Three Years Among the Comanches is Nelson Lee’s detailed account of his life as a Texas Ranger, his capture by the Comanches, and his grueling escape through the mountains back to a white settlement. Although his perspective is obviously biased by the fact that he was the tribe’s prisoner, the book provides an interesting view of the Comanche way of life before it was forever changed by contact with white people.
Lee saw his companions and many other white captives tortured and slaughtered by the Comanches, and he himself was punished brutally for straying beyond the limits of the camp while a prisoner:
…they led me back to the camp…where I was tied down to stakes…The Spotted Leopard, drawing down my leggin, with the coolness of the most practiced 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…For two weeks I was kept tied down, the chief frequently, during that time, bending the leg back and forth, each time breaking the wound open afresh.
He believed that the only reason he was not killed by his captors was because he possessed a silver watch with an alarm, through which the Indians believed the Great Spirit spoke:
While they were stripping and dressing me…one of them picked up my coat and discovered the watch…While thus regarding it…the alarm went off. The utter astonishment of the Indian was beyond description…the chief wrapped it carefully and tenderly in his deerskin pouch and placed it in his bosom, not, however, until I had comprehended…that they regarded it as something supernatural which connected me with the Great Spirit.
Eventually Lee became somewhat reconciled to the tribe’s way of life, and came to admire certain individuals; he even married a Comanche woman, which the Chief considered further assurance that his captive would not escape. However, Lee continued to try to impress the tribe with the superiority of the white man, detailing the technological wonders of civilization. The Comanches were having none of it, and always responded: “Wonderful, wonderful are the works of the white man, but the Great Spirit will destroy them all.”
Three Years Among the Comanches is full of extreme situations and near-deadly encounters. Aside from his trouble with his human captors, the author has frightening brushes with alligators, snakes, panthers and millipedes:
Several times both of us crossed the stream. On my last passage, when perhaps two-thirds over, I discovered at no great distance, a huge alligator making directly towards me. He was at least fourteen feet in length, and had been undoubtedly attracted by the blood which tainted the water. My first impulse was to draw my knife and turn upon him, but a second thought determined me to exercise that discretion which is the better part of valor, and accordingly, I venture the assertion that in all aquatic feats of which we have any account, there never has been known a specimen of “taller swimming” than I then and there performed. Fortunately, I reached the shore and succeeded in scrambling to the top of the bank just as the monster came like a great battering ram against it.
Lee’s narrative of his life as a Ranger and a captive of the Comanches is lively, detailed, and always fascinating.