Uncovering artifacts from 1871 Battle of Blanco Canyon
By Ray Westbrook | Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, Texas | Published: March 17, 2014
With a metal detector and an intense interest in the 1871 Battle of Blanco Canyon, Todd Smith of the Lubbock County District Attorney's office began pouring weekends and vacations into a search for artifacts 18 months ago.
With him in bringing to bear the logical reasoning and technology of modern crime investigations were Jimmy Isbell and Mike Mitchell.
Writer-archeologist Marisue Potts of Matador, along with others, already had worked on finding remnants of the past at Blanco Canyon, which stretches from Crosby County into Floyd County. But there were questions, she recalls.
"We would find random things, but the dates wouldn't be right, and there just wasn't a big scattering. So, Todd showed up with a metal detector. He brought a different point of view than that of we historian and archeology types -- he began to look at it as a crime scene."
Although the Floyd County portion of the canyon is still considered a possibility for the battle site, Smith began to look south in Crosby County, where the preponderance of evidence is being recovered at this point.
Like a realistic mystery story, the investigators began piecing together evidence found in a boots-on-the-ground approach, then added an in-depth study of every record and referral from literature that could be found. Finally, they looked at the area as a soldier on horseback in the 19th century might have seen it.
Smith said in a program presented recently at the Crosby County Pioneer Museum in Crosbyton, that Col. Ranald Mackenzie brought his 4th Cavalry troops to Crosby County in October 1871.
Mackenzie had been sent by the Army to counter Comanches who still were a prevailing force in West Texas and the Panhandle. They inevitably met at Blanco Canyon.
According to Smith, there had been horse stealing, cattle rustling and deaths going on in this area. "So, Gen. (William) Sherman sent Mackenzie out here in October of 1871. They didn't know where they were going, didn't know how they were going to get there, but off they go -- 600 cavalry troops take off from Fort Griffin in Albany and head this way."
He said, "Mackenzie, when they were camped at Duck Creek, got an idea: Tonight we are going to sneak over there and surprise those Comanches."
But the middle-of-the-night approach was thwarted by rugged terrain.
"There were some bluffs: They couldn't get around them; they couldn't get on top of them. They effectively just had to sit down and wait for morning. Once the sun came up and they got more light, they were ready to go on to White River.
"Which direction they came, which trail they took, I have no idea. We do know that what's considered the Mackenzie Trail kind of went diagonally across here. But there was something that blocked them, and they didn't get to White River until about 9 o'clock the next morning. Somewhere along White River, they made camp that night."
Cavalry troops had a method of securing their horses at night by driving pickets into the ground and tying the horses there.
As a tactic of war, a band of Comanches stampeded the horses in the night.
According to his research into records, Smith indicated it must have been chaos. "They talked about the Indians running into the camp in the middle of the night and shots going off and people shooting at each other. They said picket pins were flying everywhere, horses were running -- everything was breaking loose.
"They eventually lost 66 horses that night that the Comanches ended up with."
It was war. And Lt. Robert Carter, who at 15 had tried to enter the Civil War and later graduated from West Point, was the officer of the day.
"As he was checking things, some more shots go off. It's still early in the morning, and he looks down what he calls the valley, and he can see about a dozen Indians running off with about a dozen of their horses. Carter is a veteran, and with Carter is a lot of young guys. As a peace officer, I've seen these 20-year-olds in action, and if somebody is running away from you, what are you going to do? You are going to chase them."
The Comanches left the horses and ran to the top of a prairie ridge and disappeared on the other side. When Carter and his men got to the top of the ridge, they could see in front of them -- from what he wrote later -- about 400 Native Americans.
Smith suspects Carter and Capt. Edward Heyl may have looked at each other for a moment in dismay. Then, Carter ordered his men to dismount and lay down some rifle fire to keep the Comanches from overrunning the troops, and started a controlled retreat.
"As the retreat happened, Capt. Heyl and his men, for whatever reason ... I hate to say he just ran away, but he just ran away. He left Carter and five men out on this smooth prairie ridge fighting for their lives."
In the lethal moment of combat, Pvt. Leander Gregg, who had not quite reached his first year in the cavalry, was left vulnerable and without a horse.
"The chief -- whether it was Quanah Parker or not, Quanah Parker took credit for it -- the Indian chief closed on that soldier, shot him in the head, killed him on the ground right there," Smith said.
At that point, the Comanches broke off the attack because they saw reinforcements coming.
"The Comanches didn't want to get cut off, so they took off and went up this draw. They went on up the Caprock, went north and the 4th Cavalry pretty much chased them over the next 10 or 12 days, and then came back.
"Carter got out of the mess with four men alive, two wounded, one dead, two uninjured."
Gregg was buried on the slope of a hill at the battle site.
Smith and others have searched for markers and evidence that might define the battleground. They have gathered impressive evidence. In 18 months they have recovered more than 300 artifacts that include military buttons, a variety of bullets, cartridge shells, unfired ammunition and a Remington-manufactured pistol with five unfired bullets still in the chamber.
The physical evidence included 44- and 50-caliber bullets and ball ammunition.
"Ball ammunition wasn't even used in the Civil War," Smith said. "The only people shooting ball ammunition in 1871 were Indians."
The pistol, which was rusted, was cleaned by a laboratory, and it still had a legible serial number. "The serial number is 64339. What I think is neat about 64339 is that we can look at the records, and this gun is 150 years old this month -- it was made in March of 1864."
The researchers also looked at military reports, period maps and every bit of written evidence they were able to find.
Todd spent much of a vacation in Washington looking at the national archives, where he found a map he believes was made of the battle area.
Carter had kept a pocket diary of that period of his military service, and the researchers found that at a museum in Canyon.
Like investigators building a court case, the researchers are continuing their work.
Smith said people were looking for evidence of the battleground as early as the 1920s.
"What did we look at? We looked at everything and went on."