Presented by Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum

Here in Texas, we tend to paint our genesis stories in bold, colorful strokes imbued with divine providence. But the reality of how modern Texas came to be is often quite gritty to look at. Sometimes even smelly, with a not-so-subtle bouquet of dumb luck and blind ambition of those who might not ever have attended Sunday School.

The retelling of Panhandle history follows a similar pattern. Our preferred version of how we got started in these parts looks much like the H.D. Bugbee mural of a dashing Charles Goodnight claiming the Promised Land as he drives his herd into Palo Duro Canyon—a scene almost every kid in the Panhandle has viewed on the walls of the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum. What we often forget is before the cattlemen arrived, and even before the New Mexican pastores first drove sheep into the Canadian River Valley, the Panhandle was occupied by native people who weren’t planning to leave without a fight. It took a ragged band of unwashed buffalo hunters not planning anything much bigger than a good time in Dodge to set in motion a series of events that, within a span of a few months, ended one age and began another.

On the windswept prairie northeast of Stinnett in Hutchinson County, a simple marker bears witness to a pivotal five days in June 1874—150 years ago—remembered as the Second Battle of Adobe Walls. The battle takes its name from a trading outpost first established by William Bent in 1848. That it was the second battle points to an earlier battle at this site in 1864, when Col. Kit Carson led the New Mexico Cavalry against a combined Comanche, Kiowa and Plains Apache force of more than 1,000. The 1864 battle doesn’t get much attention these days outside of someone wanting to know what came before the second battle. It’s quite possible most Panhandle folk can’t recall much about the second one either, but they do tend to remember the name of its most famous combatant: Billy Dixon. 

Dixon was a buffalo hunter, one of a small but effective force that by 1874 had nearly wiped out the great buffalo herds in Kansas, cashing in on the demand for hides that fetched as much as $4 apiece at times. But buffalo could still be found farther south on the hunting grounds of remaining Plains Indians who believed their buffalo were protected by treaty. When a group of Kansas buffalo hunters established a post near the abandoned remains of the original Adobe Walls compound, in order to poach the Panhandle’s more abundant buffalo, warriors from multiple Plains tribes decided to combine forces and make a last stand for their rights. 

Emboldened by Isatai’i, a Comanche medicine man who prophesied that the warriors would be unharmed by white men’s bullets, an estimated 250 or more Comanche, Kiowa and other allied Plains Indians warriors led by Quahada Comanche Chief Quanah Parker and Lone Wolf, chief of the Kiowas, surprised the inhabitants of Adobe Walls in the early light of June 27. In the initial siege, the outpost’s defenders numbered 28 men, including Dixon and a 20-year-old Bat Masterson, along with one woman. For the next five days, the besieged inhabitants repelled multiple attacks as more hunters in the area slipped in to render aid.

With a name like Adobe Walls, we might imagine the battle site was some type of Adobe fort. The original Adobe Walls trading post did, in fact, evolve into a fortification with walls estimated to be 9 feet high. But by 1848 it became too dangerous for traders to remain year-round. Bent destroyed the adobe structure and abandoned the outpost in 1849. When the post was reestablished by the Kansas hunters, they constructed several standalone buildings out of adobe and logs north of the original site, one of which was enclosed by a picket stockade. The massive Panhandle wildfires in late February burned away the vegetation to shed new light on where some of these buildings stood.

From one of these adobe buildings, about midway through the multiple-day standoff, Dixon fired his famous “shot of the century” from his Sharps .50-caliber rifle. He picked off a mounted warrior, reportedly from almost a mile away. Whether it was truly that far or not, Dixon was known as an expert marksman, and as his later written accounts attest, a colorful storyteller.

After five days of failing to breach the fortifications, the warriors retreated, possibly realizing they were outgunned and perhaps wondering how many Billy Dixons might be hiding behind those walls. Word of the battle quickly reached President Ulysses S. Grant, who empowered Army Gen. Philip Sheridan to send in the Cavalry with the aim of forcing the remaining bands of Plains Indians onto reservations in Oklahoma. 

In what became known as the Red River War, Col. Ranald S. Mackenzie commanded three of the five Army columns dispatched to the Panhandle, where he pursued the holdouts throughout the late summer. On Sept. 28, his Fourth Cavalry located winter camps of Comanche, Kiowa and Cheyenne in Palo Duro Canyon. The soldiers chased out the defenders and their families, destroyed their winter food supplies and captured 1,400 horses, which they later slaughtered in Tule Canyon.

The Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum, which manages and maintains the battle site for the Second Battle of Adobe Walls, is planning a late June exhibition to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the battle that sparked the Red River War. Members of the Comanche Nation are planning to attend a public reception on June 28, helping provide a more complete understanding of what took place at Adobe Walls and beyond— and how these events affect us all to this day.

While the Red River War lasted into the following year, the loss of food and transportation in Palo Duro Canyon was a crushing blow to the tribes. The last of the starving native population eventually left for Oklahoma and life started happening in its own new way. It’s not entirely clear, though, that many people were yearning to live here permanently in 1874. The buffalo hunters got back to their business until the herds dwindled to the point it wasn’t worth the effort. The pastores and cattlemen came for the ample grass, but there wasn’t an immediate rush of people wanting to break the sod or start homeowner associations.

Eventually, the Panhandle did become a more desirable destination, and we assigned Adobe Walls to just a thing in our early history involving that one incredible rifle shot. But the notion that modern Panhandle history actually began in a less-than-captivating locale with people who hadn’t likely bathed in a month of Sundays doesn’t diminish our fascinating past. And feeling remorse for the native women and children who suffered in the aftermath doesn’t make us weak. It just helps us see our origins more clearly and to credit all those, the vanquished included, who brought us to the here and now.

Author

  • Wes Reeves

    Wes was raised in the Texas Panhandle and has been a resident of Amarillo for almost 30 years. He has been active in the Amarillo Historical Preservation Foundation for the past 15 years, and works in his spare time to bring history alive through historical preservation and engaging new generations in the appreciation of the region’s colorful history.

    View all posts