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“yell like a Comanche”

The whole party of Comanches, shaking their lances in the air, with the most unearthly yell it was ever my fortune to hear… their hoarse voices were repeating the same word, a strange sound, of which I can give no idea in our letters, which the Colonel said meant “The Conjurer.” – American Review, 1845

=An Indian yell, but not made by an Indian.

As long as there have been warriors, there have been battle cries, and as long as there have been boys, there have been boys “yelling like Comanches,” as Mother Wilder described Royal and Almanzo’s behavior while bringing in the ice and snow to be melted into bath water (see Farmer Boy, Chapter 7, “Saturday Night”). Both history and literature are full of descriptions of the Comanche yell:

     “It was a yell that made the very leaves shiver…”

     “The whole party, shaking their lances in the air, let forth with the most unearthly yell it was ever my misfortune to hear…”

     “A party of eight Comanches wheeled out of the chaos, and with a simultaneous burst of that infernal whoop, came thundering on at full speed…”

Originally from Wyoming, the Comanches were once part of the Shoshone Indians. They moved southward and by the early 1700s they were in the Texas panhandle and New Mexico. They were nomadic and organized in at least a dozen different bands; portions of these bands came together to fight a common enemy. The Comanches were known as fierce warriors, skilled hunters and excellent horsemen, and surely newspaper stories of the Texas-Indian Wars were interesting to Almanzo. At the time Farmer Boy takes place (Almanzo celebrated his ninth birthday in the book, which was in 1866), the Comanches were definitely in the news. They were being forced to give up their lands and move to a reservation in Oklahoma. By the 1870s, there were only a few thousand Comanches left, thanks to two gifts from the white man: cholera and smallpox.

In 1892, the reservation was dissolved. Each registered family was given an allotment of 160 acres, with the U.S. Government getting all the reservation land that was not given to Comanche families. In 1901, this land was sold to white settlers. Half a million acres had been held back for the Comanches, but it was leased to white ranchers in 1906.

The following appeared in a number of newspapers in 1900, and while it does mention the Comanche yell, it is the sort of incomplete and incorrect history which caused Laura Ingalls Wilder to write about another group of Indians: “If I had been the Indians I would have scapled more white folks before I would have left [my land].” — Laura Ingalls Wilder, On the Way Home (Harper & Row, 1962): entry dated July 23, 1894.

Passing of Comanche. Yell That Struck Terror Into Plainsmen and Settlers – May Pass Into Language.

Winfield, Kansas. – The settlement of the Comanche and Kiowa country, soon to be accomplished and which will doubtless be carried out in a few months, involves in it as one of the most striking incidents of the changing affairs of the west, the passing of the Comanche tribe, one of the wildest and most untamable of Uncle Sam’s wards. To “yell like a Comanche Indian” has become one of the nation’s favorite phrases, and it is not too much to say that this is about all the general knowledge that is possessed by the American people of the tribe that gave rise to the expression. The Comanche yell is unique, and once heard is never forgotten. It will long survive the tribe, and the phrase will probably become one of the idioms of the language. It is essentially the emblem of perpetuation, a memory that lingers on and on when other sounds have been swept into forgetfulness. Old plainsmen say the years afterward they woke in the night with the yell of the Comanche savage ringing through their dreams and the terror of some wild night on the frontier comes back to them in all its old-time alarm.

The Comanche Indians were not like other tribes. They were not like other tribes. They refused until a late date to consent to treaties with the United States. They occupy today a part of the very land they occupied when the first white man set foot on American soil, and this being very far west they did not for a long time come in contact with the westward flowing settlement. When the settlement came they were jealous of the usurpation of their rights that they saw was about to visit upon them, and with all their might they fought off the inevitable.

Two conflicting civilizations met around their territory–that of the Spaniard, who came up from Mexico, and that of the Anglo-Saxons, that poured across the plains from the east and pushed down through the lands not included in Oklahoma. Against both they fought valiantly, and in the hearts of both adversaries they created a fear that was the result of many bloody meetings on the plains and deeds of cruelty and rapine. At the beginning of this century the Comanches numbered about 12,000 souls, 2,500 of these being warriors. They were known as the Texas Indians, their headquarters being in central and northern Texas, but they warred north, east and west over a large territory. At one season they would be making depredations in Chihuahua, Mexico, and at another would be attacking the emigrants that were following the trains through Kansas and southern Nebraska to the gold fields of the Pacific coat. Again they made forays on the farms and ranches of Texas, and both Mexicans and Americans feared them, keeping out of their way as much as possible and losing equally in the savage attacks that were made by the vicious tribe. On two occasions they strayed far enough out of their way to wage war on the Osages and Pawnees, both of which comparatively peaceful tribes they defeated with much bloodshed.

Original Rough Riders. The Comanches were the original rough riders of the continent. Much of their success in war was based on the fact that they were the best horseback riders in the west, if not in the world. They have never been excelled in horsemanship, and in the opinion of the scouts, who are good judges, have never been equaled. It made no difference how wild the horse–indeed, the wilder the better–or how rough the country, without bridle or saddle, if necessary, the Comanche would cling to the flying animal and send his arrows with unerring skill into the enemy’s lines. So brilliant were their actions that the emigrant trains were bewildered and were put at the mercy of attacking warriors.

There is in the Comanche tribe an admixture of Mexican and hence of Spanish blood. At one time they had a headquarters near Sante Fe, N.M., and mixed a great deal with the Spanish-Americans there. In many other instances they captured Mexican children and adults and the mixture of blood came about in that way. They also captured Americans occasionally and held the captives as members of the tribe. Cecilia Parker, the mother of Quanah Parker, a chief of the Comanches with more than local fame, was one of the captives.

…The early Comanches were prairie Indians pure and simple. They did not accumulate or seek skins of any kind and hunted the buffalo alone. This they did with the bow and arrow, carrying this weapon with them on their horses, even after they had acquired firearms from the settlers who came into the territory they traversed. They were kings of the bow, as they were of the saddle, and the force of their arms was something remarkable. Many a Comanche could shoot an arrow through a buffalo and have it come out and stick in the ground on the other side of the animal. This is a feat that would be a difficult one for accomplished college athletes, and the fact that the feat was accomplished while the buffalo and the shooter were both on a run made it the more remarkable.

During the summer, when the buffalo went far north with the birds, the Comanche suffered severely, but in winter he lived on the fat of the land. The forays were made in the summer, when there was a chance to get something palatable to eat while pursuing the schemes of revenge and giving vent to the blood curdling yells that were the terror of many a settlement.

It has been many years since the Comanches have been on the war path. The closing in of the white civilization and the opening of Oklahoma have broken the tribe spirit, and the old men who dream in the shelter of the cabins and tepees are the ones in whom are left the remembrances of the days of daring. The greatest chief of the tribe and the hero of Comanche tales even to the present generation was Little Bear, who flourished in 1819. He was a sober and severe man and it is said of him that he never laughed except in battle. He was a hard ruler and made his tribe the best fighters in the west. Mercy was unknown to him, and he treated the prisoners with a cruelty that is yet a memory in the traditions of the Comanche historians…

The government will soon stop dolling out beef to the Comanches, and each family will be put on an individual farm to work out its own financial salvation. That the Comanches will make good farmers is by no means certain. They have shown some ability in that direction, and when the days of necessity comes there is reason to believe that they will forsake the old traditions and take up the new. Then the only record of their past ferocity and daring will be the by-word of the white men, “a Comanche yell.” — June 4, 1900.


     


     

If you have watched old westerns on television, you’ve no doubt heard a version or two of the famous Indian war-cry. The Rebel yell of the Confederate soldiers during the Civil War was said to have been borrowed, in part, from the Indians; it was also influenced by the war-cries of the Scots. You can hear actual “Johnny Rebs” HERE, filmed in 1938 during the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.


“yell like a comanche” (FB 7)