A holy fool in “the land of the Philistines”

Greeks and Trojans, Christians and Muslims, Jews and Arabs, Serbs and Croats, Tutsis and Hutus—the collision of cultures is rarely, if ever, a pleasant sight. The protracted and bloody war between the Plains Indians, especially the Comanches, and the white settlers of Texas is among the most horrifying of all, marked by unimaginable violence and cynical deception on both sides. But even in the cruelest conflicts there can be people who exemplify honor and integrity. Such an exemplar was the quixotic Robert Simpson Neighbors, one of the most intriguing, foolhardy, and tragically heroic figures in nineteenth-century Texas.

Thanks to S. C. Gwynne’s excellent new book, Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History, Neighbors (pictured above) has been on my mind again. (Several years ago I actually thought I might try to write a biography of him, but eventually the impulse passed.) I guess I’ve always had a soft spot for those who try, against all odds, to do the right thing, and Neighbors certainly qualifies.

Born in Virginia in 1815, he was orphaned at the age of four and raised by a guardian. He arrived in Texas in 1836, after a couple of years in Louisiana, and from 1839 to 1841 served as assistant quartermaster and acting quartermaster of the army of the Republic of Texas. He served under John Hays during the Mexican War and was taken prisoner in San Antonio by Gen. Adrián Woll in 1842. After his release in 1844, he became the republic’s agent to the Lipan Apaches and Tonkawas; in 1847, after Texas became part of the United States, Neighbors received a federal appointment as Texas commissioner of Indian affairs

This was not an easy position. As Mike Campbell, the dean of Texas historians, notes in his magisterial Gone to Texas: A History of the Lone Star State, the federal government was virtually powerless to stop white settlers from occupying land ostensibly belonging to the Indians, because Texas, uniquely among the United States, retained ownership of its public lands when it joined the union; thus, federal law did not apply on the lands where the Indians lived, and the state seemed unable or unwilling to keep land-hungry white settlers from trespassing. As the Penateka Comanche chief Buffalo Hump told Neighbors, with some asperity, “For a long time a great many [white] people have been passing through my country; they kill all the game and burn the country, and trouble me very much.” Neighbors noted in March 1848 that this persistent trespassing “must necessarily and inevitably lead to serious difficulty.”

Moreover, Neighbors’ distaste for violence was out of step with public sentiment. He tried to negotiate the return of Cynthia Ann Parker, the most celebrated Indian captive of them all (and the mother of Quanah Parker), but the Comanches rebuffed his efforts; Neighbors reported to his superiors in Washington that “I am assured by the friendly Comanche chiefs that I would have to use force to induce the party that has her to give her up.” (Cynthia Ann was unwillingly returned to white civilization in 1860, when Texas Rangers under Sul Ross accidentally captured her during a raid on a Comanche encampment on a tributary of the Pease River in north Texas.)

Neighbors, a Democrat, lost his federal job after the Whig Zachary Taylor was elected president in 1848, but was reappointed when Franklin Pierce reclaimed the White House for the Democrats four years later. (In the meantime, Neighbors found time to lead an expedition that established a trail between San Antonio and El Paso, part of which was later used by the Butterfield Overland Mail; organize El Paso County; marry Elizabeth Ann Mays in Seguin; and serve in the state legislature.)

Neighbors was thus part of the vast machinery that slowly but inexorably (and often violently and duplicitously) squeezed the Indians off their ancestral lands, clearing the way for white occupation of the American west. But Neighbors was different from most of his fellow Indian agents: he treated the Indians with respect, and stubbornly defended them against the accusations, frequently fabricated, of land-hungry settlers who coveted the land set aside for reservations.

Needless to say, this was not a popular stand in Texas, and Neighbors made many enemies among his fellow whites. In the mid-1850s, he decided that the only way to end the escalating tensions and violence was to establish reservations beyond the existing line of settlement. He finally succeeded in getting Secretary of War Jefferson Davis to authorize the establishment of two reservations on the upper Brazos. Neighbors hoped to convince the previously nomadic Indians to settle down and become farmers—a shockingly misguided, if not downright stupid, notion, and one that was clearly doomed to failure. As it was, less than five hundred of the Penateka Comanches (only about a third of the band’s entire population) moved onto the Clear Fork Reservation, at Camp Cooper in Throckmorton County. About a thousand other Indians, mostly Caddos and Wichitas, moved onto the Brazos Reservation, south of Fort Belknap in Young County.

And then, of course, the line of white settlement, moving inexorably westward, reached the upper Brazos, with predictable results. Whites who coveted the land began blaming the reservation Indians for the depredations committed by those who had refused to move onto the reservations. The loathsome John R. Baylor, who had been fired as an agent on the Clear Fork Reservation after feuding with Neighbors, became the editor of a virulently anti-Indian newspaper called The White Man and pledged himself to exterminating the Indians; toward that end, he called for, and even organized, violence against the reservation Indians. While acknowledging that the residents of the Brazos and Clear Fork reservations were more sinned against than sinning, the government finally concluded that enough was enough, and decided to end the experiment.

In the summer of 1859, therefore, Neighbors supervised the removal of all 1,500 residents of the Brazos and Clear Fork reservations to a new reservation on the Washita River in Indian Territory. (Among the contractors involved in this trek was the San Antonio freighter James Duff, soon to become a notorious figure in the Hill Country, as I wrote in an earlier post.) In August, after leading his charges across the Red River, Neighbors wrote to his wife that he had left “the land of the Philistines.” Upon his return to Fort Belknap a little over a month later he was murdered, shot in the back by Edward Cornett, a man he didn’t even know but who apparently despised his conciliatory attitude toward the Indians. In The Texas Rangers, Walter Prescott Webb reported the story that a group of Texas Rangers, outraged by Neighbors’ assassination, “went after Ed Cornett, and brought him to justice without the aid of judge or jury.”

I suspect that Neighbors himself, a man of honor and principle who believed wholeheartedly in the sanctity of the law, would not have approved. He seems to have been one of those ostentatiously virtuous men who manage to alienate and offend their fellows while living unimpeachable lives; perhaps the rest of us simply can’t stand being reminded how far short of the mark we fall. In fact, Neighbors may have had more than a whiff of self-righteousness about him. In Empire of the Summer Moon, Gwynne says that Neighbors’ behavior as Indian agent was characterized by “earnest and well-meaning naïveté,” as opposed to the “pure hypocrisy” of many of his peers, which sounds like fairly faint praise. By attempting to stand in the way of Manifest Destiny, trying to turn the Penateka Comanches into farmers, and expecting the government to live up to the terms of its own treaties, Neighbors may have revealed himself as a fool. But we will never stop needing such fools, men and women who are unafraid to speak truth to power even at the risk of their lives, and God help us if they ever disappear entirely.

Jeez. I promise I’ll try to find something a little cheerier to write about next time.

What we’re reading
Wayne C. Booth, Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent
Martin: S. C. Gwynne, Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History

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2 Responses to A holy fool in “the land of the Philistines”

  1. Tinky says:

    This is a fascinating story, Martin. As a side note, I myself haven't ever been able to figure out why any European Americans wanted to live in Texas before air conditioning (the Indians, one would presume, were used to the place). Surely their alleged destiny could have been more manifest in a more hospitable place. I will obviously have to read a little Texas history.

  2. Heather and Martin says:

    Oh, heavens, Tinky, don't go THAT far!

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