of the North Fork of the Red River
Source: The Handbook of
The battle of the North Fork of the Red River
was the climax of Col. Ranald S. Mackenzie's campaign
against the Indians of the Llano Estacado in the summer
and fall of 1872. Because the Quaker peace policy,
although a proven failure, was still in effect, cavalry
troops at Fort Sill could not be deployed against
However, the policy did not apply to off-reservation
Indians or to the troops at the Texas outposts who were
operating outside the reservation limits. Gen. William T.
Sherman was determined to bring the marauders in the
Panhandle to their knees, break up cattle thefts, and put
a dent in the illicit Comanchero trade.
In accordance with orders from the Missouri Division
headquarters, Mackenzie pulled out on July 28 with twelve
officers and 272 enlisted men. These included five
companies of the Fourth Cavalry, Company I, of the
Twenty-Fourth Infantry, under Capt. J. W. Clous, several
wagons and mules, two assistant surgeons, Lt. Peter H.
Boehm's twenty Tonkawa scouts, and a Comanchero prisoner
named Polonia Ortiz.
The contingent traveled northwest across a little-known
area to Fort Sumner, New Mexico. After going north to
Fort Bascom in mid-August, the command ventured back east
into the Panhandle, following Tierra Blanca Creek to the
vicinity of present Canyon and then moving along the
breaks of the eastern Panhandle back to the supply base.
Though no significant encounters with Indians,
Comancheros, or cattle thieves occurred during the course
of the expedition, Mackenzie and his men had opened two
new routes across the plains.
Mackenzie allowed his command to rest at the supply camp
while he prepared for another sortie north to the Red
River headwaters. On September 21 he pulled out.
Following his return route of nearly a month before, he
moved up through the Quitaque country, crossed the
Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River near its junction
with Mulberry Creek, and struck the Salt Fork of the Red
River about five miles north of the site of present
Just north of the Salt Fork he left his supplies with a
detachment to guard them. With seven officers, 215
enlisted men, and nine Tonkawa scouts, Mackenzie
continued north, crossing the south prong of McClellan
Creek near the site of present Alanreed.
The column on the afternoon of September 29 sighted a
large Indian village in a valley a few miles distant on
the south bank of the North Fork of the Red River, about
seven miles from the mouth of McClellan Creek and east of
the site of present Lefors. After briefly resting his
men, Mackenzie formed them in columns of four for a
The village, consisting of 262 lodges, was that of the
Kotsoteka chief Mow-way, who had gone to confer with the
"peace people" at the Wichita Agency near Fort
Sill. In his absence a subchief, Kai-wotche, was left in
charge. The village was the largest of several Quahadi
and Kotsoteka camps in the area.
The Indians, busy at their normal tasks, were taken
almost completely by surprise. As Company D, under Capt.
John Lee, raced after the nearby horse herd, the
remaining columns charged through the clusters of tepees.
Within half an hour the village was Mackenzie's.
The columns quickly fanned out, pursued fleeing Indians,
and easily overcame resistance; some of the women emerged
from the bush with their hands up as a gesture of
surrender. One group of about eighty warriors made a
stand under a creek bank near a large water hole, but
Troop A, led by Capt. Eugene B. Beaumont, outflanked them
after a brisk skirmish.
At the height of the battle some noncombatants were
wounded since they were intermixed with the braves;
Clinton Smith, a young white captive who was in the fray,
afterward accused the soldiers of trying "to make a
Mackenzie reported twenty-three Comanches killed,
although there may have been more; the warriors, who
sustained heavy casualties, threw some of their dead into
a ten-foot-deep pool to keep them away from the Tonkawas'
Listed among the known dead were Kai-wotche and his wife
and, in some accounts, a renegade white man named Thomas
F. M. (Bise) McLean, a one-time West Point appointee
turned desperado, who was wanted in both California and
New Mexico. Mackenzie lost two men killed and two
Between 800 and 3,000 horses and mules were rounded up by
the troops. The lodges, along with the stores of meat,
equipment, and clothing, save for a few choice robes,
were burned. About 130 Comanches, mostly women and
children, were taken prisoner, but six of these were too
badly wounded to be moved long distances.
Evidences of the band's past depredations were
overwhelming; José Carrión, who had been with the wagon
train massacred at Howard's Wells the previous spring,
recognized forty-three of its mules.
Soon after dark, Mackenzie's command moved to the sand
hills about two miles away from the burned village and
camped. Fearing that the captured pony herd would
stampede the cavalry horses, Mackenzie had them
corralled. That night and the next, however, the
Comanches succeeded in recovering most of their horses,
plus those of the Tonkawa scouts.
During the column's withdrawal Sgt. John B. Charlton was
wounded saving Boehm's life. The Indian prisoners were
kept securely under guard as the command rejoined its
supply train and retraced its route back south to the
main supply base on White River.
There Mackenzie allowed his men and horses to recuperate
for a week before disbanding the expedition and sending
the companies back to their respective posts. The
Comanche prisoners, eight of whom died en route in spite
of medical care, were confined for the winter at Fort
Before returning to his command post at Fort Richardson,
Mackenzie conferred at San Antonio with Gen. Christopher
C. Augur, commander of the Department of Texas; the two
decided to use the captives as a trump to get the
recalcitrant bands to exchange the rest of their white
captives and return to the agency.
Mackenzie had dealt the Plains Indians a crippling blow
and had mastered the terrain over which future battles
would be fought. The victory on the North Fork proved
that the Llano Estacado was no longer an Indian
sanctuary. Upon Mackenzie's recommendation, several
officers and men, including Capt. Clous and surgeon Rufus
Choate, were awarded the Medal of Honor.
The army's stratagem worked, for shortly after the battle
Mow-way and Parra-o-coom (Bull Bear) moved their bands to
the vicinity of the Wichita Agency. The Nokoni chief
Horseback, who himself had relatives among the Indian
prisoners, took the initiative in persuading the
Comanches to trade stolen livestock and white captives,
including Clinton Smith, in exchange for their own women
The process was completed by June 1873. The battle site
on the North Fork is near State Highway 273 in Gray
County, six miles southeast of Lefors.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Robert G. Carter, On the Border with
Mackenzie, or Winning West Texas from the Comanches
(Washington: Eynon Printing, 1935). Wilbur Sturtevant
Nye, Carbine and Lance: The Story of Old Fort Sill
(Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1937; 3d ed.
1969). Ernest Wallace, Ranald S. Mackenzie on the Texas
Frontier (Lubbock: West Texas Museum Association, 1964).
H. Allen Anderson
(information from The Handbook of
Texas Online --
a multidisciplinary encyclopedia of Texas history,
geography, and culture.)