Army scout and buffalo hunter Billy Dixon didn’t like what he was hearing. While loading his wagon, he could hear the low rumble of hoof beats in the distant prairie. His friend Bat Masterson grew nervous, “What the hell is that?”
“I don’t know,” said Dixon, “but I don’t like it.”
Suddenly the hoof beats gave way to Indian war whoops. Masterson, Dodge City’s famed marshal, fled to the nearby saloon with Dixon right behind him.
Ike and Shorty Shadler weren’t as lucky. Cut off from the nearby trading post, they tried to hide beneath a canvas tarp in the back of their wagon. When one of the Indians pulled back the tarp, he was met by a rifle blast to the upper body. Both brothers were quickly overwhelmed with bullets, arrows and scalping knives. The brothers’ Labrador tried to defend them but met the same fate. Impressed with the dog’s courage, the Indians scalped the Labrador.
At dawn on June 27, 1874, a band of over two hundred Comanches, Cheyenne, Kiowas and Arapahos descended on the trading post of Adobe Wells in the Texas Panhandle. They were led by the last of the great Comanche war chiefs, Quanah Parker. The son of an Anglo mom, Cynthia Parker, and a Comanche father, Peta Nocona, Parker had a long standing score to settle with the white Texans that killed his father, held his mom captive, and were slaughtering all the buffalo, an integral part of Plains Indian culture.Quanah Parker
Adobe Wells existed for one purpose, the hunting, skinning and shipping of buffalo hides. From 1871 to 1874, the once vast buffalo herds of the Great Plains were being wiped out. The last great herds were in the Texas Panhandle. Filthy, hard drinking, foul mouthed buffalo hunters arrived to finish the job they started in the upper plains of Kansas and Nebraska. For the Comanches, Adobe Wells was a threat to their very existence.
To bolster his attack, Quanah brought along a popular medicine man called Isa-tai, whose name literally translates into “Coyote Vagina.” I can’t imagine what a name like that implies and I’m not sure I want to. Deluded by his own sleight of hand magic tricks and over the top claims, Isa-tai convinced many Comanches that he could make them bullet proof against the white man’s guns. Before the end of the day, many of Quanah’s warriors would come to regret their faith in “Coyote Vagina’s” big medicine.
Luckily, the buffalo hunters that resided at the sod built village were up and about. The local bartender, James Hanrahan, had been tipped off earlier about a possible attack by traders who were in contact with the Comanches. To prevent a panic, he kept the hunters busy repairing a ridgepole that held up his tavern’s roof. After they finished their task, he gave them all free drinks. Drinks at 5:00 AM in the morning? These guys were really tough. When the attack came, they were ready. They had more than enough ammo and each possessed the most powerful firearm of the Old West, the Sharp’s 50 caliber buffalo rifle, better known as the “Big 50.”
Popular on both sides during the Civil War, Sharps rifles were noted for their accuracy and reliability. The word “sharpshooter” comes from one who possessed and was proficient with a Sharp’s rifle. Berdan’s Sharpshooters, a Union regiment of marksmen, obtained immortal fame for their skills with the Sharp’s rifle. Despite its reliability, it was one thing to shoot a human, but quite another when it came to buffaloes. Their thick hides and massive size made them difficult to bring down. Buffalo hunters needed more fire power for a quicker kill.
In response, Sharps developed a rifle with a 34 inch octagonal barrel and a huge 50 caliber cartridge to fill it. The “Big 50’s” awesome firepower could take out a 2,000 pound buffalo at 1,000 yards. Against humans and in the hands of experienced marksmen, the results were devastating.
The Sharp's 50 Caliber Buffalo Rifle
Twenty eight men and one woman barricaded themselves within two stores and a saloon. The two foot sod walls offered excellent protection. In addition, sod doesn’t burn, which took away that mode of attack from the Indians. The Indians could only surround the post and pick off the inhabitants, something that was difficult to do against raw meat-eating buffalo hunters. The “Big 50’s” began dropping Quanah’s band like the buffaloes they were intended for. Indians who fell back to what they considered a safe distance suddenly became casualties of the rifles astonishing range (three quarters of a mile distant).
By four o’clock in the evening the attack winded down. Isa-tai, covered with a yellow war paint to project his magic, witnessed first- hand the end of his magic and influence. One of the Cheyenne whipped Isa-tai in the face with a leather quirt. He asked, “What’s matter your medicine? You have polecat medicine.” As if to put an exclamation point on the buffalo hunters’ dominance, Dixon shot a warrior from a mile away, the most famous single shot in the history of the Old West.
Indian losses totaled around 15 while the hunters lost 4; one by accident after he discharged his rifle into his head after his wife handed it to him. For the Comanches, it was another marker on the road to defeat.