Life in Utopia, Texas was not always like the town’s name. This remote Hill Country community was far from the long established towns in East Texas, an easy target for outlaws and Indian war parties. Thirteen year old Frank Buckelew knew something about war parties. In 1866, his father was killed by a war party two miles from his home. Now orphaned, Frank and his two sisters moved in with their uncle. While out in the pasture tending to his uncle’s oxen, he and his friend Morris were startled by two steers racing by; something had spooked them. Deciding speed was the better part of curiosity, he and Morris took off for his uncle’s house. A band of Indians emerged from the nearby woods and gave chase. Morris got away, but Frank didn’t. A warrior caught up with Frank and held a drawn bow and arrow to his head. The war party roughly subdued their captive and took him to their village. Frank’s youth probably saved him from an imminent death. It didn’t save him from a severe beating. Frank was stripped of his clothing then whipped with cat’s claw vines by the village’s children and women. The worst of it came when he had to walk through a long gauntlet of taunts, clubs, leather whips, sticks, and punches. Dazed and bruised, he was painted, dressed in Indian garb, and had his ears pierced by an elderly woman. He was now an initiated member of the tribe. A tribe referred to in history and today as the Lipan Apaches.
The Lipan Apaches were part of an array of Apache tribes that extended from Arizona to Central Texas. The word Lipan means “Light Gray People” because the Lipans believed each point of the compass was represented by a color. White represented north and black represented east. Since the Lipans migrated from the North (white) to the East (black) the colors became mixed into light gray, hence the name Lipan.
The Lipans belonged to the Eastern band of Apaches that consisted of the Jicarilla, Kiowa-Apache and Lipan Apache. Attracted to the vast buffalo herds in the Southern Plains, they entered Texas in the 1600’s. Despite the Lipans’ initial interest, Spanish missionaries tried to convert them, but to no avail.
What the Lipans really wanted from the missions was protection from a shared enemy: the Comanches. Masters of horse warfare, the Comanches were unstoppable in the 1700’S and early 1800’s. They slowly pushed the Lipans into Mexico and Southwest Texas. Because of their semi-sedentary lifestyle from raising crops, Lipan villages were isolated, tempting targets for the Comanches. It was little wonder Lipans served as scouts and auxiliary troops for the Texas Rangers. One Lipan chief, Flacco, became a colonel in the Republic of Texas Army.
The Lipans lived in scattered bands that shared a common language and culture. There was no tribal head chief, only the loosely held position of band chief. Anyone could lead a raid or a hunt as long as he had the followers to carry it out. In time, they gave up on raising crops and became more nomadic like their Plains Indian neighbors. They took to the horse and hunted buffalo. In addition to buffalo, their diet consisted of deer, antelope, the agave plant, and a coarse flour obtained from the Sotol bulb. The astonishing thing about Apaches is how they could find sustenance in the most barren, desolate regions of the Southwest. In the desert, they ruled!
Like most Plains Indians, they wore breech cloths during the summer and buckskin shirts in the winter. Males shaved the left side of their heads while letting the right side grow to shoulder-length. They tied their hair into braided ponytails and decorated them with feathers. Lipans lived in teepees and wikiups with a smoke hole at top for lighting fires inside.
Marriages were carried out after a lengthy courtship with the prospective wife and her family. The groom had to give a horse, weapons and deer skins as gifts for the daughter’s hand. It’s sort of like buying your future in-laws a new pickup before you married their daughter. Unless the daughter looked like Taylor Swift, I doubt many young men today would go for that. Also, once you married into that family, you were obligated to provide for that family until they released you, even if your wife died. In that case, you had to marry a sister or cousin. If the husband died, the wife would shave off her hair, wound herself, and weep for days on end. I doubt my wife would shave her head upon my demise. She would just plant me and throw away my underwear.
Apaches of all bands had a morbid fear of ghosts. When someone in the village died, the elderly had to prepare it for burial so the young folks wouldn’t be contaminated by the dead person’s spirit. Along with their personal possessions, the corpse was carried on its horse to the burial site. Upon arrival, it was buried with its possessions and the horse was killed over the gravesite. After the burial, the relatives took an alternate route back to the village to confuse any newly risen ghosts that might follow them home.
Smallpox, Comanches and the U.S. Cavalry took a frightful toll. The Mexican Army considered them a nuisance and went out of their way to eradicate them. Texas settlers complained of Lipan raids from across the Mexican border. In 1873, six companies of the 4th U.S. Cavalry attacked Lipan camps in Coahuila, Mexico. Their chief, Costalites, was captured and taken to San Antonio. He was imprisoned in a filthy corral serving as a prison camp but later escaped. Costalites was found dead 13 miles from San Antonio. Many of the remaining Lipans joined the Mescalero Apaches on their New Mexico reservation. The few left in Texas, like most Texas tribes, were forcibly moved to Southwest Oklahoma.
White captives, like Frank, were usually given the task of caring for the horses. He was also about to fall prey to an arranged marriage. After a year, Frank decided he had enough and escaped. He later became a Methodist preacher. Frank Buckelew died in 1931.
For decades, it was thought the Lipans had disappeared, assimilated by other tribes and the general Hispanic population. That changed as more and more Lipan descendants became aware and better informed of their ancestry. In 2009, the Lipan Apaches became a state recognized tribe based in McAllen. A rich culture brought back into the Texas fabric.