The Settlers’ War: The Struggle for the Texas Frontier in the 1860s, by Gregory Michno, Caxton Press, Caldwell, Idaho, 2011, $24.95
When someone mentions the Indian wars, most of us think of soldiers attacking Indian villages in winter, Plains warriors overwhelming certain groups of cavalrymen, or the U.S. Army in pursuit of elusive “hostiles.” In Texas things were different. There was savagery and heroism as elsewhere, of course, but most of the violent clashes involved Indians and settlers (Anglos and Hispanics) rather than Indians and soldiers or, for that matter, Texas Rangers. “In Texas,” writes author Gregory Michno in the introduction to this fine 448-page contribution to his string of Indian wars books, “the noncombatants bore the brunt of the warfare, losing far more than the soldiers who were supposedly there to protect them….Soldiers and Rangers were largely ineffective.”
The raiding, killing and thefts in Texas were overwhelming, especially during the 1860s. Michno gives readers more than a taste of the often nasty life-and-death struggle on the Lone Star State’s frontier, using as his primary source the Indian Depredation Claims in the National Archives. Michno found more than 2,200 depredation claims, some detailed, some not, about 1,200 of which dated from the 1860s, which the author calls “the bloodiest decade of the Western Indian wars.”
It was mostly the Comanches and Kiowas who made Texas such a dangerous place for farmers and ranchers. Michno points out that Comanches limited their raids in New Mexico—where residents had lots of sheep the Indians did not want and few horses—and concentrated on Texas and Old Mexico. “By 1860,” writes Michno, “it appeared that the Kiowas and Comanches were as deeply involved in the ‘stock business’ as the horsemen and cattlemen.” These raiders had little interest in signing treaties, unless done to allow time to build up their forces or receive gifts from the whites. According to Michno, some Indians did honor their treaties with the Confederate States and that “probably the greatest number of raids on Texas soil occurred in 1866,” the year after the Civil War ended.
Things did change in Texas in the 1870s, Michno says, when the settlers’ war became a soldiers’ war, but not until after “likely the most sustained and destructive assault that Native Americans ever made on a pioneer population.” What changed was that fewer Comanches and Kiowas mounted raids, due mostly to disease and starvation rather than warfare. The author opines that “the number of soldiers doesn’t make any significant difference in a guerrilla war,” a lesson the United States is still learning today.