Reservation War

By: Noah F. Marshall, Jr.

Type: General Entry

Published: March 29, 2010

Updated: January 19, 2021

From 1854 to 1859 the Texas reservation system gave brief, hopeful signs of a solution that would settle the clash between Native American groups and the state’s expanding Anglo population. The effort proved fruitless in the end. Texas Indian policy was complicated from the beginning. Republic-era policies vacillated between peaceful co-existence and removal or extermination. As the Texas frontier pushed westward, Indian groups were rolled back with deleterious consequences, as the claims of tribes indigenous to Texas as well as those of immigrant tribes were routinely disregarded. The reservation system represented the last hopeful chance of assuring these Indians’ presence within the state. Within two years of Texas annexation to the Union, the state received federal assistance in the management of its Indian affairs. Maj. Robert S. Neighbors, appointed special Indian agent in March 1847, quickly discovered the complexities of the situation. Texas had maintained control of its public lands when it entered the Union.

During this time Major Neighbors appealed to the federal government to purchase sufficient territory from the state for permanent settlement of the Indians. As a possible solution, President Zachary Taylor urged Texas to establish a reservation system to avoid an impending Indian war within its borders. Governor Peter Hansborough Bell responded in December 1851 by “demanding the removal, at once, of all the Indian tribes within the limits of the state.” The following month Neighbors, who had been elected a state representative, proposed a Texas reservation system to be administered by the United States government. By 1854 the reservation system became an actuality. Capt. Randolph Barnes Marcy, an experienced explorer and United States Army officer, worked with Neighbors to locate and establish the reservation sites. Two reservations were established on the Brazos River: the “Upper” Reservation adjoined Camp Cooper on the Clear Fork of the Brazos (see COMANCHE INDIAN RESERVATION); the “Lower” Reservation was located farther downstream south of Fort Belknap (see BRAZOS INDIAN RESERVATION). These reservations were occupied by 1855. Early successes were encouraging as the various Indian groups settled into agrarian life, and the political entities involved in their management received mutual support for the reservation system. These initial successes quickly disappeared through a series of unfortunate events.

Increased tensions in Kansas in 1855 and the Mormon War in Utah two years later resulted in the removal of many federal troops from the Texas frontier. Consequently, emboldened hostile Indian groups not on the reservations increased their frequency of attacks on settlements. Often these raids were blamed on the Indians residing on the Brazos reservations.

Further difficulties emanated from the reservations themselves. Drought caused crop failures and discontent among reservation Indians. Also, divisions arose within the reservation tribes as Penateka Comanche Chief Sanaco rallied many into resistance against U. S. troops. Chief Sanaco’s departure from the reservation led to new raids along the Texas frontier. Internal conflicts among the Indian agents, U. S. Army officers, and officials in Washington and Austin negatively impacted Indian policy in Texas at this critical time. From late 1857 through the summer of 1858 frontier settlers became more vocal about the continuing harassments.

Some comments were positive as Anglo settlers living on established farms and ranches near the “Lower” Reservation gave glowing reports about the Indians’ progress. In a letter written to Gov. Hardin R. Runnels, April 26, 1858, Texas Ranger, John S. “Rip” Ford, also filed a report in which he expressed surprise at how well these Indians seemed to be adapting to reservation life. He specifically stated, “I should view any combination of circumstances which tended towards the breaking up of this reserve, as a serious misfortune to the state of Texas.”

These sentiments were short-lived. In October 1858 Young County Sheriff Joseph R. King charged a reservation Comanche with the murder of a citizen. As King and his posse rode toward the reservation, they were confronted by agents Neighbors and Matthew Leeper and a half-dozen U. S. troops. Although physical violence was avoided, the war of words assured the parties of future attacks on the reservations.

On the night on December 26, 1858, violence broke out when a small hunting party of mostly women and children from the “Lower” reservation was attacked without provocation in Palo Pinto County by some citizens from neighboring Erath County. This attack resulted in the deaths of seven reservation Indians. Even though Indians seen outside the reservations could be regarded as renegades, this group had been in the region for several weeks and had established friendly contact with area settlers. This violence was executed while the Indians were asleep in their tents. Governor Runnels’ order to bring criminal action against the vigilantes was ignored. Neighbors wrote his brother-in-law on May 30, 1859, expressing his opinion on the political inaction, particularly of the governor, “It is shameful that the Govt should permit this state of affairs…when it all might have been avoided If we had an Executive who would do anything to prevent It except to promulgate fresh Proclamations for Popularity—which he never intends to carry out.” An arrest and trial never materialized, and the situation intensified as citizens organized and threatened the reservation Indians’ existence.

The crisis heightened on March 28, 1859, when a large number of citizens from four frontier counties threatened an attack on the Brazos Agency. U. S. troops, under the command of Lt. William E. Burnet, son of David G. Burnet, were sent to provide additional protection for the reservation Indians. The public ranting of men like Capt. John R. Baylor, a former Indian agent and subordinate of Neighbors, fueled the fears of frontier citizens. Baylor also edited a small but effective newspaper in Jack County called the White Man to rally the citizenry by preying upon their fears and prejudices. Baylor’s goal was destruction of the reservations and ultimately the extermination of the Texas Indians.

Captain Baylor and armed citizens defied U. S. troops and attacked the “Upper” Reserve in late April 1859—even though the order for removal of the reservation Indians had been made public. Meanwhile, Baylor’s mob assembled at Jacksboro. A tense moment occurred when Lt. Burnet with twenty U. S. troops and ninety armed Indians faced down the White mob. Citizens of the frontier counties called for the resignation of Neighbors. Within a month Baylor and his vigilantes brought the hostilities directly to the Brazos Reservation and demanded the surrender of particular Indians which were deemed guilty of crimes. A tense stand-off between Baylor and U. S. troops, commanded by Capt. Joseph B. Plummer and Lieutenant Burnet, ensued at the agency headquarters on May 23, 1859. Finally, Baylor and his Jacksboro Rangers (as he renamed them) retreated, but not before the spiteful murder of two elderly Caddos. The random murders brought about an immediate response from some fifty or sixty enraged reservation Indians who hotly pursed Baylor and his men. In an afternoon-long gun battle at the William Marlin Ranch owned by William Marlin, a supporter of the Indians and the reservation system, five Indians were wounded while two of Baylor’s vigilantes were killed and many others wounded. The reservation Indians were outnumbered six to one, but fought bravely as Baylor’s mob retreated fearfully, only later to escape as night fell.

The appointment of a state commission to resolve matters proved to be too little and too late. The report issued was based on bogus information, built-up mistrust, a marked increase of racial tensions, and outright greed for Indian land granted by the legislature almost five years earlier. Thus Governor Runnels totally abandoned the Brazos reservations. Neighbors made arrangements to remove the reservation Indians before further hostilities could occur. By August 1859 Neighbors moved the reservation Indians north of the Red River to Indian Territory under guard of U. S. troops. The land of the reservations then reverted back to the state.

Upon his return from Indian Territory in September 1859 Neighbors personally experienced the animosities generated over the past several years. Neighbors and his companions stopped at Fort Belknap on September 14, 1859. That morning Neighbors, who was distracted on the street by outlaw gang leader, Patrick Murphy, was shot in the back and killed by Murphy’s son-in-law, Edward Cornett. The reservation war had claimed another victim with the premeditated murder of its Indian agent. Neighbors’s actions in protecting the reservation Indians and their property had, in the end, cost him his life. The years following the demise of the Brazos reservations continued to claim more victims with Indian reprisal and Anglo defense. The whole episode represents a stain on the state’s historical record. See also INDIAN RELATIONS, INDIAN RESERVATIONS.

Gary Clayton Anderson, The Conquest of Texas: Ethnic Cleansing in the Promised Land, 1820–1875 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2005). Ty Cashion, A Texas Frontier: The Clear Fork Country and Fort Griffin, 1849–1887 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996). George D. Harmon, “The United States Indian Policy in Texas, 1845–1860,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 17 (1930). Kenneth F. Neighbours, Robert Simpson Neighbors and the Texas Frontier, 1836–1859 (Waco, Texas: Texian Press, 1975).

  • Peoples
  • Native American
  • Reservations
Time Periods:
  • Antebellum Texas

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Noah F. Marshall, Jr., “Reservation War,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 08, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

March 29, 2010
January 19, 2021