Robert Simpson Neighbors, Indian agent and legislator, was born in Charlotte County, Virginia, on November 3, 1815, the son of William and Elizabeth (Elam) Neighbours. He later dropped the u from his last name. He was left an orphan at four months of age and was educated by private tutors hired by his guardian, Samuel Hamner, a planter. He left Virginia at the age of nineteen, sojourned for a time in Louisiana, and arrived in Texas in the spring of 1836. From 1839 to 1841, with the rank of lieutenant and later of captain, he was assistant quartermaster and acting quartermaster of the Texas army. On September 11, 1842, as a member of John C. Hays's company of volunteers, Neighbors was in San Antonio attending court. With about forty other persons, including the officers of the court, he was made prisoner by Gen. Adrián Woll and taken to Mexico. Neighbors was released on March 24, 1844, and returned to Texas. Early the next year he began his service as Indian agent of Texas. As agent for the Lipan Apaches and Tonkawas, he instituted the field system of Indian control; instead of remaining at the agency headquarters and waiting for the Indians to pay him a visit, as was the common practice, Neighbors dealt with them directly in their home territory. Later, when he was overseeing Comanches, he continued this practice, with the result that he spent much time far beyond the frontier and exercised greater influence over the Indians in Texas than any other white man of his generation. After annexation he received a federal appointment as special Indian agent, on March 20, 1847. He took part in several councils, including one between commissioners of the United States and the Texas Comanches near the site of Waco in 1846 and one between the Comanches and the German colonists on the San Saba River in March 1847 (see MEUSEBACH-COMANCHE TREATY).
Since Neighbors was a Democrat, his services as Indian agent were terminated by the national Whig administration in September 1849, but he remained in public life. As Texas commissioner, sent by Governor Peter Hansborough Bell, he organized El Paso County in February and March 1850 and tried, without success, to organize counties in New Mexico. As a member of the Fourth Texas Legislature from 1851 to 1853, he successfully sponsored a law that opened the way for establishing Indian reservations. He was a presidential elector in 1852, and shortly after the election of Franklin Pierce he was again appointed Indian agent. In 1853 he was made supervising agent for the Texas Indians. In 1854 he joined Capt. Randolph B. Marcy of the United States Army to make extensive explorations in Northwest Texas in search of sites for Indian reservations. The Penateka Comanches were located on a reservation in what is now Throckmorton County, and the lesser Texas tribes at another site now in Young County (see BRAZOS INDIAN RESERVATION, COMANCHE INDIAN RESERVATION).
Neighbors alleged that the United States Army officers located at the neighboring posts of Fort Belknap and Camp Cooper failed to give adequate support to him and his resident agents. The unsympathetic attitude of the military aroused the hostility of many frontier civilians, who charged that the Indians of the reservations were committing depredations on the white settlements. In spite of threats of lawless characters to take his life, Neighbors never faltered in his determination to protect the Indians. With the aid of federal troops he managed to hold back the white people from the reservations, and in August 1859 he eventually succeeded in moving the Indians without loss of life to a new reservation in Indian Territory. On his return he stopped at the village of Fort Belknap. There on September 14, 1859, while he was engaged in conversation with another man, one Edward Cornett shot and killed him. Neighbors probably was not even acquainted with his assassin. He was buried in the civilian cemetery at Fort Belknap. He was a Methodist, a Mason, and a temperance leader. He married Elizabeth Ann Mays in Seguin on July 15, 1851, and their home was in San Antonio. Two sons survived childhood.