• Inciting Incident: San Saba Massacre

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    I planned to spend the evening reading and researching more in the Anza story, but like most evenings, after I came home from work, I did little productive for two hours. I picked up two books I thought it might be good to peruse for insights, but I gave up on both of them fairly quickly: too high level reading for my dull mind tonight.

    What I wanted to learn more about was Anza’s childhood. He was the youngest of six children in his family.

    That’s as far as I got on that topic.

    I picked back up the book on the Comanches and figured if I was going to make progress in anything tonight, it would be a few pages in that.

    It turns out the section I read was perfect for the evening.

    “Empire of the Summer Moon” provided a recap of an incident that sent shock waves through New Spain, and which, as I learned a few pages later, greatly informed Anza’s strategy in fighting and winning an unprecedented military and strategic victory over Indians in New Mexico.

    In 1749, several bands of Lipan Apache in the area around San Antonio came out of nowhere and asked local Spanish authorities if they could become subjects of Spain, and baptized. The Spanish, having long suffered Apache incursions in the region since San Antonio was established in 1718 and elsewhere as the Apache wandered down into the northern frontier, were shocked, and split on the Apaches’ request. The Spanish were reticent and reluctant to accommodate the Indians with a poor track record of trust, but over the next few years, the Apaches would come by with the same request: peace, surrender, a presidio and a mission on their own land.

    Despite cynicism, the idea continued to float. In 1753 and 1755, scouts were sent out to survey a prospective site for construction. A wealthy magnate from Mexico City volunteered to pay for the two projects. No Spanish mission had ever been set up in Apache country.

    In 1756, construction started, and in 1757, four priests were in installed in the mission and one hundred soldiers in the fort that sat on the south banks of the San Saba River, “part of the Apache homeland”, supported by hundreds of heads of sheep and cattle and horses and Indian transplants.

    And the Apache in the area disappeared. The Spanish officer over the projects, Colonel Diego Ortíz de Parrilla, was frustrated and dejected over the whole thing seeming a bust.

    Until several months later in 1757, when a few passing bands of Apaches told priests at the mission a great horde of norteños was coming- the Apache term for Comanches. Parrilla and the priests didn’t know of a Comanche threat at the time and dismissed the reports as exaggerated.

    Well, it turns out the norteños were coming because the area the Spaniards built their new settlement on was actually on the fringes of Comanche country- the vaulted Comancheria- and the act of building on their territory was an act of war.

    The Apaches had duped the Spaniards into provoking the Comanches into war.

    And, most likely, they had done it to get the Comanches’ attention off from the Apaches, since the Comanches were hellbent on beating the Apaches around and taking their lands and livestock.

    New Spain had no idea of the size or power of the Comanche people filling in the Great Plains at that time. But they soon would.

    A few months later, in spring of 1758, the “hordes” came, and Comanche surrounded the mission with a massive force of 2000 mounted and painted warriors, and attacked the unsuspecting mission and its priests after a feigned gesture of friendship, killing most there and then razing the site’s structures after collecting whatever goods and livestock, this after Parrilla had asked the priests to come stay in the fort for safety.

    Parrilla sent a small detachment of calvary to check on the priests and the mission on the 4th day after the attack, after the raider celebration of destruction finally quieted down, and these nine were also ambushed near the fort, their horses stolen, and wounded men left to crawl back to the presidio for help and safety.

    After the Comanches attacked the mission, word went down the line from the north frontier back to Mexico about the harrowing attack and the brutality of these Indians. Parrilla, in his fort, had asked soldiers from neighboring forts to come and help staff and strengthen the security of his location three times, to no avail. He even asked the Viceroy in Mexico City to send order for the other northern presidios to send San Saba fort assistance.

    No one would come help man the fort.

    This attack on San Saba filled New Spain with first terror, and then fury, and then a collective hunger for vengeance. The Viceroy helped provide Parrilla with 600 well-geared and rationed soldiers to go out and enact revenge on Comanches, a unit that marched north in August of 1758, and in short advance, came across a village of Tonkawa Indians- enemies of the Comanche, but as Indians, objects of Parrilla’s ire nonetheless- and attacked it, killing 75 and taking captives to be sent back to San Antonio for conversion and subversion.

    Parrilla marched on, and in time came across a Comanche settlement near the Red River, northwest of today’s Fort Worth, full of the warriors and their allies- including some Osage, with whom the Comanche were at war. After short deliberation, Parrilla commanded his men to attack the enemy, which his Spanish regulars obeyed, but most of his mercenary army rejected and instead, decided to run away in panic.

    Parrilla escaped the affair, but his supplies and livestock ended up in Comanche hands. Parrilla returned to Mexico City to face court-martial.

    Spain, the recent and ruling world power, had faced its first true military defeat in the New World in a humiliating fashion to an unknown collective of powerful and unpredictable Native Indians.

    And this is how the Spanish in New Spain first came to experience the frightening might of Comanches in its northern territory, and this is also how New Spaniards developed a renewed and deep anger at the Apaches, who had already created so many problems for them in the northern frontier, and then in this one episode, had baited them to become the Comanche focus as the Apache scrabbled south, into New Spanish territory, hunting for a new homeland.

    Between 1760 and 1810, New Spain would struggle heavily with how to manage the Indian issue, which was, in other terms, how to deal with the Apache and Comanches. These two tribes were both composed of nomadic raiders who reeked havoc on Spanish settlements all over norhtern New Spain during this period, making the northern frontier largely uninhabitable for much of that time.

    Except in New Mexico, within a decade of when Anza became the territory’s military governor in 1777.

    Already established as a key trading hub for peoples living in the northern frontier, New Mexico would resume its role as the main meeting place of Southwestern traders AFTER Anza steps in and works his plan for stabilizing the region.

    His plan, which involved the unheard of approach of attacking the Comanches on their own lands- and then dominating them enough to force them into a compact with Spain which was focused on mutual trade, mutual respect, and defeating a mutual enemy in the shifty Apaches, somehow, miraculously, worked.


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    A web programmer by day, I somehow still spend a lot of time thinking about relationships, God, and the significance of grace and love in daily events. I am old school in the sense that I believe in the reality of sin, and in the need of each human heart for deliverance to the Divine. I am one of those who believes that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and that you can find most answers to life's pressing issues in Him and His Word, the Bible. I ain't perfect, and a lot of the time I ain't good, but by God's grace and kindness, I am forgiven and free.

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