Sunday, November 19, 2017

Oklahoma History: The Red River War: When the Natives Get Restless

A Kiowa ledger drawing possibly depicting the Buffalo Wallow battle in 1874, a fight between Southern Plains Indians and the U.S. Army during the Red River War, Author Unknown, Public Domain

By Alanna Radle Rodriguez and Judge Rodriguez

Thank you for joining us this month in the continuing discovery of the rich and diverse history of the great state we call home: Oklahoma. During the research of the “Forts of Oklahoma Series” we identified that there were many socio-political influences that helped to shape the government and historical impact of the Indian Territory. For those of you whom have been following our articles for most of this year, you will have seen several references to the series of events covered in this month’s article. The Red River War was the culmination of decades’ worth of frustration and a breakdown of policy handling by the government of the United States.

Following the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867, the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Comanche, and Kiowa were moved to reservations in the Indian Territory (today Oklahoma). Many of the tribesmen, certainly not all, but many of them complied with the restrictions placed on them by the federal government.

The tribes that were somewhat reluctantly constrained were the Kiowa and the Comanche. They were restrained due to the imprisonment of their chiefs Satanta and Addo-Etta (Big Tree in the native tongue), as well as the capture of 124 Comanche women and children in 1872.

Many of the indigenous tribesmen had found that they could use their reservations as a safe haven, while they committed numerous raids on white settlers to New Mexico, Kansas, Colorado, and Texas. They would commit the raid, and be back on the reservation before the authorities were alerted to anything being amiss.

According to the Medicine Lodge treaty, the tribes were promised rations, blankets, trade goods, protection of the vast buffalo herds in Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle (which the tribes believed had been set aside for them as reservation land), and most importantly protection against encroachment of white settlers on their lands, all for abiding by the terms of the treaty. Tensions increased as these promises went unfilled. Much of the meat they received was rotten, the blankets were disease ridden, and rather than helping the tribesmen prevent encroachment, the U.S. Army seemed to spend more time protecting the white settlers from the indigenous tribesmen.

With the emergence of young medicine man Isa-Tai, the tribesmen, believing they were able to become impervious to harm, became increasingly more bold in their raids. The tensions came to a head when the Comanche, Kiowa, and Cheyenne led by Isa-Tai, and Quanah Parker attacked a camp of buffalo hunters at the site of Adobe Walls, Texas in 1874. This raid prompted the Indian Bureau to in effect declare war on all native tribesmen off their reservations. They labeled all indigenous tribesmen as either friendly (remaining on the reservation), and hostiles (all others).

General Philip Sheridan ordered 5 columns of troops to converge on the area of the Texas panhandle, mostly in the upper tributaries of the Red River. These troops were intended to deny the indigenous tribesmen of any safe haven, and to force them back to the reservations permanently. The troops included the 4th, 6th, 8th, and 10th Cavalry, and the 11th, and 5th Infantry.

As many as 20 engagements were fought over the course of the next year, with the most decisive victory being the battle of Palo Duro Canyon. Intriguingly enough, only 4 indigenous tribesmen were killed. However, over 450 lodges were burned, countless pounds of buffalo meat were destroyed, and more than 1400 horses were captured. Most of the horses that were captured were subsequently put down to deny the indigenous tribesmen from being able to regain the use of their mounts.

The Red River War continued throughout 1874 and into 1875, ending with Quanah Parker surrendering his forces to troops in Fort Sill. This signaled the end of the Southern Plains Tribes involvement in the “Indian Wars” of the 1870’s – 1880’s. We would like to thank you once again for joining us this month in bringing to light some of our beloved Oklahoma history. Please join us next month for an overview of the involvement of the U.S. Cavalry in the shaping of our fair home.


  1. Thank you for your informative posts!

  2. We really need these tales written down before they fade into the gone, lost, unwritten history that dies with our ancestors.

    1. You are so right! I feel that goes right along with family history too. I was in the process of writing down stories from my grandmother when she died. I didn't get down a lot of the family history. It's sad when history dies with people.

  3. History that needs to be recorded. Thank you for sharing. Have a blessed Thanksgiving.