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Jan 27, 2021
This Blood-Soaked Earth...
Driving across the grass-covered plains of the Texas Panhandle at 75 miles per hour it is hard to imagine the drama that played out in the late 1800's. Comancheria was one of the most dangerous places in North America. The Comanche were struggling heroically to keep their land and the pioneers were struggling just as hard under often false promises from officials for what they thought was their land.
Outlaws such as Billy the Kid, famous gunmen like Bat Masterson, Native legends like Quanah Parker, and equally legendary calvary men such as the Buffalo Soldiers and one Colonel "Bad Hand" Mackenzie, played out a life and death drama over the grasslands and canyons of the Panhandle. Louis Lamour couldn't tell a fiction more incredible than the real story of the Texas.
"Bad Hand" Mackenzie, named such from his hand being mangled at the siege of Petersburg in the civil war, was sent to end the Red River Wars. The Comanche were defending their land. One could write books about the injustices, military actions, and cultural conflicts and in fact book after book has been written. One of the most seminal events that shaped this conflict happened near the small town of Silverton.
Mackenzie and his cavalry found Quanah Parker's horses. Some 1400 horses and a hundred or so mules. The Comanche were legends on horses. Without them, Quanah would be nearly powerless to continue to fight MacKenzie. Mackenzie drove the horses about 30 miles from where he captured them at Cita Canyon to Tule Canyon. There the cavalry officer made a controversial decision. He ordered all of the horses that could not be taken with him killed. It is estimated that only about 400 of the animals escaped the trooper's bullets that day in 1884.
One of the beautiful horses at Cowgirls and Cowboys in the West but a scene that could have been in the 1880s.
Without those horses, Quanah was at an incredible disadvantage, even so, he continued to resist for another year before he and most of the remaining Comanche surrendered at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Ironically Quanah rode into Ft. Sill on Col. Mackenzie's prize bay mare.
Tule Canyon and Cita Canyon are fingers of the greater Palo Duro Canyon. Much of Tule Canyon is underwater as it was damned up to create Lake Mackenzie. Most of Palo Duro Canyon is privately owned. Tule Canyon and Lake Mackenzie are some of my favorite haunts for searching out my photos. I have 1000's of photos from around this area. And yet in all my years in Texas, I had never actually been to the actual site of the pony kill.
I have an entire bookcase filled with books on Texas history. Most of them are about the history of the Panhandle. I love this part of the country and am fascinated by its history. Battle sites dot the panhandle, the blood of many has watered these plains including horses.
A Common site of horses that still populate the Texas Panhandle.
It is easy to judge what should have happened, what actions were right or wrong, the distance of a hundred and some odd years gives us perspective, perhaps and perhaps that hundred or so years has lost much of what those times were about and leaves us incapable of judging. Sure we have a lot of documents. Some even written by those who witnessed the events but most would say those are largely embellished, scrubbed clean of the embarrassing things. Much of what we think we know is anecdotal and speculation.
I have read many accounts, many theories about that day. One of the most interesting things I have read is that Mackenzie started having nightmares of the pony's screams which eventually led to him being hospitalized. He did in fact die in retirement from the Amy because of "general paresis of the insane".
The Army and Navy Journal carried a lengthy article on his career and personal life, which began, "The sorrow with which the Army will learn of the death of the once brilliant Ranald Slidell MacKenzie derives an additional pang from the recollection of the cloud which overshadowed his later years and consigned him to a living death."
President Grant called Mackenzie, a most promising officer. He is a legend around these parts for good and bad reasons. One of my favorite songs: Most promising officer by Rick Todd
The men and women who struggled seem larger than life in my mind. Those events cause me pause in thinking of how they steered the future events of where I call home. I don't know why other than my imagination, but I expected the place to be as large and as impressive as the place those events hold in history.
Looking at the site...
The most extraordinary thing about the land? That family which honors it and protects it. Those who invited me. I purposely (left out their) names but I can tell you they embody that spirit that makes this part of America so rich and they honor that event in both its terribleness and dignity.
The reality? It is just a cow pasture. Had no one pointed out what happened it is like hundreds of other cow pastures I have been in. There are no ghosts, no smoke from pistol shots, the cries of the horses are have echoed away generations ago. It looks like common ranch land.
After being a bit let down by the commonness of the place, as if nature wanted to also honor the deaths of those horses, the sky erupted over these blood-soaked plains...
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