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Massacre and a Trail of Tears on the Van Dorn Trail

Updated: Sep 10, 2023

The "Historical Map of Clay County" by the Slagle Abstract Company shows an Old Cattle Trail meeting at the Little Washita in Clay County, Texas. This point was called "Van Dorn's Crossing." Why?

The Van Dorn Trail led to a massacre and subsequently became a Trail of Tears for the Plains Indians.

In October of 1858, the Second Cavalry, led by Captain Earl Van Dorn, came to Rush Springs in today's Tillman County in the former Indian Territory from Fort Belknap in Young County, Texas to stage a surprise attack against a Comanche encampment. The U.S. army justified the attack based on reports by Tonkawa and Caddo scouts that a large band of Comanches, numbering almost 700 strong, sought to "depredate upon the border settlements" of Texas "this fall and winter."

However, just a few weeks earlier, the commander at Fort Arbuckle in Indian Territory had invited this band of Comanches to come to the fort to negotiate a peace treaty. The Comanche men, women, and children had taken this opportunity to visit, trade, and gamble with friendly allies at a nearby Wichita Village.

The attack by the U.S. troops along Rush Creek in the Wichita village was a swift and merciless massacre. The unarmed and unaware Comanche warriors staged a counter attack, and the melee devolved into hand-to-hand combat. The Tonkawas, who had been scouting for the Americans, stole three hundred of the Comanches' horses. After an hour and a half of fighting, fifty-six Comanche men and four American soldiers had been killed, with many injured on both sides (including Van Dorn). Over two hundred women and children, who fled "over the hills in a mass that looked like Moses going out of Egypt" were then imprisoned (Daily Delta (New Orleans), November 11 1858).

By the next year, Van Dorn and the U.S. army continued the offense against the Comanches, Apaches, and Kiowas, killing forty people at the Arkansas River and "twenty five men and twenty women near Pawnee Rock" in Indian Territory.

In 1858 and 1859, most of the activities by federal troops at the forts surrounding the Red River in Texas and Indian Territory centered on offensive measures to counter rumors of supposed "depredations." By June of 1859, "passengers by the overland mail [Butterfield Stage] reported about three thousand Texans encamped near Belknap for the purpose of exterminating the Caddo Reserve Indians" (Lancaster (PA) Examiner, June 15 1859) and the Times-Picayune reported that "the whole frontier [of Texas] was up in arms" against the native people. Within a matter of months, the original Texas tribes - Caddos, Wichitas, Comanches - who had been offered reservation land in north Texas in 1854, were forced out of Texas by white settlers.

In 1941, a local historian named S.W. Williams retraced Van Dorn's journey from Fort Belknap to Camp Radizminski to the Wichita Village at Rush Springs. From his observations and from other historical notes, the Slagle Abstract Company drew a "historical map" of Clay County that shows Van Dorn crossing the Wichita River at a ford, where also "Old Cattle Trails" crossed.

Van Dorn's crossing never became a road or a bridge; today, it's hardly noticeable. But Williams discovered that the crossing served one more purpose before history forgot it: in 1859, all native people in Young and Throckmorton counties (at the Brazos and Comanche Reservations) were moved out of Texas over the Van Dorn trail into "their new home to the north of the Red River."

Lots of tales on these old roads.

Van Dorn's trail of destruction through Montague, Clay, and Wichita counties (Texas) into today's Tillman County in Oklahoma - up until the 1870s, this was still the home of the Comanches (Hardin Simmons Library)
This article by S.W. Williams for the Southwest Historical Quaterly (44, 3 321-313, 1941) explains how the Van Dorn Trail in Texas became the Wichita's and Caddo's "trail of tears."
The "Van Dorn Road" or trail where the Battle of the Wichita Village took place was drawn by S.W. Williams for the Southwest Historical Quaterly (44, 3 321-313, 1941). This wasn't a battle but a massacre.
The Wichita Village is still indicated on this 1866 map of the Chickasaw Nation (LOC).

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