Palo Duro Canyon–No Winners But Great Loss–A Pandemia Chronicle

Approximate Battle Site in the Upper Palo Duro Canyon

I entered Palo Duro Canyon not realizing how vast it is. It’s considered the “Grand Canyon of Texas” and is, in fact, second only in size to the actual Grand Canyon. It’s origins are humble, a sandy Palo Duro Creek, a stream atop the Llano Estacado converging with another creek, the Tierra Blanca (“White Land” meant to describe the limestone upon which it flows–Really). Together they form the Prairie Dog Town Fork Red River that has formed the canyon through the Caprock Escarpment of the Llano. It was a “yawning chasm” largely unknown to Europeans until 1874 meticulously etching a place of refuge for anyone adept enough to find it, at the edge of what seemed like a vast unyielding plain. The Canyon has been continuously inhabited for over 10,000 years and known to the Spanish as a result of the Coronado expedition who came across it in 1541 when the Apache inhabited it. It was mapped by the U.S. Army in 1852 but was under Comanche and Kiowa control until the “Red River War”.

From the time of the Comanche rise in the late 1600’s, Palo Duro was a place well known only to the Comanche and their Comanchero suppliers and not suspected as their refuge. To be sure, it wasn’t the Army that found this redoubt of the Comanche, but by a combination of Black Seminole Scouts who encountered the Comanche on the Pecos River and Tonkawa scouts, Indians known for tracking and who had aided the U.S. and the Texas Republic over many years because of their enmity with all those who had displaced them from their lands in Oklahoma through their resulting migration into south central Texas. The Comanche were not the ones to displace them, that was the Apache. By the time of the U.S. campaign, the Tonkawa had been well emplaced as U.S. scouts. This despite having been herded into reservations, ironically back in their ancestral lands of Oklahoma.

A Great Loss, Not Really a War

It was called the Red River War in which the Comanche were defeated by overwhelming U.S. military force. A narrative written convincingly to the ears of Texans. As distant from reality as the the real fear it hides. Texans, well, those who’ve tried to dominate it, wear bravado on their sleeves and write them on the historical markers all along the highways. It assuages not their guilt but their trauma of a period where their helplessness was given respite by the luck of treachery, decimation by disease, and the orchestrated destruction of the buffalo. It was a war in name only and a battle that was largely unfought. And, even in surprise, all the Anglo could do is further poison the Comanche well of sustenance, destroying their stores, killing their horses–that way the Comanche couldn’t steal them back, because the Army knew the Comanche could–and leaving the Comanche to roam horseless and starving on the plains. With no buffalo herds and the dead of winter coming, the result was all but written long before, Ranald MacKenzie entered the Palo Duro.

When MacKenzie’s army came upon the camps at Palo Duro, they found a village led by Quanah Parker and a host of Comanche, Kiowa, and Souther Cheyenne. The Quahaddi never thought the Army would find them here, it had long been a place hidden in plain sight protected by the great canyon walls and labyrinthine meandering of this Red River fork. The Army took the village by surprise, but despite that, the Comanche/Kiowa/Cheyenne conducted a rearguard defense to protect the retreat of the elderly, women, and children. Indeed, as they Indians scaled the canyon walls, they proved to give deadly fire on the U..S. soldiers preventing them from killing many or taking prisoners. Although successful in preventing slaughter, their defense meant that they would relinquish the village and their large stores of buffalo meat, lodging travel equipment (lodgepoles and teepee hides), and, worst of all, their over 1400 horses astride which they were largely invincible but without them wholly helpless. They escaped but on foot across the plains, it was only a matter of time before they would have to accept defeat.

Historical Treachery Made in Anglo Destiny

Two groups that facilitated the Anglo victory over the Plains people were Black Seminole along with the African-American ex-slave “Buffalo Soldiers” and the host of Indian scouts that helped to find the Indian resistance. This was historically true in the so-called Indian wars. At Palo Duro, it took the great tracking skill of the Tonkawa scouts, long enlisted to support the Army, to find the largely hidden village. This pattern in using cultural-geographic “informants” marked ultimately the military demise of the ever-decreasing forces of Indian resistance, first to Spanish colonial ventures and then successive Anglo incursions from the Texas Republic to the U.S. Army. Along with the largely (but not completely) unintended unwitting infestation and death by European disease, the many peoples who inhabited the “Americas” were eradicated in great numbers and then sytematically defeated militarily through the exploitation of enmity between different peoples born largely of their own histories of struggle to coexist. It is a form of historical treachery, comprehensible but nonetheless ultimately self-defeating. One can only imagine how an Indian people could play such a role in hunting other Indian people but whatever the justification, the result would be the final defeat of Indian people to withstand the onslaught of “Manifest Destiny” through the Southern Great Plains and the “opening” of the West to White settlement. History is all too often prescient only in hindsight and the toll for its advance is paid by the defeated.

And, of course, this historical treachery was greatly effective in a context where disease reduced once great numbers and great civilizations and the actions of the “victors” in destroying the means of subsistence. In the case of the Comanche and the people of the Plains, it was the systematic destruction of the buffalo herds that formed their lifestyle and their sustenance.

My Journey’s Encounter with Palo Duro

I hadn’t understood what Palo Duro really was until I came here. Of course, I’d read much about it. Most of what I’ve written above comes from the accounts of S.C. Gwynne in his ” Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History” along with Pekka Hämäläinen‘s “Comanche Empire”, popularized for easy access with the help of Wikipedia.

What I didn’t expect is to see its immensity. It is a national park with a multitude of hiking trails and ways to expore including it’s own lodge for visitors and a “glamping” site to accommodate “luxury” camping. It is a site of natural wonder in which the past is greatly hidden or romanticized, a “glamping” experience obscuring the demarcation between one historical civilization process of early peoples in what was a new land and the disruption brought by much later immigrants claiming for their own the land through decimation and destruction inconsiderate to those who had come before.

Seeing all of this had to have an effect. I see the predecessors to my own history and the layers stacked one upon the other, obscured by recreational pursuits, destructive new industries, unremarkable stripmall towns . . . and incomplete histories marked in brief highway markers. Much like the layers across my multiple lifetimes in pursuit of identity, love, meaning, career, and happiness. Driving down the roads, I see myself riding into history and the features of discovery, struggle, desire for one’s place under a sun, and the predictable but not inevitable result crossing, sometimes intruding, into other’s lives.

I come closer to understanding what my life of “layers” has been by uncovering the layers that reside in the histories of all the people that preceded those around me, from those formed like my own dual DNA, Indio and European, and all of those others who comprise the product of our common history, its struggles, its sadness, denouement, joy, and hope.

I’m not sure we have understood that what was forseeable did not really have to be. We can blame what happened on what we didn’t know. It simply isn’t true. There was much to learn from the genesis of Western democracy in understanding our need for human solidarity. As much as there was to learn from the tendency of early peoples to enslave and subjugate in the development of the societies and cultures of the “Americas” before the European devastation. That neither of “us” ever heeded either caution is to me a chosen ignorance albeit written in the longness of history. Seen only with a paltry hindsight and one which we now must so directly attend. Yes, it could have been different. But therein lies the seed of hope. That it could have been different means that it remains possible to do different now.

And, as for me, what comes to mind is that “ain’t none of us clean” and by ourselves, we each may not bring the world to its great resolution, but we each, I, can understand that seeing all the devastation, all the destruction, all the anger these so easily engage is always a choice. We, I, can choose. We may have to fight to bring about a better world. But we can choose to fight with better tools, not by ourselves to save others, but to assure that all of us is brought into a different history. The destruction of a hateful society based in violence, bred in anger is so greatly needed. But the destruction of people never has to be the goal.

Yes, all I say here is naive and I am as much a realist; I am not alone in determining what may eventually be the answer. I do believe that when the “great gettin’ up morning” finally comes, we’ll find that what made the difference is our desire to be each of us worthy, each of us happy, each of us free. That from each of us we gave our best and to each of us we gave our all.

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