Keep Ranch Fight

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.

Part of our in-depth series exploring the forts of Comancheria

The following story is a first-hand account of the famous Keep Ranch Fight in Ranger Sowell's own words from the book, Rangers and Pioneers of Texas.

    …The Comanches were on the right, the Kiowas on the left. The latter, were tall, fine-looking Indians. The Comanches were low, heavy-set, broad-shouldered fellows. Some of them were naked to the waist, except the quiver, on the back, and the strap across the breast. As they stood in line, there was a footman between every two horsemen. They all carried shields on the left arm, made of thick, buffalo hide; with dressed deerskin stretched tightly over them; painted in the center with black, red, or green spots. They stood quiet, and almost motionless, with every painted face turned towards us. They looked quite imposing, owing to the scattered line, which extended about three hundred yards, on the side of the ridge. Some of the boys raised the sights on their carbines, to commence firing at long range, but the sergeant opposed it, telling the boys they would only waste their cartridges at that distance, and we had none to throw away. It is true, our guns would hold up that far, but then an Indian, with a shield, is hard to hit, even at short range, and at that distance, it would be almost impossible to hit him. The men then commenced yelling, and daring the Indians, to see if they could draw them upon us. George Henson hung his hat on the pommel of his saddle, and tying a red silk handkerchief around his head rode up the ditch, yelling and waving his carbine; calling them cowards and dogs. The chief then rode slowly down his line, and seemed to be saying something to the Indians. He then turned, and galloped back to his position, on the left of the line, which was nearest to us. "Boys," said Sergeant Cobb, suddenly looking around, "what do you say to a charge?" "All right, Ed.," came from the rangers, "you lead the way, and we will follow."…

    …We were about to play a desperate game; eleven ranger boys, against forty-one picked warriors, from the Wichita mountains. Well we knew their savage nature, if we were overwhelmed; no surrender; no prisoners taken in this kind of warfare. Sergeant Cobb telling the boys to handle their guns lively, we galloped straight towards the centre of the Indians, without checking, until within eighty yards of them. I shall never forget my feelings at this moment, it seemed as if we had rushed to our destruction. The hideous faces of the Indians, with almost every spot of war-paint visible; their shields and gaudy trappings, and all, combined, was enough to try the nerves of old soldiers, but the quick command of our leader, to "dismount, they are going to fire," drove all such thoughts away, and I only had time to think of the present, and what was expected of every man. For I knew that every man must do his duty, or we were lost. And like Henry V, to his troops, at Agincourt, every man must fight today, as if on his sole arm hung victory. The men were not long in obeying the command, and received the fire of the Indians as they went to the ground. As was anticipated, the balls whistled over our heads, and not a man was hit. Some few balls struck the ground under our horses. We instantly returned the fire, and the Indians charged, making the prairie ring with their war-whoops. Sergeant Cobb told the boys to scatter; we were too close together; stretch our line to fifty yards, and have only one man in a place, to be shot at, and to shun their fire as best we could; drop low in the grass, or shoot from beneath our horses. The Indians evidently were not aware that we were armed with repeating rifles, and it seemed, were trying to run in on us, before we could reload; as they generally did the settlers. But we gave them two more rounds, in quick succession. Some of our balls cracking loudly, on their dry buffalo hide shields, and they fell back in some confusion. One horse having been killed, and evidently, some of them Indians, wounded, from their actions. One of them went off into the prairie, and remained alone, some distance from the fight. But they soon raised another whoop, and came again, running towards us in zigzag manner, like a fence worm. Our boys were good shots, but an Indian is hard to hit; protecting himself with a shield in front spoils the aim even of the best marksmen. Our boys handled their guns lively, and there was almost a continuous crack of carbines, during these charges, but we done but little damage. There were no two Indians together, and them darting here and there which also caused their own shots to be ineffectual. Those on horseback swooped around us, and fired from beneath the necks of their horses. Some of the boys had narrow escapes during this round, having holes shot through their clothing. In this charge we killed another horse and one Indian. He fell within about sixty yards of us, and made several attempts to get away, but could not and finally lay still, upon the prairie, nearly hid by the rank grass. After this charge, the Indians drew back some distance, and held a consultation. The chiefs riding among them and gesticulating, and pointing towards us. One of the Indians, who was not mounted, stopped and continued to fire at us at long range. He had the longest gun, I think, that I ever saw. He would drop down on one knee and take aim. His balls would make some of the boys dodge, but no one was hit. When a carbine was pointed at him he would drop down and throw up his shield. Several of the boys tried their hand at him, but he was too quick for them at that distance. The Indians having come to some understanding, concerning their next move, again advanced, yelling as before, and firing at long range. Although greatly outnumbering us they seemed to fear a close fight. They saw that we all had revolvers, which as yet, had not been drawn. Some of them again dashed around to the right and left, and we had to keep turning to fire. While doing this I came near being killed, by one of my comrades, James Ewers; we both turned about the same time, and changed our position to fire at an Indian, who was running on a horse near us. In fact, I was nearer the Indian than Jim, and almost between the two. He stepped to where I was, and was in the act of firing, when I turned to fire; this movement brought my face almost in contact with the muzzle of his gun; as he fired, I came near going to the ground, and my face was badly powder burned. He and I were on the extreme left. The Indian was not hit. About this time, two daring young bucks mounted a mule, belonging to their party, and made a run together. The mule running almost as fast as a horse. This unusual sight, drew the fire of several carbines, at the same time, and the mule fell, shot through. The Indians were thrown to the ground, but quickly sprang to their feet, and ran back; neither being hit, though fired at several times. The Indians did not wait long after this charge, but came again with redoubled yells; every one seemed to be making all the noise possible. "Stand firm, now, boys," said the sergeant; "I believe they are coming to us this time. Hold your fire until they come close, and if it comes hand to hand, draw your pistols, if not use the carbines." Suddenly there rose up out of the grass, about sixty yards to our right, one of the most hideous objects I ever beheld. It was an Indian; with buffalo head, mop, and horns on his head and shoulders; having pieces of dry hides fastened about him. He made a fearful, snorting noise, and rattled his dry hides, as he rose up. Judson Wilhoit was the nearest man to him, and as some of the boys hollered: "Look out Jud! There is the devil on your side." He fired, striking the buffalo head, which cracked loudly. The Indian advanced a few steps, still making a terrible noise, and received another shot from Wilhoit, then seeing he could not scare our horses, beat a hasty retreat, mixing up with the other Indians, who were running towards us, and discharging arrows. Only one of our horses became frightened at the Indians during the fight. This was a little singular, as the sight, or even the smell of an Indian, generally puts them in terror, until they become accustomed to Indians, and even then, you can always tell when they are about, by the snorting of the horses. I suppose, the jaded condition of our horses had something to do with it. Some pricked up their ears, and showed signs of uneasiness, when the Indians first commenced yelling. Henson's race horse reared and plunged nearly all the time, and came near getting away, when we were dismounted. As yet, our men had escaped well, only a few scratches. Dan Edwards had six holes shot through his coat, which was rolled up and tied to his saddle. The fight had lasted for some time, and the manner in which the Indians scurried around, on their horses, with only one foot visible, drew our fire, without doing any damage, except now and then, killing a horse. We were wasting cartridges to no purpose, and were apt to be picked off, one at a time, or have our own horses killed. We could avoid their shots tolerably well, by lying low in the grass, when fired upon, but it is strange they did not hit our horses more frequent. Sergeant Cobb now decided to change our position, and told the boys when the Indians drew back, after a charge, to mount quick and make for a little knoll, about three or four hundred yards, to our rear, and then dismount again, where we could have better protection for ourselves and horses; as it seemed, the Indians were determined to wear us out, and cause us to exhaust our ammunition, and then swoop down, and make a finish of us, with lance and tomahawk. In vain, we had scanned the prairie, in the direction of Clear creek, in the hope of seeing the settlers coming to our assistance, but all in vain. We could see for miles away, and none were in sight. So, acting on the suggestion of the sergeant, we mounted, and made the attempt to reach the new position, but this move almost proved fatal to our little band. Some of the horses, not as badly used up as others, dashed off rapidly, while others would hardly go at all; causing us to become scattered at the start. My horse seemed perfectly stiff, and moved as though hoppled, and one of my comrades, Gus. Hasroot, was in the same fix, only a little worse. His horse refused to move when he mounted, although he gave him the spur, and struck him several times with his gun. The Indians, thinking we were terror-stricken, and were going to give up the fight, charged us with triumphant yells, and the mounted ones were soon around us. Gus got his horse started, just as a powerful Indian was close upon him, coming at full speed with leveled lance. I was in advance of Gus, about thirty yards, and commenced firing at the Indians who were close upon him, and at the same time, shouting for the boys to hold up. Two Indians ran close to me, but passed. I fired at them, without effect; then turned in my saddle, to look at Gus, and help him, if I could, but at that instant, he killed the Indian, who was trying to lance him. He was so near when Gus fired, as to be enveloped in the smoke from the carbine. The horse wheeled suddenly at the discharge of the gun, and the Indian fell to the ground, breaking his lance, as he did so. All this occurred in less time than it takes to write it. As soon as the boys saw our situation, they turned their horses, while on the gallop, and came back, firing at the Indians around us, and for a few minutes the bullets came from both ways. The two Indians that passed us, wheeled off in the prairie, and were not hit. By this time, the Indians who were not mounted came up, and a close and desperate fight ensued. They seemed determined to rout us this time. The rangers fought on horseback; wounds were given and received, at the distance of thirty paces; Billy Sorrells was struck in the left side, by an army pistol ball, and William Caruthers received a glancing shot in the breast, from a Spencer carbine. Young Horseback rallied the Comanches around him, and made a close charge on the left, and was killed by Sergeant Cobb, and others, who fired on him at the same time, killing his horse also; at the same time the sergeant's horse was badly shot and he had to dismount. Billy Sorrells was near me when shot; I heard the ball strike him, and turned to see who was hit: he was leaning over to one side, but soon dismounted and continued to fire from behind his horse. As soon as I could, I went to him, and saw that he was badly wounded. During this contest, I came in contact with a young warrior, carrying a blood-red shield. Seeing him in the act of firing at me, I dodged at the flash, and in turn, fired at him, but he caught my ball on his shield. He was a devilish-looking fellow, and looked me straight in the eye, while we were exchanging shots. The third round, I struck the top of his shield, and think, the ball glanced, and struck him in the shoulder, for he suddenly wheeled his horse and galloped away, without raising his shield. The Indians were repulsed and ran, carrying their shields on their backs, to receive our fire as they went off. The Comanche chief lay near us, with one leg under his dead horse. Both had been killed instantly. The horse was shot behind the shoulder, and the Indian about an inch below the right eye. The Indians were not whipped yet. Again they advanced within range, and commenced dodging bullets and arrows. Billy Sorrells was bleeding freely, and lay down. His color had changed to an almost ghostly whiteness, and we thought he was dying. This encouraged the Indians, and they yelled defiantly; shooting blood-red arrows at us, in revenge for the dead chief; which meant war to the knife. One of our men coolly sat his horse, about ten or fifteen steps from where we were dismounted, while this firing was going on, moving his carbine with the running Indians, trying to get a good sight. The Indians were running in circles, and we perceived that they were getting nearer all the time. Some of the boys advised Cleveland to get down and shelter himself behind his horse, as some of them would hit him presently. He said he guessed not, and again raised his gun to fire. About this time a large Kiowa ran up on his horse, about seventy yards off, and shot an arrow at Cleveland, cutting the brim of his hat. He concluded then to dismount, and just as he got down, another arrow grazed his horse's nose. Larkin Cleveland was a brave boy, and all through his fearful ordeal, which we passed, I think his heart beat with regular pulsations. He knew not what fear was, and laughed when other men dodged from a bullet.

    The sun was now nearly down, and the Kiowa chief rallied his warriors, for a last and final charge, which was intended to crush us out of existence. Again we scanned the prairie, for the welcome sight of re-enforcements, but none were visible. Oh, if we only had twenty-five of our brave boys, who were lying idly in camp, on Big Sandy; little dreaming what a fearful strait their comrades were in; only forty miles east of them, on Paradise prairie, as it was sometimes called, how quick we would be masters of the situation. But these hopes were vain, and we determined to hold the ground as long as possible, or at least, until night, but if then, there was no change in affairs, we were going to get out of there. Our force was too small to risk a night attack, on the open prairie; for the Indians would be certain to fire the grass on us. If we did attempt to leave the battle ground, without routing the Indians, we were going to keep together, and move off slowly and fight as we went. We congratulated ourselves on our lucky escape, so far, amid such a hail of bullets and arrows, which we had passed through in the last hour and a half. The chief formed his warriors, after riding among them, and stirring them up for a final charge. Our sergeant made some change in his little force; the men were moved up a little, and formed in front of Billy Sorrells, he being about the centre, and asked me to ride around and stop on the extreme right, about ten steps from the left-hand man, James Ewers. The Kiowa chief, placed himself on the left of his band, who were thinly scattered over the ground. The mounted ones being mostly on the right and left. The chief's bridle was richly ornamented with silver, which glittered in the rays of the declining sun, as he wheeled his horse and bore down upon us. Our boys dismounted to receive this charge, and were encouraged by the cheering words of our gallant sergeant, who was on foot, a little in advance of us, and seemed as if he wanted to bear the brunt of the fight. The chief came almost at full speed, firing rapidly with a revolver. The yelling of the Indians, almost drowning the reports of the firearms. He seemed determined this time to ride us down, but that mad charge was his last. He received a ball in the breast at the distance of twenty paces, and fell forward, on the wethers of his horse, dropping his shield and revolver, but hung to his horse, until he passed our line, and was soon kicked loose, a short distance in our rear. He was confined to his saddle by leather straps, across the thighs; that was the reason he was so long falling, and if his weight had not turned the saddle, his horse would likely have carried him off. Our fire was so rapid, the Indians no longer tried to face us, after the death of the chief, but turned back, protecting themselves with their shields, until out of range; several were wounded, and one killed, besides the chief, in this last charge.

    The boys all mounted their horses, except the wounded, when the Indians turned their backs; and made the prairie ring with a regular Texas yell, and some spurred their horses after the routed savages. Sergeant Cobb, being dismounted, told the boys to surround the chief's horse, and secure him, which they did, after a short chase. While this was being done, Larkin Cleveland proposed to me, that we dismount and secure the scalp and rigging, of the fallen chief, as a trophy. Accordingly we rode to the spot, where the dead chief lay on his back, with his painted face upturned. Larkin dismounted, and drew his bowie knife; when our attention was directed to the Indians, who halted a short distance off, on the prairie, when the boys quit pursuing, and were yelling at a fearful rate, and about a dozen of them mounted, were bearing down on us, at a sweeping gallop. As our men were somewhat scattered, in catching the chief's horse, and seeing the Indians making directly for us, Larkin mounted, and we galloped back, to where the balance of our squad was, just as Sergeant Cobb was mounting the Indian's horse; having transferred the saddle from his wounded horse, to that of the chief's. We were now, about one hundred and fifty yards from the body of the chief. As soon as the Indians came up, some of them dismounted, and commenced lifting the body of their chief to the back of a horse, and we charged them. Two men remained with our wounded companion. The Indians fired on us as we came up, but they soon ran, and succeeded in carrying the dead chief with them. He was tied cross-ways on the horse, with a lariat, and the horse turned loose, pursued by two Indians, on good horses, who whipped him at every jump, and they soon mixed in with the main body, and all commenced moving rapidly away, across the prairie, towards the blue hills in the west. Seeing they were about whipped, the rangers yelled and charged, hoping to make them leave the body of the Kiowa chief, but a portion of them held back, and returned our fire, at the same time, uttering defiant yells, in which they were joined by all the band, who swarmed back, and seemed determined that we should not secure the body of the chief. One Indian dismounted in front of us, in order to draw our fire, and attention to him, and to detain us as long as he could, and risk his own scalp to save that of Sittanke, who was nephew of the famous chief of that name, that was afterwards killed in Jack county, by United States soldiers. In vain, our best marksmen, tried to bring down this brave warrior. He danced, yelled, leaped into the air, sprang from side to side, and only mounted and ran off, when we were close upon him. He received one shot, which almost brought him from his horse, after he started; but he recovered himself, and soon mixed in with the balance, who were now on a dead run; those on foot taking the lead. Those who were carrying off the chief, had disappeared across the ridge. We kept up a scattering fire, for some distance further; which was occasionally returned by the Indians, with arrows. We passed over part of the ground occupied by them, during the first part of the fight, and saw several dead horses, and Indians, with shields, bows, caps, blankets, quivers, lances, etc., scattered about. During the fight, I saw a cap shot from an Indian's head. It was made out of the skin of a wild cat; dressed with the hair on; the legs were stuffed, and made in such a manner, that they stuck up straight, when on the Indians head, and resembled horns. One of these legs was cut smooth off, by a bullet. So close was our fire, that one lance ornament had three holes shot through it, and a small bell shot off, which was attached to it. In the last charge, George Howell had a hole shot through his coat. Of the eleven men, who were in the fight, seven of them had the mark of balls or arrows on their person. In their retreat, the Indians ran with their shields on their backs, and when returning our fire, would wheel half around, and then go again. As our ammunition was nearly exhausted, and seeing we could accomplish nothing more, the sergeant ordered a return, to where we left young Sorrell. The sun was now about down, and we were glad enough to escape so well thus far, and call it even; although we claimed the victory, as we had driven them from the battle ground.… …The people had collected from all parts of the county and some from adjoining counties. The programme was to have dinner at 1 o'clock, and then repair to the court-house where speeches would be delivered by Colonel E. B. Pickett, Colonel Bowles, Sergeant Cobb, and Miss Mary Pickett, who was to present our company with a flag, made by herself and other young ladies of Wise county. At night there was to be a grand ball at the court-house. Lieutenant Hill was going to present the boys who were in the fight with a fine revolver apiece, with their names and date of the fight, which was February 7th, 1871, engraved on the handles. When dinner was announced, we repaired to the dining hall, where we found a long table, handsomely decorated and literally covered with everything which was nice and wholesome to eat. The rangers occupied the table first, and were waited on by a bevy of Wise county's most handsome daughters.

    …We did ample justice to the dinner; but I think some of the boys did not eat as much as they would have done had they been seated around a camp fire on the plains. There stood men who, a short time before, had shouted defiance to a picked band of Kiowa and Comanche warriors, outnumbering them four to one, surrounded, on the broad prairie, with no chance for succor; met charge after charge with a steady eye and unblanched cheek. Look at some of them now, when those beautiful girls approach and ask what they will be helped to; they cannot face them with steady nerves; they stand first on one foot and then on the other, mutter out something unintelligible, attempt to hand the plate, drop a knife, etc. For instance, look at that six-foot ranger here on my right. I saw him receive the fire of a Comanche Indian at the distance of thirty paces, without dodging, and now he is so confused and scared he has told that black-eyed girl he did not use coffee, and I have seen him sit down around a camp fire and drink a level quart of it, strong and black, without sugar.

    Everything passed off agreeably, and our boys acquitted themselves with credit. After dinner and been served to all, we then repaired to the court-house, which was soon closely packed. Colonel E. B. Pickett then spoke, followed by Colonel Bowles, who held an Indian scalp in his hand. Miss Mary Pickett then presented the flag to Sergeant Cobb, and delivered a nice address, which was replied to by the sergeant. It was a beautiful Texas flag-blue ground with lone star in the center, and beautifully embroidered. Miss Mattie Blythe then arose and called out the names of the men who were in the fight, and, as they answered, were told by our captain to take seats in front of the speakers' stand. She then presented the pistols furnished by the lieutenant. They were handsome weapons, and on each scabbard was a large Texas star. Three cheers were then given for the rangers, and the assembly broke up.

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