If you have the opportunity of visiting the Texas Panhandle you’ll want to be certain to visit Palo Duro Canyon State Park. This stop make a great addition to your Texas vacation planner.
Palo Duro Canyon State Park is located about twenty-five miles southeast of Amarillo and about twelve miles east of Canyon Texas.
One of the things that make Palo Duro Canyon an amazing destination is it’s historical significance. Not only does Palo Duro Canyon tell the story of ancient geology, and in a quite beautiful way, but it also is the site of a very significant military campaign which for all intents and purposes ended the Indian Wars in the southern plains.
Visitors to Palo Duro Canyon today will see the exact location along with a Texas Historical Marker where one of the most, if not THE most, significant southern plains Indian Wars battle took place.
The exact site is along the state park’s loop drive. The Battle of Palo Duro Canyon was a decisive event. The year was 1874 and the main participants on both sides had a most interesting background and even a more interesting and surprising future. This interesting story is told below.
The growth of Texas meant the encroachment upon Comancheria, the land of the Comanche Indian. Comanche raiding upon white settlers in what is now the state of Texas was violent and went back to the Spanish era, the Mexican era, the Republic of Texas era and lasted for about a decade after the end of the Civil War.
During the Republic of Texas years the Comanches went as far as raiding all the way southeastward to the Gulf of Mexico and the port of Indianola. That demonstrates how intense the Comanche conflict was.
Quanah Parker, Ranald Mackenzie and Palo Duro Canyon
When the decades long conflict between Comanche and Texan came to an end, two names involved with this historic event stand out from all the others.
Quanah Parker, perhaps the fiercest and wisest of all Comanche leaders, and Colonel Ranald Mackenzie, the head of the Army’s Fourth Cavalry at Fort Concho Texas, were destined to meet in battle at Palo Duro Canyon on September 28, 1874.
Both men who met in battle came with unique backgrounds. Quanah Parker was the son of Cynthia Ann Parker, a child who was kidnapped from her Texas home and whose parents were killed during an 1830’s Indian raid. Cynthia Ann Parker would spend much of her life living among the Comanche who she grew to regard as family.
Colonel Ranald Slidell Mackenzie, a Civil War veteran who fought under Grant and leader of the Fourth Cavalry. Mackenzie had a high reputation within the army and has been recognized as being perhaps the most successful Indian fighter in the U.S. Army. Not a household name as George Armstrong Custer but arguably more successful.
The Red River War of 1874-1875
The Indian Wars in the West were essentially a series of wars that were settled for brief periods with treaties until hostilities began anew. Usually the cause of a flareup was a broken treaty and/or white settler encroachment. The geographic epicenter would vary from time to time but overall would continue on an east to west line.
The military and the white settlers wanted land and they likewise wanted the Native Americans placed on reservations.
The Native Americans of Texas and all other regions of course desired to keep their historic lands and just as importantly their culture. Considering this reality conflict was inevitable.
Reservations historically were located on the least desirable land and the Indians were aware of this. The last big effort to place the remaining Comanche, Kiowa and Southern Cheyenne on reservation land was what the Red River War was all about. This was the conflict that eventually led to the historic Battle of Palo Duro Canyon, not far to the south and west of the then Indian Territory which is present day Oklahoma.
The Red River War ended with not just a single battle. It was an on again off again fight over nearly two years that eventually moved remaining Comanche, Southern Cheyenne and Kiowa inside Indian Territory.
The Battle of Palo Duro Canyon was decisive for the fact that after the skirmish Comanche leader Quanah Parker agreed to lead his people to the reservation and for the fact that this battle involved so many Native Americans.
During the battle the Fourth Cavalry, led by Col. Ranald Slidell Mackenzie, broke up a large encampment of Comanche, Kiowa, and Cheyenne in Palo Duro Canyon, killing only a few Indians but capturing and slaughtering about fourteen hundred horses.
At the time only Quanah Parker and a leader named Mow-way were still being sought. As a result of the battle and loss of horses Quanah Parker’s band came into Fort Sill on June 2, 1875, marking the end of the Red River War.
The Red River War represented the official end of decades upon decades of conflict in Texas between the Native Americans of white settlers.
Quanah Parker and Ranald Mackenzie…The Years After Palo Duro Canyon
Quanah Parker after relocating to Indian Territory eventually accepted the white man’s culture and was known to even dress accordingly. Parker went on to befriend noted ranchers as Samuel Burk Burnett and Daniel Waggoner as well as Theodore Roosevelt in later years.
Quanah Parker was also instrumental in urging his people to adapt to the white man’s culture much as possible. He is also credited with helping to establish the Native American Church. Quanah Parker died in 1911 at the age of fifty-nine in Oklahoma.
Ranald Slidell Mackenzie
Ranald Mackenzie was appointed brigadier general and assigned to the Department of Texas in 1882.
After buying a ranch in Texas and becoming engaged he started to have medical problems. Mackenzie had injured his head in a prior wagon accident at Fort Sill. He eventually began experiencing mental difficulties and the accident he had was thought to be the cause.
The marriage never occurred and after showing more signs of mental instability he retired from the army in 1884. Ranald Mackenzie moved to his sister’s home on Staten Island New York and died in 1889 at her home at the age of forty-nine. He is buried at West Point.
Links to articles from our Western Trips site you’ll enjoy include:
Visiting Palo Duro Canyon
Palo Duro Canyon State Park is located a short drive south of Amarillo Texas and is easy to reach via the Interstate Highways. The park was opened in 1934 by the efforts of the Conservation Corp and contains over 29,000 scenic acres.
Upon entering the park you’ll want to stop at the Visitors Center and see the exhibits and artifacts that tell the story of how the canyon came into being. After the Visitors Center you’ll want to make the loop drive where you’ll be able to explore some excellent hiking trails, see the site of the Battle of Palo Duro Canyon and view some amazing scenery. The park contains both day camping and overnight camping facilities.
Palo Duro Canyon is also well known for the musical TEXAS. This outdoor musical drama and the official play of the state of Texas runs Tuesdays through Saturdays during the summer season in the Pioneer Amphitheater within the park. For more information regarding the musical see website www.palodurocanyon.com
Two good books about the Red River War, Quanah Parker and Ranald Mackenzie include Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by author S.C. Gwynne.
Also, Bad Hand: A Biography of General Ranald S. Mackenzie by author Charles M. Robinson III.
(Palo Duro photos are from author’s private collection. Ranald Mackenzie photo from the public domain))