- Historic Sites
Prelude To War:
The Slaughter of the Buffalo
February 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 2
Hunger, then, was the principal force that drove the South Plains Indians back on the warpath in the spring of 1874. It was not, however, their only cause for anger.
Probably the second greatest cause, and one of the least studied, was the havoc wrought among the Indian pony herds by white horse-thieves from Kansas and Texas. The Treaty of Medicine Lodge specifically provided: “If bad men among the whites … shall commit any wrong upon the person or property of the Indians, the United States will, upon proof made to the agent and forwarded to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs at Washington City, proceed at once to cause the offender to be arrested and punished according to the laws of the United States, and also re-imburse the injured person for the loss sustained.” Where enforcement was concerned, “United States” meant the United States Army, yet it was in the face of a studied lack of cooperation that Agents Miles and Haworth labored to exhaustion to stamp out the theft of Indian stock.
The Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Edward P. Smith, did make an attempt to get law-enforcement officers into the Indian Territory, but bogged down in a tangle of jurisdictional red tape. Only two deputy marshals were authorized to patrol literally thousands of square miles of wild country; the raids on Indian stock by white outlaws continued unabated. The effect of this stealing on the Indians is shown graphically in the theft on about March 11,1874, of forty-three ponies from the herd of Little Robe, one of the most consistently peaceful Cheyenne chiefs. It is widely accepted that this incident was important in putting many of the Cheyennes on the warpath, and as Agent Miles observed: “The Chiefs are very much provoked and discouraged … and express the fear that, should nothing be done … and another raid be made upon them, that it will be impossible for them to restrain their young men from making a like raid on the frontier of Kansas.”
That was an understatement; the Cheyennes were furious, and an examination of agency correspondence shows that white inaction was actually more crass than has ever been admitted, for in this case the Indians knew the precise identity of the thieves. The agent, of course, did what he could. In response to Miles’s stern “This matter must have attention,” Superintendent Hoag sent a transcript of the marshals’ report to Kansas Governor Osborn, who promised that the guilty men would be punished—if they should happen to be found.
White horse-thieves were also a chronic problem at the Kiowa-Comanche agency. Texans constantly stole horses from those of the Kiowas and Comanches registered at Fort Sill who were peaceable. At one point Haworth was moved to write:
Since the Indians have camped near the Agency over one hundred head of their stock has been stolen and taken into Texas—and none recovered … I have made an arrangement with the sheriff of Clay County, into which [the thieves] often go, to apprehend and bring them back here, for which I am to pay him a fair compensation, not exceeding ten dollars a head for returned horses.
Whether payment of such bounty with bureau funds was fully legitimate is not clear, but it does show to what lengths Haworth was willing to go to keep white outlaws from robbing his Indian charges.
In addition to their actual raids on Indian pony herds, the white thieves were also aggravating the general tension by trying to lay the blame for their own crimes on Indians. For instance, when they murdered another white, they often scalped their victim in Indian fashion. That they managed to stir up the already inflamed tempers of the frontier population against the Indians is shown by a report dated June 19, 1874, from Major C. E. Compton, then commanding Fort Dodge, Kansas, to the effect that the countryside was even then seized with a panic from just such a murder. “That Indians committed this crime,” the major wrote, “I do not believe but am strongly impressed with the belief that horse thieves—who of late have become such a pest to this neighborhood—are responsible for the deed, the scalping having been done with a view of shielding themselves.”
Many of the whites who stole the Indians’ horses were also guilty of smuggling them liquor and illegally selling them guns, a highly lucrative trade for the whites, by which they netted a small fortune in buffalo robes.
Altogether, it became only a matter of time before some incident occurred that would touch off a major war. In December a raiding party of Comanches and Kiowas, understandably sick of living off an inadequate agency dole, sortied for Mexico. They had returned as far as the Double Mountain Fork of the Brazos River when they were intercepted and attacked by Lieutenant Charles Hudson with a sizable force of soldiers. Eleven of the Indians were killed and, in the rout, abandoned, but three of the casualties were especially incendiary: one was the uncle of a young medicine man named Isa-tai, of the Quahadi Comanches. The other two were Tauankia, the favorite son of Lone Wolf, principal chief of the Kiowas, and his cousin Guitain, the son of Lone Wolfs brother, also a chief, Red Otter.
When Lone Wolf heard of the disaster, he went wild with grief. He hacked off his hair, maimed his body fearfully, slaughtered his horses, burned his possessions, and vowed to get even. Red Otter and Lone Wolfs wife visited Haworth, explaining that Lone Wolf would calm down once the shock had passed; but when the old chief went to Texas to bury his son and was himself attacked by soldiers and forced to abandon the body once more, he was beyond the reach of reason. He would have war.