Red River War - Buffalo Men migrate to Adobe Walls


Ad Honorem
Dec 2011

Josiah Mooar (aka J. Wright Mooar) claimed to be the first hunter to discover the huge southern buffalo herd. Because he hunted buffalo before the buffalo trade existed, Wright got in on the business at its very beginning. When the very first order came to Charlie Rath at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas from an English firm, Wright was on hand to get a piece of the allocation. The customers wanted 500 buffalo hides for testing various methodology for tanning and using the leather. Wright collected Sharps long range 'Big 50' rifle and headed for the Kansas prairie. At that time, buffalo still roamed by the millions.

Quanah Parker sat on his horse and quietly watched as the white hunter created a 'stand' among the buffalo herd grazing in the two-mile wide prairie between the two men. The white man set a pair of crossed stakes low in the ground and laid down behind it. Using the stakes as a type of guide or tripod for his rifle, he carefully took aim at a large bull identified as the leader of this group. Waiting, waiting, the bull finally turned sideways to offer a good shot and then, a puff of smoke appeared from the man's weapon. A good mile from the hunter, the bull simply fell to the ground on its side, a full second later, Quanah heard the boom of the man's 'Big 50' roll across the plain like low thunder. He stood for a moment in utter amazement and then whipped his horse to instant full speed back to the Quehadi village and his warriors. J. Wright Mooar remained on the ground and reloaded. Because the bull was their leader, the other buffalo in the herd simply stood around dazed while Wright brought the others down, one by one. Hence the phrase, creating a 'stand'. Indians would later describe the Sharps rifle as "shoots today and kills tomorrow."

Wright killed and skinned his quota of buffalo for Charlie Rath but found himself with 57 hides left over. Just as an experiment, he sent the excess hides to his brother John Wesley Mooar and his brother-in-law, John W. Combs in New York. The hides were an instant success and literally sold themselves. In fact, Wright Mooar had a second order for hides even before the English tanners completed their experiments. Seeing the potential for fast success, another entrepreneur, Charlie Myers, immediately opened a hide exporting business and sold retail supplies such as rifles, ammo, and camp gear to buffalo hunters. Wright Mooar formed a hunting team with "Prairie Dog Dave" Morrow and Charlie Dunn. With three wagons and three rifles, they headed for the Kansas plains.

Wright turned 21 on August 10, 1872. It was also the first day Kansas buffalo hunters came upon the main herd that wandered the middle plains area. Wright himself described the scene, "I, in company with other wondering beholders standing on the north side of the Arkansas river, saw a sight perhaps never seen before, and surely never seen since. For seven miles from the south bank of the Arkansas, clear back to the hills marking the southern boundaries of the valley, and as far as the eye could reach up and down the river, was a living mass of buffalo, pressing in countless thousands upon each other, the foremost platoons drinking from the yellow flood now seven hundred yards wide swollen by the melting snows of its mountain sources and presenting a barrier to the strangest migration in history. During the night of the ninth, this herd had pressed into the valley after crossing the sixty-five-mile divide between the Cimarron and the Arkansas. Somewhere in the hills, after the dry passage over the divide, the scent of water had come to the wild wanderers, and a stampede to the banks of the river had taken place. The thunder of its advance had aroused and stampeded the horses in the trading camps north of the river, and in some instances the traders themselves fled through the night in terror." All things considered, Wright had reason to believe his birthday was a major success.

The Buffalo hunters went to work. They traveled in teams of four men, one shooter, two skinners, and a wagoner would make camp and begin the killing and skinning. A shooter's rifle would heat up and become the only limitation on how many animals went down. These shooters could consistently put a full grown buffalo down with a single shot from a thousand yards. The hides were hauled to a central location and sold to Rath and Myers. They shipped to Fort Leavenworth and dispersed to tanneries around the globe. Even though Wright Mooar continued to sell hams, the vast majority of buffalo carcasses simply rotted on the plain where they fell. The bonanza continued for six weeks before herd remnants drifted on to the northern plains.

Drawn by Wright's description of huge profits, John Mooar arrived from New York in November of 1872. Wright immediately John and his cousin, Charles Wright to join the team at $50 per month. They continued hunting operations deep into the winter until finally giving in to some truly bone-chilling weather. The brothers came very close to being lost in a blizzard in a wagon train with Bat Masterson, Levi Richardson, and Pat Baker.

The buffalo hunters waited until spring when they discovered the great herd that migrated north had completely disappeared to the combination of over-hunting and a harsh winter. The Kansas plains above the Arkansas were already hunted out and the summer of 1873 was spent along the north side of the Cimarron River. The Cimarron flowed into Indian territories of Northern Oklahoma and the hunters began encroachments on a somewhat regular basis. They found buffalo and continued into the summer but never really hit the same bonanza as the year before. At that time, John Mooar got sick with Pneumonia and spent several months in the hospital at Dodge City. Wright Mooar was left to determine the future of their hunting ventures.

Wright strongly believed another great herd existed to the south. The 1872 migration contained only prime animals and his theory held this massive herd splintered from an even larger group that must exist in the areas between the North and South Canadian Rivers. Wright followed his instinct and headed south. He described the trip, "somewhere in this lonely land, now the panhandle country of Texas, we found the great herd, millions upon millions, fattening on the grass of those mighty uplands. Pushing on westward through living lanes opening before us as we advanced, and camping at night in the midst of browsing, drowsing thousands, we came in sight of the breaks of Blue River or the South Canadian. * * * For five days we had ridden through and camped in a mobile sea of living buffalo." Wright Mooar and his scouting partner, John Webb had discovered the great buffalo herd of the southern plains.

The pair reported their find to a large meeting of buffalo hunters. There were strong differences of opinion as to the legality and safety of hunting the Texas panhandle. Although the area was not within any reservation, the Comanche and Kiowa retained hunting privileges to the Staked Plains below the Cimarron. At that point in time only one military expedition had ever traveled across the region and it remained the very heart of Comancheria. A hunter named Steele Frazier took the lead at the hunter's council. He proposed a meeting with Major Dodge who was the commander at Fort Dodge. Wright accompanied Frazier to Fort Dodge where they met with the major. He showed a great deal of academic interest in the buffalo and the activities of the hunters. However, when asked if the government would step in to prevent them from hunting in the panhandle, Major Dodge replied, "Boys, if I were a buffalo hunter, I would hunt buffalo where the buffalo are." There was no further debate about hunting in the Panhandle.

Apparently Charlie Wright (Wright Mooar's cousin) saw the danger inherent in the plans to hunt Texas and withdrew from the partnership. But that didn't stop Wright and John from promptly heading south in September 1873 with four shooting teams totaling 10 men. They crossed into the Panhandle and hunted the South Canadian before pitching camp for a while on Palo Duro Creek. They passed close to the future site of Adobe Walls on the return trip before the harsh snows of winter drove the crew back to Dodge City for the winter.

Over the winter months, extensive plans were made to exploit the great buffalo herd of the southern plains. Charlie Myers headed to Palo Duro Creek in March 1874. Once to the area, he followed the creek upstream to the ruins of some old adobe structures originally built by some traders from Bent's Fort in Colorado. Myers brought in several wagon loads of supplies and was accompanied by about 40 hunters. They settled in and built a cottonwood structure in one corner of the corral to serve as Myers new Trading Post. April brought competition. Charles Rath arrived and built a sod house a short distance away. At the same time, Tom O'Keefe opened a blacksmith shop and James Hanrahan built a saloon halfway between the two stores. The Mooar brothers liquidated all their existing hides and moved their camp down to the Panhandle while driving freight wagons for Dirty Face Jones. By the 1st of May the trading post of Adobe Walls was open for business.

Billy Dixon arrived in late April. He already scouted the area of Bugbee Canyon and Big Creek without finding significant quantities of buffalo. Spring was late in coming and "there was nothing for us to do but wait until the buffalo were moved by that strange impulse that twice annually caused them to change their home and blacken the plains." They hung around Adobe Walls until the 1st of May "mostly card-playing, running horse-races, drinking whiskey and shooting at targets."

Billy only had two skinners with him ("Frenchy" and Charley Armitage) but they headed out from the Walls and crossed the Canadian near White Deer Creek which they followed to its head out onto the plains. They came to a nearby Creek (aptly known now as Dixon Creek) and established a permanent base camp for hunting operations. Dixon could see plenty of familiar signs marking the area as within the annual migration route. Only two or three days later, Billy woke up to a familiar sound. It was the bellowing of countless bull locked in a "deep, steady roar that seemed to reach the clouds." He grabbed a quick breakfast and headed out. About five miles out Billy reached the plains. "My muscles hardened and grew warm at the sight. As far as the eye could reach, south, east and west of me there was a solid mass of buffalo-thousands upon thousands of them-slowly moving toward the north." On that first day Billy put his skinning crew to work by killing between 35 and 40 bulls on his return to camp.

Billy found the buffalo so plentiful he left "Frenchy" and Armitage working at the camp while he took the wagon back to Adobe Walls. He was hoping to find more skinners but only one was available. Word of the buffalo migration spread had spread quickly and the place was practically deserted. Billy returned with his new man and got right to work. "No mercy was shown the buffalo when I got back to camp from Adobe Walls. I killed as many as my three men could handle, working them as hard as they were willing to work. This was deadly business, without sentiment; it was dollars against tenderheartedness, and dollars won."

While Billy worked at Dixon Creek, the Mooar brothers had their first brush with Indians near their camp on the headwaters of the Washita. A small group of Comanche had passed near the Mooar camp but declined any invitation to come in. At sunrise the next morning Indians charged through the hunter's camp shooting out from under their horse's necks and making a ruckus. John Hughes kept his head and raised his Sharps at the lead horse coming toward him. The shot tore right through the animal and killed the Indian hanging off the other side. The remaining warriors took cover in a thicket and exchanged fire with the camp. They were no match for the buffalo hunters at long distance and waited until dark to retire. "But even in the face of such rifle fire, two Indians made a run past the camp, reached down as their ponies sped, picked up their dead companion's body, and bore it off, joining their comrades. Then all rode away and were seen no more. Does history furnish any real parallel in horsemanship for these daringly savage Comanche and Cheyenne Indians?"

In spite of the attack on their camp, the Mooar brothers continued on with the business at hand. Within 10 more days, Wright Mooar counted some 666 bison hides ready for shipment. John Mooar drove the hides back to Dodge City. While there he got wind of impending Indian attacks on the new Trading Post. The half-breed Cheyenne scout, Amos Chapman, and five soldiers were heading south to Adobe Walls on a secret mission. Chapman was going to make some quiet warnings to the traders but try not to cause general alarm among the hunting teams. The idea was to bring the hunters in close for defense but not cause them to leave the trading post altogether. John Mooar was given an opportunity to warn Wright and their team so all of them could get back to Adobe Walls.

Even with their early warning the Mooar camp only escaped by making an orderly retreat while holding Indians at a distance with Wright's big 50. "Seeing my advantage, I sent bullet after bullet whistling and skittering along, each one a little closer to the Indians than the last. They became more disconcerted and fell back. Precious time was gained. A glance showed me my companions still running toward the horses and mules. Would they have time to make it?" With a bit of accurate shooting and cool courage from their boss all six team members did make it back to Adobe Walls in good shape. Other hunters did not fare so well. The next morning, Anderson Moore came in and reported that both Antelope Jack and Blue Billie had been killed in their camp south of the river. This sad story came only two days after Billy Dixon had returned to the Trading Post with news of Dudley and Wallace having been scalped and "mutilated in a shocking manner" over at Chicken Creek. Dixon admitted, "all of us felt that these murders had been perpetrated as a warning to the buffalo-hunters to leave the country - to go north of the "dead Line."

Amos Chapman's trip to Adobe Walls almost proved costly. Because his true mission was obviously secret many of the hunters became suspicious that he might be working for the Indians. They plotted to hang Amos but Hanrahan overheard the talk and moved first to warn him. Since he knew Chapman's real mission was to warn him and the other owners, Hanrahan arranged Chapman's escape without incident and, more importantly, without letting slip the information regarding upcoming Indian assault. The owners of the business (Mooar, Myers, Rath, and Hanrahan) wanted the hunters to remain at Adobe Walls and guard their investment. Because of that they kept the Indian information secret from the hunters.

The next morning Chapman rode out with his escort. They agreed to ride along with a wagon train for Dodge City. As it turned out, the Mooar brothers, Myers, and Rath all found ways to leave the area without tipping off the hunters. They met up with Dirty Face Jones who just completed bringing in the last load of powder and lead. Even though he just drove 90 miles without sleeping, Jones turned his mules around and joined the group heading north.

While the owners headed north, Billy Dixon returned to his team and camp on Dixon Creek southwest of Adobe Walls. They continued the work for a few days before Billy sensed "Indian in the air, and I could not shake myself loose from thinking about the possible danger; so I told my men that it might be well for us to get over to the north side of the Canadian. We broke camp and went to Adobe Walls." Once there, James Hanrahan approached Billy with an offer of partnership which Dixon gladly accepted. With the buffalo migrating in such numbers he could keep twenty skinners busy. It was the evening of June 26, 1874. Hanrahan and Dixon loaded wagons for departure the following morning. There were 28 men and one woman sleeping at Adobe Walls that night. "There was not the slightest feeling of impending danger."

Info and quotations primarily from:

[ame=""]Life And Adventures Of Billy Dixon Of Adobe Walls, Texas Panhandle (1914): Billy Dixon, Frederick S. Barde: 9781165606955: Books@@AMEPARAM@@[/ame]

[ame=""]Buffalo Days: Stories from J. Wright Mooar (Texas Heritage Series): James Winford Hunt, Robert F. Pace, Bruce Granville: 9781880510957: Books@@AMEPARAM@@[/ame]

Similar History Discussions