Blanco Canyon

Michael has a BA in History & American Studies and an MSc in American History from the University of Edinburgh. He comes from a proud military family and has spent most of his career as an educator in the Middle East and Asia. His passion is travel, and he seizes any opportunity to share his experiences in the most immersive way possible, whether at sea or on the land.

Floyd County, Texas

The following indented story is from the book, On The Border With Mackenzie, by Captain R.G. Carter.

    The well delivered fire of our little handful of men, covering now a considerable line, caused the savages to scatter out still more, to falter and hesitate, and to commence their curious custom of circling. They were naked to the waist; were arrayed in all their war paint and trinkets, with head dresses or war bonnets of fur or feathers fantastically ornamented. Their ponies, especially the white, cream, dun, and claybanks, were striped and otherwise artistically painted and decorated with gaudy stripes of flannel and calico. Bells were jingling, feathers waving, and with jubilant, discordant yells that would have put to blush any Confederate brigade of the Civil War, and uttering taunting shouts, they pressed on to what they surely considered to be their legitimate prey. Mingled with the shouts, whoops, and yells of the warriors could be distinctly heard the strident screeching and higher-keyed piercing screams of the female tribespeople, far in rear of the moving circles, which rose above the general din and hub-bub now rending the air. In the midst of the circling ponies we could see what appeared to be two standard bearers, but upon their nearer approach we discovered them to be two scalp poles gaily decorated with long scalp locks, probably of women, with feathers and pieces of bright metal attached which flashed in the morning light. There was also other flashes seen along their line which I afterwards ascertained were small pieces of mirrors held in the hand and used as signals in the alternate advances and retreats, deployments and concentrations, in place of tactical commands. These were carried by the principal warriors or sub-chiefs, acting, I supposed, as file closers, squad leaders, etc. They had no squad, platoon, or company line formations, and no two, three, or four Indians were seen at any time to come together or bunch. While a general line was maintained at all times, it was always a line of right and left hand circling, individual warriors with varying radii, expanding and contracting into longer or shorter lines, advancing or retreating during these tactical maneuvers. The scalp-pole bearers I took to be chiefs, or big medicine men, for they were arrayed in all the gorgeous trappings that savage barbarity is capable of displaying. It was a most terrifying spectacle to our little band, yet wild, grand, novel (to look back upon) in the extreme. No shouts or cheers from our men were given in response to the diabolical yelling and din of screeches of the Indians. They maintained a stolid, grim silence, one of determination to do or die to the last. Unfortunately Heyl's men were nearly all new recruits who had just joined us on the expedition. They had never been in a fight before; were all well mounted on comparatively fresh horses, and as with him (Heyl), who was mounted, as has been already stated, on a large, powerful, black horse, full of fine spirit and strength, the excitement of the chase having partially subsided, everything thus far having gone their way, their fighting ardor had as rapidly cooled, and, seeing the ultimatum of being surrounded and massacred, unless assistance arrived very soon, chose to trust to their horses; heels in an endeavor to escape, rather than to face longer the ferocious Qua-ha-das, whose wild yells, whoops, screams, and screeches now sounded so unpleasantly close to their ears.

    This is precisely what they did do. To my utter surprise and consternation, on my attention being called by one of my men-"Lieutenant, look over there, quick; they are running out!"-I saw Captain Heyl and his men "bunch," and with spurs in their horses' flanks, ride out of the fight at full speed.

    Shouts, commands, threats, curses were of no avail. The moral effect of that wild, fancifully dressed, shrieking band of half naked Comanches, drawing about our flanks and now beginning to close in with their arrows and pistols, was too much for raw men who had never been "tried out" under fire. To my utter dismay I was left a long distance in rear with these five men of "G" troop, a gallant, brave squad of men. We were still some hundreds of yards from the ravine toward which we had been slowly but gradually drawing when we first realized our critical dilemma. This was all done without any notice or warning being given to me by Captain Heyl. He had given no orders or instructions since we had first arrived on the ground.

    At this movement by Heyl and his men, the Comanches gave an extra yell of supreme satisfaction, began bunching for a charge, and, making a sudden dash at us with some of the leading warriors, the bullets and arrows began coming in quickly, and to brush uncomfortably near us from every direction.

    Knowing that it would be certain death should he turn, try to join the panic-stricken, retreating party, and make a run for the shelter of the arroya, the writer mounted his men, cautioned them to keep well deployed, to cut off the magazines of their Spencer carbines, reserving them until the last moment, and to commence falling back-using single shots-turning to fire, but on no account to turn and run until they got the word. The order was carried out to the letter. The Indians were poorly armed with muzzle-loading rifles and pistols, lances, and bows. We commenced moving to the rear, bending low on our horses, several of which were struck with arrows. We faced about as often as possible to fire and check them, hoping every moment to see the head of Mackenzie's column come out of the adjacent valley of the Fresh Fork. When we finally faced the leading warriors, a bullet struck Downey in the hand, cutting two fingers, as he was in the act of working the lever of his carbine. With his hand streaming blood, his efforts seemed useless. The shell would not eject. "Lieutenant, what shall I do?" I shouted, "Use your hunting knife, and eject the shell with it!" The brave man did it with his wounded hand, and firing a moment later, almost in their faces, dropped an Indian out of the saddle. They were still afraid of our carbines. Using them up to the last moment as single shooters, I shouted, as we neared the arroya: "Now, men, unlock your magazines, bunch your shots, pump it into them, and make a dash for your lives! It is all we can do!" The Indians recoiled as we delivered this volley, and several going off their ponies caused some confusion, as we made the run. Thank God for those Spencers! My affection for them has never changed. It was not necessary that they should carry one thousand or twelve hundred yards, but kill at five hundred down to twenty or thirty yards, in what almost became a mix-up. The situation had been desperate from the first. It now seemed to be absolutely hopeless. I never expected we would reach the arroya. I felt that our time to die had come, and many thoughts rushed unbidden to the mind. Gregg was about ten or fifteen yards to my right and rear, after we gave them our magazines and turned, riding then on my right flank. He said: "Lieutenant, my horse is giving out!" I glanced partly over my shoulder, and saw that it was too true. He was on an old flea-bitten gray, and the horse was beginning to sway in that peculiar manner always seen in an exhausted horse. The Comanches, almost by intuition, also knew that he was in their grasp, and the leading Indians, having partially recovered from the blizzard we had pumped into them, and seeing the animal stagger and falter, rushed in to dispatch the unfortunate man.

    A large and powerfully built chief led the bunch, on a coal-black racing pony. Leaning forward upon his mane, his heels nervously working in the animal's side, with six-shooter poised in air, he seemed the incarnation of savage brutal joy. His face was smeared with black war paint, which gave his features a satanic look. A large, cruel mouth added to his ferocious appearance. A full-length headdress or war bonnet of eagle's feathers, spreading out as he rode, and descending from his forehead, over head and back, to his pony's tail, almost swept the ground. Large brass hoops were in his ears; he was naked to his waist, wearing simply leggings, moccasins and a breechclout. A necklace of bear's claws hung about his neck. His scalp lock was carefully braided in with otter fur, and tied with bright red flannel. His horse's bridle was profusely ornamented with bits of silver, and red flannel was also braided in his mane and tail, but, being black, he was not painted. Bells jingled as he rode at headlong speed, followed by the leading warriors, all eager to outstrip him in the race. It was Quanah, principal war chief of the wild Qua-ha-das.

On October 12th, a norther struck. Soldiers drove on though only clothed in their summer uniforms. For days they pushed after the Indians against the wet snow and freezing temperatures. They were constantly subjected to lightning raids against their flanks by small bands of Comanches.

The effect of his pursuit on the Comanche tribe was evidenced in the form of abandoned lodge polls, heavy cooking pots, buffalo skins, and even puppies in the path of their pursuit. With success in their grasp, the terrible Norther became a vicious blizzard. For fear that he could lose his ill clothed command if they were exposed to much more, Mackenzie called off his pursuit and began his return to Ft. Richardson, arriving on November 18th. During his return march he received an arrow wound in his leg during a skirmish, a fact which he left out of his official report, either out of pride or embarrassment. They had marched over 500 miles and gained the knowledge and experience necessary to engage the enemy in either extreme heat or cold on the most inhospitable geography.

Mackenzie spent the remaining winter of 1871 dealing with discipline and desertion. The soldiers of the Fourth Cavalry, infinitely more efficient than those of the Sixth whom they replaced, still had plenty among them who were unhappy enough with their lot to be lured into deserting the Army. Mackenzie's desertion policy was two fold. First, he doggedly pursued the deserters until they were found, brought back, and severely and publicly punished. Second, he kept his men constantly busy scouting the frontier. The next year he led his raiders to the North Fork of the Red River where they found and destroyed Shaking Hand's (Mow-way) Comanche camp and returned with over a hundred captured Comanche women and children. He held them hostage, successfully pressuring the Comanche to suspend their raiding.

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