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Conquest of West Texas: Archeology Tells the Epochal Story of the Red River War

A ledger drawing by an unknown Kiowa artist, thought to depict the Battle of Buffalo Wallow. The fight – part of the Red River War – took place in September 1874, 100 miles northeast of present-day Amarillo. The drawing is now held at Austin's Blanton Museum of Art.

The story was repeated dozens of times in the 19th century, from the Carolinas to California: lands and resources promised to Native Americans in treaties were seized or plundered, when the nation's surging white population found those treaties inconvenient. Tribes abandoned ancient subsistence practices – for guarantees of food and other provisions on reservations. When that food failed to materialize, leaving the reservations, and returning to traditional ways of life, became for Native peoples a matter not only of dignity, but of survival.

Such was the context for the Red River War, a defining event in West Texas history. The 1867 Medicine Lodge Treaty promised the Comanche, Kiowa and Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho hunting rights from the Arkansas River south to the Canadian and the West Texas plains. But beginning in 1872, buffalo hunters, with U.S. military support, ignored that treaty – and killed more than 5 million bison in two years. 

That, for the tribes, was intolerable, and, in summer 1874, an attack on buffalo hunters, led by Comanche leader Quanah Parker, triggered an overwhelming Army response.

The ensuing war shaped our region, and our state, but it received limited academic attention. That changed on the war's 125th anniversary, when archeologist J. Brett Cruse, of the Texas Historical Commission, launched a study. His research, and the book it yielded – Battles of the Red River War, from Texas A&M Press – shed a revelatory light on these epochal West Texas events.

Cruse found his calling early. In the cotton fields of his native Turkey, Texas, and in the nearby canyonlands of the Llano Estacado caprock, he was fascinated by the prehistoric artifacts he found. It led him to graduate study in archeology, and then work with the historical commission in Austin. 

But soon his attention was summoned back home.

The National Park Service set the gold standard for battlefield archeology at the Little Bighorn site, in Montana. In the late 90s, park service historian Neil Mangum was hoping to expand such work to other Great Plains conflicts. He contacted Cruse about the Red River War.

“To my surprise,” Cruse said, “when I started looking into the files, very little documentation existed on any of those battle sites. So, with the encouragement of Neil Mangum and the National Park Service, the historical commission really saw the opportunity to do some more thorough investigation and documentation – perhaps – of those particular battles.”

Cruse applied for grants, and assembled a crew. Beginning in 1998, they spent five seasons locating battlefields, and using metal detectors to find artifacts – especially bullets and cartridge cases.

Among their first destinations was the site of the Buffalo Wallow Fight, in present-day Hemphill County. Here, six U.S. soldiers and scouts were surrounded by Native warriors. In the flatland immensity, their only refuge was a shallow depression, left behind by wallowing bison.

Cruse's team found virtually no artifacts here.

“After we worked there, we got a little depressed,” he said, “thinking that that might be the case everywhere, and we might not have the opportunity to actually document the battle sites the way we wanted to.”

A marker had been placed at the site in 1936, and local residents said collectors had long scoured the area. Cruse's team could only hope for better luck at less accessible sites.

Fortunately, that hope was richly fulfilled. 

The team's next stop was the lower reaches of Palo Duro Canyon, and the site of the war's first engagement – the Battle of Red River. Here, they found more than a thousand bullets, cartridges and other munition items – and hundreds of other artifacts.

Some were on the surface, most were buried. By plotting each with GPS, they recreated the progress of a running engagement that spread across 30 square miles.

The archeology here revealed a pattern that applied throughout the war. The Army, though they didn't know it, was approaching a Native village. Native warriors intercepted them – giving their families time to pack up and escape.

The site also underscored another theme: technological imbalance. This battle included the first documented use of a Gatling gun – an early machine gun – west of the Mississippi. 

“You can only imagine if you were one of the Native Americans out there on a distant hill,” Cruse said, “to suddenly encounter something like a Gatling gun, which they had never experienced before. He certainly alerted them that the Army was here to mean business this time.”

Col. Nelson Miles commanded the Army here, and declared victory. He was also out of supplies, and sent a wagon train to Oklahoma to restock. On its return, the train passed near a Native village – again unknowingly – and was attacked. 

The soldiers literally circled the wagons. Cruse's team found their rifle pits, as well as numerous empty cans – in the multi-day siege, the soldiers consumed much of the food they'd been sent to retrieve.

Cartridges markings allowed the archeologists to connect spent cases with specific weapons. As that data accumulated, patterns emerged.

“The thing that became sort of obvious to us,” Cruse said, “as we began to work on these various battle sites, is that it appeared that the same groups of Indians were showing up at several of these battles. And as we began to map out the locations, it appeared that they all were moving toward Palo Duro Canyon. In hindsight, it made sense to me, that's exactly what they were doing – they were all trying to get to a location they believed was a safe haven for them.”

In earlier conflicts, the Army made expeditions into the Llano Estacado – and retreated. Now, five columns – with more than 3,000 soldiers – were converging on the tribes.

In the Battle of Sweetwater Creek, a column from New Mexico clashed with warriors. Here, Cruse's team found where Howitzer artillery guns were fired – and where the shells exploded. They also found metal arrowheads. Indeed, the archeological evidence undermined Army accounts – of “well-armed” Native foes. The data indicate only half of Native combatants in the Red River War had firearms – many of those were 40-year-old, muzzle-loading rifles. 

The turning point came on Sept. 28. Native bands had indeed gathered in Palo Duro, as a winter camp and sanctuary. The canyon's depths are difficult to access – especially without being detected. But that was just what Col. Ranald Mackenzie's troopers were able to do. 

They found a Native trail – and silenced a sentinel before he could sound the alarm. Though most of the people escaped, Mackenzie seized their winter stores. And he took 1,400 horses and mules – keeping the best, and killing the others before Native warriors could recapture them. Without food or transportation, tribal bands began to return to Oklahoma reservations and surrender. Seventy Native combatants were incarcerated in Fort Marion, Florida. Though Army accounts described thousands of “hostiles,” the numbers in fact were in the hundreds, Cruse said.

It marked the end of traditional Native American life on the West Texas plains. And it opened the way for white settlement here. In his painstaking work, and his book, Cruse has deepened the understanding of this pivotal event.

Drew Stuart is the producer for the Marfa Public Radio series Nature Notes.
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