Red River Battle Isn't Just a Football Game

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The Red River rivalry between the flagship universities of Oklahoma and Texas is one of college sports’ best, and Saturday’s game did not disappoint. As a west coast transplant to Texas, I was a little surprised at the high level of animosity these two schools have for each other. As a history enthusiast, I couldn’t help but think of another episode in the Red River’s history that deserves to mentioned.

On Oct. 7, 1759, Spain and Tlaxcala lost a decisive battle to a hodgepodge alliance of “norteno” Indians and forever ceded control of the frontier to the Comanche. The Battle of Twin Villages was fought long before the establishment of the United States, but it nonetheless provides another peek into the bloody history of the American experience.

Two villages of Wichita Indians were built along the north of the Red River in reaction to Spanish attempts at bringing the region to heel in the mid 16th century,  just a few decades after Spain and Tlaxcala defeated the Aztec Empire. Spain sought to bring all of what is now Texas and Oklahoma under its domain, but a number of agricultural (stationary) Indian nations, as well as a few nomadic Indian nations like the Comanche and Apache, preferred to remain sovereign and free from Spanish rule. The Apache eventually forged an alliance with Spain, as they believed the Spanish were a lesser evil than the Comanche, but the Wichita allied with the French, who had a very sparse presence in the region, dominated by fur trappers and merchants rather than conquistadors, but enough of one to broker alliances and frustrate Spain.

The villages themselves were fortified and manned by French soldiers, a rarity in that region and those days, and the leader of Spain’s expedition north noted in his diary that a French flag flew from the fortified walls. To make matters worse for the Spanish, the Comanche had joined the French-Wichita alliance after hearing that the Apache had joined forces with Spain (the Comanche and Apache really hated each other), and the same diary of the Spanish military leader noted that several hundred Comanche tipis were present just outside of the village. Spain, in modern metaphorical parlance, had brought a knife to a gun fight.

The Battle of Twin Villages itself lasted only four hours or so, but by the end of the fighting Spain had lost both of its heavy duty cannons to the Comanches (who sold them to their French allies) and dozens of men. Tlaxcala and the Apache suffered heavy casualties, too, and as the Comanche-French-Wichita alliance was too well fortified and too well prepared for the Spanish-led attack.

In the mid 16th century, then, in what is now Texas and Oklahoma, world powers and regional polities bobbed and weaved with each other in an intricate, unpredictable game of geopolitics to settle who gain hegemony over a region destined to be important for transcontinental trade for centuries to come. The defeat forced Spain to give up its designs for the region entirely, and France was never interested in the region being anything other than a resource-rich frontier for its American port cities in New Orleans and Quebec.

The defeat also caused a minor rift between Tlaxcala and Spain, which was a big deal at the time because without Tlaxcala, Spain would have never been able to conquer the Aztec Empire as thoroughly as it did. A powerful oligarchy, Tlaxcala was more interested in keeping order over central Mexico and the recently-conquered lands of the Aztecs then in expanding Spain’s empire. The stories of slaughter that Tlaxcala’s Twin Villages survivors brought back to its capital city gave anti-expansionist factions in Tlaxcala more than enough ammunition to use in debates about Spanish-Tlaxcala relations. Spain’s inability to bring Texas-Oklahoma to heel after the Battle of Twin Villages is largely due to the fact that Tlaxcala refused to help in future battles up north.

The Comanche, at the time of the Battle of Twin Villages, was the ultimate victor, even though they were a minor player in 1759. The elimination of Spain from the region meant that the Apache had no European ally, and France was content to trade with its Indian neighbors. The Comanche went on to establish an empire of its own, called Comancheria, that is well described in Oxford historian Pekka Hämäläinen’s The Comanche Empire.. A less academic treatment of the Comanche’s dominance over Texas and Oklahoma is Empire of the Summer Moon, by S.G. Gwynne, a journalist who lives in Austin.

The Wichita, for their part, seem to have faded away after the battle, though of course we all recognize the name.


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