Two Accounts of Grant’s Peace Policy and the Red River War

         In his first inaugural address, President Ulysses S. Grant said, “The proper treatment of the original occupants of this land—the Indians one deserving of careful study. I will favor any course toward them which tends to their civilization and ultimate citizenship.”[1] This is the only mention of Native Americans that Grant made in his short speech, but those few words foreshadowed a sweeping though very short-lived change in the way in which the nation would deal with its “Indian problem.” Grant’s Peace Policy, as it came to be known, established that Protestant missionaries would administer Indian affairs, from the federal level all the way down to the individual tribal agencies. These missionaries would convert the Native Americans to Christianity and thereby civilize them, dispensing with the need to conquer them militarily. The military and many public officials resisted the Peace Policy from the outset, and doubted that the policy would be successful.[2] In the end, Grant’s Peace Policy did not even last as long as his two-term presidency, and the military was sent in to quell native uprisings throughout the West.[3] The policy’s critics had been right.

            The Society of Friends was awarded jurisdiction of many of the agencies in the West, and a Quaker farmer from Iowa named Lawrie Tatum drew the assignment for the Kiowa and Comanche agency. Located at Fort Sill in southwestern Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma), the agency was being used as a refuge by Comanche and Kiowa warriors who were free to raid in Texas safe in the knowledge that the army could not pursue them past the reservation boundary. Tatum initially believed wholeheartedly in the efficacy of the Peace Policy, but even he began to acknowledge “that the Quaker experiment was failing” among the Kiowas and Comanches as the tribes continued their raids south of the Red River.[4] Tatum’s emerging pragmatism cost him his job, and “although the Peace Policy remained the official policy, by fall 1871 it had become a dead letter on the southern plains.”[5] The ensuing Red River War finally broke the resistance of the Kiowas and Comanches, and forced them on to the reservation for good.

            Pekka Hämäläinen’s The Comanche Empire takes a new and novel approach to the study of Native Americans. While welcoming and acknowledging the much-needed contributions of revisionist historians to Native American studies over the past three decades, Hämäläinen insists that even those studies simply build on older models, and that an entirely different model is needed. He attempts to overturn “the view of European powers as the principal driving force of history” and “recover the full dimension of Indian agency in early American history.”[6] In order to do this, Hämäläinen refuses to describe the Comanches as a loose confederation of nomadic bands merely reacting to Euroamerican expansion and doing their best to resist, adapt, and survive. Instead, he portrays Comanchería as a true empire, a genuine political entity with real though fluid borders, a rational foreign policy, and thriving trade relations with its neighbors.[7] Besides the obvious fact that the in-depth nature of such a study sets it apart from the summaries found in Carl Waldman’s Atlas of the North American Indian, Hämälainen’s unique approach offers insights that will not be found in Waldman’s work.

            Both Waldman and Hämäläinen pay scant attention to the Peace Policy, with Waldman mentioning it in passing fewer than a half dozen times, and Hämäläinen devoting only a portion of his penultimate chapter to the Peace Policy and the final military conquest of the Comanches.[8] There are two general differences between Waldman’s and Hämäläinen’s treatments of this stage of Comanche/Kiowa history, one merely interesting and the other perhaps more significant. The first is that while Waldman actually calls the U.S.-Comanche/Kiowa conflict of the mid-1870s the Red River War, Hämäläinen never refers to the war by this name and indeed never names it. The more significant difference between the two authors is the amount of space they each dedicate, relative to the total words each writes on the subject, to the seven-year period between the beginning of the Peace Policy and the surrender of the last remnants of the Comanche and Kiowa militants. As noted earlier, Waldman mentions the Peace Policy only a few times and only in passing, but he spends fully half his entries on both the Comanches and the Kiowas discussing the military campaigns of the early to middle 1870s that culminated in those tribes’ surrendering and being confined to the reservation. Hämäläinen, on the other hand, provides for only a fifteen-page discussion of this period in his three hundred sixty-one page monograph. The result is that Waldman’s account leaves one with the impression that the final hostilities between the tribes and the United States was the single most important fact about the Kiowas and Comanches, while Hämäläinen paints this period as a tragic and brief coda to the glorious history of a proud people. Furthermore, Hämäläinen’s brevity, which does not lack colorful description, lends the account a breathless quality in its depiction of a defeated people spinning inexorably toward their doom.

            For the most part, the historical facts and figures in each account match each other fairly well, though there are a few discrepancies. For example, in his description of a battle during Mackenzie’s 1872 campaign onto the Llano Estacado, Hämäläinen records that “the soldiers killed twenty-four warriors,” while Waldman states that “at least 30” were killed.[9] Elsewhere, Waldman relates that Kiowas alone killed eight teamsters on an attack on a wagon train in Texas, but Hämäläinen writes that both Comanches and Kiowas were involved, and that seven teamsters were killed.[10] These are relatively minor differences and may be the result of the two historians consulting different sources, though this is difficult to say, since Waldman does not provide source notes. A significant departure between the two occurs, however, when they each discuss the role of New Mexico traders, known as Comancheros, in sustaining the Indians’ access to arms and ammunition, and thus their ability to continue to resist the Americans. Waldman says that Mackenzie’s expedition captured several Comancheros in the 1872 expedition, and “thereby expos[ed] the Comanche-Kiowa source of arms and ammunition.”[11] His brief comment on the subject implies that this was the first time the U.S. Army had encountered the problem. Hämäläinen, however, insists that the military knew about the Comancheros at least two years earlier, and that General Sheridan had put into place a plan to interrupt trade between the Comanches and the renegade New Mexicans.[12] Either Waldman is communicating ineffectively with his readers, or Sheridan communicated ineffectively with Mackenzie.

            Neither Waldman’s nor Hämäläinen’s account provides any new information about Grant’s Peace Policy and the Red River War, and Waldman’s writing gives no real insight into the events. Hämäläinen does provide a broader economic rationale for the federal government’s desire to put an end to Comanche/Kiowa raiding once and for all when he discusses briefly the need for Texas ranchers to get their cattle herds to railheads in Kansas quickly and safely without the threat of Indian attack.[13] Though this argument does relate to the ultimate failure of the Peace Policy, the insight is not particularly new or startling. The two accounts are complementary and parallel versions of the end of Comanche and Kiowa domination of the southern Great Plains, one more dispassionate (Waldman), the other bitterly reflective (Hämäläinen), but both ultimately tragic.


[1] “Address by Ulysses S. Grant, 1869,” Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies,

[2] Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 332.

[3] Carl Waldman, Atlas of the North American Indian, 3rd ed. (New York: Checkmark Books, 2009), 167-95 passim.

[4] Hämäläinen, Comanche Empire, 332.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, 7.

[7] Ibid, 8.

[8] Waldman, Atlas, 167-168, 177, 189; Hämäläinen, Comanche Empire, 325-41.

[9] Hämäläinen, Comanche Empire, 334; Waldman, Atlas, 189.

[10] Waldman, Atlas, 191; Hämäläinen, Comanche Empire, 332.

[11] Waldman, Atlas, 189.

[12] Hämäläinen, Comanche Empire, 330.

[13] Hämäläinen, Comanche Empire, 329-30.

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