Primary Source Adventures
Native Texans: Wichita and Comanche Villages
This Primary Source Adventure illustrates the diversity of Texas Natives through the observations of the first United States Indian Agent in the region, a U.S Army officer, and an artist.
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Wichita and Comanche Villages
by Justin S. Liles
North American Indian tribes displayed incredible diversity in their cultures, living conditions and modes of sustenance. Texas Indians likewise showed great variety, ranging from nomadic hunter-gatherers to sedentary agriculturalists.
The Wichita were one of several bands that composed the Wichita Confederacy, and were also known as the Toweash or Tawehash. Archeological evidence shows that they moved south from central Kansas to Texas sometime between the late 16th and early 18th centuries. The tribe pursued an agricultural based, predominately sedentary lifestyle, but did leave their village to hunt buffalo. The Wichita served as prominent middlemen in the trade between the Comanche and Louisiana merchants from the 1750s-1810, but declined after they abandoned their settlement at Wicheta village, near present day Nocona in Montague County. They then moved to a village on Rush Creek, in southern Oklahoma, which was destroyed in 1858 by U.S. military forces pursuing hostile Comanches camped nearby.
The Comanche were a tribe of feared warriors and renowned horsemen who began to arrive in Texas in the early 18th century. They migrated south in search of access to mustangs, plentiful buffalo, and French and Spanish trade goods; as well as to escape pressure from tribes such as the Crow and Blackfoot. Comanche Indians arrived in Texas in numerous bands including the Penetekas, Nokonis, and Quahadis among others. These nomadic hunters relied on buffalo for their food, clothing, and shelter and acquired agricultural produce through trade with the Wichita and Caddo in the east and Pueblo in the west. During the late 18th century the Spanish formed an alliance with the Comanche against their mutual enemy the Apache, a policy which the Mexican Government also endeavored to pursue. Sam Houston attempted a peaceful policy toward the Comanche as well, but it began to deteriorate by 1838 when he left office. Warfare continued intermittently from the 1840s until the 1870s when the last bands of Comanche were defeated and removed to Indian Territory.
Native Americans did not develop a written language, and historians must therefore rely on documents from European observers for their sources about Indian life. Historical documents in general exhibit the bias of their creator, and the documents that compose this exercise are certainly no exception. The presence of bias does not negate their value, provided the historian is aware of its existence and corroborates the information with additional contemporary sources and secondary literature.
John Sibley (1757-1837) was born in Massachusetts and moved to Natchitoches in 1802. After making a trip up the Red River in 1803, he became known as an authority on Native Americans in the region. He sent a series of reports on the tribes of the region to Thomas Jefferson in 1805, and the information proved so helpful to the president that he awarded Sibley the position of Indian Agent. His greatest responsibility was to persuade the Indians of the region to side with the United States rather than the Spanish, and he accomplished this goal through his favorable trading practices conducted at a trading factory established at Natchitoches in 1805. He was replaced for political reasons in 1814 by John Jamison, a man whom historian F. Todd Smith argues was “far less concerned with cultivating friendship with the Wichitas than his predecessor.”1
Randolph B. Marcy (1812-1887) was also born in Massachusetts and graduated from West Point in 1828. He served with General Zachary Taylor in the Mexican American War. After the war he surveyed the route of the Marcy Trail from Fort Smith, Arkansas to Santa Fe. In 1852 Marcy commanded a seventy man expedition in search of the source of the Red River. The expedition succeeded in finding the source of both forks of the river, as well as documenting the little known Wichita Indians and compiling the first Wichita dictionary. His report, published under the title Exploration of the Red River . . . is considered a classic of Western Americana. He went on to publish a guidebook entitled The Prairie Traveler, and served as the inspector general for the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War.
George Catlin (1796-1872) was born in Pennsylvania but grew up in the Susquehanna Valley in New York. Catlin read law and passed the bar in Connecticut and Pennsylvania, but abandoned his legal practice in 1821 to pursue a career as an artist. He worked as a miniaturist and portrait artist, painting Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin among others, but in 1828 he witnessed the visit to Philadelphia of a delegation of Indian Chiefs. Catlin claims that he decided at that moment to devote his life to painting Indians to “lend a hand to a dying nation, who have no historian or biographer of their own.”2 Between 1832 and 1836 he traveled throughout the West and painted, at one point accompanying a contingent of dragoons on an expedition to consult with the Comanche in present day Oklahoma near the Red River. He published Indians of North America . . . in London in 1841. Catlin later became involved in several British schemes to settle Texas, and his speculation in land companies with his Indian paintings as collateral eventually led to the foreclosure on his gallery by British creditors.
The typical perception of Native Americans is that they all lived in tepees and hunted buffalo. In fact, Texas Indians showed great variety and adaptability, as illustrated in this primary source adventure. Both tribes were relatively recent arrivals to the state, and moved into the region to escape pressure from other tribes and gain access to new opportunities. The sources also demonstrate the tendency of humans to be suspicious of cultures other than their own. Sibley and Marcy disdained the Wichita culture’s acceptance of theft from non tribe members and Catlin viewed the division of labor among Comanches as abnormal. Likewise, the Comanches looked on Catlin’s party as if they “had come from the moon,” and their appearance created a “sort of chill in the blood of children and dogs.” These differences of perspective foreshadow the unfortunate fate of Native Americans in the region.
1F. Todd Smith, The Wichita Indians. (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2000), 108.
2Handbook of Texas Online, s.v. "CATLIN, GEORGE," http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/CC/fca94.html (accessed May 24, 2005).