The Red River War

Kiowa 001

American Plains Indian (Image in public domain)

Long before the arrival of Anglo-American settlers, the people of the Great Plains had evolved into a nomadic form of existence.  Their pace of movement generally mirrored that of their primary food source, and because humans cannot exist without water, they never placed themselves too far from sources of water.  Beginning in the early 1800s, white settlers began to establish settlements in areas that were previously the exclusive domain of indigenous peoples.  They transformed the land into fields suitable for agriculture, hunted for meat, and set down roads connecting the various settlements.  These circumstances set into motion a series of attacks and counter-attacks between human beings who looked upon one another in the same way: they were the enemy, they were dangerous, and they were untrustworthy.  There could be no greater demonstration of a clash of cultures than interactions between westward-bound European-Americans and the American Indian.

Prior to the American Civil War, the United States Army was only sporadically involved in keeping the peace between these natural enemies.  Due to the size of the Army at that time, it could only man outlying fortifications in small numbers.  Many of these forward-deployed soldiers were infantry.  No matter how proficient these men were, they stood no chance at all in a major battle against the mounted Indian warrior.  Western military expeditions were few in their frequency and small in their size.  This meant that in terms of defense from Indian attack, for the most part, white settlements were on their own.  During the Civil War, the regular army almost completely withdrew from western territories and settlers formed volunteer militias to confront hostile Indians.

It wasn’t until after the Civil War that the U. S. Army began to reassert its control along the frontier.  In 1867, the US government brokered an agreement with Indian leaders to establish two reservations in the so-called Indian territories (Oklahoma): one reservation for the Comanche and Kiowa, another for the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho. The agreement, the Medicine Lodge Treaty (signed near Medicine Lodge, Kansas), provided that the US government would offer Indians housing, agricultural training, food, and other supplies.  In return, the Indians agreed to stop raiding white settlements.  Dozens of chiefs endorsed the treaty and a number of tribes moved onto the reservations.  There were two problems with the treaty, however.  First, several bands of Indians headed by influential war chiefs refused to attend the meeting at Medicine Lodge.  Second, the treaty was never ratified by the US Senate.

In 1870, a new technique for tanning buffalo hides increased the interest of hunters to engage in buffalo hunting commercially.  This was the first time whites targeted the buffalo for its hide.  It was also at this time that American politicians and army officers realized that by killing off the buffalo, they could also destroy the American Indian.  In 1870, the American Bison numbered in the tens of millions; in eight years, herds were nearly extinct.  The destruction of the buffalo was a disaster for the Plains Indians, both on and off the reservations.  Without the Buffalo, there was no longer any point in maintaining a nomadic existence —other than as a tradition, but tradition doesn’t feed hungry women and children.  It was in this way that the American Indian, with no means of self-support, became dependent upon the US government; they overwhelmingly remain so today.  In any case, by 1874, the Plains Indians were facing a serious crisis: fewer buffalo to feed their families, increasing numbers of white settlers, and a more capable, more aggressive army.

It was at this time when a spiritual leader named Isa-tai (White Eagle) emerged from among the Comanche. Claiming to have the power to render himself and others indestructible, he was able to rally a large number of Indians to participate in large raids.  Concurrently, a Kiowa war chief arose to a position of prominence within that tribe. His name was Gui-Pah-Gho (also known as Lone Wolf, the elder). Both Lone Wolf and Isa-tai were disposed to warfare. War is never a good thing; even the Indians realized that, but it was better than sitting around, doing nothing, watching their loved ones starve to death.

Adobe Walls 001

The area known as Adobe Walls (public domain)

On 27 June 1874, Isa-tai and Comanche war chief Quanah Parker[1] led 250-300 warriors in an attack on a small outpost of buffalo hunters at a place called Adobe Walls, the site of another battle in 1864 when Adobe Walls was little more than the ruins of an old trading post.  When constructed in 1845, Adobe Walls served as a small military fort with a convenient whiskey hole.  Following a number of Indian attacks in the late 1840s, traders destroyed these structures and moved on.  In 1864, Adobe Walls became the site of one of the largest battles to take place on the Great Plains.  Even then, Adobe Walls consisted of only a few ruins.

In 1874, a group of businessmen (including one James Hanrahan) set up two stores near the old ruins in an attempt to rekindle the town of Adobe Walls.  The complex quickly grew to include a general store, saloon, blacksmith shop, a trading store where buffalo hides could be bartered for hardware goods, and a corral.  At various times, as many as 300 buffalo hunters visited Adobe Walls.  In late June 1874, Indians killed two hunters twenty or so miles down the Canadian River.  Two more were killed on the Salt Fork of Red River near present-day Clarendon, Texas.  It was a signal to anyone with two brain cells that the Indian were on the warpath.

From the perspective of the Comanche, Kiowa, and Southern Cheyenne, the post at Adobe Walls posed a major threat to their very existence.  That spring, the Indians held a sun dance; to encourage the path to war, Isa-tai promised victory and immunity from bullets.  Modern historians believe that as many as 300 warriors gathered to strike the white hunter, but some argue that the number of Indians could have exceeded 700 hostiles.

At the time of the Indian attack, Adobe Walls was only occupied by 28 men and a single woman. Among the men were the saloon owner, James Hanrahan, the twenty-year-old Bat Masterson, and marksman William Dixon.  The woman was Mrs. William Olds, wife of the camp cook.

At 0200 on 27 June, the ridgepole holding up the sod-covered roof of the saloon suddenly made a loud crackling sound.  Two men opined that it sounded like a rifle shot.  Hanrahan awakened the camp by firing his pistols into the air.  Once the men were awake, he set them to work inspecting and repairing the ridgepole.  It was then that the Indians launched their assault.

When it came, the Indian attack was sudden and swift; a combined force of Comanche, Cheyenne, and Kiowa swarmed across the plains.  They fully intended to erase the entire population of Adobe Walls.  Leading the raid were Isa-tai and Quanah Parker.  The initial attack nearly succeeded because the Indians were close enough to smash the windows and bang the doors with their war clubs and the butts of their rifles.  The fighting was intense, and the close-quarters battle rendered the hunter’s long guns useless.  Four of the white hunters were killed in the first assault; the whites had to rely upon their pistols and Henry or Winchester lever action rifles. Eventually, the initial attack was repulsed and from that point on, the hunters were able to keep the Indians at bay with their long-range Sharps rifles.

Nine men were stationed in Hanrahan’s Saloon (including Bat Masterson and William Dixon); eleven men were placed in the general store, and seven in the trading post.  The men set up barricades.  By noon, the hunters at Adobe Walls knew they were in a siege. Around 2 p.m., the Indians withdrew to surrounding hills.  Two hours later the hunters ventured out to bury their dead.  They discovered fifteen Indian bodies and buried those, as well.

On the second day, hunters again ventured outside to bury or drag away the corpses of dead horses, lest the smell of decomposition should have a poor effect on the living.  Hunters who were not dealing with dead animals used their long-distance rifles to keep the Indians beyond their range, which was more than a mile.

Early on the third day, fifteen warriors rode to a bluff overlooking Adobe Walls to assess their situation.  These Indians were about one mile away.  William Dixon leveled his Sharps .50-90[2] he had borrowed from Hanrahan and shot a warrior from atop his horse [3].  The death of that Indian had a demoralizing effect on the rest of the Indians, but so too did the wounding of Quanah Parker.  The Indians decamped that night and returned to their usual campground.  Later in the day, additional hunters began to straggle into Adobe Walls.

On the fifth day of the siege, Mr. William Olds (the cook) accidentally shot himself in the head when his rifle discharged as he was descending a ladder. By the sixth day, there were more than 100 hunters, any of whom would welcome another Indian attack.

Sometime in July, a white settler was killed while looking for wild plums along the bank of the Canadian River.  President Grant, realizing that his peace policy with the American Indian was a complete failure, authorized the Army to subdue the southern plains Indians with whatever force was necessary.  What would become necessary was a force that could effectively deal with 4,000 hostiles.

By the first part of August, a troop of cavalry arrived at Adobe Walls.  Masterson and Dixon [4] signed on as army scouts.  The cavalry departed the next day to join up with forces operating under Colonel Nelson Miles and the buffalo hunters drifted off to kill more animals. The Indians returned to Adobe Walls after the whites had abandoned it, but only to burn the buildings to the ground.  They thought of their battle a victory, but its primary effect was to reinforce the U. S. Army’s earlier conclusions that the Plains Indians had to be crushed.

That same month a second engagement was initiated by Kiowa near Lost Valley.  Led by Lone Wolf, Kiowa attacked a patrol of Texas Rangers.  Both sides experienced light casualties, but the incident did raise tensions along the frontier; Colonel Miles determined to put an end to Indians raids.

General Phillip Sheridan ordered five columns of troops to converge on the area of the Texas Panhandle, and more specifically, upon the upper tributaries of the Red River.  Sheridan intended to deny sanctuary to every Indian and attack him aggressively until either they agreed to surrender to reservation life, or all Indians were dead.

Colonel Ranald S. McKenzie commanded three of these columns.  He ordered the Tenth Cavalry, under Lieutenant Colonel John W. Davidson, to proceed west from Fort Sill.  Lieutenant Colonel George P. Buell, commanding the 11thInfantry Regiment, marched north from Fort Griffin.  McKenzie personally commanded the Fourth Cavalry, riding northward from Fort Concho.  The fourth column involved the Sixth Cavalry and Fifth US Infantry under Colonel Nelson A. Miles, converging southward from Fort Dodge.  The fifth column was the Eighth Cavalry, commanded by Major William R. Price, consisting of 225 officers and men, six Indian scouts, and two frontier guides from Fort Union, New Mexico.

In total, there were more than twenty engagements across the Texas Panhandle.  While the US Army searched for and intended to engage all hostiles, the Indians, who were traveling with women and children, attempted to avoid contact with the bluecoats. Logistically, the Army had a distinct advantage; they had plenty of supplies to sustain their forces.  The Indians were starving.  General Sheridan had no sympathy for the Indians; in his mind, all they had to do to end their suffering was surrender.  As the Red River War continued throughout the fall of 1874, increasing numbers of Indians were forced to give up their freedom and head for Fort Sill, Oklahoma.

As Indian scouts were advancing ahead of the Fourth Cavalry in early September, they were ambushed by a Comanche war party near the Staked Plains.  The scouts sent a runner back to inform McKenzie of the presence of these Comanche.

Palo Duro Canyon 001

Palo Duro Canyon today (public domain)

On 28 September, McKenzie’s scouts located a large village of Comanche, Kiowa, and Cheyenne in the upper Palo Duro Canyon.  At dawn, McKenzie’s troops launched an attack down a steep canyon wall.  The Indians were caught by surprise and did not have time to gather their horses or supplies before retreating.  There were only four Indians killed, but the loss of their lodges, horses, and food stores was devastating.  More than 450 lodges were destroyed.  McKenzie ordered most of the 1,400 horses –a symbol of wealth to the Comanche– shot in order to keep them out of the hands of the Indians.

The Battle of Palo Duro Canyon was typical of the Red River War.  Most encounters produced only a few casualties, but the Indians could not afford the loss of food or their ponies.  Without food or mobility, the Indians had little choice but to surrender.  The Red River War came to an end in June 1875 when Quanah Parker led his band to Fort Sill and surrendered to the white eyes. These were the last band of southwestern Plains Indians.  With the extermination of the buffalo and surrender of the Indians, the Texas Panhandle was open to settlement by farmers and ranchers.  The Red River War was the final defeat of the once powerful Comanche, Kiowa, and Southern Cheyenne tribes.  The Texas Indian Wars were finally concluded.


[1] Quanah Parker (1845-1911) was the son of Comanche war chief Peta Nocona and the kidnapped child, Cynthia Ann Parker. Quanah Parker emerged as a dominant figure during the Red River War.

[2] In those days, the rifle was referred to as a Sharps 2 ½ inch.

[3] US Army surveyors measured the distance of Dixon’s shot at 1,538 yards, nine-tenths of a mile.  Dixon never attributed his shot at anything other than “pure luck”.

[4] Billy Dixon was later awarded the Medal of Honor for his part in the Battle of Buffalo Wallow, which took place three months after the Second Battle of Adobe Walls.

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
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2 Responses to The Red River War

  1. Such a vivid description and it gives a real feel for the situation with the “Indian Problem”.
    You can see why things went the way they did.


  2. Pingback: The Masterson’s | Old West Tales

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