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Clay Coppedge

Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

The Alleged Battle of Bandera Pass

by Clay Coppedge

One of the prettiest places in the Texas Hill Country is the part of State Highway 173 that twists its way through Bandera Pass not far from the Bandera-Kerr county line. The highway basically follows the same route through the hills that the Apache, Comanche, Spanish, U.S. Army, settlers and outlaws followed for centuries and where at least two major Indian battles might (or might not) have been fought.

The first of these battles might (or might not) have given Bandera its name. In this version of the story, Bandera was named after Spanish troops from San Antonio de Bexar battled Apaches in the pass in 1732. Each side suffered heavy losses and the two sides met in council and agreed on a treaty: the Apaches would not venture south of the pass and the Spanish agreed to stay out of the hunting grounds to the north. A red flag – or bandera in Spanish – was placed on the highest peak to remind each other of the treaty.

Another version has it that Bandera is named for a Spanish commander or maybe a citizen with that last surname, but no records to corroborate the story have ever been found. That’s true for a lot of the early stories about Bandera Pass, including a second battle that is believed to have occurred there in either 1841 or 1843. Or maybe it was 1842.

This battle is believed to have featured legendary Texas Ranger captain Jack Hays and his men in a fierce battle, this time with the Comanches. The rangers were outnumbered but managed to get the best of the Comanches. The battle might not have happened – not at Bandera Pass – but other battles, unrecorded by the eventual victors, certainly did.

Many of these battles no doubt pitted Comanches against Apaches. Swiss botanist Jean Louis Berlandier noted the presence of both tribes in the area in 1828 when he traveled through parts of Texas as part of a Mexican boundary and scientific expedition. He went on a bear and buffalo hunt with Comanche leaders Reyuna and El Ronca as guides and noted that the natives, especially the Comanches, performed a certain ritual when they entered Bandera Pass.

“Here a Comanche warrior was buried, and since the natives often pass this way, every tribe that passes close enough to see the grave of one of their ancestors makes the customary offerings,” Berlandier wrote. “On the grave they place arrows, bows, sundry weapons, enemy trophies and the like, and even sacrifice mules and horses to his shade. The gorge, which is known for this custom, is strewn with the bones of animals that have been sacrificed here. The grave itself is surrounded with skulls.”

One of the earliest and most influential accounts of the second battle is found in A.J. Sowell’s book “Texas Indian Fighters.” Sowell relied on oral accounts from participants like Creed Taylor and others but the accounts were recorded many years after the actual fight and seem to incorporate elements from other fights, most notably one at Walker’s Creek.

Taylor and another participant, Jim Nichols, placed the site of the battle as being fought along the banks of the Guadalupe, all the way over in present day Kendall County. The feeling from contemporary researchers is that Sowell merged stories from Taylor and others with the Battle of Walker’s Creek.

Judging by many of the popular versions of the battle taken from Sowell’s account, this seems to be the case. Most of these accounts have it that Jack Hays and his men were greatly outnumbered at Bandera Pass but turned back the Comanches with the aid of the new fangled revolving pistol invented by an enterprising Yankee by the name of Samuel Colt.

That pivotal battle, little noted at the time, would eventually change the course of what had been a dead-end war against the Comanches. Now, with this new revolving pistol, the rangers and anybody else battling the Comanches could stay on horseback and fight the enemy with a gun that fired five times in a row without reloading. A Comanche who took part in the fight noted that the rangers “had a shot for every finger on the hand.” In the end, that advantage made all the difference.

However, that battle did not take place at Bandera Pass and it did not happen in 1841, 1842 or 1843. The battle that changed history – though the fact was little recognized or noted at that time – was the Battle of Walker’s Creek and it was fought in June of 1844 in present day Kendall County.

A battle between Texans and Comanches (and maybe Apaches, too) probably took place at Bandera Pass at one time or another, but the one most often recounted wasn’t it.

© Clay Coppedge October 3, 2012 Column
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