In 1850 a Comanche war party attacked Fort Worth— at least according to early settler and self-styled historian Howard Peak, whose titillating tall tale remains part of local lore.
Bloodcurdling war whoops break the stillness of a pleasant summer morning as a band of painted savages gallops from the tallgrass, bearing down on a family of settlers. The panic-stricken whites grab weapons and run for cover, but they don’t have a prayer. The raiders slaughter most and carry the others into captivity.
Indians, mostly Comanche and Kiowa war parties, mounted hundreds of such raids on the Texas frontier in the 1830s and 1840s. They killed, stole livestock and carried off women and children. Few of those captives ever returned to civilization. Some of those who did contributed to the “captivity narrative,” a peculiarly American literary genre that dates from Colonial times. After the mid–19th century, large-scale Indian raids were mostly a thing of the past, but they lived on in stories told to later generations. Old-timers who related such harrowing tales counted on the credulity and overactive imaginations of their audiences.
One of the biggest tellers of such tall tales was Howard W. Peak, scion of one of the distinguished old families of Dallas and Fort Worth. His father, Dr. Carroll M. Peak, relocated his family from Dallas to Fort Worth in September 1853 when the latter was little more than a hamlet on the bluff overlooking the Trinity River. There Howard was born on June 14, 1856. The next year Dr. Peak’s sister Juliette (Howard’s aunt) married Fort Worth attorney Archibald Fowler, whose only claim to fame would be the murder of Tarrant County Sheriff John York in August 1861 (see “Double Killing in Fort Worth,” by Richard Selcer, in the June 2010 Wild West). Dr. Peak is remembered as the first historian of Fort Worth, and when he died in February 1885 after a distinguished public career, his son assumed that mantle.
Years later Howard Peak was among the few surviving old-timers who regularly regaled audiences with tales of deadly Indian raids. Peak told the granddaddy of local tall tales, about “the last Indian raid on Fort Worth” by fearsome Comanches, those self-styled “Lords of the Plains” who terrorized the Texas frontier for decades. Comanches usually targeted isolated homesteads, but in Peak’s telling they uncharacteristically swooped down on a U.S. Army post—the first clue that the whole story may be flapdoodle.
Fort Worth began life in 1849 as an Army outpost on the Trinity River founded by a troop of 2nd Dragoons under Major Ripley Allen Arnold. In military parlance an “outpost” was a satellite of a major fort, in this case Fort Graham, some 70 miles to the south on the Brazos River. Camp Worth occupied a high bluff on the Trinity overlooking the confluence of the West and Clear forks. Its garrison never numbered more than 80 men and usually included both dragoons and infantry, based on a counterintuitive U.S. Army doctrine that called for mounted troops to serve as a trip wire on the frontier, while the infantry would chase down any Indians who slipped through. The dragoons at Fort Worth conducted regular scouts 50 to 100 miles up and down the line to seal the frontier against Indian depredations.
When the Army arrived in north Texas in 1849, the frontier was rife with tension. Middleton Tate Johnson, an influential landowner and an officer in the Texas Rangers, wrote Brig. Gen. William S. Harney, commanding all dragoons in Texas, to complain that “the Indians are stealing continually.” Of greater concern to Johnson was that settlers were “killing the Indians whenever they see them,” without regard for guilt or innocence. “This must soon lead to general hostility,” he warned, begging for troops to be sent to the area.
Major General George M. Brooke, commanding the department that comprised most of settled Texas, likewise predicted a general Indian uprising all up and down the frontier. But Major Arnold, from his vantage point on the Trinity, did not share Brooke’s concern. In May 1850 he reported, “Indians peaceable in my vicinity…[being principally] engaged at their corn patches.” At the time he had just 39 dragoons and 33 infantry present for duty, so he had good reason to be grateful for peace and quiet. Lieutenant William H.C. Whiting, who came through the area on an inspection tour in 1849, also reported all quiet on the northwestern frontier, adding this qualifier: “Occasionally a horse or beef is stolen, but murders are of rare occurrence.” The bottom line was that no one on the scene saw any threat of Comanche war parties on the upper Trinity. Thus in June 1850 the garrison at Fort Worth was reduced to 39 men and officers—a skeleton force appropriate for a peaceful outpost.
By 1853 the frontier had bypassed Fort Worth on its westward march, so the Army shut down the post and redeployed the troops to other threatened points. For the first time in four years the little settlement on the Trinity was bereft of its military garrison. Fortunately, the tribes in the vicinity, including the Tonkawa, Delaware, Anadarko and Hainai, were not warlike; on the contrary, U.S. troops and Texas Rangers often used them as scouts and protected them from the Comanches and Kiowas. The government collectively referred to these tribes as “allied bands.” Over the years disease and the more warlike Plains Indians had broken their spirit and decimated their numbers. They roamed freely between the Brazos and Red rivers, surviving by stealing and begging. Whites felt more contempt for them than fear. As for the ever-dangerous Comanches, by the early 1850s they had withdrawn westward onto the Llano Estacado (Staked Plain) as a result of an 1846 treaty that forced them to acknowledge the sovereignty of the United States. It was a very fragile peace, but it held on the Trinity.
Since he had not even been born by 1850, Howard Peak could not claim first-person knowledge of the alleged Comanche attack on Fort Worth that year. But he did have an unimpeachable source—his father. The younger Peak claimed to have happened across the story in an old folder discovered in Dr. Peak’s desk after his death. This was convenient, as in later years it meant the elder Peak could not confirm the story. Nor has anyone else laid eyes on the original document. By the time the story appeared in Howard Peak’s memoir nearly 80 years after it supposedly occurred, old-timers from that era were “damn few, and they’re all dead,” to paraphrase an old Scottish toast.
As Peak related the story in A Ranger of Commerce (Naylor Printing Co., 1929), Chief Jim Ned assembled a Comanche war party in Palo Pinto County (about 60 miles west of Fort Worth), home to a village of some 400 to 500 Comanches. (The quotes that follow come from Peak.) The immediate cause of the war preparations was that a scouting party out of Fort Worth had recently killed one of the chief’s favorite warriors. In retaliation, Jim Ned vowed to wipe Fort Worth out of existence. After the traditional war dance under a Comanche moon to arouse the warriors’ “hate and venom,” they painted themselves and donned “gaudy feathers, and trinkets carved out of human bones, and scalps torn from the heads of the hated whites.” The next day 200 warriors rode out for Fort Worth. The chief split his force, taking half with him on a northeasterly route while his lieutenant, Chief Feathertail, took the other half on a southeasterly route. The plan was to reunite two days later in a “hidden valley” a few miles northwest of Fort Worth. Jim Ned’s group arrived at the rendezvous point first and set up camp. Everything went according to plan until an “adventurous fur trapper by the name of Cockerell” (no first name) stumbled upon their camp. Observing what was apparently a war party bent on plunder and murder, he slipped away and rode at full speed to warn Fort Worth. Within an hour Major Arnold had assembled “40 dragoons” (?), including his second-in-command and “two Army surgeons” (?), plus “ambulances and equipment wagons” (?) in a counterstrike force. (The question marks denote details of Peak’s story contradicted by Army records.)
With Cockerell as their guide, Arnold and his dragoons sneaked up on the Indian encampment and surrounded it undetected. Arnold, showing he had not slept through his tactics classes at West Point (class of 1838), divided his force to hit the enemy from three sides—one group led by Captain Robert P. Maclay, another by Lieutenant Washington P. Street and the third by himself. They left behind the ambulances and wagons and closed in, leading their horses by the reins. Fortunately, none of the horses whinnied to give them away, and the Indians apparently did not have a guard mounted around the camp. At Arnold’s signal the soldiers mounted up and charged the camp with a whoop. Under the Comanche moon they wreaked “frightfull” (sic) carnage with their repeating carbines. The troopers rode down their foes where they stood or chased them into the brush as the Indians desperately tried to escape. In the melee Jim Ned managed to get to his horse and escape. He made it to Feathertail’s group and alerted them to the waiting trap. In taking the Comanches by surprise, the soldiers had neatly turned the tables. The Indians gave up any idea of attacking Fort Worth and headed back to their village.
Meanwhile, back at the scene of the battle, Arnold took stock of his victory. The soldiers had killed 37 Indians and wounded another 15 so severely they could not escape. The soldiers “dispatched” the wounded without any compunction, which may be the most credible part of the entire story. They themselves had suffered no killed or wounded. It was a complete victory that any commander would have been proud to report to his superiors, but Arnold was not about to rest on his laurels. He allowed his men to have breakfast and then took up the pursuit of Jim Ned and the rest of his war party. The dragoons followed the Indians for two days before reaching their village. Then, at a war council called by Arnold, they decided to attack at dawn the next morning. As the sun rose, the soldiers, using the same tactics that had worked so well before, struck from three sides, only this time on foot. Now, however, it was the Comanches who were waiting in ambush, and when the troopers swept down on the encampment, the warriors poured a devastating shower of arrows into them. The fight went on for several hours, punctuated by “the deafening peal of firearms, the groans of the wounded and the wailing of squaws and children.” In the end, however, the soldiers’ repeating carbines spelled the difference between victory and defeat, or so Peak claimed. When Feathertail fell, the remaining Indians made their getaway through a “secret exit, leading from the grotto into an almost impenetrable canyon.” This time Arnold did not pursue.
When the major toted up the casualties, there were 45 dead Indians, while his own losses numbered “five killed and 15 wounded.” While a burial detail did its work, “Surgeons Halliday [sic] and Standifer” provided first-aid to the wounded before loading them into the ambulances for the return to Fort Worth.
But Peak’s account doesn’t end there. Chief Jim Ned refused to admit defeat and swore revenge. Six months later he led another raiding party against the little outpost on the Trinity. This time the Comanches managed to sneak up as close as a hilltop just to the southwest of the post. They were preparing to ride down on the garrison when sighted by sentries. Major Arnold ordered his “6-pound howitzer” into action, dropping a shell into the midst of the Indians. The explosion dispersed the Indians “in great confusion over the bluff,” and they beat a hasty retreat. The dragoons mounted up and gave chase, killing a number of Indians before giving up the pursuit. The Comanches “never attempted a repetition of such bold hostility,” as Jim Ned “recognized the futility of continued warfare, accepted amnesty and lived a peaceful life until his death some years later.”
At least that’s the way Howard Peak told it.
The trouble is that Peak’s story is riddled with narrative inconsistencies, logical improbabilities and provable errors of fact. To begin with, the central villain of the piece, Jim Ned, was not a Comanche but a Delaware and thus a sworn enemy of the Comanches. In 1850 he was chief of a peaceable band of about 65 Delawares that lived in Wise County and traded with settlers in Tarrant County. Peak referred to him as “Ned,” as if that were his last name. Conveniently for Peak, Jim Ned’s life dates are unknown, but we do know he spent his sunset years as a reservation Indian, which strongly suggests that Texas authorities had no beef against him. The only recorded instance that he ever took part in a battle dates from 1847; otherwise, he was known to the soldiers at Fort Worth as a “good Indian.” In 1853 Major Hamilton Merrill wrote to his superiors from Fort Worth asking for authorization to pay Jim Ned “as guide, etc.” Could this be the same chief who three years earlier was bent on annihilating the garrison?
Second but equally important, no troop of U.S. cavalry or Texas Rangers ever rode out against the Comanches without taking along a contingent of Tonkawa or Delaware scouts. It would have been a waste of time at best, suicide at worst. Because almost every hand, Indian or white, was turned against them, the Comanches were said by one Texas Ranger to be “proverbial for their sleepless vigilance” against sneak attack. In the words of Texas historian James DeShields, they “scanned for the anticipated ambuscade” whether in camp or on the march. Arnold would not have been foolish enough to go looking for a Comanche war party with only a white trapper to lead him.
Furthermore, the Indians’ tactics and behavior do not sound like anything witnessed in the well-chronicled fights between whites and Comanche warriors at such spots as Antelope Hills (1858) or the Pease River (1860). Peak’s descriptions of the clashes (ambush, flight, chase, ambush) sound more like Hollywood-style history than actual military engagements.
The identities of the central white characters in Peak’s story are also problematical. He provides no first name for the courageous fur trapper Cockerell, who does not show up in any public record. Captain Robert Maclay was the 8th Infantry officer who brought Company F to Fort Worth in October 1849 to jointly occupy the place with the dragoons. Neither he nor his men would have ridden out with Arnold to attack the Indians, simply because they were not mounted troops. Lieutenant Washington Street was likewise with the 8th Infantry and not the dragoons. During Arnold’s stint at Fort Worth (1849–1851) he only ever had one subaltern, Lieutenant Jonas P. Holliday, who was on sick leave a good part of that time. Of the two surgeons referred to by Peak, Jesse M. Standifer was a civilian doctor who was only at the post from June through October 1849. “Halliday” was presumably Lieutenant Holliday, who was attached to Company B, 2nd Dragoons, and not even a medical officer. What’s more, no Army outpost the size of Fort Worth ever had two medical officers.
In perhaps most damning evidence against Peak’s account, the post returns for Fort Worth show no soldier ever lost to hostile action in the four years it was an active outpost, nor does Arnold’s correspondence with the War Department mention any engagement with Indians. Unfortunately, no regimental returns exist for the 2nd Dragoons, but post returns record in detail what every member of a garrison did outside the normal routine.
On top of everything else, the equipment and arms Peak described don’t match the historical record. Fort Worth was never assigned ambulances or wagons, and the U.S. Army Quartermaster Department kept strict account of such things. As Fort Worth was only an outpost, never a real fort, it had no need of such transportation. It did have a mountain howitzer (a short-barreled smoothbore gun famous for its light weight and punch), by Special Orders No. 42 of July 9, 1849, but it was a 12- pounder, not a 6-pounder, and there is no record of it ever having been fired in anger. A more glaring problem with Peak’s story, however, is the “repeating carbine” with which he said the troops were armed. There was simply no such thing as a repeating carbine in 1850. The first one adopted by the U.S. Army was the Spencer seven-shot carbine developed by inventor Christopher Spencer between 1854 and 1860 and not purchased by the Army until 1863. In 1850 the troopers would have been as amazed as the Indians to be armed with repeating rifles.
The final evidence discrediting Peak’s purported Comanche raid is his own father’s testimony. In 1877 Fort Worth officials tapped Carroll Peak to give the historic address as they dedicated the cornerstone for the second Tarrant County Courthouse. In his address that day he told how back in 1852 a report of Comanches besieging Fort Worth reached Dallas, 30 miles to the east. The Dallasites quickly raised a relief force that reached Fort Worth at noon the next day. According to Dr. Peak, “the gallant major was quite surprised,” as there had been no Indian attack. During the four-year existence of Fort Worth and for the remainder of the decade, according to the elder Peak, Indian raiding parties never molested the little community on the bluff. Since Dr. Peak spoke of these events from personal experience and in living memory of those in attendance, how do we explain son Howard Peak’s account, supposedly drawn from a document written by his father yet contradicting everything the elder Peak said in 1877?
Consider the source,” parents often counsel children about the stories they hear. Howard W. Peak, by his own count, spent 52 years plying Texas roads as a traveling salesman and not a single day in a real history class. After retiring from life on the road, he started a second career as Fort Worth’s resident historian, or, as he put it, “an eyewitness of the Texas pioneer days.” Over more than two decades he gave countless speeches and interviews, authored a series of articles for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and was employed by the Fort Worth Independent School District to lecture students on “the city’s early history.” He capped this second career with his 1929 memoir, A Ranger of Commerce. Peak based his claim to authority on being “the first male child born in Fort Worth,” not to mention that in later years nary a contemporary remained alive to challenge his version of things.
Another Fort Worth old-timer was Sgt. Maj. Abraham “Abe” Harris, who described a similar-sounding 1850 action by a party of some 300 Comanches and Caddos reportedly led by Chief Towash. They were chasing a band of Tonkawas who had placed themselves under the protection of Major Arnold. Towash sent a “rag messenger” (an Indian bearing a flag of truce) to demand Arnold turn over the Tonkawas or be annihilated. Although Arnold had fewer than 50 men, he told the messenger he was “not in the habit of serving up his guests for breakfast,” and if the Indians wanted a fight, they could come and get it. Then he placed his men in line of battle and ordered the fort’s howitzer crew to “graze the heads of the big bucks over there if you can without hitting them.” A well-placed shot scattered the Indians, and that, according to Harris, was the only Indian attack ever launched against Fort Worth. Harris’ story is less detailed but bears similarities to Howard Peak’s, including numerous historical gaffes. For instance, Towash was a chief of the Hainai Indians not the Comanches, and there is no record of Comanches ever fighting alongside the Hainais any more than they did the Delawares.
Returning to Howard Peak, the newspapers of his day generously said he combined history with legend. He did it so well, in fact, it is hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. For most of his audience it was history, if only because the white-haired gentleman said so, and most of his contemporaries were long since dead by the time he became a celebrity. He sprinkled in bogus details with just enough facts to create wonderful, thrilling stories of a time just beyond living memory.
But Peak hoisted himself on his own petard with his tale of a phantom Comanche raid, committing two fatal mistakes: First, he oversalted the story with historical details, and second, he put it down on paper. So many of the details were so demonstrably false that committing them to paper only opened the door for later historians to debunk his account at leisure. Had he bothered to consult U.S. Army records in the National Archives, he could have preserved his posthumous reputation. In the end, however, Peak’s Comanche raiders were ghosts, figments of his imagination.
But that’s not the end of the story. Howard Peak was so enamored with tales of Comanche attacks that one wasn’t good enough; he had to create yet another in an interview he gave to The Fort Worth Record around the turn of the 19th century. This raid supposedly occurred in 1860 and was distinguished from the 1850 attack by not striking directly at Fort Worth. As Peak told it, the Comanches went on the warpath, murdering settlers and stealing livestock not 10 miles from town. Governor Sam Houston called out the Rangers to quell the uprising, and a group of Fort Worth volunteers and a band of Tonkawa Indians rode with them. Dr. Carroll Peak went along as the party’s surgeon. Peak stated that part of their mission was to rescue Cynthia Ann Parker, who had been carried off by the Comanches from her family’s homestead in 1836 and eventually adopted into the tribe. History indeed records that Texas Rangers recaptured Parker in 1860, but there is no mention of Comanche raiders coming within 10 miles of Fort Worth or of local volunteers riding with the Rangers.
If Howard Peak’s and Abe Harris’ tales of phantom Comanche raids had died with their tellers, it would be one thing. But so many sources have chronicled that 1850 raid so many times that it has been incorporated into the city’s history as fact and taught to schoolchildren. There is even a monument to the raid that never occurred—a small concrete obelisk erected in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration on a shaded lawn on the heights due west of downtown. Ironically, it does not even stand on the spot where Peak said Jim Ned’s men were gathered when the howitzer shell landed in their midst; that site lies a half-mile to the south. Thus a misplaced historic marker marks the spot where a nonexistent war party gathered to attack a “fort” that wasn’t really a fort. History doesn’t get any more warped than that.
Richard Selcer of FortWorth is a frequent contributor to Wild West. His latest book, coauthored by Kevin S.Foster,is Written in Blood: The History of Fort Worth’s Fallen Lawmen, Vol. 2, 1910–1928. For further reading see Selcer’s The Fort That Became a City and Howard W. Peak’s A Ranger of Commerce: Or, 52 Years on the Road.
Originally published in the October 2013 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.