Local Historians Correct Marker Mistaking Important Tribal History

Oct 10, 2014

The Waco Indian tribe was driven out of Central Texas in the early 19th Century. For almost 80 years a historical marker outside Waco’s Helen Marie Taylor Museum memorialized the event. KWBU’s Jill Ament reports that Native American tribal leaders and local historians have pointed out that the information on the marker had it all wrong.

Near the intersection of Jefferson and 8th street there’s a shaded grove of live oak trees by Waco’s Taylor Museum. It used to be the epicenter for the Waco Indian tribe. A marker there describes a critical event in the history of Waco. In 1837 the tribe was driven out by the often dominating Plains tribe – the Comanches.

But the Comanche tribe didn’t do it.

That’s what the McLennan County Historical Commission and other local historians say. When a Comanche tribal preservation officer visited the site a few years ago -- they pointed out the Waco and the Comanche people were actually friends. 

Kenneth Brittain is with the McLennan County Historical Commission.

“When I was made aware that the original marker had an error I began to research," Brittain said. "Because they said the Comanches were not the ones who attacked the Waco Indians. That it was the Cherokees.”

Brittain says he scoured through about 12 official written documents just to make sure and confirmed the event. He’s even written books himself that detail the Waco people were driven out by the Cherokees. But how do you correct something’s that’s so set in stone?

“So the first thing I did was call the Texas Historical Commission in Austin to ask them what do we do to correct a 1936 centennial marker," Brittain said.

There were over 1,000 Texas Centennial Markers created in 1935 to celebrate 100 years of Texas’ independence from Mexico. The Texas Historical Commission told Brittain the Waco marker couldn’t be corrected. Instead the commission would have to put another marker by the old one. So a smaller marker was made within a year’s time. And this morning it was unveiled to a moderate crowd outside of the museum. 

So here’s what really happened to the Waco tribe. Historical accounts state the hostilities between the Wacos and the Cherokees began in 1828 when a band of Waco Indians traveled to a Cherokee encampment and stole a large amount of horses. The Cherokees retaliated in the Spring of 1829, killing at least 55 people. This would be the beginning of a decline of the Waco people in the area.

Earl Elam was in attendance for the dedication. He’s a retired professor emeritus of History at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas. He’s an expert on the history of the larger nation to which the Wacos belonged—the Wichita tribe. He says by 1855 the Waco people had joined the Wichita on a reservation upstream on the Brazos River. Soon after, those people would be exiled to Oklahoma by Confederate soldiers during the Civil War.

Elam says he thinks another thing the marker got wrong was a supposed treaty made between the Waco people and Texas founding father Stephen F. Austin.

“I don’t know who did the research for it back in 1936," Elam said.  

"But Stephen F. Austin never made a treaty with the Wacos. Stephen F. Austin sent some men up here one time from San Felipe where his headquarters was.”

On Thursday Elam hosted a panel discussion at MCC on the history of the Waco Indians with three representatives from the Wichita Nation in Oklahoma. Those representatives had planned to attend today’s ceremony but had to leave early this morning due to a tribal emergency.

Brittain says the Wichita leaders were appreciative of the corrections.

“Mostly they were appreciative of the recognition of this site," Brittain said. "And where the trees are. That’s where they lived. I think that was their main thrust.”

The live oak trees were also dedicated for their historical importance in a ceremony this morning prior to unveiling the marker. Brittain says among all of the growth and development Waco is experiencing -- he hopes this grove will eventually be developed as a very important historical site for the city.

“I think we also have to think about our past and where we came from. And what that meant to us," Brittain said.