Campaign to Open the West

After the Civil War, views differed about what should be done about the Southern Plains Indian’s often-vicious determination to keep their hunting grounds free of white settlement. The Texas government wanted to see the Indians exterminated, while the federal government planned to move them to two reservations established in Indian Territory (present Oklahoma).

Two turbulent chapters in history came together in the 1870s to subdue and contain what the white man called the “Indian threat.” The first transition followed the completion in 1869 of the Transcontinental Railroad, which opened the east coast and European markets to commercial shipment of buffalo hides from the Great Plains. An avalanche of professional buffalo hunters swarmed onto the Southern Plains where tens of millions of buffalo grazed on the rich grassland. The second upheaval, the Red River War, began in 1874 as a campaign of the United States Army to forcibly move the Comanche, Kiowa, Southern Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes to the reservations in Indian Territory.

Bison sustained the life of the nomadic tribes who used every part of the buffalo for survival. Hides provided housing and clothing; brains soften the buffalo skin; bones could be scraped into brushes and awls; hair made excellent ropes, stuffing, and yarn; sinew served as thread and bowstrings; and dung became fuel. Every part of the animal, even the nose gristle, fetus, and hump contributed to the Indian diet.

Indians hunted with bows and spears, killing only the number of bison they needed for survival, whereas a good buffalo hunter made a stand downwind from a herd and could shoot as many as 100 in a morning and 1,000 to 2,000 in a three-month season.

The teams varied in size from one hunter and two skinners to large organizations of hunters, skinners, gun cleaners, cartridge reloaders, cooks, wranglers, and wagons for transporting equipment and supplies. After skinning a beast, which weighed up to 2500 pounds and stood

Buffalo hunters used a tripod to steady their aim.

six feet tall at its shaggy shoulders, the men ate the delicacies—hump and tongue. They hauled hides and bones to the railroad and left the carcass to rot on the prairie. This careless slaughter almost completely exterminated the buffalo

Buffalo hides waiting for shipment to the railroad.

and observing the demise of their livelihood infuriated the Indians.

Charged with harassing the agile bands of Indians until they gave up and moved to the reservations, several army columns crisscrossed the Texas Panhandle searching for the Indians as they moved entire families to various campsites. When the army units discovered a group of Indians, few casualties resulted, but the army destroyed the supplies and horses, slowly reducing the size and force of the roaming Indian population.

In retaliation for the army’s tactics of search and destroy, coupled with Indian anger over the destruction of the buffalo, in June 1874, Comanche Chief Quanah Parker and a spiritual leader named Isa-tai led 250 warriors in an attack on Adobe Walls, a small outpost of buffalo hunters in the Texas Panhandle. The hunters, using large caliber buffalo guns, held off their attackers, but the violence surprised government officials. As the warriors continued raiding along the frontier, President Grant’s administration authorized the Army to use whatever means necessary to subdue the Southern Plains Indians.

With firm directions from Washington, the Red River War began with a fury as five army columns swarmed across the Texas Panhandle from different directions. Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie’s scouts found a large village of Comanche, Kiowa, and Cheyenne hidden in their winter quarters on the floor of Palo Duro Canyon, a 6,000-foot-deep gorge stretching almost three hundred miles across the Texas Panhandle.

Palo Duro Canyon

At dawn on September 28, 1874, Mackenzie’s troops hurtled down the steep cliff wall, surprising the Indians who tried to protect their squaws and pack animals as they fled from the persistent army fire. Nightfall found four Indians dead, 450 lodges burned to the ground, and the winter supply of buffalo meat destroyed. The army rounded up 1,400 horses, shared some with their guides, and shot the remaining.

MacKenzie Raid at Palo Duro Canyon

Out of food and housing, without their horses, and facing winter, the Indians had no choice but to walk to the Fort Sill reservation.

The Red River War ended the following June when Quanah Parker and his band of Comanches—the last of the southwestern Indians––surrendered at Fort Sill. The almost complete devastation of the buffalo and the persistent military attacks successfully ended the Indian presence on the High Plains and opened settlement to white farmers and ranchers.

Story of the Buffalo Soldiers

Buffalo Soldier Memorial of El Paso, Fort Bliss. Wikipedia

Buffalo Soldier Memorial of El Paso, Fort Bliss.
Wikipedia

During the Civil War, more than 180,000 black soldiers served in segregated Union Army regiments, and many of those units achieved outstanding combat records. After the war, the U.S. Congress reorganized the peacetime army to include black enlisted men in the Ninth and the Tenth United States Cavalry. By 1869 Congress added the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth United States Infantry—all under the leadership of white officers. As these soldiers moved to posts in Texas and across the Southwest and the Great Plains, the Indians began calling them “Buffalo Soldiers.” Most accounts claim they earned Indian respect––and the moniker––for their fierce fighting ability. Others say the title came from the Indians’ regard for the black soldiers’ tightly curled hair that resembled the hair on the bison’s face. Accepting the respect of their adversaries, the Buffalo Soldiers adopted the image of the bison on their regiment crest.th

The army paid the black recruits $13 a month plus food, clothing, and shelter—more than most freedmen could earn after the Civil War. The five-year enlistment meant that they took part in most of the major Indian campaigns in Texas. Buffalo Soldiers were stationed at almost every fort on the frontier from the Rio Grande to the Panhandle—helping to build and repair the outposts. They escorted mail teams, stagecoaches, cattle herds, and survey crews. They built roads, strung miles of telegraph lines, and performed ordinary garrison duties in the isolated western outposts. They recovered thousands of head of stolen livestock and spent months on the trail of horse thieves and Indian raiders.

Thirteen enlisted men and four regiments earned the Medal of Honor by the end of the Indian Wars in the 1890s. Many went on to serve in the Spanish-American War, the Philippine Insurrection, and Pershing’s punitive expedition into Mexico against Pancho Villa.

Participated in the Spanish-American War Wikipedia

Participated in the Spanish-American War
Wikipedia

By the turn of the 19th century, the Buffalo Soldiers faced increasing racial prejudice. Resentment and anger that developed during Reconstruction in the South drove a wedge between citizens and anyone in a Federal uniform, especially a black man transformed from slave to person of authority. Buffalo Soldiers were stationed outside segregated communities and were subjected to increasing harassment by local police, beatings, and occasional sniper attacks. One example of the increasing tensions between white citizens occurred in Brownsville in 1906 when the newly arrived Twenty-fifth regiment was falsely accused of a murder. When members of the unit could not name the culprits, President Theodore Roosevelt followed recommendations to dishonorably discharge 167 men because of their “conspiracy of silence.” It was 1972 before an inquiry found them innocent, and President Nixon granted the two surviving soldiers honorable discharges––without backpay. When Congress finally passed a tax-free pension the following year, only one Buffalo Soldier survived. He received $25,000 and was honored in ceremonies in Washington D.C. and Los Angeles.

Buffalo Soldier regiments were not called to duty during WWI, however, many of the experienced personnel served in other black units. After the Ninth and Tenth cavalries were disbanded, their men served in other WWII units. The Twenty-fifth saw combat in the Pacific before being deactivated in 1949. The Twenty-fourth, the last Buffalo Soldier regiment to see combat, served in the Pacific during WWII and in the opening days of the Korean War, before being deactivated in 1951.

In 1948 President Truman issued an executive order abolishing racial discrimination in the United States Armed Forces, but it was another fifteen years before Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara issued a directive obligating military commanders to stop discrimination based on sex or race in facilities used by soldiers or their family.

Buffalo Soldier National Museum in Houston Wikipedia

Buffalo Soldier National Museum in Houston
Wikipedia

PLAINS INDIANS BOW TO WHITE SUPREMACY

After the Civil War, views differed about what should be done about the Southern Plains Indian’s often-vicious determination to keep their hunting grounds free of white settlement.  The Texas government wanted to see the Indians exterminated, while the federal government planned to move them to two reservations established in Indian Territory (present Oklahoma).

Two turbulent chapters in history came together in the 1870s to subdue and contain what the white man called the “Indian threat.”  The first transition followed the completion in 1869 of the Transcontinental Railroad, which opened the east coast and European markets to commercial shipment of buffalo hides from the Great Plains.  An avalanche of professional buffalo hunters swarmed onto the Southern Plains where tens of millions of buffalo grazed on the rich grassland.  The second upheaval, the Red River War, began in 1874 as a campaign of the United States Army to forcibly move the Comanche, Kiowa, Southern Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes to the reservations in Indian Territory.

Bison sustained the life of the nomadic tribes who used every part of the buffalo for survival.  Hides provided housing and clothing; brains soften the buffalo skin; bones could be scraped into brushes and awls; hair made excellent ropes, stuffing, and yarn; sinew served as thread and bowstrings; and dung became fuel.  Every part of the animal, even the nose gristle, fetus, and hump contributed to the Indian diet.

Indians hunted with bows and spears, killing only the number of bison they needed for survival, whereas a good buffalo hunter made a stand downwind from a herd and could shoot as many as 100 in a morning and 1,000 to 2,000 in a three-month season.

Buffalo hides waiting for shipment

The teams varied in size from one hunter and two skinners to large organizations of hunters, skinners, gun cleaners, cartridge reloaders, cooks, wranglers, and wagons for transporting equipment and supplies.  After skinning a beast, which weighed up to 2500 pounds and stood six feet tall at its shaggy shoulders, the men ate the delicacies—hump and tongue—sold what they could, and left the remaining carcass to rot on the prairie.  This careless slaughter almost completely exterminated the buffalo, and observing the demise of their livelihood infuriated the Indians.

Bison Skulls

Charged with harassing the agile bands of Indians until they gave up and moved to the reservations, several army columns crisscrossed the Texas Panhandle searching for the Indians as they moved entire families to various campsites.  When the army units discovered a group of Indians, few casualties resulted, but the army destroyed the supplies and horses, slowly reducing the size and force of the roaming Indian population.

In this climate of search and destroy by the Army, coupled with Indian anger over destruction of the buffalo, in June 1874, Comanche Chief Quanah Parker and a spiritual leader named Isa-tai led 250 warriors in an attack on Adobe Walls, a small outpost of buffalo hunters in the Texas Panhandle.  The hunters, using large caliber buffalo guns, held off their attackers, but the violence surprised government officials.  As the warriors continued raiding along the frontier, President Grant’s administration authorized the Army to use whatever means necessary to subdue the Southern Plains Indians.

With firm directions from Washington, the Red River War began with a fury as five army columns swarmed across the Texas Panhandle from different directions. Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie’s scouts found a large village of Comanche, Kiowa and Cheyenne hidden in their winter quarters on the floor of Palo Duro Canyon, a 6,000-foot-deep

Palo Duro Canyon

gorge stretching almost three hundred miles across the Texas Panhandle.

At dawn on September 28, 1874, Mackenzie’s troops hurtled down the steep cliff wall, surprising the Indians who tried to protect their squaws and pack animals as they fled from the persistent army fire.  Nightfall found four Indians dead, 450 lodges burned to the ground, and the supply of buffalo meat destroyed.  The army rounded up 1,400 horses, kept all they could use, and shot the remaining.

Out of food and housing, without their horses, and facing winter, the Indians had no choice but to walk to the Fort Sill reservation.

The Red River War ended the following June when Quanah Parker and his band of Comanches—the last of the southwestern Indians–surrendered at Fort Sill.  The almost complete devastation of the buffalo and the persistent military attacks successfully ended the Indian presence on the High Plains and opened settlement to white farmers and ranchers.

The Battle at Plum Creek

In 1977, I wrote my first Texas Historical Marker for the Battle at Plum Creek. The marker stands in the Lockhart Lions Club City Park on US 183, about a mile from the battle site. Even if you stop and read the account of 200 Texans waiting in ambush for over 600 Comanches, you will miss the full significance of this painful chapter in Texas history.
In 1840, when Texas was still a Republic, its second president Mirabeau B. Lamar maintained a harsh anti-Indian policy, in fact, like many of the folks that elected him, Lamar claimed that the only good Indian was a dead Indian.
White settlement moved steadily westward into Indian homeland, Texas Rangers patrolled throughout the region to protect white residents, and smallpox swept through Comanche tribes at the same time as Cheyenne and Arapaho attached them from the north. In that climate leaders of the Penateka Comanche felt pressured to seek a peace agreement with Texas government officials that recognized the borders of the Comancheria—the Indian homeland.
On March 19, after receiving promises for their safety, thirty-three chiefs and warriors along with over thirty others including women and children arrived at the Council House in San Antonio. After being told in advance to bring in all white prisoners, the delegation arrived with several Mexican children and Matilda Lockhart, a sixteen-year-old girl that had obviously been abused. Chief Muk-wah-ruh tried, unsuccessfully, to explain to the white officials that he did not have authority over prisoners held by other Comanche bands.
When it became clear that the Indians would not, or could not, produce the other white captives, Texas soldiers entered the Council House, and the commissioners informed the Indians that they were being held hostage until all white captives were returned. Suddenly realizing they had been tricked, the Comanches shouted for help to those waiting in the outer courtyard and tried to fight their way to freedom. Thirty of the chiefs and warriors were killed as well as about five women and children. Most of the others were taken prisoner with only one woman being released to deliver the message that all Comanche prisoners would be held hostage until all whites captives were returned.
The Indians that escaped headed back to their homeland to grieve and plot their revenge for what they considered a bitter betrayal. In early August under the leadership of the only surviving chief, Buffalo Hump, over 600 Comanche and Kiowa including women and children swept down from far West Texas and across Central Texas in the “Great Comanche Raid.”
At Victoria they killed several people and stole about 1,500 horses and mules corralled in town for a sale. They raced on to Linnville, a prosperous seaport village on Lavaca Bay. Residents clambered into boats anchored in the shallow water, and watched in horror for an entire day as the warehouses, businesses, and homes burned while the Indians—warriors, women and children–shrieked in glee as they gathered all the loot they could carry from the burning structures. Three people were killed and three taken hostage; the plunder valued at $300,000 consisted of goods intended for San Antonio that had just arrived from New Orleans.
By the time the Indians retreated only one structure remained. Residents that did not abandon the coast moved three miles down the bay and began the town of present day Port Lavaca. The Indians, joyous in their triumph, began the long trek back across Central Texas as word of the raid spread among white settlements.
On August 12, a volunteer militia and a company of Texas Rangers gathered at a crossing on Plum Creek, 120 miles inland from the coast. The whites watched the approaching army of Indians and horses stretching for miles across the prairie, singing and gyrating and adorned in the booty from Linnville. Brightly colored ribbons waved from the horses’ tails; one chief wore a silk top hat and a morning coat turned backward with shiny brass buttons glistening down his back.
Claims vary as to the outcome of the ensuing battle. The Indians, hampered by the enormous load of plunder, lost over 80 chiefs and warriors. Some accounts claim that the whites found stolen bullion on some of the mules and abandoned the fight. The Battle of Plum Creek succeeded in ending the Comanche presence in settled regions of Texas. Indians were finally driven out of Texas in the campaigns of 1874-75–another story for another day.