Monday, February 1, 2021

Review - "The Texas Tonkawas" by Stanley McGowen

[The Texas Tonkawas by Stanley S. McGowen (State House Press, 2020) Softcover, maps, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xxii,164/234. ISBN:978-1-933337-92-0. $29.95]

One of the smaller and lesser-known tribes of the Old Southwest, the Tonkawas of Texas assumed a critically important role in the military history of the region from frontier settlement through the end of the Southern Plains Indian Wars. Allied first with Texian settlers and later with Texas state, Confederate, and U.S. Army military and paramilitary forces, Tonkawa warriors served as scouts, trackers, and fighting auxiliaries during countless expeditions against the far more populous tribes that regularly raided the northern and western Texas frontier. That long-term military association forms the principal part of Stanley McGowen's The Texas Tonkawas.

Utilizing the most up to date scholarship, McGowen begins his study with an informative background summary of Tonkawa tribal origins and culture. With a very small population that fluctuated widely over its history and probably never exceeded 800 men, women, and children, the 1830s Tonkawa tribal range encompassed an inland swath of land bounded on either side by the Trinity and San Antonio rivers. Threatened by powerful enemies (most dangerously the mighty Comanche), they formed a uniquely strong bond of mutual trade and protection with Texian settlers. Legendary trackers (they could allegedly follow faint signs at full gallop), Tonkawa warriors enthusiastically participated in retaliatory raids and were experts at recovering captives and stolen stock. According to the author, one peculiar aspect of their fighting culture, ritual cannibalism, made them especially hated by their native enemies.

Nevertheless, over successive Texas administrations the Tonkawa, through an unfortunate combination of cultural misunderstanding, mistaken identity, and occasional violence, were gradually removed north with the eventual goal of settling them in Indian Territory. This staged process was interrupted by the American Civil War, which saw the Tonkawa yet again agreeing to fight alongside Texas forces. McGowen cites four reasons why the Tonkawa allied themselves with Confederate Texas during the Civil War. The strongest motivation was their desire to maintain the tribe's decades-old bond with Texas. According to the author, the Tonkawa also likely hoped that the Confederate government would assume the treaty obligations that went unfulfilled by the U.S. government. Unrelenting pressures from their traditional enemies, the Comanche and Kiowa, also undoubtedly formed part of the decision-making calculus. Finally, McGowen suggests that fear and uncertainty over what the Confederate military might do if the Tonkawas attempted neutrality (similar in nature to what the tribe had previously done during both the Texas Revolution and the U.S. war with Mexico) formed another strong consideration.

Civil War-era coverage in the book is relatively brief. Perhaps McGowen, whose excellent regimental history of the First Texas Cavalry titled Horse Sweat and Powder Smoke (1999) already addressed early-war period clashes between Texas forces that utilized Tonkawa scouts against the Kiowa and Comanche, did not feel the need to cover the same ground. So only a short chapter discusses the 1860-1867 stretch of time that includes arguably the most traumatic single event in the tribe's recorded history, the 1862 Tonkawa Massacre. Almost completely overlooked in popular and scholarly discussion of major western massacres, the October 1862 attack on the Confederate Witchita Agency by a confederation of Cherokees, Seminoles, Kickapoo, Shawnee, and Delaware armed by Union forces in Kansas devastated the Tonkawa. The attackers killed the agency staff and attempted to annihilate the 306 Tonkawa residing nearby. In the end, 137 Tonkawa men, women, and children lay dead, and the rest fled to shelter in Texas, where the survivors were supported through the winter and beyond by a large state relief effort. Even after that event rendered the newly destitute tribe in disarray with even its ultimate survival in question, Tonkawa men continued to serve with Confederate forces. During that time the Tonkawa would suffer losses they could no longer afford, and McGowen's narrative describes the terrible reverse suffered in January 1865 against the fleeing Kickapoo at Dove Creek.

Much of the remaining balance of McGowen's study consists of a detailed recounting of Tonkawa service in the U.S. Army over the decade following the end of the Civil War. In reading those sections, it becomes clear how instrumental Tonkawa guides and scouts were in furthering the army's goal of subduing the far-ranging Kiowa and Comanche. In common with so many of their native brethren, however, the Tonkawa struggled mightily to maintain their distinctive culture and obtain a permanent home in the decades following the pacification of the Southern Plains. Getting occasional help from Texas when federal aid lapsed, the Tonkawa eventually settled in a small reservation in what is today northern Oklahoma, where the majority reside today. An excellent overview, Stanley McGowen's The Texas Tonkawas should help foster among today's readers a wider knowledge and appreciation of the tribe's culture and close relationship with Texas. Of equal value is the study's thorough documentation of the Tonkawa people's role and place in the multi-ethnic violence and military history of the nineteenth-century Texas frontier.

1 comment:

  1. Dr.McGowen's Detailed study of the Tonkawa tribe is a very informative trip into the history of Texas and paints many mental pictures of life during early pioneer days. The Tonkawa tribe may not be as well known as many other tribes and yet they played a pivotal role in Texas history. I recommend this book to anyone who is a serious student of American Indian history ! D.L. Curtis


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