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The Red River War - Showdown for the West

Pre-1960s American histories often emphasized Native atrocities against white Americans, such as in Charles Shreyvogel’s In Safe Hands, while post-1960s works often reversed the emphasis. In reality, both sides killed thousands of the others’ non-combatants in a tragic, desperate centuries-long war for the continent across which the United States of America now stretches.


The epic Red River War confrontation proved to be the single most important campaign in the United States winning the American West. Following a prelude of years, even decades, it took place over many months from the summer of 1874 through April of 1875, across tens of thousands of square miles in five states and territories including present-day Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico, and with thousands of combatants. When it concluded, no doubt remained as to which civilization ruled by its might of armed power the Southern Plains and most of the Southwest.

William Tecumseh Sherman, Philip Sheridan, and campaign commander Nelson A. Miles—all renowned for their triumphal Civil War exploits—and the War Department crafted a masterful strategy to clean out the Quahadi Comanches, Southern Cheyennes, and any other Natives who remained armed and in the field. Five columns of infantry, cavalry, and artillery, totaling three thousand men, converged on western Indian Territory (in present-day Oklahoma) and the Texas Panhandle. They rode out from forts in four different states and territories: Fort Dodge, Kansas; Camp Supply and Fort Sill, Indian Territory; Fort Concho, Texas; and Fort Bascom, New Mexico.

The army and the Natives fought at least fourteen and perhaps as many as twenty battles during the Red River campaign. Well mounted, well armed, well supplied, and well taught from their many past fights with the Plains Indians, the army rumbled in on them from all sides, fighting as they came, careful to leave no path of escape. The bluecoats ground down their foe, killing or taking the Natives’ horses, capturing the tribes’ women and children, and hauling them to the reservations.

The pursuing force included the Fort Sill, Indian Territory-based 10th Cavalry and the Texas-based 9th Cavalry African-American troopers known as “Buffalo Soldiers.” Lipan Apaches apparently coined this sobriquet when they compared the appearance of the enemy black troopers’ curly, dust-coated beards and hair to the coats of Great Plains buffalo.

The newly reconstituted Texas Rangers thundered back into action as well. They ranged between army columns, fighting Indians, preventing their escape, and providing reconnaissance.


The notion that the trouble with Plains Indians was entirely due to white men was spectacularly wrongheaded. The people who cherished it, many of whom were in the U. S. Congress, the (corrupt) Office of Indian Affairs, and other positions of power, had no historical understanding of the Comanche tribe, no idea that the tribe’s very existence was based on war and had been for a long time. No one who knew anything about the century-long horror of Comanche attacks in northern Mexico or about their systematic demolition of the Apaches or the Utes or the Tonkawas could possibly have believed that the tribe was either peaceable or blameless.”

—S. C. Gwynne, Empire of the Summer Moon


Ranald Slidell MacKenzie, America’s greatest Indian fighter.


MacKenzie and Palo Duro

The climactic shootout took place in late September of 1874 in Palo Duro Canyon, near present-day Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle. There, U.S. soldiers and their Texan and Tonkawa scouts cornered the largest remaining vanguard of defiant Comanches, Southern Cheyennes, and Kiowas, who had stockpiled massive food and supplies to bivouac for the winter.

Colonel Ranald S. MacKenzie, a renowned, six-times-wounded Federal cavalry chieftain in the War Between the States and battle-hardened Southern Plains campaigner, commanded this key American column, which had pursued many of the Indians from the south. “Three Fingers Jack” MacKenzie did not arrive at Palo Duro unprepared or by chance. For years, he had intrepidly studied, pursued, and engaged the Comanches where no other American commander had—across the vast and terrifying expanses of the Llano Estacado high plains of northwest Texas, the deepest sanctuary of Comancheria.

He had learned their tactics, their routes and cycles of travel, their preferred redoubts, even their watering holes. He had winnowed down their manpower during a host of skirmishes and battles, including his stunning 1872 ambush of them at the Battle of the North Fork (of Red River) near present-day Lefors, Texas. That audacious feat included the capture of one and possible two of Quanah Parker’s wives and the virtual destruction of the Comanches’ Kotsoteka band.

Palo Duro

Palo Duro, the second largest canyon in America, near Amarillo in the Texas Panhandle. Here, in September of 1874, Colonel Ranald McKenzie and U. S. cavalry under his command routed a much larger Native force in the climactic battle of the Red River War.


One statistical comparison illustrates the impact that MacKenzie and his horse soldiers made in opening the American southwest to secure white settlement. The number of Comanches they killed in the Battle of the North Fork alone would have been equal, on a proportionate basis between the American and the tiny Comanche population, to the United States losing one-third of all its citizens who died in the four years of the War Between the States in one battle.

To draw upon the words of Comanche chronicler S. C. Gwynne, MacKenzie had largely brought about the tribe’s reckoning at Palo Duro “by daring to go where white men had not gone, by using his Indian scouts well, and then by attacking in force the moment he had intelligence of the camp. He had attacked with fury.” Gwynne also cited the restraint, especially for such a brutal war, of MacKenzie and his disciplined troopers in their humane treatment of enemy women, children, and elderly men.


The Red River War proved to be the single most climactic campaign in the United States winning the American West.


Final Showdown

MacKenzie’s organization and savvy paid historic dividends during the climactic 1874-75 campaign when his cavalrymen caught a Mexican Comanchero headed to meet, probably on gun running business, with the Indians that MacKenzie was pursuing. MacKenzie forced the outlaw to reveal the location of the Native resistance—the Palo Duro, second largest canyon in North America.

MacKenzie not only arrived at the Indian redoubt undetected after a grueling twelve-hour night ride in which he eluded Comanche scouts, he got nearly all of his six hundred-strong force, leading their horses down a single narrow buffalo trail, to the canyon floor before Comanche chief Red Warbonnet spotted them. The chief sounded the alarm, but it was too late, and an army sharpshooter killed him. MacKenzie and his troopers stormed through the miles-long camp of teepees in an electrifying charge that routed their foe, after the Indian warriors made a determined stand to shield the escape of their women and children.

After a several miles-long running fight, the Natives scrambled up the canyon walls, then spread out and surrounded the troopers from above. Eight hundred to a thousand feet high on the canyon rim, they unleashed a barrage of rifle fire down on the bluecoats. “How will we ever get out of here?” one rattled trooper cried out. “I brought you in,” MacKenzie curtly replied as bullets whistled past. “I will take you out.” He then led his men straight for the Indians in an awe-inspiring rush back up the canyon walls and drove them into open country, now on foot.

The soldiers destroyed fourteen hundred Indian ponies, took scores of non-combatants back to Native reservations in Indian Territory, and set about, with the other American columns that included the 10th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers, to track down the scattered warrior survivors. “The black smoke marked the end of Quanah’s (Parker) hopes, as the retreating Indians saw it rise from far out on the prairie,” wrote historian T. R. Fehrenbach. Relentlessly pursued by MacKenzie, Quanah led the last of them, his dauntless Quahadis, into Fort Sill the next June to surrender.

Former slave and sharecropper, U.S. Army sergeant, buffalo soldier, and Medal of Honor winner Emmanuel Stance leads his men into battle in Don Stivers’ thrilling work The Redoubtable Sergeant ( Stance and the 9th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers played important roles in the Red River War.


MacKenzie’s Further Exploits

Sheridan ordered dozens of tribal leaders shackled in irons and transported by rail to prison in faraway Florida. There they remained for three years, at which time Army Captain Richard Henry Pratt invited some of them north to the Indian school at Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Unexpected blessings flowered through this marathon of suffering and tragedy. Pratt’s humane, biblically sourced ethos led many of the former war captains to forgive their white enemies, embrace the whites’ (and blacks’) Christian faith, and return to Indian Territory to influence their people toward the same path. Some of the exiles even shouldered leadership roles in the church as pastors and missionaries to their own people, including the Cheyenne warrior Making Medicine, who became an esteemed Episcopal priest known as David Pendleton Oakerhater.

Not surprisingly, Sheridan appointed MacKenzie commander of Fort Sill (adjacent to the city of Lawton in present-day southwest Oklahoma), following the Red River War. There, the Comanches, Kiowas, and Apaches he had long fought all gained respect for his tough but fair ways as they attempted to adjust to their new, more sedentary life on their present-day southwest Oklahoma reservations.

It was MacKenzie who wisely sent peaceful Comanche emissaries to Quanah to persuade the warrior chief and his remaining Quahadis to lay down their arms and come in. After they did, Quanah himself credited MacKenzie with respecting and befriending him, providing him opportunities to rise as a leader in both the Native and white societies, and even teaching him American manners and social graces.

David Pendleton Oakerhater, Cheyenne warrior in the Red River War who later converted to Christianity, served his tribe in western Oklahoma for half a century as a beloved Episcopal minister, and was posthumously added to his denomination’s calendar of church saints. He is pictured with his wife Susie Anna Bent-Oakerhater


After the stunning 1876 massacre of George Armstrong Custer and his U.S. Seventh Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana, Sheridan sent MacKenzie and his now-elite Fourth Cavalry north to deal with the powerful and unconquered coalition of Northern Cheyennes and Lakota Sioux who had vanquished Custer and threatened American settlement across the Northern Plains. Within months, MacKenzie did what no other United States commander could. He defeated Chief Dull Knife and the Northern Cheyennes, forced Crazy Horse and the Lakota to surrender, and ended the Great Sioux War.

“You are the one I was afraid of when you came here last summer,” Dull Knife told MacKenzie after he surrendered. MacKenzie thus led the U. S. Army to victory over its most intrepid Indian opponents in the American West, on both the Northern and Southern Great Plains.

The capricious nature of historiography is well illustrated by the fact that America’s most famous Indian fighter, Custer, perished in the most breathtaking defeat the United States ever suffered in the Old West, while MacKenzie, the courageous man who, in the saddle, led the defeat of the most powerful Plains Tribes north and south, died already forgotten by the nation whose westward expansion and growth he as much as any one person made possible.

Reprinted with permission from the June 2017 edition of Saddlebag Dispatches magazine, "Where stories of the west come to be told." (


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