Last Days of the Comanches

By the autumn of 1871, the Western frontier was rolling backward, retreating in the face of savage Indian attacks. When a ragtag army of federal soldiers arrived on the Llano Estacado to crush the hostile natives once and for all, they had numbers and firepower on their side. What they didn’t know was that their enemies were led by Quanah Parker, a half-white war chief who may have been the greatest fighter of his time.

May 2010By Comments

Illustration by Tyler Jacobson

On October 3, 1871, six hundred soldiers and twenty Tonkawa scouts broke camp on a lovely bend of the Clear Fork of the Brazos, in a rolling, scarred prairie about 150 miles west of Fort Worth. The soldiers—mostly veterans of the Civil War—had bivouacked at the edge of the known universe and now found themselves ascending to the turreted rock towers that gated the fabled Llano Estacado of northwestern Texas, a country populated exclusively by the least friendly Indians on the continent. The Llano was a dead-flat, high-altitude tableland larger than Indiana, a vast, trackless, and featureless ocean of grass where white men became lost and disoriented and died of thirst, a place where the imperial Spanish had once marched confidently forth in pursuit of Indians, only to find that they themselves were the hunted. The U.S. soldiers, under the command of a Civil War hero named Ranald Slidell Mackenzie, moved out in a long, snaking line through high cutbanks and quicksand streams.

They were hunting Comanches. The reason was clear to everyone from the Washita River to Washington, D.C.: The western frontier was an open and bleeding wound, and the Comanches, more than anyone else, were responsible. What was once the vanguard of America’s westward migration had become a smoking ruin littered with corpses and charred chimneys. Victorious in the Civil War, unchallenged by foreign foes in North America for the first time in its history, the United States government now found itself unable to deal with a tribe that had for more than a century ruled a 240,000-square-mile empire of buffalo herds and horizon-spanning plains.

Colonel Mackenzie and his soldiers were supposed to change that. Their main problem was that it was almost impossible to find the nomadic Comanches. One could know only their general ranges, their hunting grounds, perhaps old camp locations. The band Mackenzie was tracking—the Quahadi, legendary as the most remote and irredeemably hostile of all the Comanches—hunted the Llano Estacado; they liked to camp in the depths of Palo Duro Canyon, the second-largest canyon in North America; they often stayed in Blanco Canyon and near the headwaters of the Pease River and McClellan’s Creek. As the soldiers moved north and west into the stream-crossed no-man’s-land of the Texas Panhandle, Mackenzie had his Tonkawa scouts fan out far in advance of the column. The Tonks, members of a tribe that had nearly been exterminated by Comanches and whose remaining members yearned for vengeance, would look for signs, try to cut trails, then follow them to the lodges.

Within a few days, the Tonks had found a trail. It had been made by a Quahadi band under the leadership of a brilliant war chief named Quanah, a Comanche word that means “odor” or “fragrance” (reportedly he was born in a bed of flowers). He was as yet unknown to the world beyond the frontier. Quanah, who was probably 23 at the time, was unusually young to be a chief; he was also ruthless, clever, and fearless in battle. There was something else about Quanah too. He was half white, the son of a Comanche chief and a white woman. People on the Texas frontier would soon learn this about him, partly because the fact was so exceptional. By the time Mackenzie was pursuing him, in 1871, Quanah’s mother had long been famous. She had been the best known of all Indian captives of the era, referred to as “the white squaw” for her refusal, on repeated occasions, to return to her people, thus challenging one of the most fundamental Eurocentric assumptions: that given the choice between the sophisticated, industrialized, Christian culture of Europe and the savage and morally backward ways of the Indians, no sane person would ever choose the latter. Few, other than Quanah’s mother, ever did.

Her name was Cynthia Ann Parker. She was a member of one of Texas’s most prominent families, which included Texas Ranger captains, politicians, and Baptists who’d founded the state’s first Protestant church. In 1836, at the age of nine, she was kidnapped in a Comanche raid at Parker’s Fort, near Mexia. She soon forgot her mother tongue, learned Indian ways, and became a full member of the tribe. She married a war chief and had three children by him, of whom Quanah was the eldest. In 1860, when Quanah was twelve, Cynthia Ann was recaptured during an attack by Texas Rangers on her village and never saw her son again.

Mackenzie and his soldiers most likely knew the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, but they wouldn’t have known that her blood ran in Quanah’s veins. Or how unprepared they were to face him in battle. The soldiers were operating beyond anything they’d experienced, such as a trail they could follow or landmarks they could have recognized. They were dismayed to learn that their principal water sources were buffalo wallow holes, which, according to Captain Robert G. Carter, Mackenzie’s subordinate, were “stagnant, warm, nauseating, odorous with smells, and covered with green slime that had to be pushed aside.” The bluecoats spent a day riding westward over a rolling mesquite prairie pocked with prairie-dog towns. The latter were common in the Texas Panhandle and extremely dangerous to horses and mules. The troopers passed herds of buffalo, vast and foul-smelling, and rivers whose gypsum-infused water was impossible to drink. They passed curious-looking trading stations, abandoned now, consisting of caves carved out of the sides of cliffs and reinforced with poles that looked like prison bars.

Hoping to surprise the enemy in its camps, Mackenzie ordered a night march. What he got instead was an object lesson in the hazards of High Plains warfare. His men struggled through steep terrain, dense brush, ravines, and arroyos. After hours of what Carter described as “trials and tribulations and much hard talk verging on profanity” and “many rather comical scenes,” they fetched up bruised and battered in the dead end of a small canyon and had to wait until daybreak to find their way out. A few hours later they reached the Freshwater Fork of the Brazos (now known as the White River), deep in Indian territory, in a broad, shallow, thirty-mile-long valley that averaged 1,500 feet in width and was cut by smaller side canyons.

The place, known as Blanco Canyon, was located just to the east of present-day Lubbock. It was one of the Quahadis’ favorite campgrounds. Whatever surprise Mackenzie had hoped for was gone; the Tonkawa scouts soon realized they were being shadowed by four Comanche warriors, who had been watching their every move, presumably including the blunders of the night march. The Tonks gave chase, but “the hostiles being better mounted soon distanced their pursuers and vanished into the hills,” Carter wrote. This was not surprising: In two hundred years of enmity, the Tonkawas had never come close to matching the horsemanship of the Comanches. Few tribes could. As a result, while the cavalrymen and dragoons had no idea where the Comanches were camped, Quanah knew precisely where Mackenzie’s men were. As though to make certain of that, Mackenzie allowed the men the indulgence of campfires, which was tantamount to painting a large arrow in the canyon pointing to their camp. Some of the companies erred yet again by failing to place guards among the horses.

Around midnight, the regiment was awakened by a succession of unearthly, high-pitched yells. Those were followed by shots and more yells, and suddenly the camp was alive with Comanches riding at full gallop. Exactly what the Indians were doing was soon apparent: Mingled with the screams and gunshots and general mayhem was another sound, only barely audible at first, then rising to something like rolling thunder. The men quickly realized that it was the sound of stampeding horses. Their horses. Amid shouts of “Every man to his lariat!” six hundred panicked horses tore loose through the camp, rearing, jumping, and plunging at full speed. Lariats snapped with the sound of pistol shots; iron picket pins, which a few minutes before had been used to secure the horses, now whirled and snapped about their necks like airborne sabers. Men tried to grab them and were thrown to the ground and dragged among the horses, their hands lacerated and bleeding.

When it was all over, the soldiers discovered that Quanah and his warriors had made off with seventy of their best horses and mules, including Colonel Mackenzie’s magnificent gray pacer. In West Texas in 1871, stealing someone’s horse was often equivalent to a death sentence. It was an old Indian tactic, especially on the High Plains, to simply take a white man’s horse and leave him to die of thirst or starvation. Comanches had used it to lethal effect against the Spanish in the early eighteenth century. In any case, an unmounted Army regular stood little chance against a mounted Comanche. This midnight raid was Quanah’s calling card, a clear message that hunting him and his Comanche warriors in their homeland was going to be a difficult and treacherous business.

Though no one present knew it at the time, this skirmish marked the beginning of the end of the Indian wars in America, of 250 years of bloody combat. The final destruction of the last of the hostile tribes would not take place for a few more years; time would yet be required to round them all up, or starve them out, or exterminate their sources of food, or run them to ground in shallow canyons, or kill them outright. But the fall of 1871 marked a profound shift in the white man’s thinking.

There had been brief spasms of official vengeance and retribution before: J. M. Chivington’s and George Armstrong Custer’s savage massacres of Cheyennes in 1864 and 1868, for instance. But in those days there was no real attempt to destroy the tribes on a larger scale, no stomach for it. That had changed, and on October 3, the change assumed the form of an order, barked out through the lines of command to the men of the Fourth Cavalry and Eleventh Infantry, to go forth and kill Comanches. It was the end of anything like tolerance, the beginning of the final solution.

Mackenzie’s bluecoats were moving resolutely westward because President Ulysses S. Grant’s vaunted “peace policy” toward the remaining Indians had failed miserably and because the exasperated general in chief of the Army, William Tecumseh Sherman, had ordered it so. Mackenzie, Sherman’s chosen agent of destruction, was an implacable young man who had graduated first in his class from West Point in 1862 and had finished the Civil War, remarkably, as a brevet brigadier general. Because his right hand had been gruesomely disfigured from war wounds, the Indians called him No-Finger Chief or Bad Hand. A complex destiny awaited him. Within four years he would prove himself the most brutally effective Indian fighter in American history. In roughly that same time period, while Custer achieved fame in failure and catastrophe, Mackenzie would become obscure in victory. But it was Mackenzie who would teach the rest of the Army how to fight Indians. As he moved his men across the broken country, Colonel Mackenzie did not have a clear idea of what he was doing or where precisely he was going. He was new to this sort of Indian fighting and would make many mistakes in the coming weeks. He would learn from them.

There were a handful of other tribes still at large on the plains who had not yet been destroyed, assimilated, or forced to retreat meekly onto reservations. They had names we all recognize: Kiowas, Arapahos, Cheyennes, and Western Sioux. But for Mackenzie, Comanches were the obvious target: No tribe in the history of this land had ever caused so much havoc and death. None was even a close second.

Just how bad things were in 1871 could be seen in the number of settlers who had abandoned their lands. The frontier, carried westward with so much sweat and blood and toil, was now rolling backward, retreating. “If the Indian marauders are not punished,” wrote Colonel Randolph Marcy, “the whole country seems in a fair way of becoming totally depopulated.” In some places the line of settlements had been driven back a hundred miles. If General Sherman wondered about the cause, his tour of the area the previous spring, when he narrowly missed being killed by a party of raiding Indians, relieved him of his uncertainty. The Indians, mostly Comanches and Kiowas, passed over his party because of a shaman’s superstitions and instead descended on a nearby wagon train. What happened was typical of the revenge-driven attacks by Comanches and Kiowas in Texas in the postwar years. What was not typical was Sherman’s proximity and his personal sense of mortality. Because of that, the raid became famous, known to history as the Salt Creek Massacre.

Seven men were killed, though that does not begin to describe the horror of what was found at the scene. According to Carter, who witnessed its aftermath, the victims were stripped, tortured, scalped, and mutilated. Some had been beheaded and others had had their brains scooped out. “Their fingers, toes and private parts had been cut off and stuck in their mouths,” wrote Carter, “and their bodies, now lying in several inches of water and swollen or bloated beyond all chance of recognition, were filled full of arrows, which made them resemble porcupines.” Thus the settlers’ headlong flight eastward.

After so many successful wars of conquest and dominion, it seemed implausible that the westward rush of the white man would stall in the prairies of Central Texas. No tribe had ever managed to resist for very long the surge of nascent American civilization. Beginning with the subjection of the Atlantic coastal tribes (Pequots, Penobscots, Pamunkeys, Wampanoags, and so on), hundreds of tribes and bands had perished from the earth, been driven west into territories, or been forcibly assimilated. The great nations of the south—Chickasaw, Cherokee, Seminole, Creek, and Choctaw—saw their reservation lands expropriated in spite of a string of treaties; they were coerced westward into lands given them in yet more treaties that were violated before they were even signed, hounded along the Trail of Tears until they too landed in Indian Territory (what is now present-day Oklahoma), a land controlled by Comanches, Kiowas, Arapahos, and Cheyennes.

Even stranger was that the Comanches’ stunning success was happening amid phenomenal technological and social change. In 1869 the Transcontinental Railroad was completed, linking the industrializing East with the developing West and rendering the old trails—the Oregon, the Santa Fe, and their tributaries—instantly obsolete. With the rails came cattle, herded northward in epic drives to railheads by Texans who could make fast fortunes getting them to Chicago markets. With the rails, too, came buffalo hunters—grim, violent, opportunistic men carrying deadly accurate .50-caliber Sharps rifles that could kill effectively at extreme range. The nation was booming; a railroad had finally stitched it together. There was only this one obstacle left: the warlike and unreconstructed Indian tribes who inhabited the physical wastes of the Great Plains.

Of those, the least touched by the white man’s world was Quanah’s Quahadi band, who inhabited the inner heartland of the southern plains, a place known to the Spanish, who had been abjectly driven from it, as Comancheria. For Europeans, the trackless, wide-open plains of the Llano Estacado were like a bad hallucination. “Although I traveled over them for more than 300 leagues,” wrote the conquistador Francisco Vásquez de Coronado in a letter to the king of Spain on October 20, 1541, “[there were] no more landmarks than if we had been swallowed up by the sea . . . there was not a stone, nor a bit of rising ground, nor a tree, nor a shrub, nor anything to go by.” The Canadian River formed the land’s northern boundary. In the east was the precipitous Caprock Escarpment, a cliff rising as high as one thousand feet, demarcating the High Plains from the lower Permian Plains below and giving the Quahadis something that approximated a gigantic, nearly impregnable fortress.

Unlike almost all the other tribal bands on the plains, the Quahadis had always shunned contact with Anglos. They would not even trade with them, as a general principle, preferring to use the mobile traders known as comancheros as middlemen. For this reason they had largely avoided the cholera plagues of 1816 and 1849 that had ravaged western tribes and had destroyed fully half of the Comanches. Unlike almost every other Indian band in North America, they never signed a treaty. The Quahadis were the hardest, fiercest, least-yielding component of a tribe that had long had the reputation as the most violent and warlike on the continent; if they ran low on water, they were known to drink the contents of a dead horse’s stomach, something the toughest Texas Ranger would not do. Even other Comanches feared them.

Humiliated by the repeated blunders his command had made, Mackenzie and his Fourth Cavalry sorted through the tangled mass of horses, lariats, and picket pins and set out at dawn on the morning of October 10 to find the Comanches who had attacked them. Mackenzie had no idea that he had stumbled into not just a Quahadi village but the main body of the Quahadi band, several hundred lodges’ worth. Snapping the stumps of his fingers irritably—it had already become a defining personal habit—Mackenzie was also unaware that he was about to embark upon a rollicking forty-mile chase along a razor edge of the Llano Estacado, the likes of which no western troops had ever experienced.

The day began with yet another mistake by the white soldiers. Just as the first light began to streak the eastern sky, two detachments of troops searching in the valley for the lost herd caught sight of a dozen Comanches leading as many horses. Thrilled with their good luck, the men under Captain E. M. Heyl spurred forward, gaining rapidly on the Indians, until they were just within pistol range. The Indians abandoned the animals and appeared to make a run for it, crossing a ravine and climbing onto the higher ground just beyond it, where a butte rose toward the top of the canyon walls. The soldiers, who were now three miles from their camp, followed. As they ascended toward the butte, they could see in the clear light of morning that the Indians they were following had turned on them. And now a much larger force had emerged before them. Suddenly the prairie was “fairly swarming with Indians, all mounted and galloping toward us with whoops and blood curdling yells that, for the moment, seemed to take the breath completely away from our bodies,” wrote Carter. “It was like an electric shock. All seemed to realize the deadly peril of the situation.” Above them, from the battlements of the canyon walls, came the eerie high-pitched ululations of the Comanche women, looking down at their men and cheering them on.

Quanah was riding in front, resplendent in black war paint and bear-claw necklace and armed with a brace of six-shooters. He was a big man with a massively muscled upper body. Carter wrote that he found him terrifying to look at. Having sprung the trap, Quanah ordered his warriors to flank and surround the men. The besieged troopers, realizing what was about to happen, dismounted and backed slowly toward the ravine, firing as they retreated. Suddenly the seven men with Heyl turned and ran, abandoning their comrades to the Indians. The Indians whooped and came on. The five remaining soldiers, one of whom had been shot in the hand, continued their retreat. As they reached the lip of the ravine, they unlocked their magazines and delivered several volleys, driving the Indians back long enough for them to mount their horses. But as they turned and started toward the ravine, the horse carrying Private Seander Gregg faltered.

Carter gives us an interesting and rare snapshot of frontier battle in the close-quarters fight that followed. Seeing Gregg’s problem, Quanah spun and rode quickly toward him, zigzagging his horse and using Gregg and his stumbling mount as a shield. Quanah’s command of his horse was such that Carter and the others could not shoot at him without hitting Gregg. As Quanah closed in for the kill, Gregg tried to use his carbine but in his panic failed to pull the lever hard enough, jamming the cartridge. Carter shouted at him to use his six-shooter, but it was too late. Quanah was upon him. He shot Gregg in the head from close range. It would have been customary for Quanah to scalp the fallen Gregg; instead he whirled and, with the rest of his men, galloped away and up the canyon wall. Amazed, Carter turned and saw why. The Tonkawa scouts had crested the ridge; behind them rose the prodigious dust from Mackenzie’s main column.

For his actions in Blanco Canyon that morning Carter was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. He was undoubtedly a very brave man. But he had something else going for him that would bear importantly on the final outcome of the Indian wars: the Spencer rifle. Prior to the Civil War, the only repeating weapons in military use in America were the six-shot revolvers that Samuel Colt had introduced in the 1840’s. But the war had seen the advent of repeating rifles, most of which were Spencer carbines. For their time, they were technological wonders. They fired .52-caliber bullets from a seven-round magazine, which could be reloaded in one tenth the time it took to reload a Colt-style revolver and gave the rifles a sustainable rate of fire of twenty rounds per minute. They were accurate up to five hundred yards.

The Comanches had nothing to match it. Their main weapons, revolvers and bows, were effective only at short range, generally less than sixty yards. The single-shot muskets they carried, meanwhile, were accurate at longer ranges but were so cumbersome to load—two shots a minute from horseback would have been considered good—that they were mainly used only to fire an opening volley. The mismatch was extraordinary. Colonel Richard Dodge, who wrote about this huge gap in firepower between whites and Indians, believed that an Indian on horseback armed with a repeating rifle, “an arm suited to his mode of fighting,” was “the finest natural soldier in the world.” But Indians carrying repeaters would not appear in numbers until the last days of the plains wars.

Now that Mackenzie’s column had nearly caught up to Quanah’s advance guard, the chase began in earnest. Mackenzie outnumbered him and with his superior weaponry enjoyed an enormous tactical advantage, something the Indians were well aware of. They were also defending their village, which included their women and children. And so they ran. One might think that an entire human settlement consisting of several hundred lodges, with large numbers of women and children and old men, many tons of equipment and provisions and supplies, along with a remuda of three thousand horses and mules and an unspecified number of cattle and dogs, would be an easy enough quarry. The Comanche village could not hide on the open plains. Nor could it possibly move as fast as a well-mounted and determined force of nearly six hundred men. These things seem obvious enough, and the outcome might have seemed a foregone conclusion. Instead, Quanah gave Colonel Mackenzie a lesson in one of the most important components of plains warfare down the centuries: escape.

Aware now that they were hunting the whole camp as well as the warriors, Mackenzie’s men moved northwest along the Freshwater Fork of the Brazos, cutting a gentle arc just to the east of the present city of Lubbock. The river ran through a canyon that sometimes narrowed and sometimes opened out into broad valleys broken by ravines and rolling sand hills and bordered by high, often impassable bluffs. The highest of the bluffs, on the west side of the canyon, were part of the massive Caprock Escarpment, which became a key part of the Indians’ evasive maneuvers.

The men marched steadily through the day in the “stillness and utter solitude of this lovely valley only disturbed by the tramp of our horses’ hoofs,” Carter wrote. They were more than fifty miles from their supply camp, in one of the most dangerous places on the plains for white men. Late in the afternoon they came upon the site of Quanah’s village. The Comanches had left in great haste, dragging their enormous load with them, leaving a broad trail up the canyon. Confident now that they were on the heels of the slow-moving tribe, Mackenzie’s column spurred forward, following their twenty Tonkawa trackers.

That confidence was short-lived. Soon the trail divided, and then it appeared to cross and recross itself until the scouts could discern no clear direction. After much parleying with Mackenzie and the other officers, the scouts concluded that Quanah and his band had actually doubled back on their pursuers and had proceeded away back down the trail. Frustrated and chagrined that they had been outfoxed yet again by the Comanches, the Fourth had no choice but to countermarch, bivouacking for the night at the site of the abandoned village.

The next morning the Tonks managed to pick up the trail again, but now the broad traces left by hundreds of lodge poles and thousands of head of stock seemed to do the impossible, climbing hundreds of feet up the nearly vertical canyon wall and over the cliffs of the Caprock. Somehow the village was behaving like a small group of riders. And now the soldiers toiled upward through an extremely steep ascent over rock outcroppings and ravines. At the top, they saw something that relatively few white men had ever seen: the preternaturally flat expanse of the High Plains, covered only with short buffalo grass. “As far as the eye could reach,” wrote Carter, “not an object of any kind or a living thing, was in sight. It stretched out before us—one uninterrupted plain, only to be compared with the ocean in its vastness.”

The scene was terrifying even for men with experience of the plains. They noticed something else too: The temperature was dropping; a norther was starting to kick up. They were at an elevation of over three thousand feet, still wearing their summer uniforms. The day before they had basked in the warm sunshine of the cloistered canyon. Now the north wind bit into them, and the short, stiff grass made the task of tracking the Comanches difficult at best. Again, the column paused while the Tonks tried to figure out where Quanah’s village had gone. When they finally found the trail, they realized that, after following the edge of the Caprock, it went back over the bluff and down into the canyon. Disgusted, and aware that they had been duped once more, the troopers made the dangerous descent, only to encounter the same tangled skein of wildly crisscrossing trails, some leading up the valley, some down, and some moving directly across it. The Tonks fanned out again. Now they found that the trail led once again up and over the steep bluffs, this time on the other side of the canyon. Again, the troopers went up through the rocky breaks. For all of their anger and frustration, the men were beginning to feel admiration, bordering on astonishment, for what Quanah’s Comanches were able to do. Wrote Carter:

It was a singularly sharp trick, even for Indians, done of course to blind us and gain time in moving their families of women and children as far as possible out of our reach. Without our own Indian scouts to beat the Comanches at their own native shrewdness, we would have undoubtedly lost the trail and [in] hopelessness abandoned the task.

Back upon the Llano Estacado yet again, the troops began to feel the full fury of the norther. Under a darkening sky, the frigid wind cut through their thin uniforms. Many of the men had neither coats nor gloves, and they were now a hundred miles from their supply base. As they moved forward, they caught occasional glimpses of the fleeing band, silhouetted against the horizon. The Indians were closer than they had thought, and as if to underscore that fact, Comanche riders suddenly appeared on their flanks, trying to divert them. Mackenzie refused to be distracted. He pressed his column onward toward the Quahadis, who in their haste and alarm had begun to throw off all sorts of debris, including lodge poles and tools. Even puppies, which some of Mackenzie’s men picked up and placed athwart their saddles. Battle seemed imminent. The Tonks painted themselves and invoked their medicine, the men closed up in columns of fours, the pack mules were set in herd formation.

As if on cue, the leaden skies seemed to descend upon them. What had been a garden-variety norther turned into what people in West Texas call a blue norther—rain, sleet, and snow all mixed together, driven relentlessly by winds of up to 50 miles per hour. Darkness was coming on fast, and the moment for decision had arrived: The Fourth Cavalry could either gallop forward into the gathering storm and attack or break off for the day. Oddly, considering how aggressive Mackenzie was by nature, he decided not to attack. He did this against the advice of his officers. In retrospect, he probably made the right decision. His men were fatigued, his horses worn thin and frail, and unlike the Comanches he had no fresh mounts. The soldiers dismounted, and the storm that had been building up all afternoon now unleashed its full fury. Winds of gale force drove freezing rain, which soon coated the men with ice. It was the sort of night in which a soldier and his horse could easily die. Huge hailstones began to fall, bruising the troopers. They wrapped themselves in what they could find and miserably settled in.

The Quahadis, meanwhile, did not stop. They soldiered on into the teeth of the norther for the rest of the night. The next day Mackenzie made a halfhearted attempt to follow them but soon gave up. He had chased them more than forty miles. He was beginning to push the limits of his supplies. The next day, while the troopers were making their descent back into Blanco Canyon, they cornered two stray Comanches in a ravine. For some reason, perhaps out of frustration, Mackenzie insisted on directing the skirmish from the front. He was hit by a barbed arrow that pierced to the bone and had to be cut out. Embarrassed at his own impetuousness, he never mentioned in his official report that he had been wounded.

It was a final indignity to a mission marred by foolish mistakes and more than its share of bad luck. At the time, the engagement seemed like a dismal failure on the part of the U.S. troops. But beneath this ignominious defeat lay the seeds of eventual, inevitable victory. The logic was disarmingly simple. Previous military expeditions had violated Comancheria’s borders and had introduced the Indians to the idea that their home ranges were no longer completely safe. But they had done nothing to change the basic balance of power. Now, in their deliberate penetration of the heartland, the bluecoat leaders were signaling their intent not just to protect the frontier but to destroy the raiders themselves, to find the wolves in the den and kill them. They were aiming directly at the source of Comanche strength. And much of that strength was a sort of illusion. The once glorious Comanches were now a tiny population of overmatched and outgunned aboriginals who happened to occupy an absurdly large chunk of the nation’s midsection. That they were able to do so in an era of steam engines, transcontinental railroads, telegraph lines, and armies capable of greater destruction than the world had ever witnessed was nearly inconceivable. Finally, that was going to change. What became known to history as the Battle of Blanco Canyon signaled that the tribe’s ruin was only a matter of time.

Four years and much bloodshed later, Quanah and Mackenzie would meet again, this time not to wage war but to negotiate the surrender of the Quahadis, the last of the Comanche bands to come in. It was, remarkably, a cordial encounter between two bitter enemies who would, even more remarkably, become friends later in life. But no amount of bonhomie could disguise that this meeting marked something momentous and terrible: the final destruction of the Comanche nation.

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