- Comanche Indians were responsible for one of the most brutal slaughters in the history of the Wild West
- However, Johnny Depp wants to play Tonto in a more sympathetic light
The 16-year-old girl’s once-beautiful face was grotesque.
She had been disfigured beyond all recognition in the 18 months she had been held captive by the Comanche Indians.
Now, she was being offered back to the Texan authorities by Indian chiefs as part of a peace negotiation.
To gasps of horror from the watching crowds, the Indians presented her at the Council House in the ranching town of San Antonio in 1840, the year Queen Victoria married Prince Albert.
‘Her head, arms and face were full of bruises and sores,’ wrote one witness, Mary Maverick. ‘And her nose was actually burnt off to the bone. Both nostrils were wide open and denuded of flesh.’
Once handed over, Matilda Lockhart broke down as she described the horrors she had endured — the rape, the relentless sexual humiliation and the way Comanche squaws had tortured her with fire. It wasn’t just her nose, her thin body was hideously scarred all over with burns.
When she mentioned she thought there were 15 other white captives at the Indians’ camp, all of them being subjected to a similar fate, the Texan lawmakers and officials said they were detaining the Comanche chiefs while they rescued the others.
It was a decision that prompted one of the most brutal slaughters in the history of the Wild West — and showed just how bloodthirsty the Comanche could be in revenge.
S C Gwynne, author of Empire Of The Summer Moon about the rise and fall of the Comanche, says simply: ‘No tribe in the history of the Spanish, French, Mexican, Texan, and American occupations of this land had ever caused so much havoc and death. None was even a close second.’
He refers to the ‘demonic immorality’ of Comanche attacks on white settlers, the way in which torture, killings and gang-rapes were routine. ‘The logic of Comanche raids was straightforward,’ he explains.
‘All the men were killed, and any men who were captured alive were tortured; the captive women were gang raped. Babies were invariably killed.’
Not that you would know this from the new Lone Ranger movie, starring Johnny Depp as the Indian Tonto.
For reasons best know to themselves, the film-makers have changed Tonto’s tribe to Comanche — in the original TV version, he was a member of the comparatively peace-loving Potowatomi tribe.
And yet he and his fellow native Americans are presented in the film as saintly victims of a Old West where it is the white settlers — the men who built America — who represent nothing but exploitation, brutality, environmental destruction and genocide.
Depp has said he wanted to play Tonto in order to portray Native Americans in a more sympathetic light. But the Comanche never showed sympathy themselves.
When that Indian delegation to San Antonio realised they were to be detained, they tried to fight their way out with bows and arrows and knives — killing any Texan they could get at. In turn, Texan soldiers opened fire, slaughtering 35 Comanche, injuring many more and taking 29 prisoner.
But the Comanche tribe’s furious response knew no bounds. When the Texans suggested they swap the Comanche prisoners for their captives, the Indians tortured every one of those captives to death instead.
‘One by one, the children and young women were pegged out naked beside the camp fire,’ according to a contemporary account. ‘They were skinned, sliced, and horribly mutilated, and finally burned alive by vengeful women determined to wring the last shriek and convulsion from their agonised bodies. Matilda Lockhart’s six-year-old sister was among these unfortunates who died screaming under the high plains moon.’
Not only were the Comanche specialists in torture, they were also the most ferocious and successful warriors — indeed, they become known as ‘Lords of the Plains’.
They were as imperialist and genocidal as the white settlers who eventually vanquished them.
When they first migrated to the great plains of the American South in the late 18th century from the Rocky Mountains, not only did they achieve dominance over the tribes there, they almost exterminated the Apaches, among the greatest horse warriors in the world.
The key to the Comanche’s brutal success was that they adapted to the horse even more skilfully than the Apaches.
There were no horses at all in the Americas until the Spanish conquerors brought them. And the Comanche were a small, relatively primitive tribe roaming the area that is now Wyoming and Montana, until around 1700, when a migration southwards introduced them to escaped Spanish mustangs from Mexico.
The first Indians to take up the horse, they had an aptitude for horsemanship akin to that of Genghis Khan’s Mongols. Combined with their remarkable ferocity, this enabled them to dominate more territory than any other Indian tribe: what the Spanish called Comancheria spread over at least 250,000 miles.
They terrorised Mexico and brought the expansion of Spanish colonisation of America to a halt. They stole horses to ride and cattle to sell, often in return for firearms.
Other livestock they slaughtered along with babies and the elderly (older women were usually raped before being killed), leaving what one Mexican called ‘a thousand deserts’. When their warriors were killed they felt honour-bound to exact a revenge that involved torture and death.
Settlers in Texas were utterly terrified of the Comanche, who would travel almost a thousand miles to slaughter a single white family.
The historian T R Fehrenbach, author of Comanche: The History Of A People, tells of a raid on an early settler family called the Parkers, who with other families had set up a stockade known as Fort Parker. In 1836, 100 mounted Comanche warriors appeared outside the fort’s walls, one of them waving a white flag to trick the Parkers.
‘Benjamin Parker went outside the gate to parley with the Comanche,’ he says. ‘The people inside the fort saw the riders suddenly surround him and drive their lances into him. Then with loud whoops, mounted warriors dashed for the gate. Silas Parker was cut down before he could bar their entry; horsemen poured inside the walls.’
Survivors described the slaughter: ‘The two Frosts, father and son, died in front of the women; Elder John Parker, his wife ‘Granny’ and others tried to flee. The warriors scattered and rode them down.
‘John Parker was pinned to the ground, he was scalped and his genitals ripped off. Then he was killed. Granny Parker was stripped and fixed to the earth with a lance driven through her flesh. Several warriors raped her while she screamed.
‘Silas Parker’s wife Lucy fled through the gate with her four small children. But the Comanche overtook them near the river. They threw her and the four children over their horses to take them as captives.’
So intimidating was Comanche cruelty, almost all raids by Indians were blamed on them. Texans, Mexicans and other Indians living in the region all developed a particular dread of the full moon — still known as a ‘Comanche Moon’ in Texas — because that was when the Comanche came for cattle, horses and captives.
They were infamous for their inventive tortures, and women were usually in charge of the torture process.
The Comanche roasted captive American and Mexican soldiers to death over open fires. Others were castrated and scalped while alive. The most agonising Comanche tortures included burying captives up to the chin and cutting off their eyelids so their eyes were seared by the burning sun before they starved to death.
Contemporary accounts also describe them staking out male captives spread-eagled and naked over a red-ant bed. Sometimes this was done after excising the victim’s private parts, putting them in his mouth and then sewing his lips together.
One band sewed up captives in untanned leather and left them out in the sun. The green rawhide would slowly shrink and squeeze the prisoner to death.
T R Fehrenbach quotes a Spanish account that has Comanche torturing Tonkawa Indian captives by burning their hands and feet until the nerves in them were destroyed, then amputating these extremities and starting the fire treatment again on the fresh wounds. Scalped alive, the Tonkawas had their tongues torn out to stop the screaming.
Classic depiction: Clayton Moore as The Lone Ranger in the 1950’s with Jay Silverheels, who portrayed Tonto
The Comanche always fought to the death, because they expected to be treated like their captives. Babies were almost invariably killed in raids, though it should be said that soldiers and settlers were likely to murder Comanche women and children if they came upon them.
Comanche boys — including captives — were raised to be warriors and had to endure bloody rites of passage. Women often fought alongside the men.
It’s possible the viciousness of the Comanche was in part a by-product of their violent encounters with notoriously cruel Spanish colonists and then with Mexican bandits and soldiers.
But a more persuasive theory is that the Comanche’s lack of central leadership prompted much of their cruelty. The Comanche bands were loose associations of warrior-raiders, like a confederation of small street gangs.
In every society, teenage and twenty-something youths are the most violent, and even if they had wanted to, Comanche tribal chiefs had no way of stopping their young men from raiding.
But the Comanche found their match with the Texas Rangers. Brilliantly portrayed in the Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove books, the Rangers began to be recruited in 1823, specifically to fight the Comanche and their allies. They were a tough guerilla force, as merciless as their Comanche opponents.
They also respected them. As one of McMurtry’s Ranger characters wryly tells a man who claims to have seen a thousand-strong band of Comanche: ‘If there’d ever been a thousand Comanche in a band they’d have taken Washington DC.”
The Texas Rangers often fared badly against their enemy until they learned how to fight like them, and until they were given the new Colt revolver.
During the Civil War, when the Rangers left to fight for the Confederacy, the Comanche rolled back the American frontier and white settlements by 100 miles.
Even after the Rangers came back and the U.S. Army joined the campaigns against Comanche raiders, Texas lost an average of 200 settlers a year until the Red River War of 1874, where the full might of the Army — and the destruction of great buffalo herds on which they depended — ended Commanche depredations.
Interestingly the Comanche, though hostile to all competing tribes and people they came across, had no sense of race. They supplemented their numbers with young American or Mexican captives, who could become full-fledged members of the tribe if they had warrior potential and could survive initiation rites.
Weaker captives might be sold to Mexican traders as slaves, but more often were slaughtered. But despite the cruelty, some of the young captives who were subsequently ransomed found themselves unable to adapt to settled ‘civilised life and ran away to rejoin their brothers.
One of the great chiefs, Quanah, was the son of the white captive Cynthia Ann Parker. His father was killed in a raid by Texas Rangers that resulted in her being rescued from the tribe. She never adjusted to life back in civilisation and starved herself to death.
Quanah surrendered to the Army in 1874. He adapted well to life in a reservation, and indeed the Comanche, rather amazingly, become one of the most economically successful and best assimilated tribes.
As a result, the main Comanche reservation was closed in 1901, and Comanche soldiers served in the U.S. Army with distinction in the World Wars. Even today they are among the most prosperous native Americans, with a reputation for education.
By casting the cruelest, most aggressive tribe of Indians as mere saps and victims of oppression, Johnny Depp’s Lone Ranger perpetuates the patronising and ignorant cartoon of the ‘noble savage’.
Not only is it a travesty of the truth, it does no favours to the Indians Depp is so keen to support.