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Farmington Museum offers new lecture series

Mike Easterling
measterling@daily-times.com
This cabinet card, which will be shown during Jeffrey Richardson's "Repeating Firearms on the American Frontier" lecture this weekend, features Comanche police holding their Winchester rifles.

FARMINGTON — In the long history of armed conflict between Anglo forces and Native tribes that took place throughout the West in the 1800s, the Battle of Walker’s Creek in Texas in 1844 hardly ranks as one of the more famous engagements.

That’s a serious miscalculation, according to Jeffrey Richardson, curator of exhibits at the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park.

While that long-ago dust-up may be forgotten to almost everyone but the most serious students of Texas history, Richardson regards it as a pivotal event in the development of the West — so much so that it plays a featured role in a lecture he will present this weekend to kick off the museum’s new Curator’s Choice Lecture Series: The American West in Fact or Fiction. Richardson’s presentation will examine how the advent of repeating firearms shifted the balance of power on the frontier and what the ramifications of that shift were.

The Battle of Walker's Creek illustrates that shift in power in plain terms, he said.

Many people labor under the mistaken idea that American firearms, even the single-shot variety that were the dominant style before the 1840s, were superior to the weapons wielded by Native warriors. Not true, Richardson said, explaining that skilled Native warriors were almost always able to more than hold their own with bows and arrows and lances against American or Texan soldiers who were forced to reload after every shot.

But that all changed on June 9, 1844, when a company of 14 Texas Rangers under the command of Capt. John Coffee Hays encountered a band of Comanche warriors in present-day Kendall County deep in the Texas Hill Country east of Austin. Richardson said various accounts of the event number the Comanche contingent at between 40 and 200 warriors, though Richardson said the most accurate number is approximately 80.

Still, Hays’ men found themselves heavily outnumbered and were quickly drawn into a fight. Richardson said the typical Comanche tactic in such situations was to mount an offensive with a small force of brave warriors to draw the fire of the soldiers, then attack in force moments later while the soldiers were reloading. It was an approach the Comanche and other Native warriors had used successfully for many years.

Jeffrey Richardson

But it didn’t work that day.

To the surprise of the attackers, the rangers quickly responded with a second volley of shots — then a third and a fourth, blunting the Comanche charge and turning the warriors away, Richardson said. The Comanches were routed after suffering heavily casualties, while only one ranger was killed and four were wounded, according to the Texas State Historical Association’s online account of the battle.

There was a simple explanation for that surprising outcome. The Battle of Walker’s Creek marked the first time an entire company of rangers had been armed with Colt revolvers in combat, according to the TSHA website, allowing the Texans to return fire far more quickly and efficiently than ever before.

“That’s how 15 Texas Rangers were able to fend off 80 Comanches,” Richardson said. “It was the first time we saw this new tipping point.”

Ultimately, that result would be repeated in battles between American and Native forces across the West, Richardson said.

The Colt revolver was introduced in the 1830s, and the first repeating Winchester rifle came along a few years later, Richardson said. Their proliferation provided American soldiers with an enormous technological advantage in battle, but it also helped set the tone for how the United States would emerge as a world economic power, he said.

“One of the things I’m going to address is that these firearms were the forefront of the American system of manufacturing,” Richardson said. “This was part of our transition from an agrarian to an industrial society.”

The mass production of firearms using interchangeable parts in the 1800s doesn’t get as much credit as it should for making America an industrial giant, he said, noting that history books usually assign that role to automobile manufacturer Henry Ford in the early 1900s. But Richardson said Ford actually refined the process, adding the element of the assembly line and state-of-the-art machinery to the mass production tactics that had been in use for many years by firearms manufacturers.

This drawing of the Colt Peacemaker .45 caliber revolver manufactured in 1873 will be shown during Jeffrey Richardson's "Repeating Firearms on the American Frontier" lecture this weekend. The scene beneath the revolver shows a sheriff, holding a Colt Peacemaker in each hand, apprehending three men playing cards.

“That set us on a course to become the world’s dominant industrial and military power,” he said.

Richardson is an authority of the subject of American firearms, having written several books and articles on the subject, and formerly serving in a variety of roles at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles.

“Working at a Western institution, there were certain aspects you could not overlook,” Richardson said, explaining how he came to develop that expertise. “I knew if I wanted to have a true understanding of the West, I knew I could not overlook the role firearms played.”

At the same time, Richardson emphasized that the lecture series, which is his brainchild, will not focus exclusively on firearms.

“Firearms is the crux of our story, but it’s about so much more,” he said, explaining that the series also will examine social and economic issues that helped shape the West. Mostly, Richardson said, the series is designed to explore the question of why the West continued to have such a powerful hold on our imagination.

“I hope to facilitate a better understanding of how we got to the place we are,” he said, adding that he will use a series of visual aids to illustrate his points.

Colt assembly line workers are pictured in the company's East Armory in this image that will be shown during Jeffrey Richardson's "Repeating Firearms on the American Frontier" lecture this weekend.

Lectures will take place on the first Saturday of every other month. Richardson said the presentations will last approximately an hour, with a question-and-answer period to follow.

Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

If you go

What: “The Balance of Power: Repeating Firearms on the American Frontier” by Jeffrey Richardson, part of the Curator’s Choice Lecture Series: The American West in Fact or Fiction

When: 1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 1

Where: Farmington Museum at Gateway Park, 3041 E. Main St.

Admission: Free

For more information: Call 505-599-1174 or visit fmtn.org.