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Pale Horse Revelations #60 - The Red River War

Hello readers and welcome back to Pale Horse Revelations. where we explore significant people, places, and events in Old West history. While I make no promises, don't be surprised if some of these places, people, or events find their way into future Pale Rider adventures.

In this week's edition, we will continue with our focus on Native American history by exploring the Red River War. This is the name given to a military campaign launched by the United States Army in 1874. Its sole purpose was to displace the Comanche, Kiowa, Southern Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes from the Southern Plains and forcibly relocate them to reservations in Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma). Its conclusion brought an end to the free-roaming Native American populations on the southern Great Plains.

Before we can delve into the details of the Red River War, we must first examine the events that led up to it. Before the arrival of white settlers, the various tribes of the Southern Plains had evolved into a nomadic pattern of existence. Central to their way of life were the bison herds that roamed freely across the Great Plains at the time. The various tribes all relied on the bison for food, fuel, and construction materials.

In the 1830s significant numbers of settlers began arriving and establishing permanent settlements in the lands traditionally belonging to these tribes. This led to a recurring pattern of attacks, raids, and counterraids. At this early stage the U.S. Army was rarely involved in these conflicts due to manpower limitations. When the Civil War broke out, the U.S. Army withdrew from the area completely and the Confederate States lacked the manpower to fight the Union and the Native Americans. As a result, the number of Native American raids saw a dramatic increase.

As soon as the war ended, however, the U.S. Army began to reassert its power. In 1867 the Medicine Lodge Treaty was signed. The treaty called for the creation of two reservations in Indian Territory, one for the Comanche and Kiowa and one for the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho. In accordance with the treaty the U.S. government would provide the tribes with housing, food and supplies, and agricultural training. In exchange, the tribes would cease their raids on settlements.

While dozens of chiefs endorsed the treaty and some tribal members voluntarily moved to the reservations, the treaty was never ratified. In fact, several of the groups of Native Americans on the Plains did not even attend the negotiations. In response, the U.S. Army began hunting bison in an effort to sabotage the primary food source of the Plains tribes. In 1870 a new technique for tanning bison hides became commercially available, resulting in large scale commercial hunting of the bison. Within eight years the bison, once numbering in the tens of millions, would be on the verge of extinction.

This was a true disaster for the tribes on the Great Plains. As mentioned previously, the bison were central to the tribes' way of life. The loss of the bison herds threatened to bring an end to that way of life. The impact was felt equally by those Native Americans that remained on the Plains and those on the reservations.

Two things occurred in the winter of 1873 that brought the tribes closer to war. First, was the rise of a new spiritual leader among the Quahadi Band of Comanches. This new leader, named Isa-tai, claimed to have the power to render himself and others invulnerable to their enemies. Convinced that they would be immune to their enemies' bullets large numbers of warriors rallied to his side for large raids. This was compounded by a shift within the political power structure of the Kiowa. The war faction, led by Lone Wolf "the Elder", was suddenly thrust into a position of greater influence. War seemed inevitable.

The first engagement of the Red River War occurred on June 27, 1874. Isa-tai and the Comanche chief Quanah Parker, with a force of 250 warriors, attacked a small outpost of buffalo hunters called Adobe Walls in the Texas Panhandle. At the time of the attack the outpost, which consisted of only a few buildings, was occupied by twenty-eight men and one woman. Although a few men were killed in the opening moments of the battle, the majority were able to barricade themselves indoors. Using their large caliber buffalo guns, the hunters were able to fire on the incoming warriors from a much greater range than the Native Americans had anticipated. As a result, the attack was a resounding failure.

A second engagement occurred a short time later when Kiowa warriors led by Lone Wolf attacked a patrol of Texas Rangers in July. Dubbed the Lost Valley fight, this engagement resulted in light causalities on both sides. It did, however, serve to raise tensions along the frontier and push the Army into an aggressive response. In the aftermath of these two engagements the Army was authorized to subdue the southern Plains tribes using whatever force was deemed necessary.

General Phillip Sheridan sent five army columns to converge on the Texas Panhandle, specifically the area around the upper tributaries of the Red River. The Tenth Cavalry came due west from Fort Sill. The Eleventh Infantry marched northwest from Fort Griffin while the Fourth Cavalry launched northward from Fort Concho. The fourth column consisted of the Sixth Cavalry and Fifth Infantry. They marched south from Fort Dodge. The fifth and final column, consisting of the Eighth Cavalry, headed east from Fort Bascom in New Mexico.

The strategy was simple. Converge on the area and deny the Native Americans any safe haven. The campaign was to be one continuous offensive designed to drive the tribes back to the reservations. Facing this onslaught were roughly 1,800 Cheyene, 2,000 Comanche, and 1,000 Kiowas. Included in these numbers were men, women, children, and elderly tribe members. Combined, the three tribes had only about 1,200 warriors.

The longest battle of the Red River War began on September 9, 1874. A wagon train led by Captain Wyllys Lyman was headed to Camp Supply in Indian Territory with a full load of rations when it was attacked by a combined force of Comanche and Kiowa warriors. Lyman and his ninety-five troops formed a defensive perimeter with the wagons and dispatched a scout to Camp Supply for help. They were able to hold off the attacking force, numbering around 400, until the Sixth Cavalry arrived on September 14th. Upon their arrival the attackers fled. This engagement was latter dubbed the Battle of the Upper Washita River and the Battle of Lyman's Wagon Train.

The largest Army victory came in September at the Battle of Palo Duro Canyon. Scouts in advance of the Fourth Cavalry were ambushed by Comanche near the Staked Plains. The scouts were able to escape and relay the Comanche position back to Col. Mackenzie, who led the operation. The scouts were then able to locate a large village of Comanche, Kiowa, and Cheyenne in the Palo Duro Canyon. At dawn on the 28th Mackenzie's troops launched a surprise attack down a steep canyon wall. The Native Americans were caught completely by surprise and forced to retreat, leaving behind their horses and supplies.

While only four warriors were killed, the victory was nonetheless overwhelming. Mackenzie's forces burned over 450 lodges, destroyed countless pounds of bison meat, and captured 1,400 horses. The majority of the horses were subsequently killed to prevent the Native Americans from recapturing them.

A total of about twenty engagements occurred during the Red River War, which lasted from 1873-1875. Almost all, like the examples we've looked at, resulted in low casualties on both sides. The Army forces, consisting of professional soldiers and scouts, sought to engage the Native Americans at every opportunity. The tribes, on the other hand, were travelling with women, children, and the elderly, and sought to avoid the Army forces. When the two did encounter one another, the Native Americans usually tried to escape before they could be forced to surrender. Each escape proved costly as horses, food, and equipment often had to be left behind. The Army, with almost limitless supplies available, burned everything they captured from the Native Americans. As supplies dwindled, increasing numbers of tribe members were forced to give up and enter the reservation system.

The Red River War came to an official end in June 1875. Quanah Parker and his band of Quahadi Comanche were the last large band of southwestern Native Americans when they entered Fort Sill and surrendered. This was the final military defeat of the once powerful Southern Plains tribes. In its aftermath the Texas Panhandle was left permanently open to settlement by ranchers and farmers.

This brings us to the end of another edition of Pale Horse Revelations. I hope you found it to be both interesting and entertaining. As usual, I have tried to provide some interesting historical information while trying not to bog the casual reader down with too much detail. I encourage anyone interested in learning more to dig in and do a little research of their own.

  As a reminder, I would love to hear your suggestions for topics to focus on in future editions of Pale Horse Revelations. If there's a particular location, person, or event that you would like to know more about, please let me know. Just fill out the Contact form found on the "Contact the Author" page of this website and indicate your desired topic in the message box at the bottom of the form. I look forward to hearing from you all.

Please be sure to check back next week for the next installment of Pale Horse Revelations and thank you for your continued interest and support.

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