Nelson Lee

Nelson Lee

Nelson Lee was born in Brownsville, Jefferson County, in 1807. His father, Palmer Lee was a farmer who had been a strong supporter of John Brown. Lee worked as a seaman on board the Delaware and Ontario. Later he visited Africa and South America before settling in Texas in 1840.

Lee joined the Texas Ranger and served under John Hays and fought in several battles during the Indian Wars. In 1844 he became a cowboy and was involved in taking cattle from Texas to Louisiana. He also worked on the Santa Fe Trail. During the Mexican War Lee served as a scout under Samuel Hamilton Walker.

On 2nd April, 1855, Lee was a member of a group of cowboys who were attacked during the night by Comanches. Only Lee and three other men survived the attack. These men had been saved in order to be tortured to death in tribal rituals. Lee saved his life by the use of an alarm watch which fascinated the Comanches. Lee was able to convince them that he had spiritual powers and only he could make the alarm watch work.

Lee became the slave of Big Wolf. Later he and his watch was sold to Spotted Leopard. When he tried to escape but was captured. As he later recalled: "with the coolness of the most practised surgeon, drew the edge of his knife across the cartilage or tendon just below the kneepan of my right leg. The object of this surgical operation was to cripple me in such a manner as to render escape impossible."

Nelson Lee and his watch was sold to another tribal leader, Rolling Thunder. He treated Lee with more consideration and even arranged for him to marry a member of the tribe called Sleek Otter. In 1858 Lee managed to escape by killing Rolling Thunder and eventually made his way to El Paso. With the help of the Mexicans he arrived in New York on 10th November, 1858. The following year he published the book Three Years Among the Comanches.

In recent years some historians have questioned the reliability of this book. Some writers have pointed out they have been unable to find evidence that Lee was a member of the Texas Rangers. The anthropologist, Melburn D. Thurman, has argued that some of Lee's descriptions of Comanche life appeared to contradict that of other evidence available. Thurman also criticized Ernest Wallace and E. Adamson Hoebel for using Lee's account as source material for their book The Comanches: Lords of the South Plains (1952).

Primary Sources

(1) Nelson Lee, Three Years Among the Comanches (1859)

At the time of my arrival in Texas, the country was in an unsettled state. For a long period of time a system of border

warfare had existed between the citizens of Texas and Mexico, growing out of the declaration of independence on the part of the young republic. Marauding parties from beyond the Rio Grande kept the settlers of western Texas in a state of constant agitation and excitement. Besides these annoyances, the inhabitants of other sections were perpetually on the alert to defend themselves against those savage tribes which roamed over the vast region to the north, and which, not infrequently, stole down among the settlers, carrying away their property and putting them to death.

This condition of affairs necessarily resulted in bringing into existence the Texas Rangers, a military order as peculiar as it has become famous. The extensive frontier exposed to hostile inroads, together with the extremely sparse population of the country, rendered any other force of comparatively small avail. The qualifications necessary in a genuine Ranger were not, in many respects, such as are required in the ordinary soldier. Discipline, in the common acceptation of the term, was not regarded as absolutely essential. A fleet horse, an eye that could detect the trail, a power of endurance that defied fatigue, and the faculty of "looking through the double sights of his rifle with a steady arm," - these distinguished the Ranger, rather than any special knowledge of tactics. He was subjected to no "regulation uniform," though his usual habiliments were buckskin moccasins and overhauls, a roundabout and red shirt, a-cap manufactured by his own hands from the skin of the coon or wildcat, two or three revolvers and a bowie knife in his belt, and a short rifle on his arm. In this guise, and well mounted, should he measure eighty miles between the rising and setting sun, and then, gathering his blanket around him, lie down to rest upon the prairie grass with his saddle for a pillow, it would not, at all, occur to him he had performed an extraordinary day's labour.

(2) Nelson Lee, Three Years Among the Comanches (1859)

There are few readers in this country, I venture to conjecture, whose ears have not become familiar with the name of Jack Hays. It is inseparably connected with the struggle of Texas for independence, and will live in the remembrance of mankind so long as the history of that struggle shall survive. In the imagination of most persons he undoubtedly figures as a rough, bold giant, bewhiskered like a brigand, and wielding the strength of Hercules. On the contrary, at the period of which I write, he was a slim, slight, smooth-faced boy, not over twenty years of age, and looking younger than he was in fact. In his manners he was unassuming in the extreme, a stripling of few words, whose quiet demeanor stretched quite to the verge of modesty. Nevertheless, it was this youngster whom the tall, huge-framed brawny-armed campaigners hailed unanimously as their chief and leader when they had assembled together in their uncouth garb on the grand plaza of Bexar. It was a compliment as well deserved as it was unselfishly bestowed, for young as he was, he had already exhibited abundant evidence that, though a lamb in peace, he was a lion in war; and few, indeed, were the settlers, from the coast to the mountains of the north, or from the Sabine to the Rio Grande, who had not listened in wonder to his daring, and gloried in his exploits.

(3) Nelson Lee, Three Years Among the Comanches (1859)

Taking off my coat and folding it, I laid it down on the buffalo robe to serve as a pillow set my watch so that the alarm would strike at precisely half-past three, the usual hour of rising, and placed it under the coat, and then lay down, outside the tent, under the branches of a low musquete tree, near the fire, drawing a heavy Mexican blanket over me. I did not fall asleep immediately, pondering in my mind whether the grass would be good upon the mountains by the time we should be ready to proceed. All my companions, however, had sunk into profound slumber. Not the lightest sound disturbed the deep silence that prevailed, except the distant tinkling of the horse's bells, which occasionally came faintly to my ear. At last, about one o'clock, perhaps, I dropped asleep.

Was it a dream? Was it a real shriek that rang out upon the air? The first moment of awakened consciousness was sufficient to assure me that it was indeed reality. Springing to my feet, I discovered at once that the camp was full of painted and yelling savages. Seizing the rifle which always lay on the buffalo robe by my side, I drew it to my shoulder, knowing well there was no chance or hope of safety, but in desperate resistance, at any and whatever odds. Before I could collect my thoughts, however, at almost the instant I arose, a lasso, that is a rope with a noose on one end, was thrown over my head, jerking me violently to the ground. Half a dozen Indians sprung upon me, some holding down my arms, others my legs, another astride my body with his hand upon my throat. When I had been thus overcome, they tied my feet together, and bound my hands behind my back with stout thongs of buffalo hide, using far more force in the operation than necessity required, and drawing them so close as to cause me severest pain. All this occurred, probably, within the space of five minutes. Of course, I was greatly confused, not so much, however, as to be unable to comprehend the dreadful situation I was in. My knowledge of Indian character and customs, gathered from the lips of an old frontiersman in Texas, taught me that perhaps three or four of us might be spared to figure in the accursed rites of their triumphant war dance, but whether I was to be reserved for such a purpose, or destined to be slaughtered on the spot, was a matter of terrible conjecture.

(4) Nelson Lee, Three Years Among the Comanches (1859)

I soon became aware that the only members of the party who escaped the massacre, which proved to have been bloody as it was sudden, were Thomas Martin, John Stewart, Atkins, and myself.

Their next step was to collect the plunder. In this, they were, indeed, thorough. Not only did they gather up all our buffalo skins, Mexican blankets, rifles and revolvers, culinary utensils, and the like, but the dead bodies were stripped to the last shred, and tied on the backs of their mules. Nothing was left behind. By this time the morning light began to break on the eastern mountains, and preparations were made to depart. Before starting, however, they unbound our feet, conducted us through the camp, pointing out the stark corpses of our butchered comrades, who had lain down to sleep with such light and happy hearts the night before. The scene was awful and heart-rending beyond the imagination of man to conceive. Not satisfied with merely putting them to death, they had cut and hacked the poor, cold bodies in the most brutal and wanton manner; some having their arms and hands chopped off, others emboweled, and still others with their tongues drawn out and sharp sticks thrust through them. They then led us out some three or four hundred yards from the camp and pointed out the dead bodies of the sentinels, thus assuring us that not one of the entire party had escaped.

During all the time they were thus exhibiting the result of their savage work, they resorted to every hideous device to inspire us with terror. They would rush toward us with uplifted tomahawks, stained with blood, as if determined to strike, or grasp us by the hair, flourishing their knives around our heads as though intending to take our scalps. So far as I could understand their infernal shouts and pantomime, they sought to tell us that the fate which had overtaken our unfortunate companions not only awaited us, but likewise the whole race of the hated white man. All the dead, without exception, were scalped and the scalps, still fresh, were dangling from their belts.

(5) Nelson Lee, Three Years Among the Comanches (1859)

The crowd gave way, forming a passage through which advanced the leader of the war party, accompanied by an aged chief and a squaw, the latter the only one of her sex then anywhere to be seen. Having reached us, the watch was produced and handed to me, with signs indicating they wished me to exhibit its marvelous qualities.

It became me now to put forth all my histrionic powers, and to feign emotions far different from the real ones that were struggling in my bosom. My object was to take advantage of their credulity and superstition to establish among them the notion that it was a thing of life - a spiritual medium, having powers of speech - through which their chiefs and prophets, and great warriors who had gone to the land of spirits, could converse in a language perfectly intelligible to me, but utterly incomprehensible to them; to indoctrinate them into the solemn belief that my old "turnip," as I usually called it, was no less than the brother or offspring of the sun, and on such intimate and familiar terms with him, that it could foretell through me the precise moment he would reach any given point in the heavens, and that such was the unity of feeling existing between them that the short second hand of the watch, in its lesser sphere, kept corresponding pace with him as he went round and round the world. Finally, and most especially, to imbue their minds with the importance and solemnity of this one great truth, that connected as the watch and myself were, both with the visible and invisible world, any mishap that should befall either would inevitably disarrange the machinery of universal nature, break a cogwheel, or something of the sort, and send us "all to smash."

The character it became necessary for me to assume, therefore, was that of a missionary, expounding my peculiar doctrines among the heathen. Accordingly, I received it at their hands in an attitude of great humility, and gazed upon it with that air of reverence which may be supposed characterizes the Hindoo kneeling before the graven image of a monkey, wound it up, held it to my ear, listened to the tick, tick, tick, with a solemnity of expression intended to convey the same idea, as if I had said to them in their own language: "Gentlemen Indians, I am now receiving important telegraphic dispatches from the other side of Jordan!" Presently, it sounded the alarm. It would have been a curious and interesting picture for an artist, could he have watched the various expressions of astonishment, awe, and wonder that overspread their features during the whir and whirl and whiz of the cunning mechanism. Ejaculating their impressive "ugh, ugh," they looked seriously and inquiringly into each other's faces, as much as to say - "Well, I never; did you ever!"

(6) Nelson Lee, Three Years Among the Comanches (1859)

Immediately after the council had adjourned, I discovered the warriors assembling outside the village at a point distant a quarter of a mile. I was somewhat curious to learn the occasion of it, but I little dreamed it was the prelude to an exhibition horrible beyond measure. At length, I was waited upon by a strong guard and escorted into their midst. On arriving, I found my fellow captives had preceded me, and at once comprehended some terrible scene would ensue. There were Aikens, Martin, and Stewart, stripped entirely naked, and bound as follows: Strong, high posts, had been driven in the ground about three feet apart. Standing between them, their arms had been drawn up as far as they could reach, the right hand tied to the stake on the right side and the left hand to the stake opposite. Their feet, likewise, were tied to the posts near the ground. Martin and Stewart were thus strung up side by side. Directly in front of them, and within ten feet, was Aikens, in the same situation. A short time sufficed to divest me of my scanty Indian apparel and place me by the side of the latter, and in like condition. Thus we stood, or rather hung. Aikens and myself facing Stewart and Martin, all awaiting in tormenting suspense to learn what diabolical rite was now to be performed.

The Big Wolf and a number of his old men stationed themselves near us, when the war chief, at the head of the warriors, of whom there were probably two hundred, moved forward slowly, silently, and in single file. Their pace was peculiar and difficult to describe, half walk, half shuffle, a spasmodic, nervous motion, like the artificial motion of figures in a puppet show. Each carried in one hand his knife or tomahawk, in the other a flint stone, three inches or more in length and fashioned into the shape of a sharp pointed arrow. The head of the procession as it circled a long way round, first approached Stewart and Martin. As it passed them, two of the youngest warriors broke from the line, seized them by the hair, and scalped them, then resumed their places and moved on. This operation consists of cutting off only a portion of the skin which covers the skull, of the dimensions of a dollar, and does not necessarily destroy life, as is very generally supposed; on the contrary, I have seen men, resident on the borders of Texas, who had been scalped and yet were alive and well. In this instance, the wounds inflicted were by no means mortal; nevertheless, blood flowed from them in profusion, running down over the face, and trickling from their long beards.

They passed Aikens and myself without molestation, marching round again in the same order as before. Up to this time there had been entire silence, except a yell from the two young men when in the act of scalping, but now the whole party halted a half-minute, and slapping their hands upon their mouths, united in a general and energetic war whoop. Then in silence the circuitous march was continued. When they reached Stewart and Martin the second time, the sharp flint arrowheads were brought into requisition. Each man, as he passed, with a wild screech, would brandish his tomahawk in their faces an instant, and then draw the sharp point of the stone across their bodies, not cutting deep, but penetrating the flesh just far enough to cause the blood to ooze out in great crimson gouts. By the time the line had passed, our poor suffering companions presented an awful spectacle. Still they left Aikens and myself as yet unharmed; nevertheless, we regarded it as a matter of certainty that very soon we should be subjected to similar tortures. We would have been devoutly thankful at that terrible hour - would have hailed it as a grateful privilege - could we have been permitted to choose our own mode of being put to death. How many times they circled round, halting to sound the war whoop, and going through the same demoniac exercise, I cannot tell. Suffice it to say, they persisted in the hellish work until every inch of the bodies of the unhappy men was haggled, and hacked and scarified, and covered with clotted blood. It would have been a relief to me, much more to them, could they have only died, but the object of the tormentors was to drain the fountain of their lives by slow degrees.

In the progress of their torture, there occurred an intermission of some quarter of an hour. During this period, some threw themselves on the ground and lighted their pipes, others collected in little groups, all, however, laughing and shouting, and pointing their fingers at the prisoners in derision, as if taunting them as cowards and miscreants. The prisoners bore themselves differently. Stewart uttered not a word, but his sobs and groans were such as only the intensest pain and agony can wring from the human heart. On the contrary, the pitiful cries and prayers of Martin were unceasing. Constantly he was exclaiming - "Oh! God have mercy on me!" "Oh, Father in heaven pity me!" "Oh! Lord Jesus, come and put me out of pain!" and many other expressions of like character.

I hung down my head and closed my eyes to shut out from sight the heart-sickening scene before me, but this poor comfort was not vouchsafed me. They would grasp myself, as well as Aikens, by the hair, drawing our heads back violently, compelling us, however unwillingly, to stare directly at the agonized and writhing sufferers.

At the end of, perhaps, two hours, came the last act of the fearful tragedy. The warriors halted on their last round in the form of a half-circle, when two of them moved out from the center, striking into the war dance, raising the war song, advancing, receding, now moving to the right, now to the left, occupying ten minutes in proceeding as many paces. Finally, they reached the victims, for some time danced before them, as it were, the hideous dance of hell, then drew their hatchets suddenly, and sent the bright blades crashing through their skulls.

(7) Nelson Lee, Three Years Among the Comanches (1859)

The contour of their features, and especially their red hair, indicated the race to which they belonged, beyond mistake. At the next festival of the full moon, where all, bond and free, were permitted to mingle and converse, I found, to my surprise, they could speak English. It was the first time since my capture that I had heard the accents of my native tongue. The oldest woman had passed the age of sixty, and her name was Mrs. Marietta Haskins. The two younger were her daughters, the oldest, Margaret, perhaps, twenty-one, the other, Harriet, three years her junior. They appeared to be persons who had been brought up in humble circumstances, though possessing a fair share of intelligence. The following is, substantially, the version of their story.

They were natives of one of the midland counties of England, where they occupied an obscure, though comfortable position in life. While thus situated, happy and contented with their lot, there came into the vicinity of their residence, one of the Latter-Day Saints, preaching and expounding the Mormon doctrines. His arguments were so ingenious - his appeals so eloquent and earnest - his description of the valley of the Great Salt Lake so glowing that many of the poor people listened and were converted. He represented the climate as more salubrious - the soil more fertile - the scenery more delicious than in any other region of the world. He portrayed, in fascinating colours, the life of ease and luxury the poorest thrall in England might lead in that favored land - where wild herds, the common property of all, darkened a thousand hills, and the bountiful earth yielded its fruits without toil.

(8) Nelson Lee, Three Years Among the Comanches (1859)

He called impetuously upon me to fill the horn at once. Though I attempted to obey his order with all possible celerity, the rill was so extremely shallow that in spite of my best endeavors, every dip I made, the contents of the horn would come up in the proportion of three parts mud to one of water. Perceiving the difficulty, he leaped from his horse, directing me to hold him by the bridle, threw his Mexican rifle on the ground, and laying down upon it in the grass, thrust his scorched lips into the little stream.

Standing by the horse's side, I observed the hatchet hanging from the pommel of the saddle. The thought flashed through my mind quick as the fierce lightning that the hour of my deliverance had come at last, and snatching it, in that instant, from its place, I leaped towards him, burying the dull edge a broad hand's breadth in his brain. A moment sufficed to draw the rifle from beneath him, jerk the long knife from his girdle, mount his horse, and dash wildly away over an unknown path, towards the land of freedom.