In the early 1820’s, Stephen F. Austin led a group of approximately 300 families to an area that is now modern-day Texas. By 1836, after several bloody skirmishes, including the famous battle at the Alamo, the land had broken free from Mexican oppression, becoming the newly formed Republic of Texas.
At the time, the countryside was mainly grassland, miles and miles of prairie land, the native green and yellow grasses swaying in the constant breeze. As famed pioneerman Davey Crockett said in a letter to his children in 1836, “I must say as to what I have seen of Texas, it is the garden spot of the world. The best land and best prospects for health I ever saw is here, and I do believe it is a fortune to any man to come here. There is a world of country to settle.”
And settle they did. After the Texas Revolution, thousands of eager pioneers from the east flocked to Texas, searching for land they’d heard described as God’s own. There was just one problem.
The land had already been settled.
Tribes of Apache and Comanche had lived in the Plains for hundreds of years. Existing in a predominantly nomadic lifestyle, they followed the great herds of buffalo that roamed the grasslands, which provided them just about everything they needed to survive: meat for food and hides for shelter and clothes. The animal’s tendons were used for bowstrings and the stomachs for food containers or water holders. The Plains was more than just where they lived; it was how they lived.
So when Anglo settlers began to push in from the east, the Native Americans pushed back. Hard.
The bloodshed eventually led the formation of the Texas Rangers in 1840, a recommissioning of a band of cowboys initially called together by Stephen F. Austin in 1823 to protect the original homesteaders. The two groups fought each other for years, resulting in substantial loss of life on both sides until 1867, when the tribes signed an agreement with the United States, which had annexed Texas in 1846. The Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867 promised Comanche, Kiowa, Kiowa-Apache, and other local tribes hunting rights to an area of the Great Plains south of the Arkansas River while Anglo settlers were given the rest. The government hoped the agreement would appease both sides and the area would once again be at peace.
It didn’t work.
Texans ignored the treaty outright, saying Texas belonged to Texas and was not the United State government’s to offer up. They swarmed into Native American hunting grounds, killing bison by the millions, taking just the horns and hides–the only things worth any money back east–and leaving the carcass to rot in the sun.
Once again, the Native Americans pushed back. Their only means of survival nearly extinct, all for the coins lining the settlers pockets, the Apache and Comanche took to raiding the settlers’ livestock. At the time, the United States Army, responsible for keeping the peace in the area, had its hands full with the Civil War. Most detachments had been deployed to battlefields out east.
The only ones left to do anything about it were the Texas Rangers.
Led by John Salmon “Rip” Ford, they surged into Native American territory, ignoring many mandates of battle (including the rules about not harming non-combatants), and slaughtered hundreds of Native Americans, many of them women and children in their beds at the Battle of Little Robe Creek. Although their actions were specifically forbidden by United States law, the Rangers worked with impunity; in fact, most of their actions, far from being condemned, were seen as heroic.
When the Red River War of 1874-1875 broke out, the U.S. Army enlisted the Rangers’ help and employed their methods. Not merely content with slaughtering most of the tribes and moving the rest to camps, they killed the Native Americans’ horses and butchered the remaining bison. “For the sake of lasting peace,” General Sheridan told the Texas Legislature in 1875, Texans should “kill, skin, and sell until the buffaloes are exterminated. Then your prairie can be covered with speckled cattle and the festive cowboy.”
By the turn of the century, the Great Plains were empty. The buffaloes gone, the native people dead or forced out. The Anglos had succeeded in creating what they’d set out to find in the first place–a seemingly endless supply of grassland ready for the great westward migration, as Crockett had said “a world of country to settle.”
And ready for the settlers’ plows.