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Consigned to reservations, with their way of life threatened, the Cheyennes and Comanches protested the only way they knew how.

Revenge obsessed Quanah. Comanche culture ordained that he seek revenge. A close friend with whom he had shared many raids into Texas had been killed by a Tonkawa Indian. Not only were the Tonkawas reputed to be cannibals, but they also served as scouts for the American soldiers at Fort Griffin, Texas. Quanah bore his pipe from one village to another—Cheyenne and Kiowa as well as Comanche—seeking recruits for a revenge expedition against the Tonkawas.

In 1874 Quanah was approaching thirty years of age and had won almost universal admiration among his people as a distinguished warrior. He was born a Nakoni Comanche to influential Chief Peta Nakona and a white mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, who had been taken captive in Texas in 1836. Set free in 1860 by Texas Rangers and restored to her family, Cynthia Ann longed to return to the Comanches. She died ten grieving years after her “liberation.”

More and more, as Quanah acquired his exceptional warrior skills, he rode with the Kwahadi Comanches, the most warlike division of his people. (So scattered and loosely affiliated were the six major bands that they cannot be collectively labeled a tribe.) His honors reflected feats in conflicts with Utes, Navajos, Texans, and Mexicans. He had even had a brush with American soldiers, although the Kwahadis ranged the Texas Panhandle distant from the westward-encroaching white people.

Unlike other Comanches, Kiowas, and Cheyennes of the southern Plains, the Kwahadis had never attended a treaty council with white officials and had never promised to settle on an Indian reservation. They roamed far to the west of the Kiowa-Comanche and Cheyenne-Arapaho reservations established under the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867. From their haunts at the heads of the Washita and Red rivers and the breaks of the South Canadian River, they continued the time-honored pattern of raiding down the Texas frontier into Mexico, returning with stock, captives, and other plunder. “Comanchero” traders from New Mexico made regular expeditions to the Kwahadi country to exchange arms, ammunition, and other manufactured goods for the fruits of those raids.

Another Comanche, Isatai, a holy man and war chief who commanded more influence than Quanah, was also plotting a revenge raid against the Tonkawas. As Quanah sought to assemble a war expedition, Isatai stunned the Indians with a revelation: Many wondrous experiences had equipped him with a range of remarkable powers, not least of which was to spew rifle cartridges from his mouth and render the bullets of white people harmless. Comanches, Kiowas, and Cheyennes flocked to his standard.

The Indian agent at the Kiowa-Comanche reservation, however, had learned of the expedition against the Tonkawas. He warned the commander of Fort Griffin, who drew his scouts within the protective confines of the fort. Isatai and Quanah would now have to choose another objective.

One lay much closer than Fort Griffin. The recent intrusion of white buffalo-hide hunters into their domain had enraged all the tribes, whether attached to an agency or not. These men shot buffalo by the thousands, stripped off the hides, and left the carcasses to rot. The Indians could not have foreseen the near extinction of the buffalo within a decade, but they were furious over white men slaughtering their buffalo on their land and leaving the meat for scavengers.

On the South Canadian River, a party of hunters had erected pole-and-mud structures near the adobe ruins of an old trading post. From this base they ranged widely in hunting excursions. Twenty-seven men and one woman occupied these temporary dwellings. They offered an even better motive for a revenge raid than the Tonkawas. Isatai and Quanah pointed the alliance of several hundred Comanche, Kiowa, and Cheyenne warriors toward the “Adobe Walls.”

Early on the morning of June 27, 1874, a magnificent line of warriors, splendidly painted and garbed, trotted their war horses toward the hunters’ camp, then broke into a galloping charge. Already their advance had been spotted, and the whites prepared a defense. While Isatai remained comfortably distant on a ridge, Quanah shone as the bravely conspicuous war leader. Not until the Indians had actually surrounded and closed on the rude habitations themselves, however, did they encounter the deadly fire of powerful hunting rifles thrust through portholes punched in the dried mud between the poles. Isatai’s medicine did not work. Even so, the warriors persisted in their efforts to break through the flimsy walls. Quanah even mounted a rooftop and sought to bash in the roof. The buffalo rifles, however, worked their deadly effect, and after about four hours the Indians called off the fight and withdrew.

The Battle of Adobe Walls has long been considered the opening shot of the 1874-75 Red River War. The Indians, however, remembered it mainly for their anger at Isatai for his assurance that bullets from the white man’s rifle would not harm them. His medicine failed, he explained, because someone had killed a skunk.

As for Quanah, years later he dismissed the fight with “No use fight adobe,” even though the pole-and-mud defenses offered no such protection as the thick adobe ruins nearby. The Kiowa calendar, the tribe’s pictorial history, omitted it altogether for the year 1874. In fact, the causes of the Red River War were more varied and complex than the decimation of the buffalo by white hide hunters or the fight at Adobe Walls.

All the Southern Plains tribes had been talking up a general war for several months before Adobe Walls. They had many grievances besides the dwindling buffalo. Those who had settled on the reservations complained of shoddy annuity issues and inadequate rations. White whiskey peddlers preyed upon the Cheyennes and Arapahoes, and white thieves stole from their horse herds. Some of the bolder warriors raided the travel routes across Kansas.

The Kiowas and Comanches also received less than promised in the Medicine Lodge Treaty, but for two years their overriding complaint was the imprisonment of the greatest Kiowa war chief and warrior, Satanta, together with Big Tree, in the Texas Penitentiary. Tall and powerfully muscular, vain, arrogant, the idol of the militant faction of the Kiowas, Satanta had made the mistake of boasting he had led a bloody raid into Texas to no less than General William Tecumseh Sherman. Convicted of murder by a Texas jury in 1871, the two had been packed off to prison. Their people angrily demanded their return.

In addition, both tribes grew disgusted with the government agent’s persistent demands that they abandon the old ways. He urged them to go to school and become good Christian farmers, and he demanded that they quit raiding into Texas. Both demands, which were contrary to Indian culture, met with stony resistance.

The agents on both reservations were deeply sincere, honest, and principled. Under President Ulysses S. Grant’s “Peace Policy,” religious groups nominated Indian agents, and the Indian Territory reservations had fallen to the Society of Friends. The staunchly pacifist Quakers could not imagine punishing their charges, and they drew support from a policy whose bedrock beliefs ordained “conquest by kindness.” The army contingent sent to protect the Darlington agency for the Cheyennes and Arapahoes and the garrison at Fort Sill next to the Kiowa-Comanche agency seethed with indignation over the ban on military action within the reservation boundaries. So did the commanders of the forts strung down the Texas frontier, whose units could not cross the reservation boundary even in hot pursuit of Indian raiders. “City of Refuge,” the commander at Fort Sill labeled the reservation.

Hoping to appease the raiders, in 1873 the Peace Policy officials pressed the governor of Texas to release Satanta and Big Tree. They returned home somewhat chastened but not deterred from further aggression. Satanta promptly threw in with the war faction. Lone Wolf held a precarious sway over these warriors, but the people never accorded him the stature of Satanta. He joined in the raids that swept Texas in the winter of 1873-74. Considering an increase in Cheyenne raids into Kansas, the Indians seemed already to have declared war. Fortunately for Agent James M. Haworth, the influential Kiowa peace chief Kicking Bird held his followers firm and even commanded the respect of Lone Wolf’s faction.

With the Peace Policy on the verge of collapsing into war, the army stood ill-prepared. The two critical reservations lay in two military departments: the Cheyenne-Arapaho reservation in the Department of the Missouri, the Kiowa-Comanche reservation in the Department of Texas. Both brigadier generals, John Pope at Fort Leavenworth and Christopher C. Augur at San Antonio, reported to Lieutenant General Philip H. Sheridan, commander of the Military Division of the Missouri, headquartered in Chicago.

Both reservations fell to officers who were mediocre or worse. At Fort Sill was Lieutenant Colonel John W. “Black Jack” Davidson, an erratic martinet who held commission in the black 10th Cavalry. At the Cheyenne-Arapaho Agency was Lieutenant Colonel Thomas H. Neill, 6th Cavalry, a quarrelsome, unreasonable officer whose sartorial elegance earned him the sobriquet of “Beau Neill” but whose fondness for the bottle occasioned frequent public spectacles.

Despite the army’s deficiencies, officers saw removing the sanctuary the warriors enjoyed on the reservations as the only solution to the mounting Indian forays beyond their confines. Only then, General Sherman argued in Washington, could the army be expected to wage an effective war. The Quakers protested loudly, but Sherman prevailed. On July 20, 1874, he telegraphed Sheridan to organize an offensive without regard to reservation boundaries.

But how to tell those Indians who had been at war for months from those who wanted no part of a war? While Sheridan plotted strategy, Neill and Davidson received orders to enroll all the “friendlies” and keep them near the agencies under surveillance. At Darlington the enrollment proceeded smoothly because only Arapahoes came to sign up. All the Cheyennes remained far to the west and in effect declared themselves the enemy.

At Fort Sill, however, the enrollment descended into chaos. Not only Kicking Bird’s peaceful Kiowa followers registered but so did many of Lone Wolf’s war faction and many Comanches known to be raiders. Red Food’s Nakoni Comanches and Lone Wolf’s Kiowas camped at Anadarko, the Wichita Indian agency thirty-seven miles north of Fort Sill. As the Wichita and confederated tribes gathered to draw rations, the infantry captain at the agency sensed trouble and sent a courier to warn Colonel Davidson at Fort Sill. With four cavalry troops Davidson hurried to the Wichita agency on August 22 and commanded the Indians to lay down their arms and surrender. That exploded into a battle that lasted two days and ended, with hardly any casualties, in a stampede of Kiowas and Comanches, peace party adherents and militants alike.

Whatever their true sentiments, the Indians themselves had drawn the line from the military point of view; those who remained near the agencies were noncombatants, while those who had hurried westward were the enemy. And of course those already out were also the enemy. Altogether, Sheridan was campaigning against about eighteen hundred Cheyennes, two thousand Comanches, and a thousand Kiowas, mounting a fighting force of some twelve hundred warriors.

General Sheridan’s strategy was simple: Launch as many columns as could be assembled to converge from different directions toward the haunts of the enemy on the upper Washita and Red rivers. Ignoring the departmental boundary, he directed Generals Pope and Augur to carry out the order. Both mobilized the expeditions, then left the commanders free to search out and attack any Indians they could find. The objective was to compel the scattered bands to surrender or to drive them back to the reservation.

Augur sent three columns into the field: From Fort Sill directly west went Colonel Davidson with six troops of the 10th Cavalry and two companies of the 11th Infantry; from Fort Griffin to the northwest came Lieutenant Colonel George P. Buell with six troops of the 9th and 10th cavalry and two companies of the 11th Infantry; and north from Fort Concho, Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie brought eight troops of his own 4th Cavalry and five companies drawn from the 10th and 11th infantry to maintain a forward supply base from which the cavalry would operate.

General Pope fielded two columns. Striking southwest from Fort Dodge, Kansas, through Camp Supply in Indian Territory, Colonel Nelson A. Miles led four companies of his own 5th Infantry and eight troops of the 8th Cavalry. A roving detachment of fifty-three Delaware Indian scouts and a few cavalrymen under Lieutenant Frank D. Baldwin also reported to Miles. Marching east from Fort Bascom, New Mexico, Major William R. Price commanded four troops of the 8th Cavalry.

Buell, Davidson, and Price skirmished a few times with Indians but mainly broke down their columns and ran low on supplies. Their principal accomplishment was to help keep the Indians stirred up and on the run. The heavy and decisive work fell to the ablest of the field commanders, Miles and Mackenzie.

During the Civil War, Miles had risen from being a Boston crockery clerk with an interest in the military to major general of volunteers, a rarity for non–West Pointers that gained him a full colonelcy in the postwar regulars. His good fortune did not suffer from his marriage to the daughter of Senator John Sherman of Ohio, which made his wife the niece of the general-in-chief of the army. Vainglorious, full of self-esteem, and relentlessly ambitious, Miles shamelessly exploited his relationship with General Sherman. The Red River War was Miles’ first Indian campaign. Twenty years later he boasted a record that stamped him as the army’s most successful Indian fighter. When he retired in 1903 as the army’s last commanding general, President Theodore Roosevelt labeled him “Brave Peacock.”

Ranald Mackenzie stood in stark contrast to Miles. A West Pointer, he had fought bravely in many Civil War battles, sustained seven wounds, and risen to brigadier general of volunteers before the age of twenty-five. In the postwar regulars, he began as colonel of black regiments, and in 1870 was named colonel of the 4th Cavalry. Slender, irrascible, and a strict disciplinarian, he was a man of few words. The two middle fingers of his right hand had been shot off during the war, and his body was wracked with pain from old injuries. Mackenzie devoted himself single-mindedly to making the 4th the best cavalry regiment in the army. He succeeded. Grant called Mackenzie “the most promising young officer in the army.” Only a sudden lapse into insanity in 1884 kept him from surpassing the Indian-fighting record of Nelson Miles.

The Indian leaders cannot be similarly characterized. None took the initiative to bring together strong chiefs or devise a counteroffensive strategy. It was not the Indian custom. Weather favored their defense—a dry, torrid August and a drenching September— by plaguing military operations and logistics. Until the weather turned cold, however, the chiefs devoted themselves mainly to keeping their villages and families out of harm’s way and fighting to defend them when cornered. The young warriors looked on the military invasion as a kind of game, an adventure, an opportunity to test their prowess and seek war honors.

With a mixed command numbering 744 men, Miles took the field first. Plodding southwest across sun-blasted plains affording only dry streams and water holes, he followed ever-broader Indian trails. On August 30 his advance guard, Baldwin’s Delaware scouts, encountered several hundred Cheyenne warriors, who attacked but were repulsed by Baldwin’s detachment. The Indians, Miles surmised from columns of smoke rising in the distance, sought to shield their villages and families in Tule Canyon. This was a rugged drainage cut through the cap rock, the escarpment that rose to the vast, treeless table of the Staked Plain beyond. It opened from the south into the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River, which in turn created the largest fissure in the cap rock, its high rocky walls sheltering the depths of Palo Duro Canyon.

Miles formed a battle line—infantry in the center and cavalry on the flanks, with Gatling guns and howitzers ready to unlimber if needed. As the advance began, Captain Adna R. Chaffee of the 8th Cavalry shouted: “Forward! If any man is killed I will make him a corporal.” Although bolstered by Kiowas and Comanches, the Indians steadily fell back, occasionally pausing on hilly ridge lines to take cover and direct fire at the troops. Each time, the artillery went into action, and the battle line surged. Each time, the Indians broke and fled. After five hours of relatively bloodless conflict, the Indians fell back across the river and rode into Tule Canyon, then climbed out of the canyon and scattered across the Staked Plain. They lost only three killed (Miles claimed more), but abandoned their villages and all their contents to destruction by the troops. Miles lost one soldier killed and one civilian wounded.

Miles could not follow up his victory. Dwindling ammunition, rations, and other supplies halted the command. Establishing camp in Tule Canyon, he ordered Captain Wyllis Lyman and a company of infantry to escort thirty-six wagons on the trail back to Camp Supply and return in time for the expedition to regain the initiative before the quarry escaped entirely. Fast-riding couriers arranged for officers at Camp Supply to dispatch another wagon train to meet Lyman and transfer its contents to his wagons.

Miles had stumbled onto the place where most of the fugitive bands of all three tribes were gradually congregating: Palo Duro Canyon. He did not, however, remain long enough to explore the long, deep gorge cutting back into the Staked Plain. Instead, he ascended the cap rock and followed the scattering Indian trails for thirty miles until on September 7, suddenly alarmed by the prospect of horse meat for rations, he turned north to look for Lyman’s wagon train.

Certain that Colonel Davidson was hot on their trail (he had not even left Fort Sill), the Kiowas and Comanches involved in the Anadarko affair of August 22-23 gathered their families and pushed rapidly to the west. Messengers from Kicking Bird overtook them and persuaded some to return to the agency, but most continued their flight. Lone Wolf knew that bands of both tribes were converging on Palo Duro Canyon, and the chiefs set this as their destination. On the upper Washita, however, Big Bow warned of too many soldiers ahead. The people wandered aimlessly for several days while the chiefs debated the issue. On September 7, Lone Wolf finally prevailed.

A further delay intervened. A young Kiowa, Tehan, had ridden on the back trail looking for strayed horses and had not returned. About eighteen years old, he had not gained full warrior status but held promise of becoming a distinguished fighter. Tehan was no ordinary Kiowa. He was tall, muscular, and white, with a shock of red hair. A Texan taken captive years earlier, he was now thoroughly Kiowa in all but blood and appearance. Search parties fanned out to look for their tribesman.

They failed to find him. He had been surprised by Lieutenant Baldwin and several soldiers from Miles’ camp on Sweetwater Creek, who were looking for Captain Lyman’s wagon train. Baldwin at once recognized him as a white captive, and Tehan wisely played along with the soldiers’ belief that they had liberated him for return to his own people.

The delays in the move to Palo Duro Canyon placed the Kiowas and Comanches squarely in position to intercept the returning Lyman supply train. Some of the scouts searching for Tehan spotted the train on the divide between the Canadian and Washita valleys. Besides thirty-six 5th Infantrymen, Lyman had twenty troopers of the 6th Cavalry and some thirty-six civilian teamsters, the last largely unarmed—easy prey, thought the scouts, for the hundreds of warriors back at the village. They sent two men back to give the alarm. Here was a chance to strike a blow at the soldiers, a chance also for the young men to win war honors. The village boiled with excitement, and the warriors painted themselves and their ponies. On the morning of September 9, the scouts watching the train decided to take up stations on hills overlooking the trail and open a long-range fire. The cavalry easily drove them from successive positions, and the train continued the march.

Early in the afternoon, however, a mile from the Washita, the main force of warriors reached the field, including some of their most celebrated leaders, among them Lone Wolf, Satanta, and Big Tree. As Lyman was corralling his wagons, about seventy warriors charged his right rear, nearly overunning a line of skirmishers. Only infantry rifles in the hands of steady soldiers held off the attack, and the Indians fell back after severely wounding a lieutenant and killing a sergeant. Two teamsters received wounds from which they later died.

During the night of September 9, both Indians and soldiers dug rifle pits and trenches—the troops at a distance from and surrounding the wagons, the Indians on the hilltops. Throughout the next two days the two sides exchanged fire. Unable to advance, Lyman’s men suffered acutely from thirst as water ran short. A buffalo wallow with a little remaining water lay nearby. At midnight a handful of soldiers and teamsters rushed from the trenches to get water. But the Indians had dug rifle pits at the wallow and easily drove back the water party. They had been alerted to this tactic by none other than Tehan, whom Lieutenant Baldwin had left at the wagon train. Tehan had continued to express gratitude for his liberation from captivity and easily slipped out to rejoin his adopted people, who accorded him a raucous welcome.

The next day, September 11, the Indians made no more charges. But the continuing siege invited individuals to display their bravery in “daring runs.” As the leading warriors argued over the dangers, a seventeen-year-old half-Mexican, Botalye, quietly prepared himself and then spurred down the slope toward the trenches. Amid a hail of bullets, he raced between a trench line and the wagons. Emerging unhit, he turned and once more sped between the two lines. A third time, amid shouted efforts to stop him, he repeated the feat. And still a fourth time he made the dash. This time the soldiers simply stood and watched, awed by such suicidal bravery and also worried about hitting their own men on the other side of the boy’s path. Back among the admiring warriors, Botalye was embraced by Satanta himself. “I couldn’t have made four runs myself,” he declared. “No one ever comes back the fourth time.” Poor Buffalo, Botalye’s band chief, then commanded silence. “Everyone listen! I’m going to give Botalye a new name,” he announced. “I name him Eadle-tau-hain, He Wouldn’t Listen.”

Such a feat exemplifies the exhilarating spirit in which the Kiowas and Comanches toyed with the trapped, dehydrated soldiers. With the women and children out of harm’s way, this was the way Plains Indians preferred to fight. It was fun, and it offered opportunities to gain coveted war honors. He Wouldn’t Listen never fought again, but he carried the honor of those four runs the rest of his life.

Even as Botalye earned his new name on September 11, the warriors had begun to drift back toward their village, alarmed by all the soldiers lacing the plains. Wary of Indians, Captain Lyman remained entrenched near the Washita. He had slipped a courier through the Indian lines, and on September 14 a relief column arrived from Camp Supply. The train moved out and later in the day finally met up with Colonel Miles. Lyman reported that the battle had cost the Indians thirteen casualties, although others counted more.

Already, however, the war had entered a new phase. On the afternoon of the twelfth, the long drought ended, and for days torrential rains swept the plains. Rivers and creeks overflowed, horses and wagons bogged down in the mud, and Indians and soldiers alike endured misery. One night as Indians sought sleep on puddled soil under a drenching downpour, they suddenly discovered themselves deluged as well with swarms of big black tarantulas fleeing their holes. The people hurried to the backs of their horses, which afforded no better repose than the soggy earth. They called these days the “Wrinkled-Hand Chase.”

Once more the chiefs debated their move to Palo Duro Canyon, and once more Lone Wolf prevailed. At this point, however, messengers arrived from Kicking Bird imploring his people to return to the agency. Some did, including even Satanta and Big Tree. Fearful of Fort Sill, they turned themselves in to Colonel Neill at the Cheyenne-Arapaho Agency. Neill promptly put them in irons and packed them off to Fort Sill, where they remained only long enough for a presidential order to return them to the Texas Penitentiary. The Quaker officials protested vehemently but futilely. (Three years later Satanta flung himself to his death from a prison balcony.)

Dodging patrols from the commands of Miles, Price, and Davidson, the Kiowas and Comanches finally reached Palo Duro Canyon. All the Kiowas were now there, together with small bands of Comanches and Cheyennes. Most of the Cheyennes and Comanches, however, had withdrawn to the south, toward the upper Brazos River. Here they sparred with Miles’ principal rival, Mackenzie—“Bad Hand” the Indians called him, in recognition of his two missing fingers. Mackenzie’s patrols skirmished with small groups of Indians and followed large trails, both at the base of the cap rock and on the plains above.

An abiding anxiety drove Colonel Miles’ mad search for his supply train. Supply shortages had prevented him from following up on the victory at Tule Canyon on August 30, and now the prospect of eating horse meat troubled him far less than the possibility that Mackenzie would eclipse him with a stunning victory. Before he could resume his campaign, his fears proved justified.

In late September, as the rains pounded soldiers and Indians alike, Colonel Mackenzie and his 4th Cavalrymen had been dueling with Cheyennes and Comanches in small-unit actions south of Palo Duro Canyon. Like Miles, Mackenzie struggled with logistical problems. Unlike Miles, his efficient quartermaster, Captain Henry W. Lawton, had stockpiled sufficient supplies. Lawton’s formidable challenge was trying to keep up with the column as his wagons mired in the deepening mud. By September 27, with a break in the rains, Mackenzie had camped in Tule Canyon. His Tonkawa and Seminole-Negro scouts had discovered the villages in upper Palo Duro Canyon. He resolved to climb out of Tule Canyon—the shortest route to the upper Palo Duro—and find a trail down to the village site. His nighttime search finally turned up the trail at dawn on September 28. The precarious single-file descent of the seven troops of cavalry alerted the Indians to their approach. Rather than fight, they stampeded. Warriors fanned out to slow the cavalry’s advance as their women and children scrambled up the rocky canyon walls. One by one, however, as each troop reached the canyon floor, it formed and charged through the village.

Palo Duro Canyon can hardly be termed a battle. A bugler was severely wounded, and three warriors were found dead on the field. Yet the encounter proved the most decisive of the Red River War. Mackenzie had seized the village and all its winter stores; he had also captured the entire horse herd of some fourteen hundred animals. That afternoon he burned the village and its contents. The next day, he allowed his scouts to choose horses from the herd, then had the rest shot. The Indians had been driven to the plains on foot, lacking shelter, and facing winter without food or any other possessions. It was a devastating blow.

The Kiowas and Comanches had been badly hurt. Except for the small band in Palo Duro Canyon, the Cheyennes had avoided any serious conflict. The principal leaders were Medicine Water and Gray Beard. Early in September, Medicine Water took a raiding party into Kansas and struck the emigrant family of John German moving toward Colorado. Father, mother, and a daughter were killed, but four young sisters were seized as captives.

After Palo Duro Canyon Colonel Buell, driving northwest from Fort Griffin, pressed the Cheyennes hard enough to gain and destroy two recently abandoned villages and capture five hundred ponies. Small groups began to slip out of the villages and turned east to surrender to Colonel Neill at their agency.

In late October Miles hoped to get west of the Cheyennes and drive them east toward Major Price’s command, posted to intercept them. Miles flushed out no Cheyennes, but a small detachment did and gained one of the most unusual successes of the war. On November 8, Lieutenant Frank Baldwin, escorting twenty-three empty supply wagons, discovered Gray Beard’s village of a hundred lodges at the head of McClellan Creek, a tributary of the North Fork of Red River. Baldwin formed his wagons in double column and mounted his company of infantry in them. With the Delaware scout company and a cavalry troop on the flanks, the unorthodox formation swept among the tepees and drove out the surprised Cheyennes. Baldwin pursued for ten or twelve miles until halted by fatigue. He returned to destroy the village and in one of the tepees discovered two of the German sisters.

Exactly as Miles had hoped, Gray Beard’s fleeing people ran into Major Price’s cavalry. They moved across Price’s front well within attacking distance. For reasons never explained, however, Price turned his horses out to graze and then left the scene. A furious Miles relieved him for dereliction of duty.

The war had ceased to be fun for the young warriors. The Wrinkled-Hand Chase was bad enough, but in November “northers” blew down to signal the arrival of winter. For the Indians, many destitute because soldiers had destroyed their villages, the freezing winds, driving rain, snow, and sleet added to the misery of dodging soldiers and agonizing over the prospect of a sudden surprise attack. The troopers suffered too, their horses breaking down and their supplies running out. One after another the columns left the field and returned to their home posts. By the end of December, only one remained in the field.

Nelson Miles determined on a final sweep to undermine the morale of the Indians even further. Leaving most of his command at a base on the Washita, on January 2, 1875, Miles led two companies of infantry and a troop of cavalry in another expedition around the head of Red River. Winter storms and subzero temperatures pounded the troops. His men did not complain, Miles wrote to his wife, adding, “It was quite amusing to hear them sing ‘Marching Through Georgia’ out on these plains.” On February 2, they returned to their Washita base. As directed by Sheridan, Miles left a large command of infantry and cavalry to establish a cantonment on the Sweetwater (later Fort Elliott), then marched the balance of his men to Camp Supply and ended the campaign.

As early as October 1874, wretchedness inflicted by the weather together with constant fear of a surprise attack had begun driving groups of all three tribes back to their agencies. The winter ordeal prompted still more to give up at Darlington and Fort Sill in February. On March 6, 1875, 820 Cheyennes, including all the principal chiefs— Gray Beard, Stone Calf, Bull Bear, Minimic, and Medicine Water—surrendered to Colonel Neill. Stone Calf turned over the other two German sisters. The Kiowas and Comanches proved more tardy. Most came to Fort Sill in April, but not until June 2 did the everelusive Kwahadi Comanches appear. Among them, characteristically, was the hero of Adobe Walls, Quanah. He would take his mother’s name, and as Quanah Parker transform himself into a prosperous reservation Indian.

Although virtually bloodless, the Red River War ended for all time warfare between the United States and the Indian tribes of the southern Plains. Two catalysts produced this outcome.

First, General Sheridan’s strategy of convergence sent enough separate commands into the field to keep the Indians constantly on the run, constantly fearful of attack, and ultimately so demoralized that the reservation seemed preferable to fugitive life on storm-swept plains crawling with soldiers.

Second, discouraging another outbreak, the government somewhat arbitrarily selected “ringleaders” and men “guilty of crime” for removal from their people. Nearly all the prominent chiefs fell into this category. On April 28, 1875, seventy-four shackled tribesmen embarked on a long journey by wagon and rail to imprisonment at Fort Marion, Florida.

Some died there. The government sent the rest to the Carlisle Indian School to make them Christian farmers. Most ultimately returned home. In the end, all became reservation Indians.


Originally published in the Autumn 2007 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here