The Llano Estacado is a sea of grass that ebbs and flows for hundreds of miles across the Texas Panhandle. The Comanche were the lords of the Texas plains and controlled the area from the late 18th to the latter half of the 19th century. They were fearsome warriors and skilled riders, expert hunters and master horseman. Their mastery of the horse enabled them to control vast expanses with ease. During the time that the Comanche occupied the Llano Estacado millions of bison roamed the land. The bison were a great commodity for the Comanche people. Each animal was used to the greatest extent possible and provided food, clothing, and shelter. The Comanche prospered in this region. Their prosperity and way of life was threatened by American Westward expansion and the introduction of Native American Reservations. Max Crawford’s novel Lords of the Plain is a historical novel concerned with the United States 2nd Calvary and their efforts to rid the Llano and greater plains area of the Comanche people.
Lords of the Plain doesn’t implore the reader to casually breeze through its pages and pass off the story as a casual tale of a war between two very different nations; rather, this novel is dense and pedantic and Crawford pays extreme attention to detail while painting this portrait of struggle and strife. The tone of this novel is cut and dry and void of any lyricism or linguistic beauty. While reading I was not certain if Crawford had intentionally written in this style to mimic the landscape that the story takes place in or if he was unenthused about the adventures of the second cavalry and the men who fight in it. Regardless of the intention behind the prose I didn’t appreciate the story and the historically crucial tale it told. The book just was not what I enjoy reading. I passed the book off as just another class reading assignment and moved on from it.
While on a trip with Barry Lopez, Kurt Caswell, and Nita Pahdopony, the great-great-granddaughter of Quanah Parker, and her husband Harry Mithlo, a member of the Apache, the story of the Comanche people and their war with the 2nd Calvary was once again the focus of study. We were fortunate enough to visit Adobe Walls and Tule Canyon. Each location was the stage for a pivotal event in the course of the battle for the plains. Billy Dixon made his infamous mile long rifle shot at Adobe Walls. I stood in the spot that he was believed to have pulled the trigger. This nearly mile-long rifle shot was instrumental in stopping the Comanche efforts to lay siege to the North Texas trade outpost.
Tule Canyon was the site of a mass execution of Comanche horses that crippled the Comanche’s ability to fight and all but ensured an American victory. Over 600 horses were slaughtered in an attempt to debilitate the Comanche. I was standing where the blood had spilled alongside the great granddaughter of the Comanche chief who, with his people, used these horses in their everyday lives. The horses were indescribably valuable to the Comanche. I stood alongside a woman whose heritage was deeply rooted in the livelihood of these horses. I stood alongside her as she remembered the spirits of the horses and the Comanche that came before. I was witnessing history. It may not be a well reported history, or an event that school children will learn about, but it was history nonetheless and I was deep in the trenches experiencing a moment that could never, and would never, be replicated. As we walked across the canyon and surrounding hills Nita’s husband, Harry, told us that a song had come to him during the drive to the canyon. Harry wanted to sing this song to bless the horses and calm the restless spirit that was so evident throughout this area. Harry pulled out his ceremonial drum and began to perform his horse song. This song had never been sung before, no one had heard it, it was unique to this moment and I was immersed in it.
As Harry performed his song my mind drifted away from the story of the horses slaughtered here and back to the tale that Crawford told about the American Calvary’s experience acting as the executioner. Shot by rifle shot they executed the lifeblood of a nation, of people. I was standing in the chapters that came too late for Crawford to pen.
The Sowell Collection’s involvement with prominent nature writers was the foundation that made this experience possible. Without their involvement this invaluable experience may have never presented itself. Witnessing the Comanche people bless the spirits of the horses they loved that were wrongly slaughtered was a once in a lifetime opportunity. This event will never take place again. Those moments will never be recreated. I witnessed history.
This blog entry was written by guest contributor Michael Austin.