Wild Horses: Palo Duro Canyon Tragedy

Wild Horses

Mustangs and Humans


Historian/Writer/Singer Andy Wilkinson's Account


Late in September 1874, Ranald S. MacKenzie, Commander of the 4th U.S. Cavalry, tracked the Comanche to their secret camp in the Palo Duro Canyon.

Wilkinson writes:

"MacKenzie's idea was that he could fight the Comanche until the end of time and never win. But if he could get their supplies and strike them in their home territory, their stronghold, which was the Palo Duro, that he might stand some chance of prevailing."

At the bottom of the canyon, the warriors fired on the troops and their people escaped. But it was the horses MacKenzie wanted. He ordered the camp burned and withdrew, taking along 1400 horses, 1000 of which he later destroyed.

"There are reports that his own men objected strenuously to the notion of killing the horses because these were, after all, cavalrymen and attached to horses just as the Comanche warriors would be. Nevertheless, he prevailed, and over the course of the next eight hours, some thousand of the 1500 animals were shot and killed. The stench became so bad the next day they had to move the camp to get away from it. The bones were still in that same spot for dozens of years before the bone pickers came out and collected them as they were collecting the buffalo bones later on.

"A thousand horses, that's 125 an hour, two every minute. And you couldn't do that if you took them from here over to there. There'd just be too much time — or too little time, too many horses. Well, I can imagine the grief that the cavalrymen went through because when you hear a horse cry, it has to get you right here, you know. And I think it may have been a worse job to have to hold the horses who were waiting [to be killed]."

For Wallace Coffey, a Native American horseman, the story is a low point in the relationship of humans and horses.

"There's no honor in slaughter of the animal. So I know that the spirits of those horses are still here (in Palo Duro Canyon). So I'm walking very lightly on this place because it's sacred ground, hallowed ground. What an unusual way to end a war. I mean, slaughtering of the buffalo was one thing, but slaughtering of the horse was something that grips you pretty good. That ended it right there . . . the slaughtering of those horses."

In the Fall of 1995, the horse spirit returned to the Palo Duro. The 4th U.S. Cavalry re-enactors gave two horses to the Comanche tribe as an apology for what happened here more than a century ago.



Ancient Connection          Journey to the New World
Native Americans          Catlin's Observations
Palo Duro Canyon Tragedy           The Horse in Agriculture
Moving Humans & Machinery          Waging War
The Sporting Horse          Equine Quiz