Remembering a brave battle
Books | A history lesson found along the banks of Carson Creek
by John R. Erickson
Posted 7/18/20, 03:34 pm
Many of our readers have told us how much they appreciate the writings of John R. Erickson, the author of the popular Hank the Cowdog series of children’s books. Over the next few months, thanks to the University of North Texas Press, WORLD is publishing as part of our Saturday Series chapters from Erickson’s Through Time and the Valley. The book, first published in 1978, recounts Erickson and Bill Ellzey’s journey in 1972 on horseback through the Texas Panhandle’s isolated Canadian River valley. Along the way, they attempt to piece together the history of the region, with its lore and abundance of colorful characters. We hope you enjoy our selections from their journey. —Mickey McLean
About six hours later we came to a spring of live water, a welcome sight after a long afternoon in the saddle. The air had been still and steamy along our course, and we had been pursued every step of the way by hordes of deer flies, a grayish insect about three times the size of a house fly. These loathsome creatures had the bite of an ice pick and drove our horses to distraction. Bill and I spent most of the day slapping flies on the necks of Suds and Dollarbill, and when we arrived at the spring on Carson Creek, our hands were covered with blood.
We left the horses hobbled in a lush green meadow and made our camp in a hackberry grove beside the creek. While Bill went back to the meadow to doctor a gall on the mule, I kindled a fire and put the evening meal on to cook: rice and jerked beef simmered in bouillon broth, fried bacon, raisins, and sassafras tea. Jerked beef, once a staple in the diet of pioneers, can now be purchased in almost any quick-stop grocery store. I made our jerky from a recipe given to me by my grandmother, the late Mrs. B.B. Curry of Seminole, Texas. One summer evening, as we were sitting on her front porch, she told me about her childhood in the old Quaker community of Estacado in Crosby County, where she often saw strips of beef hanging on lines to dry in the sun.
When Bill returned from the meadow, we spread a slicker on the ground beside the fire and sat down to a good hot meal. The jerky lacked the taste and flavor of the roast from which it had come, but we found it filling and satisfying. After supper, we nursed cups of hot sassafras tea and watched the sun slide behind a hill, until our growing shadows reminded us that we had chores to do before dark. Ordinarily, we would have pitched the tent, dug a trench around it, and covered our saddles with the tarp—normal precautions against rain. But it was a beautiful evening, without a cloud in the sky, and we decided that it could not possibly rain in the night. As a hedge against this prediction, we pitched the tent, though we did not bother to trench around it or roll out our bedding inside. We would sleep under the stars. As the cloak of night wrapped itself around the land, we crawled into our blankets on the banks of Carson Creek.
IT WAS IN THE WINTER OF 1864 that Colonel Christopher (Kit) Carson marched his men from Cimarron, New Mexico, to the creek in the Texas Panhandle which now bears his name.
During the Civil War, the government in Washington had been forced to withdraw most of its troops from the frontier garrisons on the Southern Plains and to throw them into the war against the Confederacy. The Kiowas, Comanches, Southern Cheyennes, and Arapahos, by this time allied against the expansion of white civilization, took full advantage of the withdrawal. They attacked military posts and wagon trains in Kansas, pillaged the settlements below the Red River in Texas, and left the whole country in a state of panic. By the middle of 1864, Washington was flooded with reports of shocking depredations, and the decision was made to punish the Indians.
Kit Carson, who had already distinguished himself as a scout under John Charles Fremont and as commander of the summer campaign against the Navahos, received his orders in October to march to the Canadian River to punish hostile Kiowas and Comanches, reported to be in their winter camps along the river valley. On November 6, Carson left Cimarron with 350 mounted men, seventy Ute and Apache scouts (some with wives), twenty-seven wagons, and two mountain howitzers.
On November 24, Carson’s Indian scouts, enveloped in buffalo robes to protect themselves against the bitter cold, reported finding an encampment of one hundred and seventy-six teepees down the river. Carson ordered a night march to get his force within striking distance of the village, and early the next morning they attacked. In the first wave were the Utes and Apaches, wearing only their paint and feathers in the extreme cold. As Carson’s army advanced toward the village, the Kiowas fled in the opposite direction, the women and children to the hills, and the warriors downstream toward a large Comanche village four miles to the east. The soldiers entered the camp and began mopping up. The Indians who had not escaped—the old and sick—were executed by the Utes and Apaches. Then the Ute and Apache women fell to the grisly task of mutilating the bodies.
It appeared that Carson had scored a decisive victory, and he issued the command to burn the village.
But there were several factors he had not counted on. The first was the huge Comanche camp downriver. The second involved a Kiowa chief named Dohasan. It was Dohasan’s village that the soldiers were intent on destroying.
After covering the retreat of the women and children, Dohasan and his men whipped their horses down the wide Canadian valley toward the Comanche camp. He must have felt the sting of humiliation as he galloped away, for he had not established himself as head chief of the Kiowas on his ability to run away from a fight. Stealing quick glances at the faces of his men, his mind drifted back to the year 1833.
The Kiowa calendar identified 1833 as “the Year They Cut Off Our Heads,” and if you were a Kiowa you couldn’t speak of that year without feeling sick at heart. It was in the summer. Adate, the head chief at the time, had taken all the warriors out on a hunting expedition, leaving the women, children, and old people unguarded in camp. While the men were away, a party of Osages, blood enemies of the Kiowa tribe, fell upon the camp and massacred all the women who weren’t able to escape. When the Kiowa warriors returned home, they found their camp in ruins and the heads of their wives stuffed into cooking pots. Adate was stripped of his rank on the spot, and Dohasan, a young and brave warrior, was elevated to head chief.
Dohasan remembered the ceremony. He had been tall and erect then, his fine head framed by long braids ornamented with silver brooches that reached to his knees. He had come to the ceremony dressed in his finest: a boar’s tusk and an eagle bone whistle around his neck, a mantle of red Spanish cloth, fringed leggings, and wide copper bands on his arms.
In the years since, he had tried to be a good chief. He had represented his people at the peace table with the white soldiers in 1837. Then in 1840, when war became inevitable, he had formed an alliance with the five major tribes of Indians on the plains, a peace that had not been broken in twenty-four years. On long winter evenings, he had often looked back on his accomplishments with pride, but now he felt only the crushing weight of responsibility that went with his position. In the distance he heard the crack of a rifle, and then another, as more of his people died in the village, and the memory of the Osage Massacre and the disgrace of Adate swept through his mind.
“Hood-le-ty!” he cried to his men. “Hurry! Hurry!”
At the Comanche camp they sounded the alarm. While Dohasan and Stumbling Bear rode down the line shouting encouragement to the Kiowas, One-Eyed Bear rallied his Comanche warriors. In less than an hour, Dohasan looked out on what seemed an ocean of warriors, estimated by historians to have been between a thousand and five thousand well-armed men. Their bows were strung, their rifles cocked, and their horses were snorting steam in the chilly air. It was the largest gathering of warriors he had ever seen.
Dohasan gave the sign, and suddenly they were flying across the prairie. He felt the big gray stud beneath him getting low to the ground and reaching out with his powerful legs. The wind stung his cheeks and the sound of the warriors filled his ears. He felt good. The aches in his joints disappeared. The old wounds that plagued him every winter suddenly healed. It was for this lightning charge across the prairie that Dohasan had been born. That’s all a Kiowa could ask of life: a fleet horse, a good rifle, and an enemy to kill.
Dohasan and his men fought bravely that day. The battle raged through the morning and into the afternoon. Though neither side suffered heavy casualties, by three in the afternoon Kit Carson realized that his position was deteriorating by the minute. Twelve years later, George Armstrong Custer faced similar odds at the Little Big Horn. He elected to stay and fight. Carson took one look at the superior force of Indians and gave the order to retreat. Later, Carson wrote that he had never seen a more impressive display of daring and bravery than that of Dohasan’s warriors. Historians have taken the compliment one step further by pointing out that had the retreat not been covered by cannon fire, Carson’s force would very likely have been cut to pieces.1
IN OUR BEDROLLS ON CARSON CREEK one hundred and eight years later, Bill Ellzey and I faced an attack of another sort. At dusk, the still steamy bottom along the creek came alive with clouds of hungry mosquitoes. The insect dope we had applied to our arms, necks, and faces kept the tormentors from biting, but not from hovering and buzzing in our ears. Just as I dropped off to sleep, I awakened to the sound of a P-38 flying through my ear canal. Cursing, I sat up.
“Bill,” I said, intending to ask where he had put the mosquito dope. But before I could utter another word, I sucked one of the buzzing devils down my windpipe.
“Huh?” came my partner’s groggy reply.
“Forget it,” I choked, and went back to sleep. By absorbing the mosquitoes into our dreams and converting them into airplanes and buzz saws, we managed to ignore them. We had been asleep for thirty minutes when the first raindrop exploded on the end of my nose. I sat straight up and heard the slap-slap of rain in the hackberry tree above us. By this time Bill had joined me. There wasn’t much we could say. We had dared predict the weather in the Panhandle, and as is usually the case, we had guessed wrong.
We sprang into action—if that’s what you call running into each other, kicking at blankets that have suddenly become pythons around your legs, stumbling over tent ropes, and walking your face into tree limbs. By the light of two fireflies down by the creek, we prepared our camp for the storm. While Bill tarped the saddles and gear, I started trenching around the tent, which I was not able to see in the darkness.
Finally, we dived into the tent and settled back into our beds, ready to be lulled to sleep by the patter of raindrops. We both agreed that, although a rain storm was something of an inconvenience, it would at least keep the mosquitoes at bay. The rain continued for a good five minutes. Then it stopped dead. In the silence, we heard squadrons of mosquitoes taking off from bases in the swamp grass along the creek, their radars blipping in our direction.
Excerpted from John R. Erickson., Through Time and the Valley (Denton: University of North Texas Press, 1995). Copyright 1995 by John R. Erickson. Reprinted by permission.
- My account of Kit Carson’s battle on the Canadian follows Mildred Mayhall, Indian Wars of Texas; also Mayhall’s The Kiowas and Stanley Vestal’s Kit Carson. A good account of the battle appears in Robertson and Robertson’s Panhandle Pilgrimage, an excellent and well-documented survey of Panhandle history.
John R. Erickson
John provides commentary and short fiction to WORLD. His Hank the Cowdog series for children has sold more than 8.5 million copies worldwide, and in addition to publishing 74 books, his work has appeared in news outlets such as The Dallas Morning News. John and his wife, Kris, reside near Perryton, Texas.