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The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture

RED RIVER WAR (1874–1875).

The campaign called the Red River War was the last major conflict between the U.S. Army and the southern Plains Indians. The Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867 had settled the Southern Cheyenne, Arapaho, Comanche, and Kiowa on reservations in Indian Territory. Under the terms of Pres. Ulysses S. Grant's developing Peace Policy, American Indians who moved onto the reservations were given rations and offered an opportunity for education and training as farmers. Many of the Indians, but by no means all, accepted their assigned reservations. Some continued to raid, using the reservations as safe havens from retaliation. The Comanche and Kiowa were somewhat restrained by the imprisonment of Kiowa leaders Satanta and Big Tree for their part in a raid in 1871 and the capture of 124 Comanche women and children in 1872, but the release of all these prisoners in 1873 led to intensified raiding. White settlers in Texas, Kansas, and Colorado were loud in their demand that the Army suppress these raids.

Many factors led to the outbreak of full-scale war in 1874. Indian desire for revenge for losses sustained in earlier raids, continued delays and shortages in rations, fears of white encroachment on Indian land, and, especially, the movement of white buffalo hunters onto the plains of the Texas Panhandle, lands which the Indians believed were reserved for them, all contributed to their growing anger. All that was lacking was inspiring leadership, and that surfaced in early 1870 in the form of Isa-tai, a young Kwahadi Comanche medicine man. After gaining credibility by several feats of magic, Is-tai called for all the Comanche bands to join together in the Sun Dance, something the Comanche previously had not practiced. (Of the five major Comanche bands, the Kwahadi and the Yamparika were the primary participants in the Red River War). At this meeting the Comanche, joined by Kiowa and Cheyenne, targeted the camp of white buffalo hunters at the site of Adobe Walls, an old trading post in the Texas Panhandle. The Indians' attack at Adobe Walls may be considered the official beginning of the Red River War. It was followed quickly by a Kiowa raid into Texas and a Comanche attack on an army detachment at the Wichita Agency at Anadarko in Indian Territory. As many as five thousand Indians, representing many of the southern tribes, fled their Indian Territory reservations and moved onto their familiar hunting grounds in western Indian Territory and the Texas Panhandle.

At this stage the army and the Indian Bureau in effect declared war on all Indians off their assigned reservations. Officers and Indian agents enrolled the Indians still present on the reservations and designated all others as "hostiles." The army planned a five-pronged campaign to put constant pressure on the Indians considered to be enemies. Army departmental boundaries were ignored, and troops were allowed to follow Indians onto the reservations.

The most famous encounter between the army and the Indians was at Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas Panhandle where the Fourth Cavalry, led by Col. Ranald Slidell Mackenzie, broke up a large encampment of Comanche, Kiowa, and Cheyenne, killing only a few Indians but capturing and slaughtering about fourteen hundred horses. No one battle, however, accounted for the defeat of the Indians. It was rather the constant and unrelenting pressure brought to bear by the various columns, some of which remained in the field until January 1875. Indians who had fled the reservations began to return as early as October, and by the spring of 1875 only some bands of Kwahadi Comanche, led by Mow-way and Quanah Parker, were still at large. Mackenzie, now commanding at Fort Sill in Indian Territory, sent post interpreter Dr. J. J. Sturms to negotiate the surrender of these Indians. Quanah Parker's band came into Fort Sill on June 2, 1875, marking the end of the Red River War.

Although less well known than other conflicts with American Indians, the war was of great importance. Seventy-four Indians who were designated as leaders were imprisoned in Florida, depriving the hostile southern Plains tribes of war leadership and forcing them finally to accept their assignment to reservations. To some extent the war helped to alert sympathizers to the harsh treatment of the American Indians by the U.S. government. It opened new possibilities of cooperation between the army and the Indian Bureau, as shown by Mackenzie's work with Kiowa-Comanche Indian agent James A. Haworth. The war taught that the army, if given free rein and adequate force, could successfully operate against American Indians, a lesson soon to be applied on the northern plains. Finally, the Red River War opened the way for the final extermination of the southern bison herd and the settlement of the Texas Panhandle by whites.

Michael D. Pierce


Donald J. Berthrong, The Southern Cheyennes (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963).

James L. Haley, The Buffalo War: The History of the Red River Indian Uprising of 1874 (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Co., 1976).

Wilbur S. Nye, Carbine and Lance: The Story of Old Fort Sill (3d ed, rev.; Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969).

Michael D. Pierce, The Most Promising Young Officer: A Life of Ranald Slidell Mackenzie (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993).

Ernest Wallace and E. Adamson Hoebel, The Comanches: Lords of the South Plains (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1952).

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The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Michael D. Pierce, “Red River War (1874–1875),” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry?entry=RE010.

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