Jim Harris

Tragedy Just North & East of Lea:

Indians, Buffalo Soldiers, Buff Hunters

            Just a few miles north of present-day Lea County one hundred and forty-three years ago this summer, one of American history’s epic tragedies took place.

            The participants were Native Americans, US Military forces, buffalo hunters, horses, and mules, all in a setting that also had an antagonist in a drama that was as exciting as a Shakespearian tragedy.

            It is a narrative that in some ways says something about the conflicts Americans have today over such subjects as the policing of residents, particularly African-Americans in large cities.

            What took place in July of 1877 on the Staked Plains of West Texas and Eastern New Mexico involved black US soldiers, called Buffalo Soldiers, pursuing, capturing, and killing Comanche and Apache Indians in some of the last battles waged to remove Native Americans from their territory on the Southern Plains, a region that had been their home for centuries.

            How do the events that year relate to 2020?

            The black soldiers then were fighting an ethnic people, the Indians, in an America that for the most part saw the black soldiers as inferiors who did not deserve to have the rights of white Americans and were not equal in any respects.

            That was exactly the attitude of the American government toward the Indians.  In many ways the Indians and the black soldiers were in the same class in a theoretically classless society.

            Some readers may be aware of movie director Spike Lee’s new film entitled  “Da 5 Bloods,” which is a story of contemporary black US soldiers visiting Viet Nam where they fought as a team in the American war there in the 1960s and early 1970s.

            Although I have not seen the movie, I understand from a review in “The New Yorker” that Lee’s film has to do with the ex-soldiers grappling with the idea that they were pursuing mostly rural and marginalized Vietnamese people from another part of the world while at the same time they did not feel that back home they or other people of color had the same rights and opportunities America offered white people.

            Who can imagine such a feeling?  I can’t imagine such a feeling.

            And how about the feelings of the combatants on the Llano Estacado in July of 1877?

            A group of 170 Comanche warriors and their families had escaped from their Oklahoma reservation–a prison without fences–in December of 1876.  They established a camp near the western caprock in New Mexico, and made raids into Texas.       

            Led by Captain Nicholas Nolan from Fort Concho, soldiers tracked them and were joined in the hunt by a large group of buffalo hunters who had been raided by the Comanches.  

            Led by the Comanche Chief Quannah Parker, a second group of Comanches were tracking the renegades in an attempt to get them to come back to the reservation.

            This story is a complex and complicated narrative to relate in just a few sentences, the four groups meeting at different times, with their narratives of the encounters varying in many details.

            However, the results of several days of trackings and encounters saw several soldiers and buffalo hunters dying in harrowing deaths from starvation and thirst on both sides of the New Mexico and Texas line, and some warriors and squaws being killed by those pursuing them.

            But the final outcome saw most all of the Indians riding together back to their reservation in Oklahoma, and the defeated and lost soldiers struggling back to Fort Concho with the help of rescue operations sent out from the fort.

            You can find many accounts of that military summer of 1877 online at web sites such as the Texas State Historical Association’s Handbook of Texas History.

            The best summary of the episode, in my opinion, is by the late Roswell historian Elvis Fleming in a 1973 “Southwest Heritage Magazine” published in Hobbs.

            Fleming sums up the narrative by writing that the story is about “how Indians outsmarted both cavalry and buffalo hunters on the Llano Estacado of Eastern New Mexico and Northwest Texas.”

            The last paragraph of Fleming’s essay reads as follows:

            “The little hill (where several soldiers died) continues to stand as a monument of sorts to the ‘buffalo soldiers’ and the role they played in helping to remove the last Comanche menace to the settlement of the Staked Plains by Anglo-American ranchers and farmers.”

            This western military episode was no mass slaughter, like “Little Bighorn” in 1876 in eastern Wyoming on the plains to the north several hundred miles.

            What happened near Lea in Roosevelt County in July, 1877, was not like the slaughter of 200 Indians at Sand Creek some 200 miles to the north in 1864 in southeastern Colorado.

            However, when Quanah Parker and led his warriors back to Fort Sill and the Comanche reservation in Oklahoma, his actions signaled the end of the war between the US Government and the Plains Indians in the south and north plains.

            Quanah Parker went to his new home in Oklahoma as a triumphant leader of his bands of antelope Comanche, but he also traveled there as the symbolic leader of the defeated Native American tribes of the continent.

            It was the tragic end of the first nations of North America and the most important turning point in their life ways here.   

            They won the battles with Captain Nolan, but they lost the war with the United States.