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Jeffery Robenalt

"A Glimpse of Texas Past"

The San Antonio
Council House Fight

by Jeffery Robenalt
Jeffery Robenalt
In March of 1840, a meeting took place in old San Antonio between representatives of the government of the Republic of Texas and the Penateka Comanches to discuss terms of a peace treaty. The meeting was held in a small, one-story limestone building on the corner of Main Plaza and Calabozo (Market) Streets know as the Council House. The flat-roofed, earthen-floor structure adjoined the old stone jailhouse where the City Hall now stands. The yard back of the Council House was later the City Market. The disastrous results of this meeting would soon lead to the Great Comanche Raid of 1840 and the Battle of Plum Creek.
San Antonio Plaza
San Antonio Plaza
Sam Houston, the first president of Texas, had a policy of negotiating treaties and territorial boundaries with the Republic's various Indian tribes, including the Cherokees and Comanches, believing that a peaceful settlement of disputes between the races would lead to a permanent and inexpensive solution to the Native American problem. However, this was an unpopular position with many Texans, and Houston's successor in office, Mirabeau Lamar, was elected in part by expressing an opposing view. Rather than negotiations, Lamar insisted the only permanent solution to the Indian problem was to expel the tribes from Texas, and to kill all those Indians who refused to leave peacefully.
Mirabeau Lamar
Mirabeau Lamar
Immediately after assuming the Presidency, Lamar moved to implement his policy of expulsion or eradication with a vengeance. The first step was to order Chief Bowles to lead his Cherokees out of Texas. When Bowles refused as Lamar suspected he would, the President authorized militia General Kelsey Douglass to use force to drive the Cherokees out of the Republic.

On July 16, 1839, the militia, bolstered by a few soldiers from the Texas Army, attacked the main Cherokee village located on the Nueces River. Chief Bowles was among those killed during the fighting, and the Cherokees were forced to hurriedly pack up a meager portion of their possessions and move to present-day Oklahoma, leaving behind homes, livestock, and crops ripening in the fields.

However, General Douglas refused to limit Lamarís policy to the Cherokees alone, and by July 25, the militia had also driven the Caddo, Kickapoo, Muskogee, Creek, Delaware, Shawnee, and Seminole tribes into Oklahoma or across the Arkansas line. Only the small and inoffensive Alabama and Coshatta tribes were permitted to remain inside the borders of the Republic, and they were moved to less fertile lands on what was to become one of the few permanent Texas Indian reservations.

President Lamar hoped to quickly deal with the Comanches in a similar fashion. Unfortunately, the fierce "Lords of the Plains" were a far cry from the weak and nearly civilized tribes of east Texas. The Penateka Comanches, the tribal band with territory closest to white settlement, had been waging a continuous bloody hit and run war for years with the settlers along the frontier north and west of Austin.

President Lamar began his move against the Comanches by ordering his newly formed companies of Texas Rangers to carry the fight into the fringes of the Comancheria with attacks on hunting parties and a few scattered villages such as Colonel John Moore's February, 1839, attack on a Comanche village in the valley of the San Saba River. Although these attacks on the basic way of Comanche life were not always successful, they eventually convinced the Penateka that the cost of continued fighting would carry a high price.

As a result, on January 9, 1840, several Penetaka war chiefs rode into the old mission town of San Antonio seeking a parley with the commander of the Texas Rangers, Colonel Henry Karnes. At the meeting, the chiefs told Karnes all the bands of the Penateka were ready to sit down with the whites and negotiate a peace treaty. Karnes consented to the proposed meeting on the sole condition that the Comanches return their white captives, believed to have numbered around two hundred at the time. The war chiefs agreed and promised to return to San Antonio in twenty days.

Fearing the Comanches would fail to keep their promise, Colonel Karnes wrote to General Albert Sidney Johnston, the commander of the Texas Army, requesting that three peace commissioners be sent to San Antonio, along with enough troops to capture the Indians who came to the meeting and hold them as hostages if the white captives were not returned. After conferring with President Lamar, Johnston agreed and immediately dispatched three companies of the first regiment to San Antonio under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Fisher. Fisher was also appointed as a peace commissioner along with the Texas Adjutant General and the Acting Secretary of War.
San Antonio PO Mural - Council House Fight
San Antonio post office mural depicting the Council House Fight
Photo courtesy Terry Jeanson

On March 19, 1840, sixty-five Comanches, including men, women, and children, boldly paraded into the streets of old San Antonio. The brightly painted and attired contingent, dressed in their finest and decorated with a rainbow of feathers and trade ribbons, was led by twelve war chiefs and the great peace chief, Muguara, or Muk-wah-rah, the Spirit Talker. Unfortunately, the Comanches arrived for the meeting with only two captives; a sixteen year-old girl, Matilda Lockhart, and a young Mexican boy the Texans didnít even consider. To make matters worse, the young girlís condition was abhorrent.

Matilda's face and body were covered with bruises and sores, and the end of her nose had been burnt off down to the bone by malevolent Comanche squaws who had routinely awakened her from sleep by sticking a hot coal against her flesh, especially to the tip of her nose. Matilda had lived with the Comanches for nearly two years and she understood some of their language. She told the Texans the Comanches had thirteen more captives in their camp, but they hoped to get a higher price by returning them one at a time.

When Chief Muguara and the other war chiefs entered the Council House, Muguara began the talks by demanding higher prices for the remaining captives held by the Comanches. Ignoring the Peace chiefís outrageous demands, the commissioners immediately insisted on knowing why the other prisoners had not been returned as promised. Muguara arrogantly answered that although they were being held by other Comanche bands, they could all be purchased for the right price.

After seeing the mutilation of the young Lockhart girl, the commissioners were furious, and Colonel Fisher ordered some of the soldiers who had been surrounding the outside of the council house to enter the meeting room. Next, a reluctant interpreter was ordered to tell Muguara that he and the war chiefs would be imprisoned until the remainder of the white captives were released. After delivering the threat, the frightened interpreter turned and fled from the room. The Texas Sentinel of March 24, 1840, provided a detailed account of "a recent battle with the Comanches at San Antonio."

Pandemonium ensued as the Comanches responded with shrill war cries and rushed for the door. A war chief stabbed a soldier who attempted to block the door with his body, and Fisher gave the command to open fire. Muguara was killed instantly, and in the confusion caused by echoing blasts of gunfire, howls and screams of the Comanches, and thick clouds of swirling black powder smoke, the surviving Comanches broke out of the building.

Even the young Comanche boys who had been playing outside during the meeting joined in on the fight, firing arrows in all directions. Indians, soldiers, and spectators alike were killed in the general melee that followed, and in the end, none of the Comanches escaped the deadly trap set by Colonel Fisher. Muguara and all twelve war chiefs were killed along with many of the Comanche women and children. About thirty women and children were taken prisoner. The Texans suffered only six killed and ten wounded.

After the smoke had settled, Colonel Fisher ordered that a squaw be given a horse and sent to the Comanche camp with a warning; unless the white captives were returned within twelve days all the Comanche prisoners being held in the San Antonio jail would be killed. The squaw never returned to San Antonio, but eventually a young white boy who had been adopted into the tribe told the terrible tale of what happened when the war chiefís wife reached the camp.

The loss of so many warriors and leaders was a serious blow for any Comanche band to suffer, and the Penateka went into a frenzy of mourning. Women screamed and howled as they slashed at their arms and legs with razor-sharp flint knives, and men sacrificed many valuable horses to honor the brave dead. However, all this was nothing compared with the ghastly fate suffered by the thirteen white captives. Every one of them was either roasted alive or tortured to death in hideous and lingering ways that only a fierce and vengeful people like the Comanches could devise.

President Lamar's Indian policy and the ill-fated results of the Council House fight ensured there would be no lasting peace between the Republic of Texas and the Comanche nation, and for several months after the incident people in and around San Antonio lived in a state of terror. When nothing of note occurred by mid-summer, the Texans assumed the Comanche threat was gone. This assumption could not have been further from the truth. The Penateka had simply melted away deep into the far northern reaches of the Comancheria where they held council with all the other Comanche bands. Under a brilliant August moon the Comanches would return in a force heretofore unknown, and Texas would eventually pay a terrible price in blood and suffering during the Great Comanche Raid of 1840.


© Jeffery Robenalt
"'A Glimpse of Texas Past"' December 13, 2010 Column
jeffrobenalt@yahoo.com

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