Scalp Dancing in Weatherford

Howard spent a lot of his spare time meandering around Texas. Of course, other trips were more serious when his ailing mother needed specialized medical treatments not available in or near Cross Plains. But overall, Howard writes fondly of the places he visited and the people he met along the way. In this excerpt from a letter to H.P. Lovecraft, circa July 1935, he mentions three of his many trips:

I haven’t done any travelling to speak of since I returned home. Outside of my usual trips to Brownwood and Coleman, I’ve made only three journeys, and they were very short. Once to De Leon, 45 miles to the east, and over a most damnable road, and back by the way of Comanche and Brownwood. Comanche is the oldest town in this region, and has a varied and violent history. It bore the brunt of Indian attacks in the ’60s; they used to camp outside the town and ride up and down the streets at night shooting at the windows while the people fired back at them. The majority of the Rangers who took part in the great Dove Creek fight with the Kickapoos were from Comanche. It was in Comanche that John Wesley Hardin killed Sheriff Webb, for which he was later sentenced — in the same town — to twenty-five years in the pen; and it was in Comanche that Joe Hardin and some of his cousins were lynched. It was a live town fifty years ago. I made a trip to Mineral Wells, which lies about 107 miles east of here, among the Palo Pinto mountains; and a few weeks later another trip east, that time to Weatherford, which lies about thirty miles east of Mineral Wells. Weatherford is the county seat of Parker County, named for the Parker family of old Fort Parker, and in which county I was born. It was in Weatherford, that was danced, so far as I know, the only scalp-dance ever danced by whites in the States. Some Comanches butchered some people in the vicinity, but were caught before they could get back into the Territory. The Rangers brought their scalps back to Weatherford and strung them up in the square, and the population, male and female, turned out, and danced them in regular Comanche style.

We’ve touched on a few of the topics he brings up in his letter – the killing of Charlie Webb and Mineral Wells here on the blog. The last part of the above excerpt addresses an incident in that occurred in Parker County in 1860.

In June of 1860, General John R. Baylor resided in San Antonio, with his brother George W. Baylor, his two sons, Walker K. and John W. Baylor. That month the four of them and a friend named Wat. Reynolds visited the Clear Fork of the Brazos, where the General formerly lived. Gen. Baylor was a member of the Texas state legislature in 1853 and a delegate to the Texas secession convention in 1861. He rose to the rank of colonel in the Confederate Army during the Civil War and was Representative from Texas in the Confederate Congress during 1864-65. General John Magruder was so impressed by his gallantry that he recommended that he be promoted to brigadier general, however his highest Confederate rank was colonel. Baylor University is named for Gen. Baylor’s uncle, Robert Emmett Bledsoe Baylor.

While there, hunting cattle, Gen. Baylor and his group were informed of the killing of Josephus Browning, and the serious wounding of Frank Browning, by a large body of Comanches. They immediately rode to the Browning ranch on the Clear Fork, near the mouth of Hubbard’s creek, where they met a group of other men who had been attracted to the location by news of the murderous acts of the Indians. Gen. Baylor, George W. Baylor, Elias Hale, Minn Wright and John Dawson started in pursuit of the killers, and on the fifth day — June 28th — overtook them on Paint Creek, where a fierce battle ensued, during which Baylor and his friends killed thirteen of the Comanches.

They returned victorious to Weatherford, bringing the scalps of nine of them, together with a number of trophies, including the scalp of a white woman whom the Indians had killed, plus several bows and arrows, darts, quivers, shields, tomahawks, and other accouterments of savage warfare. The hatred toward the Indians was so bitter that Baylor and his group were celebrated for their prowess and daring. The horrible murder of Mrs. Sherman and others in the northwestern portion of the county in 1859, and other similar outrages, were fresh in the minds of the townspeople who had lost friends, relatives and property at the hands of the murderous tribes. So there was much excitement among them over the killing of the savages by Baylor and his men.

The news of Baylor’s success spread to the adjoining counties, and the heroic men were honored with a public barbecue on the town square, in which several hundred people participated in — speeches were made, and a general rejoicing ruled the day. In the evening a dance was held at the courthouse, which went on all night long. This is the event Howard referred to in his letter to Lovecraft.

Various American Indian tribes, including the Comanches of Texas, had some form of a scalp dance, which was a victory dance celebrating the conquest of their enemies.

Scalps were a good thing to carry back to the village and dance over; in addition, scalps were used to trim and fringe war clothing and to tie to the horses bridle before into battle. Usually the scalps taken were about the size of a silver dollar-sized pancake, but like any other piece of flesh they stretched greatly, and young braves were instructed how to do this.

The scalp dance was no wild frenzied affair, as most people might imagine, rather it was a sociable courtship dance made up of several parts, which took place around a huge bonfire. The singers for the dance were middle-aged men, all married. ?The ceremony of the dance was perfectly well defined, and the song was well known and unvarying as if it had been printed. The young men lined up north of the fire, and the young women lined up across from them. Sound familiar? Take away the scalps and it sounds like a typical American high school dance.

In the largest room in the Parker County courthouse, a rope was stretched diagonally across and on it were hung the nine Indian scalps, the woman’s scalp captured from the defunct Comanches, and the other trophies of the successful expedition. In all the excitement incidental to the celebration, those who participated in the festivities evidently forgot that the prominent decorations of the hall were unmistakable evidences of death and murder, and the relics of barbarism – the same barbarism that was a very frequent visitor to Parker and surrounding counties.

Indeed, the thought of civilized white settlers dancing what they would consider to be a heathen dance is a bit of a shock, but it appears that a group of them did in Weatherford – whether they fully realized it or not – the scalps hanging above them  included one from a white woman victim of the Indians. No doubt about it, there was some serious scalp dancing going on in Weatherford that June evening in 1860.