After the failure of the allied warriors from the Comanche, Kiowa, and Cheyenne tribes to kill the buffalo hunters and stop the slaughter of their food supply, the U. S. government was determined to defeat the "hostiles" once and for all.
Though Chief Kicking Bird of the Kiowas had spoken for all Indians on the southern plains, the government would not listen. "The buffalo is our money," said Kicking Bird. "It is our only resource with which to buy what we need and do not receive from the government. The robes we can prepare and trade. We love them just as the white man does his money. Just as it makes us feel to see others killing and stealing our buffaloes, which are our cattle given to us by the Great Father above to provide us meat to eat and means to get things to wear."
Countering that argument was General Philip Sheridan who told the Texas legislature that they should encourage the acceleration of the slaughter of the buffalo so that hunger would force the hostiles on to the reservations. The greedy hide hunters needed no encouragement, and they had powerful new allies in their conflict with the Indians, five columns of troops intent on a military victory. The Indians fighting to remain free also had to deal with Texas Rangers and citizen militia in other parts of Comancheria.
Under the command of General Sheridan, Colonel Nelson A. Miles marched from Dodge City, Kansas, to Camp Supply, Indian Territory, and from there toward the Southwest. Major William R. Price's command moved east from Fort Union, New Mexico Territory. The hard-charging Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie rode north out of Fort Concho near the Concho River where only a few years earlier Quanah had made his first home after eloping with Weckeah and leading a band of young warriors. Colonel John W. Davidson rode southwest out of Fort Sill, and Lt Colonel George P. Buell headed northwest from Fort Griffin. All the soldiers were well fed, and, unlike the Indians who had to hunt for their food, the white warriors had no women and children to protect. It was an unequal contest, and the Indians knew it.
Quanah was determined not to be caught by any of the several hundred soldiers out looking for him and his fellow Quahada, Kiowa, and Cheyenne, allies. Warnings were given to Indians on the reservation, so most of the Arapahoes and Kiowa-Apaches decided not to join the hostiles.
Colonel Miles' troopers drew first blood. In the lower reaches of Palo Duro Canyon along Prairie Dog Town Fork, or main branch, of Red River, Cheyennes attacked soldiers led by scout Bat Masterson, who only a few months earlier had fought beside Billy Dixon at Adobe Walls. Now Masterson was on the offensive, and it was the Indians' turn to seek shelter. Miles' men got out a couple of Gatling guns and drove the Indians from one canyon wall to another as the fire power of the soldiers and Miles' superior numbers soundly whipped the Cheyennes. Masterson and the other scouts led the soldiers to the mouth of Tule Canyon, a tributary of Prairie Dog Town Fork of Red River. The Cheyenne warriors retreated up the narrow canyon of Tule Creek and scaled its precipitous walls in a desperate effort to escape the soldiers. Twenty-five brave Cheyenne warriors died in the unequal battle, and many others were wounded. When the village was attacked, the women lost most of their dried meat supply.
Meanwhile, Mackenzie, having found the Quahadas' camping area of Blanco Canyon, was poised to discover Palo Duro Canyon, as Miles already had moved farther downstream than where Mackenzie would descend. Miles had ridden up the stream bed before successfully attacking the Cheyennes. Now he returned to Camp Supply. Mackenzie's soldiers reached Tule Canyon father upstream than where Miles had previously attacked, and as the Cheyennes had done to Miles, the Comanches and Kiowas attacked Mackenzie's column, firing and retreating and then repeating the process. Quanah was not in the attack as he had ridden far to the southwest in an effort to avoid the various columns looking for him. But Quanah would have approved of the tactics used by the Comanches and Kiowas in the fight. In the words of Captain Carter, "It was about 10:30 (pm) when the first attack came and a large body of mounted Indians charged along our lines, in fact, all around us, firing and yelling, to try and start our horses. The latter was securely anchored." Mackenzie had learned his lesson at Blanco Canyon where he lost his gray pacer to Quanah that night. Not this time.
The Indians attacked again at 5:00 a.m., but soon the troopers were mounted and looking for a fight. But the Comanches and Kiowas, about 300 of them, "disappeared as completely as if the ground had swallowed them," Carter observed. Woman's Heart of the Kiowas and fifteen other warriors were killed in that action.
Troopers, after hours in the saddle and more hours of fighting Indians, were exhausted. And just as they drifted off to sleep after the last action, the cannibal scouts rushed into camp excited about a new trail they had discovered.
So, the 4th Calvary moved out of their camp along Tule Creek headed toward a natural wonder, almost 1,000 feet deep Palo Duro Canyon. Between the steep walls of the canyon flowed the headwaters of Red River. The Indians who had attacked Mackenzie in Tule Canyon very likely left the trail discovered by the "Tonks" that led to the almost vertical walls of the canyon. Below, tepees were spread out on each bank of the river, and hundreds of horses grazed on the rich grasses of the canyon floor.
Captain Carter describes the scene: "In the dim light of the dawn, away down hundreds of feet we could see the Indian tepees or lodges, and as we had to march along the edge of the canyon some distance before we could find any path or trail to descend by, the morning had become quite light and the Indians, who had now discovered us, rushed out of their lodges and began gathering their herds of ponies and driving them off towards the head of the canyon. How we got down into the canyon was, and always will be, to the few surviving members of the old 4th Calvary who participated in the Palo Duro fight a great mystery." Leading their horses in single file, Mackenzie and his troopers descended a zig-zag trail used by buffaloes and Indian ponies.
As the women and children escaped along the walls of the canyon, Indian warriors entrenched themselves behind boulders and clumps of cedar as they climbed higher along the precipitous sides of the canyon. Having been caught by surprise, the three chiefs of the villages directed a strictly defensive action in an effort to prevent the Tonkawas from killing and eating their women and children. Though Mackenzie had failed to catch Quanah yet again, he had hurt the Eagle's chances of remaining free by capturing the horse herd of Quanah's allies: Ma-manti of the Kiowas, Oh-ma-tai of the Comanches, and Cheyenne Chief Iron Shirt.
While some of Mackenzie's men kept the Indians penned down, the Colonel sent others to round up the Indians' most precious possessions: their horses. After driving the horses out of the canyon to the level plain above, "the whole command now assembled," Carter wrote, "with the immense herd of captured ponies, on the high prairie. A hollow square or huge parallelogram was formed as follows: One troop in line of battle rode in advance; on either side marched two troops in columns of twos, and one troop, in line, rode in rear. In the center of this huge hollow square the captured herd of about 2,000 was driven along. One troop marched in behind as rear guard. It was a living corral and our march was nearly 20 miles."
Right after breakfast on the morning of September 29, 1874, Mackenzie sent a detail to shoot the Indians ponies. It was a difficult order for a cavalry officer to give, but the colonel knew that the Tonkawas could not prevent the Comanches, Kiowas, and Cheyennes from stealing the horses back. In a box canyon north of Tule Creek, the carnage began and lasted for several hours. Mackenzie wrote to his superiors to explain his order to kill the horses. He promised forty horses to the Tonkawa Chief. "There were but a few good ponies among them and I had all killed except which I thought would satisfy these people (Tonkawa scouts)." Mackenzie knew he would probably never have found the hostiles without the aid of the Tonkawas, so he tried to "satisfy" them. "It took Santos the most of one day, with one troop, to pile these bodies up on the plains. They were still there on the 'Tex' Rogers ranch (midway between Tulia and Silverton along Tule Creek) some years ago – an enigma to the average Texas boy who looked upon them with wondering eyes."
Quanah again had escaped Mackenzie, but his close allies had suffered a loss of unimaginable horror. The killing of their horses and loss of supplies for the coming winter forced the victims of the Palo Duro Canyon attack onto the reservation. Though it is not clear how Quanah evaded the five columns sent out by Sheridan to force the hostiles in, it is likely that the Eagle and his band were somewhere between Lagunas Sabinas near present Seminole or farther to the southwest at Comanche Springs near present Fort Stockton. Mackenzie believed that Quanah was headed for the Pecos River. Wherever he was, Quanah and his band of Quahadas were still, in the words of the eloquent Ten Bears, free to "live as their fathers had lived."
The above is excerpted from The Last Comanche Chief: The Life and Times of Quanah Parker by Bill Neeley. Copyright © 1995 Bill Neeley. All rights reserved.