Adobe Walls

In 1862, the Union Army was forced to deal with an uprising of the Sioux in Minnesota and a similar situation involving the Apache and Navajo in New Mexico. The responsibility for the latter fell upon the old trailblazer, Kit Carson. As war wound down, Carson was sent to the Southern Plains in search of raiders responsible for raiding along the Santa Fe Trail in Kansas and Colorado. He found the offending warriors but was nearly wiped out in the fight that followed. He was saved by his cannon in what could well be the only situation history in the Indian wars where artillery was the deciding factor.

Hwy. Marker-Battle of Adobe Walls: State Highway 15/FM 278,
five miles north of Stinnett.

On November 25, 1864; Largest Indian battle in Civil War, 15 miles east, at ruins of Bent's old fort, on the Canadian. 3,000 Comanches and Kiowas, allies of the South, met 372 Federals under Col. Kit Carson, famous scout and mountain man. Though Carson made a brilliant defense-called greatest fight of his career-the Indians won.

Some of the same Indians lost in 1874 Battle of Adobe Walls, though they outnumbered 700 to 29 the buffalo hunters whose victory helped open the Panhandle to settlement.

The following story is from the book, Carbine & Lance, The Story of Old Fort Sill, by Colonel W. S. Nye; Copyright © 1937 by the University of Oklahoma Press. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

    It was high time for another treaty. The Federals were not interested in what was happening in Texas, but the outrages in Kansas and Colorado aroused them to a war of reprisal. There was nobody on hand to make a treaty; the military people were in charge in the West, and they thought that the Indians ought to be disciplined rather than rewarded for their forays. In Kansas the war schemes did not mature, as the available troops were diverted in a vain attempt to catch the Confederate raiders Quantrell and Shelby. In Colorado the government sent Colonel J. M. Chivington, with the First Colorado Volunteer Cavalry, against the Cheyennes. In New Mexico General J. H. Carleton sent Colonel Christopher (Kit) Carson to attack the Kiowas and Comanches.

    Carson's force consisted of three hundred volunteer cavalrymen and a hundred Utes and Jicarilla Apaches. It was planned to strike the hostiles in their winter camp, which was thought to be in Palo Duro Canyon. Carson left Cimarron, New Mexico, on November 3, 1864. With snow on the ground two feet deep, it was difficult for Carson to persuade his Indian allies to make the march. When the weather is cold the wild Indian loves nothing so much as the warmth of his lodge fire. On November 24 the troops found the Kiowas and Comanches camped along what is now called Kit Carson Creek in the Panhandle of Texas, near Bent's old post of Adobe Walls. They attacked the upper part of the village, killing several ancient braves, who, blind from the prevalent trachoma, could not escape. Then they set to work destroying the camp.

    To-hauson, great chief of the Kiowas-at that time an old man-galloped downstream to warn the rest of the tribe. When he arrived, on his steaming and blood-flecked horse, the women and children set up an awful uproar of frightened wails. The warriors tied up their horses' tails and galloped out to protect the camp. While they were riding upstream the women and children fled in the opposite direction. The white captive, Millie Durgan, was concealed in the brush but later was rescued by her foster mother.

    Hundreds of warriors arriving from the adjacent camps forced Carson to abandon his attack and retreat. If he had not been covered by the fire of Lieutenant Pettis' platoon of mountain howitzers he would have been cut to pieces.

The following story is from the book, Comanches, The Destruction of a People, by T. R. Fehrenbach.

    The respite given the Plains tribes by the Civil war was not enough to allow them to rebuild their numbers. In the closing months of that conflict, the United States military commands in the West were moving swiftly to regain the initiative and effect a bloody retribution. While the Colorado militia was mopping up the Amerindian villages without regard to guilt or innocence in the wars, Colonel Kit Carson of the New Mexico Territorials had crushed the Navajos. By the fall of 1864, Carson's superior, the district commander General James H. Carleton, was ready to turn the army's attention to the Comanches and Kiowas, who all year had raised havoc along the Santa Fe Trail.

    Angry bands of southern warriors threatened to cut completely this route of communications with Missouri and the East. During 1864, virtually every wagon train proceeding down the Canadian River to New Mexico was attacked. Even large and powerful parties lost horses and oxen to raiding Amerindians. Small groups, whether military or civilian, had been massacred. In October, therefore, Carleton received orders to restore full communications and to "punish the savages" responsible for the depredations. He authorized Colonel Carson to sweep through the valley of the Canadian with a strong force of New Mexico and California territorials.

    It was known that large numbers of Comanches and Kiowas were wintering on the rich bison plains of the Texas Panhandle, and it was believed that these Indians would not be prepared to fight a winter campaign.

    Carson marched out of Cimarron, New Mexico, in early November with more than three hundred mounted troops and seventy-two Ute and Jicarilla Apache scouts and auxiliaries. The Utes were promised scalps and plunder, and some warriors brought along their women. Carson was well supplied: he had a well-stocked train of twenty-seven wagons and six thousand rounds of ammunition. He was also furnished with two excellent little twelve-pounder mountain howitzers, fitted on special traveling carriages.

    The column followed Ute Creek to where it pours into the Canadian, then rode east into the high Texas Plains along the broad, flat river bottoms. The scouts went far ahead. At night, Carson camped among tall cottonwoods in the gulches or cañadas. The weather was already bitter, with snow flakes appearing. For days he saw no Indians. Then, at sundown on November 24th, the scouts reported an encampment about a day's march to the east, near the old, abandoned Bent and St. Vrain trading post on a small tributary of the Canadian. This place was known as Adobe Walls, from its still standing sun-dried brick structures. Carson at once marched toward the Indians, pushing his column through the frosty night for fifteen miles, allowing no fires or smoking during rest breaks.

    He was in sight of the Indian camp at daybreak. Lieutenant George Pettis of the California volunteers, the officer in charge of the two-gun battery, thought he saw gray-white Sibley tents in the distance. Carson informed him that these were the sun-bleached tipis of Plains Indians. The Utes reported a camp or village of 176 lodges. Without scouting farther down the river valley, Carson detached his baggage train with a guard of seventy-five men, and with a squadron of some 250 cavalry attacked across the two-mile-wide valley toward the village. This was open country, surrounded by low hills or ridges, and covered with dry grasses that rose horse-high in many places.

    The Ute and Jicarilla auxiliaries left the column and tried to steal the enemies' horse herd. The camp, which was Kiowa Apache, was alerted before the cavalry reached it. The warriors formed a skirmish line to cover the flight of their women and children, who abandoned the tipis and ran for the ridges behind the river. The Plains-culture Athapaskans, who were "Apache" only in dialect, often created a confusion in accounts, which sometimes called them Kiowas, sometimes merely Apaches. This led some whites to believe that there were still Apaches on the Texas plains, and that they sometimes fought alongside Nermernuh-the last unthinkable. The Kiowa Apaches formed an integral part of the Kiowa tribal circle, and on this day one of the great war chiefs of the Kiowas, Dohasan (To-hau-sen, Little Mountain, also often called Sierrito), was in their lodges. Dohasan organized the defense, while also sending for help from Comanche and Kiowa lodges downstream. He rallied the warriors, and his swirling, shooting horsemen slowed the white attack and assured the escape of the women. Carson's cavalry killed one warrior who wore a coat of mail, but when they reached the tipis they were deserted.

    Dohasan exhibited great bravery. His horse was shot from under him, but he was rescued and rallied his warriors. The cavalry pushed on against the retreating Kiowa Apaches for about four miles, finally reaching the crumbling Adobe Walls buildings. Here, more and more Indians seemed to be appearing. The whites dismounted, and sheltering their horses behind the trading post, began skirmishing on foot. Carson came up to Adobe Walls with the battery, and now both the old mountain man and the inexperienced Pettis saw another camp of some five hundred lodges rising less than a mile way, along the river.

    This was a Comanche encampment, and hundreds of warriors were streaming from it across the prairie. Pettis counted "twelve or fourteen hundred." The Indians formed a long line across the ridges, painting their faces while their chiefs harangued them. The Kiowas, who were also arriving in large numbers, roared he battle songs of their warrior societies. Pettis feared that the horde would charge the white squadron at any moment.

    Carson ordered him to throw a few shells at the crowd of Indians. The howitzers were unlimbered, wheeled around, and fired in rapid succession. The shells, screaming over the warriors' heads and bursting just beyond them, seemed to startle the Indians badly. Yelling, the host moved precipitously out of range.

    Carson told his troops that the battle was over. He ordered the horses watered in Bent's Creek. The surgeon looked after several wounded men while the others ate cold rations. However, the tall grass was swarming with distance Comanches and Kiowas. Within the hour, a thousand warriors surrounded the trading post, circling and firing from under the horses' bellies. Surprisingly, most of the warriors appeared to be equipped with good firearms. However, the twin cannon broke up their attacks, and the exploding shells knocked down both men and horses at a great distance. The enemy swirled about for several hours, not daring to press too close, while the howitzers killed many on the ridges. But Carson was becoming apprehensive. He had never seen so many Indians. Pettis was sure that there were at least three thousand, and small parties could be seen still arriving. The expedition had marched unwittingly into a vast winter concentration of the tribes on the southern bison range. Carson, with a split command, was worried about his trains. His rear detachment, without cannon, would almost certainly be overwhelmed if the enemy discovered it. He now made a cautious but quite sensible decision: to break out of Adobe Walls and regroup with his supply column, which had his food and ammunition.

    The cavalry mounted and retreated behind the fires of the battery, which stayed constantly in action. The Indians fired the grass, but this helped, because the smoke concealed Carson's retiring column. About sundown, the whites arrived back in the deserted Kiowa Apache camp, where Pettis noted that the Ute women had mutilated the corpses of several dead Indians. Carson ordered the lodges fired; then, under the cover of darkness, he moved out rapidly to the west. The enemy did not attack. Three hours later, he rejoined his wagons.

    The next dawn, the Indians still held back. Some of the territorial officers insisted that the expedition take up the attack, but Carson ordered a withdrawal. The odds were much too great; Carson, who later wrote that he had never seen Indians who fought with such dash and courage until they were shaken by his artillery, did not make the error of despising horse Indians. He had so far lost only a few dead, and a handful of wounded, while his guns had inflicted serious losses, killing and wounding perhaps two hundred Indians. He could claim a victory, and did this when the column arrived back in new Mexico. Carson's official report stated that he had "taught these Indians a severe lesson," to be "more cautious about how they engage a force of civilized troops."

    Privately, he thought himself lucky to have extricated his command. In fact, the howitzers and his own caution had probably saved him from Custer's fate on the Little Big Horn. The Kiowas and Comanches told some Comancheros who were in the Indian camps at the time that except for the "guns that shot twice," the twin battery, they would have killed every white man in the valley of the Canadian. Carson himself said as much to Lieutenant Pettis.

    Carson was angered by the presence of Comancheros with the Kiowas and Comanches, which explained the source of the Indians' guns and ammunition. He "had no doubt," he stated, "that the very balls with which my men were killed and wounded were sold by these Mexicans not ten days before." He wanted the New Mexicans barred from trading with the wild tribes while the army was at war with them. This was the beginning of what was to become a historic hatred between the soldiers and the Comancheros.

    Overall, the expedition had been less than completely successful, and the white withdrawal left the Indians in full control of the territory. Carson urged that the campaign be renewed, but with at least a thousand troops, who, he thought, would destroy the Indian concentrations in winter. The military authorities were planning extensive, determined operations from Kansas to New Mexico when the sudden collapse of the Confederacy changed everything again. The Comanches and other Plains peoples were now to be granted their second stay within the decade.

The following story is from the book, Carbine & Lance, The Story of Old Fort Sill by Colonel W. S. Nye.

    On the Indian side To-hauson and Stumbling Bear were the heroes. To-hauson had a horse shot under him. Stumbling Bear made so many reckless charges that his small daughter's shawl, which he wore for good luck, was pierced by a dozen bullets. Stumbling Bear was not wounded. The battle ended with the troops retiring, closely followed by the Indians, who set fire to the brown grass and harassed the soldiers by shooting and charging from the cover of the smoke.

    Colonel Chivington's campaign against the Cheyennes was more successful than that of Carson. But it culminated in an affair so disgraceful that it brought upon Chivington the condemnation of the entire country. Black Kettle, a Cheyenne chief, had brought his village to Fort Lyon, Colorado, in compliance with orders of the agent that all well-disposed Indians should come in for roll call. While camped near the fort, with an American flag flying over his tepee, Black Kettle was attacked by Chivington. One hundred and twenty Indians were slaughtered. Women and children were butchered in cruel and inhuman ways. A wave of horror swept over the United States when the details of this attack became known. The feelings of the Indians may well be imagined.

    As a result of the Chivington massacre at Sand Creek, the hostility of the Cheyennes and Arapahoes increased toward the whites, until finally, in 1868, General Sheridan was forced to drive them to a reservation, the eventual result of Sheridan's campaign being the establishment of Fort Sill…

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