by Steve Lee
The Second Battle of Adobe Walls, which took place June 27, 1874, in West Texas, precipitated the end of the Indian wars on the Southern Plains. Specifically, this paper will contextually examine the legendary rifle shot made by buffalo hunter Billy Dixon, in which he allegedly shot an Indian off his horse nearly a mile away. This event, in which hundreds of Indians attacked a trading post defended by 29 white civilians, is famous among Southwestern history buffs, hunters, cowboy re-enactors and riflemen of the present day. Legend and truth have mingled through the years. I will attempt to tell the story as accurately as possible.
The question asked in this paper is: What is the truth of the major issues of the legendary Second Battle of Adobe Walls? And my thesis is: The traders and buffalo hunters not only successfully fought off hundreds of Indians at the Second Battle of Adobe Walls, but Billy Dixon indeed could make such a shot ending the most critical battle in the Red River War.
The Indian tribes involved in the majority of Red River War battles included the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Comanche and Kiowa. From their point of view, this might have been called the Buffalo War, for the demise of the buffalo was their main complaint. These were horse people, mobile and highly skilled at raiding and guerilla warfare. They had all been settled on reservations according to the 1867 Medicine Lodge Treaty. But because of the independent nature of the various Indian cultures, any number of chiefs might sign an agreement, then the individual Indians would do as they pleased anyway. The U.S. government never understood this aspect of Indian culture and was often frustrated when Indians didn’t act like white men.
The Southern Plains of the early 1870s were alight with raids, kidnappings, murders, theft of livestock and general nuisances between whites and Indians. As settlers moved westward, the Army was tasked to protect them and contain the Indians, and in certain instances punish the Indians.
The Army tried to put a lid on the Southern Plains situation by meeting with as many Indian leaders as possible at Medicine Lodge Creek, seventy miles south of Fort Larned, Kansas. The Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1867 required all Apache, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Comanche and Kiowa tribes on the Southern Plains (Texas, Kansas, Oklahoma and parts of New Mexico and Colorado) to stay on their respective reservations. The treaty formed one reservation for the Comanche, Kiowa and Apache tribes, and another for the Arapaho and Cheyenne. The tribes had established long-lasting peace relations since 1840.
Interestingly, the same Billy Dixon who is the subject of this paper, was present at the Medicine Lodge Treaty negotiations and signing. He was about 17 years old.
Nine loyal refugee tribes were excluded from the treaty. These were the Wichitas, Caddos, Absentee Shawnees, Kichais, Wacos, Anadarkos, Delawares, Tawakonis and Ionis, who resided in the region. However, they had had their own treaty two years earlier in 1865.
The Army representatives present for the medicine Lodge Treaty were a who’s who of Indian fighters and leadership of the era. Interpreter Philip McCusker was there to make sure everyone understood what was being said and agreed to. One reporter, Henry Stanley, later famous for the remark, “Livingston, I presume?” described the Cheyennes as they arrived for the treaty signing:
All of the five tribes would be allowed to leave their reservations to hunt buffalo anywhere in the Southern Plains, an area comprising roughly 90,000 square miles, to maintain their livelihoods and lifestyles.
Interestingly, the Comanche introduced the horse to the Southern Plains, which made possible the “horse-buffalo-tipi complex.” They were the richest tribe of the Southern Plains, having thousands and thousands of horses. This is the reason they could be so very nomadic, carrying out raids as much as 1,000 miles away.
Conversely, settlers, the Army and especially buffalo hunters, were to stay away from Indian reservations and their hunting grounds. In fact, in a separate policy, no non-Indian was to travel south of the Arkansas River, which ran east/west along the southern edge of Kansas. Immediately south was Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma), and further south the Texas panhandle.
The once-vast herds of buffalo roamed the plains from Texas to Canada, providing many basic needs of life for the plains Indians. The meat kept them full. The hides provided clothing and shelter. Sinews were used in the manufacture of bows. Horns and bones were material for tools and decoration.
When hunter Billy Dixon came to Kansas, he and his friends were told by an Army officer what the official policy was, who then winked and said in effect, “but if you want to hunt buffalo, they went south.” Dixon arrived in the Panhandle to find others already there. “I guess it must be OK,” he and his friends thought, and went to work with a will.
The various tribes saw it as an invasion of their homes, a stealing of their business inventories, and a ruining of their economies, and, of course, their cultures. After the signing of the Medicine Lodge Treaty, young men on both sides immediately ignored their elders and broke the agreement. The Indians continued to leave their reservations for raids. The settlers kept spreading through the plains; and the hunters shot more buffalo. The vast herds, estimated to have been in the millions of animals in 1870, were reduced to very few animals by 1875.
The Indians of the Southern Plains, for their part, had had enough. On the advice of Comanche medicine man Isatai (Coyote poop), warriors agreed to launch an attack on the invading white man, specifically, their most hated enemies the buffalo hunters. The medicine of Isatai was thought to be good, which also played into his hands because he had wanted revenge since he was a boy for the killing of his uncle by white men. Some sources say the medicine man was named Minimic, previously a family friend of one of the Adobe Walls defenders.
This large war party included the Comanche, Kiowa, Cheyenne and Arapaho. After the Sand Creek Massacre some time before, all four of these tribes were ready for revenge. The significance of this rare gathering of tribes for battle cannot be overstated. Warrior representatives from most of the fiercest tribes who had fought the Army and raided settlers throughout the plains were gathering for an overwhelming assault on the white man.
The Comanche had been involved numerous battles, including the Parker Raid, in which Cynthia Ann Parker was captured. She would become the mother of Quanah Parker, the leader of the Adobe Walls II fight.
The Kiowa had attacked Kit Carson and his 400-strong force at the First Battle of Adobe Walls with a force of 5,000 warriors of their own, roughly a mile from the location of the second battle.
The Cheyenne had precipitated the Fetterman Disaster, fought Custer on the Washita, and laid siege to Forsyth’s scouts for eight days at the Battle of Beecher’s Island.
The Arapaho had participants in the Sand Creek Massacre, and had fought Custer to a standstill some years before.
These tribes were the final obstacles in the pacification of the Southern Plains. Now all of them were massing together for one large strike.
They chose the trading post at Adobe Walls, in the Texas panhandle. This little settlement had two stores, a restaurant, a blacksmith shop and a corral. The buildings were of foot-thick, sod wall construction with wooden roof beams, covered in dirt. There were also several adobe-walled pens (from which the settlement derives its name) for stacking the huge number of hides brought in by the hunters. After a big hunt, the hunters brought their hides to sell and get re-supplied. Adobe Walls served from 200-300 hunters in the Panhandle area.
Buffalo hunters were professional marksmen, often using state-of-the-art weapons. They were well known for their shooting skills. And when they weren’t hunting or relaxing and spending their money in places like Dodge City, they were practicing their shooting.
Often, they were young men, barely out of their teens, searching for the adventure and excitement offered by life on the plains. They were not unlike the explorers, revolutionaries and trappers who had preceded them. When Dixon came west, he was about 17 years of age. At the Adobe Walls battle, he was just 24.
Some have said the Winchester rifle or the Colt revolver, or even the shotgun won the West. Martin Rywell contends it was the buffalo rifle, in the hands of young men like Dixon that shaped American destiny.
“The Sharps Big Fifty was the favorite weapon. The next best were the 45-70, 45-90 and 45-120. The technique of the skillful hunter was to drop one ‘lead’ buffalo after another with clean neck or heart shots. A wounded animal was sure to stampede the herd into wild flight. Hence, the value of the Big Fifty Sharps was because it usually killed with one bullet if the bullet was properly placed. A full-grown buffalo stood six feet high at the shoulder with a length of nine and one half feet and weighed about 2,500 pounds.”
Since early in 1867, the Indians had been causing trouble in the Red River area. But in spite of numerous attacks during the spring of 1874, few of the hunters in the Adobe Walls area had seen any Indians, at least in recent weeks. They were cautious, experienced men and operated as if they were constantly being watched.
For their part, the Comanches, who were the most numerous participants in the attack, were also young, strong and the best of the best. “The life of the male came to be centered around warfare and raiding. The men were all warriors. War was regarded as the noblest of pursuits… and from earliest youth boys were taught to excel in it… They were taught that death in battle, aside from being glorious, protected one from all the miseries which threatened later life and were inevitable to old age.”
The physical situation at Adobe Walls was good. Supplies had just come in and quite a number of buffalo hunters had drifted in over the days previous. Ida Rath said in her book the hunters had come in to stock up for the spring hunt, and were still gathered at the “Walls” because spring was unusually late in coming. By June 26 there were 28 men and one woman at the trading post, by most accounts. Some records indicate only 15 whites and the settlement. Rath reconciles these seeming discrepancies, saying 29 people were at the settlement, but only 14-15 men were fighters.
The defenders included: James Hanrahan, Bat Masterson, Mike Welch, Will Shepherd, Hiram Watson, Billy Ogg, James McKinley, “Bermuda” Jim Carlisle, William Dixon, Fred Leonard, James Campbell, Edward Trevor, Frank Brown, Charlie (Harry) Brown, Billy Tyler, “Dutch” Henry Born, Old Man Keeler, Mike McCabe, Henry Lease, “Frenchy,” James Langton, George Eddy, Thomas O’Keefe, William Olds, Sam Smith, Andrew Johnson, Ike Shadler, “Shorty” Shadler, and Hannah Olds.
Emotionally, everyone’s nerves were frayed. One hunter, Joseph Plummer, had come in for supplies and returned to his camp to find his two crewmembers slain. One of whom was tied to a wagon wheel and tortured to death, the other was killed, scalped and had a stake driven through his chest pinning him to the ground.
Billy Dixon had lost his wagon full of hides and supplies, and his “Big Fifty” Sharps in the river while trying to avoid from Indians. He rode straight for Adobe Walls and bought the best rifle still available, even though it wasn’t his favorite.
J. Wright Mooar had a load of hides. After meeting with Chapman, he told his brother John that they needed to leave and took their hides to Dodge City. Mooar and his crew, like most buffalo hunting operations, were very good at their jobs. He could shoot one hundred buffalo before lunch, and his skinners, working as a team, could skin an animal in minutes. It was piece work, so the more they killed the better.
Most accounts agree quite a number of hunters were at the settlement, having gathered for safety in numbers. Every one slept through the night. Sometime in the early morning, possibly 2 a.m., a loud pop was heard and saloon owner Hanrahan urgently asked the men to help him repair a cracked beam in the ceiling. Some authors have written that Hanrahan knew when the attack was coming and wanted the hunters all to be awake, so unknown to them he went outside and fired a shot into the air a said it was a beam cracking. There may be some validity to this theory because after replacing the beam with another beam, actually of smaller diameter, none of the men who worked on the project recalled seeing any damage to the original wood.
As the first rays of sunshine streamed over the horizon, Dixon and Billy Ogg were outside tending to horses and various chores when Dixon saw a flash of something in the bushes. Rath says Ogg saw the Indians first. At any rate, one of the men registered that Indians were creeping toward the buildings and yelled, “Indians!” Dixon and Ogg ran as fast as they could for safety in the center building. Hundreds of warriors charged at full speed toward Adobe Walls, ululating their war whoops.
The door of the middle building was slammed shut, but it was quickly opened to admit Dixon and Ogg yelled that he was still outside and to let him in. Arrows and bullets peppered the building. Ogg was also let in.
Rath states only fourteen of the men could fight and shoot, the rest were cooks, teamsters and bartenders. But most other sources claim everyone, including Mrs. Olds, fought in the battle.
Indians swarmed the compound in a frenzy, yelling and shooting. In minutes, Ike and Shorty Shadler, who had been sleeping in their wagon, were killed and scalped. Their Newfoundland dog was also scalped, a hank of hair, cut from his side. Some warriors climbed onto the buildings and tried to chop through the roofs with their tomahawks. But that lasted only until the hunters inside shot through the ceilings and drove them off. Leader of the Comanche warriors was Quanah Parker, who backed his horse against the door of one building to break in and kill the trapped whites.
Some authors and historians put the number of Indians between 200 and 300. Rath reports 700 to 1,000 warriors. Texas State Library and Archives Commission reports as many as 700 Indians, with 70 killed and many more wounded. Chief Whirlwind of the Cheyennes later claimed 1,200 warriors attended the fight and more than 115 of them were killed.
A definitive figure is hard to determine. Two of the oldest accounts were penned by men who were not at the fight. For some reason, historians dispute the figures and distances claimed by the men actually in the battle, both whites and Indians. This is curious because the hunters were proven marksmen and could indeed make amazing shots. It is also puzzling why Indian participants would claim large numbers of killed and wounded when their culture worshipped victory in battle, not shameful losses to an enemy they vastly outnumbered. Who would lie about being a big loser?
A hunter named Henry Lease volunteered to ride to Dodge City, 150 miles away, for help. He was armed with two revolvers and his Big Fifty Sharps rifle. That was a long way on horseback, especially for a horse in a hurry. He made the distance without injury, but the Army wouldn’t immediately come to the aid of the besieged hunters. General Pope had no sympathy, since he believed the hunters knew better than to hunt south of the Arkansas River. He thought they were getting what they deserved for having broken the Medicine Lodge Treaty. But when pleadings were made to the governor of Kansas, he interceded and troops were prepared within several weeks to converge upon the Texas panhandle and quell the Indian uprising. It may also have helped to change Gen. Pope’s mind when one of his own supply trains, under command of Capt. Wyllys Lyman, was attacked a short time later and placed under siege for three days.
In the mean time, the intrepid Lease, who had ridden for aid, received the help of fellow buffalo hunters and the ad hoc force started back to Adobe Walls. Other hunters, who had been hunting in the area, rode into Adobe Walls within a day or two of the first day’s attack.
On the third day, a small group of Indians gathered on a distant bluff to discuss the situation of the battle. Some of the men began to tease Dixon and challenged him to see if he could make a hit at that distance. He borrowed a Sharps .50-90 and resting the fore end on something stable, he pressed the trigger. Before he could even hear the shot, an Indian named To-hah-kah was struck in the chest and fell from his horse. This was the stuff of legend. The warriors were humiliated. The battle was over.
The Indians retrieved the body of their fallen comrade and left the area. The battle was over. After that the large war party broke into smaller groups and raided all over the region. Utley says in “Indian Wars” the Comanches and Cheyennes vented their anger on the Kansas travel routes and the Texas frontier, torturing, killing and kidnapping men, women and children.
Many, many people have written about the shot, and the distances vary from 750-1538 yards. If one settles on a distance of near 1,000 yards, the shot is still noteworthy and quite important. It was a difficult shot, but quite possible, especially for a skilled rifleman.
Dixon used a single-shot Sharps rifle chambered for the .50-90 cartridge. There are many people in the twenty-first century who have made long shots of up to 1,500 yards while hunting or sniping in war. But they used modern weapons, smokeless powder, telescopes and laser rangefinders.
The closest modern shot to Dixon’s I know of was made with a single shot by an Army ranger during the Vietnam War. Capt. Galen D. “Chuck” Taylor used a .50 caliber machine gun, without a scope, firing a 750-grain bullet. He had ranged the shot in advance, so when a Viet Cong messenger rode down the trail on his daily run at 1,000 yards distant, Taylor pressed the trigger and knocked him over. The bullet weight and distance were equal to Dixon’s shot, but everything else was different, which makes Dixon’s shot that much more remarkable.
Other modern sniper shots have been made in Iraq and Afghanistan to distances of a full mile and more, but not with black powder cartridges, iron sights and wild guesses on range.
Some writers have claimed long shots, especially Dixon’s, are impossible. They say rifles from the 1860s and 70s were not capable of such range, accuracy or power. But upon extensive testing and ballistic tests, history has proven such shots are indeed possible and, indeed, probable. This shall be proven in due course.
Historically, it has never been long after the development of any firearms technology before riflemen have organized tests of skill and feats of amazement to entertain one another. True to form, shortly after the introduction of the Sharps rifle, shooters gathered for matches, out to distances of 1,000 yards. The most notable of these were the Creedmoor matches at Long Island, New York. In fact, the Sharps rifle company also made target rifles specifically for such long-distance shooting.
Additionally, the U.S. Army had long range testing grounds located at Sandy Hook, Virginia. There they tested mortars, cannons and rifles. In 1879, the Springfield rifle chambered in .45-70 was tested for distance, accuracy and power. This is one of the rifle types used in the Indian Wars throughout the West. Cartridge cases of this type were recovered at the Adobe Walls site during an archaeological dig in the latter half of the 20th century, conducted by a leading Texas university.
In the Army’s Sandy Hook testing, bullets were fired at multiple distances out to 3,500 yards, more than double the distance of the longest claimed Dixon shot. The bullets hit a target 20 feet square. The bullets were thought to have expended their energy. But, in fact, they penetrated two layers of 1-inch boards and buried themselves 6-8 inches into the sand. When recovered, they were point on, not having tumbled at all. The Army initiated its tests following reports of massed, long-range rifle fire up to a mile and a half away, in the Russo-Turkish War using similar rifles.
Then again, in the 1990s, tests were conducted at the Yuma Proving Grounds in Yuma, Arizona, specifically using a replica of the Sharps “Big Fifty,” used by Dixon, and other buffalo rifles. These tests, initiated by Jim Roberts of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department forensics lab, confirmed the validity of the range and accuracy of the Adobe Walls incident. U.S. Army technicians were on hand to operate the measuring equipment. The heavy bullets traveled 3500 yards (1.98 miles). They were tracked with sophisticated electronic measuring equipment, and figures were tabulated every .01 second during each bullet’s 20-plus seconds of travel. Again, the range was double the distance of the Dixon shot. The results were the same, the range, accuracy and power of Dixon’s rifle, and the others used at the battle, were more than sufficient to substantiate Dixon’s claim.
Dixon himself admitted the shot was a lucky one. But these two formal tests, conducted more than 100 years apart, proved the shot could be made. Time and technology made no difference. The Sharps buffalo rifles did indeed have the distance, accuracy and power needed for the shot.
So the theory holds up. But could Dixon personally shoot that well? In general, professional hunters were known as a breed of men who could shoot well. As for Dixon’s personal skill, he was esteemed among his peers as better than most, hence the challenge to make the long shot in the first place.
Dixon said in his biography, written by his wife, he participated in “constant, unremitting practice.” “I was not without confidence in my marksmanship,” Dixon noted.
Co-hay-yah, who participated in the fight, said, “Buffalo hunters were bad…They sure killed us out…Buffalo hunters had awful long range.”
Timbo said a group of Indians was on the leeward side of some low hills northwest of Adobe Walls when one of the warriors was struck with a bullet and fell from his horse.
Another Indian recalled that a group of braves were riding along when one fell over dead. It was found he had a bullet in the head. The blowing wind and great distance had prevented them from hearing the rifle report.
It was also reported by Quanah Parker to Charles Goodnight at a later time, “They killed us in sight and out of sight.”
Baker and Harrison said many shots were made at Adobe Walls that equaled Dixon’s shot, but his was the most difficult to verify. Adding a note of confusion, the authors recount the testimony of hunter Willis Skelton Glenn, whose second-hand account says someone else shot the Indian, not Dixon. Glenn’s account notes a knife was used to retrieve a .45-caliber bullet from the dead Indian, not the .50-caliber bullet used by Dixon. It’s good that Baker and Harrison included the account, but there are problems with it. First, Glenn was retelling what someone else had told him. He was not an eye-witness. Second, the people at Adobe Walls said the warriors took the dead man away, in contrast to Glenn, who says the body was still there. Third, Glenn could easily have confused one dead warrior for another, since many great shots were made that day.
Mooar wrote in 1927 that Dixon didn’t make the shot. But Mooar was in Dodge City at the time, again not an eye witness.
When put in perspective of the entire battle for the Southern Plains, the Red River War, the long shot at Adobe Walls took the spirit out of the Indians for that fight. The critical nature of the battle to the outcome of the Red River War is seen in three main ways.
First, There were no more large-scale Indian attacks after the Second Battle of Adobe Walls.
Second, the Army was forced to engage the Indians and clean out the warring tribes from the Southern Plains. Some say the Red River War started when Miles, et al, joined the hunt for Indians. But it may be contended the war began at Adobe Walls, if not months earlier at the beginning of the year. Just because the Army wasn’t involved until August of 1874, doesn’t mean there wasn’t a war going on. The Indians were certainly at war since January of that year.
Third, within about a year the Southern Plains were free of Indian raids, and they never happened again in that region.
Now in Dodge City, thinking about what he would do next, Dixon ended up in an interview with Gen. Nelson Miles, who hired him on the spot as a scout. In a few weeks, a large expedition comprised of five elements began to converge on the Texas panhandle: Miles and his new scout, Dixon, moved southwest from Fort Dodge, Kansas; Col. Davidson moved west from Fort Sill, Indian Territory; Col. Mackenzie moved north from Fort Concho, Texas; Lt. Col. Buell also came up from the south; and Maj. Price moved east from Fort Bascom, New Mexico.
The Adobe Walls fight changed Dixon’s life in one fundamental respect. He was once a buffalo hunter, now he was an Army scout. His life had changed as quickly as social and technological circumstances in the West were prone to do during that era.
In September, while on a message-bearing mission with scout Amos Chapman and four cavalry troopers, to Camp Supply for Gen. Miles, Dixon and his mates were attacked by dozens of Indians and forced to defend themselves from a buffalo wallow. One man was killed and all were wounded. They fought off the braves until a column of cavalry happened by and rescued them. This little battle was as amazing as the Second Battle of Adobe Walls for its overwhelming odds and the tenacity of the defenders. All of the men were awarded the Medal of Honor.
In conclusion, the Red River War started February 5, 1874, when Lt. Col. G.P. Buell and his 11th Cavalry fought a war party of Comanches and ended June 2, 1875 when the last of the Comanches surrendered to the Indian Agency at Fort Sill, Indian Territory. During those sixteen months, the largest Indian force (300-1,200) of the war fought one time at Adobe Walls, Texas, where they laid siege to the occupants for three days. They were beaten back by 29 civilian buffalo hunters, freighters, clerks and one woman. On the third day, one hunter named Billy Dixon made a long shot of 1,000 to 1,500 yards, killing an Indian and taking the spirit out of the remainders of the war party.
Three white men were killed, and 15 to 115 Indian warriors were killed. Quanah Parker, leader of the war party, was shot and wounded at one point in the battle. The Comanche medicine man, Isatai, whose idea it was to attack Adobe Walls, was sitting on his horse at a distance when his horse was shot our from under him.
The question of this paper was answered, and the reader of this paper can see that the major aspects of this event did actually happen. A large number of Indians from four tribes attacked a small number of defenders at Adobe Walls and laid seige to them for three days. When Billy Dixon, an expert marksman, shot a warrior from his horse the better part of a mile away, the Indians had no more will to fight and left the area. It appears from accumulated evidence that Dixon did indeed make the shot, and that the rifle/cartridge combination he used had more than enough range, accuracy and power for the job. The shot changed the course of the war. It gave the defenders the chance to leave the area safely, never more to return. The Army was forced to get involved in the war and ended the danger of the raiding Indians of the Southern Plains within one year. And the collective back of the Indian coalition was broken; never again would they fight in so large a mass as at Adobe Walls. Thus the thesis is proved correct, that Dixon could and did make such a shot, ending the battle and causing a critical turning point in the Red River War.