Sunday, April 10, 2016

Texans’ 1872 raid reclaimed stolen cattle from New Mexico

by Marc Simmons

In midsummer of 1872, a Texas cattleman, John Hittson, led 50 hard-bitten cowboys on a vigilante-style raid of Eastern New Mexico, and he did so with the approval of his state governor. The incident created headlines at the time, but today it has been almost forgotten.

The trouble that prompted Hittson’s daring act had its origins in the famed Comanchero trade of the southern plains. Comancheros were native New Mexicans who, for more than a century, had been venturing upon the wide Llano Estacado to trade with the warlike Comanche Indians.

To their wild customers, the merchants from the upper Pecos (that’s where most of them lived) swapped guns, powder, lead, knives and hatchets. They received in return mostly live cattle, but also some horses and mules.

Occasionally, the Comancheros brought liquor to barter, but that was a very dangerous commodity. They would bury the kegs some distance from camp, make their trade with the Indians and then, just as they were leaving for home, divulge the location of the firewater. They wished to be well away before the revelry began.

The trouble with this business was that the livestock acquired by the Comancheros was almost all stolen from ranches in Texas. The market provided by the New Mexicans actually encouraged the Indians’ devastating raids.

Howls of protest echoed from the Lone Star State. But there was criticism at the other end of the line as well.

...Panhandle rancher Charles Goodnight had long suffered heavy losses. In the late 1860s, he rode over to the Gallinas River where he found 600 of his cows in the hands of a local resident.

Going to nearby Las Vegas, N.M., Goodnight engaged a lawyer and tried to redeem his lost property. Local officials proved unsympathetic and not only refused to order return of his cattle but made him pay $75 in court costs. The poor Texan said he was lucky to get away with his shirt.

...In 1872, he (John Hittson) decided to do something about that. He assembled his small army, and armed with powers of attorney from many ranchers across Texas, he swept like a tornado into New Mexico.

Everywhere he found cattle wearing a Texas brand, including his own Three Circle brand, he repossessed them at the point of a gun. No attempt was made to determine whether they had been legally purchased or had come through the unlawful Comanchero trade. Hittson automatically assumed the latter.

...When John Hittson finally departed New Mexico, he was said to be driving 18,000 head of cattle. It was not his raid that finished off the Comacheros, however. That task was completed by the army who soon forced the Comanche tribe onto an Oklahoma reservation. That ended their trading with the New Mexicans.

Now in semi-retirement, author Marc Simmons wrote a weekly history column for more than 35 years. The New Mexican is publishing reprints from among the more than 1,800 columns he produced during his career.

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