The assembly on March 19, 1840 started as a peaceful gathering in San Antonio to forge an historic treaty ending the bloody hostilities between Texans and the Comanche Indians – then all hell broke loose.
The Comanches were the fiercest foes faced by Anglo settlers after their arrival in Texas decades earlier. What brought these mortal enemies together to seek a treaty was the faint hope that the mutual destruction of these clashing cultures would finally end.
The Penateka, or “Honey Eaters,” Comanches, decimated by smallpox and the relentless pursuit of Texas Rangers, sought an accord to let their band live unmolested in the Comancheria – the land they roamed that stretched from the Edwards Plateau to the Hill Country, from San Antonio to Austin, itself entirely within Comanche territory. For their part, Texans, newly organized as an independent republic and prior to entering statehood, wanted the Comanches to leave the immediate area, halt their raids on settlers and stay away from towns. They also demanded that the Comanches release the white captives they held, believed to number 200. The Texans didn’t seek the release of those captured in Mexico.
The overture to a peace treaty came in January 1840 when three Penateka Comanche chiefs rode into San Antonio to arrange a parley. Col. Henry W. Karnes, commander of the local Texas Ranger post here, agreed to negotiate with the Indians, but only if they released their captives. Consenting to the conditions, the chiefs promised to return in 20-30 days with their prisoners.
A history of broken or unfulfilled treaties left both sides leery of the trustworthiness of the other. As a precaution, Secretary of War Albert Sidney Johnston ordered Col. William S. Fisher to proceed immediately to San Antonio with three companies of soldiers with orders to seize the Comanches as hostages if they failed to deliver their captives. Johnson also appointed Fisher, Adj. Gen. Hugh McLeod and Col. William G. Cooke as commissioners to negotiate the treaty.
On the morning of March 19, 65 Comanches – men, women and children led by a dozen chiefs — arrived in San Antonio with only one white captive, Matilda Lockhart, a 16-year-old girl who had been captured with her younger sister in 1838. They also brought a young Mexican boy who didn’t count in the Texans’ reckoning.
The Texans were horrified by Matilda’s appearance, who was the victim of torture and rape. Her head, arms and face were covered with bruises and scars, and her nose was burned off to the bone. She was a pitiful creature, a child so cruelly treated. In her memoirs, Mary A. Maverick, who helped tend to the girl, recalled Matilda’s account “of how dreadfully the Indians had beaten her, and how they would wake her from sleep by sticking a chunk of fire to her flesh, especially to her nose, and how they would shout and laugh like fiends when she cried.”
Matilda also shared critical intelligence: A few days earlier, she had seen 13 other captives in camp. The Comanches planned to release only one or two at a time to secure the most ransom, she said.
The Texas delegation led the 12 brightly attired and painted chiefs into the Council House, a one-story 18th century stone building directly across from San Fernando Cathedral on the east side the Main Plaza. The building served as the courthouse; the local jail adjoined it at the corner of Market and Soledad streets. As the talks commenced, Comanche boys showed off in the plaza for a crowd of wide-eyed spectators. A judge tossed coins high in the air and the boys shot them down with their toy bows and arrows.
The negotiations opened with the commissioners, speaking through an interpreter, reminding the Comanches that they had promised to return all the captives, not just one. The leader of the Comanche delegation, Chief Muguara (or Muk-wah-rah), said they brought the only captive they had. The rest, he said, were held in other camps. “How do you like that answer?” he asked.
Burning with fury at Matilda’s horrid mistreatment, they didn’t like that answer at all. They lined up a row of troops facing the chiefs. Then the interpreter told them that their women and children could leave peacefully but they would be held as hostages until the other captives were returned. The interpreter, once a Comanche captive himself, first refused to repeat this bit of jolly news, warning that it would infuriate the chiefs and ignite a fight. When the commissioners insisted, he translated the message, then bolted out the door.
The chiefs let out a screeching war-whoop, strung their bows with arrows and pulled their knives. One chief ran for the door, stabbed the guard and was gunned down by the soldiers. The crowded room erupted in a wild melee of close-quarter hand-to-hand combat. Within seconds, all 12 chiefs had been shot dead and several troops killed or injured.
Hearing the screams and gunfire emanating from the Council House, the Comanches outside scattered in every direction. An Indian boy who had been shooting the coins turned his toy bow and arrow on the judge and shot him through the heart. Soldiers fired blindly into the crowd of Indians and civilians, killing and wounding both indiscriminately.
Mrs. Maverick, watching the affair from behind a picket fence, darted to her house at Commerce and Soledad streets with a Comanche warrior hot on her heels. She made it inside seconds ahead of the Comanche, then slammed the door in his face. Another Comanche entered her backyard and confronted the cook, Jinny Anderson. With the household’s children cowering behind her, she heaved a large rock over her head and met the warrior face-to-face. “If you don’t go ‘way from here,” she yelled, “I’ll mash your head with this rock!” He fled to the San Antonio River where he and other Comanches were shot and killed by pursuing soldiers and armed townspeople.
Comanches also had to be flushed out of hiding from the nearby homes and businesses. By the end of the day, one last holdout remained holed up in a home. Texans pleaded for him to surrender, promising that he would not be harmed. He refused. They finally dropped a blazing cotton ball soaked in turpentine through the roof. The inferno landed on the Comanche’s head. Hair scorched, he fled out the front door and was gunned down.
Thirty Comanche chiefs and warriors, three women and two children were killed in the “Council House Fight.” Another 27 women and children and two elderly men were captured, and one “renegade” escaped. Most of the captured women and children eventually slipped away and returned to the Comancheria. Seven Texas soldiers and civilians were killed, and 10 wounded. Matilda Lockhart never recovered from her ordeal; she died two years later.
One Comanche woman was sent back to their camp carrying a demand for them to release the 13 captives in exchange for the return of their women and children. The Comanches sought revenge instead. They started with a vengeance by skinning and then roasting their captives alive, including Matilda’s sister.
Five months later, in further retaliation, they staged their most audacious and terrifying raid in recent memory. Some 1,000 Comanches, including warriors, women and children, swept down the Guadalupe Valley, attacked Victoria and plundered the small bayside port of Linnville. Townspeople fled the attackers by scampering aboard small boats and a schooner anchored in the bay. When they returned to land, the citizens abandoned the remains of Linnville and moved 3 1/2 miles southwest to organize a new town – Port Lavaca. The massive Comanche incursion was quashed days later when Texans marshalled their forces and destroyed the Indian armada on Plum Creek near Lockhart.
San Antonio’s Council House Fight – once the focus of hope – dashed any prospect of an immediate peace with the Comanches, a tragedy that fueled a frontier war that smoldered another three and a half decades until the last band of bedraggled Comanches emerged from their homeland in the remote canyons of the Texas Panhandle and straggled onto the reservation at Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
The Council House continued to serve as a municipal office until it was abandoned by the city in 1850 and eventually razed. Although the Main Plaza of today little resembles the scene of the 1840 fight, it is still possible to visit the battle site and reflect on the tragic events that occurred 175 years ago. The Council House stood at 114 Soledad Street on the east side of the Main Plaza, formerly the shop of the Daughters of St. Paul’s Pauline Books & Media. In 1924, the De Zavala Daughters of the Heroes of Texas placed a somber marble plaque on the northwest corner of the building to commemorate the battle. A state historical marker on the southwest side provides a further overview of the history of the Council House and the Casas Reales, or government houses, and the pageant of events that occurred in the area.
For a list of source material used for this story, click here.
*Featured/top image: Historical photo of the Council House Fight.