Irish-born Philip Nolan was drawn to the American frontier. In fact, during the 1790s, he may have been one of the most active frontiersmen in the country.
When he departed Natchez in 1799 on his final expedition west to catch wild horses, he returned to a land that he knew pretty well. He had traded in San Antonio, knew every Spanish commandant stationed at dusty outposts along the El Camino Real and elsewhere, and for two years he lived with Native Americans, trapped and hunted and learned to catch and tame wild horses. He became especially close with the master of the horse, the Comanches, and communicated clearly with them and other Indians west of the Mississippi in sign language.
Historian Jack Jackson (Philip Nolan and Texas) noted that by the 1790s “southwestern Louisiana already boasted a thriving cattle industry, but horses were not so plentiful. They had to be obtained from across the Sabine, a process that the French initiated as early as 1714, with the founding of Natchitoches. This outpost provided ready access to Spanish livestock in Texas, and it was not long before the French colonists were exploiting those trade possibilities.
“Although the king of Spain frowned on commerce along the frontier and tried to prohibit it, his wishes amounted to little. So began a long relationship between subjects of the two sovereigns, as French goods made their way up the Mississippi and Red rivers from New Orleans to be traded for the Texas livestock so necessary to the development of the Louisiana colony. It was a mutually beneficial traffic, as attested by its longevity and the many unions formed by inhabitants of the two ethically diverse provinces.”
But this trade was making the Spanish paranoid at the time of Nolan’s final expedition out west. And they were growing suspicious of the Indians and those who wanted the wild horse, an animal the Spanish brought to the New World.
‘THEY MULTIPLIED RAPIDLY’
According to Benjamin Capps (The Old West: The Indians, Time-Life Books): “As the Spaniards arrived in increasing numbers to exploit the region that would be Mexico and the Southwestern United States, they brought with them quantities of horses for mounts and pack work. These were fine beasts, with excellent bloodlines – mixtures of Arabian, Barb and Andalusian – and they multiplied rapidly. In the early 17th Century the Spaniards were still moving northward, mining, ranching and founding missions. Their horses moved with them, and it was at the Spanish centers that the Indians had their first extensive contacts with the new animals.”
The Spanish system “of ranching with large herds on open ranges resulted in much straying. Many of the strays were never recaptured and became the ancestors of the wild mustangs of the West, but inevitably a number of them fell into Indian hands. Moreover, as the Indians gained some horses and came to understand their potential, they began to raid the Spanish herds, growing more daring as they acquired increasing mobility and striking power.”
According to Peter Ellis Bean, a member of Nolan’s expedition, the men crossed the Red River at present day Texarkana and crossed the Trinity and Brazos rivers before setting up camp.
In his memoirs, Bean wrote, “We built a pen, and caught about three hundred of those wild horses. After some days, the Camanche nation came to see us. They were a party of about two hundred men, women, and children. We went with them to the south fork of Red River, to see their chief, by the name of Nicoroco, where we stayed with them a month. A number of them had arrows pointed, some with stone, and others with copper. This last they procure in its virgin state in some mountains that run from the river Missouri across the continent to the Gulf of Mexico.
“During our stay with this chief, four or five nations that were at peace with him came to see us, and we were great friends. We then thought of returning to our old camp, where we had caught our horses, and taking some more; for a great many of those we had taken had died, for want of being well taken care of … In about five days we arrived at our old camp. Those Indians stayed with us but a few days, and then went on in search of buffalo.
“These red men have no towns, but roam over these immense plains, carrying with them their tents and clothing made of buffalo-skins. They raise no corn, but depend alone on the chase. Once a year they meet with their head chief on the Salt fork of the Colorado river, where he causes all the fire to be extinguished, and then makes new fire for the new year; and the bands also severally change their hunting-grounds. This meeting takes place in the new moon in June. At the place where they meet are lakes of salt water, so covered with salt, that they can break up any quantity they want.”
According to historian Capps, “no people made more efficient, consistent and steady use of the horse than the Comanches … From the 1750s until well into the 19th Century mounted Comanches dominated the southern plains, driving out weaker tribes, as did the Cheyenne, Sioux and other tribes to the north. Spain could build her missions and presidios in the woodlands to the east or through the dry Southwest all the way to the Pacific, but she could establish herself only in isolated spots south of the Great Plains and only as far north as San Antonio. From there on the Comanches had become lords of the southern plains; the overextended Spanish forces, conquerors of the Aztecs and Incas, finally were to be blocked by the Comanches and their allies.”
Artist George Catlin watched Comanche horsemen in 1834: “I am ready without hesitation to pronounce the Comanches the most extraordinary horsemen that I have seen yet in all my travels, and I doubt very much whether any people in the world can surpass them. A Comanche on his feet is out of his element, and comparatively almost as awkward as a monkey on the ground, without a limb or branch to cling to; but the moment he lays his hands upon his horse his face even becomes handsome, and he gracefully flies away like a different being.”
But according to Capps, the Comanches also were “particularly adroit as horse stealers, carrying out most of their raids with small parties,” a circumstance that the Nolan party soon experienced first hand.
‘ONE-EYE’ THE ROGUE
As the Indians left Nolan’s camp, Bean noted that the men soon noticed that one group had stolen 11 of Nolan’s horses:
“They were our gentle horses, and all we had for running wild horses; so that we were left unable to do anything. We concluded to pursue the robbers; but this was to be done on foot. Philip Nolan, Robert Ashley, Joseph Reed, David Fero, a negro man called Cesar, and myself, were the volunteers of our small party. We pursued them nine days, and came upon them, encamped on a small creek. They did not see us till we were in fifty yards of them, when we went up in a friendly manner.
“There were but four men, and some women and children: the rest had gone out to kill buffalo. They were twelve men, in number. I saw four of our horses close by, feeding. I pointed to them, and told them we had come for them, and that they must bring the others they had stolen to us. An old man said the one who had stolen them had taken the others out hunting; that he would be in that evening; and that the rogue who stole them had but one eye, by which we could know him when, he came.
“They gave us meat, of which they had a large quantity drying; and then we were glad to … rest. In the evening, as the old man said, One-Eye came up with our horses. We took him and tied him, the others saying nothing, and kept him tied till morning. His wife then gave us all our horses; and we took from the thief all the meat we could conveniently carry. We then told them all that there were but few of us, but we could whip twice their number, and they were of the same opinion.”
Historian Jackson wrote that the Indians “were impressed enough by these crazy white men, who had come walking into their camp from afar, to let them take the stolen horses away in peace. Such acts of valor were appreciated by the Comanches almost as much as horseflesh.”
PUBLIC ENEMY NO. 1
But from the Spanish Post of Concord (Vidalia) to San Antonio in west Texas, a manhunt was in progress to track down Philip Nolan, who had journeyed west despite warnings against it from the Spanish. As a result, Nolan was now Public Enemy No. 1.
“Because the peace with the powerful Comanche nation was such a fragile thing,” wrote Jackson, “viceregal officials became very agitated at the reports of Nolan’s passage through their land. Relations were fairly stable with the western Yamparicas, whose leaders had long enjoyed trade and friendship with New Mexico. But the Texas Comanches, mainly the Cuchanecs, proved less able to abide by the Spanish terms of peace. Their tribal organization was loose, comprising many bands over which no single chief could exercise effective authority.
“Horses were numerous in their domain, and so were skirmishes with their principal rivals, the Lipan Apaches. When a war party scored success, only blood vengeance could satisfy vigorous young tribesmen from either side. Thus, His Majesty’s frontier guardians dreaded that someday a minor incident would occur in Texas, inflaming the Comancheria and sweeping away the alliance in New Mexico.
“Nolan’s coming might well provide that spark.”