Wednesday, March 05, 2014

A Boast that Turned to Toast: Billy Dixon, The Shot of the Century, and the Humiliation of White Eagle

The picture to the left is T. Boone Picken's palatial Mesa Vista Ranch in Roberts County, Texas. Picken's 68,000 acre oasis is in the northeast portion of the Texas Panhandle. If one didn't know better, it could be mistaken for a mirage. The terrain around the Mesa Vista Ranch is not nearly as plush as the ranch land itself. Water is abundant on Mesa Vista Ranch because Mr. Pickens is pumping the aquifer to create a lush and fertile fortress, anticipating one day the ability to sell his water for profit. Pickens loves to skeet shoot on his ranch, as evidenced by this 2008 60 Minutes profile  (fast forward to the 10:30 minute mark).  I grew up just a few miles southwest of Mesa Vista Ranch in the 13,000 person community of Borger, Texas.  During the 1800's the Texas Panhandle teemed with Cheyenne,  Kiowa and Comanche Indians as well as a handful of white buffalo hunters who killed the buffalo for their hides. This blog post is about an incredible true story which occurred near T. Boone Pickens Mesa Vista Ranch, an event I reflect on when I'm tempted to make categorical statements about the future.

Less than nine miles west of Picken's private airport, across the Canadian River basin, is an old  buffalo hunter trading outpost (est. 1845) called Adobe Walls.  The above Google Earth snapshot photo identifies Adobe Walls with the red dot to the far left, nine miles away from the blue dot (far right) identifying Picken's private airport. On Sunday morning, June 28, 1874, buffalo hunter Billy Dixon took aim with his  .50 caliber Sharps buffalo rifle and fired a shot toward a group of 20 Indian chief and warriors sitting on horseback at the top of a ridge nearly a mile away. Dixon's rifle shot knocked a fierce Comanche warrior  named To-hah-kah off his horse. There are disputed accounts as to whether To-han-kah was wounded or killed, but there is no disagreement that Billy Dixon's  amazing shot, called the Shot of the Century, effectively ended the Second Battle of Adobe Walls. Though Dixon's shot ended the battle, it was the beginning of the last Indian war on the southern Plains, called the Buffalo War (1874-1875)  or the Red River War of 1874-1875.

What fascinates me most about Billy Dixon's well documented shot, is the effect it had upon the Indians. The 1874 Battle of Adobe Walls ended because of Dixon's shot. Why? The United States army would later call the group of 700-1200 fierce Kiowa, Cheyenne, and Comanche warriors and chiefs who attacked the 28 men and one woman hunkered down at Adobe Walls "the greatest light cavalry in the history of the world."  Why did one shot from a buffalo rifle end their aggressive attack on Adobe Walls? How could 700 to 1200 Indian warriors on horseback, armed with guns themselves, give up and flee because of Dixon's one shot? Those are questions that can only be answered when you know what the 20 Indians on top of that bluff were discussing that Sunday morning when To-han-kah went down. When you allow yourself to hear the disconcerting sound of the shot, to visualize Ton-han-kah falling of his horse mortally wounded, and to feel the eerie emotions within the Indians as they turned their horses quickly and ran away from Adobe Walls, you'll understand why they fled Adobe Walls. One of the Indians on that ridge, the Comanche warrior and last Comanche Chief Quanah Parker, is the reason we can place ourselves in their shoes. Year's later he recounted what happened.

The Brutality of the Buffalo War

The Indians on that bluff the Sunday morning of June 28,  1874, were seated on their horses a mile away from Adobe Walls, and were all listening to a respected Comanche Medicine Man named Quenatosavit ("White Eagle"). Medicine Men were the spiritual leaders of the Native Americans. They were powerful, revered, and led the Indian warriors into battle. No Indian would fight the white man without the blessing of the Medicine Man. In 1874 White Eagle was the most respected Medicine Man throughout the southern Plains. James Haworth, US Indian Agent to the Comanches and Kiowas, wrote a humorous report in the spring of 1874 based on the laudatory comments given him by Comanche warriors concerning White Eagle.
"White Eagle can accomplish wonders. Horse Back says he can furnish the Comanche with an inexhaustible supply of cartridges, suited for any gun, from his stomach. Certainly a very valuable man to have around in time of war. He can also raise the dead, having recently done so."
White Eagle had encouraged the Indians before the Battle of Adobe Walls by saying "the white man's
bullets cannot harm us." He had led the Indians in several smaller attacks against  buffalo hunters during the spring, stoking Indian rage against the white man for causing the buffalo to disappear from the Plains. One such attack a few days before Adobe Walls took the lives of Dave Dudley and Tommy Wallace. The two buffalo hunters had been scalped and horribly mutilated. When their fellow hunters discovered their bodies, they found them pinned to the ground by wooden stakes driven through their torsos. Dave and Tommy had been castrated and their ears had been cut off. Their heads were propped up so they could watch themselves die. The Plains Indians meant to rid themselves of the white buffalo hunters. White Eagle, had them "the Great Spirit in the Sky" would give them victory against the large number of buffalo hunters housed at Adobe Walls "while they slept in their bed rolls."
The Indians attacked Adobe Walls early on Saturday morning, June 27, 1874. Contrary to what White Eagle had declared, the buffalo hunters were not "asleep in their bedrolls," and the battle ended in a draw, not a victory. Providentially, the hunters had been awakened by a fellow hunter playing a practical joke on them, and Billy Dixon just happened to look to the horizon at the exact moment the 700 to 1200 southern Plainsmen Indian warriors were descending from the mesas to the east for their surprise attack. The 28 men and 1 woman who were at Adobe Walls put up a brave fight throughout the day, losing four in their ranks, with many others being wounded. The buffalo hunters held on and eventually repelled the Indian attack. Saturday night at Adobe Walls was spent anticipating the next day's attack from the Indians.

Needless to say, the Indians were a little confused. White Eagle had promised them a stunning victory. Though the Plainsmen Indians were not yet ready to quit the battle, they needed answers. The chiefs and the leading warriors of the Kiowa, Comanche and Cheyenne decided to gather on the bluff overlooking Adobe Walls early Sunday morning to plan their next attack on Adobe Walls. Among this group of twenty warriors and chiefs was Quanah Parker and the warrior Ton-han-kah.

The Indians began questioning White Eagle. Are there bad omens? Does the white man have magic too?  All the Cheyenne and Kiowa braves were mad at White Eagle. Even the Comanche warriors were questioning their leader's prophecies. Quanah Parker said to White Eagle: "Whats matter with your medicine? You got pole cat medicine?" A pole cat was the old name for a skunk, an animal considered to be a bad omen by the Plains Indians.

The reputation of the great Comanche Medicine Man White Eagle was on the line that early Sunday morning, June 28, 1874 as the Indians talked among themselves on the ridge. White Eagle responded to his critics with an admission that the white man had "strong medicine too," but he began a lengthy discourse on the white man's peril, his voice rising higher and growing louder as he inspired his men for  the day of battle. At one point in his speech, White Eagle raised his medicine stick and confidently shouted "The white man below has no more magic! Today, the victory is ours!"

A Boast that Turned to Toast

At that precise moment the Indians here a sound like the buzz of a hornet and then "THWACK"

Ton-han-kah is shot. He slumps.

A full three seconds later, the Indians here "BOOM." Ton-han-kah falls off his horse.

The Indians turn toward Adobe Walls and see a puff of smoke rising. Billy Dixon (pictured right) has just made the most incredulous rifle shot of all time. The bullet arrives long before the sound. The Indians' horses are spooked. The Indians themselves are astonished. They turn their horses away from Adobe Walls and run. Quanah Parker remembers thinking that the white man must now be in possession of some magic weapon.

In reality, the weapon was a long range marksman who pulled the trigger and shot Ton-han-kah at precisely the right moment. The confident predictions of White Eagle were seen as foolish by his people, and the Indians left Adobe Walls because Dixon's shot convinced them that they had bad medicine and the white men had good medicine. To this day, the Long Range Vintage Rifle Open Championship, otherwise known as the Billy Dixon Long Range Rifle World Championship, is held in Great Britain in honor of Billy Dixon's shot of the century.

After the incident at Adobe Walls the Comanche Medicine Man White Eagle had his name changed to Isa-tai by his Comanche tribe. There is some disagreement over how to translate Isa-tai into English. Some scholars say it means "coyote vagina." Other scholars say it means "wolf sh_t." Regardless, White Eagle was never again respected by his Comanche tribe. He was humiliated at Adobe Walls and fell into disgrace as the spiritual leader of the Comanche Indians because his bold predictions failed to come to pass.

White Eagle is a great object lesson for any person who claims to know what tomorrow brings. When tempted to confidently declare what the future holds, take note: It only takes a moment for one who soars in the sky as a white eagle to fall to earth like wolf dung. 


SJ Reidhead said...

Believe it or not, I may be one of the few people who actually drove to Adobe Walls. Your piece is one of the best I've seen about it.

Anonymous said...

Pickens still trying to make a fast buck off water? This is what gets me about these super rich people. I think the guy is in his 80s now so just how much time does he think he has left on this earth? Still money grubbing at his old age. Is this all these people think about?

Wade Burleson said...

I confess to laughing a little with his water plan, but you have to hand it to someone who reads the state law (which grants underground water rights to landowners) and figures a way to make a dollar. Personally, I believe someone like Boone Pickens may actually be more of a conservationist, resource protectionist, and in the end, generous distributor than government. My faith in big government is a wee bit smaller than my faith in capitalism. :)

Roger said...

I agree with your conclusion about leaders who make bad predictions. Renaming is biblical. New name would speak volumes. This post is better than any pinterest quip I have ever read.

Bob Cleveland said...

Predictions are particularly foolish in light of the fact that we're not guaranteed tomorrow. And if we don't wake up tomorrow, we can't win anyway, no matter how it turns out.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post.....had no idea you were a former Bulldog. Great post, Wade.Panhandle has one of best landscapes around. Had no idea
about Boone Pickens ranch being in
Roberts.You know that Michael Douglas stated he modeled his character Gordon Gecko after him.


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