The border has always been a mess. For centuries people have been moving into it or through it. And it has always sparked conflict.
In 1849, following the Mexican-American war, there was a line drawn between the two nations. Three if you want to count the former Republic of Texas and if you’re from Texas you definitely count Texas. The Rio Grande River marked the southern border of Texas to the Gulf of Mexico and surveyors marked out straight lines across the western deserts until they reached the Pacific Ocean.
Yet for the most part, this was not a place the “civilized” world was safe.
For three centuries this land had been disputed and fought over by the Spanish, French, Mexicans and English. And largely these nations had been pushed back by the southwest plains tribes, most notably and most brutally by the Comanches. The Spanish had inadvertently given the Comanche tribes an unparalleled gift. Horses. Spanish horse stock abandoned and stolen were the perfect breed for the southwest. They were smaller, faster and able to travel farther on less water. Somewhere along the way, Comanches learned how to train and ride horses. Beyond that, their horsemanship was such that they effectively became the most skilled light calvary on the planet. Nobody else was even close. They did something nobody else did. They fought from horseback with amazing and deadly efficiency. This gets lost in a world that grew up watching westerns. Before six shooters and before repeating rifles soldiers carried single shot rifles and the standard of the day was to get off the horses to shoot. The same was true for other Indian tribes. Rifle or bow, the horses were only there for transportation to the battle field. Comanches, on the other hand, could shoot from horseback, at a full gallop, while hanging off the side of their mount and shooting under its neck. They could also get off a dozen arrows a minute and were accurate up to fifty meters.
It was with this military advantage they were unparalleled on the battlefield. They were smart, they were strategic and fighting was central to their culture. To add horror to humiliation, the rules of war among the plains tribes were something Europeans never really had the stomach for. Torture and rape were not only common, but expected. If you were captured alive, you would undoubtably be tortured in horrific ways from being slow-roasted on a fired to all sorts of things that I don’t want to go into. If you were female, you were probably raped repeatedly before you were tortured. When it was over, what was left of you would probably be mutilated. Young girls would sometimes be taken as slaves or brought into the tribe. Boys would sometimes be taken hostage and ransomed, but more often or not they would be killed. The innocent were not safe. No one was safe. It wasn’t just about winning battles. It was about striking fear into their enemies. Because of which, tribal warriors fought to the death, there was no surrender.
It was the Comanches that drove out the Apaches and it was the Comanches that began regularly raiding the settlers of Texas and the southwest who were encroaching on their lands. Fast, agile and deadly, they fought in the ways that Europeans with their slow moving armies were simply ill-equipped to deal with. Their brutality and violence was something Americans and European settlers were also ill-equipped to stomach.
It wasn’t until a ragtag group called the Texas Rangers eventually figured out how to fight like Comanches, got better weapons, pinpointed some tactical weaknesses and people turned a blind eye to some of the things that the Rangers did, that Texans made any traction at all. It wasn’t until some time later that the U.S. Army learned some of the same lessons.
The Americans expanded, treaties were made and broken by both sides. Most hopes of living peaceably together died. The wars with the Comanches ended around 1875, and to the north the Sioux tribes in 1890 with the massacre at Wounded Knee.
We can romanticize the old west all we want, but for those who lived there, it was complicated at times for people to know what was the right thing to do. We can talk about cowboys and Indians. We can talk about indigenous people. We can talk about rights. We can talk about how caring the tribes were to their own members. We can talk about genocide. We can talk about corruption. We can talk about all the triumphs and moral failures you want.
All of those things are relevant, because largely we’re still dealing with them. It’s easy to forget that in a land that was contested for centuries, we’re really just a few generations removed from the people who were neck deep in conflict. Since that line has been drawn, the border has always had its own rules. A world dealing with this much hostility has to find its own way. And that way generally wasn’t based off anything anyone back east were writing in law books. Those who were good at it got rich. Those who weren’t usually fell prey to those who were.
Within a generation of the fall of the western horse tribes, a new group formed along the border with American prohibition. We know them today as the cartels.