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He and other Lipans and Tonkawas worked against the Comanches.

Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie drove his 4th U.S. Cavalry from Fort Concho north into the Texas Caprock in August 1874, commanding three of five columns the Army fielded to corner renegade Kiowas and Comanches. With Mackenzie were some of the best scouts on the southern Plains—Tonkawas and Lipan Apaches from Fort Griffin.

Men from both tribes had long served as scouts for the Army and the Texas Rangers. Following a massacre of their people by Comanches and other tribes early in the Civil War, the Tonkawas had moved from fort to fort, settling at Fort Griffin in 1868. Lieutenant Richard Henry Pratt, who would later found Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, shaped the demoralized Tonkawas into an effective trailing and fighting force.

The Lipans and Tonkawas had been allied for decades, especially after Lipans rescued their Tonkawa friends from Texas colonists bent on wiping them out. In 1873, when Mackenzie raided Apache and Kickapoo camps in Mexico, captured Lipans asked to join the Tonkawas at Fort Griffin and also serve as scouts. “The Lapans [sic] are anxious to come to this point to settle down with the Tonkawas and to be at peace with the military,” wrote Captain John W. Clous. “To accomplish all this, they claim the good office of [Chief] Castile and his tribe, who are the friends of the whites and who by their friendship are in good circumstances, while the Lapans are poor.”

When the Lipans arrived in 1874, they erected seven tepees in a pecan grove on Collins Creek, west of the fort. On enlistment the scouts were given English names but still painted themselves red and yellow. They were tall, 5-foot-8 or more, with the scout sergeant, known to the white men only as Johnson, brushing 6 feet. Scouting allowed them to fight their old enemies, the Comanches. Mackenzie had a high opinion of the Fort Griffin scouts and considered them essential to any campaign in the Texas Panhandle.

Some claimed Johnson was half Mexican, but the most reliable sources, including Mackenzie himself, said Johnson had a Tonkawa father and Lipan mother; in Apache tradition that made him a Lipan. He had been living with the Tonkawas, but in 1873 he became a Lipan headman. Johnson trained the boys of the tribe to become warriors. Carrying a whip, he made them jump in the river, even if they had to cut a hole in the ice.

The Red River War, pitting Comanche, Kiowa, Southern Cheyenne and Southern Arapaho warriors against the U.S. Army, began in June 1874. The hostile tribes usually evaded the troops, which aggravated the impatient, impulsive Mackenzie. The colonel learned on September 20 that many of the enemy had moved north into the Palo Duro Canyon area and sent the reliable Johnson to locate the camp. Two days later Johnson returned, announcing the enemy was at hand.

Troops threaded the canyon trails leading to Palo Duro, whose amber-and rust-colored walls sheltered five camps comprising hundreds of lodges. On September 28, with scouts in the lead, Mackenzie’s men scrambled down 900 feet to the canyon floor. Some of the Tonkawa women, angry at the Comanches, fought alongside their husbands. After routing the renegade Indians and capturing their herd of some 1,400 horses, the troops burned the camps.

Mackenzie gave Johnson his choice of 40 horses to reward his discovery and let the other scouts choose horses. The soldiers then shot the remaining horses to keep the enemy afoot. The Battle of Palo Duro claimed few lives but left the renegade tribes destitute, forcing them to straggle into the Fort Sill reservation (in what was then Indian Territory and is now Oklahoma) in coming months.

Johnson’s new wealth may have inspired thoughts of matrimony. He had befriended the Creaton family and, during frequent visits to their home in the town of Fort Griffin (adjacent to the fort), had become enamored of Ida Creaton. One Sunday afternoon Johnson, dressed in a suit, paid a call. In 1928 the Dallas Morning News described the visit:

Johnson offered John Creaton 20 ponies for his sister, saying, “She make much pretty squaw.”

Creaton said Ida wasn’t for sale: “We need her here. She don’t want to marry.”

Johnson argued, “Twenty ponies big lot for one wife.”

The answer was still no. A few weeks later an inebriated Johnson lunged at John Creaton, who struck the scout sergeant on the chin and carried him to the fort to cool off in the guardhouse.

Misinformation aside (Lipans didn’t buy their wives but did offer generous gifts to prospective in-laws), we might dismiss this yarn altogether if not for an archived portrait of Johnson and Ida; the two struck a standard pose for husband and wife, which tells us Ida did have a relationship with the tall, handsome Johnson. Her family probably objected.

Despite the scouts’ good work in the Red River campaign, the Indians at Fort Griffin faced starvation after an 1874 government order halted rations to them. The Interior Department, however, authorized $375 in 1875 to buy cows and goats for the 119 Tonkawas and 26 Lipans, “whose condition,” according to Lt. Col. George P. Buell, “ is so deplorable that something should be done for them.” Buell also sent scouts out under the protection of troops to hunt buffalo.

Johnson saw action again in spring 1877, after a small group of Comanches left Indian Territory to hunt in Texas and engaged in a bloody scrap with buffalo hunters. Captain Phillip L. Lee, commander at Fort Griffin, had orders to return them to the reservation. In early May, Johnson learned the Comanches were camped at Silver (aka Quemado) Lake. The soldiers reached the camp at sunrise on May 4. Lee split his forces to approach from the south and north. The Comanches scrambled for their horses as the soldiers attacked. In the brief fight four Comanches and one soldier died. It was the last fight for troops at Fort Griffin.

Captain Javan B. Irvine, post commander and acting agent, pleaded in 1879 for supplies for his scouts. His predecessor had reduced the already small ration by a third to stretch supplies over the fiscal year, and he was running out of funds. He noted that even a casual observer could see that they were “in a destitute, starving condition.”

One rancher allowed the scouts’ families to plant on his land and even took them hunting. They earned a little money selling pecans to the local mercantile. Irvine suggested buying or leasing land for them. The government wanted to move both groups to Indian Territory, but Johnson and the other headmen objected. They were born in Texas and had lived there in peace, they argued.

The Fort Griffin scouts got a reprieve in 1880, when they served during the final outbreak of Victorio, chief of the Warm Springs Apaches in New Mexico Territory. After returning, they helped a sheriff’s posse now and then but had no other work, and drought destroyed their crops. Still they hung on.

Most frontier towns loathed their Indian neighbors, but not Fort Griffin. In 1881 citizens sent a memorial to the state legislature noting that the Tonkawas’ “sacrifice in fighting for whites” had earned them the hatred of other tribes, and that exposure and war had further reduced them. They asked legislators to buy at least 3,000 acres, appoint an agent, build comfortable quarters, buy farm tools, and provide food and clothing for two years. “This is a step that should have been taken long ago,” the petition stated.

Two months later, with the fort soon to be abandoned, the Fort Griffin Echo spoke up for the Tonkawas:

The Tonkawas have lived in Texas many years, they look upon Texas as their home, and they have no desire to leave it; on the contrary, they dare not go where any of the wild tribes can get at them, for then there would be no Tonkawas left after the battle which would certainly follow.

In October 1884 the Tonkawas and Lipans left Texas and eventually settled on the vacated Nez Perce reservation in Indian Territory. Around 1892 disease did to Johnson, the valiant old scout sergeant, what bullets couldn’t. Tonkawas absorbed the Lipan remnant, but Lipan descendants among the Tonkawas still visit relatives at the Mescalero Reservation in New Mexico.


Originally published in the April 2014 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.