North of Saint Jo, Texas, the Taovayas Indian Bridge spans the wide, muddy Red River connecting Texas to Oklahoma. This view looks west, over a river decimated by drought, toward where Spanish Fort, Texas is located. Don’t let the name fool you. There was never a Spanish Fort there … but there was an Indian fort on this site in Montague County. Although it probably doesn’t look a lot different than it did hundreds of years ago, it is an area steeped in history: not only was there a major battle between the Taovayas Indians (who later allied with the Wichita Tribe) and the Spanish, but the area later was a part of the Chisholm Trail.
It’s those Taovayas I want to tell you about in this post. You’ve never heard of the tribe, have you? I hadn’t either, but I’m fascinated by these people who first settled this part of Texas.
In the 1750s, you might have seen a village similar to the one above on the banks of the Red River in this area. That picture is a lithograph of a Wichita Indian village between 1850 and 1875 held by the Smithsonian Institution National Anthropological Archives. Like the Wichita and other tribes, the Taovayas (“Tawahash” sounded like “Taovayas” in Spanish) lived in beehive shaped houses thatched with grass and surrounded by fields of maize, tobacco, pumpkin, beans, melons, sweet potatoes, and other crops. Though originally the tribe ranged in Kansas and Oklahoma, they had moved into the Red River area by the 1700s due to encroachment in their area by their enemies — Osage and Apache tribes.
By 1719, Bernard Le Harpe, a Frenchman from Natchitoches (Louisiana) visited this tribe and found the men riding beautiful horses with saddles and bridles of Spanish style. At about this time, the Taovayas became allies of the French and traded their buffalo hides, tobacco, and salt for the French guns, ammunition, and vermillion (a red pigment for dyeing).
The Taovayas settlement was very advanced. They lived in a democratic government where women had a voice. Chiefs were elected for their valor and prided themselves on owning nothing. Women wore loose robes decorated with bear-claws and men wore trousers of deer skin supported with belts of buffalo hide. Not only did they farm the land, they hunted buffalo and other game. There was plenty of fish in the river, but they used those fish mostly for fertilizer (which, in my opinion, is as it should be) . By the middle of the 1700s, this village on the banks of the Red River had grown to a rather large size; there were 123 grass huts with room for 10-12 sleeping pallets in each.
In October of 1759, there was a major battle here on the banks of the Red River between the Taovayas and the Spanish. Colonel Diego Ortiz Parrilla led a retaliation effort against the Taovayas and their Comanche allies after those tribes had destroyed a mission the Spanish had established for the Apache tribe … sworn enemies of both Taovayas and Comanche. Colonel Parrilla attacked with over 600 men, but he had miscalculated — the villagers were prepared. By the time the Spaniards arrived, they had moats, entrenchments, stockades and more than 6,000 Indians flying the French flag to defend their settlement!
The Indian warriors were described as “men of great valor riding fine horses and wearing shields of white buckskin and helmets of the same with plumes of red horsehair.” It must have been a chilling sight for the Spaniards. In fact, that battle only lasted four hours before the Spanish fled in defeat, leaving behind two cannon and their baggage train.
By 1778, the Spaniards and the Taovayas had made a truce with each other. The lieutenant governor of the Natchitoches region visited them and named the region San Teodoro. He even sweet talked the Taovayas into surrendering the two cannon. The Spaniards and the Taovayas established trade relations, but the Spaniards brought something unwanted to the Indians — smallpox.
Epidemics of the disease and encroachment by white settlers after the 1803 Louisiana Purchase caused the Taovayas settlement to crumble. By 1841, they had abandoned the area to join with their Wichita neighbors to the west. When white settlers came to the area in the 1850s, they found Spanish artifacts and the remnants of the fortifications the Indians had erected to fight the Spaniards in 1759 and mistakenly assumed there had been a Spanish fort on the site. Later, when their booming town needed a new name, it became “Spanish Fort.”
In part two, I’ll tell you about the boom and bust of the town called Spanish Fort, which had its heyday during the rowdy days of the Chisholm Trail. These days, the town is forgotten and mostly abandoned. There is a monument in Spanish Fort to the first settlers of the land. It stands, lonely and neglected, in an overgrown field teeming with grasshoppers, as the land takes back its own.
- 100 years in Montague County, Texas. Saint Jo, Tex; Henderson, Jeff S. ED: Printed by IPTA Printers, 1958.
- The Story of Montague County, Texas : its past and present by Montague County Historical Commission ; editor, Melvin E. Fenoglio. Dallas, Tex. : Curtis Media, c1989.