Three white men waited for the Comanche council to decide whether they lived or died on Aug. 10, 1843.
Making amends with the western tribes was one of Sam Houston’s highest priorities at the start of his second presidency. But in the bitter aftermath of his predecessor’s ethnic-cleansing policy, bringing peace to the frontier would be almost as hard as whipping Santa Anna.
Mirabeau Lamar pursued his goal of an Indian-free Republic with a fanatical zeal that angered and alienated even friendly tribes. The bloody eviction of the Cherokees in 1839 followed the next year by the Council House Fight, the hand-to-hand combat in a San Antonio meeting hall that claimed the lives of 35 Comanches and seven Texans, poisoned red and white relations.
Realizing the first move was up to him, President Houston planned an historic peace conference at Birds Fort, a Ranger station in the middle of the modern Metroplex. To extend the invitations, he chose three young commissioners: Capt. Joseph C. Eldridge, a 25-year-old New Yorker fluent in many Indian dialects; Thomas Torrey, 24, who ran a trading post with his brothers north of present-day Waco; and Hamilton Prioleau Bee, the 21-year-old son of a prominent politician.
The trio set out in March 1843 with several Delawares, who volunteered to act as mediators. From a camp near the three forks of the Trinity River, the go-betweens fanned out to round up representatives of nine small clans. The Waco, Anadarko, Towdash, Caddo, Kichai, Bidai, Tehuacano, Baluxe and Ione tribes all consented to the Birds Fort powwow.
The search for the Comanches, who never stayed in one place for long, took more than a month. But the Delawares finally found them and guided the Texans to the nomads’ main village.
Although the emissaries did not expect the red-carpet treatment from the Comanches, they were taken aback by the sullen reception. Capt. Eldridge tried to warm up their ice-cold hosts by explaining the purpose of the unusual visit.
“Why should you ask us to be friends when our chiefs, who went to San Antonio to make peace with the whites, were all killed?” retorted a warrior. “We will not make peace with you now but kill you all and even up the score.”
However, as the apprehensive Texans were relieved to learn, no one dared harm a hair on their heads without permission from the principal chief, who was away on tribal business. Until his return, they were advised for their own safety not to set foot outside their tent.
Pahayuca appeared on Aug. 9, 1843 and called a council for the next dawn. The three Texans were barred from the gathering, but their Indian companions were allowed to sit in as observers.
The elder statesman patiently listened to the views of the assembly. The younger chiefs without exception demanded death for the intruders in retaliation for the bloodshed three years earlier in San Antonio.
After much prodding from the anxious Texans, the Delawares admitted the debate was definitely not going their way. They resisted the temptation to make a run for it because, as Bee recalled years later, “We would have been followed and recaptured and put to an ignominious death.”
Of the three, only Eldridge never gave up hope. “When an Indian delays action,” he optimistically noted, “there is a chance he will reverse his opinion.”
The great debate ended at noon. Seated in the center of a giant circle, Pahayuca considered the complicated question in complete silence. No one moved a muscle nor made a sound for four long hours.
Rising to his feet at last, Pahayuca addressed the council. “The slaughter of our chiefs at San Antonio was a great crime, but we should not commit a greater one. This we would do were we to kill these men. These men came to us bearing a white flag, an emblem of peace. The Great Spirit will never look down upon the Comanche with favor if we dye this flag with their blood.”
The principal chief ’s persuasive pitch made the difference. The fate of the Texans was put to a vote according to Comanche custom, and the majority ruled in favor of mercy.
But Pahayuca’s equally eloquent appeal on behalf of the peace talks fell on deaf ears. In a rare display of defiance, the chiefs voted to boycott the Birds Fort conference and to remain at war with the Lone Star Republic.
Eldridge, Torrey and Bee quietly slipped away after the second show of hands.