For most of his life, the first great Texas Ranger captain, Jack Coffee Hays, carried the nickname “Bravo Too Much.” Its origin traces back to a battle in July of 1841, when Hays led a contingent of four dozen men into the thick oaks and braided streams of the Rio Frio, about a hundred miles west of San Antonio. It was a revenge mission: a few weeks earlier, Hays had lost five men in a battle with Comanche warriors, and now he was out for blood. When he spotted a group of Comanche hunters, Hays gave chase as the hunters fled back to their encampment. The story goes that, seeing Rangers approach, one hundred Comanche warriors took to horseback to defend the women and children. Hays, on a borrowed horse, rode near enough to fire his pistol at the warriors. But then, disaster. Perhaps shocked by the gunshot, Hays’s horse careened forward, running Hays directly into range of the Comanches’ lances and spears. It would have been a one-man charge—a suicide mission—if not for the Lipan Apache chief named Flacco, a famed scout and warrior who had traveled into the Hill Country with his friend Hays and the other Rangers. Seeing the Ranger leader’s horse spook, Flacco kicked his own horse into a gallop, joining Hays in his accidental charge. They rode through the Comanches’ lines, with Hays firing his revolver, before the two men managed to turn their horses around. Miraculously, they made it back to their men unharmed. As Hays ordered a retreat, Flacco sighed and said that Hays was “bravo too much.” The nickname stuck.
As we discuss in episode two of the podcast White Hats, Hays became a celebrity. He would become the archetype for many western heroes: brave white men with pistols, facing down Mexicans and Native people with deadly efficiency. Hays’s famous partnership with Flacco also became a charismatic trope, most famously displayed in the friendship between the Lone Ranger and Tonto. (If “Tonto” is a play on “Flacco,” it’s also a rude joke. In Spanish, flaco means “thin”; tonto means “stupid.”)
But the story of Hays and Flacco’s partnership is more than just inspiration for fictional western TV shows. In many ways, their friendship is a potent symbol for the long history of Anglo Texans’ relationship with the Native peoples of this land, who had been here for millennia before the word “Texas” was ever uttered. The early history of the state is in many ways defined by how the first Anglo Texans—the “Texians”—fought, killed, and removed Native people. But before the first Anglo colonists arrived in what’s today Texas, peoples such as the Lipan Apache had already been attacked and forced to move by another powerful imperial force: the Comanche. From their homelands in what today is Wyoming, the Comanche had built a vast empire across the Great Plains, deep into what we now call Texas. Legendary for their skill on horseback, the Comanche had outfought Spanish colonists, forcing them to retreat. While European colonists traveled slowly, lugging cannons across grassland and waiting for long supply trains, the Comanche moved like lightning on horseback, swooping down in devastating raids and then disappearing.
When the first Anglo settlers arrived in Texas in the early 1800s, they formed alliances with different bands of Native people who had been attacked by the Comanche. Chief Cuelgas de Castro, a contemporary of Flacco’s father, was a significant figure in that diplomacy. After the Republic of Texas gained independence in 1836, Castro signed the Treaty of Live Oak Point, in which Texas president Sam Houston endorsed a “perpetual friendship” between the two nations. “The Republic of Texas promises and hereby guarantees peace friendship and protection to said tribe of Lipan Indians while they remain peaceable and in good faith,” the treaty reads.
From Hays’s surviving letters, we know that he greatly admired Flacco. He wrote that the Lipan chief “gave an impression of bounding elasticity.” With a ring of eagle feathers perched on his forehead over his dark eyes, Hays said, Flacco had a bearing of “fierce alertness coupled with strength and agility,” like a hawk or a panther.
After statehood, however, Texas broke its promises to the Lipan Apache. The U.S. government’s policies of removal and extermination forced Native peoples onto reservations or into early graves (President Andrew Jackson, who signed the Indian Removal Act into law and oversaw the Trail of Tears, was a distant relative of Hays). In just a few decades, Lipan Apache lost all recognition of their ancestral lands in Texas. Today they have no officially recognized tribal land in the state, even though many Lipan Apache still live here and the tribe maintains a headquarters in McAllen. Texas’s relationship with the modern tribe is complicated. In 2005, a state senator asked then–Texas attorney general Greg Abbott whether the Live Oak Treaty—the original treaty signed by the Lipan Apache chief Castro and Sam Houston’s representatives—was still valid.
In a statement signed by Abbott, the Texas government argued that the Live Oak agreement was abrogated by the Council Springs Treaty of 1846, since the latter was entered into with the United States “to the exclusion of any other ‘power, state or sovereignty.’ ” (The Live Oak Treaty was entered into with the Republic of Texas.) At the end of the argument, Abbott offered his opinion that the original treaty, which declared permanent friendship between Texas and the Lipan Apache, would “no longer be a binding agreement.” The opinion was limited to the original treaty’s validity; Abbott and the other authors didn’t offer an opinion on the validity of three subsequent treaties between the Lipan Apache and the U.S. government.
In 2019, Abbott, by then the governor of Texas, signed a bill officially recognizing the Lipan Apache. The chairman of the Lipan Apache’s Tribal Council, Bernard Barcena Jr., said the tribe was “elated.” Vice chair Robert Soto celebrated the move as a first step toward federal recognition, which still eludes the tribe.