What was the Significance of the 1874 Second Battle of Adobe Walls in Texas?
In early spring, 1874, white hunting parties travelled south from Dodge City in the direction of the Staked Plains in the Texas Panhandle. This move coincided with the journey undertaken by the South Plains tribes who were in search of buffalo as the provisions promised by the Indian Agents had not been delivered. Because of this, and the poaching of ponies and livestock, Native American tribes were increasing their call for war.
Military leaders, who were angry due to the directive that transferred authority over Indian tribes from the War Department to the Department of the Interior, were also advocating for war on the Plains. As tensions grew, white buffalo hunters who had to pass through designated Indian Territory in order to reach fertile hunting grounds, banded together on their journey and began their trek south. The events that unfolded at Adobe Walls on June 27, 1874, marked the beginning of the Red River War and forever altered the landscape of America.
Establishing A Settlement
Josiah Wright Mooar, Billy Dixon and his friend William Barclay “Bat” Masterson, along with a host of other hunting parties, including one woman, decided it was best if they travelled together as a means of protection from the South Plains tribes. Near the ruins of an old trading post along the north bank of the Canadian River, they established a settlement; approximately one hundred-fifty miles from Dodge City. As it was only spring, the hunters had to wait until the summer of 1874 for the desired herds to migrate through the region. It was during this period of waiting that they established an ersatz town.
Traveling with the hunters were business proprietors hoping to earn a living providing goods for the hunting parties. Charlie Myers, who had initially contracted the Mooars for buffalo robes, established a store in the settlement, near the blacksmith shop owned by Tom O’Keefe. Charlie Rath, another contractor, opened a haberdashery that included a restaurant, which was run by William Olds and his wife; the only female at the settlement. The stores and small homes were “soddies,” that is they were constructed from the earth with wooden poles used as support beams. Additionally, the settlement included a corral and saloon. When completed, the settlement the hunters named Adobe Walls became the hub of operations for approximately two hundred hunters.
When the summer arrived it brought with it the migrant buffalo herds. The long range buffalo guns used by the hunters were perfect for what was known as the “stand technique.” In this manner of hunting, the shooter selected an open area at a fair distance from the path the herds followed. Once satisfied with his position, the hunter raised a forked stand upon which he rested the barrel of his weapon. It was crucial for success to first kill the leader of the herd as once this was achieved, the remaining animals in the herd simply milled about as they did not run without a leader. Once the beasts were relatively sedate, the hunter killed as many as his “skinners” could process in one day.
Most hunting parties included three to four men who were known as skinners. The name was appropriate as skinners removed the hides from the dead buffalo. Skinners and hunters alike carried with them what was called, “the bite.” This was a large empty gun cartridge filled with cyanide, which was to be taken by a white man who deemed himself likely to be killed by tribal warriors. Native American warriors only scalped men they themselves had killed; therefore, it was the belief of the white hunters that if they killed themselves, they would not be mutilated and left on the plains.Few, if any, used “the bite,” as the hunters and residents of Adobe Walls were enjoying great success.
Hunters were concerned more with the threat of Indian attacks than they were of losing hides to one another; therefore, they set out at the same times on their hunts so as to afford each other protection. Josiah Wright Mooar explained the process by which the men hunted:
"'Each outfit would take a wagon, a keg of water, a roll of bedding, and a little grub and, with a four-mule team, would drive out on the divide between North Palo Duro and the Canadian. There we would intercept the herds that were crossing, east to west, from the headwaters of Wolf Creek to the Blue and the Coldwater. We stayed there on the divide until we loaded out the wagon with hides and meat. We could haul 10,000 pounds when the ground was frozen. We would load, come back to camp, unload and go back out again. We could keep track of [other outfits]…by the sound of the guns. If either of us got into trouble, the sound of the buffalo guns would be interrupted with the reports of lighter guns.’”
On the Brink of War
Working as a unit exemplifies the sense of community felt among the residents of the make-shift settlement and highlights the opinion that white hunters were more frightened by Native Americans than they were of their fellow hunters. Further, it can be argued that the U.S. military leaders were exploiting the hunters for their own agenda. Most commanders wanted to rid the South Plains of Native Americans, either by confinement or extermination. In 1875, General Philip Sheridan addressed the Texas legislature and averred that the hunters had:
“‘done more in the last two years to settle the vexed Indian question than the entire regular army has done in the past thirty years. They are destroying the Indians commissary…Send them powder and lead, if you will; but, for the sake of lasting peace, let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffaloes are exterminated. Then your prairies can be covered with speckled cattle and the festive cowboy, who follows the hunter as a second forerunner of an advanced civilization.’”
Sheridan’s opinions were held by most high ranking officers. Conversely, the views held by the South Plains Indians toward their white oppressors were equally hateful.
Although the call for war was prevalent among bands of all the confined tribes, no collective action had been taken to halt the encroachments of the white hunters. Spring 1874 saw that change as a catalytic leader emerged from a Comanche band. Isa-tai was a medicine man from the Quahadi band of the Comanche tribe. In May he dispatched several runners to bring in all unaccounted for Comanche for the purported purpose of a Sundance. Isa-tai used the Sundance as a war summit and recruited the new Quahadi war chief, Qua-nah; the son of a Nokoni Comanche father and a white captive named Cynthia Ann Parker. In white histories, Qua-nah is referred to as Quanah Parker. During the gathering of the Sundance, Quanah and Isa-tai were able to convince the majority of the Comanche leaders that war against the white man was needed. As their scouts witnessed the hunting parties establishing a base at Adobe walls, that site became the target of the first attack of the Red River Uprising.
In addition to the Comanche, their Kiowa brethren joined the war party. The Kiowa Main Chief, Lone Wolf, was so greatly enraged by the death of his son at the hands of the U.S. Cavalry that he was an ardent supporter of war and planned to exact his own revenge.
Reports of Pending Attack
Throughout May and early June, Billy Dixon was scouting with his party and heard of isolated Indian attacks on minor camps along the small offshoots of the Canadian River. Dixon, along several of his peers, returned to the safety of Adobe Walls before June ended. On the 18th of the month, army scout and interpreter Amos Chapman arrived at Adobe Walls with intelligence that there was a planned Indian attack underway. Interestingly, Chapman conveyed this news only to the store owners, Myers and Rath. These men did not share this information with the hunting parties as they were earning substantial amounts of money from the hunters. Further, the shopkeepers did not want to be abandoned by the hunters and left to their own devices to ward off the marauding Native Americans. Chapman; however, was indebted to John Wesley Mooar for defending him in a previous saloon melee and felt obligated to warn Mooar of the impending danger. Mooar’s brother, Josiah was south of Adobe Walls on a scouting expedition and was soon reached with the frightening news.
The Mooar brothers, Myers, and Rath all departed Adobe Walls under the guise of transporting furs to Dodge City. On their way north they encountered and warned two brothers, Ike and Shorty Shadler, who were destined for Adobe Walls. The Shadlers arrived at the settlement on June 26, 1874, unloaded their wagon of goods, reloaded it with hides, prepared to leave the camp at first light, and bedded down for the night in their wagon. Jim Hanrahan was another member of the group who was camped at Adobe Walls. Hanrahan’s outfit had an abundance of skinners yet lacked an accurate marksman, thereby leaving his skinners without enough work. Conversely, Billy Dixon was known to be the finest marksman in the Plains region yet lacked a sufficient number of skinners. He and Hanrahan elected to combine their efforts so as to maximize their profitability. After loading his wagon on June 26, Dixon prepared to leave early the next morning to avail himself of his new skinners. Like the Shadlers, he slept in his wagon so as to protect his goods. Before retiring for the evening, he led his horses to the nearby pasture to afford them the opportunity to graze for the evening. Had Dixon known that a Native American war party between 700 and 1200 strong was preparing to attack the following morning, he likely would have kept his team hitched to his wagon.
June 27, 1874
On the morning of June 27, 1874 the Battle of Adobe Walls commenced. Billy Dixon heard the war bugle of the Comanche and Kiowa and managed to escape from his wagon in time to join several others in the saloon in the center of the settlement. On the southernmost end of the makeshift town was the Rath store, which is where six men and Mrs. Olds had gathered for protection. On the opposite end was the horse corral that protected eleven men. In the center of those two structures was the saloon, which served as a veritable fortress for Dixon, Hanrahan, Masterson, and six other men. In all, twenty-seven settlers were distributed among three separate buildings with no means of communication.When the South Plains Indians initiated their attack it was loud and swift.
War tactics of these specific tribes were swift, fierce, and athletic. The orders of battle were communicated by means of certain bugle calls, which led some to believe that a former soldier or army translator had aided the tribes in their assault. The attack began with a rapid charge toward the buildings. Once the target was reached, these magnificent horsemen circled the structures at a gallop while accurately firing their weapons; often times from under the neck of the animal. They were then commanded to fall back, regroup, and charge again. When the first wave of the attack commenced at sunrise, Ike and Shorty Shadler were trapped in their wagon. The warriors circled the vehicle and upon hearing a noise, lifted the tarp concealing the brothers. Although they were still concealed, one of the men panicked and began firing his weapon, which resulted in the Indians firing in kind. The Shadler brothers were killed and mutilated in the wagon where they slept.
The occupants of the three structures began to organize their respective buildings and with the accuracy of the buffalo guns, soon felled the native warriors. The charges and circling continued and by mid-morning, the men in the saloon were running dangerously low on ammunition. Dixon and Hanrahan managed to escape through the saloon window and sprint inside the Rath store, where ammunition was in abundance. As the Rath store contained the least skilled marksmen and lowest number of residents, Dixon remained to bolster the defense. Several of the survivors of Adobe Walls remembered Mrs. Olds loading and firing as rapidly as the men. Hanrahan dashed back to the saloon and the repetitive battle continued until the early afternoon.
The Comanche and Kiowa charges subsided in the afternoon as Chief Quanah Parker had been wounded. The Native Americans were stunned by the nature of this warrior’s injury. Quanah was struck by a bullet in his upper back. Their chief had only his fellow warriors at his back and once each was eliminated as the possible culprit, they concluded that the white man had developed a new type of weapon that was able to send a bullet on a trajectory that allowed it to reverse its own course. They thought the bullet turned itself in a different direction while in flight. This of course was not the case; rather, Quanah had been hit by a deflected or spent bullet. Having no knowledge of new technology, the tribal leaders called for a meeting on a distant butte so as to assess the situation. By this point, they had killed every stock animal at Adobe Walls, taken two scalps, and effectively trapped the remaining survivors inside of their own creation. Deeming the day as a success, the tribal council opted to forgo any further forward charges and instead monitored activity at the Walls. With the hostilities decidedly ended for the time, the white residents of the Walls were forced to act.
That evening, under cover of darkness, a hunter named Henry Lease armed himself heavily and set out for Fort Dodge to beg assistance from the military. He arrived at the fort late that evening and asked for military support. Not one of the officers on duty had the authority to dispatch the cavalry; therefore, word was sent to the governor for permission. He was also too timid to act and shunned the responsibility to the military commander, General John Pope, who surprisingly denied the request. Although he was no lover of Native Americans, Pope adhered to the policies set forth in the Medicine Lodge Treaty and was not willing to jeopardize relations with the tribes by enabling the very men who breached the treaty agreements. General Pope disliked the tactics utilized by the hunters and realized the unjust manner in which they encroached on Indian lands and illegally hunted buffalo. Pope believed that the hunters had “‘justly earned all that may befall them,’” and that any troops he sent would be to “‘break up the grogshops and trading establishments rather than protect them.’”
With no help from the military, hunters from near Dodge organized into parties and set off to help the defenders of Adobe Walls. They arrived on the morning of June 28 while the Native Americans were more than a mile distant, surveying the settlement. Through the sights of their rifles, the hunters were able to spy the Indian pickets and suggested Billy Dixon attempt a shot. Reportedly he did so from a distance of 1,538 yards and landed a bullet within several feet of where the tribal scouts were situated. Not understanding the advancement of this type of weaponry, the Plains tribes assessed the situation and fled, effectively ending the Battle of Adobe Walls.
Most of the hunters abandoned the settlement, some stayed; however, to salvage what they could from their inventories. William Olds had been on guard duty in the watch tower overlooking the camp. While descending the ladder at the end of his shift, he stumbled and accidentally discharged his weapon, which landed a shot directly to his head. Mrs. Olds was waiting at the bottom of the ladder. Six weeks after the battle, all of the residents departed and the 6th Cavalry was ordered to guard the perimeter of the settlement in order to allow the Native Americans to return to gather their dead. Estimates vary greatly as to the number of Comanche and Kiowa killed; some reports stated the casualty number as low as nine, while others showed one hundred-fifteen. A cavalry scout reported that he encountered at least thirty Native American graves.When the tribes departed with their dead warriors, the burned and destroyed any remaining structures at Adobe Walls then branched off into separate bands to continue fighting in Texas, New Mexico, Indian Territory (Oklahoma), Kansas, and southeastern Colorado. This battle marked the official beginning of the Red River War.
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- James L. Haley, The Buffalo War (New York: Doubleday, 1976), 36.
- Haley, 29.
- Haley, 29-30.
- Wayne A. Gard, The Great Buffalo Hunt (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1959), 135.
- Gard, 215.
- Haley, 70.
- Haley, 73.
- Richard N. Ellis, General Pope and the U.S. Indian Policy (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1970), 183.
- Haley, 77.
- Haley, 78.