The Council House Fight, often referred to as the Council House Massacre, was a decidedly lopsided fight between soldiers and officials of the Republic of Texas and a delegation of Comanche chiefs during a peace conference in San Antonio on March 19, 1840. The meeting took place under an observed truce with the purpose of negotiating the exchange of captives and ultimately facilitating peace after two years of war. The Comanches sought to obtain recognition of the boundaries of the Comancheria, their homeland, while the Texians wanted the release of Texian and Mexican citizens held prisoner by the Comanches.
The council ended with 12 Comanche leaders shot to death inside the Council House, 23 others shot in the streets of San Antonio, and 30 taken captive. The Comanche tortured 13 captives to death in response. The incident ended any chance for peace and led to years of further hostility and war.
At the time, the Comanche people were not a unified Indian nation. There were at least 12 divisions of the Comanche, with as many as 35 independent roaming bands, also known as rancherías or villages. Although bound together in various ways, both cultural and political, the bands were not responsible to any formalized unified authority.
The absence of a central authority meant that one band could not force another band to return their captives. Chiefs Buffalo Hump and Peta Nocona never agreed to return any captives to the Texian settlers.
On January 10, 1840, after several years of war against the Apache as well as constant depredations and murders of white emigrant settlers as well as and a major smallpox epidemic, three Comanche emissaries were told that peace would be entertained if they returned the dozen white captives and dozen Mexican captives. Several Comanche bands thus entered San Antonio and asked for peace, offering to send a large contingent of their leaders in 23 days to secure a new peace. But only one white boy was returned as a bargaining chip. Colonel Henry Wax Karnes received them, listened to their story, and agreed, but admonished them by saying that a lasting peace could be negotiated only when the Comanches gave up the captives that they held, estimated at thirteen. Albert Sidney Johnston, the Texas Secretary of War, had ordered San Antonio officials to take the Comanche delegates as hostages if they failed to deliver all captives. In March, Muguara, a powerful eastern Comanche chief, led 65 Comanches, including women and children, to San Antonio for peace talks.
Killing of the peace delegates
The Comanches arrived in San Antonio on March 19. Hoping to bargain for an exchange of captives, the 12 chiefs brought women and children as well as warriors. They were dressed in finery with their faces painted. The delegation had hoped to negotiate a recognition of the Comancheria as the sovereign land of the Comanche. Among the chiefs who did not attend were Buffalo Hump, the Comanche war chief who would lead the Great Raid of 1840 in retaliation for the killings, and the other two principal Penateka war chiefs, Yellow Wolf, his cousin and alter-ego, and Santa Anna, who sided with him in leading the raid.
Although promising to bring in all white captives and conduct a treaty, The Comanche chiefs brought only one white captive. Muguara, upset he had received but little ransom for the recently released Putnam child, intended to ransom them a little at a time in order to leverage more guns, ammunition and other provisions in which to continue their raiding. The white captive was Matilda Lockhart, a 16-year-old girl, captured at age 14 while picking pecans with her cousins, the Putnams. She had been sold to several Indian men. Mary Maverick, who helped care for the girl, wrote almost sixty years after the event that Lockhart had been beaten, raped and had suffered burns to her body. Miss Lockhart “[w]as utterly degraded, and could not hold up her head again. Her head, arms, and face were full of bruises, and sores, and her nose actually burnt off to the bone-all the fleshy end gone, and a great scab formed on the on the end of the bone. Both nostrils were wide open and denuded of flesh. She told a piteous tale of how dreadfully the Indians had beaten her, and how they would wake her from her sleep by sticking a chunk of fire to her flesh, especially to her nose…her body had many scars from the fire. Mrs. Dolly Webster, who wrote of her and of Miss Lockhart’s kidnapping and treatment wrote contemporary accounts of their treatment.
Colonel Hugh McLeod did not mention any abuse in his report of March 20, 1840 (commenting on the intelligence of the girl but nothing like a missing nose), and neither did any other Texas officials at the time, nor Matilda Lockhart’s own sister-in-law in a letter written to her mother shortly after the release. Anderson writes: “While published in the 1890s, this description has been used by historians to claim that the massacre came about as a result of the justifiable rage of Texas men. Yet none of the Texas officials claimed this to be the case at the time; evidence of abuse is conspicuously missing in the primary documents. Maverick may have exaggerated Lockhart’s condition because of the growing criticism of Texas in the American and European Press. The most significant source on Matilda’s condition is a brief statement made in a letter by her sister-in-law, Catherine Lockhart, who was in San Antonio. Catherine describes Matilda’s release but says nothing of abuse.”
Asked about the thirteen kidnapped whites promised to be ransomed as part of the peace negotiations, Matilda informed the Texians that she knew of the existence of Mrs. Dolly Wester, her children, Booker Webster, Patsy Webster, Thomas Pierce, a child named Lyons, and four Putnam children. According to Dolly Webster, the Comanche, wanting to obtain the highest price per captive, decided to ransom on one or two at a time. The Texians believed this was against the conditions for the negotiations, which they insisted had specified that all abducted whites had to be released before the council. The Comanche, of course, had a different view, since the chiefs and bands not in attendance were under no obligation to release anyone, as they had never agreed to a council.
Because the delegation did not bring the expected number of captives, the members were taken to the local jail. The talks were held at the Council House, a one-story stone building adjoining the jail on the corner of Main Plaza and Calabosa (Market) Street. During the council, the Comanche warriors sat on the floor, as was their custom, while the Texians sat on chairs on a platform facing them. Lockhart had informed the Texians that she had seen 15 other prisoners at the Comanches’ principal camp several days before. She reported the Indians had wanted to see how high a price they could get for her, and based on that information, planned to bring in the remaining captives one at a time to maximize their return.
The Texians demanded to know where the other captives were. The Penateka spokesman, Chief Muguara, responded that the other prisoners were held by various other bands of Comanche. He assured the Texians that he felt the other captives would be able to be ransomed, but that it would be in exchange for a great deal of supplies, including ammunition and blankets. He then finished his speech with the comment “How do you like that answer?” The Texian militia entered the courtroom and positioned themselves at intervals along the walls. When the Comanches would not, or could not, promise to return all captives immediately, the Texas officials said that the chiefs would be held hostage until the white captives were released.
The interpreter warned the Texian officials that if he delivered this message the Comanches would attempt to escape by fighting. He was instructed to relay the message anyway and left the room as soon as he finished translating. After learning that they were being held hostage, the Comanches attempted to fight their way out of the Council House using arrows and knives. The Texian soldiers opened fire at point-blank range, killing both Indians and whites. The Comanche women and children waiting outdoors began shooting arrows at white people after hearing the commotion inside. At least one Texian spectator was killed. When a small number of warriors managed to escape from the Council House, all of the Comanche began to flee. The soldiers who pursued them again opened fire, killing and wounding both Comanche and Texians. Armed civilians also joined the battle but, claiming they could not always differentiate between warriors and women and children, since all of the Comanche were fighting. Inside the courtroom all of the Indians drew their concealed weapons. Lieutenant Dunnington pulled out his pistol to shoot but was shot by an arrow from the principal squaw who was dressed similar to a warrior. Her pull was so strong, the arrow passed through his body. He stumbled backwards but managed to get a shot off before dying. The bullet passed through her forehead and her brains splattered against the walls. He then fell over and expired twenty minutes later. His last words were, “I killed him, but I believe he has killed me too.”<Niles National Register (St. Louis, Missouri)06 Jun 1840, Sat Page 1>
The report by Col. Hugh McLeod written March 20, 1840 claimed that of the 65 members of the Comanches’ party, 35 were killed (30 adult males, 3 women, and 2 children), 29 were taken prisoner (27 women and children, and 2 old men), and 1 departed unobserved (described as a renegade Mexican). Seven Texians died, including a judge, a sheriff, and an army lieutenant, with ten more wounded.
A German surgeon surnamed Weidman helped to treat the citizens who had been wounded in the fight. Weidman was also a naturalist and had been assigned by the Tsar of Russia to make scientific observations about Texas and its inhabitants. Two days after the battle, San Antonio residents discovered that Weidman had decided to take the heads and bodies of two Indians to Russia. To obtain the skeletons, he had boiled the bodies in water, and dumped the resulting liquid into the San Antonio drinking water supply.
The day after the fight, a single Comanche woman was released to return to her camp and report that the Comanche prisoners would be released if the Comanche released the 15 Americans and several Mexicans who were known to be captives. They were given 12 days to return the captives. On March 26, a white woman, Mrs. John Webster, came into town with her three-year-old. She had been a Comanche captive for 19 months and had just escaped, leaving her 12-year-old son with the Indians. Two days later, a band of Indians returned to San Antonio. Leaving the bulk of the warriors outside the city, Chief Isanaica (Howling Wolf) and one other man rode into San Antonio and yelled insults. The citizens told him to go find the soldiers if he wanted a fight, but the garrison commander, Captain Redd, declared that he had to observe the 12-day truce. Redd invited the Indians to come back in three days, but, fearing a trap, Isanaica and his men left the area. Another officer accused Redd of cowardice for refusing to fight, and they both died following a duel over the insult.
Of the 16 hostages the Texians were determined to recover, 13 were tortured to death as soon as the news of the Council House Fight reached the outraged Comanches. The captives, including Matilda Lockhart’s six-year-old sister, suffered slow roasting among other tortures. Only the three captives who had been adopted into the tribe, and by Comanche custom were truly part of the tribe, were spared. This was part of the Comanche answer to the breaking of a truce.
On April 3, when the truce deadline had ended, another band of Comanches appeared again to bargain for a captive exchange. They had only three captives with them, including Webster’s son Booker, a five-year-old girl, and a Mexican boy. Booker told them that the other captives had been tortured and killed when the Comanche woman had returned to camp with news of the Council House Fight. These three captives were returned after their adoptive families agreed to give them up.
The Comanche captives were moved from the city jail to the San Jose Mission, then to Camp Cooke at the head of the San Antonio River. Several were taken into people’s homes to live and work, but ran away as soon as they could. Eventually, all of the Texians’ Comanche captives escaped.
Contemporary newspaper account
The Texas Sentinel of March 24, 1840, gives an account of “a recent battle with the Comanches at San Antonio”:
On the 19th March, a body of 65 Indians arrived at that place bringing Miss Lockhart, a little girl, take(n) by them a year and a half since from the Gandaloupe (Guadalupe) for the purpose of holding a council with the agents of our government. Miss Lockhart stated that she had seen all the other prisoners at their camp a few days before she left. Col. W. G. Cooke, acting Secretary of War, being present, thought it proper to take hostages for the safe return of the prisoners and Col. Fisher was ordered to march two companies and place them in the immediate vicinity of the council room. After some parleying in relation to the prisoners, one company (w)as ordered to march into the room and the other to the rear of the building where the warriors were assembled. The Chiefs were then told that they were prisoners and would not be liberated until they restored their white prisoners. One sprang to the back door and attempted to pass the sentinel who presented his musket when the Indian drew his knife and stabbed him. A general rush was then made for the doors. Captain Howard caught one by the collar and received a severe stab. He then ordered the sentinel to shoot the Indian which was instantly done. They all then drew their knives and bows for battle and the whole twelve Chiefs were immediately shot.
In the meantime Capt. Reed’s company was attacked by the warriors in the rear of the yard who fought with desperation. The Indians were driven into the stone houses from which they kept up a galling fire with their bows and rifles. Whenever their arrows struck, it was with such force that they penetrated to the feather. A small number succeeded in gaining the opposite side of the river but Col. Wells pursued them with a party of mounted men and killed all with the exception of a renegade Mexican. A single warrior took refuge in a stone house, refusing every offer of life sent him through the squaws and after killing several of our men, the building was fired at night and he was shot as he passed the door.
The whole number of warriors, excepting the Mexicans, amounting to 35, were killed besides two women and three children. Our loss was 7 killed, Lieut. W. M. Dunnington, privates Kammiski and Whitney, Judge Thompson of Houston, Judge Hood of Bexa(r)s, Mr. Cayce of Matagorda and a Mexican. Wounded, Capt. G. T. Howard, 1st infantry, Mathew Caldwell, 1st infantry, Lieut. E. A.Thompson, private Kelley, Company 1, Judge Robinson, Mr. Higginbotham, Mr. Morgan and Mr. Carson, total wounded 8, Howard, Thompson and Kelley, very severely. At the request of the prisoners, a squaw was liberated and well mounted, to go to the main tribe and request an exchange of prisoners. She promised to return in four days with our captive friends and Cols. Cooks and McLeod will wait her return.
We learn from Mr. Durkee who arrived from Austin this evening that Col. Burleson has been called upon to organize an expedition forthwith to operate against the Comanches. He will raise one company on the Colorado and at Austin and take with him the company which left Houston a short time since under Capt. Pierce and a body of Tonkwa Indians.
The Comanche were shocked by the actions of the Texians. In his book Los Comanches, historian Stanley Noyes notes, “[a] violation of a council represented an almost unthinkable degree of perfidy. The council was sacred not only to the [Comanche] People, but [also] to all Native Americans”. In response, the captives the Texians sought were killed, and Buffalo Hump launched the Great Raid of 1840, leading hundreds of Comanche warriors on raids against many Texian villages. The Texians, for their part, were shocked and disgusted by the actions of the barbaric Comanches in torturing to death the innocent captives. At least 25 settlers were killed in the Great Raid, with others taken prisoner, including a Mrs. Crosby, a granddaughter of Daniel Boone, who was later murdered by her captors. Hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of goods were taken; one city was burned to the ground and another damaged. The Texian militia responded, leading to the Battle of Plum Creek in August 1840, and ultimately stopped the raids.