Ghost Horses of Palo Duro Canyon, TX
Palo Duro Canyon near Amarillo, Texas exhibits breathtaking views of colorful rock formations, deep sloping walls and an abundance of native trees and grasses. It’s the second largest canyon in the United States, right behind the Grand Canyon. Much of the gorge encompasses a 29,000-acre state park which offers a variety of activities for visitors, as well as a seasonal outdoor musical.
Amidst all the grandeur, one might overlook the historical significance of the area. This is where the turning point in the Red River Indian Wars took place over one hundred and forty years ago. Sadly, that final skirmish resulted in the massacre of 1,400 Comanche horses.
In September, 1874, several Native tribes – Arapaho, Cheyenne, Kiowa and Comanche – gathered in the canyon’s vast lands to hunt buffalo and stockpile supplies for the upcoming winter. The Comanche were great equestrians, perhaps the best of all American Indian tribes. They were fearless when mounted atop their horses and considered the animals to be an extension of their own spirit.
Col. Ranald McKenzie of the 4th U.S. Calvary was determined to track down the renegade Indians and relocate them to contained reservations. Using Tonkawa scouts, he located the Native camps on the canyon floor. From his high vantage point at the rim, he plotted an attack. His position, however, also created a disadvantage. There was no way to reach the bottom of the canyon without being seen. Finally, one of the scouts discovered a narrow path leading through cracks and crevices which ended at the canyon floor.
As McKenzie’s troops carefully maneuvered the steep trail, a Comanche night watch spotted the soldiers and fired a warning shot. The Indians rushed from their camps, surprised and ill-prepared for battle. Hopelessness of their situation led to a frenzied reaction. Many escaped up the canyon walls, saving their lives but forfeiting their supplies. McKenzie and his men confiscated the Native’s food, as well as two thousand horses.
Col. McKenzie feared the Comanche would regroup and steal back their horses, thereby eluding his troops again. After giving some of the horses to the Tonkawa scouts in payment for their help, he ordered his men to shoot and kill the herd. Blood flowed freely as the ponies lay dead or dying in the brutal massacre.
The army left the carcasses where they fell. After the meat was consumed by predators and vultures, the sun bleached bones littered the canyon for years . . . but the spirits of the horses live on.
Today, many campers have reported hearing the thunderous echo of stampeding horses late at night – a ghostly herd destined to run for eternity.
by Debra S. Sanders
Nocoma stuck close to his father’s side as the Comanche men prepared for the season’s final hunt. He was sure Big Elk would include him this time. After all, he was ten years old – almost a man. But then his mother gently pulled him away, signaling it was not to be. He turned his back when Big Elk rode by, refusing to say goodbye.
Nocoma was a stubborn, willful child who often challenged authority. Big Elk knew how badly his son wanted to join the hunt but the boy was small for his age and had yet to master the horsemanship skills for which Comanche were known. He could barely straddle a mount, much less control it.
Or so Big Elk thought.
Nocoma had secretly prepared for weeks, determined to win his father’s respect. While searching the herd for a suitable mount, he spied a small black and white pony barely visible through the mass of larger animals. Even though the horse was shorter than the rest, Nocoma liked the way he tossed his head, refusing to let his size contain his spirit.
The pony’s head shot up as Nocoma weaved a path to his side. A long swath of black mane draped over his forehead, covering half the white face. He snorted and dug at the earth, as if throwing down a challenge. Nocoma smiled. This would be his mount. He showed courage. The horse was too small for most Comanche which gave them something in common – they were both outcasts. And both underestimated.
Each morning, Nocoma led the pony to a remote box canyon away from his village. It was dangerous to stray so far from camp since the white soldiers frequented the area in search of “renegade” Plains Indians. If caught, he’d be sent to a reservation or worse, the white man’s school, never to see his family again.
The prospects were dire but proving to his father that he was a skilled horseman was worth the risk.
Nocoma spent the first few days wooing the pony with grass and berries, gradually reaching the point where he could slide across its back. Even though the animal delighted in unseating the boy, he never ran away after Nocoma picked himself up from the dirt.
Over the next two weeks, Nocoma earned the horse’s trust. They spent hours riding through the canyon. The boy marveled at the pony’s speed and agility as well as a fearlessness that matched his own. He named the horse Spirit.
Nocoma kept his newly learned skills to himself even though he was sure his insides would burst from excitement. His plan was to display his riding abilities on the day before the hunt. Unfortunately, he didn’t get the chance. Big Elk and the warriors left two days early at daybreak, taking extra horses with them. He pleaded with his father but the man was too busy gathering weapons to hear the boy’s words.
After the men left, Nocoma waited until his mother was busy then grabbed his bow and arrows and took off on foot, tracking the riders as they made their way deeper into the canyon. If nothing else, he would claim Spirit as his own and ride back to their village.
It came as little surprise when Big Elk noticed Nocoma huddled near the horses. He told the other warriors and older youth to ignore his son, hoping it would convince the boy to return to camp. It didn’t.
That night, when it became apparent he would not be fed with the rest of the hunters, Nocoma fashioned a snare and caught a rabbit. He then roasted it on a spit. Big Elk smiled, secretly proud of his son’s resourcefulness yet still worried the boy could not keep up during for the rigorous hunt.
He stood in the shadows watching Nocoma make a bed from dried leaves and twigs, placing it behind a boulder near the horses. After Nocoma fell asleep, Big Elk crept to his son’s side and covered him with a blanket. A soft whinny echoed from the darkness. Big Elk glanced up and saw the pony.
“You know this boy?” The horse snorted. “I see. Well, he needs a brave horse to protect him. A wise horse who knows what to do when his inexperience gets him in trouble. Is that you?”
Another whinny. The animal inched forward, nuzzling Nocoma’s hand with a velvet nose.
Big Elk raised a brow, eyeing the black and white pony with a disbelieving scowl. “You are both too small. I doubt either of you could stop a strong gust of wind.” His voice softened. “But perhaps together, your valor will surpass us all. I hope that is the case.”
The next morning, Nocoma mounted Spirit and rode along side the hunting party. He ignored the snickers and snide remarks from the men, determined to prove them wrong. That afternoon, they located a herd of buffalo grazing in a wide open field. Craggy rock walls towered on either side as the men argued over who would start a stampede to drive the bison into the box canyon. It was a treacherous task. A rider could easily fall from his mount and become trampled by the massive beasts.
While the warriors engaged in debate, Nocoma jumped onto Spirit’s back. Leaning forward, he whispered in the pony’s ear. “The buffalo are not as fast and sure-footed as you, my friend. We can do this. It will bring great honor to us both.”
Digging his heels into the horse’s side, Nocoma held on as Spirit galloped toward the herd. Pounding hooves drowned out the cries from Big Elk as the boy and his horse circled the grazing buffalo, startling them into action. The enormous animals charged toward the back of the canyon, engulfing Nocoma and Spirit in a thick, brown cloud.
Trembling fingers grabbed a handful of the pony’s mane as he fought to hold on. “We must reach the canyon wall, Spirit. They’re going to trample us.” Fear echoed in Nocoma’s voice but it was directed more toward the brave animal than himself.
Spirit ran alongside the stampeding buffalo, gradually easing his way to the outside. Spying a niche between two boulders, the boy guided his horse toward it. They both gasped for air as the bison rumbled by.
Before the dust settled, Nocoma heard gunfire and knew the hunting party had followed them. It was short lived glory. Looking up, he saw Big Elk riding toward him, an angry scowl on his face. Certain he would be sent home in disgrace, Nocoma slid to the ground and hugged the pony’s neck for what he assumed would be the last time.
“You were brave today, Spirit. As brave as any horse I’ve ever seen. I’ll never forget you.”
Big Elk dismounted and approached his son before stopping a few inches in front of him. Nocoma bowed his head, ready to take his punishment. To his surprise, his father pulled him into a tight embrace. “You rode like a Comanche today. I don’t know who taught you such skills but you learned well.”
“It . . . it wasn’t me. Spirit did it all.”
Big Elk looked down at his son and smiled. “If that is the case, your pony risked his life for you. This horse will never belong to another warrior. He shares your heart. Your soul. He will always be yours.” The older Comanche ruffled his son’s hair. “Now, come. We must prepare the buffalo meat to take back to the village.”
There was great celebration when the Comanche returned to camp. Nocoma joined the men around the campfire, welcomed as an equal. They had no way of knowing what lurked in the darkness.
Colonel Ranald MacKenzie of the U.S. Calvary pointed to a narrow trail descending into the canyon. This was the break he’d been waiting for – a chance to finally gather up the remaining Plains Indians and relocate them to Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
“We’ll follow this path and surprise them. Our scouts have already sighted the Comanche’s camp.”
During the pre-dawn hours, soldiers surrounded the vast village and opened fire.
Big Elk jumped to his feet, ordering his wife and son to climb the upper walls of the canyon. He and the rest of the men fought off the attacking army to allow their families a chance to escape.
When it became obvious they were surrounded, the Comanche along with Kiowa and Cheyenne, scurried up the cliffs. It would give them a better vantage point to launch a gun and arrow assault on the soldiers.
Nocoma found his father a short time later loading his rifle behind a large boulder. “I’ll stay and help fight the white eyes.”
Big Elk shook his head. “There are too many.”
“We have to do something! We can’t just let them destroy our village.” He peeked around the edge of the boulder, lips thinning as the soldiers and Tonkawa scouts tore down teepees and set them ablaze.
Big Elk’s body sagged against the rock. “The white demons have taken everything. Our food and shelter, our horses, our land . . .”
“We’ll fight them, father. We’ll get it back.”
Big Elk stared at the rifle in his hands. “We are Comanche. Without our horses, we are nothing.”
A shot rang out. Nocoma eased around the boulder for a better view. He couldn’t believe his eyes. The soldiers were killing the horses. Frantically scanning the herd, he spied Spirit. The small black and white pony stomped the ground, whinnying as another horse fell next to him.
“They’re shooting them! Father . . . we have to stop this!”
Big Elk swallowed and looked away. “How? We must go to their reservation. There is nothing we can do but live out our days under the white man’s rule.”
“No! I hate the white man! I won’t go . . .and I won’t let them shoot Spirit.”
Nocoma darted away before his father could stop him. He scampered down the canyon wall then slipped into a grove of trees. For once, his small size was an asset. No one noticed the boy crouched in the thick undergrowth. He stayed there for a few minutes, cringing each time a rifle shot rang out.
Horses cried out in fear and pain. He blinked away the tears and crawled to the edge of the clearing. Comanche ponies littered the ground, some withering as they took their last breath but most already dead. The rest were wide eyed, panicked as the soldiers sat on wagons, laughing and taking aim.
Nocoma spotted Spirit toward the back. He was shorter so the larger animals shielded him from bullets – for now. The soldiers were shooting the horses in front and not paying attention to the outer perimeter. Taking a deep breath, Nocoma belly crawled into the herd, stealthily moving between the horses until he reached Spirit.
“I won’t let them shoot you,” he whispered, wrapping his arms around the pony’s neck.
Spirit nuzzled him and whinnied but it was low, as if defeated. The horse knew. He sensed death around him and realized his fate was sealed.
Nocoma wiped a tear from his cheek. “We don’t have to die like this. We can meet the great spirit as warriors.” He glanced at the soldiers lined up on the other side of the herd. “Are you ready for one last ride, War Pony?”
Spirit tossed his head and reared up, snorting and pawing the ground. Nocoma spit onto the dirt, then wiped large stripes of red earth across his face. He repeated the marking down Spirit’s nose. It wasn’t black paint like most Comanche wore in battle but it would have to do.
Swinging himself onto the pony’s back, Nocoma let out a loud whoop and gripped Spirit’s mane. They took off in a gallop. He heard yelling and gunfire but didn’t care. Closing his eyes, Nocoma thrust his arms into the air and threw back his head. He matched his breathing to the rise and fall of Spirit’s pace. They were one. One heart. One soul.
Nocoma and Spirit raced toward the soldiers. Oddly, the herd of horses ran next to them in a line on either side, as if guarding the boy and his mount from the barrage of bullets. As they neared the wagons. a sharp pain pierced Nocoma’s chest.
He leaned forward, resting his head on Spirit’s neck. “I love you. We’ll always be together.” Spirit took a final leap into the air.
Some say, late at night, you can hear the thundering hooves of ghost horses racing through the Palo Duro Canyon, snorting and whinnying as though running from the devil himself. A few who have witnessed this phenomenon swear they’ve seen a proud Comanche boy astride a small black and white pony, leading the herd.
At least, that’s what they say.