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The Red River War, 1874

Sheridan's successful winter campaign of 1868—69 failed to produce lasting peace. Confined to reservations at Fort Sill, Darlington, and Anadarko, in present Oklahoma, the Indians grew increasingly defiant as the years passed. More and more they indulged a favorite pastime of raiding settlements on the northern frontier of Texas.

In the summer of 1874, a Kiowa and Comanche war party besieged some buffalo hunters in the same Adobe Walls where Kit Carson fought the Kiowas in 1864, but the high-powered rifles of the hunters drove off the attackers. A group of Kiowas conducted a vicious raid into Texas and clashed with a detachment of Texas Rangers. Kiowas also attacked the agency at Anadarko. Murders multiplied in the vicinity of Fort Sill. General Sheridan finally won permission to separate the good Indians from the bad and to launch a full-scale offensive against the latter.

The hostiles Kiowas and Comanches joined by a few Cheyennes and Arapahoes—took refuge in the sterile, forbidding reaches of western Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle. On the vast table of the Staked Plains and in the surrounding maze of arroyos, canyons, and buttes, the Indians had usually been safe from soldiers. But Sheridan, repeating his strategy of 1868, put columns into the field to converge on this region from five directions. The commanders had orders to keep the Indians always on the move, allowing them no time to rest or hunt for game. As Kit Carson had shown in the Navajo campaign, war of this kind so wore out the Indians that their surrender was but a matter of time.

One of the five columns came from New Mexico. Three troops of the 8th Cavalry, Maj. William E. Price commanding, left Fort Union on August 20, 1874. At Fort Bascom, Price picked up an other troop of the 8th Cavalry. With about 225 men, including 5 Navajo trailers, 2 howitzers, and a long wagon train, he pushed down the Canadian River.

Drouth had parched the land and dried up the waterholes. Soldiers and horses alike suffered intensely from heat and thirst. Then on September 7 the weather suddenly changed, and for several days torrents of cold rain drenched the column. Every arroyo ran full to the brim, and horses and wagons mired in the sodden prairie.

Besides the Fort Union column, a large force of infantry and cavalry under Col. Nelson A. Miles was operating in the region, and Col. Ranald S. Mackenzie with the 4th Cavalry was approaching from the southeast. Major Price cut loose from his supply train and scoured the valleys of the Canadian and Washita Rivers. On September 12 he discovered a band of hostiles moving across his front. Some 150 warriors drew up in line on a ridge to cover the flight of the women and children. The cavalry charged, and the Indians pulled back to another position. Again Price charged, and again the Indians retreated. In this manner the two sides skirmished for 3 hours over a distance of 6 or 7 miles before the warriors, having given their families a chance to escape, scattered in all directions. Price lost several horses but no men and estimated that he killed about eight of the enemy.

drawing by Remington
"A Typical Cavalry Sergeant of the 1870's and 1880's," by Frederic Remington.
Century Magazine, July 1891.

The next day, as Price's command paused for lunch, a lone white man made his way on foot into the lines. He was the well-known scout, Billy Dixon. He told how he and scout Amos Chapman, accompanied by four soldiers, had been carrying dispatches for Colonel Miles. Surrounded by Comanches on the morning of the 12th, they had sought cover in a buffalo wallow full of water. All day and night they held out, until the approach of Price's cavalry frightened off the Indians. The rest of the party, one dead and three badly wounded, still lay in the muddy water. Price immediately sent help. In the history of the Indian wars, the Buffalo Wallow Fight has earned almost legendary fame.

During the afternoon of the 13th, Price and his men heard faint sounds of firing. Pickets went out to investigate and saw men on a distant ridge. They were scouts from the wagon train of Capt. Wyllys Lyman, whose 36 wagons, bearing supplies for Miles, had been under siege for 5 days by swarms of Kiowas and Comanches. The approach of Price's column had caused them to withdraw, but both Lyman's scouts and Price's pickets took each other for Indians and beat a hasty retreat. Price continued on his way, and Lyman had to wait another day for relief.

Their country now swarming with soldiers, the hostiles had to keep always on the move and guard constantly against surprise. Some bands grew heartily sick of such a life, and Woman's Heart, Saranra, and Big Tree led their people east to surrender. Others, under Lone Wolf and Mamanti, made their way to Palo Duro Canyon, a great gash in the caprock of the Staked Plains. Even here they were not safe. Colonel Mackenzie's troopers found them and at dawn on September 27 charged into the sleeping camp. The Indians managed to flee with almost no casualties, but Mackenzie destroyed the tepees and their contents. He also slaughtered 1,400 captured ponies, a shattering blow to the Indians.

The Battle of Palo Duro Canyon utterly demoralized the hostiles. They scattered over the plains in small groups, many of which headed east to give themselves up. Other columns, under Lt. Col. John W. Davidson and Lt. Col. George P. Buell, joined Miles, Price, and Mackenzie. Mopping-up operations continued for another 3 months. By the end of the year the Red River War was over.

General Sheridan's strategy had worked. Between mid-August and late December 1874, the troops fought 25 separate skirmishes or engagements (in 4 of which the Fort Union column participated). In terms of bloodshed, none was decisive; in fact, the whole campaign produced remarkably few casualties. But the Army had hounded the Indians so remorselessly that the detested reservation grew increasingly preferable to the terrible insecurity of fugitive life. Never again did the tribes of the southern Plains make war on the white man.


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