Red River War - Mackenzie Comes to Texas


Ad Honorem
Dec 2011

Ranald Mackenzie graduated West Point in 1862 and went directly into service with the Union Army. He served with distinction until war's end and, as Major General of Volunteers, he became the highest ranking officer of the 1862 class. Ranald earned his position on personal merit. A fact not lost on General Grant when he published his memoirs. "I regarded Mackenzie as the most promising young officer in the army. Graduating at West Point, as he did, during the second year of the war, he had won his way up to the command of a corps before its close. This he did upon his own merit and without influence."

When the war ended the army reduced itself quickly and all the officers suffered serious reduction in rank. Ranald elected to remain in the army where his rank reduced to Captain of the Corps of Engineers. Stationed at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Captain Mackenzie assisted with construction of harbor defenses. Early in 1867, Mackenzie accepted command of the Forty-first Infantry. It was a black regiment and came with promotion all the way up to Colonel. He took over in Louisiana where several months of training and organization preceded the regiment's first duty station at Fort Brown, Texas. Located on the extreme southern border, Mackenzie's first duties included seeing to the pacification of the rebels and guarding against possible incursions by the French regime of Emperor Maximilian in Mexico.

Early in 1868 it became clear the Medicine Lodge Treaty had not been completely successful and, with the border quiet, Mackenzie's Forty-first Regiment transferred to Fort Clark where they would help guard the frontier. While the regiment remained at Fort Clark, Ranald went to San Antonio to serve on courts-martial duty which lasted through the end of the year. Throughout that time, Comanche and Kiowa depradations increased along the Texas frontier. In March 1869 the Forty-first moved again. This time Mackenzie led them to Fort McKavett in Menard County. The fort came with several companies from the Ninth Cavalry (a mounted black regiment) providing Colonel Mackenzie command of some horse soldiers to patrol and give chase to Indian raiders.

Mackenzie led his first patrol into Comanche country in the early summer of 1869. They spent two months in the saddle but ended without a single Indian sighting. Subsequent patrols did better as Captains Carroll and Heyl ran into a party of 200 Comanche and Kiowa warriors near the headwaters of the Salt Fork of the Brazos River. They engaged in a running fight over eight miles and reported 25 Indians killed or wounded with only 2 losses to the 9th Cavalry companies. Mackenzie's struggle with the Comanche had begun.

The Army Reduction Act brought more changes to Mackenzie's command. The Forty-first regiment was consolidated with the Thirty-eighth to create the new Twenty-Fourth Infantry. It was one of the four regiments of black troops to win high honors on the frontier. They were known as the 'Buffalo Soldiers'. Also at this same time, Mackenzie became familiar with a group of scouts called the Seminole-negroes who famously worked with his patrols. He also used Tonkawa scouts from the reservation in Texas. They were long-standing enemies to the Comanche and Kiowa. In fact, a 25 man contingent of Tonkawa scouts out of Fort Griffin helped Mackenzie locate a large village in late Fall where they took eight women and children prisoner. When he returned to Fort McKavett in January 1870 Mackenzie learned his actions had sparked a number of clashes between his 24th Infantry and Indians near the fort. They patrolled the area throughout the spring but "nothing important has been accomplished against Indians." Mackenzie spent much of 1870 in Washington on an administrative board followed by some extended leave. During that time the army made a number of transfers to fill vacancies. On December 15, 1870 the order came down for Colonel Ranald S. McKenzie, 24th Infantry to step down and assume command of the 4rth Cavalry instead. The 4rth had already made the move to Texas in July and Mackenzie moved to its headquarters at Fort Concho in March 1871.

The Kiowa and Comanche made 1871 a terrible year on the Texas frontier. Before the end of April, some 12 people had been murdered in Jack County alone. As discussed in the Blog Entry :
, overall commander, General William T. Sherman visited Fort Richardson in May just in time to witness the first reports of the Salt Prairie Massacre of Warren and his teamsters. Mackenzie and four companies of the 6th Cavalry rode out to survey the scene and do whatever was possible. He reported finding the scalped and mutilated bodies at Salt Prairie and later testified in the trials of Satanta and Big Tree.

Once the other Kiowa chiefs were sent off to prison, Mackenzie set to organizing an expedition against the Kicking Bird. He intended a move into the staked plains of the Texas Panhandle hoping to find the remaining Kiowa leader. Unfortunately, the late summer expedition of 1871 brought only disappointment as orders came restricting actions against the Kiowa to scouting. Kicking Bird was off limits. At the time, Mackenzie fumed hard suspecting General Grierson of some sort of trickery aimed at denying Mackenzie the glory of catching the Kiowa chief. In truth, Grierson learned that Kicking Bird had gone into Comancheria to assist in talking to the Comanche and remaining Kiowa hostiles. He went to try and talk the hostiles into returning to the reservation. The only positive spot for Mackenzie came from the knowledge gained by taking the 4rth Cavalry across the staked plains. They experienced water "so perfectly vile and nauseating that one was made sick as soon as it was drank" but they learned to survive and navigate the plains.

Mackenzie returned to Fort Richardson ahead of the column and set about planning another expedition into the staked plains of the Llano Estacado. This time his quarry was Quahadi Comanche under their young chief, Quanah Parker. The Quahadi had been raiding the Texas frontier at will and were the only Comanche band to refuse the Medicine Lodge Treaty. To add insult to injury, they recently raided near the Clear Fork of the Brazos right under the nose of soldiers who camped nearby. Mackenzie led his column from Fort Richardson on October 3, 1871. He sent the Tonkawa Scouts on ahead and then took the lead of 600 soldiers marching back to the Panhandle.

As the column from Fort Richardson marched along they started to run into abandoned camps clearly used as Comanchero trading centers. They rode through the night on of October 8 and stopped early the next morning for breakfast near a Comanche camp site. Patrols went out under Captain Heyl. they were in search of Comanche but also in search of the Tonkawa Scouts who Mackenzie had not heard from since the day before. As it turned out, the scouts found Heyl. They were tracking a small group of Comanche warriors who were actually shadowing Heyl's patrol. The Tonkawa gave chase but their horses were worn from traveling through the night and the Comanche soon outdistanced them. However, in the chase a trail was discovered that led to a Quahadi village.

Encouraged by the news, Mackenzie ordered an immediate march. His column crossed the Clear Fork but moved slowly due to quicksand in the river. By sunset they were near the mouth of Blanco Canyon and made camp for the night. Everything seemed quiet and the men made fires to cook dinner.

At 1AM all hell seemed to break loose. Lt. Carter described it, "At every flash the horses and mules, nearly six hundred in number, could be seen rearing, jumping, plunging, running and snorting, with a strength that terror and brute frenzy alone can inspire. They trembled and groaned in their crazed fright, until they went down on their knees, straining all the time to free themselves from their lariats. As they plunged and became inextricably intermingled and more and more tangled up, the lariats could be heard snapping and crackling like the reports of pistols. Iron picket pins were hurtling, swishing and whistling, more dangerous than bullets. Men, crouching as they ran, vainly endeavored to seize the pins as they whirled and tore through the air, only to be dragged and thrown among the heels of the horses with hands lacerated and burnt by the ropes running rapidly through their fingers. To one who has never seen or heard a night stampede of horses, mules, or of buffalo such a description would give no adequate conception of this midnight debacle. This was tragedy number one of Canyon Blanco."

Lieutenant Carter would go one to describe three more tragedies at Canyon Blanco. In the second, Carter is caught with only five men against the a large party of warriors. They fought back several attacks where both bullets and arrows "began coming in quickly, and to brush uncomfortably near us from every direction." Finally, wounded and running out of ammunition, Carter gave the order to fire a round before breaking for the horses. In the subsequent chase from Chief Quanah and a large group of warriors, one soldier, Gregg, fell behind when his horse gave out from too many arrows sticking out of him. Carter and the others turned to help. They pulled pistols from 30 yards and fired away but Quanah himself rode out from the Comanche ranks. Under much fire and using the horse as a shield Quanah rode right up to Gregg and shot him in the head. Carter and the other 4 wheeled about and dashed for safety. Lt. Carter would later receive a Medal of Honor for his role in the skirmish.

Even though the village escaped during the action, Mackenzie continued to press the Quahadi out of the canyon and across the prairie. Unfortunately for him, a cold front came through with rain and cold wind beyond the ability of Mackenzie's men to shelter themselves from. "Enormous hail stones had began to fall, pelting the animals so they could only be held with the greatest difficulty." The horses had been ridden hard and were without sufficient forage. Mackenzie himself was also stricken as he "had no overcoat, and somebody wrapped his shivering form in a buffalo robe. Several wounds received during the Civil War had disabled and rendered him incapable of enduring such dreadful exposure." So even while he seemed on the very verge of success, Mackenzie was obliged to turn back. Quanah escaped and seemingly won this year's campaign.

The situation continued to deteriorate. On the return march, two Comanche were caught by the Tonkawa scouts and trapped in a ravine. Mackenzie had the small canyon sealed off and moved to lead his men in an assault against the Indians. An arrow struck the Colonel in his thigh. He was the only casualty before the two Comanche were killed. In an interesting but gruesome twist, the surgeon, Dr. Choate, cut off their heads and boiled the meat out of the skulls. The clean skulls were passed on for anthropological study.

Mackenzie's wound and the onset of winter brought an end to the 1871 campaign but the 4th Cavalry had again succeeded in patrolling the Staked Plains. The general looked forward to his next chance to venture into the Llano Estacado. His theory that the Plains held ample resources to sustain the Indian population (and therefore his troops) started to pan out. Mackenzie planned his next trip to visit the headwaters of the Red River and east to McClellan Creek outside the reservation.

Raiding by the Comanche and Kiowa increased dramatically in the late spring of 1872. The Kiowa had waited several months to see what fate Satanta and Big Tree faced in the Texas prison but they broke out of the doldrums in May and returned to their old ways. The Comanche had commenced raiding a month earlier when Big Bow and White Horse led a large party south to the Rio Grande area. When another group of Comanche started out, some of the young Kiowa could not help themselves but join in the adventure. Two of their young warriors were killed in an attack against some surveyors. One of the two was Kom-pai-te, the brother to White Horse. As a prominent young warrior, his death called for a retaliation. It came on June 9 when a war party appeared at the home of Abel Lee only a few miles outside of Fort Griffin. Still sitting on his porch, Mr. Lee died instantly from a gunshot wound to the neck made as Indians approached his house. Mrs. Lee tried to run out the back with her four children but took an arrow between the shoulder blades causing her to crash onto the floor. Without killing her, one of the warriors scalped the woman and cut-off her ears. Another one slashed her arms open leaving Mrs. Lee to die bleeding on the floor. Young Frances was killed by an arrow but the other three children survived the attack as prisoners. They were taken north to the reservation and split among three of the warriors who maintained them as captive slaves.

Another retaliation raid followed in Texas and then the Comanche actually raided Fort Sill stealing some 54 mules and horses. The agents convened a large conference at Old Fort Cobb in July. They tried talking to the tribes but had very little success. Two of the Comanche bands failed to appear. They remained in villages with Mow-Way and Parra-o-coom off the reservation. The Kiowa boasted of their recent success and murder of the Lees. Their main leader, Lone Wolf, led talks outside of the council where all the Indians agreed they would refuse any promises to refrain from raiding in Texas. It was considered their 'legitimate occupation'.


Mackenzie responded with his expedition of September 1872. Out on patrol in the Staked Plains since mid-summer, Mackenzie's column now camped at their established supply depot at the Fresh Fork of the Brazos. He had 4 troops from the 4th Cavalry and a company of Buffalo Soldiers from the 24th Infantry ready to march. Word reached of events at Fort Sill and Mackenzie started off for McClellan's Creek along the north fork of the Red River. Sure enough, as they approached the area scouts picked up a trail leading to a large village only a few miles upstream. The Indians were in the area harvesting wild grapes along the creek.

Only 3 or 4 miles upstream they found the village. A brief rest to catch their breath and then the charge was initiated. Lt. Carter's troop 'F' led the way in column of 4. Because the charge started with the rear of the troop, Sergeant Charlton (the same man who killed Setank) actually led the way. The first four men of the charge all fell before reaching the village but the others continued to drive the Indians back to seek refuge in a nearby ravine. Sgt. Charlton continued in the lead killing the Indian who had shot two of his men. He was recommended for Medal of Honor but never received it. Mackenzie sent two troops around the back way to trap the warriors in the ravine but they were too late and many of the warriors escaped. There were also many deaths among them. Lt. Carter reported "approximately 50 Indians were killed; number of wounded unknown." They took 130 prisoners who were mostly women and children. Mow-Way and Parr-a-Coom were not there. Of the village, Mackenzie said, "Their lodges generally were burned, and a large amount of property was destroyed. * * * We captured a large number of Horses and mules (about 3,000), but the Indians succeeded the night after in stampeding them by riding a little distance from camp yelling and firing pistols."

Again Mackenzie failed to keep the herd and lost enough of his own horses to end the campaign. He vowed never again to allow the retaking of Comanche herds. From now on the horses would be shot down to make recovery impossible. Mackenzie still held the 130 Comanche women and children hostage and took them to Fort Concho in Texas. Taking hostages worked quite a devilment on the Comanche. They stayed quiet for several months trying to negotiate a release. At one point, Parr-o-Coom (Bull Bear), brought in four Mexican boys and exchanged them for four Comanche women. One of the boys had been Bull Bear's personal captive and the chief is said to have cried openly at the prospect of giving the boy his freedom.

The 1872 campaigns ended with Mackenzie's success at McClellan's Creek. The Comanche were now on notice that the US Cavalry's arm extended across the Staked Plains into the very heart of their traditional wintering grounds.

While Mackenzie's attention had been on the Comanche and Kiowa to the north, Lipan and Kickapoo Indians from Mexico had a field day. They had raided near San Antonio and all around the area south of Mackenzie's normal patrol areas. The two tribes proved very difficult to punish as they maintained the villages across the Rio Grande in Mexico. 1873 brought a much needed reprieve to the Comanche. Mackenzie's work in Mexico brought opportunity to regroup and negotiate with the government. The two Kiowa chiefs, Satanta and Lone Tree were paroled back to their people on the reservation in September. Naturally they promised no more war against the whites. The Comanche women and children were returned at Fort Sill in October also for the promise of no more raids in Texas.

Mackenzie would return to the Staked Plains in 1874 after the fight at Adobe Walls. But that would make this article run long and take away from the story of the Buffalo Hunters at Adobe Walls. coming up next.

Information and quotes from the following sources were used in this article:

[ame=""]On the Border with Mackenzie; or, Winning West Texas from the Comanches (Fred H. and Ella Mae Moore Texas History Reprint Series): Robert G. Carter: 9780876112465: Books@@AMEPARAM@@[/ame]

[ame=""]Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History: S. C. Gwynne: 9781416591061: Books@@AMEPARAM@@[/ame]

[ame=""]Bad Hand: A Biography of General Ranald S. Mackenzie: Charles M. Robinson III: 9781880510025: Books@@AMEPARAM@@[/ame]

[ame=""]Carbine and Lance: The Story of Old Fort Sill: Wilbur Sturtevant Nye: 9780806118567: Books@@AMEPARAM@@[/ame]

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