‘THE WICHITA INDIANS: TRADERS OF TEXAS AND THE SOUTHERN PLAINS, 1540-1845’

The lives of the Wichita Indians changed forever when two French traders
arrived in one of their villages in 1540.

Lives built on agriculture and
commerce would be usurped by European and later American political
conflicts and imperialism over the next 300 years. War and disease would
devastate a proud people and leave them a shadow of their former selves.

F. Todd Smith addressed the early history of Euro-American relations with
the Wichita in “The Wichita Indians: Traders of Texas and the Southern
Plains, 1540-1845.” This book was the first in series of academic works in
which the associate professor of history at the University of North
Texas-Denton sought to chronicle the tribal history of what is now the
state of Texas and southern plains region. Smith’s other books have
included works on the Caddo Indians and U.S.-tribal relations in Texas in
the early 20th century.

The amount of detail in “The Wichita Indians” is staggering and based on
exhaustive research of what is referred to as primary and secondary sources
in academic circles. These numerous sources include not only existing works
on the history of Wichita and European relations, but archival documents
providing in-depth details on everything from the number of horses stolen
in raids on San Antonio to the number of casualties from battles over three
centuries.

One of themes examined by Smith is the tactics employed by the European
powers to bring the Wichita into line with their imperialist goals. France
introduced trade goods and firearms into the lives of the Wichita tribes
creating a cycle of dependence leading to their downfall. Spain expanded on
this means of controlling the tribes by creating further dependence on
trade goods and supplanting traditional ways of life with Christianity. The
Spanish, more so than the French, had sought to exploit the Wichita with
promises of aid and support against their traditional enemies – the Osages
and the Lipan Apaches. The Wichita chiefs became vassals of the Spanish
crown and in actuality little more than a means to generate riches and as a
buffer to hostile tribes in the region.

Smith’s research indicates the Wichita did not fare much better from an
independent United States, Mexico or Texas for that matter during the
1700s, following the Louisiana Purchase in 1804 and during the period of
Texas independence. The Wichita remained committed to peaceful coexistence
despite periodic uprisings and raids. Sporadic violence did nothing to
endear the Wichita to immigrants to Texas from the East despite the efforts
of Sam Houston and others who saw peace with the Indian nations as a
necessary step in maintaining the viability of Texan independence.

The Wichita were as devastated by European diseases as any other indigenous
people in the Western hemisphere. Smith details one epidemic in 1772 when a
Tawakonis Wichita village on the Brazos River in Texas was forced to move
after losing an estimated 500 of 1,200 residents. Another outbreak of
disease in 1778 caused the combined population of the prosperous Taovayas
and Guichitas Wichita villages on the Red River to drop from over 3,000 to
about 2,000. According to Smith, other Wichita communities experienced 90
percent fatality rates during the same time period from small pox. Depleted
by disease and attacks by the Osage and Apache, the Wichita could not
withstand the onslaught of the European and American invaders.

Sad as the story of the Wichita told by Smith may be – it is not over. They
continue to endure despite the degree of their suffering. This is a lesson
that goes beyond a history book, however well-written.

This book available by contacting the Texas A&M University Press, John H.
Lindsey Building, Lewis Street, 4354 TAMU, College Station, Texas
77843-4354 or call (800) 826-8911.

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