Sunday, August 21, 2011

Linnville's Day of Terror

They appeared without warning on the morning of August 7, 1840. Hundreds of Indians, painted for war, approached the coastal town of Linnville, Texas. At first, they were thought to be Mexican horse traders, but their war whoops revealed their true intentions. This was to be a full scale sacking by the most powerful Native American tribe in the U.S., the Comanches.

For over a hundred years, the Comanches controlled the vast prairies of West Texas. During the spring and summer months, they raided down into Mexico from their camps in the Texas Panhandle. Whole villages were picked clean of their horses, livestock and women. Spanish missionaries tried but failed to convert them from their warrior ways. They lived for war and no neighboring tribe could match them in a fight.

That changed when Texas settlers began encroaching on their hunting grounds. Disease and an ongoing war with the Republic of Texas greatly reduced the Comanche population and lead to a proposed peace treaty in 1840. Texas officials wanted the return of all white captives. The Comanches wanted recognition of their territory in West Texas and a hefty ransom for their captives.

In March 19, 1840, twelve Comanche chiefs and their bands arrived at San Antonio in hopes of a peaceful settlement. The chiefs met with Texas commissioners inside the Council House; a large stone building used for meetings. Inside, the walls were lined with a company of soldiers. The commissioners were angered when the Comanches brought in only one captive for release, Matilda Lockhart. The anger turned to rage when they saw Lockhart’s hideously disfigured face; her nose had been burned off! The commissioners demanded to know where the other captives were. “We have brought in the only one we had, the others are with other tribes,” stated one of the chiefs. “How do you like the answer ?” They didn’t. The Comanches were told they would be held captive until all white captives were released. Upon hearing of their incarceration, they pulled their knives and tried to fight their way out. At point blank range, Texas soldiers opened fire on the Comanches, killing all twelve chiefs. Outside the Council House, Comanches and soldiers exchanged bullets and arrows in a wild melee. When the gun smoke cleared, thirty five Comanches were killed. At the Comanche camps, thirteen white captives were tortured to death (usually by being skinned alive then slow roasted over a fire) in revenge for the killings. One Comanche chief, who had decided not to attend the negotiations, promised further vengeance for the commissioners’ betrayal.

 Buffalo Hump, War Chief of the Penateka Band of Comanches, gathered a war party of 700 to 1,000 warriors for a massive raid into Southeast Texas. Departing from their camps along the Upper Colorado River, the Comanches attacked Victoria first. A number of slaves and residents were killed outside of town as they made off with 1,500 horses. Alerted to their presence, Victoria residents barricaded themselves in the town’s buildings. Their intense fire was too much for the Comanches; who continued their murderous trek into nearby Linnville. Any Texan in their path was promptly killed.

In Linnville, the stores and warehouses were emptied of their inventories, including a shipment of top hats and umbrellas on their way to San Antonio. Before the raid, Linnville was a vital port, of under 500 residents, for the Republic of Texas. Most of those residents fled to a schooner anchored offshore and waited out the mayhem. Donned in their newly acquired top hats, the Comanches set buildings on fire, smashed furniture, and slaughtered livestock.

Judge John Hays decided he had seen enough of these top hatted savages and waded ashore with his pistol. Much to his dismay, the pistol was unloaded and he had to beat a hasty retreat back to the schooner. The Commanches ignored him and continued their pillaging.

 At the end of the day, the plunder was loaded onto pack mules. The Comanches left the burning town with 3,000 horses and several captives. Only one building remained standing. Twenty three settlers and eight slaves were killed. 

A volunteer army of Texans under General Felix Huston and Captain Mathew “Old Paint” Caldwell, along with Texas Rangers under Benjamin McCulloch, intercepted the Comanches near present day Lockhart. Approaching them in two parallel columns, the Texans enclosed the Comanche horde.  One warrior rode out to challenge and insult Caldwell's men.  He was promptly shot off his horse.  "Charge them!" yelled Caldwell.  The Texans pitched into the Comanches, killing scores of them. The ensuing Battle of Plum Creek led to a stinging rout for the Comanches and an end to their raid. They still made off with most of their plunder. Prisoners taken by the Comanches were tied to trees then riddled with arrows. One woman survived because her whalebone corset blunted the arrow. 

The homeless residents of Linnville built a new settlement three miles down the road at Port Lavaca. The new city eventually consumed what was left of Linnville, which never regained prominence after the raid.