April 03, 2010

Crazy Colonel Ranald MacKenzie: The West Texas Indian Wars of the 1870s

Johnny Hughes © 2010

In this part of West Texas, Colonel Ranald "Bad Hand" MacKenzie is seen as the hero of the Indian wars of the 1870s. There were so-called battles in all our area canyons: Yellow House, Blanco, Tule, White River, and the last and largest battle of the Red River Wars, in Palo Duro Canyon against Quanah Parker, and several tribes. MacKenzie had to spend more time killing people than anyone in American history. He entered the Civil War in 1862. Right after the Civil War, he began leading cavalry charges on Indian villages against dozens of tribes in several states and Mexico. This went on until 1880.

To hell with the movies, there was a real sameness about Bad Hand's methods and goals. They wanted all the Indians in West Texas to die or leave for Oklahoma reservations. When the cavalry found an Indian village, they attacked, shooting Gatlin guns, and repeater rifles. They had artillery and superior numbers. The Indians rarely fought back. The Indians were basically retreating and hiding for a few years. At the first shot, the Indians would flee. Some of the warriors would harass the cavalry some, so that the women and children could get a head start on the sabers. My home town of Lubbock has a large park named after Col. MacKenize and a Junior High. The Indians camped in these area canyons near the edge of the Caprock so that the women and children could climb up the sides to the flat Llano Estacado to escape when the cavalry attacks began. Who knows how many were killed? Or died later from their wounds, disease, exposure, and starvation. From Montana and into Mexico, across decades, MacKenzie would ride in after the initial assault and they would burn every thing the Indians owned: lodges, blankets, buffalo robes, stored food stocks, weapons, clothing. They killed all their horses. In several of the canyons, the bleached bones of the horses remain. In the final big "battle" in 1875 in Palo Duro Canyon, MacKenzie burned all the lodges in five villages, and all the food stored for the winter. His troops captured 1400 horses. They kept 300 and shot the rest. They kept an accurate count on the horses, mules, and ammunition, but the number of Indians who died as a result of this government policy has not been written. MacKenzie led white and black soldiers, the famous buffalo soldiers.

With winter approaching, the Indians were left without food, horses, blankets, warm clothes, or a place to hide. Most surrendered to face a long, cold, hungry walk to Oklahoma. Those that surrendered to the cavalry were in a herd on foot, and herded like cattle or horses.

One reason researchers don't find as many Indian artifacts in the panhandle is that crazy ol' Ranald MacKenzie burned them all. The Indians said they lost sixty or so in the initial assault in Palo Duro. MacKenzie reported three. There weren't as many killed in these battles as one might think. Who knows? The reports are obviously falsified. Sul Ross has a college named after him. He reported on attacking a small Indian village when all the men were off hunting. He killed some Comanche women. Bat Masterson, the famous lying gunfighter, probably only killed one man in an actual gunfight. He was one of MacKenzie's scouts. MacKenzie's allies were the Tonkawa Indians a.k.a. the Tonks. This was a smaller band that hated the Comanches. They scalped, dismembered, and ate some of the Comanches. They'd burn all the dead and wounded and it made an accurate account of the Indian losses difficult to ascertain. Women and children weren't mentioned, but the United States government policy was to make war upon them if they were not on the reservation. Texas Rangers, buffalo hunters, and anyone else were welcome to assist in the policy.

The Indians would make attacks when they had superior numbers, and atrocities were a regular occurrence on both sides. The Indians attacked Adobe Walls, a trading mini-town, with hundreds of warriors. They killed two guys sleeping in a wagon, and scalped them and their St. Bernard. Then the eighteen men in town killed some of the Indians from inside fortified buildings. I don't think the Indians ever won.

Oh come on, Generals Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan knew all those years that Ranald MacKenzie was nuts. One biographer said he had syphilis, the worst sexually contacted disease which leads to insanity. Every once in a while he'd take a mental health leave, and had five orderlies keeping him focused on the burning left to be done. In the scene in Dances With Wolves where Kevin Costner rides around between rebel and union lines trying to get shot, that was based on Crazy Ranald. He was brave like only a crazy man can be. He got shot with bullets and arrows. He was also called Bad Hand because he lost two fingers in combat.

MacKenzie never married. After he freaked out and had a mental leave, they made him a general. He decided to get married. On the night before his marriage, the now general went into a store. He broke the leg of a chair and nearly beat the owner to death. A crowd subdued him, babbling and incoherent which he was to remain most of the time for the rest of his life. They retired him from the Army and placed him in a mental institution in New York.

Later, he was released to live out his days with a cousin. He did not speak or appear to communicate. Col. Ranald MacKenzie's father had also been a military man. He was a Captain in the Navy, but he made a bad career move when hung the son of the Secretary of War for mutiny.

Johnny Hughes is the author of Texas Poker Wisdom.


Erich Hicks said...

How do you keep a people down? ‘Never' let them 'know' their history.

"If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated."

Dr. Carter G. Woodson 1875 – 1950

“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”

Marcus Garvey 1887-1940

"A tree without roots can bare no fruit, it will die."

Erich Martin Hicks 1952 - Present

Keep telling that history, our history:

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generation of Buffalo Soldiers.

The 7th Cavalry got their butts in a sling again after the Little Big Horn Massacre, fourteen years later, the day after the Wounded Knee Massacre. If it wasn't for the 9th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers, there would of been a second massacre of the 7th Cavalry.

Read the novel, “Rescue at Pine Ridge”, 5 stars Amazon, Barnes & Noble and the youtube trailer commercial...and visit the website http://www.rescueatpineridge.com

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Anonymous said...


No relation to the actual history.

Just for instance, the Indians had the repeating rifles, not the Cavalry. Army officials thought soldiers would waste too much ammunition.

Unknown said...

Your assessment of Ranald Mackenzie is not only uncharitable, but hopelessly biased. His mental illness may have been attributable to what would be considered post traumatic stress syndrome today. The diagnosis of syphilis was not conclusive.

Although Mackenzie never professed any sympathy for Native Americans, neither did he express any hatred of them. After the Quahadi Comanche surrendered to him at Fort Sill in 1875, he treated them very fairly. Quanah, the young war chief (before he assumed his mother's family name of "Parker") came to regard Mackenzie as his friend.

Dixie Saunders said...

All I can say is that history need proofs and evidences,stories to be so-called "history" needs to be documented. If it has no basis then it's not history at all and we shouldn't believe it. I, on my case am not narrow-minded that's why I look very observantly to the issues and claims that has been said before believing it.

Unknown said...

"history need proofs and evidences,stories to be so-called "history" needs to be documented. If it has no basis then it's not history at all and we shouldn't believe it."
I totally amendable to Dixie when she says this line. In every claims, it must be supported with documents for it to be valid and reliable.

Dexter ofHomebased Internet Marketing Business

REGINA said...

For me, I always go for facts not fiction or stories that does not have proofs. We need reliable persons and history books made by historians that gather real facts to support these claim. It is mean for somebody saying nasty things when this person do not have proofs or evidences.

Regine Smith
Internet Marketing Services

Anonymous said...

McKenzie had a long record, beginning as a young officer in the Civil War, for being daring, intelligent and successful. Now revisionist history seeks to disparage any of the army of that period but even Grant wrote in his memories of what a talented solider McKenzie was. He was a soldier, he wasnt a minister or a social worker. Many soldiers and others contracted syphilis and other diseases in this time period. Again, I see this as no reason to trash his record but apparently the author does.

Anonymous said...

The author has not done even the most cursory research on the topic. Firstly, the comment of MacKenzie as "crazy" during the course of his career runs contrary to just about every account (U.S. and Indian) there is. Secondly, MacKenzie testified in Washington against the corrupt practices of Indian agents, and paid out of pocket for materials to build quarters and beeves for Indians. The various tribes he dealt with and fought against respected him as harsh and strict, but fair - which was also the judgement of those who served under him. An aside - nobody knows about MacKenzie today because he didn't inflate his "body count" of Indians killed, and his reports on actions were consistently brief and terse. There is plenty of blame to go around, but there is also much honor - and it is not necessary to denigrate one side to honor one's own.

Anonymous said...

Again, I see this as no reason to trash his record but apparently the author does.


Crossing the border into a sovereign nation, whether or not he had tacit support...And slaughtering men but also women and children? Somehow I see a reason to trash his record also.

It's weird, after 1945, we've somehow taken to disliking people who contribute to genocide. I see many of you don't have much of a problem with it. I do. So do a bunch of Indians, but they're all dead.

Anonymous said...

Again, I see this as no reason to trash his record but apparently the author does.


Crossing the border into a sovereign nation, whether or not he had tacit support...And slaughtering men but also women and children? Somehow I see a reason to trash his record also.

It's weird, after 1945, we've somehow taken to disliking people who contribute to genocide. I see many of you don't have much of a problem with it. I do. So do a bunch of Indians, but they're all dead.

ckikerintulia said...

MacKenzie did not kill the horses at the site in Palo Duro Canyon where he captured them; he drove them across the Llano some thirty miles to a site on the Tule Creek, at the head of Tule Canyon, and slaughtered them there. The site is on private property in the eastern part of Swisher County.

Anonymous said...

An unfair and clearly biased trashing of a great soldier... a strict disciplinarian, who led from the front by example, much feared and respected by his enemies.

sports bookmaker said...

It is quite different realty from the movies. It was a bloody colonial beginning.

Anonymous said...

Your accounts are historically inaccurate. The cavalry did not use repeating rifles but used single shot caliber 50 carbines. Gatling guns were used in only a very small number of engagements in the whole West due to their slowness on the march. I think you need to do more research.

Anonymous said...

MacKenzie was a fine soldier . Johnny Hughes you need to get over yourself and your lack of historical knowledge. Nobody liked the Comanches including nearly every single other tribe. The Comanches dominated every other tribe until they themselves got knocked off.

Toryu Tsurugi said...

I would put money on him having a mental illness like Bipolar Disorder coupled with PSTD from his years in combat and the constant pain he endured from his wounds. I believe this is supported by his youthful high achievement, his focus, bordering on obsession and his single mindedness.

Grant and Sherman though a lot of him, and he by all accounts was very competent as a commander. That he melted down and died by age 48 militates against Syphilis. Although Al Capone died at the same age as Mackenzie did, I doubt Mackenzie dabbled with prostitutes like Capone did, besides the US Army was aware of syphilis and its symptoms and could treat it.

That he befriended Quanah Parker while administrator of the reservation district shows that the man was simply doing a job and following orders.

It is a shame he does not get more credit than his contemporary Custer. He was even called on to pacify Apaches and Cheyenne while dealing with the Comanche.

Toryu Tsurugi said...

It appears that a lot of posters got their history from the 1970's revisionist school of American History, or the movies, Little Big Man and Dancing with Wolves.

Just to remind you, the aboriginal Americans were a WARRIOR Society. That by definition means they spend most of their time fighting. So who did they fight before the white man came along? Each other. Who did they fight when the white man came along? Each other.

Mackenzie employed hundreds of Tonkawa Scouts who killed Comanche women and children with gusto unless stopped by Mackenzie's troopers. I have read more than one account where it was the Indians in the employ of the white man who committed a lot of the atrocities. Kind of like Karma. The scouts sided with the side they thought would win.

Its kind of like the irony of the Indian's biggest victory, the Big Horn, now sits on the Crow Reservation and the Crow fought FOR the Cavalry as scouts. Its hilarious.

I call it a stretch to claim genocide, it was war. The tactics were no more formulated to kill all the Indians than burning of the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War or the March from Atlanta to the Sea were carried out as genocide against the south.

The Aboriginal Americans are just claiming victim status, when they did exactly the same to each other. The Comanche killed, raped, tortured or enslaved everyone they came in contact with if they were not young enough to adopt. The other tribes were scared shitless of them, how else could such a small number completely dominate the area of Comancheria?

Oh but of course the Sioux only wanted to sit around during the day, and screwing at night, that is if you believe Little Big Man. It was life in the Indian Burbs.

I wonder how a lot of the warm and fuzzy revisionists would feel if they lived in a place and time where at any time of the day or night they might come home and find their daughters carried off, their wives raped, tortured and mutilated, and their sons killed an mutilated if not young enough for assimilation?

The whites get all the bad press. European whites fresh off the boat had no hatred for the Indians, especially in Texas, all they wanted to do was farm, live and let live, but after viewing the results of Indian raids, their attitudes changed, as did their instincts for preservation.

I had a coworker who's family settled the Hill Country on the fringe of the heart of Comancheria, and his great great grandfather had built a stone cabin with a kill box inside the front door. He said that it was still on their property. It was built so that anyone kicking in the front door would be fired on from above, and the sides, kind of like the old portcullis murder holes found in a medieval castle.

Life on the frontier was violent and we have nothing to relate it to in modern terms, absolutely nothing. So it is ludicrous to try to indict whites for things that were done in reaction to things that were done to them over 150 years ago.

Anonymous said...

Ranald Mackenzie followed the strategy of his mentor, General Sherman, who conquered the South largely by making war on the civilians. His soldiers pillaged, raped and murdered civilians throughout the South. His soldiers were encourage to make war on southerner wherever they might be. If he found animals, he either killed them or used them as food for his soldiers, but in any case, his objective was to be certain that nobody in the South had a thing to eat. The victors may write history, but William T. Sherman is one of the most unconscionable men who ever lived. Ranald Mackenzie used that exact same strategy on the Indians. You don't just fight their soldiers, you kill their women and children, and that is our history, like it or not.

Anonymous said...

We do not have to love those who support us or hate those who oppose? There are no fair, just, good, etc., wars and no second place winners? The objective is winning? Blame/fault? Only winner(s) and loser(s)?

Anonymous said...

"Ranald Mackenzie followed the strategy of his mentor, General Sherman"

Mckenzie was assigned to the Eastern Theater and served in all the battles of the Overland Campaign with Meade and Grant. If anything, Sheridan would have been his mentor, and he may have studied the tactics of Sheridan in his Shenandoah Campaign in 1864. Regardless, they were effective, as was proven in multiple campaigns that Mckenzie led across the Military Division of the Missouri.

Having recently traveled across the 1874 Red River War terrain, and having studied the decades of depredations the Comanche committed against Texas settlers, Mckenzie's ability to locate and defeat the Comanche, Kiowa, and Arapahoe tribes in the Palo Duro are, from a military standpoint, decisive in forever ending the threat to settlers in North and Central Texas as well as permanently opening the Panhandle to ranchers and farmers. His treatment of captives, even by modern accounts (think ISIS, Serbia, Sudan, etc.)are humane, and attested to by his enemies.

I wonder if the author who penned the original article had a grudge against Mckenzie. Perhaps his ancestor was the intended (jilted) bride?