What if the American Indians had won?
Books | A history lesson on greed and heroism found in the Texas Panhandle
by John R. Erickson
Posted 8/15/20, 10:34 am
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 his Through Time and the Valley. The book, first published in 1978, recounts Erickson’s journey in 1972 on horseback through the Texas Panhandle’s isolated Canadian River valley. Along the way, he and a friend 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, including last month’s installment. —Mickey McLean
The Battle of Adobe Walls
In 1867 President Andrew Johnson appointed a peace commission to meet with the five major tribes of Plains Indians and to reach an accord with them. Among those he appointed were Generals Sherman and Harney, Indian Commissioner Nathaniel Taylor, and other senators and dignitaries. In October they arrived at Medicine Lodge, Kansas, to meet with a delegation of chiefs headed by Satanta, Kicking Bird, and Lone Wolf of the Kiowas; Black Kettle and White Antelope of the Cheyennes; and Little Raven of the Arapahos. Also present at this historic occasion were Henry Stanley of the New York Tribune (four years later Stanley would journey to Africa to find David Livingstone), William F. Cody (also known to us as Buffalo Bill), and Billy Dixon, then a government teamster.
For a whole week before the actual council began, each side worked at allaying the suspicions of the other. The soldiers kept an open house under a grove of trees, where they offered coffee, sugar, and soda crackers to the Indians, and distributed such articles as saddles, blankets, and blue overalls. The Indians responded by inviting their white brothers to a huge feast, where a hundred dogs were basted and barbecued and served by Indian butlers wearing blue overalls.
But these shows of friendship and generosity merely glossed over the differences between the two worlds. The commission from Washington had come prepared to be generous with its overalls but with little else. From the government’s point of view, the purpose of the Council was to induce the Indians to retire to reservations where, it was hoped, they would become thrifty farmers and solid citizens. The commission had come to Medicine Lodge to sign a treaty, and sign they did. It called for the Indians to retire to reservation lands, cease their depredations, and allow the railroads to build through their land. In return for these concessions, they were to be issued annuity goods, and all the land south of the Arkansas River was declared off limits to white hunters.
Why either side bothered to sign the treaty is a mystery, since time proved neither overly scrupulous in abiding by its provisions. The treaty was worthless from the very beginning. In the first place, it is doubtful that the Indians even understood what they were signing. The official interpreter for the council, Phillip McCusker, spoke only Comanche, while the spokesmen for the Indians were Kiowas and Cheyennes. One can imagine that by the time legal English had been translated through two or three Indian dialects, the message had become somewhat garbled. In the second place, the Indians who signed the paper had no authority to enforce such an agreement because such authority did not exist in their culture. They had no congress, no courts of law, no social or legal structures that would have given a chief the right to force his young braves to observe the treaty. And finally, a hundred years of treatymaking had left the Indians with little respect for legal agreements. Most had come to Medicine Lodge strictly for a good time and free food. For that they would have signed a dozen treaties, and a dozen treaties wouldn’t have changed their behavior any more than one did.
And while the whites entered into the treaty with an outward show of gravity, one doubts that they ever intended to keep the buffalo hunters north of the Arkansas. The government, which considered the wild Indians a bur in the flesh of progress, realized that the economy of the Plains tribes depended on an abundant supply of buffalo. Extending the logic one step, they understood that when the buffalo disappeared, so would the wild Indians.
The treaty was doomed to failure, and it doesn’t even matter which side broke it first.
In 1871 when the construction of the Santa Fe Railroad stopped at Granada, Colorado, hundreds of men were thrown out of work and had to find another way of making a living. Some left the country, but many turned to buffalo hunting. In the winter of 1872–73 the country was full of hunters and the buffalo fell in record numbers. The number of buffalo north of the Arkansas River decreased rapidly until almost none remained, and gradually the hunters began slipping across the river into the Indian hunting grounds.
Among them was Billy Dixon, who had witnessed the signing of the Medicine Lodge Treaty and knew that hunting south of the river was a violation of the treaty. His attitude was probably typical. He intended to hunt south of the Arkansas until someone stopped him. In March of 1874 he met with a group of hunters and merchants in Dodge City. After discussing the dwindling supply of buffalo north of the Arkansas, they decided to drift south in the spring and set up a hunting camp on the Canadian River in the Texas Panhandle.
The party established a camp on Bent’s Creek near the site of Adobe Walls, an old trading post built by Colonel William Bent in the 1840s and abandoned a few years later. At this permanent camp, Myers and Leonard established a small store, James Hanrahan built a saloon, and Thomas O’Keefe added a blacksmith shop—all of sod and picket construction. When the buffalo came through on their summer migration north, the hunters worked out of temporary camps within a radius of twenty or thirty miles of Adobe Walls and returned every week or so to exchange hides for ammunition and supplies.
The hunting went well for several weeks. Then, in June, word reached the Walls that two hunters named Dudley and Wallace had been killed by Indians on Chicken Creek, some twenty-five miles downriver. A few days later it was reported that two more hunters had fallen under the scalping knife on Salt Fork of the Red. At Adobe Walls, on the sultry night of June 25, twenty-eight men and one woman sat around in small groups discussing the Indian situation. The threat seemed to have come and gone, and the hunters talked of returning to their hunting camps the following morning.
Over in Indian Territory, the Comanches, Kiowas, and Cheyennes were seething with bitterness and desperation. Their backs had not been completely broken, but the old ways were rapidly slipping away. Something had gone wrong. Their power had failed them, and unless something happened quickly the old ways would be lost forever. On all sides they began looking for a sign, a prophet, a new power that would enable them to drive the white man out of the country.
It was then that a young and untested medicine man appeared on the scene. There wasn’t much poetry in his name—Coyote Droppings (Ishatai)—but he gave evidence of having strong power. Not only did he claim to have spoken with the Great Spirit, but he was said to be immune to bullets. When he belched up a wagonload of cartridges and swallowed them again in the presence of witnesses, word spread that the Comanches had found their messiah. At the annual Sun Dance that spring of 1874, Ishatai exhorted his people to go to war against the white man. If they didn’t fight now, he said, the buffalo would be exterminated and the Indians would fall to the level of the lowly Caddos and other reservation tribes. Some of the Indians found Ishatai’s sermons a bit too strong and quietly slipped out of the Sun Dance camp. But many Kiowas, Arapahos, Comanches, and Cheyennes were ready to follow him on the war trail.
One of these was a young Noconi Comanche war chief named Quanah Parker. The half-breed son of Chief Peta Nocona and Cynthia Ann Parker, a white captive of the Comanches, Quanah carried a bitter hatred for the white man. In 1860 a party of soldiers from Ft. Belknap, Texas, had virtually exterminated his Noconi band, killing his father and taking his mother prisoner. More recently, his favorite cousin had been killed on a raid into Texas, and Quanah had been waiting for a chance to avenge his death. So when Ishatai had gotten the Indians talking about war, Quanah went from village to village with his pipe. As was customary, he was crying for the unavenged cousin. “My cousin was killed,” he lamented in each village, “and his bones are still in Texas. I want revenge. I want you to take my pipe.” When Ishatai was consulted, he affirmed that this would be a good raid.
Between them, Quanah and the medicine man were able to gather seven hundred Kiowas, Cheyennes, Arapahos, and Comanches. The night before their departure, several warrior societies held a big dance near the head of the Washita River in the Panhandle. The next morning Quanah dispatched seven scouts to the Canadian River. The following day they returned and reported finding the hunters at Adobe Walls, and the Indians rode off to make war.
That evening before sundown they stopped, unsaddled their horses, painted their faces, and made medicine. At dusk they moved across the Canadian in fours and then walked their horses up Adobe Creek. Just before dawn the order was given to mount up. The warriors formed a long line and charged just as the sun was coming up.
The night before the hunters had bedded down outside the buildings at Adobe Walls. The feeling in camp that evening had been one of security and celebration, to the point of sheer carelessness. No one had suspected the Indians were in the country, and the hunters didn’t even bother posting a guard for the night. But for one fateful accident, the Indians might have galloped into the camp and slaughtered the hunters in their beds.
The accident happened around two in the morning. All at once the camp was awakened by what sounded like a rifle shot. In an instant the men spring out of their beds and had their weapons ready to return the fire. Then a sleepy voice inside Hanrahan’s Saloon called off the alarm, saying the sound had come from a broken ridge pole in the roof. (In later years Billy Dixon would look upon this accident as the work of Providence.) About fifteen men got up and repaired the ridge pole, as there was some danger of the whole roof collapsing if it were not replaced at once. By the time another pole had been cut and put into place, the sky was red with dawn and the men decided to stay up and get an early start out to the buffalo range. As Dixon was rolling up his bedding, he looked off to the east and saw something moving in the distance. In the half-darkness he couldn’t make out what it was. Then he heard the thunder of hooves and the “hideous cries” of seven hundred Indians.
There was never a more splendidly barbaric sight. In after years I was glad that I had seen it. Hundreds of warriors, the flower of the fighting men of the southwestern plains tribes, mounted upon their finest horses, armed with guns and lances, and carrying heavy shields of thick buffalo hide, were coming like the wind. Over all was splashed the rich colors of red, vermillion, and ochre, on the bodies of the men, on the bodies of the running horses. Scalps dangled from bridles, gorgeous war-bonnets fluttered their plumes, bright feathers dangled from the tails and manes of the horses, and the bronzed, half-naked bodies of the riders glittered with ornaments of silver and brass.
Dixon seized his gun, fired off a few shots, and made a dash for Hanrahan’s Saloon. Half-dressed men stumbled out of their beds and ran for cover, as bullets zinged through the still morning air and thocked into the sod walls.
In this first charge the Indians made their only scores of the day. The Shadler brothers, sleeping in a wagon with their big Newfoundland dog, did not hear the alarm. All three, the brothers and the dog, were killed and scalped. Billy Tyler was shot down as he ran toward Myers and Leonard’s store. Also killed in the charge were fifty-six horses and twenty-eight head of oxen.
Once the hunters had barricaded themselves in the buildings, they began returning the fire with large bore Sharps and Springfield rifles. The Indians, believing themselves immune to bullets as a result of Ishatai’s medicine, charged again and again into the range of the big guns, each time sustaining heavier losses than they could inflict. By noon they abandoned this tactic and withdrew to the red hills east of the Walls, where they continued sniping into the buildings.
Now the battle lapsed into a war of nerves. The Indians stationed themselves around the hills, just out of range, and waited. That night the hunters slept little and kept their guns at the ready. The next day the Indians were still there. On the third day a party of about fifteen Indians appeared on a bluff east of Adobe Creek. With nothing better to do, Dixon decided to take a shot at one of them with his big Sharps .50. He adjusted the sights, took careful aim, and fired. The Indian toppled off his horse and fell to the ground. The distance was later paced off at 1538 years, seven-eighths of a mile. This was probably the most celebrated single shot ever fired in the Indian wars, though Dixon later admitted that it had been a “scratch shot.” But it had the right effect on the Indians. Dispirited and angry at Ishatai’s “polecat medicine,” they rode away.
Having lost only thirteen dead, the Indians hadn’t suffered a serious defeat, but the battle had dealt them a terrible psychological blow. It had proved that they had lost the medicine that had made them lords for two centuries. In July, Washington launched a four-pronged offensive against the Indians, and by the time the first snows fell they were a defeated people, housed in concentration camps along Cache Creek near Ft. Sill.1
TODAY THERE IS NOTHING LEFT TO SEE at Adobe Walls but a collection of stone markers, one honoring the buffalo hunters and another erected by an Indian historical society to honor its heroes. In a way, the presence of these two monuments is symbolic of the confusion that has crept into our view of frontier history in recent years. We can see that both sides had their reasons for fighting and that both fought bravely, but when questions of value and judgment arise, we are hard pressed for answers. History tells us who won, but nobody seems really sure any more who should have won. Indeed, some modern writers seem to be saying that the Indians should have won, that they were the wronged party, and that if they had won we would have been spared the curse of modern civilization and its discontents.
I remember reading an article in the July 2, 1971, issue of Life magazine, in which an Indian specialist, presumably white, analyzed the expansion of Anglo-American civilization in terms of “land greed” and “Christian ethnocentrism.” This struck me as rather ungrateful, especially since it appeared in one of America’s best known magazines. That Time-Life had profited immensely from Christian ethnocentrism and land greed, that their sky-scraper in New York City stood on a piece of land the Dutch swindled from the Manhatte Indians had apparently been forgotten.
I also wondered at the relevance of the author’s point. Was he suggesting that Indians such as the Comanches and Kiowas were not land-greedy and ethnocentric? I had always understood that the Kiowas and Comanches got their land the same way we did—they stole it, by murder and brute force, from the Mescaleros, Lipans, Tonkawas, Caddos, Pueblos, Jumanos, Spaniards, French, and Mexicans.
So who were the heroes of the Battle of Adobe Walls: Quanah and Ishatai, or Billy Dixon and Bat Masterson? We can find examples of land greed, ethnocentrism, and cruelty on both sides; also tenderness, heroism, and courage. But if we can no longer celebrate our victory over the Indians and applaud the efforts of men such as Billy Dixon, then maybe we can do the next best thing and quietly appreciate the fruits of their struggle, knowing that when pressed we’re not about to give the country back to the Indians, heroes or no heroes. In the end, maybe this is the best way of putting the Indian wars into perspective. If Satanta and Quanah and Dohasan had won, we would have been spared the grief of Viet Nam, racial strife, pollution, high taxes, the hydrogen bomb, drugs, and a generation of children who keep reminding us of our failures. We would have been spared a lot of things, because we wouldn’t be here—and I doubt very much that our Indian brothers would be grieving.
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.
- Background material on the Medicine Lodge Treaty comes from: The Life of Billy Dixon, pp. 41–49; Satanta, Clarence Wharton, pp. 81–123; Carbine and Lance, W. S. Nye, pp. 45–46. Material on Quanah Parker and Coyote Droppings can be found in The Comanches, Ernest Wallace and E. Adamson Hoebel, pp. 319–26; and Bad Medicine and Good, W.S. Nye, pp. 178–83.
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.