Native American Relations in Texas

In This Section: The Salt Creek Massacre -The Battle of Adobe Walls - The Red River War - Aftermath
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The Salt Creek Massacre

Big Tree and SatantaAfter the defeat of the Confederacy, federal troops slowly began to reoccupy their old forts on the Texas frontier. The Army also established three new forts, Richardson, Concho, and Griffin. However, there was still no fort on the Red River, leaving the frontier vulnerable to attacks from Indians across the border at Fort Sill in Indian Territory (Oklahoma).

In addition to the Army presence, federal officials also resumed negotiations with the Southern Plains tribes. In October 1867, they held a summit with Kiowa and Comanche leaders in Barber County, Kansas, resulting in the Medicine Lodge Treaty. For a number of reasons, the treaty was a failure. As usual, many Indian bands did not recognize it as valid. Similarly, the federal government was lax about enforcing the treaty once it was signed, allowing white outlaws to prey upon reservation Indians.

The late 1860s was a time of intense frustration and hopelessness for both white Texans and Indians. For both groups, the frontier remained unsafe and unpredictable. The federal garrisons that were supposed to protect white settlers were undermanned. Texas wanted to provide rangers to supplement frontier defense but was ruined financially by the defeat in the war. There was simply no money to wage war, and Texans faced a situation that appeared virtually unchanged from two decades before.

Despite appearances, however, things were changing, and for the Indians the end was near. William T. Sherman, commander of the U.S. Army, and Philip H. Sheridan, commander of U.S. troops in Texas, were hardened veterans of some of the worst fighting of the Civil War. Sherman and Sheridan had learned not only to wage war on the battlefield but to break the enemy's will to resist. To this end, they began a policy of encouraging the slaughter of the southern buffalo herd.

A fateful raid marked the turning point. In May, 1871, a party of more than one hundred Kiowas, Comanches, and others left Fort Sill and crossed into Texas. Led by Satank, Satanta, and Big Tree, they took up positions on the Salt Creek Prairie. A group of heavily armed white soldiers was allowed to pass unmolested; unknown to the Indians, the military escort was for General Sherman, who was conducting an inspection tour of Texas. The next group of whites to pass was a wagon train belonging to a freighting company. The Indians swept down upon the wagons and attacked. They killed the wagon master and seven teamsters and looted the wagons, then returned immediately to the reservation.

When General Sherman heard the news from a teamster who escaped the slaughter, he ordered ruthless reprisals. He also reversed an earlier order that prohibited soldiers from pursuing Indians on to the reservations. Sherman traveled to Fort Sill, where he personally arrested Satank, Satanta, and Big Tree and ordered them transported back to Texas to be tried for murder. Satank was killed during an escape attempt, but Satanta and Big Tree were put on trial. By early July both had been sentenced to hang.

In the weeks that followed, hundreds of Indians left the reservation and joined their relatives on the Staked Plains. To avert all-out carnage, Governor Edmund J. Davis commuted the sentences to life in prison. The Indians were eventually paroled, but it would be Satanta's fate to commit suicide in 1878 while serving another prison term at Huntsville prison. The character of Blue Duck in Larry McMurtry's classic novel Lonesome Dove was partially based on his life. Big Tree was more fortunate. When the Indian Wars came to a close, he counseled his people to accept peace. Big Tree converted to the Baptist faith and lived to age eighty.

The Salt Creek Massacre, also known as the Warren Wagon Train Raid, would have far-reaching consequences for Texas Indians. Because of the raid, General Sherman developed a policy of all-out offensive against the Plains Indians. The next few years would be bloody indeed.


Buffalo hunt in Taylor county, 1874

Buffalo Hunt, 1874

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This series of photos depicts a buffalo hunt in Taylor County in 1874. Buffalo in Texas were first described by Cabeza de Vaca. Texas was home to four main herds, and at the height of their population, their trails could be several miles wide. What became known as the "great slaughter" took place in the 1870s, and by 1878 the buffalo in Texas was all but exterminated.

Taylor County Buffalo Hunt, 1874. From William J. Oliphant's stereographic series "Life on the Frontier." Photography by George Robertson. Modern prints made circa 1926. Prints and Photographs Collection.



Mark Walker to Chauncy McKeever, May 1867

"There Must Be No Ransom Paid"

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Texas Indians commonly took captives in warfare. Some captives were adopted into the tribe, while others were tortured for revenge or held for ransom. This letter relates the attempt of a desperate father to regain his thirteen-year-old son from the Comanches. It includes a note from General Sherman serving notice that "this boy must be surrendered or else war to the death will be ordered."

Texas Indian Papers, Volume 4, #140. Letter from Mark Walker to Chauncy McKeever, May 14, 1867.





List of Persons Killed in Parker County, 1867

List of Persons Killed or Wounded in Parker County, 1867

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Parker County in north central Texas was part of the Comanche and Kiowa domain. White settlers began arriving in the area in the late 1840s and 1850s. Indian raiding and white reprisals resulted in a brutal cycle of violence. The area did not begin to prosper until the end of the Texas Indian wars in 1874.

Texas Indian Papers, Volume 4, #148. List of Persons Killed and Wounded in Parker County, June 9, 1867.








Sherman to Mackenzie, 1871

William T. Sherman to Ranald Mackenzie, May 1871

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General William Tecumseh Sherman once said of war, "It is all hell, boys." Famous in the Civil War for the burning of Atlanta and the devastating "March to the Sea" through Georgia, the fearsome general became commander of the Army in 1869. Sherman's Indian policy became the turning point that led to the final military defeat of the Indians in the United States. In Texas, Sherman had believed that tales of Indian raiding in Texas were exaggerated. After the Salt Creek Massacre, he changed his mind. Sherman ordered the Army to wage merciless warfare against Indians in Texas and elsewhere.

Records of Edmund Jackson Davis, Texas Office of the Governor, May 28, 1871.





James H. Haworth to Cyrus Beede, 1873

"They Will Be Hard to Keep Off the War Path"

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Civil and military policies towards the Indians often stood in stark contrast. In 1868, President Grant adopted a peace policy towards the Indians, and selected the Society of Friends (Quakers) to run the reservations in Indian Territory. Relations between the Quakers and the military were often strained. The Quakers proved unequal to their mission of transforming Kiowas, Comanches, and other Plains tribes into peaceful farmers. The policy was judged a failure, and they were withdrawn in 1878. In this letter, James H. Haworth of the Kiowa and Comanche agency reports to Cyrus Beede, the chief clerk of the Central Indian Superintendency in Kansas.

Texas Indian Papers, Volume 4, #216. Letter from James H. Haworth to Cyrus Beede, May 8, 1873.



In This Section: The Salt Creek Massacre -The Battle of Adobe Walls - The Red River War - Aftermath
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Page last modified: June 26, 2017