Skip to main content

The Red River War

With two degrees in history, I enjoy researching and writing about historical events that the history books tend to gloss over.


Struggle for Land

During the mid-1800’s there was a struggle for land in the west. Settlers were quickly encroaching upon Native lands and the military was trying to remain in control. To protect West-bound settlers from conflicts with nomadic tribes over buffalo plains, the Army erected forts around the frontier. When fighting erupted during the Civil War, military forces were removed back east. The Indians took advantage of the withdrawal of military forces due to the Civil War to exert control over the Southern Plains. This resulted in the settlers’ demand for the government to act. In response, The Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867, called for two reservations to be set aside in Indian Territory. One reservation for the Comanche and Kiowa and another reservation for the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho. Despite living on reservations, the treaty stipulated that the Indians could hunt for buffalo on the plains and not have interference from commercial buffalo hunters or settlers.


Buffalo Hunters

Commercial buffalo hunters, however, ignored the terms of the treaty and moved into the hunting lands promised to the Indians. American bison was lifeblood of the Southern Plains tribes. In a span of four years, the commercial buffalo hunters had all but exterminated the buffalo. Furthermore, the promises of food and clothing for the reservations made by the U.S. government, were proved to be empty. It was difficult for the Indians to understand and accept the limitations imposed upon them by the reservations when they were used to roaming freely on the plains and they were running out of food. As living conditions worsened many of the Indians still on reservations began leaving to join renegade bands who had returned to the Texas plains. Among them, there was talk of war and killing. They wanted to drive the white man from the land.2 This discontent lead to numerous attacks on forts and culminating in the Red River War which forever altered the face of the west.


Adobe Walls

In the Spring of 1874, Isa-tai, a leader and prophet emerged in the Quahadi Band of Comanche. He was well respected because his medicine was strong, and he began to encourage a war against the whites. He convinced the leaders to strike back at the whites and they planned an attack at Adobe Walls. Adobe Walls was a trading post, built in 1845 in the Texas Panhandle. It was located just north of the Canadian River. Early in the morning on June 27, 1874, approximately 300 Indians, led by Isa-tai and Comanche chief Quanah Parker, attacked the Adobe Walls post. Twenty-eight buffalo hunters occupied the post at the time. Although greatly outnumbered, the hunters were well armed with long-range rifles and held off the Indians. This attack brought retaliation by the U.S. Army. It served as a catalyst for the U.S. Army to plan, once and for all, to subdue the Southern Plains tribes.



In the summer of 1874, the Army began a campaign to remove the Comanche, Kiowa, Southern Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indian tribes from the Southern Plains by enforcing their relocation to reservations in Indian Territory. The removal of the Indian groups from this area of Texas and opening the region to white settlement was the primary objective of the military campaign of 1874. Five columns converging on the general area of the Texas Panhandle was the offensive utilized. It was specifically targeted at the upper tributaries of the Red River where the Indians were thought to be. This strategy used a full encirclement of the region. This which would eliminate all gaps through which the Indians could escape.

Scroll to Continue

Battle Ensues

Generals Sherman and Sheridan planned an attack in which troops entered the Panhandle from five different directions, thus forcing the Indian warriors into the canyons. Their plan of attack required converging columns to maintain a continuous offensive until a decisive defeat had been dealt the Indians. During the offensive, Lieutenant Colonel John W. Davidson, from Fort Sill, moved west; Colonel Nelson A. Miles moved south from Fort Dodge; Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie, from Fort Concho, marched north; Lieutenant Colonel George P. Buell moved to the northwest from Fort Griffin; and Major William R. Price marched east from Fort Union.

After several months of violent encounters between the Indians and soldiers, an offensive led by Colonel Ranald Mackenzie, brought the Red River War to a conclusion. Mackenzie bottled up a large force of Comanche, Kiowa, and Cheyenne in upper Palo Duro Canyon on September 28, 1874. Moving down the steep cliff walls at dawn, Mackenzie's men torched the Indians' possessions and captured and killed more than 1100 of their horses. This attack prevented the Indians from continuing the war. While a few bands managed to hold out until 1875, most of the Indians reluctantly surrendered and returned to the reservations in Indian Territory after being defeated by Mackenzie. Quanah Parker, with his last band of resisting Comanche, surrendered in June 1875, marking the end of an era.



In one year, the long war between whites and Indians in Texas reached its conclusion. The Red River War heralded a new chapter in Texas history and led to the end of an entire way of life for the tribes of the Southern Plains. When Quanah Parker and his band of Quahadi Comanche entered Fort Sill and surrendered in June of 1875, the Red River War officially ended. The defeated Indians would never again freely roam the buffalo plains feely. With the Indians gone to live on reservations and the buffalo almost completely exterminated, the Texas plains began a new era. Great cattle ranches soon covered the area once crossed only by Indian trails.

Works Cited

n.d. Texas Beyond History. Accessed December 29, 2016.

n.d. Indian Relations in Texas. Accessed December 29, 2016.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Brandy R Williams

Related Articles