By Ethan Douglas
Famed frontier scout, buffalo hunter and Sharps-shooter Billy Dixon is perhaps best known for sending a Comanche into the afterlife with a .50-90 Sharps rifle from just under a mile away at an abandoned trading post in Texas called Adobe Walls. That fight lasted three days, and when the smoke cleared three buffalo hunters and fifteen Comanches lay dead.
In 1874, in what has become known as the Red River War, the U.S. Army attempted to drive the Kiowa, Comanche, Southern Cheyenne and Arapahoes from the southern plains of Texas once and for all. It was during this campaign that Billy Dixon partook in what he described as “the most perilous adventure of my life.”
On September 10, 1874, Dixon, another scout named Amos Chapman and four troopers from the 6th Cavalry–Sergeant Z. T. Woodall, Privates Peter Rath, John Harrington, and George W. Smith–set out to deliver dispatches to another Army outpost called Fort Supply.
At around 6:00 a.m. on the morning of September 12, the small group found themselves face to face with a large band of Comanche and Kiowa warriors. The Indians had set fire to the prairie grass only days before, leaving the ground black and smoldering. The group’s horses were tired, and so were their riders. With parched throats and eyes sore from dust and lingering smoke they gained a better look at what they faced. The party of six estimated the hostile band to number over 150.
Almost immediately sporadic gunfire erupted from the Indian lines. Pvt. Smith was hit and crumpled to the ground. The horses stampeded and the men watched as their supplies and only means of escape disappeared over the horizon. Bullets cracked above and kicked up dirt below. Their foe was overconfident, and like the proverbial cat and mouse, they decided to have some fun with their prey. Keeping a fair distance, the Indians encircled the group, shooting as they rode. That was when Amos Chapman was shot. Woodall and Harrington were hit next. If they remained in the open they would all die; they had to find cover.
Just ahead, Dixon noticed a shallow depression where buffalo had rolled and picked away at the barren ground with their hooves. This wallow, 10 feet in diameter, was their only chance. Dixon, Woodall, Rath and Harrington dove in and began digging away at the ground with their knives and bare hands, packing the dirt above to increase cover. Soon they began to return fire. The Battle of Buffalo Wallow was on.
Dixon called out to his wounded companions. Chapman replied that his leg was hit badly and that Smith wasn’t moving. In the fury of gunfire, Dixon rose and ran to help his friend. The Indian’s unrelenting fire drove him back several times, but he finally made it to Chapman and Smith. Chapman’s leg was in terrible shape; a bullet had shattered the bone. Dixon concluded that Smith was either dead or unconscious, and he didn’t have time to find out which. He lifted Chapman onto his back and ran for the wallow. Bullets kicked up dirt all around him, but finally they reached cover.
In the following hours the men sat upright, and according to Dixon, “fired deliberately, taking good aim, and were picking off an Indian at almost every round.” All day they battled the unforgiving sun and burning throats dry from heat and combat. Soon night fell, and a lull came in the form of a rain storm. The deluge quenched the tired men’s thirst, settled the dust and for a moment brought a welcome chill to their sunburnt bodies.
But the storm quickly took a turn for the worse. The wind shifted from the north and a “blue norther” ensued, dropping the temperature nearly to freezing. Running low on ammunition, Roth crawled out of the wallow to retrieve Smith’s rifle and cartridges. Upon reaching Smith, Roth discovered he was still alive. Dixon aided Roth in bringing the mortally wounded trooper back to their meager fortification, where he would die during the night.
Daylight revealed that the Comanches and Kiowas had fled. All six had sustained wounds during the fight, but Dixon was the only one capable of going for help. Taking only his rifle and a few cartridges, he departed the only cover for thousands of yards into the unknown.
Less than a mile later, he encountered a large column of cavalry under the command of Major William Price. Price, being short on supplies himself, refused to aid the men, but he promised to deliver word to Colonel Miles at Fort Supply to send aid at once. Over 18 hours later, the promised aid arrived.
Trooper Smith was wrapped in a blanket and buried in the buffalo wallow. Amos Chapman’s leg had to be amputated above the knee. Troopers Rath, Woodall and Harrington survived their wounds and continued their military careers. Major Price was reprimanded for not immediately rendering aid to the survivors. For their bravery and ferocity that day, all 6 men were awarded the Medal of Honor.
Billy Dixon went on to live a life full of adventure. He died in 1913, at the age of 62.