The Thrilling Battle of Buffalo Wallow

Samuel Sullivan

“Here on September 12th, 1874, two scouts and four soldiers defeated 125 Kiowa and Comanche Indians…Stand Silent: Heroes here have been who cleared the way for other men.” — Buffalo Wallow Battle Ground Marker.

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(A Kiowa ledger drawing possibly depicting the Buffalo Wallow battle in 1874/Wikimedia Commons)

In his autobiography, Life and Adventures of “Billy” Dixon of Adobe Walls, Texas Panhandle, William “Billy” Dixon recounts his adventures on the Texas panhandle’s plains during the Red River War.

Dixon was one of the two civilian scouts that, along with four soldiers, defeated 125 Kiowa and Comanche Indians during the Buffalo Wallow Fight. In his autobiography, Dixon described the battle as “The most perilous adventure of my life.”

Dixon’s statement is telling because only a few months before the Fight of Buffalo Wallow, he survived the Second Battle of Adobe Walls. According to the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), in that battle, Dixon was one of 28 men and one woman who defended Adobe Walls' township from an estimated 700 American Indians.

Mission

General Nelson A. Miles commanded U.S. Troops campaigning against the American Indians during the Red River War. U.S. settlers were moving west to Texas, and the American Indians who called that area home were being forced to reservation land in Oklahoma. Many of the tribes decided to fight for their homeland.

On September 10, 1874, General Miles sent six men to carry dispatches to Fort Supply. The party comprised two civilian scouts: William Dixon and Amos Chapman, and four soldiers: Sergeant Z. T. Woodall, Peter Rath, John Harrington, and George W. Smith. All four soldiers were members of the 6th Cavalry.

Dixon characterized the party as small by design. It could move faster and receive less attention than a bigger party. The group traveled at night to avoid roaming bands of American Indian war parties.

Trapped

On the morning of September 12, at about 6 a.m., the party found themselves face to face with 125 Kiowa and Comanche warriors. They had ridden directly into a trap and were immediately surrounded. Dixon wrote, “We knew that the best thing to do was to make a stand and fight for our lives.”

The group dismounted and decided to fight together to avoid being isolated and picked off one by one.

Smith was put in charge of the horses, but right as the battle commenced, he was shot and fell to the ground. The horses scattered.

Desperation

The American Indian warriors had a huge advantage, and they knew it. According to Dixon, the warriors could have immediately ridden the party down and killed them all, but they continued to fire upon the small party of six men from a distance.

Dixon witnessed the other civilian scout Amos Chapman take a bullet to the leg. Amos said, “Billy, I’m hit at last.”

Dixon noticed a buffalo wallow, or depression in the land that a buffalo had pawed at or deepened, and made a run for it. He called to the others, and all but, Chapman and Smith came to him. As each man got to the buffalo wallow that was about ten feet in diameter, they began digging with their knives and hands to increase their cover.

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(Photo of Billy Dixon/Wikimedia Commons)

Rescue

Only Dixon and Rath were not seriously hurt. Although Sergeant Woodall and Harrington had made it to the wallow, they were badly wounded and could barely fight.

Dixon explained that the injured men sat up in the wallow to disguise their injuries, making the Kiowa and Comanche warriors hesitant to assault their now more covered position full-on.

They called to Chapman and Smith. Smith was motionless, but Chapman responded that he couldn’t walk. The bullet that had hit his leg had entered at an angle where it completely shattered his bone. He could not walk and was a sitting duck.

Dixon decided to run for Chapman. After several attempts, he finally got to him. Resting Chapman’s broken leg on his good leg Dixon slung the bigger man on his back. As bullets whizzed by them, Dixon somehow managed to carry Chapman back to the wallow.

Determination

“Ours was the courage of despair. We knew what would befall of if we should be captured alive. We had seen too many naked and mangled bodies of white men who had been spread-eagled and tortured with steel and fire to forget what our own fate would be. So we were determined to fight to the end.” — Dixon.

As the five men continued to fight in the wallow, they resolved to fight to the death. If capture proved imminent, the men would have taken their own lives to avoid death by torture.

Throughout the day, groups of warriors charged the wallow, but the men always managed to stop the charge with well-aimed bullets. The soldiers had strong weaponry and were good marksmen. For example, Dixon carried a .45–90 Sharps rifle meant for buffalo hunting.

At around 3 p.m., after nine hours of fighting, rain began to fall heavily.

Salvation

The five men in the wallow were parched from a day of heavy fighting. As the rainwater pooled in the wallow, they were able to drink. The rain also slowed the onslaught of attacks from the Kiowa and Comanche warriors. According to Dixon, the American Indians did not like the rain, freezing rain.

Short on ammunition, Rath ran for Smith’s gun that was next to his fallen body. On his return to the wallow, he reported that Smith was still alive. Rath and Dixon went out and between them were able to get him back to the wallow. According to Dixon, Smith was in bad shape:

“He was shot through the left lung, and when he breathed the wind sobbed out of his back under the shoulder blade.”

Unfortunately for the men in the wallow, they were without coats, blankets, or hats to protect them from the wind and rain. They had no food either; all their supplies had been lost when their horses stampeded.

Casualty

Cold winds accompanied the rain increasing the men’s misery. According to Dixon, they decided to send someone to get help, and it was between Rath and himself as they were the only two men not dealing with serious injuries. Rath was chosen.

Unfortunately, in the darkness of night, Rath could not find the trail and returned to the wallow two hours later. According to Dixon, Smith was begging to be shot and put out of his misery by this point.

The men decided to watch Smith closely, and he finally fell asleep around 10 p.m. When the group checked on him a bit later, he was dead.

The American Indians did not attack during the night, and the five surviving men waited for the morning.

Relief

According to Dixon, at daybreak, he went for help. After traveling only a couple of miles, he found a group of soldiers led by Major Price.

A medic and a few officers were sent to the wallow to assist the men. The men did not know who was coming and fired a shot, killing a horse.

Dixon ran back to the wallow, and when the men recognized him, the medic proceeded to help the wounded. Major Price and his men then moved on, promising to send help once they reached Fort Supply.

The five survivors of the Buffalo Wallow Fight waited until Midnight for help to arrive. The men buried their deceased comrade Smith in the same buffalo wallow where they had survived for two days and made it to Fort Supply.

The three surviving soldiers, Sergeant Woodall, Rath, and Harrington, recovered from their wounds and returned to their duties. Amos Chapman had his leg amputated above the knee. Dixon wrote, “Amos was as tough as a second growth hickory and was soon out of the hospital and back in the saddle.”

(Army Medal of Honor/Wikimedia Commons)

Recognition

In his book, Dixon includes a letter sent by General Nelson A. Miles dated September 24, 1874, that recommends the men be honored for their “cool courage, heroism, and self-sacrifice.”

Soon after, the five survivors were awarded Medals of Honor by Congress. According to the United States Army, the Medal of Honor is the nation’s highest award for valor in combat in the armed forces.

According to The Hall of Valor, Billy Dixon and Amos Chapman’s Medals of Honor were revoked by Congress after a review in 1916–17. Dixon had died in 1913, and Chapman would die in 1925. Their Medals of Honor were restored in 1989, and their actions are recognized. They are two of the eight civilians ever to receive a Medal of Honor.

Context

Against impossible odds, six men fought 125, and five survived. The Buffalo Wallow Fight is a prime example of American valor, and even though Dixon and Chapman were civilians, they earned the Medals of Honor they received. It is justified that their medals were ultimately restored.

According to TSHA, Amos Chapman was half white and half American Indian. Chapman was a scout but also an interpreter for the U.S. Army.

The 1830 Indian Removal Act resulting in The Trail of Tears led to mass removals of the Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole tribes, among others.

The tribes from the southern plains were sent to areas where other American Indian tribes, such as the Kiowa and Comanche tribes, lived. Next, American settlers started claiming land in Texas and hunting buffalo. The Kiowa and Comanche tribes, among others, decided to defend their homeland.

The Red River War was foreseeable and almost inevitable as cultures collided in the west.

After the war, Dixon made his home near Adobe Walls, where he lived the rest of his life. His adventures only made his love of the great plains grow. Dixon wrote, “In no other country could there have been found a region so inviting so alluring so fascinating to the spirit of adventure as the great plains."

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