Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Finding Common Ground

The age-old search to understand each other

Two days before Spring, March 19, 1840, there was a council between General Hugh McLeod and officials of the four year old Republic of Texas and a delegation of 12 Comanche chiefs from around the area, seeking a solution to their problems.

After the Republic of Texas was founded in 1836, Sam Houston tried to keep the Indian's treaties with the Spanish and Mexicans in working order. Trouble between the whites and Indians sprung up without rhyme or reason, here and there. Keeping treaties with one group meant nothing to others, including Caddos or Kiowas.

The Comanche made up some 12 tribes with over 30 roaming bands that operated independently. With no one chief in charge, the bands raided farms and captured whites as they pleased. The Texans could not fathom the how or why of the Indians continued breaking the treaties that demanded the return of captive hostages.

Had General Sam Houston been involved rather than McLeod there was the possibility of a peaceful solution. Sam Houston had lived with and respected the Indians. With all his faults Sam Houston was ahead of his times and a legend in his own time.

This San Antonio council meeting followed several bloody and failed attempts for the two groups to find any solution. Both lived in their own world and thought of the other side as demons and usurpers. This attitude prevailed despite the fact that the Indian people were the first Americans.

"At that time when we had these troubles it was to take my country away from me ... they wanted my country and I was in trouble defending it." -- Chitto Harjo. (A full blood Creek, who in 1906 recorded his memories. See Angie Debo's "A History of the Indians of the United States, 9th printing, page 22.)

Under a truce the Comanche leaders met with General Hugh McLeod in San Antonio, then Texas' largest city. The Spaniards founded San Antonio in 1718. The Indians wanted the Texan victors over the Mexicans, to recognize their well-laid out boundaries; to respect their sovereign land, possibly even treat each other as humans.

The Texans, in turn, wanted the Comanches to release white hostages they held. The discussions at the gathering, later known as the bloody Council House conflict, did not go well from the start.

With no unified Comanche front, of which the Texans knew nothing, the participants grew farther and father apart. They thought of Indians as vicious savages. The Comanches went expecting the kind of treaties they had with the Spanish which allowed peaceful trade in exchange for captives. They did not heed Buffalo Hump's warning that the whites could not be trusted.

The Indians brought with them one white captive, Miss Matilda Lockhart, age 16. She had been held 18 months and her release was a "terrible blunder," according to historian T. R. Fehrenbach. "Matilda had been so hideously abused during her captivity, and her appearance was to turn this day..."

Beyond Matilda's sexual humiliations, she had been tortured by the women. She told there were 15 additional white captives in the camp. "The Comanches were oblivious of this stunning effect on the Texans" (Fehrenbach).

Chief Muguara said he would return the prisoners in exchange for ammunition. That did not sit well with the Texas, who threatened to make Muguara a prisioner which only made the Indians angry.

Unfortunately, the council ended with the deaths of many Comanche leaders who wrongly believed that the flag of truce would protect them from harm. Texans also died in the melee that followed. McLeod, in his report the next day, noted 30 Comanche males, 3 women and 2 children were killed. They also took 27 women and 2 old men prisoner. Seven Texans died and 10 were wounded.

Confabs such as the 1840 exchange between the whites and the Indians were more the norm than the exception. The attempt to understand people who are different is faced in every generation, but every effort must be made to find mutual respect and ways to live together.

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