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The Red River Wars


The area where the Salt Creek Massacre of 1872 took place in Young County, which has been called the impetus of the Red River Wars.

Laymen argue that southern states seceded from the Union in 1860 and 1861 because the Confederacy was defending its respective states' rights, but that's not true. In reading the original secession documents, it becomes clear that southern states were galled that the Union wasn't enforcing, and in many cases allowing northern states to supersede, federal laws such as the fugitive slave acts. Most southern states actually demanded a stronger federal government that would protect their right to keep slaves.

The Texas secession document differed from others. It included the accusation that the United Sates was not protecting whites from Native Americans. President Abraham Lincoln actually agreed with this; his administration ramped up hostilities against tribes west of the Mississippi. By 1865, the war between slavers and the Union may have been partially resolved, but another war, in this case against the Plains Indians, took its place.

Historians differ on which skirmishes and battles constitute the Red River Wars. Some historians (like me) believe the war began in Young County in 1871. Others believe that it was a brief war, beginning in 1874 and ending in 1875. Whatever the Minutiae, no historian disputes the basic fact: the conclusion of the series of fights between the Plains Indians and Union and State forces forced the end of a way of life for one, and offered a new beginning for another culture.

The "Frontier"

In its 1861 secession document, the state of Texas argued that the United States was not effective in two parts: protecting the slave system from abolitionists, or defending civilians against Indian depredations: "The Federal Government, while but partially under the control of these our unnatural and sectional enemies, has for years almost entirely failed to protect the lives and property of the people of Texas against the Indian savages on our border..." (Declaration of Causes, Feb 2 1861, TSL). This "border" is often referred to as the "frontier" - an imaginary boundary where Anglo settlements collided with Comanche and Kiowa territorial claims. Texans saw it as a dangerous place, with the forts built for protection manned by an army too friendly with India policy. Texans even resented the fact that they were not allowed to settle inside Indian Territory - it was, they claimed, as if the United States liked Indians better than its white children. Not coincidentally, the same argument of "lack of protection against Indians" was raised by colonists against the British before the Revolutionary War.

Raids on settlements and homesteads were not uncommon, but the United States Army lacked urgency to build more forts. In fact, the few federal, antebellum forts that had been erected tended to act more as places where supplies could be bought, troops could be mustered to build roads and serve as guides, prostitutes and card sharps could ply their trades, and the occasional peace be fostered. Very few problems between settlers and Native Americans seemed to arise near the forts, so the government in Washington did not see the urgency to build a line of forts along a relatively peaceful frontier.

North Texans saw things a little differently. By the 1850s when more Anglo (and a handful of African) Americans began settling in the western Cross Timbers region, raids and attacks between settlers and Native Americans were on the rise. White men accused the federal Indian agent assigned to Fort Belknap, Robert S. Neighbors, of favoring Comanches and Tonkawas over white men. Neighbors, who also oversaw the Brazos Indian Reservation, believed the reports of misdeeds against the whites to be exaggerated, and he based his views on reason, too. Texans, he knew, had an almost puerile hatred against Indians. In Jack County, for example, locals published a newspaper called "The White Man" in which reports of Indian attacks were often overblown or completely made up. Some of the supposed raids might have actually been perpetrated by Anglos who wanted to spur either the extinction or removal of the Native Americans at the Brazos Indian Reservation. Sam Houston even called these perpetrators "white Indians," a nod to the derogatory use of the word "Indian."

That's not to say that depredations in Texas did not happen; they did. In the 1860s and 1870s, several raids took place in Young, Jack, Parker, Cooke, Montague, Clay, and Palo Pinto counties between Kiowas and Anglo settlers. During the raid of 1864, Kiowa and Comanche warriors descended on settlers near Fort Belknap, where they scalped a young woman, killed an enslaved boy, and kidnapped the Fitzpatrick and Johnson families. Several settlers, soldiers, and warriors were killed in rescue attempts following the ambush. Comanche Chief Asa-Havey, of a different Comanche band, brokered peace by ransoming the captives and returning them to their families (legend has it that Britt Johnson, an enslaved man, rescued both families instead).  Kidnapping was a common fate for children who were raided. Adult women, from whatever ethnicity, who were captured by some factions of the Comanches suffered horribly. They were gang raped and thereafter trafficked or killed.  This was a tactic of war that some factions in the United States army undertook against Native American women as well.

After the Civil War, the U.S. government acknowledged "Indian depredations" and the "Indian menace" under the Johnson and Grant administrations as an excuse to force Native American tribes onto reservations under the Medicine Lodge Peace Treaty (1867) so that the country could expand unhindered. In the Red River Valley, Fort Sill became the nexus for the Southern Plains Indians. Once the tribes signed the treaties - even if not all bands signed on - they were placed under government supervision, received annuities, and were forced to undergo "Americanization." The federal government sent their children to boarding schools, like the Carlisle School in Pennsylvania, to learn American ways. Since the southern Plains Indians were supposed to be wards, any Indian activity (war, ambush, horse taking, cattle stampedes, hunting) was viewed as criminal. White and black American settlers could file claims against the reservations via the Bureau of Indian Affairs to recoup their losses, with the monies were deducted from tribal annuities.

In 1871, a horrible depredation against teamsters led to major repercussions against the Southern Plains tribes at Fort Sill. William Tecumseh Sherman, the Union general who had once trained at Camp Cooper in Throckmorton County, visited Texas in 1871 to witness these so-called "depredations." A day after he traveled on the road from Fort Griffin to Fort Belknap, Kiowa, Apache, and Comanche warriors from Fort Sill ambushed a wagon train, killing six men. Sherman decided that the men responsible for the raid should stand trial for murder. Satank, Satanta, Big Tree, and Skywalker were arrested at Fort Sill and brought to trial in Jacksboro (Satank was killed in an escape attempt on his way to Jacksboro). This raid brought an end to the "Quaker Peace Policy" and set up the U.S. government for a final showdown with the Plains tribes in the Red River Wars.

The Wars (1872-1875)

The Comanches, Kiowas, Caddos and Wichitas had been fighting against the intrusion of the Americans since before the Civil War. And for a while, it looked as though they were able to stem the tide of white settlers. In Texas, Comanches and Kiowas raided settlements, often enslaving, torturing, and/or murdering their captives. During the Civil War, as Union troops abandoned the protective forts in Texas and Indian Territory, Indian raids increased, and Anglos retreated to the safer, more populated areas.

After the conclusion of the Civil War, however, America looked with hungry eyes to the West. Droves of Anglos invaded the Plains to farm, mine, and - most of all - speculate. The transcontinental railroad, completed in 1869, was ready to expand. Bankers and investors coveted the wide open lands of the Great Plains. That the Plains were inhabited by many tribes who were at the peak of their civilization, and who had an extensive warrior culture, didn't seem to faze the American expansionists in the least.

In 1867, Fort Sill opened as a large outpost in Indian Territory. Its mission was two-fold: to protect the American homesteaders and Indian tribes that had settled in the area, and to consolidate the Southern Plains Indians after the signing of the Medicine Lodge Creek Treaty. Fort Richardson in Texas had been pretty much established for the same purposes. The push of the American settlers, plus the establishment of the forts, led to an inevitable clash between the United States and the peoples of the Plains. The Comanches and Kiowas in particular had been conducting numerous raids on homesteaders since the 1850s. In 1871, however, the Warren Wagon Train Raid led by Kiowa warriors from Fort Sill managed to change federal Indian policy.

Salt Creek Prairie Massacre
Grand Commander of the Army William Tecumseh Sherman had traveled from Fort Concho through Fort Griffin and Fort Belknap to Fort Richardson to witness for himself the Indian depredations that the Texans had been fussing about. Since he hadn't encountered any native people on his journey, he believed the accounts of raiding, stealing, and scalping to be exaggerated. The day after he arrived at Fort Richardson, however, Sherman learned that on the Salt Creek Prairie next to the road he had traveled on, a group of Kiowas had hidden among the post oaks and black jacks of the Cross Timbers prairie, waiting on a party to raid. They had let Sherman's entourage pass by unmolested, but the next day they attacked a passing wagon train, killing several men in very brutal fashion (one victim was roasted to death on a wagon wheel).

When Sherman learned of his narrow escape from death and the heinous nature of the raid, he changed military policy right then and there. He abandoned the "Quaker Peace Policy" and ordered Union troops to wage war of attrition against the Plains tribes. They were to be completely defeated and forced onto  the reservations that had been created with the 1867 Medicine Lodge Creek Treaty, but where many Indians refused to be. To accomplish this total warfare, Sherman and his second-in-command, Phillip Sheridan, advocated the mass slaughter of the bison. Annhialation of their food source would compel Indians off the land; Sherman said that "it would be wise to invite all the sportsmen of England and America... for a Grand Buffalo Hunt, and make one grand sweep of them all."

The Kiowa raiding party was rounded up at Fort Sill and brought to Fort Richardson to stand trial. On the way there, Chief Satank was killed by soldiers after fighting his chains and overpowering a guard. The two remaining chiefs, Satanta and Big Tree, were sentenced to death, but the judge commuted their sentences and remanded the chiefs to the prison in Huntsville, Texas. After a serving time in Huntsville, the other chiefs went back to Fort Sill, but they did not acquiesce to Sherman's demands.

The Red River War
Most tribes, divided into family bands, didn't dream of surrendering. Bands led by Chiefs of the Comanches, Apaches, Arapahos, Cheyennes, and Kiowas confederated together to ward off the white man. They realized that the Quaker Peace Policy, a passive-aggressive approach to the reservation system that culminated in the Medicine Lodge Treaties of 1867, had been abandoned. White men continued to encroach on the Plains Indians' lands despite the treaty's promises. The reservations, with their restrictive life ways and continuous work requirements, loomed like death traps. The tribes saw it as their duty to fight.

Not all members of the tribes wanted war. Plains natives were societies of individualists who followed leaders depending on their own moral codes; no warrior was compelled to follow anyone. The Kiowas, for example, split into several factions, some following the pro-war Chiefs like Lone Wolf, while others stayed on the peace path under Chief Kicking Bird.

The first major battle of the Red River War - so called by historians afterwards since all fighting had occurred in areas surrounding the Red River - occurred in 1874 at Adobe Walls, a bison hide trading post by the Canadian River in the Texas panhandle. True to Sherman's strategy, bison hunters had descended onto the Great Plains to wage a mass assault on the Plains Indians' food source. Warrior bands of the Kiowas, Apaches, and Comanches attacked the traders, who fought back with superior weapons, killing two Indians (and one of their own in a friendly fire incident).

Several smaller battles took place after Adobe Walls, such as the "Lost Valley Fight" near Jacksboro, where two Army soldiers were killed. The last battle occurred at Palo Duro Canyon along the North Fork of the Red River in September of 1874. General Ranald S. McKenzie, troops from Fort Richardson, and a large contingent of Tonkawas, ancestral enemies of the Plains tribes, had followed the Plains tribes for weeks into the deep gorges of the canyon. Surrounding the camps from all sides, McKenzie's troops fired on the Indians from above, and a day-long shoot-out ensued. The Tonkawas took possession of the Comanche camps while the troops got hold of the tribal remuda. Like General George Custer at the Battle of the Washita in 1867, McKenzie and his men took over one thousand horses from the canyon. The U.S. army shot and killed the majority of the ponies. In 1876, a federal law prohibited Kiowas, Comanches, and Apaches (as well as Caddos and Wichitas) from setting foot on their lands south of the Red River.  Instead, their lands were deeded by quit claim to Texas Rangers who patrolled the Comanceria, and indiscriminately killed native people, during the Civil War.

By taking the bison, destroying the horses, and banning them from their own homes, the Comanches, Kiowas, Apaches, and Cheyennes lost everything. The Southern Plains tribes had been thoroughly defeated.

With nowhere to go, most of the warriors and their families returned to Fort Sill. A few bands continued to fight, but the winter was long; not wanting to face starvation again, the tribes eventurally all came to Fort Sill, where they were treated like enemy combatants. The last to surrender was Quanah Parker, Chief of the Quahadi Comanche Band in June of 1875. The warriors and their leaders were placed under arrest and sent to Fort Marion in Florida to serve out a prison term. Their health deteriorated rapidly. Missionaries and ordinary citizens from east of the Mississippi River signed petitions to convince the U.S. government to commute the men's sentences (as well as to stop the wanton slaughter of the bison).

Some, but not all, of the men returned from Fort Marion to Fort Sill. The Plains people adopted some of the Anglo's ways. Ranching became the main occupation for many men, while farming was a secondary activity that was not embraced enthusiastically as it was considered "women's work." Christian missionaries opened schools to "Americanize" the younger children, while teenagers were sent to the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania to "unlearn" their culture under the guise of "Kill the Indian, save the man."  Famous tribal leaders like Quanah Parker and Geronimo made additional money by selling autographs and charging for appearances at state fairs and wild west shows. Fort Sill, at the base of the Wichita Mountains, remains as the historic anchor of the Kiowa-Comanche-Apache Reservation, formed out of the western Chickasaw Nation in 1866.

Palo Duro Canyon

The United States' second largest canyon is breath taking in its beauty and tragic in its history. Lying just south of Amarillo, Palo Duro Canyon's colorful rock canyons are cut by forks of the Red River, as this is the birthplace of the river.

The Canyon was once home to the Comanches and the Kiowas. One can really visualize the camps they made along the bases of the mountains, carrying water from the reddish stream that meandered along the clay soil. If you listen closely, you may even hear the distant thunder of long gone bison herds. But the Plains Indians way of life was under constant attack by powerful railroads, persuasive missionaries, expansionist politicians and bankers, and desperate farmers and ranchers. To combat the influx of new peoples, the Plains Indians raided settlements for many years, often taking captives, who would be sold into slavery, adopted into the tribe, tortured to death, married off, etc. Anglo Texans demanded that the "menace" be eradicated, and Palo Duro Canyon proved the last battleground in the Red River War. In 1874, Ranald S. MacKenzie, a general based out of Fort Richardson, surrounded the Plains Indian camps on all sides. Though a shootout ensued, casualties on both sides were slight, and the Plains Indians knew they were outnumbered and out gunned. Surrender was not enough for the U.S. Calvary, however. In this war of attrition, MacKenzie and his troops took the Natives' horses, which numbered over one thousand, to a clearing a few miles south of the canyon. The troops then slaughtered the horses in a hail of bullets. MacKenzie did what other commanders had done before him - George Custer had killed all of the Cheyenne's horses after the Battle of the Washita, too. Both men knew that to kill the horse was to force the Indian off the land, for horses was the Plains Indians' only source of wealth. The Comanche, Cheyenne, Kiowa and Apache surrendered - among them Quanah Parker, Kicking Bird, White Bear, Satank, and Satanta. They were forced to live their lives on the reservations surrounding Fort Sill in Indian Territory.

Within five years after the Battle of Palo Duro Canyon, the last bison herd of the Southern Plains was killed by hide hunters near Adobe Walls. The home of the Plains Tribes ceased to exist. Instead, the canyon became home to ranchers, among them Charles Goodnight.

Goodnight is known as one of the originators of the Goodnight-Loving Trail, a cattle trail that led herds into Wyoming, and the inventor of the chuckwagon. He also occupied Palo Duro Canyon. In either 1876 or 1883 (the survey was executed in 1883), he and rancher John Adair received a 640 acre tract of Palo Duron Canyon by paying fees for "unassigned public lands" that they had minimally improved; they claimed squatter's rights. Over the years, the men continued to amass acreage to expand their cattle herds, and made a good business selling beeves to the reservations at Fort Sill. In other words, Goodnight claimed and was deeded the former homelands of the Kiowas and Comanches in order to sell to the Kiowas and Comanches cattle that he raised on their former lands.

Goodnight's wife, Mary Dyer, became an important figure in the history of the American West. A former teacher, she and her husband opened schools for children in and around Clarendon in Dooley County, founded a college, and taught cowboys how to read and write. She also saved the last Texas bison herd.

In his later life, Charles Goodnight regretted his role in the destruction of the Plains people and their landscape. Goodnight purchased a movie camera sometime in 1915 and recorded the traditions of the Kiowas and Comanches, whom he invited on his ranch for ceremonial dances and bison hunts, for posterity. He wanted to record a final bison hunt to rid his ranch of the remnant of the last bison herd, but May intervened. Her belief that the animals constituted an important historical relic saved the bison from destruction.

Over the generations, the herd grew into several hundred head that roamed the canyons of the Goodnight and Adair ranches. In the 1970s, the herd was donated to the Texas Parks & Wildlife. Today, part of the bison herd constitutes Texas's official state herd, which spends its time at Palo Duro Canyon State Park or at Caprock Canyon State Park.

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