Local history: Nolan Expedition struggles

October 23, 2017

(Continuing the series on the Historical Markers of Terry County. Much of the information in this article is taken from an essay written by Clay Coppedge for Texas Escapes and from The Early Settlers of Terry County)

The Route of the Nolan Expedition is marked with a sign about 2.5 miles southwest of Meadow on the Lubbock Highway. The marker was dedicated in 1972.

The marker reads, “Army and civilian effort in 1877 to halt raiding of Chief “Old Black Horses” Comanches. In group were 60 Negro troops of Company A, 10th U.S. Cavalry, and 22 buffalo hunters known as “The Forlorn Hope.” Troops departed Fort Concho in early July, led by Captain Nicholas Nolan. Eluded by Indians and finding water holes dry, on July 7, men were thirst-crazed. By drinking horse blood and urine, soldiers lived 86 parched hours; finally reached old supply base. Hunters left group; found water alone. All but four soldiers survived this heroic test of endurance.”

The last Comanche raids in Texas of any consequence occurred in late 1876 and into 1877 when a group of renegades who didn’t accept the news that the war with the white man was over remained on the Plains, pillaging and plundering as in days of yore.

The Nolan Expedition, which actually consisted of two expeditions, was formed to find and punish the marauders. Two dozen buffalo hunters formed the first expedition and set out across the Llano Estacado in May of 1877. A more official group consisting of troops from the 10th U.S. Cavalry division, made up of black buffalo soldiers and under the command of Nicholas Nolan, who was white, set out from Fort Griffin in July of 1877.

The Nolan Expedition was doomed not so much by its mission or the mettle of the men involved but by geography. The Llano Estacado had just about done in Col. Ronald Mackenzie when he ventured there to take on Quanah Parker and his tribe of Quahadis, the last remaining obstacle to Anglo settlement but a formidable one.

The Comanches had a big fight with buffalo hunters near present-day Post. They killed a buffalo hunter near Double Mountain and raided Rath’s store, a supply post for the hunters.

The hunters pursued the Indians. They were guided by Tafoya (a commanchero). The group crossed and recrossed the plains and no doubt were through Terry County.

In July, they were encamped on Bull Creek in Borden County when Captain Nolan’s troops arrived. Nolan told the buffalo hunters he had been sent by General Ord to round up the same group of Indians they were hunting so the group joined forces.

They proceeded to Cedar Lake where they met Quanah and a group of Indians. Quanah had a pass from Colonel Mackenzie at Ft. Sill authorizing him to find other Indians and bring them back to the reservation. The group then moved to Double Lakes in Lynn County. Seven scouts reported that 40 Indians were sighted three miles west of Rich Lake which was 17 miles west of where they were encamped.

The group left in pursuit and were led by a zig-zag trail west by the Indians. After three days of wandering, the men were in bad shape. Their water was exhausted and the men and the horses were suffering from thirst and sunstroke. The hunters tried to convince Nolan he should go northeast to water, but Nolan decided to return to Double Lakes. The hunters left him and reached water in Yellow House Canyon that same day. The troops wandered around and soldiers began to desert in small groups. Most of them finally got back to Double Lakes after great suffering.

Nolan reported that the command was without water for 86 hours and the men were reduced to drinking urine – their own and that of their horses – with sugar mixed in to make it more palatable. The blood of the horses also provided some liquid refreshment.

Nolan lost four men, 25 horses and four mules on this expedition but did not find any Comanches. By the time the expedition was over, Quanah was leading the renegades to Oklahoma Territory and the Indian wars in Texas were over.

This appears to be the last full expedition against the Comanches. The route of the expedition went through an area known by the Indians as “The Bitter Lakes,” which most likely was the Rich Lake area.

As a favor to Mackenzie, Quanah had set out across the Llanos with (five other people) to find that same marauding band of Comanches. His mission was to talk them into going back to the reservation peacefully.

This was not the mission of the soldiers or the buffalo hunters. For them, it was not only a matter of public safety but also a chance for military glory. They saw themselves as the last of the Indian fighters. Once they captured or preferably killed this one last band, there would be precious few Indians left to fight.

Of course, Quanah knew this. That’s why when he encountered the expeditions he told Nolan he knew where the renegades were and said he was on his way to meet with them. He said they were camped out at a place called Mustang Springs. The soldiers and hunters soon headed off in that direction.

Quanah and his band of peacemakers watched them go, might have wished them good luck, and then headed for the banks of the Pecos River, where the marauders actually were. Quanah found them and convinced them to surrender.

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