The Second Battle of Adobe Walls

Quanah Parker and Isa-tai
Against Billy Dixon and the Buffalo Hunters

By Richard Duree (Col. Richard Dodge, SASS 1750 Life)


Ruth Levin Duree and Richard Duree

In the early morning hours of June 26, 1874, a war party of some 250 Comanche, Cheyenne, Arapaho and Kiowa warriors gathered on a bluff near the Canadian River overlooking a tiny cluster of sod buildings, the trading post of Adobe Walls. Ten years earlier, Kit Carson had nearly lost his command and his life near this spot and here the gathered tribes were determined to begin their grand final assault on the hated white buffalo hunters.

They eagerly anticipated an easy and total massacre of the post's inhabitants and it well might have been. They were led by the great Quahada warrior Quanah Parker, famed and feared throughout Texas for his prowess and leadership of the most fierce and independent band of Comanches.

Perhaps more importantly, Isa-tai, a medicine man of immense power and vision was the inspiration for the tribe's violent mission. Interestingly, Isa-tai's name translated to the unflattering term "coyote’s rectum." A stocky man with a broad face and bull neck, this night he was in his glory. Stark naked, save for a cap of sage stems, his body was painted yellow, as was his horse and several others. Yellow, he had informed his followers, made them impervious to the white hunters' bullets. And they believed him. Had he not demonstrated his powers by regurgitating a handful of white man's bullets and swallowed them again? Had he not risen into the heavens and returned with new words of wisdom? His eloquence, his skills of slight-of-hand and his uncanny ability to inspire others to follow him had imbibed these desperate warriors with courage and determination in what were fast becoming the last years of their dominance in their own world.

Tonight their dreams of reclaiming that lost world and ridding it of the hated men who were destroying it would begin here. Most of the buffalo were gone now; most of the other tribes had "gone in" to the reservations and these remaining men were the last hope for their world. They impatiently awaited Quanah's signal to begin the attack.

Adobe Walls trading post had been a major shipping point for buffalo hides for many years. The post consisted of two stores (Leonard & Meyers and Chas. Rath & Co), a saloon and a blacksmith shop. Though the latter was only a reed enclosure, the other buildings were built of two-foot thick sod walls. Inside were some 28 persons, including one Billy Dixon, Bat Masterson, saloon owner James Hanrahan, one woman (the wife of cook William Olds), and an assortment of tough, hardened hunters who were there to trade their buffalo hides.

Also in the store were cases of Sharps rifles – "Big Fifties," that could kill a 2,000 pound bison at a thousand yards with their 600 grain lead bullets. There were cases of over 11,000 rounds of ammunition. Every man was also armed with side arms and many had Winchester repeating rifles. Archeological excavations a century later revealed several Colt's Richards conversions, some S&W Americans, and even a brand new Colt SAA, in addition to several rifles in .50-70, .50-90, and at least one .45-70 which were also new at the time. The post was not only well fortified, it was well armed.

It was also awake. Hanrahan knew the risk of Indian raid was high. Stories vary about how it came about; some say he fired a round to wake everyone, claiming that the ridge pole was in danger of breaking (a serious condition), others that the pole really was in danger of collapse. In any event, there was considerable activity in those early hours as they hurriedly repaired or replaced the supposedly vulnerable pole. So, when Quanah finally gave the order to attack, it was into the fire of a wide-awake and well-defended foe.

When the charge reached the post in the pre-dawn hours, the Indians were upon the defenders before the long-range rifles could be effective. First to fall to the Indians were two luckless men who chose to sleep in a couple of wagons outside the stifling interior of the stores.

For two hours, Quanah's warriors beat upon the sod buildings, unable to break through. The thick sod walls made the Indian's rifle fire and arrows ineffective, as lead bullets and flint arrowheads simply imbedded into the sod. Inside, the hunters fought back with side arms and repeating rifles, taking a terrible toll on the attackers. Many were later found lying against the exterior walls where they fell, the withering fire from within making retrieval by their comrades impossible.

At one point, Quanah even attempted to back his horse into the door in a futile attempt to break it down. Defenders huddled against the walls inside to avoid the hail of lead from the Indian's repeating rifles.

More than once, Quanah displayed both his remarkable courage and enormous strength by lifting fallen comrades from the ground while still mounted and spiriting them away from the battle while under withering fire from the post's defenders.

Eventually, Quanah realized the futility of the attack and called a withdrawal to a hill about a mile away from the post. Here they gathered themselves, took stock of the situation, and discussed what to do next. Isa-tai came under considerable condemnation for the failure of his promised invulnerability to the white man's fire. True to the devout beliefs of the Plains Indians, it was eventually acknowledged that his "medicine" had failed him – and them.

The final blow was to come as a small band of warriors rode out to take a hard look at the post, hopefully to envision a new course of action. As they watched, a puff of smoke burst from one of the store windows. Curious, they watched. Again, another puff. And a third. As they watched this curious thing, a loud thud was heard and one of the warriors suddenly threw up his arms and fell backward from his horse – dead with a .50 caliber bullet from Billy Dixon's borrowed .50-90 Sharps buffalo gun, perhaps the most famous shot fired in the Old West.

At a range of just over 1,500 yards (some research indicates closer to 1,200 yards), Billy Dixon had fired the shot that truly signaled the beginning of the end of the Comanche's rule over their ancient homeland. Thoroughly defeated and dispirited, their last great effort to save their way of life had been snuffed out with that desperate shot.

The defenders suffered four dead: the two sleeping in the wagons outside, another who was killed as he attempted to fire a shot from an open window and William Olds, who was killed by his own newly reloaded rifle being passed to him by his wife.

In one last desperate orgy of revenge, Quanah's forces split up in an effort to fulfill Isa-tai's mission. Wagon trains were attacked and burned, outlying ranches were raided, over two hundred and fifty people were killed. The resulting Red River War, a "take no prisoners" drive by the U. S. Army, finally broke the power of the feared Comanche.

Quanah, with Isa-tai in tow, would soon surrender to the Indian agency and go on to lead an exceptional life as leader of his people on the white man's road with the same intelligence and courage he had at war, adopting the white man's ways (except for keeping a total of seven wives), building a magnificent white man's house (which survives to this day), waging an endless campaign for the rights of his people, and becoming quite wealthy and highly respected in the process.

ADDENDUM: In tests conducted by the U. S. Army using highly sophisticated radar equipment, the .50-90 Sharps fired a 675 grain bullet at a 35 degree angle, with a muzzle velocity of 1,216 fps, a distance of 3,600 yards. An angle of 5 1/2 degrees achieved a "Billy Dixon shot" of just over 1,500 yards. A 458 grain bullet, with a muzzle velocity of 1,416 fps and 35 degree elevation, traveled 2,585 yards, indicating the effect of bullet weight. The tests were viewed and recorded by no less a personage than Mike "Duke" Venturino, armaments tester and author.

Dodge, Col. Richard; Our Wild Indians; Thirty-three Years' Personal Experience Among the Red Man of the Great West; A. D. Worthington & Co; Hartford, CN; 1890

Gaines Kincaid, "Isa-tai," Handbook of Texas Online; Texas State Historical Association

Gilbert, Miles; Remiger, Leo; Cunningham, Sharon. Encyclopedia of Buffalo Hunters and Skinners. Vol. 1: A-D; (2003) Pioneer Press, 

Gwynne, S. C.; Empire of the Summer Moon; Scribner; New York, 2010