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Columns | "A Balloon In Cactus"

Miss Lockhart
the Comanches

by Maggie Van Ostrand
Maggie Van Ostrand

While England's Queen Victoria was busy marrying Prince Albert, Russian composer Tchaikovsky was busy being born, and China was busy fighting its First Opium War, the Republic of Texas was busy with the bloody Council House conflict. Any time, dear reader, you feel your lot in life is not quite what you had in mind, compare it to that of Miss Matilda Lockhart, whose painful story follows.
The Council House Fight between officials of the Republic of Texas, led by First Adjutant General Hugh McLeod, and a Comanche peace delegation of 12 chiefs, took place in San Antonio on March 19, 1840, under a truce. It followed two bloody and failed prior attempts at negotiation. The Comanches wanted recognition of their boundaries as a sovereign land and the Texans wanted the release of hostages held by the Comanches. It must've been a meeting similar to the U.S. Congressional talks between Republicans and Democrats. Unfortunately, it ended with the deaths of many Comanche leaders who wrongly believed that the flag of truce would protect them from harm. Texans died there, too.

The Plaza and the Council House in San Antonio
The Plaza and the Council House in San Antonio
Courtesy Wikipedia.com

However, General McLeod didn't understand as much as Sam Houston did about Comanches: that they were comprised of roughly 12 tribes, with 35 independent roaming bands, each operating separately. Not having one big, unified tribe, independent divisions were allowed to take captives, without honoring agreements to return them. Chiefs Buffalo Hump and Peta Nocona never agreed to return any captives. But the Comanche chiefs who went in good faith to the Council House did not listen to Buffalo Hump's warning that whites could not be trusted. And so they went expecting the kind of treaty they had with the Spanish, allowing peaceful trade in exchange for the return of a couple of captives. Since Texans thought of Comanches as vicious savages, what the chiefs got instead were military troops standing by for possible trouble.

In addition to the chiefs, painted-faced warriors, children and squaws squatting outside the Council House, the Comanches brought with them one white captive, Miss Matilda Lockhart, aged 16. Miss Lockhart had been held by them for over a year and a half.
The release of the Lockhart girl to the Texans was a "terrible blunder," according to the book, "Comanches: The Destruction of a People," by T.R. Fehrenbach. "It would have been far better had the chiefs brought in no captives at all. For Matilda Lockhart had been hideously abused in her captivity, and her very appearance was to turn this day, as Mary Maverick, one of the ladies of the town wrote, into a 'day of horrors'."

San Antonio TX PO Mural - Council House Fight
Matilda Lockhart portraited in the San Antonio post office mural entitiled "The Importance of San Antonio in Texas History"
Photo courtesy Terry Jeanson, March 2009

Mrs. Maverick was one of the women who cared for Miss Lockhart after her release. She described the girl's condition: "Her head, arms, and face were full of bruises, and sores, and her nose was actually burnt off to the bone. Both nostrils were wide open and denuded of flesh." Safe now with Mrs. Maverick, the girl broke into tears and said she was "utterly degraded, and could not hold up [my] head again." She described the horrors she had endured. Beyond her sexual humiliations, she had been tortured terribly by the women, who had held torches to her face to make her scream. Her whole thin body bore scars from fire. An extremely intelligent girl, she had learned the Comanche tongue and had actually overhead discussions of their council strategy. She told of some 15 additional white captives in the same camp.
Upon seeing Miss Lockhart's condition, the Texas officials were "seething with barely suppressed fury. [To them] the treatment of the Lockhart girl was in no way unusual, and the Comanches were oblivious of its stunning effect on the Texans."

When the Texans demanded to know exactly where the other 15 prisoners were, they were told by Chief Muguara that they were with different bands of Comanches, and that they would make an exchange of prisoners for ammunition. Muguara reportedly ended his proposal with, "How do you like that answer?"

His statement that the captives were held in different camps may or may not be true, as it differs from Miss Lockhart's version. In the end though, the Comanches underestimated the Texans. Soldiers were ordered to enter the room, prepared to back up the officials' forthcoming deal proposal (or threat) that the chiefs would be held hostage until all white captives were released. The frightened interpreter, himself a former Comanche prisoner, turned pale, and warned the officials that, if he delivered that message, it would force the Comanches into a fight. "Relay the warning," commanded the Texas officials. The interpreter obeyed, fleeing the room immediately after. He had been right, and the Comanche chiefs got really, really mad. They began to shoot arrows, and slash out with their knives to get out of the room. They always hated places of confinement for this very reason.

In turn, Texas soldiers opened fire, killing everyone in sight, including whites. It was a bloodbath, taking a death toll on both sides. In a report by McLeod dated March 20th, Comanche deaths were 30 adult males, 3 women, and 2 children, with 27 women and 2 old men taken prisoner. Seven Texans died, including a judge, a sheriff, and an Army lieutenant, and 10 wounded. Texans later offered to exchange their prisoners for the captives, but the Comanches were so outraged at the breaking of a truce, they tortured their captives to death instead. "One by one, the children and young women were pegged out naked beside the camp fire. They were skinned, sliced, and horribly mutilated, and finally burned alive by vengeful women determined to wring the last shriek and convulsion from their agonized bodies. Matilda Lockhart's six-year-old sister was among these unfortunates who died screaming under the high plains moon."

We may live in the greatest country in the world, but it took a lot of violence to make it that way. Just ask the ghost of Miss Lockhart.

© Maggie Van Ostrand
"A Balloon In Cactus" February 16, 2009 column

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