CANYON, TX (KFDA) - Drive east toward Palo Duro Canyon State Park, and you'll see a historical marker commemorating the event that silenced the last gasp of resistance from Native Americans who had once presided over the Panhandle's plains unchallenged.
The Battle of Palo Duro Canyon was one of the most significant battles of the so-called "Indian Wars" of 1874 and 1875.
The battle featured a remarkable attack by the U.S. Army against what was thought to be a secret encampment of Indians. Col. Ranald Mackenzie rounded up about 1,400 horses from the Indians and then destroyed approximately 1,000 of them by shooting them and driving them over cliffs to their deaths.
It was a stealth attack conducted around dawn. The soldiers sought to maintain the element of surprise. They largely succeeded.
According to Michael Grauer, associate director for curatorial affairs and curator of art at the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum at West Texas A&M University, Mackenzie was highly regarded by members of the U.S. Army's high command.
"Ulysses S. Grant called Mackenzie 'the most promising young officer' in the U.S. Army after the Civil War," Grauer said of the Union Army's most successful and noted general – who went on to become the 18th president of the United States. "Mac got the job done, then took his men back to their station. He shunned the spotlight -- unlike other Indian Wars officers."
The Battle of Palo Duro Canyon, memorialized by the historical marker east of Interstate 27 along State Highway 207, occurred on Sept. 28, 1874 and it ended with zero casualties among the soldiers who took part.
Grauer described U.S. policy toward the so-called "Indian problem" this way: It was to "make them wards of the government, make them dependent on the U.S. for food, transportation, lodging, etc. Mackenzie had learned his lesson at the Battle of Blanco Canyon in 1871 when he simply took the Comanche horses, and they stole them right back that night. I think the killing of the horses made them desperate.
"The burning of their lodges and their winter food supply made (the Indians) even more desperate. Mackenzie didn't kill the horses out of spite," Grauer said. "He killed them out of necessity."
Mackenzie learned his battlefield tactics the hard way, said Grauer, explaining that Mackenzie "learned how to fight the Plains Indians effectively during the Red River War. The battle of Palo Duro Canyon brought those tactics all into play."
Success against the Indians in the Panhandle, though, eventually would take Mackenzie elsewhere. Grauer said he was "ordered up to quell the Utes in southern Colorado, then up to the northern Plains to fight the Sioux and Cheyenne.
"Mac taught those officers how to be successful up there, but then had to bow out because of his own health."
The Battle of Palo Duro Canyon, as well as the Red River War between the federal government and the Indians, said Grauer, "were critical to winning the West, as it were."
Interestingly, the Battle of Palo Duro Canyon didn't inflict many human casualties. None was suffered among the soldiers engaged in the fight under Col. Mackenzie's command and records indicate that only four Indians were killed during the battle.
It was the horses that mattered. Given the enormous loss of their livestock, the Indians eventually gave up and drifted back to their reservations at Fort Sill and Fort Reno, according to records.