Billy Dixon

and the Buffalo Wallow Fight

The Great Plains region of the United States and Canada is a broad expanse of flat and undulating land that includes such features as prairie, steppes, and grasslands. It begins just west of the Mississippi River tallgrass prairie region and ends just east of the Rocky Mountains.  Most of this region encompasses present-day Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota and parts of Colorado, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Wyoming, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas.

In the American southwest, the Great Plains includes what is known as the Llano Estacado (Staked Plains) in eastern New Mexico and northwest Texas.  It is one of the largest mesas on the North American continent, with an elevation from 3,000 to 5,000 feet above sea level … a slope of about ten feet per mile.  The Llano Estacado was once referred to as the Great American Desert; its northern boundary is the Canadian River, and on its southern side blends into the Edwards Plateau near Big Springs, Texas.  In total, the area of the Llano Estacado is 37,500 square miles … which is larger than thirteen of America’s states.

In 1541, Spanish explorer Francisco Coronado described the Llano Estacado in this way: “I reached some plains so vast, that I did not find their limit anywhere I went, although I traveled over them for more than 300 leagues with no more land marks than if we had been swallowed up by the sea.  There was not a stone, not a bit of rising ground, nor a tree, nor a shrub, nor anything to go by.”

Another fact concerning the Llano Estacado was of particular concern to migrating European-Americans: it was Indian country.  The Comanche expanded their territory to include the staked plains during the eighteenth century, displacing another native American tribe who were called Apache [1].  Llano Estacado was firmly within what became known as the Comancheria, an Indian stronghold until they were finally defeated by white Americans in the late 1800s.

The Great Plains region was also home to the American Bison, or buffalo, that inhabited this area in massive herds since around 9,000 BC.  The buffalo population living in the Great Plains region in the mid-18thCentury has been estimated as high as 60-millions; they also existed in areas as far north as New York, and as far south as Georgia.

Within the Great Plains were natural topographical depressions that held rainwater.  These would serve as temporary watering holes for wildlife, including the buffalo, known to have used these basins for drinking, bathing, and wallowing.  Gradually, the watering basins were transformed into wallowing holes and these were enlarged as the animals floundered, covering themselves in mud and dirt, and transporting these elements always with them.  Western pioneers simply called them Buffalo Wallows.

buffalo wallow fight 001

This is a Kiowa drawing of the Buffalo Wallow Fight. The reproduction image is in the public domain.

The Buffalo Wallow fight was one of the more unusual engagements in the Red River War.  On 10 September 1874, a force of soldiers under Colonel Nelson A. Miles [2] were running low on rations.  Miles sent out two scouts and four enlisted men with dispatches from his encampment at McClellan Creek to notify others of his column that Captain Wyllys Lyman’s supply train was under siege by Indians on the upper Washita River.  The scouting party consisted of Scouts Billy Dixon and Amos Chapman, Army Sergeant Z. T. Woodhall, and Privates Peter Rath, John Harrington, and George W. Smith.  On the morning of 12 September, the detachment had reached the divide between Gageby Creek and the Washita River (in present-day Hemphill County, Texas) when they suddenly found themselves surrounded by as many as 125 Comanche and Kiowa warriors, some of whom had come from the siege of the Lyman Supply Train.

Billy Dixon, as previously reported, made a spectacular rifle shot while under siege at Adobe Walls in late June 1874.  Who, exactly, was Billy Dixon?  He was born in western Virginia on 25 September 1850.  Orphaned at age 12 years, he spent one year with an uncle in Missouri before setting out on his own at the tender age of 13.  At first, he worked as a woodcutter, but then transitioned to driving oxen and mules for a government contractor in Leavenworth, Kansas.

Because of his skill as a marksman, Dixon was hired as a scout for the railroads and scientific excursionists.  In 1869, he began hunting and trapping along the Saline River.  By the time of his Adobe Walls experience, he had scouted Texas as far south as the Salt Fork [3] of the Red River.  This was about the time the buffalo hunters moved into the Texas Panhandle.  Billy Dixon was familiar with the lands and tributaries along the Canadian River.

In any case, returning to the plight of the Woodhall Detachment, the Indians had burned off the prairie grass days before; there was no place to hide or take shelter.  Dixon suggested they dismount and form a perimeter.  Smith took charge of the horses but fell a moment later with a bullet through his lungs.  The shot spooked the horses and they ran off, carrying with them the detachment’s haversacks, canteens, coats, and blankets.  It was a celebratory moment for the mounted Indians, who encircled their intended victims and then engaged in a cat and mouse game, charging the Woodhall Detachment, firing at them, and then riding off again.

buffalo wallow fight 002

Billy Dixon brings in Amos Chapman. Painting by Severino Baraldi, copyright Look & Learn dot com.

Harrington and Woodhall were soon hit, Chapman suffered a shattered knee from a bullet. As the Indians backed off to deliberate, Dixon (suffering a minor wound in the calf), spotted a buffalo wallow a few yards distant.  Encouraging the men to take cover in the depression, which extended about ten feet in diameter, the wounded Dixon helped the other wounded men to reach this shelter —all but Smith and Chapman, who lay bleeding on the ground.  Using their hands and knives, the soldiers began to improve the wallow by throwing up sandy loam along the perimeter.  Now, by intermittently returning fire, the men were able to keep the Indians away from Smith and Chapman.  On several occasions, Dixon attempted to reach Chapman but was forced back by well-aimed rifles and arrows.

Amos Chapman was well known to some of these Indians, as he had previously lived among them as a squaw man [4].  They taunted him by calling out, “We’ve got you now, Amos!”  Dixon finally reached Chapman in the afternoon and carried him back the safety of the wallow.  The fight carried on even as the soldiers suffered from their wounds and from thirst. Despite these troubles, the men kept the Indians a bay with accurate rifle fire.  What the Indians wanted most was Smith’s rifle, which lay next to him on the plain.  It was only the accurate rifle fire of Dixon and the soldiers that prevented the Indians from obtaining it.

The late afternoon brought forth a thunderstorm.  On the one hand, it was a relief to the parched men and served to break off the Indian encirclement, but it was what men back then called a blue-norther.  It brought a dramatic drop in temperature and, as the men were without their blankets, they now shivered in chilly conditions.  As the Indians backed off, Private Rath went to recover Smith’s rifle and found that he was still alive.  Dixon and Rath carried the trooper back to the wallow, where he died later in the night.

The Indians had completely withdrawn by nightfall and using crushed tumbleweeds, Dixon and Rath fashioned crude bedding for themselves and wounded companions.  Under cover of night, Rath went for help, but he was unable to locate the trail and eventually returned to the wallow.

On the following morning, the dawn was clear and there were no Indians in sight.  Dixon volunteered to get help and went off to find the trail, which was about a mile distant from the wallow.  It was not long after that that he sighted a column of cavalry and used his weapon to attract their attention.  It was a body of four companies of the 8th US Cavalry under the command of Major William R. Price, whose approach caused the Indians to withdraw from the Lyman Train and the buffalo wallow.

Major Price accompanied Dixon back to the wallow, but he was without an ambulance wagon to transport the wounded.  As Dixon and Price approached the wallow, the harried troopers mistook them for Indians and shot the horse out from under an assistant surgeon.  The angered doctor gave the men a cursory examination and announced that there was little he could do for them.  Major Price was low on rations and ammunition and could (or would) not detail a squadron to protect the men, but  Price’s troopers did share their hardtack and dried beef before Price moved on.  He promised to notify Colonel Miles of their predicament and send aid as soon as possible. Relief for the Woodhall Detachment did not arrive until after midnight on 13 September.

The remains of Private George Smith were wrapped in a blanket and buried in the wallow. Disabled survivors were taken to Camp Supply for treatment.  Amos Chapman’s leg was eventually amputated above the knee.  Sergeant Woodhall and Private Harrington recovered from their wounds and continued serving in the U. S. Army.  Subsequently, owing to their courage under fire and their dedication to one another, Colonel Miles recommended all six men for the Medal of Honor. Dixon received his award from Colonel Miles while encamped along Carson Creek near Adobe Walls; Smith’s family was presented his Medal of Honor posthumously.

Major Price was severely reprimanded by Colonel Miles for his failure to render proper aid to the Woodhall Detachment.

In the after-action report filed by Sergeant Woodhall, which included the written testimony of Dixon and Chapman, the six men had killed as many as two dozen Indians.  Chapman later recanted his story, claiming that they had killed no Indians at all.  Some years later, owing to the fact that Dixon and Chapman had served as civilian scouts, Congress revoked their medals of honor.  Dixon, however, refused to surrender his medal believing that he’d earned it.  Dixon’s medal of honor can be viewed today at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum.

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Young Billy Dixon. A picture​ in the public domain.

Billy Dixon returned to a normal civilian life in 1883.  He built a home near the Adobe Walls site and served as a postmaster there for twenty years.  He also served as the first sheriff of the newly formed Hutchinson County, served as a state land commissioner, and as a justice of the peace.

In 1894, Billy Dixon married Olive King, a school teacher.  They lived at Dixon’s Adobe Walls homestead on the Turkey Creek Ranch.  For several years afterward, Olive King Dixon was the only woman living within Hutchinson County.  In 1902, the Dixons, with four children, moved to Plemons, Texas.  They moved again to Cimarron County, Oklahoma in 1906, where they had three more children.  Suffering from pneumonia, Billy Dixon passed away on 9 March 1913.  Over several years before his death, Olive had carefully recorded his recollections as a young man hunting buffalo and serving as a US Army scout.  After his death, she visited with then retired Lieutenant General Miles, who attested to all of Dixon’s accounts of the Red River War.  Olive King Dixon erected a granite marker at the Buffalo Wallow site in 1925 (22-miles southeast of the Canadian River).  Under the names of the six men who fought there, the memorial states simply, “who cleared the way for other men.”

In 1929, Dixon’s body was reinterred at Adobe Walls near where he stood when he first saw the Indians riding up the valley.  Dixon Creek in southern Hutchinson County was named in his honor.  Beyond this, the Historical Breechloading Small Arms Association of Lancashire, England, holds a shooting competition to commemorate Dixon’s incredible shot at Adobe Walls.  The competition is known as the Vintage Rifle Open Long-Range Championship, which is shot at a distance of 1,000 yards, using black powder cartridge rifles of that era.  It is a strongly contested event involving shooters from all across the United Kingdom.  Billy Dixon never attributed his shot to anything other than pure luck.

Olive King Dixon passed away in 1956.

Endnotes:

[1] These Indians were first encountered by Spanish explorers; the name Apache has Spanish origins, from Apachu de Nabajo (Navajo), and the name has remained since the early 1600s; today, it is how Apaches refer to themselves.  There are several Apache bands, however, including Chiricahua, Jicarilla, Lipan, and Mescalero.

[2] Nelson Appleton Miles (1839-1925) served in the American Civil War, the Indian Wars, and the Spanish-American War.  He was the last Commanding General of the United States Army before that office was abolished and replaced by US Army Chief of Staff in 1903.

[3] A sandy-braided stream that runs 193 miles from the Llano Estacado southeastward across the Texas Panhandle into western Oklahoma.

[4] A disparaging term applied to white men by Indians.  It denoted a white man who was married to an Indian woman within an Indian camp.

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11 Responses to Billy Dixon

  1. Kid says:

    Heck of a life for these people.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. bunkerville says:

    Mustang… I’ll agree with you as well on your movie picks. Unless one has been out West and have seen what your describe, one can’t appreciate what the early settlers went through.The topography is over whelming. Distances not conceivable unless one has been there,

    Liked by 2 people

    • Mustang says:

      I am re-reading Fahrenback’s “Lone Star” … and at the beginning of the book he speaks of the American west in a way that I’ve not previously come across. It is a wondrous description, of course, and one that exactly supports your statement. I may have to incorporate a bit of this into a future post, but you are right to observe that unless you’ve been there, you really have no idea how vast, how untamed, how marvelous the western USA really is.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. Pablo says:

    I hope one day to visit his grave and marker and give him my best hand salute.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. bydesign001 says:

    Magnificent essay, Mustang. These guys were as tough as they were strong. Among today’s young men, pumping iron and the like, I can’t imagine how many could hold a candle to these young patriots. My suspicions is not many. God bless them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      Thank you, Puma. I am keenly interested in the history of westward movement, which involved so many challenges for people who, despite their ill-preparedness in dealing with them, survived the tragedies and flourished. We can certainly say that the early colonists had their share of challenges too … but there is something unique about the events confronting our ancestors on the western frontier. Know that I appreciate your readership and that I look forward to reading your future comments. In upcoming posts, I will tell the story of those who participated in the Texas Revolution, and I have a few in the queue about our frontier women. We mustn’t forget the ladies.

      Be well …

      Like

  5. Andy says:

    A remarkable firefight. I’m left with the feeling that a reprimand for Major Price was insufficient punishment for his callus behavior. As for revoking the medals previously awarded, that was clearly an act of ignorance and indifference. Scouts, in those days, were every bit as much a part of the unit to which they were attached as any colonel or private. They endured the same dangers, difficulties, and deprivation as any other man in the outfit.

    A great story. We’ll recounted.

    Like

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