The Prince of the Comancheros
They said that Jose Tafoya was 7’ tall, and that he stuck out of both ends of his blanket. Maybe he couldn’t decide which part he wanted to keep warm. I don’t know about that, but I do know that in the 1860s, and 70s, he struck a pretty wide swath through Eastern New Mexico and across the Staked Planes of North Texas. From south of Lubbock to north of Amarillo and into Oklahoma, the land was table-flat, and almost totally devoid of trees. You may be able to guess how the little town of Plainview got its name. The women who travelled the long miles across that brushless country on horseback were frequently embarrassed to the point of mortification, but the men probably didn’t care.
That was Indian country, and the Comanches under Chief Quanah Parker were raiding, and plundering with resolve. Jose didn’t care. He traded the Indians cattle, horses, rifles, ammo, whisky, and anything else he could steal.
President Grant got fed up, and the order came down, “Control the Indians no matter what you have to do.” In September of 1874, General Randal S. Mackenzie and his 4th US Calvary went looking for Quanah and couldn’t find him. So they tied Jose Tafoya to a wagon wheel and tortured him until he revealed where the Comanches were camped in the Palo Duro. With that knowledge the soldiers swept into the canyon, routed the Indians, burned their lodges, and killed 2,000 horses. With winter coming, and their stores gone, the 1,500 Comanches were forced to seek shelter under Army supervision at Ft. Sill.
Quanah was mad at his old friend. “If I ever catch Jose Tafoya I’ll boil him in oil.” With that said, the big Comanchero, his wife and four children, retired to his sheep ranch in New Mexico where he died in 1913.
The life or death of a Comanchero on the Staked Plains in those days often hung on the whim of a trigger finger. Rarely is it written in the annals of western history that someone like Jose would live to be 83 years old.
A personal note:
I was about to cast this 28” portrait of Jose Tafoya in an old abandoned grain elevator in Lubbock. It was 1969, and I was still in the Air Force. Bill McClure, the artist, was standing there as I put finishing touches on the wax model. “I’m not happy with his shirt,” Bill said. So I soaked an old piece of potato-sack burlap in hot wax, and with thick rubber gloves, I draped it around Jose’s shoulders. Bill was laughing at me.
When I poured the piece in bronze every detail in the burlap came out perfectly, and gave me the effect I wanted. Bill too, and he agreed that I should be credited as co-artist.
We sold that bronze, and both Bill and I made a few bucks that were badly needed. More than twenty years later, I was happy to buy the bronze back from the man I sold it to. Being a pioneer is really fun. f