The Alabama and Coushatta American Indians in Texas once saved the republic, but their courageous acts have been ignored by history books
Of the many overlooked episodes of history, the white-washing of American Indians in Texas—excusing ethnic cleansing by reference to naked savages who killed for sport—and the broken promises to the Alabama and Coushatta nations rank among the most egregious.
The violent wars over the Southern Plains were real, and really barbaric, but the white settlers gave as much barbarism as they got. First the Apache, then the Comanche, and finally the Comanche Alliance with the Kiowa, made much of the Southern Plains no-go zones for the Spanish, the Mexicans, the Texans, the Americans, the Confederates, and finally the Americans again.
It was only after the Confederacy surrendered that the U.S. Army could turn its full attention to taking the Plains from the Kiowa-Comanche Alliance for settlement. The tactics employed required the near extinction of the bison that one general called “the Comanche larder” and the mass slaughter of the Kiowa horse herd at Palo Duro Canyon.
That is the story of the Indian wars in Texas, and the story is devoid of Alabama or Coushatta Indians menacing white settlers. Don’t know the story of the Alabama-Coushatta? Well, there’s a reason for it—if the story got out, a long-standing debt would come due.
Today, there are but three small Native territories held inside the state, and the role and land claims of American Indians in Texas has been conveniently forgotten.
The Tigua Indians of the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo were separated from the Tiwa Indians of the Isleta by the Pueblo Rebellion of 1680. There is dispute about whether they were Spanish sympathizers or hostages, but they came to El Paso del Norte with the Spanish and got a land grant from the King of Spain in 1751. While they were separated from much of that grant by sharp practices of the settlers, nobody questions how long they have been in the El Paso area.
A painting of the Pueblo Rebellion of 1680 on a buffalo hide.
If you are in El Paso, Mapquest says you are 811 miles from Los Angeles. Livingston, in East Texas, where the Alabama-Coushatta Reservation is located, is 812 miles. Originally part of the Upper Muscogee Confederacy and living near present-day Montgomery, Alabama, the separate tribes now residing in Livingston were pushed west by while settlement, crossing the Sabine River into Texas in 1807.
The Alabama and the Coushatta nations lived and thrived by farming in the piney woods of East Texas, operating a ferry over the Trinity River, and trading all along the Coushatta Trace, as far west as Presidio La Bahia. The peace of the farming life in the forests of East Texas was upended by political turmoil in Mexico severe enough to reach the northern provinces.
Between 1833 and 1847, Mexico had 30 chief executives, but nine of them were the same man. When the Texians (as they called themselves) threatened revolution unless the Mexican Constitution of 1824 was restored, the chief executive of Mexico (then serving for the fourth time) came north at the head of an army.
Gen. Antonio de Padua María Severino López de Santa Anna y Pérez de Lebrón (aka Santa Anna) did not bring an army to the Mexican Province of Coahuila y Tejas looking for love. The year was 1836 and he was interested in being feared, not loved.
In Santa Anna’s mind, the Texians crossed a line when they fired on General Martín Perfecto de Cos at Gonzales. Cos had been sent to repossess a cannon lent to the city for defense against Indians, principally Comanches.
This is a reproduction of the flag that was raised by Texas settlers at the Battle of Gonzales in October 1835 after Mexico attempted to retrieve a cannon which had been granted to the town of Gonzales for protection against raids by Native tribes.
The resulting engagement is illustrated on a flag with a cannon and the slogan, “Come and Take It!” Santa Anna’s determination to chastise Gonzales and teach the Anglo settlers a lesson led to the legendary siege of Mission San Antonio de Valero, the Alamo, and deaths of the colorful characters already familiar from countless retellings even before the mighty myth-making machine that was Walt Disney did its work:
*William Barrett Travis, the self-conscious swashbuckler, who disobeyed Sam Houston’s order to abandon the Alamo and retreat. Travis plainly was feeling the winds of destiny beating about his ears when he wrote from the Alamo pleading for reinforcement but recognizing the probable outcome:
I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible & die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor & that of his country – Victory or Death**.
*The land speculator and slave monger James Bowie, inventor of the eponymous knife, who had married into the Veramendi family, part of the Mexican establishment governing San Antonio de Béxar.
*David Crockett, who was elected to the U.S. Congress in the wave of populism that carried Andrew Jackson to the presidency. Crockett clashed with Jackson over the Indian Removal Act, which Crockett viewed as treachery against honorable peoples. After losing his seat to a Jackson supporter, winning it back, and losing it again, Crockett famously wrote:
I told the people of my district that I would serve them as faithfully as I had done; but if not, they might go to hell, and I would go to Texas.
The bloody end of the Alamo defenders is the stuff of legends and songs and motion pictures. Everybody knows the basic outline. The Alamo fell on March 6, 1836, and the horror continued March 27 in an engagement less storied but no less brutal.
The Fall of the Alamo (1903) by Robert Jenkins Onderdonk depicts Davy Crockett wielding his rifle as a club against Mexican troops who have breached the walls of the mission.
Col. James Fannin commanded the Texian forces at Presidio La Bahia near Goliad. Finding his forces greatly outnumbered, underequipped, and surrounded, Fannin was led to believe that if he surrendered his troops would be deported from Mexico to the United States.
Mexican Gen. José de Urrea, who accepted Fannin’s surrender, did his best to keep his word, but he was countermanded by Santa Anna. Fannin’s troops were marched out of Goliad by Mexican forces who let the Texians get ahead and then opened fire on the unarmed prisoners. The dead numbered more than 340—the exact number is widely debated—while 28 escaped by playing dead.
Fannin had been wounded before the surrender and so was unable to march away to the killing fields. When the Mexican troops returned, Fannin was seated in a chair and blindfolded for execution. He made three requests: that his belongings be sent to his family, that he be shot in the heart rather than the face, and that he be given a Christian burial.
The Mexicans took his property, shot him in the face, and burned his body on the same pyre as his troops. There were witnesses, and the stories of the massacres at the Alamo and at Goliad traveled more quickly than Santa Anna’s army.
Non-Texans certainly know about the Alamo, fewer about the Goliad Massacre. For most people outside of Texas, the next event in the Texas Revolution was the outnumbered Sam Houston’s defeat of Santa Anna’s forces on April 21 at the Battle of San Jacinto. Houston’s battle cry was “Remember the Alamo! Remember Goliad!”
What happened between Goliad and San Jacinto should have cemented the relationship between the Alabama-Coushatta Indians and Texas. The history books call it the Runaway Scrape.
Sam Houston’s army crossed Texas in retreat, Santa Anna close behind. In light of the bloody business before the chase, the noncombatants took what they could carry and fled before the advancing Mexicans. One history related:
On every road leading eastward into Texas, were found men, women and children, moving through the country over swollen streams and muddy roads, strewing the way with their property, crying for aid, and exposed to the fierce northers and rains of the spring. The scene was distressing indeed: and being witnessed by the small but faithful army of Texas, whose families and wives they were….
Sam Houston, who was a married-in Cherokee, had an agreement with the Alabamas and Coushattas that they would remain neutral. For staying out of the fight, they would have a land grant between the Neches and Sabine rivers.
As it happened, they did a bit more than remain neutral. When the Texian women and children got to the Trinity River, it was flooded out of its banks. The Coushattas had a ferry, which they took into the flood at some risk and brought the Texian refugees across the Trinity. When the Mexican troops tried to summon the ferry to cross the flood and give chase, the operators begged off, claiming that it was too dangerous.
On the safe side of the Trinity, the Indian farmers slaughtered their cattle to feed the refugees. Indian guides rode with Sam Houston across East Texas.
Courtesy Wikipedia/Burton Historical Collection, Detroit Public Library
This pile of bison skulls shows just how many were killed. According to Wikipedia, this image was taken in 1892 just before the skulls were to be ground and used for fertilizer.
The Indian treaties Houston negotiated were never ratified by the Republic of Texas, and when Houston was term-limited out of the presidency, Mirabeau Lamar took over and gave Indians a stark choice: leave Texas or die.
Even Lamar, publicly racist and proud Indian fighter, could not ignore the aid and comfort provided to the families of the Texian army, and so he told the Fourth Congress of the Republic of Texas, “To the Coushattas and Alabamas, who seem to have some equitable claims upon the country for the protection of their property and persons, the hand of friendship has been extended…” Upon learning of violence directed toward the Coushattas by settlers, Lamar signed a proclamation “strictly enjoining the Citizens of this Republic to abstain from all and every act of hostility towards said Indian tribe.”
While Lamar had enough shame not to take their lives, the Alabamas and Coushattas never did get that grant of land between the Neches and the Sabine. Texas repeatedly passed resolutions granting them reservations, to which the Indians tried to move, only to discover white settlers already in possession. The settlers, again and again, stayed in possession.
The Alabamas finally got a reservation in 1854, tiny in relation to what they had been promised. The Coushattas, while authorized a reservation by Texas law, could never find unoccupied land, and they settled on the Alabama Reservation by invitation of the Alabamas.
In 1928, the U.S. Department of the Interior bought land and put it in trust for the Alabamas and Coushattas. The state and federal lands made up the reservation the merged tribes call home today.
After the revolution was over and it appeared that the Indian treaties would be dead letters, Mexico sent agents to East Texas to foment a rebellion against the new nation. The Alabamas and Coushattas remained loyal to Texas. The Kickapoo sided with Mexico, probably because when Texas was part of Mexico, it had been a refuge. Their history with the settlers told them they needed a refuge.
The Kickapoo first discovered Europeans in the person of Samuel de Champlain, who they encountered in 1612. Their home at the time was a land we now call Michigan.
Over time, the Kickapoo were forced south by white settlement as the settlers gave the Kickapoo reservations and then took the reservations back in Missouri, and then Kansas, and then Oklahoma. A faction of the tribe, sick of the dishonorable conduct, left the U.S. and took up residence in Mexico.
The Texas Rangers chased the Kickapoo to the Mexican border. From Mexico, the Kickapoos raided across the border as late as 1873. Mexico settled them on the Nacimiento Reservation, where they remain today. Their forced relocations left the Kickapoo with reservations in Kansas and Oklahoma in addition to Nacimiento.
In the 1940s, the Kickapoo began crossing back across the border as migrant farm workers, following the crops in season and then returning to Mexico. For decades, they lived as squatters under the international bridge between Eagle Pass, Texas and Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico. They sheltered in dead cars and makeshift wickiups constructed from appliance shipping boxes.
In 1985, the Kickapoos finally got a small reservation near the border, where they operate the Lucky Eagle Casino, the only Indian casino allowed in Texas because both the Alabama-Coushattas and the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo were terminated and the law that re-recognized them—at the behest of the Texas congressional delegation—banned commercial gaming.
All three tribes with reservations in Texas have been poorly treated by the settlers, stolen from and exploited. But the Alabama-Coushattas, because the state of Texas ought to recognize a debt incurred when their cause was very much in doubt, are in a class by themselves. What would otherwise be bad conduct—perhaps driven by garden variety racism—appears in history’s lens more like a betrayal.