Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Second Battle of Adobe Walls

The most amazing part of this story is that there was more than one battle at such a remote location.  There is not much worth fighting over in the panhandle of Texas.  The place is damn near treeless, it's bone dry, and it's so flat you can stand on a dime and see Fort Worth.

To be fair, there used to be something there:  there used to be buffalo—vast herds of bison that roamed all the plains states and fed the various Indian tribes that lived there.  And that is what the fighting was really about, the buffalo and the Native Americans who depended on them.

The first battle took place in 1864 when Kit Carson led 300 men from New Mexico to punish the Plains Indians who had been attacking wagons traveling on the Santa Fe Trail.  This was the largest battle with Native Americans during the Civil War.  As soon as the war had started, most of the troops in the area had marched either southeast or northeast, leaving the area defenseless.  The Plains Indians promptly began to attack the wagons and homesteaders who were moving westward.  Kit Carson and his men were supposed to punish the various tribes, but the army lost the battle and had to retreat back into New Mexico.

As a settlement, Adobe Walls seemed to have very bad luck.  The first buildings had been put up in 1848 by William Bent to trade with the local Indians, but after repeated attacks by nearby tribes, the locals blew up the buildings with gunpowder and abandoned the area.  The first battle took place among the ruins ("adobe walls") left.  Eventually, buffalo hunters had thinned out the large herds to the north, so increasingly, hunters out of Fort Dodge, Kansas began moving south in search of the remaining large herds.

In 1874, this meant that some 200-300 commercial buffalo hunters were destroying what was left of the buffalo herds in the Texas Panhandle.  This was, of course, destroying what was left of the few remaining tribes of Plains Indians in Texas.  These Indians, aware that their way of life was vanishing with the buffalo, were understandably pissed.  Several tribes banded together after a medicine man, Isa-tai had a vision following a sun dance.  His vision said that if the tribes banded together and attacked the invading Anglos, their war paint would make the warriors both bulletproof and invincible.  (His vision was far more off than it would seem at first glance.  In a manner similar to the way in which Custer's defeat at Little Big Horn heralded the end of the ascendancy of the Sioux tribes, so the battles at Adobe Walls marked the beginning of the end of power for the Comanche.)

Note.  I'm curious, did a medicine man ever tell his tribe that in the ensuing battle, they would be wiped out by angry butterflies?  Or the white men would be bullet-proof?  I've never seen this in a history book, but I can't imagine it would get the medicine man in any more trouble than what must have happened when the surviving warriors returned after a battle where they were supposed to be bullet-proof.  In this particular case, all I report is that Isa-tai’s own horse was shot out from under him.  To be fair, the horse probably wasn't wearing war paint.

The war party was led by Quanah Parker, the last and greatest Chief of the Comanche.  Quanah, whose mother, Cynthia Ann Parker, had been kidnapped as a child and raised in the tribe, was a prominent Indian leader during the Red River War that would finally force the plains tribes onto reservations in Oklahoma.  (I have always believed that one of the reasons Quanah was frequently off fighting was that he was looking for a little peace and quiet.  At home, he had eight wives and 25 children.)

Chief Parker led a combined force of Comanche, Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Arapaho warriors to Adobe Walls, which by this point, consisted of three wooden and adobe stores that were the headquarters and supply center for several hundred buffalo hunters.  The buffalo hides were collected at Adobe Walls and then shipped the 175 miles to Fort Dodge, Kansas.  The target of the raid was three-fold:  kill the hunters, take their horses, and seize the 15,000 rounds of ammunition stockpiled within the stores.  If successful, Chief Parker would use the ammunition—originally designed to kill buffalo—to kill the buffalo hunters.  (And any other whites in the region.)

Note.  At this point, I imagine a few of you are asking, "Why the hell were there 15,000 rounds of ammo stockpiled in the middle of nowhere?"  The answer is, "To kill buffalo."  Before the herds vanished, hunters used to kill an average of about 75-100 animals a day during the three-month season when the hides were usually harvested.  The stockpiled ammunition was only sufficient to supply two hunters for the summer.

There were also 15,000 buffalo hides awaiting shipment to Fort Dodge, but the Indians had no use for them.  Within another year, the bison of the "Southern Plains" would have been almost wiped out.  Congress had passed bills in both 1872 and 1874, limiting hunting to preserve the herds, but President Grant had refused to sign them into law.

About two hours after midnight on June 27, 1874, the men in Hanrahan's store heard a loud crack.  The cottonwood beam supporting the rafters had broken and the weight of the sod roof was threatening to collapse the entire building.  After shoveling dirt off the roof and bracing the rafters, the men decided that it was easier just to stay awake than to try and sleep for only a few hours.  This decision saved their lives.

One of the men standing near the corral was watching a small herd of buffalo drift closer to the encampment, when suddenly the screaming "buffalo" charged the buildings.  Even with the warning, not everyone made it inside one of the stores to safety.  Brothers Ike and Shorty Shadler were asleep under their wagon, but before they could make it to safety, both were killed.  Their scalped bodies were found near their wagon the next day.  (A 1917 interview with one of the survivors of the baffle claims the Indians also killed and scalped their dog.  What is the proper Comanche translation of, "And your little dog, too.")

For hours, a force of roughly 700 Indians attacked the buildings without success.  The twenty-eight men and one woman were behind thick wooden walls designed for protection from just such an onslaught.  With ample supplies, the defending buffalo hunters had only one problem:  many were using the wrong guns.  The favorite buffalo rifle of the time was the Sharps Rifle.  A single shot, heavy long-barreled rifle, it fired a variety of very heavy bullets that were deadly accurate at ranges normally up to 600 yards.  The long barrel made it very difficult to use at short ranges against moving targets.  The Hanrahan store had just received a case of the Sharps rifles, which was quickly opened and passed out to the hunters.

Even considering the weapon problem, the advantage was still on the side of the buffalo hunters.  All day long, they killed the Indians as they attacked the buildings, which had been laid out to set up a pattern of defensive crossfire.  Only one of the buffalo hunters was hit by any of the fairly constant fire from the Indians, as he ventured outside to check on the horses in the stoop picket pole corral.  He made it back to one of the stores where he died in the arms of his friend, Bat Masterson.  (Yes, that Bat Masterson.  Only twenty years-old, Bat was years away from meeting Wyatt Earp or becoming a famous lawman.)

Quanah was wounded during the attack when a bullet bounced off a buffalo horn the chief was wearing on a necklace.  The wound, halfway between his shoulder and his neck, was not serious, but persuaded him to withdraw.  About the same time, Isa-tai was killed by a stray bullet.  (At least that is the official story: personally, and without any evidence, I think Quanah shot him.  If my medicine man had promised me I was bullet-proof and then I got shot…)

The only other casualty was William Olds, who was climbing up a ladder through a trap door leading to the roof of the Langton store, when he accidentally shot himself.  He fell lifeless through the trap door, landing at the feet of his wife, the only white woman in the territory besides Quanah Parker's mother.

Eventually, the Indians withdrew back into the distant scrub brush and rocks, only occasionally shooting at any of the hunters who dared to show themselves.  This tactic was continued for a day and a half—until Billy Dixon ended the battle in a novel (and still controversial) manner.

On the third day, a group of Indians on horseback could be observed almost a mile away, as they surveyed the battle field.  At the urging of his friends, Dixon borrowed one of the new Sharps rifles.  Nicknamed the Big Fifty, the gun could fire a .50-90 cartridge.  This means it fired a .50 caliber ball and used 90 grains of black powder, making it the most powerful cartridge available.

Dixon took careful aim, elevating the rifle about 5 degrees and fired three times.  The Indians said the Sharps rifle was the "gun that shoots today and kills tomorrow."  This is a slight exaggeration, but it took several seconds for that last bullet to travel the distance and knock an Indian off his pony just yards from Quanah Parker.  The Indians, faced with an enemy who could kill at almost a mile, broke off the battle and withdrew.

Billy Dixon always modestly claimed that it was a "scratch shot", or an accident.  The US Army, when they finally arrived, measured the distance at 1,538 yards, or 9/10 of a mile.  In his autobiography, Dixon devotes only a single paragraph to the remarkable shot.

Less than three months later, Dixon was scouting for the US Army and his accurate rifle fire helped keep the Comanche from attacking at the Battle of Buffalo Wallow.  For those actions, he received the Medal of Honor—one of only eight civilians to receive the medal.

But, did the miracle shot of almost a mile actually happen?  Was the rifle even capable of such a shot.  Recent testing using sophisticated technology confirms that the rifle is capable of shooting that far.  In 1917, a writer for Pearson's Magazine interviewed the surviving participants of the battle.  Everyone confirmed that the shot did happen and the Native Americans even attested that, while the stricken warrior did not die, he was severely wounded.

Within a few years after the second battle of Adobe Walls, the buffalo were gone and the stores were abandoned.  Indians burned down the buildings and all you will find today are a few historic markers and the grave of Billy Dixon, whose body was moved there in 1929. 

5 comments:

  1. A question that I have always wondered about is what did white people do with all of the Buffalo hides. With several hundred hunters killing 75 - 100 animals a day for three months a year, that is an incredible number of hides. What was the use of Buffalo hides?

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  2. Some of the hides were used like like cow hide leather for such ordinary items as boots, saddles, and so forth. A lot of the hides were used by industry. Increasingly, steam engines provided the power for belt driven machines. In a world of artificial man-made materials, we forget how often and in how many places durable leather products were used.

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  3. If you are interested, here is the link to the Pearson’s Magazine article. The author never met an adjective he didn’t like.

    https://www.tsl.texas.gov/exhibits/indian/showdown/little-1908-1.html

    And if you are interested in Billy Dixon, his autobiography is available as a free download here:

    http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/45075?msg=welcome_stranger

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  4. In about 1986, I was a practicing CPA in Abilene. One of my clients was the renowned wildlife photographer Weiman Meizer. He had a replica of the Big 50, and let me shoot it a few times one day. I can attest thet it is heavy, very heavy. And unwieldy. Ald kicks like a Missouri mule. We were shooting at a 55 gallon drum about (guessing here) 500 yards away. The time difference between the shot and hearing the bullet hit the drum was astounding. It was truly several seconds. I'm guessing 3 or 4 full seconds. Ah, good times.

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  5. I'm really disappointed at Grant for not signing the bills to protect the buffalo herds. And yet I wonder if it wasn't for the best. The Comanche were kinda murderous and with those big shaggies in giant herds the size of Rhode Island roaming the plains, I doubt we would ever have been able to create the vast farms we have today and huge cities would never have taken hold because we wouldn't have been able to feed them. Buffalo don't domesticate well like cattle. The big bulls are very hard on cowboys (or, I suppose, it would have been "buffaloboys" which doesn't look as good in print as "cowboys"). So, if we'd tried to domesticate buffalo, it would likely have taken some of the poetry out of western novels and by now the forces of political and/or scientific correctness would have forced us to call the poor souls who had to try and herd those beasts "bisonboys". That just wouldn't have ever worked.

    You really can't win if you tamper with history. We'd have probably lost a whole film genre if it had come to that. Bisonboys sounds like a gay punk rock band. I can't see John Wayne or Clint Eastwood as bisonboys. Louis L'Amour would have had to stick to detective novels and my father-in-law would never have dreamed about owning his own ranch and that would have been tragic because that and alcohol was pretty much the only things that made him happy and you didn't want to be around him much when he wasn't happy.

    Happy trails,

    Tom

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