Colorful cliffs and hoodoo rocks in Palo Duro Canyon. Chaos and panic ensued at sunrise in Palo Duro Canyon on this date 142 years ago; September 28, 1874. Opposing cultures clashed in such devastation that it would mark the last major battle of the Red River War and the end of an era. It was the total ravaging of the southern Plains Indians, and the defeat of the fiercest Indians on the North American continent.
For months, the U.S. Cavalry pursued the Plains Indian tribes in a kind of cat-and-mouse jaunt across the Llano Estacado of the Texas Panhandle. It was an area labeled by the Spanish, who had been driven from it, as Comancheria. Within this area lies Palo Duro Canyon, the second largest canyon in North America. It is more than 120 miles long and as much as 20 miles wide with cliff walls leading to a base that is roughly 1,000 feet below the level plains of the surrounding Texas Panhandle. The Comanches knew the Canyon well and liked to camp there. It’s protection and provisions provided a safe haven for them for generations. With inlets, crevasses, caves, and scrub brush; it was almost impossible to find nomadic Comanches.
Palo Duro Canyon Palo Duro Canyon On September 28, 1874, Kiowa, Cheyenne, and Comanche Indians were camped alongside each other in an area stretched out about two miles long. U.S. Soldiers under the command of Civil War hero, Colonel Ranald Slidell Mackenzie, caught up with them, and the 400 troopers of the 4th U.S. Cavalry made their way down the steep sides of Tule Canyon. The Indians were caught by surprise. Commotion, fighting, and instant pandemonium set in. With no time to gather for a unified defense, Indians ran for the Canyon walls in an attempt to flee to the plains. Warriors gave cover to their women and children with pocket skirmishes here and there. Three Indians and one Cavalry trooper died that day. Ultimately, the soldiers captured and burned the Indian villages, gathering about 1,500 horses as they went. Col. Mackenzie ordered the horses slaughtered in order to keep them from falling back into the hands of the Indians. The dead horses made a massive pile of rotting horse flesh, and their bones bleached there for years.
Part of the location in Palo Duro Canyon of the Kiowa camps on September 28, 1874. The loss of Palo Duro Canyon meant the loss of their safe place and their winter supplies. The last Plains Indian hold outs, Quanah Parker and his band of Quahadi Comanches, went to government reservations within a year of this battle due to the depletion of their food sources and the constant pursuit of the army.
I have spent many days in Palo Duro Canyon, visiting the Indian campsites and retracing the steps of the soldiers and Indians on that fateful day. More than a year ago, I was alone out there in the remote campground/battlefield area when lines to a poem poured into my mind and out onto paper. Here stands those words:
“I Heard the Horses Crying”
I heard the horses crying
Painted, steady, battle ready
Neighing and gnashing
Stomping and crashing
...But the Cavalry's bullets were their reply
Warrior brothers fallen down
The thrust of sabers
Shots tearing through the air
Kiowas, Cheyennes, and Comanches fall
Palo Duro Canyon with a thunderstorm rolling in.