Zoda, whose name means “gray” in Hidatsa, serves in a youth wellness program in North Dakota.
Zoda, whose name means “gray” in Hidatsa, serves in a youth wellness program in North Dakota.

People of the Horse

Horses forever changed life on the Great Plains. They allowed tribes to hunt more buffalo than ever before. They tipped the balance of power in favor of mounted warriors. And they became prized as wealth. For Native Americans today, horses endure as an emblem of tradition and a source of pride, pageantry, and healing.

In September 1874, in the panhandle of Texas, the great Comanche equestrian empire came to an ugly and sorrowful end. This event boded deep changes on the Great Plains, because the Comanche had been among the first tribes, and the most successful, to adopt the horse after its arrival with Spanish conquistadores. They had become proficient, expert, ferocious, and even lordly as horseback warriors, terrorizing their Indian neighbors, making wrathful assaults to stem the trend of white settlement and buffalo slaughter, and eventually bedeviling the U.S. Army. And then, on September 28, 1874, the largest remaining body of Comanche fighters (along with a number of Kiowa and Cheyenne allies) was caught, amid their tepees, with their families, in an undefended bivouac at a place called Palo Duro Canyon.

The attack was executed by the Fourth Cavalry under Col. Ranald Slidell Mackenzie, serving out of Fort Concho, in West Texas. Having surprised the Comanche and others and driven them from their encampment, Mackenzie’s men burned the tepees, destroyed the stockpiled food and blankets, and regrouped on the canyon rim with more than a thousand captured horses. The Indians had fled on foot. Mackenzie marched his troops back to their camp, 20 miles away, and there on the following morning he ordered all the horses, except a few hundred spared for use, shot. “The infantry roped the crazed horses and led them into firing squads,” according to S. C. Gwynne’s book on the Comanche, Empire of the Summer Moon. “The result was a massive pile of dead horses”—1,048, the records say. They rotted there, and their bones bleached for years, “a grotesque monument marking the end of the horse tribes’ dominion on the plains.” Some remnant of the Comanche, led by their great war chief Quanah Parker, walked 200 miles east to Fort Sill, in what was then Indian Territory, and surrendered.

Almost a century and a half later, a historian of the Comanche named Towana Spivey, himself of Chickasaw lineage, sat in the front yard of his home in Duncan, Oklahoma, and recounted these events to me. With the slaughter of the horse, he said, “the backbone of the resistance” was shattered. All their buffalo robes, all their food, their tools of survival, their means of transport and war fighting and nomadic mobility—gone. Quanah himself in custody. “It was a dramatic blow for the Comanches.”

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