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Reconstructing the Red River War

Archeologists conducting a metal detector survey at the Battle of Red River site. Photo courtesy of the Texas Historical Commission.
Archeologists conducting a metal detector survey at the Battle of Red River site. Photo courtesy of the Texas Historical Commission.
THC archeologists Randy Vance (left) and Brett Cruse use a Global Positioning system receiver to record the locations of artifacts. Photo courtesy of the Texas Historical Commission.
THC archeologists Randy Vance (left) and Brett Cruse use a Global Positioning system receiver to record the locations of artifacts. Photo courtesy of the Texas Historical Commission.

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Scene of the Battle of Red River site and surrounding environs. Photo courtesy of the Texas Historical Commission.
Scene of the Battle of Red River site and surrounding environs. Photo courtesy of the Texas Historical Commission.
Portion of an 1875 map showing the general location of the Battle of Red River. The running battle covered a distance of some 12 miles. Photo courtesy of the Texas Historical Commission.
Portion of an 1875 map showing the general location of the Battle of Red River. The running battle covered a distance of some 12 miles. Photo courtesy of the Texas Historical Commission.
Contour map of site of the Battle of Lyman's Wagon Train showing the distribution of Indian and U.S. Army cartridges and bullets. Courtesy of the Texas Historical Commission.
Contour map of site of the Battle of Lyman's Wagon Train showing the distribution of Indian and U.S. Army cartridges and bullets. Courtesy of the Texas Historical Commission.
A cluster of unfired Spencer cartridges at the Battle of Sweetwater Creek site. Photo courtesy of the Texas Historical Commission.
A cluster of unfired Spencer cartridges at the Battle of Sweetwater Creek site. Photo courtesy of the Texas Historical Commission.
Distribution of Parrott Shell impacts at the Battle of Red River site, based on artifacts.
Distribution of Parrott Shell impacts at the Battle of Red River site, based on artifacts.


The Red River War led to the final confinement of the southern Plains Indians on reservations in Indian Territory. With their removal from Texas, the western half of the state was opened to Anglo-American settlement.

Recognizing the historical significance of the Red River War, the Archeology Division of the Texas Historical Commission (THC) initiated the Red River War Battle Sites Project in 1998. Our goal was to precisely locate and document the more significant sites, to nominate them for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places and to evaluate each of the sites for heritage tourism potential. During 1998 and 1999, THC archeologists conducted archeological investigations at the sites of the battles of Adobe Walls, Red River, Lyman's Wagon Train, Buffalo Wallow, and Sweetwater Creek.

The two seasons of fieldwork at the Red River War battle sites were tremendously successful. More than 3,000 battle-related artifacts were recovered and precise boundaries for the battle sites were identified. For the most part, the investigations have shown that the sites have remained relatively undisturbed during the more than 125 years since the battles occurred. As result, we have new interpretations about specific battle events and information regarding arms and ammunition used by the U.S. Army and the Southern Plains Indians. The investigations are also serving to corroborate some of the historical accounts of the battles, while contradicting other historical records. Analysis of the recovered artifacts suggests, for example, that there were not as many Indian participants at the battles and they were not as well armed as some of the military reports indicate.

The archeological methods that were used during the investigations of the battle sites involved several steps. First, the archeological team, equipped with metal detectors, systematically scanned the study area for metal artifacts. When the metal detectors indicated the presence of a metal object buried in the ground or on the surface, that place was marked with a surveyor's pin flag. The metal object was then excavated and left in place. If the artifact appeared to be related to the battle, it was assigned a unique identification number. This number was written on the pin flag, and the flag was left in place so the artifact could be recorded. Each artifact was then mapped in place and collected. To map the artifacts we used a Global Positioning System (GPS) receiver with sub-meter accuracy. The GPS data was then imported into a computer-mapping program and overlaid onto topographic maps to produce precise maps showing the location of each battle-related artifact.

The archeological investigations at the battle sites have provided a clearer picture of how the battles unfolded, including the positions on the battlefields of the Army soldiers and the Indian warriors, as well as the lines of advance and retreat of the combatants. The investigations have served to support some of the historical accounts of the battles, while questioning other accounts. For example, the investigations at the Battle of Red River site have substantiated the historical accounts that the battle was a running battle that covered a distance of some 12 miles before the Indians broke away and escaped up Tule Canyon. Our studies also provided conclusive evidence that the Army indeed used the Gatling gun during the battle, which marks the first time the weapon was used in combat west of the Mississippi River and the first time it was used against Native Americans.

Our data also indicates that the Indians may not have been as well armed as many of the military documents and reports seem to suggest. At every battle site investigated we discovered that there were approximately four U.S. Army cartridges recovered from the sites for every one Indian cartridge. In addition, we found that the majority of the Indian cartridges were Spencers of types that were not manufactured after 1866, a full eight years prior to battles. This suggests that the Indians were conserving their ammunition and using it only sparingly.

Future Directions for the Red River War Project

Military reports, maps and other historic documents have provided critical information on the Red River War of 1874-1875. Artifacts and their distribution at the battle sites have filled in many other important details. But to fully understand what happened during the Red River War the Indian perception of the events is needed. Army officials interrogated some of the tribal leaders after the war's end, and these interviews appear in Army records. The THC team is gathering and reviewing military documents for details about the Indian leaders who participated in the battles. There may be other tribal stories that have been passed down through the generations since the war. THC plans to make contacts with the tribes that were involved with the conflict. If tribal accounts of the war exist and the Indians are willing to share them, the stories will be recorded. These stories would surely contribute to a more complete understanding of this chapter of Texas history.

The results of the THC's Red River War Project will be reported in a variety of ways. The information will be published and a plan will be developed with area museums to create a series of interpretive exhibits about the war. It is important to share the project results in this way since the battle sites investigated by the THC are all located on private property-on working ranches in most cases-with no public access. By creating partnerships with museums in the region, students, history buffs, and interested travelers will be able to learn more about the Red River War.


The Red River War Battle Sites Project archeological crew. Left to right, Brett Cruse, Pat Mercado-Allinger, Rusty Winn, Luis Alvarado, Rolla Shaller, Lee Allen, Alvin Linn, Randy Vance. Photo courtesy of the Texas Historical Commission.
The Red River War Battle Sites Project archeological crew. Left to right, Brett Cruse, Pat Mercado-Allinger, Rusty Winn, Luis Alvarado, Rolla Shaller, Lee Allen, Alvin Linn, Randy Vance. Photo courtesy of the Texas Historical Commission.
Red River War battle sites investigated by THC archeologists. Courtesy of the Texas Historical Commission.
Red River War battle sites investigated by THC archeologists. Courtesy of the Texas Historical Commission.
Lines of U.S. Army advance and Indian retreat at the Battle of Red River site. Photo courtesy of the Texas Historical Commission.
Lines of U.S. Army advance and Indian retreat at the Battle of Red River site. Photo courtesy of the Texas Historical Commission.
A U.S. Army model 1874 curry comb found during survey of the sites. Photo courtesy of the Texas Historical Commission.
A U.S. Army model 1874 curry comb found during survey of the sites. Photo courtesy of the Texas Historical Commission.
Firing pin marks on cartridges. Top, left to right: Spencer cartridge with a Ballard block type firing pin imprint; .50-70 cartridge struck with a Sharp's firing pin. Middle, left to right, Spencer cartridge struck twice; Spencer cartridge with a Jocelyn firing pin imprint. Bottom, left to right, Spencer cartridge struck by a Sharp's firing pin but fired in a Spencer; a standard Spencer firing pin. Photo courtesy of the Texas Historical Commission.
Firing pin marks on cartridges. Top, left to right: Spencer cartridge with a Ballard block type firing pin imprint; .50-70 cartridge struck with a Sharp's firing pin. Middle, left to right, Spencer cartridge struck twice; Spencer cartridge with a Jocelyn firing pin imprint. Bottom, left to right, Spencer cartridge struck by a Sharp's firing pin but fired in a Spencer; a standard Spencer firing pin. Photo courtesy of the Texas Historical Commission.