Adobe Walls – the first battle

Hutchinson County TX 001

Hutchinson County, Texas

Francisco Vázquez de Coronado y Luján [1] was looking for the Seven Cities of Gold in 1541; his travels took him through what is today Hutchinson County, Texas.  Juan de Onate y Salazar [2] passed through the same area in 1601 as part of his Kansas Expedition.  For the next 269 years, this region was mostly populated by vast herds of American Bison.  The first Anglo-American to explore the panhandle of present-day Texas was Stephen H. Long [3], who mistakenly thought that the Canadian River was the Red River in 1820.  Later individuals included Josiah Gregg in March 1840, and Lieutenant Edward Beale in December 1858 (credited with constructing the first federally funded military road from Fort Smith, Arkansas to Los Angeles, California).

Migrating from Kansas, Thomas S. Bugbee established the Quarter Circle T Ranch in November 1876.  William Anderson’s Scissors Ranch took shape in 1878 near a place everyone called Adobe Walls.  Scotland-born entrepreneur James Coburn formed the Hansford Land and Cattle Company in 1881.  By 1883, Coburn had absorbed the Quarter Circle T Ranch, Scissors Ranch, and Turkey Track Ranch.

Prairie Schooner

The Conestoga Wagon

Twenty years earlier, however, there were other things going on in what would become Hutchinson County. White settlers were streaming into the western territories.  From the Native-American point of view, it was a dangerous flood of outsiders … dangerous because the arrivals of these settlers threatened to change forever the culture of indigent populations, people who had lived in this region for a thousand years.  It should be no surprise to anyone, then, that Indians of every persuasion developed hostile attitudes toward the whites.  The wagon trains were a frequent target for Indian assault because the whites were trespassers and because these whites killed for their own consumption the Buffalo that Indians needed to feed their families.

Wagon trains were caravans of wagons organized by settlers intending to immigrate to the western territories during the late 18th and most of the 19th centuries. These trains often included as many as 100 Conestoga wagons (also called prairie schooners) and they became the main method of long-distance overland transportation for people and their belongings [4].  Main routes included the Santa Fe Trail, Oregon Trail, Smoky Hill Trail, and the Southern Overland Mail route.  Typically, migrant groups would rendezvous at a town near the Missouri River. There, they would form companies, elect officers, employ guides, and collect essential supplies.  Key to their departure dates was weather; most wagon trains began their journey in May.  The caravans were protected by a few experienced frontiersmen on horseback, but more often than not, wagon trains stood little chance against the overwhelming force of the Plains Indians.  Indian attacks became more frequent after the start of the Civil War, but U. S. Army Brigadier General James Henry Carleton [5] was quite sure he could fix that problem.

General Carleton intended to put an end to hostile raids against white settlers; if not that, then at least remind those hostiles that Civil War would not prevent the US Army from protecting the westward movement of the American people.  General Carleton designated Colonel Christopher Carson [6] to lead an expeditionary force to deal with harsh attacks.  Carson, commanding the 1st Regiment of New Mexico Volunteer Cavalry, proceeded against Comanche and Kiowa Indians quartered in their winter encampments, believed to be located in the Palo Duro Canyons of the southern panhandle, south of the Canadian River.  Colonel Carson’s expedition was the second of its kind within the Comancheria following the Antelope Hills expedition.

Kit Carson 1864

Colonel Kit Carson, U. S. Army

The first battle of Adobe Walls occurred on 25 November 1864 in the vicinity of the ruins of William Bent’s abandoned trading post and saloon.  Adobe Walls was located on the north side of the Canadian River, 17 miles northeast of present-day Stinnett, Texas.  Colonel Carson clearly understood his orders: punish the Comanche and Kiowa for their attacks against wagon trains on the Santa Fe Trail.

On 10 November 1864, Colonel Carson departed Fort Bascom in the territory of New Mexico with 260 cavalry, 75 infantry, and 72 Ute and Jicarilla Apache scouts.  Two days later, Carson’s force, which also included two mountain howitzers, 27 wagons, an ambulance, and supplies for 45 days, headed south along the Canadian River into the Texas Panhandle.  Carson decided to march first to Adobe Walls because he was familiar with the terrain and, in fact, had worked for William Bent twenty years earlier.  Carson’s Indian scouts covered his flanks and performed scouting patrols ahead of the column. Progress was hampered by inclement weather.

On 24 November, the 1stCavalry reached Mule Springs, located about 30 miles west of Adobe Walls. Late in the day, Indian scouts reported sign pointing to a large Indian village.  Though darkness was upon him, Carson decided to conduct a night march of mounted troops and artillery, leaving the infantry behind to guard the supply train.  Carson rode with his Indian scouts, leaving a subordinate to command the cavalry unit. On the next morning, Carson ordered the artillery forward to join him in the vanguard element.

Comanche Lodge

Comanche Lodge c.1864

Arriving at the steep banks of the Canadian River, Carson deployed one squadron of cavalry on the north side of the river, while he continued with the remainder of his troops on the south side. Two hours after daybreak, the cavalry located and attacked a Kiowa village consisting of around 176 lodges. Several Indians were sent to alarm a nearby allied Comanche village, while Kiowa braves formed a protective screen around their women.  Meanwhile, Carson and his group arrived at Adobe Walls and established a perimeter defense around ruins that was once a hospital.  It was then that Carson realized that there were several nearby Indian villages —one of which was quite large.  Suddenly, a sizeable force of Comanche began pouring forward to engage the Americans; it was a much larger force than Carson expected [7].

Carson quickly dismounted his cavalry and set them into positions flanking the artillery pieces while the Indian scouts engaged around two-hundred Comanche and Kiowa warriors who were mounted and painted.  The first frontal assault came from the Kiowa, but the fighting turned into a fierce melee as Apache and Comanche joined forces and repeatedly attacked Carson’s position.  The Indians confused the Army’s bugle calls with a bugle of their own.  Carson’s force succeeded in repelling the attacks through the clever use of supporting fire from the howitzers.  The first salvo caused the Indians to withdraw from the battlefield, but they soon reappeared, and in greater numbers.

By mid-afternoon, Captain Pettis estimated that Carson’s expedition faced as many as 3,000 [8] really angry Indians.  After six to eight hours of continuous fighting, Carson was running low of ammunition and artillery shells.  Carson ordered a withdrawal to the Kiowa village in his rear.  The hostiles tried to block his retreat by setting fire to the grass and brush along the river, but Carson had the same idea and set backfires and affected his retreat to higher ground.  The two howitzers continued to hold off the Indians. With the arrival of twilight, Carson ordered the village burned.  After the soldiers helped themselves to finely finished buffalo robes, they withdrew from the village and returned to their supply train, which fortunately had not been molested by the Indians.  Carson’s scouts, meanwhile, killed four Kiowa who had been wounded in the initial assault —not out of hatefulness, but rather, to end their suffering.

Colonel Carson and his command rested in camp on 26 November, their enemy visible on a hilltop about two miles away.  The scouts continued to skirmish with Comanche and Kiowa, but no serious attack was mounted against the soldiers.  On 27 November, Carson ordered his men to mount up for a return march to New Mexico.  Several of his officers begged him to reconsider.  They wanted to renew the assault, but after consulting with his Indian scouts, Carson reaffirmed his order.

The Comanche and Kiowa were well aware of Kit Carson.  They respected him, but they didn’t fear him.  From the Kiowa perspective, they had defeated Carson.  Battle casualties were 6 US soldiers killed, 25 wounded; on the Indian side, there were an estimated 60 killed and wounded.  The Army declared themselves the victor at Adobe Walls, but the fact is that the Comanche and Kiowa remained firmly in possession of the Texas panhandle.  Indian attacks against wagon trains continued.

Carson’s decision to retreat was prudent.  He did prepare an exceptionally lethal defensive position, particularly given the number of Indians he faced on 25 November 1864, but it was probably the backfires and the decision to withdraw his men that saved his bacon.

The first battle at Adobe Walls would be the last time Comanche and Kiowa braves forced American troops to withdraw from a battlefield.  It also marked the beginning of the end for the Plains Indians.  The battle of Adobe Walls might have ended, but the war did not. There would be a second battle at Adobe Walls, and it would be the prelude to a much larger confrontation.

Sources:

  1. Texas State Historical Society, The Handbook of Texas
  2. Carter, H. L.  “Dear Old Kit”: The Historical Christopher Carson, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1968
  3. Guild, T. S., and Carter, H. L.  Kit Carson, Univesity of Nebraska Press, 1984
  4. Sabin, E. L. Kit Carson days (1809–1868) (Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co.), 1914

Endnotes

[1] A Spanish conquistador and explorer who led a rather large expedition from Mexico to present-day Kansas through parts of what is now the southwestern United States between 1540 and 1542.  He was searching for the Cities of Cibola (the term Seven Cities of Gold wasn’t used until the American gold-rush days in the mid-1800s).  His expedition marked the first time a European had seen the Grand Canyon and Colorado river.  He died in Mexico City in 1554, aged 43 or 44 years.

[2] Salazar was a conquistador and colonial governor of the province of Santa Fe de Nuevo Mexico, serving the Viceroyalty of New Spain.  His expedition included the Great Plains and lower Colorado River, where he encountered numerous native tribes.  Onate founded settlements throughout the southwest region of the present-day United States.  Following a dispute with native Americans, thirteen Spaniards died at the hands of the Acoma Indians, including his nephew, Juan de Zaldivar.  In retribution, Onate organized an attack against the Acoma Pueblo, during which the entire community was destroyed.  An estimated 800 to 1,000 Acoma Indians were killed.

[3] Stephen Harriman Long (1784-1864) was a U. S. Army explorer, topographical engineer, and railway engineer.  He is noted for his developments in the design of steam locomotives and for the fact that he was one of the most prolific explorers in the early 1800s. He covered over 26,000 miles in five expeditions, including his scientific campaign to the Great Plains, which he described as a great desert.

[4] The Conestoga wagon is a particular type of wagon and not a generic term for “covered wagon.” All covered wagons could be referred to as “prairie schooners,” but the Conestoga was far too heavy for use on the prairie.  Most wagons used for western movement were ordinary farm wagons fitted with a canvas covering and much lighter.

[5] An Indian fighter of some reputation, Carleton was first commissioned in the US Army in 1839.  He took part in the Mexican-American War, served in the US Dragoons in the American West, and participated in the 1844 expedition to the Pawnee and Oto.  In 1861, Carleton raised and was appointed Commanding Officer of the 1stCalifornia Infantry.  Later that year, he replaced Brigadier General George Wright as Commander, Military District of Southern California and the Department of New Mexico.  In April 1862, Carleton was promoted to Brigadier General and placed in command of the California Column.  Carleton’s resume included either leading or participating in the Apache Wars, Navaho Wars, and the Texas-Indian Wars.

[6] Christopher Houston Carson (1809-1868) (also known as Kit Carson) was a frontiersman, mountain man, wilderness guide, Indian agent, and an officer in the U. S. Army.  While many stories about Kit Carson were exaggerated, there is little doubt that the man was fearless in the face of danger, possessed superior combat skills, or that he had a profound impact on the westward expansion of the United States.

[7] Capt. Pettis (in charge of the howitzers) authored an after-action report within which he officially estimated the number of Indians between 1,200 and 1,400.  Carson’s forward element consisted of 330 men.

[8] Clearly an exaggeration.  There were probably not 3,000 Comanche and Kiowa anywhere near the battle site. Considering the number of lodges in the Kiowa and Comanche camps, the number of Indians Carson faced most likely did not exceed 1,500.  Still, given the size of Carson’s force, that is still a lot of Indians.

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3 Responses to Adobe Walls – the first battle

  1. kid says:

    Great Read Mustang once again.

    Makes me feel inferior that I complain about the WalMart people.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: A Western Dragoon | Old West Tales

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