Robert Simpson Neighbors, 1851
Robert Simpson Neighbors was a Virginian, born in Charlotte County, Virginia, on November 3, 1815. He was orphaned at a mere four months old, when both parents died of pneumonia. He was later educated by private tutors, who were retained by his guardian, Samuel Hamner, a Virginia planter.
Neighbors left Virginia at the age of nineteen heading for Texas. He stayed briefly in New Orleans before completing his journey in the spring of 1836. He joined the Army of the Republic of Texas in 1839 as a first lieutenant, commanding Fort Travis on Galveston Island before assuming the role of quartermaster and promotion to captain. He left the service in late 1841.
On September 15, 1842, as a member of Captain John C. Hays’s company of volunteers, Neighbors was in San Antonio attending a court session when Mexican General Adrian Woll captured the city. Mexican troops captured Neighbors, along with approximately fifty-two other individuals, and marched them into captivity and imprisonment in Perote.
After languishing for a year and a half, Neighbors returned to Texas, the beneficiary of a general Mexican amnesty. He briefly operated the Mansion House hotel in Houston before becoming accepting the position of Indian Agent for the Republic of Texas in early 1845.
As an Indian Agent for the Republic of Texas, Robert Neighbors recorded one of the best known meetings with the Comanche Chief Old Owl, while visiting a Tonkawa camp. Chief Old Owl arrived with 40 warriors, and in a manner the Major called “most insolent and domineering” demanded that the Tonkawa feed the war party and their horses, and provide for them entertainment. The Tonkawas “obeyed with alacrity”, providing “forty of the best looking Tonkawa maidens.” Neighbors, known as a fearless man, took this opportunity to be introduced to the Comanches. Old Owl, introduced to Neighbors, first complimented him on his fine blue coat. Neighbors, understanding the meaning of this compliment, presented the Chief with the coat immediately. Other warriors admired his pants, boots, and other clothing, and soon Neighbors was standing only in a nightshirt.
Old Owl however, took a liking to the fearless Neighbors. He told him though most whites irritated him, he liked Neighbors, and invited him to accompany the war party, and he proposed instead of Neighbors making a civilized man of him, that he would make a fine horse thief out of Neighbors, and adopt him into the tribe. Neighbors, feeling this was an opportunity few men would ever receive, accepted at once. The war party went to Mexico, where Neighbors attempted to buy beef at a rancho. When the Mexicans declined to sell beef to a Republic of Texas official on credit, Old Owl told them two beeves were to be forthcoming immediately, or the rancho would be burned down and all the beeves taken. This proved highly effective, and the food was immediately forthcoming.
Neighbors, having left an indelible impression on Old Owl as the first (and only) Republic of Texas official to ever ride with a Comanche War Party, took his leave of them with thanks, and went home.
On May 15, 1846, after the annexation of the Republic of Texas by the United States, Neighbors was a party to Treaty 246 between the US and the chiefs of the Comanches, Ionies, Anadarkos, Caddos, Lipans, Tonkawas, Keechies, Tawacanos, Wichitas and Wacos, signed near Waco. Neighbors then accompanied the Comanche chiefs Old Owl and Santa Anna, plus the Anadarko chief Jose Maria, on their visit to Washington, D.C.
On March 20, 1847, Neighbors received a federal appointment as special Indian agent, and took part in the treaty between the Comanche and the German colonists on the San Saba River in March 1847, which resulted in the so-called Meusebach-Comanche Treaty.
As a Federal Indian Agent for the Comanches, he continued what was then a most unusual practice, that of actually visiting the Indians in their homes, and learning their language and culture. Called the “field system,” it was unique for its time. The ultimate result was that he spent much time far beyond the Texas frontier and exercised greater influence over the Indians in Texas than any other white man of his generation. Indeed, other than Sam Houston, he probably was one of the few white men to bother to learn their language and culture, let alone travel to the heart of the Comancheria.
Early in the spring of 1849, Major General William J. Worth, of the United States Army, who was in command of the Eighth Military Department, which included the former Republic of Texas, was ordered by Secretary of War William L. Marcy to explore a wagon route between San Antonio and El Paso. The General, headquartered in San Antonio, selected Neighbors to lead the expedition to establish the so-called “upper route” to El Paso. His reasoning was that Neighbors was perhaps the only man in Texas who could safely ride into the Comancheria.
Neighbors led a combined military-Ranger force that included his personal friend “Rip” Ford and did in fact map a route that not only became the route used by the Overland Stage Company, but is the same route taken by the highway today. Indeed, Neighbors reported 598 miles between Austin (as the state capital) and El Paso – exactly the same milege listed today between the two cities. In addition to Ford on the expedition, Neighbors was able to convince Buffalo Hump to lead it. Though the chief later left the party, it remained under his protection, and another Comanche Chief, Tall Tree or Guadalupe, led the party the remainder of the distance from the Colorado River to El Paso. Neighbors ability to communicate with the Comanche, and his relationship with them, made the expedition possible.
In those days, appointments for such posts as federal Indian Agent were determined in great part by the political party in power, and the political affiliation of the agent. Neighbors was a Democrat, so his services as Indian agent were terminated by the elections and subsequent national Whig administration in September 1849. Neighbors stayed in public life however. Appointed as a Texas commissioner, he was sent by Governor Peter Hansborough Bell, to organize El Paso County in February and March 1850. He then attempted, without success, to organize counties in New Mexico as a part of Texas.
Neighbors once again returned to private life. He was a Methodist, a Mason, and a leader in the temperance movement. On July 15, 1851, he married Elizabeth Ann Mays in Seguin, Texas, and couple made their home on his Salado Creek ranch, now part of San Antonio, Texas. They had two sons survive childhood.
As a member of the Fourth Texas Legislature representing the Béxar and Medina District from 1851 to 1853, he, along with Texas Senator Rip Ford, sponsored a resolution in 1852 to negotiate with the US to settle the Indians in northern Texas. After urging from Secretary of War Jefferson Davis to Texas Governor Peter Hansborough Bell, the Texas legislature passed a law in 1854 granting twelve leagues of land for establishing those Indian reservations.
In 1852, Neighbors became a presidential elector and following the election of Franklin Pierce the following year once again gained a government job, this time as supervising agent of the Indian service in Texas. In 1854, Neighbors and Capt. Randolph B. Marcy, with an escort of forty soldiers left Fort Belknap in search of recommended sites for the establishment of two Indian reservations in 1855. The Caddo, Shawnee, Anadarko, Waco, Tawacano, and Tonkawa, were located on the Brazos Indian Reservation along the north side of the Salt Fork Brazos River, south of what is now Graham in Young County. The reservation’s log buildings included the agent’s house, an office, a commissary store, a laborer’s house, a school, a blacksmith, interpreter’s house, a privy, a spring house plus several dome-shaped thatched native houses.
The Penateka Comanches were located on the Comanche Indian Reservation located on the Clear Fork Brazos River, about ten miles southwest of what is now Throckmorton in Throckmorton County. The reservation log cabin buildings included the agent’s house, commissary store, laborer’s house, a school and Chief Ketumse’s house plus the tribal member’s tents.
Camp Cooper, founded on 3 January 1856 by Major William J. Hardee and named in honor of Samuel Cooper, providing defense for the reservation. The camp was commanded by Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee of the 2nd Cavalry from 1856 to 1857. In a letter dated Camp Cooper, 12 April 1856, he wrote:
We are in the Comanche Reserve with the Indian camps below us on the river, belonging to Catumseh’s band, whom the Government is trying to humanize. It will be up hill work I fear. Catumseh has been to see me and we have had a talk, very tedious on his part and very sententious on mine. I hailed him as a friend, as long as his conduct and that of his tribe deserved it, but would meet him as an enemy the first moment he failed to keep his word.
When resentful settlers began to attack the reservation Indians, Neighbors became hated among white Texans. Neighbors alleged that the United States Army officers located at the posts of Fort Belknap and Camp Cooper, near the reservations, failed to give adequate support to him and his resident agents, and adequate protection to the Indians and settlers alike. In spite of continuous threats against his life, Neighbors never faltered in his determination to protect the Indians. John R. Baylor, the former Comanche agent, blamed Major Neighbors for his dismissal and resented him bitterly and led a cabal of men who plotted against Neighbors’s safety.
With the aid of federal troops, Neighbors managed to protect the Indians on the reservations, successfully thwarting an attack on 23 May 1859 by John Baylor and 250 marauders. Convinced that the Indians, especially the Comanche, would never be safe in Texas due to the continuing raids of those bands still operating outside the reservations, he determined to move all Indians to safety in the Indian territories. In August 1859 he and four companies of troops under Major George H. Thomas, succeeded in moving 1420 Indians, without loss of life, to a new reservation in Indian Territory. Neighbor’s party returned to Fort Belknap to “wind up his accounts as superintendent of Indian affairs.”
On September 14, 1859, while Neighbors was speaking with two men, he was shot in the back by Edward Cornett. He was buried in the civilian cemetery at Fort Belknap.