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In March 1846, Jack Hays and his Texas Rangers lay in wait for Comanches beneath the namesake bluff. (Wayne R. Austerman)

‘The light was still gray when the Comanches drove their stolen horses across the rocky bed of the dry ford and then swung the herd eastward toward the welcome scent of water’

Dawn was just bleeding into the eastern horizon that morning in March 1846 when a Comanche raiding party drove a herd of stolen stock across a dry ford to the north bank of the drought-parched Concho River. The raiders then swung their horses eastward to reach a deeper portion of the channel, where steep, brush-lined banks held ample water. Dust-grimed and trail-weary, the braves squinted directly into the blaze of the rising sun as they gazed up at a cliff face covered in rock paintings that variously summoned the gods’ favors or boasted of warrior exploits. At a spot on the bluff, they might mix paints and depict their recent raid on the outskirts of the Tejano settlement of San Antonio, 200 miles to the south, where they had taken scalps and stolen horses from their hated enemies.

The Comanches and their thirsty mounts neared the grove of willows and candleberry trees that shaded the deep stretch of river channel. Out of the gloom came a sudden volley of rifle shots, knocking some from their horses and causing the others to bolt. The usually wary Comanches were stunned and confused; they had been taken by surprise. The man behind the ambush was Major Jack Hays, supported by 40 Texas Rangers, and it must have given him no small pleasure. Five years earlier, Comanches had ambushed him and his company of Rangers in the thorny maw of Bandera Pass. Now he had turned the tables, and the payback that blossomed from the muzzles of his men’s weapons held a rare sweetness for the veteran fighting man.

The epic fight that ensued on the north bank of the Concho at this ancient gathering place known as Paint Rock (or Painted Rocks) brought death to many Comanches and marked the close of one phase of Hays’ already legendary career. Frontiersman William A.A. “Bigfoot” Wallace later dubbed it the fiercest battle with Comanches he had seen in four decades on the ever-dangerous Texas frontier.

The Comanches had descended upon the San Antonio area a week before, at a time when all of Texas was distracted by events to the south. A war with Mexico was brewing in the disputed border territory between the Nueces River and the Rio Grande. Texas had joined the American union in December 1845, and Mexico regarded that move as an act of war. Mexican troops marched into the area near Brownsville, south of the Rio Grande, and tensions mounted. American General Zachary Taylor and his “Army of Observation” encamped on the Gulf Coast at Corpus Christi in preparation for a move southward into the contested area.

Hays was in Corpus Christi to offer Taylor the services of the Texas Rangers as scouts in the event of war. When word reached him of the Comanche raid on settlements southwest of San Antonio, the major made a few days’ hard ride west to Captain Richard A. Gillespie’s camp on the Medina River. Upon arrival, Hays ordered Gillespie to have his 40-man company ready to march the next morning.

The Rangers were on the move at first light, led by trackers Chief Placido of the Tonkawas and the mixed-blood Cherokee Bill Chisholm. The Indian scouts soon picked up the trail of the raiders, who were heading north for their homes on the high plains above the Colorado River. These scouts, according to a Ranger’s account a decade later, “could trail them Comanches like a dog-eared hound” and “would put their head down and look like they was smelling their tracks.” Placido’s presence guaranteed that any meeting with the raiders would soon turn nasty, because the Comanches and Tonkawas had been bitter enemies long before the Texians arrived on the scene (during the colonial Spanish period in Mexico and the Southwest). The Comanche people particularly hated the Tonkawas for their practice of eating portions of their slain foemen’s bodies in acts of ritual cannibalism.

The trail led northward for more than 60 miles before crossing Bandera Pass, where Hays and his Rangers had driven back the Comanche ambush in 1841. Another day on the trail brought the 1846 Rangers to the granite batholith Enchanted Rock, where Hays had made a legendary lone stand against another band of Comanches, also in 1841. At 10 that night, the two Indian scouts determined the raiders must be headed for Paint Rock. This part of Texas had been drought-stricken for several years past, and they knew—and were certain the Comanches knew—that the deep channel of the otherwise dry Concho riverbed contained abundant water even during this parched season. Paint Rock lay about 135 miles farther north, but Hays knew if he could reach it ahead of the Comanches, it would be an ideal spot to rig an ambush.

Relying on Placido’s and Chisholm’s pathfinding skills, Hays abandoned the enemy trail and struck off across country, embarking on a grueling forced march. At one point, he allowed his men and their mounts a three-hour rest, but he then had them ride almost 24 hours straight. At 1 a.m. they reached the dry ford on the Concho. Everyone was exhausted, but they had arrived ahead of the Comanches.

Hays surveyed the terrain by moonlight and posted his men in the shelter of a draw that fed into the north bank of the river. A grove of willows and thick stands of brush provided cover for the horses, and the men commanded the 12-foot-deep, 300-yard-long pool of water in the middle of the otherwise dusty channel. Surely, the Comanches would be eager to get at that pool. Hays posted scouts to the south along the Indians’ likely approach route and allowed the rest of the men and horses to rest until morning.

On the north bank of the Concho, less than 200 yards west of where the Texians slept, loomed a 100-foot bluff. Its weathered face bore those intriguing pictographs, and at its base was a 12-foot-wide stone altar that had hosted ancient shamans’ spell-castings and perhaps caught the blood of living sacrifices. This was a place of powerful medicine for the Comanches and their Kiowa allies, but Hays intended to make it an abattoir for the returning raiders.

The Ranger pickets returned to camp just before dawn to warn of the Comanches’ approach. Hays quietly roused his men and had them take up firing positions within the screen of the willows. The Rangers eased back the hammers on large-caliber muzzleloaders, shotguns primed with “blue whistlers” (No. 00 buckshot) and Colt revolving rifles. Many of the men also carried holstered Colt Paterson revolvers. Edward Harrison, just 16, checked the cap on his piece and struggled to still his trembling hands as he faced his baptism of fire. Veterans like Wallace, Gillespie and Michael Chevallie calmly settled their stubbled cheeks against their rifles’ stocks and waited for the enemy to come into view.

The light was still gray when the Comanches drove their stolen horses across the rocky bed of the dry ford and then swung the herd eastward toward the welcome scent of water. They no doubt had cool drinks and rest—and maybe those pictographs, too—on their minds when the tree line ahead erupted in a blaze of muzzle flashes. Some of the rifle slugs struck home, spilling men and mounts into the dust like trade beads from a parted sinew string. Confusion, even panic, reigned for a minute. But most of the warriors were able to retreat out of range while the exultant Texians measured powder and patched balls for a second round of fire.

The Indians rallied quickly under the leadership of their chieftain, who carried a vividly painted shield and sported a buffalo-horn headdress with a hide visor that concealed his face from the Texians. He had several warriors recross the Concho and cut back and forth across the south bank until they picked up the Texians’ trail and could estimate the number of enemy riders. The news was good. While they had been taken by surprise and lost some men, the Comanches still greatly outnumbered the Rangers. An all-out assault, amid a flurry of musket shots, arrows and thrusting lances, figured to break the enemy line.

At full daylight, the Comanches quirted their ponies and charged the Ranger position. The bluffs north of the river funneled the mass of horsemen into a narrow frontage, restricting their ability to maneuver and making them a compact target for the waiting riflemen. The Rangers let them close to within 50 yards before loosing a volley that dropped more warriors and horses. The Comanches fired bullets and lofted arrows at the enemy as they turned and withdrew to safer ground. They had plenty of fight left, though, and so did the Rangers.

For the rest of the day, the Comanches launched repeated assaults on the brushy thicket screening the ravine, only to be repulsed each time by the lash of Ranger gunfire. So many dead horses littered the approach to the Texian position by midday that the carcasses impeded the warriors’ advance in their successive fruitless attacks. The Rangers and Indian scouts claimed the scalps of Comanches who fell closest to their position and then mockingly waved the bloody trophies at the enemy.

The Comanches’ persistence stemmed from the fact that they were in a high holy place and believed the inherent medicine would be enough to defeat the Texians and the even more hated Tonkawa scout Placido. Several warriors left Paint Rock and drove their parched horses several hours to reach the nearest alternate source of water. Meanwhile, shamans worked new spells calculated to win the Great Spirit’s favor in their struggle with “Devil Jack,” as Hays was known among tribesmen.

The Rangers were close enough to the river to scramble down the tree-lined bank under cover of darkness to water their mounts. They kept watch through the night, firing at any Indian who approached the pool of precious water or tried to retrieve a slain or wounded comrade. They listened as the keening sound of the Comanche death song rose on the wind above the Indian encampment a few hundred yards to the west. Hardly a Ranger slept.

At sunrise the Comanches tried a new tactic: A detachment of dismounted warriors took up position amid sparse cover on the south bank of the Concho just below the Rangers’ position. While they directed arrows and gunfire at the enemy position, other warriors climbed atop the bluffs and poured blind volleys of arrows and musket balls into the green canopy of the ravine. They scored no hits, however, while more than a few of them fell to Rangers’ rifles.

Under a smoke screen of covering fires, waves of mounted warriors hurled themselves toward the Texians. The first three attacks fell well short, but the fourth, coming fast on the heels of the third, had some success. A few braves actually entered the thicket and thrust their lances at Rangers. But a spattering of shots from the Colt Patersons ended that charge at powder-burn range.

The frustrated Comanches withdrew for the night, shouting insults and promises of retribution at the tired but defiant Texians. Hays and company, meanwhile, worried about running out of ammunition and about the possible arrival of Comanche reinforcements. To allow the men as much sleep as possible, commanders Hays and Gillespie stood watch. All sensed the battle would be decided in the morning

At dawn renewed attacks greeted the Rangers. While several warriors staged diversionary probes along the Ranger line, the rest of the Comanches focused on an area they deemed the weak point of Ranger firepower—where the edge of the willow and candleberry thicket approached the bluff line. Several times they came close to breaching the enemy line and spilling into the troopers’ wooded sanctuary, but Hays’ men stood fast. The Rangers were under siege but undaunted.

At 10 o’clock, the Comanche chieftain himself led a frenzied charge. Hays had marked the horn-crowned figure as a preferred target at the start of the fight, but the chieftain’s massive buffalo-hide shield kept deflecting bullets. Now the major tracked the enemy leader once more. As the chieftain turned in the saddle to encourage his braves, he dropped his shield for a moment, exposing his torso. Hays jumped at the opportunity, firing a rifle bullet into the chieftain’s painted chest and knocking him from his mount.

Upon seeing their leader fall, many warriors skidded their ponies to a stop; some tried to retrieve his body. The Rangers poured all available fire at them, driving the Comanches back. On orders from Hays, a mounted Ranger then emerged from the thicket, cast a lariat around the body of the slain chieftain and hauled him back beneath the tree line. Enraged, the Comanches launched two more attacks but only sustained more casualties. That was enough for them. Their “medicine” had gone bad; it was time to leave. They swung about and hurried off to the northwest, leaving behind some of their dead and wounded.

When Hays was certain the retreat was not a ruse, he led his men in a brief pursuit. The Rangers killed several warriors caught herding 50 stolen horses toward the now abandoned Indian encampment. Hays then returned to the river and took stock of his command. Sheaves of barbed dogwood arrow shafts jutted from tree trunks and littered the ground around the Texian position. But just one man had been wounded; young Emory Gibbons had taken a shaft through his forearm, its arrowhead coated in rattlesnake venom. The arm would bother Gibbons for decades. The only other casualty was a Ranger horse killed by an arrow.

Provisions and ammunition were low, but the Rangers weren’t complaining. Neither was Chief Placido of the Tonkawas. The Rangers had surprised the raiders and then withstood numerous Comanche charges. Some 100 warriors reportedly lay dead on the ground, and many others had no doubt been carried off to die of their wounds. In short, the Comanches had suffered a crushing defeat at one of their most sacred sites.

As with Hays’ earlier victories at Bandera Pass and Enchanted Rock, some historians have questioned his triumph at Paint Rock in the absence of official records. Information is certainly sketchy (the precise dates are unknown, for instance), but Hays and his men had performed well in battle in March 1846. Paint Rock marked the major’s final victory over the Comanches during his service with the Texas Rangers. Soon Hays would be swept up in the turmoil of the Mexican War.

Wayne R. Austerman, historian at the U.S. Army Medical Department Center & School at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, is the author of “Instructor’s Guide for the Battle of Paint Rock Staff Ride.” Suggested for further reading: They Rode for the Lone Star: The Saga of the Texas Rangers, by Thomas W. Knowles.