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The Great Comanche-Ranger Riding Match

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July 11, 2011 - "In the Spring of 1843 the Comanche Indians became very troublesom [sic] in the west especially around San Antonio."So wrote James Wilson Nichols in his memoir Now You Hear My Horn to explain how and why he became a Texas Ranger.  When Jack Hays received Congressional approval and $500 of government money to organize a "company of mounted men to act as spies on the Southwestern Frontier," the 23-year-old Nichols quickly enlisted for a year-long term of service.  Hays led his new recruits to an old mission south of San Antonio, where they elected as officers Big Foot Wallace and Ad Gilespi.  These officers and their captain began leading constant patrols in the neighboring countryside while those left behind strove to improve their riding and fighting skills.  Nichols' recollections provide a fascinating glimpse of early life and training with the Texas Rangers and the Comanche foes they emulated.
Texas RangerTarget practice involved riding full speed toward two man-sized posts driven into the ground about 40 yards apart.  The recruit fired his rifle at the first post before drawing his single-shot pistol and blasting away at the second.  Nichols witnessed "some wild shooting" at first but after a couple of months most of the men could put a bullet into the center of each post.  At this point someone drew a circle the size of a man's head on the two posts for the men to aim at.  Nichols writes, "[S]oon every man could put both his balls in the circul."

Hays wanted Rangers who could not only discharge firearms as accurately as the Comanches shot arrows, but could also command their mounts in Indian fashion.  Toward this end he had them practice plucking objects from the ground while mounted and riding at top speed.  Early attempts employed large objects, such as blankets, coats, and hats.  As the men improved they practiced with small strands of rope and even a silver dollar.

Texas Ranger Captain Jack HaysMoves seen today as rodeo tricks meant the difference between life and death to the Rangers and Comanches.  Knowing that their enemy could already do so, James Nichols and his colleagues practiced until they too could stand up in the saddle or slip to one side of the horse so as to shield themselves from enemy fire.  Just as the Comanche fighters did, these Rangers could fire on the run from underneath the animal's neck.  They could quickly reverse sides as the situation demanded.  They could hop off a sprinting animal, run alongside a few steps, and leap back into the saddle without breaking stride.

Word of the Rangers' newly-gained prowess soon spread to the citizens of San Antonio and to the Comanches themselves.  Jack Hays must have wondered how his men would fare in an Indian fight.  Undoubtedly the Comanches were curious to see if their legendary skills had indeed been matched.  John Duval, who later became a Ranger under Hays, first heard of the scheduled competition between the Rangers and the Comanches on the outskirts of San Antonio from his Uncle Seth.  The older man told his nephew that the Rangers "could beat the circus riders 'all hollow,' and the sight would be worth the loss of a day."  Many agreed with Uncle Seth, for "the next morning we found the whole population of the city, men, women and children, all preparing to leave for the scene of the great riding match."  John Duval and his friends joined the throng riding to the prearranged site, located in a level prairie about a half mile west of the main plaza.  Duval later recalled:

John C. Duval"Gaily dressed caballeros were prancing up and down the street.  Rangers mounted on their barbs, dressed in buck skin hunting shirts, leggins and slouched hats, and with pistols and bowie knives stuck in their belts, galloped hither and thither through the crowd, occasionally charging horse and all, into some bar room or grocery, and calling for mescal or red eye, by way of preparing themselves for the expected contest.  All the strangers in the place, and the citizens with their wives and families crammed into all sorts of vehicles, were seen hurrying through the streets in hot haste to reache the scene of action before the show began."

Despite his initial enthusiasm Uncle Seth chose to stay at home with the claim that he "had seen 'Ingens often enough cuttin' up their didos' on horseback."

Duval doesn't mention James Nichols in his account, nor does Nichols specifically describe the contest, but as a member of Hays' force he must have participated.  Duval crossed San Pedro Creek before arriving at the contest ground "where we found the whole population of the town already assembled."  There he saw the contestants drawn up in two long parallel lines facing one another.  On one side were the Comanches "sitting like statues on their horses," and on the other sat the Rangers "and a few Mexican Caballeros" wearing wide-brimmed sombreros, colorful scarves, and slashed trousers.  Once noncontestants were cleared from the arena a young Mexican signalled the match's start by taking a spear in hand, riding a distance of 3 or 4 hundred yards, dismounting, and laying the spear on the ground.  Immediately one of the Comanche sped his horse in the opposite direction.  After about a hundred yards he wheeled the animal and raced back toward the spear.  When close to his goal he dipped from his saddle, grabbed hold of the spear, rose back to a riding position, and continued riding for several seconds longer.  He then turned back around, galloped back to the spear's original position, dropped it, and rejoined his comrades.  According to Duval, every contestant in turn successfully accomplished the same feat.  They then repeated this action using a glove in place of the spear.

Tejano riderNext, a board with a painted "bull's eye" was driven into the ground where the spear and glove had been.  Each Indian in turn rode furiously at the post and shot at least one and sometimes two arrows into its center.  The Rangers and caballeros followed suit with pistols.  Other contests involved hanging from the saddle horn by one knee while firing arrows or pistols from underneath the horse's neck, jumping from a running horse and leaping back into the saddle, and sliding from the saddle underneath the horse's neck to remount from the other side.  An enthusiastic Duval gushed that "No feats of horsemanship we had ever seen exhibited by the most famous knighs of the ring could compare with these for daring and dexterity."

The final contest called for a man to successfully ride one of several wild horses recently captured in the desert.  Duval relates only the attempts of a Ranger named McMullen and several of the Mexicans, implying that none others participated in the event.  McMullen tamed his horse by tying a strip of cloth around its eyes, slipping a bit into its mouth and a saddle onto its back, leaping into the saddle, and removing the cloth.  "The instant the blind was drawn up the wild horse, snorting and bellwoing like a mad bull with mingled rage and terror, gave one tremendous bound and then darted of at head long speed across the prairie."  Rather than try to slow the animal, McMullen instead urged it on.  After several back and forth dashes across the grounds McMullen halted the beast, whereupon it began bucking furiously in an unsuccesful attempt to throw its rider.  When the horse flipped itself backwards onto the ground the spectators cried out in horror, fully expecting that McMullen would be killed or seriously injured.  But he "sprang from under just in time to save himself."  Popping back into the saddle, the bold youth again raced the horse back and forth to the point of exhaustion before cantering leisurely back to the crowd.  Duval wrote, "The black eyes of many a senorita smiled admiringly upon the daring and handsome young ranger."

Comanche ridersThe contest's judges are lost to history, but the winners were McMullen, who took first place, and the Comanche Long Quiet, who finished second.  Colonel Kinney of Corpus Christi and Don Rafael from the Rio Grande claimed third and fourth.  Each of the Comanches was presented a gift before his departure, after which Duval and his friends "returned to camp highly pleased with all we had seen."


Jeffrey Kerr
Written on Tuesday, 12 July 2011 01:11 by Jeffrey Kerr

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