NATURE NOTES:
“A Most Desperate Fight”: Battlefield Archeology on the West Texas Plains

By Andrew Stuart

What archeology tells us about the past is often partial, tentative, generating as many questions as answers. Yet in some cases, archeology can reveal the past in stunning detail. 

Fought on the Llano Estacado and its caprock canyons in 1874, the Red River War brought traditional Native American life to an end on the West Texas plains. And from what’s now Midland to Amarillo, it opened those plains to white settlement. J. Brett Cruse, of the Texas Historical Commission, launched research into the war on its 125th anniversary – and shared the results in Battles of the Red River War, from Texas A&M Press. His findings recreate aspects of this pivotal historical event with haunting precision. 

General Philip Sheridan described it as “the most successful of any Indian Campaign in this country since its settlement by whites.” In late August 1874, five Army columns converged on Southern Plains tribes in the Texas Panhandle. The Comanche, Kiowa and Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho had successfully repelled incursions into their High Plains homeland for centuries. But on Sept. 28, Army troopers surprised the tribes in Palo Duro Canyon, destroyed their winter stores and killed their horses. Native resistance on the Southern Plains appeared finished.  

But not quite. On November 6, an Army scouting party, led by Lieutenant Henry Farnsworth, found itself in a fight with Cheyenne warriors, near present-day Pampa, Texas. It was a minor battle in the war, and only one of several Cruse’s team studied. But their findings here underscore the power of battlefield archeology. 

“That was a very interesting engagement,” Cruse said, “because as we were able to trace the path of the running engagement, we could find places where the Army cartridges would be concentrated somewhat. Then they would become linear and more dispersed. It became obvious to us they were making these little stands.”

First, Cruse had to answer a basic question: Where had “Farnsworth’s Fight” occurred? Earlier historical studies had been inconclusive. But Cruse thought there were primary documents yet to consult.

“The documents that had been found and published by other resources – they just didn’t seem complete,” Cruse said. “So we felt like there might be the opportunity to find some additional military documents at the national archives.”

He contracted with Martha Doty Freeman, an Austin historian with long experience in researching military archives. She found diaries and court records that suggested the battle’s location. And crucially, she discovered a hand-drawn map – with an image of crossed sabers, and the words “Farnsworths Fight.”

The battle, she determined, was in the breaks of the North Fork of the Red River, where spring-fed tributaries – Cabin Creek and Round Timber Creek – join the main stream. That conclusion turned out to be spot-on.

Searching with metal detectors along Cabin Creek, Cruse’s team found artifacts unique to 19th century Native villages: iron arrowheads and hide-preparation tools, as well as horse tack, knives and spoons. Cartridge cases were scattered across the site.

Farnsworth and his two dozen troopers had apparently come upon the Cheyenne village – and thought it to be abandoned. But the Cheyenne fighters had concealed themselves, and fell upon the troopers there.

What followed, one soldier said, was “a most desperate fight” – and the archeology bears that out.

The troopers were outnumbered. Cruse’s team traced their retreat, as they fled out of the breaks, up a ridge, and onto the flatland prairie. 

Army cartridges were found in clusters at points along the route. Groups of soldiers had apparently made one stand after another – to allow their comrades to retreat farther uphill.

Farnsworth reported losing his horses and mules in the fight; Cruse found clusters of horseshoes, where animals had likely fallen. And just below the ridge, the team found a Dutch oven, a frying pan, pocketknives.

“There was stuff that undoubtedly was part of the scouting party’s equipment,” Cruse said. “As they were retreating up Round Timber Creek and trying to get onto this ridge, they were losing equipment, abandoning equipment – whatever they could do to get away.” 

One soldier was killed near the village. And when the troopers reached the plains at nightfall, it was “every man for himself.” Another soldier was killed in that chaotic retreat.

The conflict between Southern Plains tribes and white Americans has been converted to fiction and mythology, from The Searchers to Lonesome Dove. But on the West Texas landscape, archeologists can trace its gritty reality.