf
by Clay Coppedge
I look back on a fairly unstructured boyhood I can’t help but wish,
as most of us have, that I knew a little bit then of what I know now.
I wish I had known about Old Bill Williams and the Comanche chief
Ysambanbi, otherwise known as Handsome Wolf, when I was screwloose
and fancy free in the Yellow House Canyon.
Though I lived in a Lubbock
neighborhood, I made the canyon my stomping ground. More than once
– a lot more – I was on private property but I more often entered
the canyon the same way most people did, from Mackenzie Park or at
Buffalo Lake. Often as not, those were just starting points for vigorous
explorations of the canyon. A lot of the places where we played cowboys
and Indians had witnessed real-life and-death scenarios of that variety
less than a century before.
Historical triggers for our imagination usually centered around either
the television westerns of the day or, when we were feeling really
authentic, Col. Ranald Mackenzie of the U.S. Army or Quanah
Parker, widely referred to as the last Comanche chief. But there
were only so many times you could reenact the Battle of Yellow House
Canyon without wanting to make it into the Little Big Horn, something
a little more grand.
Old Bill Williams and Handsome Wolf would have come in real handy
back in those days.
I had heard of Williams, the legendary mountain man, I didn’t know
he had spent any time in the Yellow House Canyon until about 10 years
ago when I read Dan Flores’ excellent book “Caprock Canyonlands.”
Williams was there with Albert Pike in 1832, scouting the headwaters
of the Brazos and Red Rivers for beaver to trap. “Williams was all
over the canyon, climbing the mesas, shooting antelope,” Flores wrote.
Pike described Williams: “He is a man about 6-foot-1 in height, gaunt
and red-headed, with a hard weather-beaten face, marked deeply with
small pox. He is all muscle and sinew, and the most indefatigable
hunter and trapper in the world. He has no glory except in the woods
and his whole ambition is to kill more deer and trap more beaver than
any other man…He is a shrewd, acute original man and far from illiterate.”
That is just
the thing I would have liked for someone to write about me, if I’d
had the opportunity to be in that place at that time. Other accounts
tell us that he dressed in buckskins, beads and feathers and had
a peculiar way of talking. He by and large avoided even primitive
settlements. He always spent his money in one place and then headed
back to the wilderness.
Still, by the standards of today, Old Bill had some issues. Flores
notes that was no St. Francis. “True to form, he could barely be
restrained from bushwhacking a Comanche girl hauling water, and
when the party bartered for a tipi, none of them, Williams included,
seemed to know how to set it up,” Flores wrote.
Though Williams did most of what socializing he did with Indians,
a tribe of Utes killed him in 1859.
chief Ysambanbi was more of a capitalist than Old Bill Williams was,
and he dressed a lot more nicely than Old Bill. Old Bill had his buckskins,
beads and feathers but Handsome Wolf was a downright dandy. Bat Masterson
would have appeared uncouth by comparison.
Flores wrote that “Francisco Amangual found him in the Yellow House
in 1808, leading a band of marvelously fashion-conscious Comanches
decked out in the latest in three-cornered hats, long red coats with
blue collars, cuffs and white buttons, the effect set off with red
that I was ever so fashion consious but I would have adopted Ysambanbi
as a boyhood role model if for no other reason than his name, which
is widely but not universally translated into Handsome Wolf. Thomas
W. Kavanaugh, in “The Comanches: A History, 1706-1875,” noted that
he doesn’t necessarily believe the translation of Ysambanbi into Handsome
Wolf. It’s one of those things that some of us are going to go ahead
and believe even if it’s not true.
Handsome Wolf is a catchy and flattering name, and what you were called,
how you were addressed, was apparently an important matter to the
Comanche. The Comanche changed the translation of medicine man Isatai
from “Little Wolf” to "Coyote Droppings” after his medicine didn’t
work at the Battle of Adobe Walls.
| That Ysambanbi
was a chief, and apparently a shrewd trader, suggests that he was
held in high esteem by the tribe, so why wouldn’t they call him Handsome
Wolf. Otherwise he might have been known as Wolf Droppings. That might
be a predatorial step beyond Coyote Droppings. But still.
As a final wolf note, the bluesman Howling Wolf wasn’t America’s first
Howling Wolf. There was a Comanche Chief by that name, unless some
scholar comes along and says his name really translates into Muddy