State Cemetery - Header Banner

The Council House Fight

* Note - Most links lead outside Cemetery site.

 

Monday marked the 172nd anniversary of the nadir in Comanche/Texan relations. The “Council House Fight” took place in San Antonio on March 19, 1840 and “fight” probably isn’t the best word for what happened there. Massacre might be a better word. The result of the "Council House Fight" was the largest Comanche raid in Texas history and the sack (and near destruction) of Linnville. The disconnect, the sheer gap in experience and culture between the two civilizations was enormous. The Comanche saw themselves as a free and autonomous people, a great civilization controlling large swathes of territory from the upper Midwest through Texas and into Northern Mexico and able to negotiate with Texans as equals. Texans saw the Comanche as a nuisance, something to be defeated and pushed aside, not dealt with as an equal society.

The disconnect came into full focus in San Antonio in March of 1840 when a group of Penateka Comanche entered the city and sued for peace. Texans and the Comanche never had a good relationship. The Comanche were nomadic while the Texans were settlers. As the Texans moved into Comanche territory, they became fair game for raids in Comanche eyes and raid they did. Comanche raiding parties stole horses, cattle, children (who would be adopted into the tribe under certain circumstances) and killed indiscriminately. The Comanche treated the settlers as invaders and were given no quarter.
That’s the lens the frontier Texans saw the Comanche through. All the frontier Texan experiences with the Comanche were distilled into hate, virulent, racist hate. Things were never civil between the two groups, but the Comanche sought peace in 1840. It’s unclear exactly why the Comanche sued for peace at San Antonio, some accounts say the Penatekas suffered from a smallpox epidemic while others say they were protecting their southern flank in a war against the Cheyenne and the Arapaho. Either way, the Texans demanded the Comanche bring in all white prisoners in preliminary talks before any negotiation could happen. However, when the Comanche showed up the day of the “Council House Fight”, they only had one hostage, Matilda Lockhart. Sixty-five Comanche showed to the meeting, thirteen chiefs and their households.
Three men buried at the Cemetery were in San Antonio for the “Council House Fight.” Hugh McLeod, a soldier and former adjutant general of Texas served as a chief negotiator. You can read his after action report here. John Hemphill, a Texas Supreme Court justice, was involved in some fashion. William G. Cooke, Texas Revolutionary War veteran, was also there. Mirabeau Lamar named Cooke a commissioner, able to sign treaties with the Comanche.
Things went downhill almost as soon as the Comanche showed up. The Texans saw only Matilda Lockhart, a sixteen-year-old girl who’d been taken with her sister two years earlier. They expected many more prisoners. In addition, Matilda Lockhart was in bad shape. She was covered in burns and bruises and her nose was almost entirely burned off. The Texans were outraged and demanded more prisoners. What the Texans did not understand is that the Comanche were not a single nation with a “head chief.” Chiefs were the heads of their own bands and there were many bands. The chiefs at the council house were only responsible for their bands and could not make promises for other chiefs. They tried to explain this, but it was lost in translation. The chiefs were taken into the council house and informed they were hostages until more prisoners were brought in. At first, the translator refused to relay the order. He finally did, but fled immediately after. The chiefs and their guard drew their weapons and the Texans opened fire. It was a massacre. In the end, all the chiefs save one were dead along with five women and children. This was high treachery from the Comanche point of view, emissaries and ambassadors were untouchable. While there was little trust between the two groups before, there could be none now.
The remaining Comanche escaped into Comancheria (pictured above). Once back in the staked plains, the sole surviving Penateka chief, Buffalo Hump, brought together many different bands of Comanche along with a few Kiowa bands and formed the greatest raiding party Texas had ever seen. In August, the great raiding party emerged from the Llano Estacado ready for war. They appeared at Victoria first, capturing some 1500 horses and thundered down the coast to Linnville. Linnville bore the brunt of Comanche rage. The Comanche surrounded Linnville and killed a few people, but most escaped to a boat and a schooner in the harbor and watched as the Comanche vented their anger. They sacked Linnville as the citizens looked on helplessly. Satisfied with the spoils they’d taken from Victoria and Linnville, the Comanche formed a huge baggage train and headed home.
Word of the raid spread north and east to San Marcos and the surrounding areas. A makeshift army of regulars and irregulars formed under General Felix Huston and Colonel Edward Burleson and they pursued the Comanche across Guadalupe County and into Caldwell County finally catching up with the tail end of the baggage train. The battle of Plum Creek was the result. It probably doesn’t deserve the “battle” appellation in the traditional sense. Plum Creek was a running gunfight between the Texans and the Comanche. Several men buried at the Cemetery fought at Plum Creek, see a list here.
The Comanche were intent on keeping all the spoils of the Linnville raid and let their baggage train become too spread out and unwieldy. The Texans picked the exact right time to hit the column; it was spread out and disorganized. In the end, the Texans reported killing 80 Comanche, though only 12 bodies were discovered. Partly in an effort to recover goods and partly out of greed, the Comanche and the Texans split, recovering what animals and booty they could. It was the last great raid into Texan territory. Buffalo Hump and the Comanche continued to raid frontier settlements for many more years, but no massed force of Comanche bands ever threatened Texas like they did in the Linnville raid.

The legacy of the “Council House Fight” was discord and mistrust. In the eyes of the Comanche, the Texans had lured in the Penateka chiefs under false pretenses and in a fit of high treachery, executed them under a white flag of peace. In the eyes of the Texans, the Comanche couldn’t even satisfy their first demand, release of all prisoners. Misunderstanding is hardly the word for it, but it was the underlying factor. In a century marked by shabby treatment of all Native Americans, the “Council House Fight” isn’t the worst example. It probably isn’t even in the top 10, but the “Council House Fight” colored relations between Comanche and Texan for decades to come.

 

- Will Erwin