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Frontier Land

At the end of the trail, a couple of days and a couple hundred miles farther down Highway 16, I would find quaint with a capital Q in Fredericksburg, a perfectly restored frontier town where big-haired girlfriends down from Dallas shopped in false-front stores with second-floor galleries and covered sidewalks. I felt like I'd walked onto a Hollywood back lot.

TO DRIVE DOWN HIGHWAY 16 IS TO DRIVE INTO THE PAST. On my way down to Fredericksburg, it seemed like every few miles I would pass another historical marker. The history is recent. In dry words embossed on metal plaques, the markers list dates and names and building materials and occasionally massacres. What I didn't know when I set out on this trip is that Highway 16 runs over the same ground as America's last and bloodiest frontier. Starting a little more than a century and a half ago, this was where some of America's toughest, most warlike tribes ran up against one another -- the Scotch-Irish and the Apaches and Comanches.


Mineral Wells, Texas. (Sarah Ross Wauters)

_____Fall Travel Issue_____
Party Line (The Washington Post, Sep 19, 2004)
The Roads Less Traveled (The Washington Post, Sep 19, 2004)

The names Apache and Comanche both come from words that mean something like "enemy" in the languages of kinder, gentler tribes. I should stop right here and say, I only know this because I read it in a Texas-size doorstop of a book called Lone Star by one of the state's most widely read historians, T.R. Fehrenbach. Anyone thinking about visiting Texas, or even anyone just thinking about Texas, should read this book. It makes for some very diverting reading, though I don't know if the credit belongs to T.R. or to Texas, seeing as how history tends to say as much about the person writing it as about what actually happened. So, here's my take on his take on Texas.

The Apaches were nomads who lived by hunting bison and raiding their agrarian neighbors. They fought their way down from the American Northwest and sometime in the early 1600s arrived in the Southwest. There they added Spanish mustangs and firearms to the list of things they shopped for on raids.

Behind them came a tribe that was barely eking out an existence in the wan summers and harsh winters of the Rockies. They were poor, and powerless, and short-statured, thanks to a starvation diet of berries and small game. They were the dogs everybody else kicked; they had nothing to lose. Once they got hold of their first Spanish mustangs, every last man, woman and child of them rode out onto the Plains and never looked back. All of a sudden, they could hunt down buffalo and eat like they'd never eaten before. All of a sudden, they who'd had nothing could whoop down on their softer, richer neighbors, take whatever they wanted and vanish back out on the trackless Plains. They created a whole new culture for themselves, based on bison and raiding. They could raid a thousand miles at a time; they transformed mounted warfare into a fine art. They took orders from no man.

They were the Comanches, and by the mid-1700s they'd forced even many of the Apaches down off the Plains and into the Hill Country of Texas, where more peaceable tribes already lived. The Comanches wouldn't meet their match for another hundred years.

Their match hailed from the borderlands of the British Isles. They were Scottish tribes, hardened by a few centuries of blood feuds with their English neighbors. When things quieted down, the fittest among them moved on to the bloodletting in Ireland. After that, being hopelessly unsuited for peasant life, the fittest among them left for America. Being hopelessly unsuited for employed life, too, most bypassed the cities and plantations on the coast and headed straight for Appalachia and the edgy borderland life they knew. There they fought the native tribes of Kentucky and Tennessee. They won. And then, early in the 19th century, as that border filled up with their slower, weaker Anglo brethren, the ever-restless Scotch-Irish moved on again, this time to the borderlands of Texas.

By then, armed with their long rifles (which they would soon trade in for six-guns), they had turned marksmanship into a fine art. They took orders from no man.

You could see it coming. The Comanches and Apaches lived by raiding, the Scotch-Irish settlers were determined not to be raided, and both were in the habit of using violence to get their way. The Comanches would strike, and the settlers would strike back. But nomadic Comanches being hard to find, some settlersinstead struck the local, settled Indians, who were mostly refugees. Soon, the settlers found themselves battling both the locals and the raiders.

Until Texas, Appalachia had been America's most violent frontier. There, the carnage lasted about 10 years. The violence in the Texas Hill Country would drag on for more than 40, shaping two whole generations. For decades, an average of 200 settlers were killed or carried off each year, men, women and children. Uncounted Indians died. Every Hill Country family, white, black or brown, had a gruesome story to tell. Only the very strongest survived.


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