The Red River War (1874-75) was the culmination of the years of conflict between the Texas Plains Indians, the Texans, and the U.S. Military. From this military campaign the Indians were placed on reservations and the Texas Panhandle was opened up to expansion. This area was one of the last in Texas to open to Anglo settlers.
The Southern Plains Indians were a nomadic hunters who followed the bison herds. They placed nearly total dependence on the bison for their livelihood. The bison provided the Comanche, Kiowa, Southern Cheyenne, and Southern Arapahoe everything they needed for survival. When the bison hide hunters moved into the Plains region killing millions of bison for their hides only, this story becomes one of extinction. There are those who say the Red River War could be called the Buffalo War.
A good source for this time period is the book, The Texas Panhandle Frontier by Frederick W. Rathjen. Rathjen was born in Clarendon, Texas, and taught Texas and Western history at West Texas A&M University from 1956 until his retirement in 1990. The following information comes directly from Rathjen’s book.
Rathjen makes this strong statement about the Plains Indians, “Seldom in the history of humankind does a civilization adapt itself so exactly and so completely to its environment as the Plains Indians adapted to the vast grasslands of North America.” The same could be said of the bison., an animal that adapted and thrived on the grasslands. For many years the bison and Indians were left alone as most Anglos felt that the Southern Plains were dreadfully deficient in the things necessary to support life.
For nearly 200 years the Comanche and Kiowa hunted and survived on these same Southern Plains.
In 1870, W.C. Lobenstine, a Fort Leavenworth (Kansas) fur trader, told Kansas agents Charles Rath and A.C. Myers that an English tannery was interested in acquiring 500 buffalo hides for experiments in making leather. If successful, an unlimited number of buffalo hides could be sold to England and also to a tanning firm in New York City.
Quickly, the bison north of the Texas Panhandle were killed for their hides bringing about $2.50 per hide to the hunters. Hunters began to look at other areas that were still dense with bison. Like the California “Gold Rush” the Plains opened up to the Texas “Hide Rush.” During the 1870s, the bison hide business became a multi-million dollar business. Obviously, the days of profitable hide hunting was numbered so the money needed to be made while there were still bison.
Hide hunters were leery of the plains. There were a lot of Comanches and Kiowas living on the plains and there were few places to hide on the flat prairies. But with the bison gone in Kansas, they decided to move onto the Texas Panhandle. A.C. Myers agreed to establish a trading post in the Texas Panhandle. Charles Rath joined him and they built the trading post in the spring of 1874 and called it Adobe Walls. There were two trading stores, a blacksmith shop and a saloon. The hide hunters took their hides to Adobe Walls where selling them for money and supplies.
The Southern Plains Indians were infuriated about the destruction of their livelihood. A group of Comanches, Kiowas, and Cheyennes gathered together to attack Adobe Walls, hoping to run the hide hunters out of what the Indians considered their hunting grounds. They attacked Adobe Walls during the summer of 1874 and the result was a slow-down of the hide hunting and the inhabitants of Adobe Walls packed up and returned to Kansas.
Even though it seemed like a victory, it was the end for the Indians. From this event, the U.S. military created a strategy to remove the Indians from the Southern Plains and placed on reservations in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). The whole idea of confinement to the Plains tribes was abhorrent. They would not go willingly. This was the beginning of the Red River War.
A law was initiated by the Texas legislature to protect the bison before they were completely destroyed.General Phil Sheridan strongly urged them not to pass the law. He urged that the buffalo hunters be left alone since they were doing more “to settle the vexed Indian question than the entire regular army has done in the last 30 years.”
In June 1875, the last Indian tribe surrendered. This was the Quahadas Comanche tribe with Quanah Parker being one of its leaders. The Indians all surrendered to a life on the reservation more because of hunger than any other reason. The last year of the bison slaughter was 1878 when finding a herd of 50 was a rarity. With the Indians and bison gone from the Texas Panhandle, the area opened up for ranchers and farmers.
(4) History. The student understands how individuals, events, and issues shaped the history of the Republic of Texas and early Texas statehood.
(A) identify individuals, events, and issues during the Republic of Texas and early Texas statehood,… the Texas Rangers…
(6) History. The student understands how individuals, events, and issues shaped the history of Texas from Reconstruction through the beginning of the 20th century.
(A) identify significant individuals, events, and issues from Reconstruction through the beginning of the 20th century, including the factors leading to the expansion of the Texas frontier, the effects of westward expansion on Native Americans,… Cynthia Parker
(9) Geography. The student understands the location and characteristics of places and regions of Texas.
(A) locate places and regions of importance in Texas during the 19th and 20th centuries;
(20) Science, technology, and society. The student understands the impact of scientific discoveries and technological innovations on the political, economic, and social development of Texas.
(A) compare types and uses of technology, past and present
Sources from the art collection at Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, Canyon, Texas:
Ben Carlton Mead, Billy Dixon Bringing in Chapman, Battle of Buffalo Wallow, ink on paper, n.d.
Edward Borein, The 'Dobe Walls Fight, ink and gouache on cardboard, n.d.
H.D. Bugbee, Lone Buffalo, oil on canvasboard, ca. 1928.
John Eliot Jenkins, Adobe Walls, 1874, oil on canvas, 1931.