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1874-5 Red River War

"The only good Indian I ever saw was dead"
General Phillip Sheridan

A Kiowa ledger drawing possibly depicting the Buffalo Wallow battle in 1874

A Kiowa ledger drawing possibly depicting the Buffalo Wallow battle in 1874,

THE RED RIVER WAR (The Buffalo War) 1874-5

The Medicine Lodge Creek Treaty supposedly committed the US government to respecting a southern Cheyenne- Arapaho reservation between the Arkansas River and the Cimarron River. The treaty was signed in 1867 four years before the discovery of a new way of tanning buffalo hides led to the buffalo becoming a valuable commodity. Or rather the buffalo hide becoming valuable. Hunters poured into the central plains in search of a fortune, and the development of the Sharps Big Fifty buffalo rifle enabled them to kill their prey in vast numbers, leaving the carcasses to rot where the animals had been shot.

All this must have been an incomprehensible nightmare to the native Americans who inhabited the area. So clinically deadly were the hunters, using the new technique, that they quickly eliminated all the buffalo north of the Arkansas. Until 1872 the hunters did not dare to go further south than the Arkansas, but their greed got the better of them and by the following year they were at the Cimarron. In other words the buffalo had been wiped out in the whole area designated as the southern Cheyenne-Arapaho reservation only five years earlier. Although it was not their official policy the army was content to sit back and watch this happen. In the words of General Philip Sheridan: “It is a well known fact that an army losing its base of supplies is placed at a great disadvantage.” Wiping out their food supply tied in very well with the tactics of attacking winter villages containing whole families of native Americans including women and children. The furore created by Chivington’s attack at Sand Creek and his subsequent ignominy taught the generals to be discreet in their aggression. General Sherman was committed to “exterminating” (an uncompromising and pejorative word suited to rodents or insects) the ‘Indians’ and dismissed the attempts to solve the problem peacefully as “the same old senseless twaddle”.

Hide Hunters on the Move

Nevertheless the hunters were nervous of going further south than the Cimarron until they approached Colonel Dodge at Fort Dodge who reassured them that the army would continue to stand back and watch events unfold rather than taking an active part in them. So it was that in spring 1874 a group of adventurers including “hide men” Billy Dixon and Bat Masterson, storekeeper AC Myers, a blacksmith called Tom O’Keefe, and a saloon keeper Jim Hanrahan, left Dodge for the high plains in the Texas Panhandle. They journeyed about 150 miles until they reached the Canadian River, and set up a base about one mile from ruins of the old trading post at Adobe Walls which, incidentally, had been the scene of a battle in November 1864. Charlie Rath, another storekeeper followed with William Olds and his wife, who set up a “restaurant”. Buildings were quickly constructed from sod turves. The idea was to create a safe haven for hunters, and a place where their supplies could be replenished and their hides stored prior to being transported back to the railhead at Dodge.

Already alarmed by the loss of the buffalo due to the advancement of the hunters,the Cheyenne in January 1874, had been forced to draw upon reservation “rations” promised under the Medicine Lodge Creek Treaty. They found these to be insufficient and of very poor quality. The agent for Cheyenne and Arapaho Agency at Darlington, John D. Miles, had succeeded Brinton Darlington after his death in 1872. Miles was overseen from offices in Lawrence, Kansas by Superintendent Enoch Hoag.

“On March 21 1874 Miles warned Hoag, ‘We will soon be out of rations and thou can then judge our situation’. (1)

At the Fort Sill Agency the situation was no better. Heavy rains delayed shipments and the agent, J M Haworth cut the rations by half which forced the Kiowa and Comanche to kill their ponies for meat.

Indian Territory attracted lawless lowlife who saw reservation ‘Indians’ as an easy target and stealing their property as the way to make a quick buck with minimal risk of being caught. The constant theft of native American ponies was not investigated, because there was no one to do it. Then when two deputy Marshals were appointed in January 1874 as a result of pressure from Superintendent Hoag they were completely ineffective. Other grievances such as illegal exploitation by whisky traders on their land, and the appearance of parties of surveyors for unspecified reasons contributed to the native Americans’ – southern Cheyenne, Arapaho, Comanche, Kiowa and Kiowa-Apache – growing sense of outrage.

“The high plains of Texas , like those of Colorado-Kansas became a bison boneyard…..In the spring of 1874, startled scouts, ranging out to locate the herds for hunting, rode past miles of rotting carcases and whitening bones.” (2)

By June even those Cheyenne leaders who advocated peace had had enough. Receiving no help from the authorities the desperate native Americans decided to take matters into their own hands. Early in that month a group of hide men led by Joe Plummer were attacked and two men, Dave Dudley and John Wallace killed and butchered at Red Deer Creek. Later two skirmishes with the sixth cavalry of the US Army took place at Battle Creek, Indian Territory.

Adobe Walls

The most famous of the engagements and the most poignant in that it underlined the helplessness of the native Americans in resisting a powerful, disdainful adversary, took place at Adobe Walls. Forty years later, in 1914, one of the twenty nine inhabitants of Adobe Walls, Billy Dixon, published an account of what happened, perhaps thereby giving the event more prominence than it warrants. Certainly the battle is one to excite the imagination, and some of the detail is fascinating. (3)

The Comanche, probably the most bellicose of the peoples of the southern plains were inspired by a mystic called Isa Tai which means Coyote Shit. Most books refer to this as his name before the Red River War, but I have often wondered whether this name was given to him retrospectively once the outcome of the war was known.

“He was less a symbol of hope than of extreme social decay and despair.” (4)

Isa Tai claimed special powers to resist the ‘white man’s bullets’. He called for the first ever Sun Dance to be held, for it was not part of Comanche culture. A runner was sent carrying a pipe of war to the other four peoples: southern Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa and Kiowa-Apache. They agreed that the slaughter of the buffalo must be halted. They decided to attack Adobe Walls.

On 27 June, “about two o’clock, the two men sleeping in Hanrahan’s saloon were awakened by a report like a rifle shot. They jumped up in their shirt tails and looked out, although it seemed to be a cracking in the long cottonwood ridgepole that held up the dirt roof. Probably the entire top would be down on them next, so they stirred out some of the others to help make repairs……By the time it was reinforced the sky was lightened in the east. Most of the hunters crawled back to bed, but Hanrahan suggested to Billy Dixon they might as well stay up and get an early start for the buffalo ranges”(5)

So it was that when 700 warriors charged Adobe Walls early on June 27 1874. Hanrahan and Dixon could raise the alarm. Billy Ogg, who had been sent for the horses grazing a few hundred yards away on the creek, had a narrow escape, just managing to reach the safety of Hanrahan’s Saloon, where eight others were holed up. Eleven men were sheltering in Myer’s store, and seven, with Mrs Olds were at Charlie Rath’s. Ike and Shorty Shadler had spent the night in their wagon outside, and for the first part of the fighting they remained there, undiscovered by the attackers. However, when Mihesuah, a Comanche, hesitantly lifted the tarpaulin covering it, he was seriously wounded by a blast from one of the brothers’ guns. Despite the heroics of their big black Labrador the isolated hidemen were killed and scalped. The dog’s brave defence of its masters earned the respect of the assailants such that they took a token ‘scalp’ from its side,

“On one of the very first charges Quanah, in the lead and flanked by two other warriors, raced straight for one of the doors, whirled his pony around at the last second, and backed into the door, trying to break it down. Fortunately for the hunters the only trained carpenter at the Walls, a Swede named Andy Johnson, had spent his spare time fitting all the doors with reinforcing crossplanks, and the door held firm.” (6)

The defenders suffered only two further casualties making a total of four. In one of the charges a young inexperienced freighter named Billy Tyler, a friend of Bat Masterson, was shot through the lung in Myers’ store. Then, after the fighting had actually ceased, from a vantage point on the roof, William Olds spotted a group of native Americans in the distance. In his hurried excitement to share his observation he caught his gun as he descended the ladder and the resulting discharge went through his head.

A few days earlier Billy Dixon had attempted a “long shot” with his Sharps Big Fifty buffalo gun which was to become renowned across the western frontier. When a group of about twenty native Americans viewed the sod buildings from a considerable distance, Billy was challenged to exhibit his famed prowess with the rifle. The boom of the weapon was heard, a delay ensued as the bullet echoed its way towards them. Amazingly one of them, To-hah-cah, was unseated from his pony, to the great amusement of Dixon’s friends. The distance was later measured precisely at 1,538 yards.

Although there must have been many wounded, only nine native Americans were killed, three Comanche and six Cheyenne.

Sheridan’s Strategy

For the next few months the warriors terrorized settlers in the southern plains. Travellers, stage coach stations, ranches and groups of hidemen were attacked. An atmosphere of great fear prevailed which provoked an outcry from Texans that the perpetrators should be punished. Not many Kiowa had taken part in the attack on Adobe Walls as is shown in the fatalities. Kicking Bird convinced them to return to the reservation. However about fifty Kiowa warriors under Lone Wolf stayed out, and in a fight with Texas Rangers in Lost Valley, Young County, Texas on July 11 they killed two of the rangers and forced the others to withdraw under cover of darkness. By July 25 General Philip Sheridan, in consultation with General Sherman, had produced a simple strategy. He would send word to the ‘Indians’ that they were to come in to the agencies on the reservations. Comanche and Kiowa were to go to Fort Sill, Cheyenne and Arapaho to Fort Reno. Those who did not come in would be deemed to be “hostiles” and would be pursued and driven in or killed. He planned to catch them between five columns of troops, and force them back into their traditional refuges in the canyons of the Texas Panhandle. The aggressive pursuit to their homelands was not an original strategy but had been developed successfully by Texas Rangers like Jack Hays in the 1840s.

Total War

A few native Americans reported in, but not many. Colonel Nelson A. Miles moved southward from Fort Dodge; Major William R. Price marched eastward across the Panhandle from Fort Union. Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie came northward from Fort Concho; Lieutenant Colonel John W. Davidson marched westward from Fort Sill; and Lieutenant Colonel George P. Buell moved northwest from Fort Griffin. The stategy was to pursue and harass the native Americans into submission.

On August 14, 1874 Colonel Nelson Miles set out from Fort Dodge, Kansas with two battalions of 6th Cavalry, one battalion of four companies of the 5th Infantry; a detachment of artillery including one Parrott Gun and two Gatling Guns, one company of twenty-five Delaware scouts and twenty-five newly hired civilian scouts and guides, commanded by Lieutenant Frank Baldwin. Major James Biddle and Major Charles E. Compton were the battalion commanders for the 6th Cavalry. On August 27 Miles came across a force of Cheyenne warriors near the Red River and a running battle ensued over the next four days which ended when the Cheyenne withdrew. However Miles had outrun his supply train, thirty six wagons commanded by Capt. Wyllys Lyman, which were intercepted on September 10 by Kiowa warriors who laid siege to the wagon train until they tired of it and pulled out. A scout called William Schmalsle went for help, but by the time he returned on September 14 the warriors had gone.

Colonel Miles sent scouting parties back along his trail to try to locate his supply train. One of these parties, consisting of Billy Dixon, Camp Supply interpreter Amos Chapman, and four soldiers, was pinned down in a ‘buffalo wallow’ on the morning of September 12 by the same Kiowa warriors who had attacked the wagon train. One of the six was killed and all except Dixon were wounded.

Another of the five columns came east from Fort Union, New Mexico under Maj. William Redwood Price. Price, with one battalion composed of 250 horsemen and two mounted Howitzers of the 8th Cavalry, came across the wagon train on the afternoon of September 12. Price escorted them south, but refused to help the scouts in the buffalo wallow. This led Miles to reprimand him and take command of Price's troops.

A third column led by Colonel Ranald Mackenzie came from Fort Concho, Texas with two battalions of eight companies of the 4th Cavalry, five companies of the Tenth and Eleventh Infantry, and Seminole, Lipan Apache, and Tonkawa scouts. These included a former gunrunner named Johnson, a mixed race Mexican - Lipan Apache, who, from his illicit activities, knew the area like the back of his hand. On September 26 a skirmish took place in Tule Canyon. Two days later came the decisive engagement of the campaign. The scouts located a large force of Kiowas under Maman-ti (Owl Prophet), Comanches under a chief named O-ha-ma-tai (Red Warbonnet), and Cheyennes under Iron Shirt, who had taken refuge with their families on the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River where Cita Blana Canyon cut into the Palo Duro Canyon. Mackenzie led his forces 1000 feet deep into the canyon down an old trail so steep that the soldiers had to lead their horses in single file. The attack was daring, dangerous, but successful. As usual the first thought of the native Americans was to help their families escape, which they did. Although only a two or three warriors were killed, this left their possessions, including their homes and stock in the possession of the soldiers. Mackenzie made no effort to pursue the Kiowa, Comanche and Cheyenne, but turned his attention to the captured animals and empty villages. Having selected the best of the horses from the herd, over one thousand were killed, and the villages burned, actions which, with winter fast approaching, left all but the most determined individuals little choice but to seek shelter at the reservations.

Many skirmishes were fought throughout the autumn and winter of 1874-75, and the troops were joined by two further columns from Fort Sill, Indian Territory, commanded by Lt. Col. John W. Davidson, with one battalion of four companies of l0th Cavalry.and from Forts Griffin and Richardson, Texas, commanded by Lt. Col. George P. Buell, with two battalions of eight companies of the 11th Infantry.

They came at the native Americans from all directions, keeping them on the move, wearing them down, giving them no rest. The troops burned and destroyed possessions they left behind, including their tepees and winter food stores, as they hastily withdrew their families to safety. On November 8, 1874, detachments from Miles’ and Davidson’s commands attacked separate Cheyenne camps. From Miles’ column Lieutenant Baldwin led an attack which resulted in the recapture of two girls who had been abducted during a celebrated attack on a settlement.

“Lt. Baldwin with an infantry and a cavalry company supported by a field howitzer drove Grey Beard’s village out of the breaks north of McClellan Creek The infantry stormed through the Indian camp, riding in wagons and firing over the backs of the mules. Once the camp was taken, the cavalry continued in pursuit of the Cheyennes for twelve miles. Again the Cheyennes eluded capture, but they lost much of the camp equipment and two of the younger German sisters, Adelaide, aged five, and Julia, aged seven.” (7)

Further west in the Red River hills a detachment of Lieutenant Colonel Davidson’s column located and destroyed a Cheyenne village of fifty lodges, 150 cavalry troops pursued the inhabitants in a running battle lasting two to three days, long enough for the Cheyenne to scatter. Finally the warriors abandoned their pack animals and escaped.

Gradually, faced with this constant harassment, those still roaming free, despite all, came into Forts Sill and Reno in 1875, where they were humiliated.

The Final Humiliation

“By the early months of 1875 the Indians were exhausted, starving, sick. One by one the bands of Cheyenne, Arapaho , Comanche and Kiowa came in to Fort Sill and Fort Reno to surrender. This time there were no presents, no peace councils, no treaties. Guns, bows and arrows, hatchets, knives, and clubs were collected, put in a great pile and burned”, (8). Ponies and mules – over 5,000 worth $250,000– were confiscated and sold for $22,000 which was eventually handed over to the former owners. Leaders, for example Lone Wolf, White Horse, Woman’s Heart and Big Tree, were locked up. The Red River War was over. Quanah would finally surrender at Fort Sill with the remaining Quahadi Comanche on June 2 1875. For another three years the buffalo hunters continued their slaughter unabated, until there was nothing left to slaughter.

With virtually all the southern peoples of the plains in the reservations the next part of Sheridan’s plan was put into operation. Leaders and those guilty of attacks were to be ‘selected’ and exiled far to the east in Florida. The manner of this would have been farcical had it not been so tragic. On 6 April 1875 at Darlington the selection was conducted with the help of the elder two German girls. However, the task of identifying specific individuals was far more difficult than had been anticipated. By the end of the day’s tortuous proceedings only fifteen Cheyenne had been identified. Particularly upsetting is the case of the one woman picked out by the children. Mo-chi (Buffalo Calf) was identified as having wielded a hatchet in the murder of other family members. This she almost certainly had done. Mo-chi was the only survivor of her family in the outrageous Sand Creek massacre, a disgusting attack in November 1864 on a peaceful defenceless Cheyenne village led by Black Kettle. Following this atrocity she had married Medicine Water, a Cheyenne chief, and rode as a warrior by his side. Now, she was one of the fifteen chosen. Lieutenant Colonel Thomas H Neill was 18 short of the prearranged quota of 33, a problem he solved by arbitrarily choosing a further 18 people for no other reason than they were there. The final group of 72 assembled for exile in prison in Fort Marion, Miami on April 28 1875 included 33 Cheyenne, 2 Arapaho, 27 Kiowa, 9 Comanche and 1 Caddo.

At first by army wagon and then by rail, the shackled prisoners were transported under the direction of Captain R.H.Pratt. In towns on the way hundreds of people turned out to see them, screaming abuse and jeering at the helpless warriors. Sat in his leg irons was Grey Beard. He had tried to commit suicide while he was locked up at Fort Leavenworth. Captain Pratt walked through the train with his six year old daughter. He stopped to talk through an interpreter, as he often did on the journey.

“Grey Beard told Pratt that he had only one child, a little girl about the same age as Pratt’s daughter. He asked Pratt how he would like to have chains on his legs and to be taken far away from his wife, his daughter and his home. Gray Beard’s voice trembled as he spoke.

Years later, in his memoir, Pratt wrote, ‘It was a difficult question.’ ” (9).

Late at night on 20 May, a soldier guard awoke Pratt to tell him that one of the prisoners had jumped out of the window. The train had slowed to a crawl. Grey Beard was missing. A long search was fruitless. The engineer said they would have to leave or risk not having enough water to reach the next tank. Pratt knew that Grey Beard could not get far with shackles. He detailed a few soldiers to continue the search. The next train would be telegraphed to pick them up. They were told not to shoot the escaped chief.

Just as the train moved off Pratt heard a shot. He pulled the emergency cord. Behind the train lay Grey Beard, dying. As soon as the train had started off he had made a shackled run for it. Not heeding a soldier’s warning he had been shot in the chest.

As he was dying Grey Beard asked for his friend, Minimic. He whispered to him that he had lost the will to live. He asked him to say goodbye to his wife and daughter.


1. Donald Berthrong,The Southern Cheyennes, page 38
2. T R Fehrenbach, Comanches, page 525
3. This is the Second Battle of Adobe Walls 1874, not to be confused with the First Battle of Adobe Walls 1864 between US troops led by Colonel Christopher (Kit) Carson and Comanche, Kiowa and Kiowa Apache led by Little Mountain (Dohasan), Stumbling Bear (Sa-tim-gear) and White Bear (Set-Tainte)
4. T R Fehrenbach, Comanches, page 533
5. Mari Sandoz, The Buffalo Hunters, page 193
6. James Haley, The Buffalo War 1874, page 72
7. Donald Berthrong,The Southern Cheyennes, page 395
8. Brent Ashabranner, A Strange and Distant Shore, page 10
9. Brent Ashabranner, A Strange and Distant Shore, page 16

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© Chris Smallbone March 2006