Fight at Palo Duro Canyon Beat Plains Tribes

Palo Duro Canyon

Fourth U.S. Cavalrymen not only beat Comanche, Cheyenne, Kiowa and Arapaho warriors at Palo Duro Canyon, in Texas, but crippled their ability to hunt and make war.

When Col. Ranald Mackenzie led the Fourth U.S. Cavalry against the Southern Plains tribes, he knew where to look; the 120-mile long Palo Duro Canyon, a few miles from Canyon, Texas, south of the Texas-Oklahoma line, on the Texas Panhandle. The area is also referred to as the Staked Plains.

Families from four Southern Plains tribes (other tribe members lived on the northern, or High Plains) traditionally wintered in the canyon because ithe 800-foot defile provided shelter from storms. The canyon also provided abundant grass, water, and firewood.

Mackenzie, a three-times-wounded Civil War veteran, led his men from Fort Richardson, located at Jacksboro, Texas, in September, 1874, The Indians knew the cavalry were hunting them, as about 300 warriors tried to stampede the cavalry horses the night before, on the 26th, while the soldiers were camped on the plains.

The stampede didn’t work because Mackenzie had ordered the horses “staked” and placed soldiers in the herd. The Indians attacked again the next morning, but quickly fled. But the warriors didn’t expect the troopers to find their winter quarters as quickly as they did.

After nightfall on the 27th, cavalrymen began descending into the canyon by way of a narrow game trail. When they were halfway down, they were spotted by an Indian man who gave a warning whoop and fired his gun.

Fourth Cavalry Burned Plains Indians’ Supplies

The Indians below began running toward their horses, trying to round them up, leaving everything they owned behind, including tepees, buffalo robes and food. Many climbed up the canyon walls and began firing on the soldiers, while others stayed on the canyon floor, taking up positions behind trees and rocks.

While three cavalry companies were placed to fight the warriors, Mackenzie ordered the remainder of his command to destroy all five Indian villages (which ran two miles up and down the defile). By 4 p.m., on the 28th, the cavalry was in control and had captured all of the Indians’ horse herd, between 1,000 to 2,200 animals.

Tribal Horses Killed

Two days later, after the troopers had withdrawn from the canyon, soldiers and Tonkawa Indian scouts were allowed to replace their dead and wounded animals with Indian horses, also referred to as Indian ponies. The remainder of the herd was shot to death.

A minimum number of soldiers were killed in the battle, while the Indians lost approximately 50 to 60 people, including the famous Kiowa chief, Woman’s Heart. But, it wasn’t the number killed which made a difference to the Indians. They could not survive the winter without shelter, supplies and horses; mostly horses.

If the warriors had been able to save their horses, they would have been mobile and could possibly have hunted or captured food and supplies in Mexico, where they raided. But without horses, they were helpless.

Mackenzie had destroyed the tribes ability to make war . He and his soldiers gave the Indians no choice but to live on their reservations, surviving on government rations.


  1. Great Western Indian Fights, by the Members of the Potomac Corral of the Westerners, University of Nebraska Press, 1960
  2. The Indian Frontier of the American West 1846-1890, by Robert Utley, University of New Mexico Press, 1984