Skip to main content


Prelude To War:

July 2024
26min read

The Slaughter of the Buffalo

Although curiously neglected by historians, the Buffalo War of 1874-75 was according to General Philip Sheridan, who engineered it, “the most successful of any Indian campaign in the country since its settlement by whites.” By the end of it three of America’s most powerful Indian tribes—the Cheyennes, the Kiowas, and the Comanches—had been subjugated, the bison had been exterminated from the South Plains, and white settlers could move freely into former Indian lands that stretched from central Kansas to central Texas.

By the terms of the Medicine Lodge Treaty, solemnly signed by the South Plains Indians in 1867, the United States government had pledged itself to protect the Indians from exactly such “successes” in return for the tribes’ promises to move onto designated reservations. It was not the Indians who first broke the promises.

In a forthcoming book, The Buffalo War , James L. Haley examines the intolerable pressures that forced the Indians back on the warpath at the tiny Texas town of Adobe Walls and along the Red River just seven years later. This thoughtful, disturbing book, from which the following article is adapted, will be published by Doubleday & Company next month.

The train of events leading up to the Red River uprising begins three years after the treaty council at Medicine Lodge, in the fall of 1870, when a young New Englander named Josiah Wright Mooar came west and founded the business of hunting buffalo for hides. Barely nineteen years old, blond, blue-eyed, just under six feet tail, he arrived in Fort Hays, Kansas, filled with visions of “the grandeur and dangers of the Wild West.” The realities of the world caught up with him there, however, and he was obliged to support himself by the disappointingly unromantic job of supplying the local army post with wood, for which he was paid two dollars per cord. At Fort Hays he made friends with one James White, whose not too dissimilar task was to keep the post commissary stocked with meat. White was a buffalo hunter, and like all the others he took only the choice cuts, leaving the rest of the carcass, including the hide, lying on the prairie. White and the many other buffalo hunters on the Great Plains had made some noticeable inroads in the tremendous herds of buffalo, but still the animals numbered so many millions that they blanketed vast stretches of country.

Mooar and W7hite often talked of the waste of skins, wondering if perhaps they would not be profitable as leather. A market had been growing back east for furry buffalo robes to use as sleigh blankets, for instance, and Indians had certainly tanned buffalo leather for centuries; but Mooar and White’s idea remained merely speculation until an English firm made a contract with a Leavenworth, Kansas, robe and meat trader for five hundred hides. This company was interested in experimenting on the skins for tanning, and a subcontract fell to a hunter named Charlie Rath, who in turn contacted his friends, among them Wright Mooar. The youngster from Vermont fulfilled his part of the quota and found himself with a surplus of fifty-seven hides; he sent the skins to his elder brother, John Wesley Mooar, in New York, to try to sell locally.

The hides were something of a novelty in New York, and they were to be put on display until they were purchased. Two tanners from Pennsylvania saw them being hauled down Broadway in an open wagon and later in the day called on the elder Mooar. They offered him $3.50 apiece for the hides, which Mooar accepted readily, and a fewweeks later they contacted him again. They said they had experimented on the skins and were satisfied that they were useful, and inquired whether the Mooars would be interested in a contract for two thousand skins at $3.50 apiece, a total of seven thousand dollars. John Wesley instantly left New York for the Great Plains, and the Mooar brothers began hunting buffalo on a larger scale than anyone ever had before.

Though the Mooars started a couple of jumps ahead of the pack, the promise of easy, fast money to be had by preying upon the huge herds of buffalo attracted opportunists as surely as the rotting buffalo carcasses attracted flies; the business fairly exploded. Dodge City, Kansas, became the center of the trade, and perhaps the best records of the carnage were preserved by the commander of the local military post, Major Richard Irving Dodge: in 1873 alone the three rail lines serving Dodge City carried away over three quarters of a million hides, “exclusive of robes”; the figure for the three years 1872-74 totals an incredible 4,373,73o buffalo killed. That figure, said Dodge, was for the rail exports alone; other uses added at least a million more to the total.

Though the Indians to the south abhorred the wanton slaughter, they made no concerted move to stop it, as the depredations were confined to lands north of the Arkansas River. Land to the south of the Arkansas was considered Indian hunting ground, a limitation the hide hunters respected, at least in the early years of the Medicine Lodge Treaty. Their restraint was due principally to two factors: the abundance of buffalo still left in the north of Kansas and the ferocity of the Indians south of the Arkansas and in the Indian Territory.

William Blackmore, writing in 1877, recalled that

in the autumn of i 868 [one year after the signing of the Medicine Lodge Treaty], whilst crossing the plains on the Kansas Pacific Railroad—for a distance of upwards of 120 miles, between K.llsworth and Sheridan [far to the north of the Arkansas RiverJ we passed through an almost unbroken herd of buffalo. The plains were blackened with them, and more than once the train had to stop to allow unusually large herds to pass. A few years afterwards, when travelling over the same line of railroad, it was a rare sight to see a few herds of from ten to twenty buffalo.

In 1873 a plague of grasshoppers destroyed the settlers crops in the Republican River Valley, again far to the north of the Arkansas. Although Mooar and the others had been in business only three years, when the Army sent several companies of troops to provide buffalo meat to keep t lie farmers from starving, they found to their great consternation that there were virtually no buffalo leit. The Mooars and the swarms of buffalo hunters who followed them were doing their business with unbelievable efficiency. As far as the Arkansas River hunting boundary was concerned. William Blackmore went with an army scouting party on a trip along the Arkansas east of Fort Dodge in 1872. They found, he wrote later, ”…a continuous line of putrescent carcasses, so that the air was rendered pestilential and offensive to the last degree. The hunters had formed a line of camps along the banks of the river, and had shot down the buffalo, night and morning, as they came to drink.”

But none of the hunters dared cross the river, and the “dead line” (as it was called) held. For the first five years of the treaty (to 1872), to cross the Arkansas with buffalo guns and a wagon was to risk a horrible death at the hands of the Indians. A few desperate or greedy men did chance it, but then only in winter, when the Indians seldom left their camps, and with light, strong wagons and fast horses. And even then a number of them were picked off and scalped; it was obvious that the tribes of the South Plains had been- driven back as far as they intended to go.

Only after the northern Kansas buffalo herds were gone did the hunters venture in force into the Indian hunting ground south of the Arkansas; they went down as far as, but rarely crossed, the boundary between the state of Ransas and the Indian Territory. In one season they mowed down the south Kansas buffalo like a scythe. On a scout from Dodge City to the Indian Territory, Blackmore recorded that “in 1872 … we were never out of sight of buffalo. In the following autumn, while travelling over the same district, whilst the whole country was whitened with bleached and bleaching bones, we did not meet with buffalo until we were well into Indian country, and then only in scattered bands.”

The suddenness of it all was appalling. Much as it strains today’s imagination, the white men obliterated in one season’s kill the south Kansas herds on which the Cheyennes and Arapahos had, in large measure, subsisted. The Indians were powerless before the onslaught of an entire army of buffalo runners, as the hidemen called themselves, and had retreated to the sanctity of their reserve, where, the government promised them, white men would not—could not—follow. But follow they did, and with more alacrity than when they crossed the Arkansas. During the year the south Kansas buffalo were exterminated, Cheyenne and Arapaho war parties still managed to drive off those of the whites’ hunting outfits that crossed the border into the “exclusive” domain of the Indians, but by the next year, 1873, raids on the Indians’ stocks became more and more frequent, and the Indians, fighting now within their own territory, became less and less capable of fending off the tide of poachers.

Under the terms of the Medicine Lodge Treaty the United States Army was supposed to be patrolling the Kansas-Indian Territory boundary to see that nobody crossed. The troops were indeed watching over the border, but from an early date they had worked out a happy arrangement with the hunters to look the other way whenever the latter made a foray into the forbidden country. The prevalent view of the army men was best summed up by General Philip Sheridan when in 1875 he urged a session of the Texas legislature to defeat a conservation bill that would have preserved the buffalo from extinction. The hidemen “have done more in the last two years,” he said,

to settle the vexed Indian question than the entire regular army has done in the past thirty years. They are destroying the Indians’ commissary … for the sake of lasting peace, let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffaloes are exterminated. Then your prairies can be covered with speckled cattle and the festive cowboy, who follows the hunter as a second forerunner of an advanced civilization.

As Phil Sheridan was the commander of the military division in which the slaughter was taking place, it seemed unlikely that the buffalo runners would meet any opposition from the Army; indeed, the soldiers enjoyed a buffalo hunt as much as anybody, and they did not even take the hides; they were just after the sport. As early as the campaigns of the i86o’s the men under Colonel George A. Custer, operating as part of Sheridan’s famous “winter campaign,” divided into small squads to see which could kill the most buffalo in one day. Tallies were kept by cutting out the animals’ tongues (later fed to camp dogs), and the rule was that the losers had to fix dinner for the others.

With the Army standing idly by, the “dead line,” once accepted as the Arkansas River and then moved south to the border of the Indian Territory, was moved south yet again in 1873, on a de facto basis, all the way to the next large river south of the Arkansas, the Cimarron. That meant that the Indians had lost all control over what had been the reservation given them at Medicine Lodge, of which the Cimarron was the southern boundary. They were left to look for game in lands to the south and west.

For the voracious buffalo runners the 1873 killing season on the Cimarron was so successful that the Great Southern herd was depleted to the point where it would never again migrate north of the Canadian River, which at the Texas panhandle meridian is some one hundred miles south of the Cimarron. To gain any sense of the proportion of the slaughter one need only trace the carnage on a map: from the Arkansas to the border of the Indian Territory to the Cimarron to the Canadian, the prairies denuded of their thundering black herds and left silent and white, with millions of skeletons bleaching in the sun—all in the space of the three years 1872-74. The Indian tribes reeled before the juggernaut.

Totally heedless of what this would mean to the Indians, the hunters began to lay plans for the 1874 hunt on the Canadian. That, however, meant a hundred miles deeper penetration into the Indian Territory, a forbidding foray to even the bravest of them. Since none of them wished to isolate themselves in the middle of hostile Indian country, two of the plainsmen, Wright Mooar and John Webb, rode south of the territory into the panhandle of Texas, where very little hunting had ever been done except by the Comanche and Kiowa Indians, to investigate rumors that the prairies there were still grazed by huge and untouched herds of buffalo. Mooar and Webb did indeed find the herds and on their return reported that they had ridden through “an almost solid mass” of buffalo.

At this time, in the fall of 1873, the Kansas hunters began to worry that the Army might for once try to hinder their crossing Indian land, and sent emissaries in the persons of Wright Mooar and another hunter, Steele Frazier, to Major Dodge, the commander of Fort Dodge, whose job it was to patrol the border. Anxious to make a good impression on the major, Mooar and Frazier bathed (reputedly an extreme measure for a buffalo hunter) and wore brandnew suits of clothes to the interview. As he later reported, Mooar’s specific question to Dodge was “Major, if we cross into Texas, what will be the government’s attitude towards us?” Even to cross Indian land was illegal by the terms of the Medicine Lodge Treaty, but it was the only way to get from Kansas to Texas, and besides it could be argued, technically, that a crossing would not be illegal if it were made over the so-called no man’s land to the west of the actual Cheyenne-Arapaho reservation. On the other hand, they would have no license to hunt there, and Texans might feel differently about shooting their buffalo—not because the Texans were against killing buffalo, but because the presence of buffalo in the panhandle helped keep the Kiowas and Comanches out of central Texas settlements. Mooar and Frazier soon found their caution unnecessary, however. Major Dodge, himself a sportsman and hunter, received them warmly and finally confided: “Boys, if I were a buffalo hunter, I would hunt where the buffaloes are.” And thus was formalized the unwritten alliance between the hidemen and the United States Army.

The buffalo runners therefore agreed to carry out the next season’s hunt high on the “Staked Plains” (El Llano Estacado) of the Texas panhandle, the vast, grassy plateau that rises abruptly from the flat lowlands. This would put them west of the Indian Territory and outside the Indians’ hunting reserves, the northern part of which of course they had already depleted. Theoretically, the Indians should have no quarrel with them, except for the brief but necessary trespass, if indeed it were a trespass. The hunters knew, however, the Indians would not see it that way. As far as the Indians were concerned, all the buffalo south of the Arkansas River were theirs, and the whites had stolen from them. The heat for revenge was high; the presence of white hunters among the last herds of buffalo on the South Plains would likely touch off a savage Indian war, and the hunters knew it.

Most of the hidemen spent the winter of 1873-74 holed up in Dodge City, but some of the hardier outfits wasted no time and headed for the Texas ranges that very fall. The Mooars, for example, reloaded their own wagons and hurried back, the dangers posed by the Indians notwithstanding. Also going south with his outfit was Billy Dixon, at twenty-three one of the ablest and most respected marksmen on the plains. The actual process of hunting the buffalo on the range that autumn was best explained by Wright Mooar himself, as quoted many years later in a book about the period:

Each outfit would take a wagon, a keg of water, a roll of bedding, and a little grub and, with a four-mule team, would drive out on the divide between the North PaIo Duro and the Canadian. There we would intercept the herds that were crossing, east to west, from the headwaters of Wolf Creek to the Blue and the Coldwater. We stayed there on the divide until we loaded out the wagon with hides and meat. We could haul 10,000 pounds when the ground was frozen. We would load, come back to camp, unload, and go back out again. We could keep track of the Wheelers’ outfit [another team of hunters], and his of ours, by the sound of the guns. If either of us got into trouble, the sound of the buffalo guns would be interrupted with the reports of lighter guns.

The favorite gun of all the buffalo hunters was the Sharp’s “Big Fifty” buffalo rifle, a .5o-caliber octagonalbarrelled cannon that, with its 2,000 foot-pounds of muzzle energy, could send a heavy ball an astonishing distance. One model weighed sixteen pounds, but Mooar and most of the others preferred the lighter kinds. “I killed 6,500 buffaloes with my fourteen-pound gun,” recalled Mooar, “and 14,000 with the eleven-pounder.” Mooar and the other professionals always insisted on making their own bullets, melting their own lead and overloading the threeinch bottlenecked cartridges with up to no grains of powder. Ninety grains was standard, but the massive eightsided barrels had no trouble handling the extra charge. A weapon of this type could kill the strongest buffalo at six hundred yards; some of them were equipped with IOX and 2ox telescopes, and a well-placed ball could drop an animal at three quarters of a mile. Each man followed his own eccentricities in loading his gun, and it was possible to recognize almost any hunter on the plains merely by the peculiar “boom” of his Sharp’s Fifty. One other rather grim article that each hunter carried with him at all times was his “bite,” a Big Fifty cartridge emptied of its powder and filled with cyanide, guaranteeing a quick death infinitely preferable to the tortures devised by the Indians, and insurance as well against mutilation. Warriors would only scalp or “count coup” on a victim they had actually killed; the bodies of hunters who “bit the bite” were always found intact.

There were several techniques for slaughtering the buffalo, but the most effective, and therefore most favored, was the “stand.” When a herd was found, the hunter would pick out an exposed place some hundreds of yards away from which he could fire in relative comfort and not alarm the animals. Setting up the forked rest sticks on which he set the heavy barrel of his buffalo gun, he first picked out and shot the leader of the herd. With no leader to start a stampede the animals milled about until the hunter shot as many as his skinners could handle. That done, the skinners would go out (the hunter usually had three or four in his employ) to rip off the hides. A good hunter could kill fifty animals in a stand before the herd bolted or wandered out of range. Billy Dixon, one of the best, “once took 120 hides without moving his rest sticks.” Hunters making a stand generally killed only as many as their skinners could handle in a day. Frank H. Mayer, one of the last surviving buffalo runners, recalled not long before his death: “Killing more than we could use would waste buff, which wasn’t important; it would also waste ammunition, which was.”

If the government had lived up to its treaty obligations to protect the Indians from the buffalo hunters, there would have been little possibility of renewed warfare with the South Plains tribes. But such protection was not the government’s policy, and it is difficult to imagine the privation the eradication of the buffalo caused among the Indians. In the first place, the primary year-round staple of the tribes’ diet was dried buffalo meat, gathered when the hunting was good, then stored in sacks of dried buffalo skin. From the hides of the big, shaggy animals the Indians fashioned their clothing and the tepees they lived in, their war shields, cradles for their infants, even rude boats of hides stretched over willow saplings. They wove rope from the hair and stretched the tendons into bowstrings and thread. They fashioned the large bones into tools, rendered glue from the hoofs, even removed and dried the bladders to use as canteens. Brains were pounded into a pulp used as a tanning paste, as were extracts from fat and other organs. The horns were crafted into eating utensils; even the tails were dried to serve as war clubs and knife scabbards. And in addition to these practical uses the buffalo was the heart of the Indians’ culture and religion. The South Plains Indians believed very simply that when all the buffalo were gone, their world would come to its end.

Most of the Indian agents, whose job it was to carry out government policy toward the Indians, were dismayed at the blatantly illegal destruction of the buffalo, but without army help the agents lacked the police power to bring the poachers to justice. Only once, apparently, did an agent manage to act against the hidemen. In early February, 1874, the Cheyenne-Arapaho agent, John D. Miles, caused the arrest of some eleven buffalo hunters who were trespassing on Indian land, but the hunters evidently did some persuasive talking, for Miles soon let them go again and even returned their outfits to them. “They are all very poor,” wrote Miles, “and they say that the cries of their children for bread is what induced them to engage in the chase … I have no disposition to disbelieve. …” He added, rather naively, that he believed the hunters had learned their lesson and that the incident would deter other hidemen from entering the reservation.

Secretary of the Interior Columbus Delano stated the government’s view in his annual reports of 1872 and 1873:

In our intercourse with the Indians it must always be borne in mind that we are the most powerful party. … We are assuming, and I think with propriety, that our civilization ought to take the place of their barbarous habits. We therefore claim the right to control the soil they occupy, and we assume it is our duty to coerce them, if necessary, into the adoption and practice of our habits and customs. … I would not seriously regret the total disappearance of the buffalo from our western prairies, in its effect upon the Indians, regarding it rather as a means of hastening their sense of dependence upon the products of the soil.

Yet the majority of the Indians were in fact willing to give the white man’s road a chance. The Arapahos, for instance, had been docile since the Medicine Lodge Treaty. Among the Cheyennes there had not been an all-out war for six years—since 1868—and in 1869 that tribe’s most influential spokesman for peace, Chief Little Robe, had actually banished from his camps the militant Dog Soldier Society. Its members drifted northward for a while, and when they returned, the peace chiefs—Little Robe, White Shield, Stone Calf, and Old Whirlwind—were successful in controlling them. The Kiowas and Comanches had been officially tractable for an even longer period. When the Medicine Lodge council convened in October of 1867, its commissioners agreed that “the testimony satisfies us that since October, 1865 [when they had signed an earlier treaty], the Kiowas, Comanches, and Apaches have substantially complied with their treaty stipulation entered into at that time at the mouth of the Little Arkansas.”

Though the wilder war chiefs continued to sporadically make forays into Texas, most of the Kiowas and Comanches admitted that war against the whites was a hopeless proposition, especially after 1872, the year some of the chiefs went to Washington and saw the power of the whites for themselves. Among the Kiowas tempers flared when those chiefs who stayed home refused to believe the tales of huge cities and giant stone tepees so large that all the Kiowa tribe could sit in a single one. When Thomas Battey, the Quaker schoolteacher to the Kiowas, produced stereo views of the sights in the East, the war chiefs who had been skeptical before were struck dumb with amazement. As Battey reported the scene, Chief Sun Boy, who had been to Washington, said angrily to his fellow tribesmen: “What you think now? You think all lie now? You think all chiefs who been to Washington fools now?” The warriors put their fingers over their open mouths. “Look! see what a mighty powerful people they are! We fools! We don’t know anything! We just like wolves running wild on the plains!”

By 1874 most of the South Plains Indians were ready to come in to the agencies and learn the white man’s ways, but their own primitiveness worked against them. The Kiowas, for instance, would not permit a census of their people because of a tribal superstition that made them deathly afraid of being counted.

But tribal superstitions were minor indeed compared to the basic problem. Without their buffalo the Indians were entirely dependent on government rations for their survival, and when these rations were not forthcoming, the Indians sat at the agencies and quite literally starved. Had the government only provided them with some alternative source of food and supply, their transition to the white man’s ways, though painful and clumsy, might well have been bloodless. But to obtain food for them the federal authorities relied on private contractors, a system that never worked well even in the best of times. In the case of the South Plains tribes it all but broke down completely, and during the blizzard-stricken winter of 1873-74 the Indians were forced to slaughter large numbers of their ponies just to stay alive. Given insufficient provisions at the agencies when they stayed there, and accused of raiding when they left to hunt buffalo, the Indians’ attempt to follow the white road was virtually hopeless.

Even Nelson A. Miles, who during the war prosecuted his campaign against the Cheyennes with all the fervor of an ambitious colonel after his star wrote many years later:

One of the strongest causes of unrest among [the Indians] … was the fact that the promises made to induce them to go on to reservations were not always carried out by the government authorities. They had been removed from … the ranges of the buffalo, but under distinct treaty stipulation that they were to be provided with shelter, clothing, and sustenance. … They were sometimes for weeks without their rations. Their annual allowance of food was usually exhausted in six or seven months. …

By early 1874 the food-supply problem was becoming more and more critical. In March the chief clerk of the Central Superintendency toured the agencies and reported “very discouragingly” on the supply situations, especially at Fort Sill, the Kiowa-Comanche agency. He wrote that even Satanta and Lone Wolf, conceded to be the Kiowas’ two biggest “problem” chiefs where pacification was concerned, ”… are peaceably disposed, but the want of something to eat at the very commencement of the [spring] raiding season seems to me most suicidal.”

During April and May, Agent James M. Haworth also wrote urgent letters about the lack of supplies. “Our sustenance is getting very low,” he warned the Commissioner of Indian Affairs on April 8, “& unless more is purchased soon we will be left with nothing to give them and they caused to seek it in other channels, which would be very unfortunate at this season of the year.” On April 20 Haworth reported to Enoch Hoag at the Central Superintendency: “This week’s issue will exhaust our supply of flour, which now amounts to only half rations. My teams are gone on the hunt for sugar, and coffee. I hope to have them back by issue day. …” His May 6 report said almost wistfully: “Issue day is almost here, only one night off, and the sugar and coffee not here. …”

Such was the situation when Big Bow, a Kiowa war chief, came in for rations on May 7- Obviously discouraged, the chief said, according to Haworth,

We come in from our camps on issue day, to get our rations, only we find little here. We carry that home, divide around among the people. It is soon gone, and our women and children begin to cry with hunger, and that makes our hearts feel bad. A white man’s heart would soon get bad to see his wife and children crying for something to eat, when he had nothing to give them.

A couple of weeks later Haworth indicated the lack of food was also responsible for the disaffection of the* Comanches, stating that it was becoming increasingly difficult for those peaceably inclined to maintain any influence when keeping the “good path” was rewarded with hunger and priva’fcon. “If I had supplies on hand,” he wrote, “to help those who wanted to do right, it would be a great help to them. … Our scarcity of supplies is one of our greatest—- in fact, is the greatest drawback, in governing these people. Give me plenty of supplies, and I will exert a controlling influence over them.”

At the Darlington agency, meanwhile, Agent John Miles was experiencing every bit as difficult a time obtaining food for his Cheyennes and Arapahos. On March 21, 1874, an opportunity presented itself for Miles to pacify a large portion of the Cheyennes, as 140 lodges came into the agency, led by Chiefs Minimic, White Shield, and Old Whirlwind. With them, very significantly, was White Horse, head chief of the historically implacable Dog Soldiers. It was, wrote Miles, the very first time any of the Dog Soldiers had come in for rations; they said the buffalo were scarce, and Miles believed they would stay in as long as he could feed them. But, he wrote ominously to Hoag in begging for more supplies, “We will soon be out of rations, and thou can then judge of our situation.” Ten days later the warning took on an increased urgency: “We now have at this Agency over 500 lodges of Cheyennes and Arapahoes. …” Only Grey Beard and his sixty lodges were still out, and they were expected any day. “Our coffee, sugar, & bacon is exhausted,” Miles continued, “and the beef contractor is considering whether he can furnish any more beef. … We cannot afford to let these people leave the Agency just at this time. They could not find buffalo nearer than 150 miles, and that in the direction of western Texas, just the place that we do not want them to go. …”

Miles was, in addition, expecting a visit from a party of thirty Northern Arapahos under Chief Plenty Wolf. “They must be treated well,” he wrote, or they could persuade his own Indians to forsake the agency and return to the plains, a danger heightened by Plenty Wolfs report on the disappearance of the buffalo. His band’s trek southward had taken some three months, during which time “they saw but two buffalo en route.”

No additional rations came, however. By April 4 Grey Beard had arrived, accompanied by another of the less friendly chiefs, Heap of Birds, which meant that virtually every Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho belonging to Miles’s agency was present, accounted for, and hungry: “It is very important NOW that these people be fed

His ration supply dwindled away steadily, until by the second week in May, Miles had, however reluctantly, been obliged to release those who wished to go west and find what buffalo they could. Thus, to Miles’s intense frustration and dismay, the Cheyennes were forced to compete widi die white buffalo-hunters from Kansas for the last large segment of the Great Southern herd of buffalo, whose migration was at that time carrying it across the Staked Plains of the Texas panhandle.

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.

Chief Lone Wolf, like all the South Plains Indians, had only the dimmest notion of the historical forces working upon his people, but by the spring of 1874 nearly all the camps were smoldering hotbeds of resentment. As they understood it, the Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867 had guaranteed their reservations to them, for their free, unhampered, and “exclusive” use, but the white buffalopoachers had destroyed practically every buffalo herd in the northern part of the territory. It was Indian land and Indian buffalo, and the whites had stolen from them. The government had promised to provide for them and had lied. Except for their agents, who they discovered had no real power, Washington did nothing. It was now evident to the Indians that the white government had no intention of carrying out its part of the Medicine Lodge bargain.

By the spring of 1874 the situation was ready to explode. In the tepees there was talk of war and killing, of driving the white man from the land, but as yet there had been little action. The Indians had surrounded and picked off isolated parties of buffalo poachers for years, but there had never been any general offensive, partly because they did not have any leader capable of organizing such an offensive. During the spring of 1874, however, such a leader finally emerged, in the person of Isa-tai, the adolescent but highly volatile medicine man of the wild Quahadi band of the Comanches.

He was a young warrior, deep in grief for his uncle, who was one of those killed in the Hudson skirmish in Texas. As yet he was untried in battle, but throughout the year 1873 one thing had become certain to the Comanches: his medicine was strong. He said he had brought the dead back to life and that he was immune to the bullets of the white man. That in itself was not particularly impressive, since other great shamans had claimed those feats, but here Isa-tai surpassed the others. He claimed, and was supported by witnesses, that he could swallow and vomit forth at will wagonloads of cartridges. He said he had ascended above the clouds, where he had communed with the Great Spirit. This also witnesses swore to. Many believed in him. A few may have doubted his self-proclaimed messianic role in driving away the white men, preferring to see him as just another young buck trying to get up a revenge raid for a slain relative—as indeed it was proper by the Indian code for him to do—but no one could doubt that early in 1873, before the uncle was killed, when a brilliant comet had appeared, it was Isa-tai who predicted it would disappear in five days’ time. The comet vanished on schedule. Later on it was Isa-tai who had predicted the blizzards of the 1873-74 winter, and that had firmly established his reputation. The medicine of Isatai was strong indeed, and the young man was doing his best to incite a war against the whites.

By May his influence had grown to the degree that he did an unprecedented thing: he sent out runners, summoning all the bands of the Comanches to attend a Sun Dance. It was a bold step, for the Comanches had never even been assembled all in one place before, let alone made tribal medicine. The Sun Dance was a ritual foreign to their culture, although among the other South Plains tribes it was an annual occurrence. In Isa-tai’s mind the move was probably to accomplish two things: first, to capitalize on his newfound notoriety by assembling an audience to whom to preach his antiwhite doctrine and, second, to recruit the war party.

News of the young firebrand Isa-tai reached Agent Haworth, who wrote of him, tongue in cheek, to Hoag: “They have a new Medicine Man, who can accomplish wonders. Horse Back says he can furnish them an inexhaustible supply of cartridges, suited for any gun, from his stomach. Certainly a very valuable man to have around in time of war. He can also raise the dead, having recently done so.” In a much more serious vein he also sent a peace feeler to the Quahadi camp, but their answer was not encouraging, telling him, in effect, that if he kept out of the way he would not be hurt. If he interfered, he and everyone else the Quahadis could find at the agency would be put to death.

Precisely what happened at the war council has never been learned with great certainty. Most definite information about it came from the Penatekas and the friendly Yapparika chiefs, Quirts Quip and Ho-weah, who bolted the ceremony and returned to the agency, although they did so at no small risk to themselves, as the hostile faction threatened to shoot their horses and strand them afoot if they did not commit themselves to the war movement. Haworth did learn that Isa-tai had staged a mystical display of his magic, utterly convincing the skeptics that they would receive divine protection in their war effort. He also learned from Quirts Quip that Mexican Comancheros were present at the encampment and that the liberal consumption of whiskey served mostly to harden the stand of the war faction, though they tended to make up their minds in drunken confusion. The leaders, said Quirts Quip, “have a great many hearts … Make up their minds at night for one thing and get up in the morning entirely changed.” In addition, Ho-weah told Haworth that the Cheyennes had ridden into the council brandishing no fewer than eighty mint-new breechloading rifles.

During the ceremonies, which were held at the very fringe of the reservation, some of the war party slipped back in to Fort Sill and stole about fifty head of stock from the agency corral. Grim and sobered, Haworth reported the incident, adding: “I am at a loss to account for their actions, though [they were] much disappointed at the shortness of their rations.” Still he hoped, as he had written before, that “this cloud will, like many others since I came here, pass away, without a storm.”

This time, however, he was wrong.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.