Red River War Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

During the Red River War, the U.S. Army defeated three of the American West’s most formidable Indian tribes, opening large areas of the Southwest to settlement by the United States. The war confirmed the success of the doctrine of “total war,” launching the army on a mission of destruction of any Native American culture that resisted U.S. expansion.

Summary of Event

Despite good intentions expressed in the 1867 Medicine Medicine Lodge Creek Treaty (1867) Lodge Creek Treaty, the southern Great Plains remained a hotbed of hostile Native American activity, lawlessness, and punitive military action. Kiowa and Comanche bands continued to raid into Texas and Mexico, while southern Cheyenne and Arapaho braves still threatened parts of Kansas, often returning to the protection of reservations after their raids. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army, frustrated by restrictions imposed under President Ulysses S. Grant’s Quaker Peace Policy, labored to control the volatile situation. Red River War (1874-1875) Kansas;Red River War Oklahoma;Red River War Texas;Red River War Army, U.S.;and Indian wars[Indian wars] Comanches;Red River War Mackenzie, Ranald Slidell Miles, Nelson A. Gray Beard Cheyennes;Red River War Kiowas;Red River War Lone Wolf Native American wars;Red River War [kw]Red River War (June 27, 1874-June 2, 1875) [kw]River War, Red (June 27, 1874-June 2, 1875) [kw]War, Red River (June 27, 1874-June 2, 1875) Red River War (1874-1875) Kansas;Red River War Oklahoma;Red River War Texas;Red River War Army, U.S.;and Indian wars[Indian wars] Comanches;Red River War Mackenzie, Ranald Slidell Miles, Nelson A. Gray Beard Cheyennes;Red River War Kiowas;Red River War Lone Wolf Native American wars;Red River War [g]United States;June 27, 1874-June 2, 1875: Red River War[4740] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;June 27, 1874-June 2, 1875: Red River War[4740] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;June 27, 1874-June 2, 1875: Red River War[4740] Parker, Quanah Sheridan, Philip H. [p]Sheridan, Philip H.;and Indian wars[Indian wars] Price, William R. Davidson, John Wynn Buell, George P.

By 1874, the inadequacies of the reservation system and other outside influences combined to trigger a major tribal uprising. For most members of the plains tribes, reservation life and the imposition of Anglo-American values threatened the most basic tenets of their existence, depriving them of freedom, mobility, and dignity. This proved especially problematic for young men, whose status largely depended on demonstrations of bravery in war or prowess on the hunt. Reservation Indians suffered from poor food; frequently, promised rations were never delivered. Whiskey traders and horse thieves preyed on reservations with relative impunity. Most grievous to the American Indians was the wholesale slaughter of the buffalo by hide-hunters and sportsmen who were killing the beasts by the hundreds of thousands, leaving stripped carcasses to litter the prairie. With the arrival of spring, the South Plains erupted in violence, as American Indians left their reservations in large numbers.

Kiowa war leader Lone Wolf.

(National Archives)

On June 27, 1874, several hundred Cheyenne and Comanche warriors attacked a group of twenty-eight buffalo hunters in the Texas Panhandle at an old trading post known as Adobe Walls. Prominent among the attackers was Quanah Parker Parker, Quanah , the son of an influential Comanche chief and his captured wife, Cynthia Ann Parker. Despite overwhelming odds, the well-protected buffalo hunters devastated the attackers with high-powered rifles. Although never confirmed, American Indian casualties probably exceeded seventy.

The Red River War





The attack at Adobe Walls signaled the beginning of the Red River War. In July, Lone Wolf’s Kiowas assailed a Texas Ranger detachment, Cheyenne warriors struck travel routes in Kansas, and Comanches menaced Texas ranches. As hostile action intensified, the army received permission to pursue raiders onto previously protected reservations and take offensive action to end the uprising. On July 20, 1874, Commanding General William Tecumseh Sherman Sherman, William Tecumseh [p]Sherman, William Tecumseh;and Native Americans[Native Americans] issued orders initiating a state of war, the prosecution of which fell to Lieutenant General Philip Sheridan Sheridan, Philip H. [p]Sheridan, Philip H.;and Indian wars[Indian wars] , whose massive jurisdiction included the South Plains. Sheridan, like Sherman an advocate of total war, quickly devised the most ambitious campaign yet mounted by the army against American Indians in the West.

Sheridan’s plan called for five independent columns to converge on American Indian camps in the Texas Panhandle, surround them, and punish the Indians to such an extent as to discourage future uprisings. Accordingly, Colonel Nelson A. Miles marched from Fort Dodge, Kansas, with a large force of cavalry and infantry; Colonel Ranald Slidell Mackenzie, with eight companies of cavalry and five infantry companies, moved northward from Fort Concho, Texas; Major William R. Price Price, William R. led a squadron of cavalry eastward from New Mexico; and Lieutenant Colonels John Wynn Davidson Davidson, John Wynn and George P. Buell Buell, George P. prepared their commands, comprising several companies of Buffalo Soldiers (African American troops from the Ninth and Tenth Cavalries), to strike westward from Indian Territory. The total force numbered more than two thousand soldiers and Indian scouts.

In August, Army units moved onto reservations to separate peaceful Indians from the hostile. Although almost all Arapahos enrolled as friendly, most Cheyennes refused to submit. Troubles at the Fort Sill agency triggered a confrontation between Davidson’s Davidson, John Wynn cavalry and a band of Comanches supported by Lone Wolf’s Kiowas. Most of these Indians escaped to join hostile factions on the Staked Plains. The Army listed almost five thousand Indians as hostile; of these, roughly twelve hundred were warriors.

A severe drought Droughts;U.S. made water scarce, and late August temperatures reached 110 degrees as Colonel Miles eagerly pushed his men southward. On August 30, near Palo Duro Canyon, the column clashed with Cheyenne warriors, who were soon joined by Kiowas and Comanches. The soldiers prevailed, driving the warriors onto the plains. Miles could not exploit the opportunity, however; supply shortages forced him to retire in search of provisions. The drought gave way to torrential rains and dropping temperatures as Miles linked with Price’s Price, William R. column on September 7. Two days later, a band of Kiowas and Comanches assailed a supply train en route to Miles. Following a three-day siege, the American Indians abandoned the effort unrewarded, but the incident complicated the supply crisis.

With Miles temporarily out of action, Mackenzie and his crack Fourth Cavalry Regiment took up the fight. After stockpiling supplies, Mackenzie moved, in miserable conditions, to the rugged canyons of the Caprock escarpment. On September 26, Mackenzie thwarted a Comanche attempt to stampede his horses. Two days later, the crowning achievement of the campaign came as Mackenzie struck a large encampment in Palo Duro Canyon. Following a harrowing descent, wave after wave of cavalry swept across the canyon floor. The soldiers inflicted few casualties but laid waste to the village, burning lodges, badly needed food stocks, and equipment. Mackenzie’s troopers completed the devastation by capturing fifteen hundred of the tribe’s ponies, one thousand of which the colonel ordered destroyed to prevent their recapture.

Over the next three months, Army units scoured the Texas Panhandle, despite freezing temperatures and intense storms. In November, a detachment from Miles’s command destroyed Gray Beard’s Cheyenne camp, recovering Adelaide and Julia German, two of four sisters seized in a Kansas raid. Catherine and Sophia German were released the following spring. Hungry and demoralized, Indians began to trickle into the reservation by October, but most remained defiant until harsh weather and constant military pressure finally broke their resistance. In late February, 1875, five hundred Kiowas, including Lone Wolf, surrendered. On March 6, eight hundred Cheyennes, among them the elusive Gray Beard, capitulated. In April, sixty Cheyennes bolted from their reservation in an effort to join the Northern Cheyennes; twenty-seven of these, including women and children, were killed by a cavalry detachment at Sappa Creek in northwestern Kansas. Finally, on June 2, 1875, Quanah Parker Parker, Quanah and four hundred Comanches—the last organized band fighting in the Red River War—surrendered to Mackenzie at Fort Sill.

After a dubious selection process, seventy-four Indians, ostensibly the leading troublemakers, including Gray Beard and Lone Wolf, were shipped to prison in Florida. Gray Beard was later killed trying to escape; others perished in captivity, but some accepted the benevolent supervision and educational efforts of Lieutenant Richard Pratt. Several Red River War veterans remained with Pratt after their release to assist him in establishing the Carlisle Indian School in 1879.


The Red River War was among the most successful campaigns ever conducted against American Indians. It brought almost complete subjugation to three of the most powerful and revered tribes in North America. It also provided a model for future army campaigns and boldly confirmed the doctrine of total war. Now less concerned with inflicting casualties, the Army would focus on destroying the American Indians’ means and will to resist. Combined with the annihilation of the buffalo, this campaign of eradication made it impossible for American Indians to exist in large numbers outside reservations. Finally, the campaign’s successful completion opened vast areas to white settlement and ranching.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Haley, James L. The Buffalo War: The History of the Red River Indian Uprising of 1874. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1976. Provides substantial background information and military analysis. Maps, illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hutton, Paul Andrew. Phil Sheridan and His Army. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985. An expansive study of Sheridan’s post-Civil War career, including his role as the Red River War’s chief architect. Maps, illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jauken, Arlene Feldmann. The Moccasin Speaks: Living as Captives of the Dog Soldier Warriors, Red River War, 1874-1875. Lincoln, Nebr.: Dageforde, 1998. Account of the experiences of the German family, who were captured by the Cheyenne during the Red River War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Leckie, William H. The Buffalo Soldiers: A Narrative of the Negro Cavalry in the West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967. Discusses the considerable role played by African Americans in the frontier Army, devoting an entire chapter to the Red River War. Maps, illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robinson, Charles M., III. Bad Hand: A Biography of General Ranald S. Mackenzie. Austin, Tex.: State House Press, 1993. A comprehensive study that treats Mackenzie’s pivotal role in the Red River War in suitable detail. Maps, illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Plains Wars, 1757-1900. New York: Routledge, 2003. The Red River War features prominently in this book from the Essential Histories series. Bibliographic reference and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Utley, Robert M. Frontier Regulars: The United States Army and the Indian, 1866-1891. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984. An essential study of the frontier Army and the Indian wars. Includes a chapter on the Red River War and a wealth of other pertinent information. Maps, illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">________. The Indian Frontier of the American West, 1846-1890. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984. This authoritative treatment of cultures in conflict includes a discussion of the causes and effects of the Red River War. Maps, illustrations, notes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wooster, Robert. Nelson A. Miles and the Twilight of the Frontier Army. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993. Includes a chapter on the controversial soldier’s extensive Red River War operations.

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