The mid-1700s brought Spain face to face with all the challenges of controlling its frontier empire in the Americas from the natives — especially in Nuevo Mexico.
The Pueblo Revolt of 1680 had reordered the Spanish worldview so that, upon their return, they could live in relative peace among the Pueblo people. But the Spanish weren’t so lucky with the other native tribes that roamed from the Great Plains to beyond the Rocky Mountains in what is now Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Arizona.
As the Spanish encroached more and more on the historic lands of the Apaches, Navajos, Utes and Comanches, everyone jockeyed for power and position. Alliances came and went; for most of the indigenous people, warfare and plunder were preferable to sedentary life. All the while, the Spanish struggled to find and retain allies in the frontier.
Taos sat right in the middle of the ebb and flow of these relationships, what historian Peka Hamalainen called a “confusing, multisided conflict in which the distinction between enemies and allies was often blurred and in which terror was a key weapon.”
Not only was Taos home to an established Indian pueblo along the Río Grande and a collection of Spanish land grants, it was also the site of long-standing annual trade fairs, where antagonists set aside their differences in order to barter and exchange goods. Even the powerful Comanches, who routinely raided across the region, came to Taos for commercial gain.
But keeping the peace was harder than even material gain could offset.
In 1759, several bands of northern Comanches were trading at Taos Pueblo when some were attacked by Spanish Taoseños. Several dozen Indians were killed. A year later, some 3,000 Comanche showed up, ostensibly for the fair. But when some locals blatantly danced with 24 Comanche scalps, the Comanches descended upon the armed hacienda of Marciel Torres and his extended family on Aug. 4, 1760. After a pitched battle, the Comanches overran the compound, killed 64, captured 54 and rode away.
But true to their mercurial nature, the Comanches showed up the next year at the Taos trade fair seeking to ransom many of those same hostages taken during the attack. But the locals turned on them, leaving some 400 dead and the Indians in flight.
Over the next decade, the Comanche raided throughout El Norte, especially the sedentary pueblos of Pecos, Picuris, Cochiti, Nambé and Galisteo. And they kept showing up in Taos to trade.
Into this morass rode Juan Bautista de Anza, named governor of the New Mexico territory in 1777. Born in Sonora, Mexico, of Basque descent, Bautista had a reputation for intellect, tenacity and fair play. He arrived in Santa Fe after establishing the first route to Spanish missions at Monterey and San Francisco Bay, fighting the Apaches along today’s U.S.-Mexico border and giving aid to the starving Moqui (Hopi) — among other achievements.
His orders were to establish frontier forts to protect the settlers and allies, create an alliance with the most powerful Indians in order to suppress other tribes and resettle the nomadic tribes into villages. Bautista knew that to accomplish these goals, he would have to “cut off the head” of the most powerful tribe, the Comanche, in order to bring them into the Spanish fold.
From his earlier Indian battles, Bautista knew that the Comanche, like most Western tribes, were without formal leadership. More than a dozen autonomous bands roamed New Mexico, and no one spoke for the whole.
In the north, the Cuchanec band marauded under the Comanche war chief Tabivo Naritgant ("Dangerous Man"), who the Spanish called Cuerno Verde (Green Horn, aka "The Cruel Scourge" as called by de Anza) because of the green-tinted bison horns he wore on his headdress. Cuerno Verde held a death grudge with the Spanish over the killing of his father in Ojo Caliente in 1768. It didn’t take long for Bautista to realize that he would have to defeat Cuerno Verde in order to gain some control of the Comanche problem; that is, to “cut the head off the snake.”
Reports from scouts and friendly Indians indicated that Cuerno Verde and his warriors were marauding on the Front Range of the Rockies just south of the Arkansas River near today’s Pueblo, Colorado. Without delay, Bautista made preparations for battle.
On Aug. 15, 1779, he left Santa Fe with 600 armed men, many Puebloans, 2,500 horses and another 200 Utes and Jicarilla Apache who rendezvoused at the Chama-Río Grande confluence. Rather than taking the more exposed route over La Veta (Sangre de Cristo) Pass, they stuck to the west side of the San Luis Valley and reached the Arkansas River below Poncha Pass on Aug. 26.
Historians believe Bautista’s forces went north and crossed Trout Creek Pass, arriving at what is now Colorado Springs by Aug. 30. There, they caught the trail of the Comanche and headed down Fountain Creek and back over the Arkansas River.
Bautista’s forces surprised a Cuerno Verde encampment near Pueblo and a running battle ensued. The Spanish killed 18 Comanche, took many women and children into captivity and earned spoils for their Indian allies.
The next day, Sept. 3, Cuerno Verde sought revenge by attacking Bautista with just 50 warriors. The results were predictable: Bautista lured the Comanches into a narrow gully near today’s Colorado City and Cuerno Verde was killed along with his sons and captains.
Today, the mountain above the battle site is named Greenhorn Mountain, and Greenhorn Creek runs nearby.
Bautista returned to Santa Fe with Cuerno Verde’s headdress as proof of his victory. He gave the headdress to his commander, Teodoro del Croix, who, as the story goes, sent it up the chain of command until it reached the Vatican Library where it is believed to be to this day.
It took another 7 years to secure full peace, in great part because the Comanche didn’t have a singular titular head who would speak for the whole people and be responsible for upholding treaty conditions. During those intervening years, Bautista kept putting the squeeze on the Comanche, both by spurring the Apache to attack them and also by barring the Comanche from the lucrative Taos trade fairs.
In 1785, 400 Comanches came to Taos seeking amnesty from the Spanish. Later that year, another 120 Comanches showed up with buffalo meat to trade. They also returned two captives from previous raids and left another two of their own in good faith.
In 1786, Gov. Juan Bautista de Anza and designated Comanche spokesman Ecueracapa signed a treaty on the banks of the Arkansas. Among other conditions, the Comanche agreed to “share friends and enemies” of the Spanish, and fight against the southern Apache tribes who were still pushing against Spanish control. The Spanish gave the Indians full trading rights in Taos and Pecos, and agreed that no Europeans would be permitted in Comanche villages on the Plains.
The treaty endured for 30 years until Mexico won its independence from Spain and took over Nuevo Mexico.
Bautista relinquished the governorship in 1787 and returned to his native Sonora, where he died a year later.
Forgotten Frontiers, by Alfred Barnaby Thomas; Comanche Society: Before the Reservation, by Gerald Betty; The Comanche Empire, by Peka Hamalainen; New Mexico Office of the State Historian; Hispanos: Historic Leaders in New Mexico, by Lynn J. Perrigo; New Mexico Historical Review (var.)