The Red River War was a military campaign launched by the U.S. Army in 1874 to remove the Comanche, Kiowa, Southern Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indian tribes from the Southern Plains and enforce their relocation to reservations in Indian Territory. The actions of 1874 were unlike any prior attempts by the Army to pacify this area of the western frontier.
Many factors led to the military's campaign against the Indians. During the 1850s, west-bound settlers came into conflict with the local Indian tribes. To protect the settlers from Indian attacks, the Army established a series of frontier forts. The start of the American Civil War resulted in a withdrawal of the troops from the western frontier. The Indians faced few incursions from the immigrants from the Eastern Mississippi. After the war, however, the railroad, mining, and railroad companies, together with Euro-Americans homesteaders, hungry for land, began to pressure the Federal Government to take military action against the Indians.
The Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867 called for two reservations to be set aside in Indian Territory—one for the Comanche and Kiowa and one for the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho. According to the treaty, the government would provide the tribes with many basic services and training, housing, food and supplies, including guns and ammunition for hunting. In exchange, the Indians agreed to stop their attacks and raids. Ten chiefs endorsed the treaty and some tribal members moved voluntarily to the reservations.
But the treaty was a failure. Commercial buffalo hunters ignored the terms of the treaty as they moved into the area promised to the Southern Plains Indians. A few branches of the tribes, including Quanah Parker's Quahadi Comanches refused to even sign the treaty. The great southern herd of American bison was all but exterminated in just four years—from 1874 to 1878. The hunters killed the animals by the thousands, sending the hides back East and leaving the carcasses to rot—and the U.S. government did nothing to stop them. The disappearance of the buffalo reduced the Indians to dependence on reservation rations.
Cattlemen, driving their steers north through Indian Territory and the Texas Panhandle caused enormous environmental disruption. A good number of the cowboys treated all Indians as "hostile." The Native Americans, with a hunting tradition that stretched back to time beyond memory, considered any four-footed animal on the prairie to be "fair game," longhorns included. Needless to say, clashes occurred.
The promises made by the U.S. government to those Indians who had moved onto the reservations proved largely empty. Food was inadequate and of poor quality. The restrictions on personal movement, trade, and worship were all but impossible for the Indians, who were used to roaming over the plains at will, to tolerate. As conditions continued to worsen many of the Indians who were still there now left to join with the bands who had returned to the Texas plains. Among the Indians there was talk of war and of driving the white man from the land.
In 1874 a leader emerged in the person of Isa-tai (Coyote Dung) of the Quahadi Band of Comanches. Isa-tai was doing his best to incite a war against the whites. Because the majority of Indians now saw themselves in a situation with the only alternative to starvation being war, it took little persuasion by Isa-tai to convince the Indian leaders they must strike back at the whites. A plan was formed that the Indians would attack and destroy the new settlement of buffalo hunters at Adobe Walls.
On June 27, 1874 some 300 Indians, led by Isa-tai and Comanche Chief Quanah Parker, attacked Adobe Walls. Though the 28 hunters who occupied the post were outnumbered, they were well armed with long-range rifles and were able to hold off the Indians. With their failure at Adobe Walls, many of the Indians began to spread over the plains of Texas. For the Indians, this brought retaliation by the U.S. Army, defeat, and confinement to the reservations.
The attack on Adobe Walls served as a catalyst for the U.S. Army to make plans to subdue the Southern Plains tribes permanently. This policy called for enrollment and protection of innocent and friendly Indians at their reservations, and pursuit and destruction of hostile Indians without regard for reservation or departmental boundaries.
The offensive utilized five columns converging on the general area of the Texas Panhandle and specifically upon the upper tributaries of the Red River where the Indians were believed to be. The strategy aimed at full encirclement of the region, thereby eliminating virtually all gaps through which the Indians might escape. Colonel Nelson A. Miles moved southward from Fort Dodge; Lieutenant Colonel John W. Davidson marched westward from Fort Sill; Lieutenant Colonel George P. Buell moved northwest from Fort Griffin; Colonel Ranald S. Mackenzie came northward from Fort Concho; and Major William R. Price marched eastward across the Panhandle from Fort Union. The plan called for the converging columns to maintain a continuous offensive until a decisive defeat had been inflicted on the Indians.
During the Red River War of 1874, as many as 20 engagements between the U.S. Army and the Southern Plains Indians may have taken place across the Texas Panhandle region. The well-equipped Army kept the Indians on the run until eventually they could not run or fight any longer. They were eventually defeated at Palo Duro Canyon. The Red River War officially ended in June 1875 when Quanah Parker and his band of Quahadi Comanche entered Fort Sill and surrendered; they were the last free band of southwestern Indians. The Comanche and the Kiowa were granted reservation land in southwestern Indian Territory.