Wyllys S. Lyman – Major, United States Army

Wyllys Lyman of Vermont
First Lieutenant and Adjutant, 10th Vermont Infantry, 15 Agust 1862
Major, 24 February 1865
Honorably mustered out of the Volunteer Service, 28 June 1865
Captain, 40th United States Infantry, 28 July 1866
Transferred to 25th United States Infantry, 20 April 1869
Breveted Major 2 March 1867 for Gallant and Meritorious service in the Battle of Opeluan, Virginia
Breverted Lieutenant Colonel 27 February 1890 for Gallant and Meritorious service in action with hostile Indians on the Upper Washita River, Texas, 9, 10 and 11 September 1874
Retired with the rank of Major, 4 July 1892
Died 1 February 1900


The five-day siege of Captain Wyllys Lyman's wagontrain, sometimes known as the battle of the Upper Washita, was the longest and one of the most publicized engagements of the Red River War. During Colonel Nelson A. Miles's first thrust against recalcitrant Cheyenne, Comanche, and Kiowa bands in late August 1874, Miles overstretched his supply lines despite warnings from the department headquarters, and provisions began to run dangerously low. He sent a military escort under Lyman back with thirty-six empty supply wagons.

Lyman met the train from Camp Supply at Commission Creek, in what is now Ellis County, Oklahoma, and, after transferring the supplies to his own wagons, started back with 104 men to rejoin Miles. On the way the train encountered Lieutenant Frank D. Baldwin and three scouts carrying dispatches to Camp Supply. The four men had with them a white Kiowa captive named Tehan,qv whom they had taken prisoner while skirting Lone Wolf's camp. Thinking that Miles would be interested in questioning Tehan, Baldwin left him with Lyman's wagons before continuing.

Lyman was aware of the potential danger from Indians in the vicinity. On September 9 he had his wagons form a double column with about forty infantrymen flanking either side and the thirteen-man cavalry unit at the front. The Indians, after discovering that Tehan was missing, came upon the train as it was crossing the divide between the Canadian and Washita rivers. They began firing at it from long range while a small group ascended the ridge ahead of the wagons; but the cavalry's defensive maneuvers enabled the train to move twelve miles farther south, to almost a mile from the Washita. About mid-afternoon, as the wagons emerged from a steep ravine, they were suddenly set upon by about seventy mounted warriors, who rushed in with heavy rifle fire. As Lyman hastily formed the vehicles into a protective circle, the Indians came close to overrunning them. At sunset the Indians broke off the attack, allowing Lyman's men to dig protective rifle pits, organize a better defense, and get water from a pool about 400 yards away. The Indians likewise dug in for a prolonged siege.

On the afternoon of September 10, Lyman, seeing that the situation was critical not only for his own men but for Miles's column, penned a formal message to the commander at Camp Supply, telling of his plight and requesting reinforcements. In the meantime Tehan slipped away and went back to his adopted people. He probably advised the Kiowas to fortify the waterhole, and the besieged train endured nearly two days without sufficient water as the Indians, whom Lyman estimated to be nearly 400 in number, continued taking potshots at the whites. By September 12 various parties of Indians had begun pulling out to continue their intended trek south toward Palo Duro Canyon. Perhaps the sighting of Major William R. Price's column in the distance influenced that move. The troops and a drenching rainstorm cleared the thinning ranks of warriors away from the waterhole. Nevertheless, Lyman's men remained within the protection of the wagons until the arrival of the long-awaited reinforcements from Camp Supply in the early-morning hours of September 14. With the siege broken, Lyman moved out with the loaded wagons later that morning to join Colonel Miles on the Washita.

During the siege Lyman lost two men killed and three wounded; Indian casualties were estimated at thirteen or more. Lone Wolf, Maman-ti, Satanta, Big Tree, Big Bow, and Tohauson were among the Kiowa leaders present at the engagement; indeed, the episode was probably a factor in Satanta's subsequent reincarceration at Huntsville for violation of his parole. On the recommendation of Colonel Miles, thirteen troopers were awarded the Medal of Honor for their bravery in the fight; Lyman was eventually promoted for his performance. A historical marker describing the battle is located in Hemphill County on State Highway 33, eighteen miles southeast of Canadian and some four miles from the actual site, which is marked by a small granite memorial.


Captain Wyllys Lyman. Courtesy of Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum.

Sunday, October 10, 1999
Team trying to reconstruct war that drove tribes from Panhandle

THE VALLEYS OF CAPROCK CANYONS – Captain Wyllys Lyman watched the blood trickle between his fingers as he choked on the dusty air. Gathering what was left of his ammunition and courage, he loaded his pistol and peered around the wooden frames of the circled wagons.

The arrows that whizzed past his head confirmed his worst fear. Lyman and his men were surrounded by Comanches.

Bleeding from his arm, Lyman probably mused that the Indians were too smart to waste ammunition on men already dead.

The Comanches understood how easily soldiers were overcome by the merciless Texas plains. They knew that by trapping Lyman's men, they would die in a countryside so tough that one soldier described it as “not only . . . a bad place to die, it wasn't even a good place to be buried.”

Biting horse flies buzzed through the air, and thorn bushes that covered the ground like carpet tore at Lyman's resolve.

After a few days of holding off the Comanches, Lyman and his men resorted to drinking the water out of tomato cans. When all seemed lost, the soldiers charged their enemies, probably expecting to die in glory.

Lyman and his men lived that day in 1874, but not because they defeated the Indians. The Comanches had disappeared without a trace.

Over the last several months, state archaeologist Patricia Mercado Allinger and her team pieced together more battles surrounding the last war to move the Comanches, Cheyenne and Arapahos from the Texas Panhandle than any researchers in the last 50 years.

“It's kind of like you have to play detective,” Allinger says, sweeping her metal detector from side to side. “You can use the artifacts and their location to determine the framework of a particular battle.”

Allinger's reconstruction of Lyman's near-death experience is an amalgamation of written accounts and her own findings – the recovered remains of wagons, bloody arrowheads, tomato cans and bullet casings. A soldier who documented the battle after hearing about it from Lyman highlighted the soldiers' suffering in the heat and the Indians' sudden, inexplicable withdrawal, even though they had superior numbers and position.

Allinger, who works for the Texas Historical Commission, was charged almost two years ago with collecting artifacts and documenting battles in what's known as the Red River Indian War. The war, which began in 1874 after an Indian raid on a U.S. trading post left three men dead, lasted about a year.

Because the state agency cannot afford a full staff of professionals, Allinger assembled a team of makeshift archaeologists: a small-town museum curator, a couple of archaeology students looking for hard-to-find field experience and harder-to-find adventure, and a historian who had never before wielded a metal detector.

Five days a week, the team jumps over ditches and dodges cactus in the rough terrain of the Caprock Canyons. Moments after one of them chops off a rattlesnake's head with a shovel, another locates a treasure trove of artifacts – gun cartridges, buttons and arrowheads. Cheers ring out as the team grabs flags, shovels and a map to mark a site of combat between soldiers and Indians.

Every site bolsters Allinger's belief that historians mistakenly accepted soldiers' accounts that the Indians were the aggressors and that the United States merely wanted to push the Indians onto Oklahoma reservation territory.

Using written accounts, field findings, the Lyman ambush site and guesswork, Allinger theorizes that the Indians knew they were outmatched, particularly because the soldiers had sophisticated weaponry compared with their rudimentary guns and bows and arrows.

They battled the U.S. soldiers long enough to allow their families to escape the Panhandle, unsure of whether surrender would mean being sent to prison camps in which they would be killed or die of disease.

Allinger believes the Indians left Lyman's ambushed soldiers once their families had fled.

“Every once in a while, historians are guided too much by a particular account of a war or an incident,” Allinger said. “As archaeologists, we put the proof in the pudding. We find the fact behind the theory. When those facts don't match the theory, it's time for a new theory.”

In response to the initial Indian raid, military units from Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas were amassed in February 1874. Almost two dozen battles, including the Lyman ambush, took place in the canyons in the following months.
Allinger's work revealed that most of the combat involved what experts call running battles – a fight in which one of the forces is in constant retreat.

“The Indians knew the canyons like the backs of their hands, while the soldiers had only the vaguest idea of where they were,” Allinger said. “The Indians retreated into rough areas in many of the battles.”

The soldiers, on the other hand, apparently had high-powered weapons. Allinger's team found the massive, 9-inch-long shells of the “Perrot Rifle,” which historians now call the “grenade launcher of the late 1800s” and the telltale bullets of at least two Gatling guns – history's first rapid-fire, bunker-style weapon.

“We've found things we just never expected,” said Panhandle Plains Historical Museum curator Rolla Shaller, 61. “It's kind of silly to think that the Indians could have seen the Gatling gun and still felt like they had a chance to win. That doesn't really make any sense.”

Allinger said the Indians had firearms, but limited ammunition. “Could you imagine, fighting against soldiers with a Gatling gun when all you have is a bow with arrows?” she said.

Allinger also says she has found evidence of massive camps of Indian women and children – documented by their toys, sewing materials and cooking instruments – moving in groups probably a few miles from where many skirmishes were taking place under the leadership of Colonel Nelson Miles.

The Indians surrendered in June 1875, ending the war.

“If it was a victory for Miles, it was a hollow victory,” Allinger said. “Even though they killed 17 Indians in the last battle, the entire number of women and children escaped northward. Miles and his troops never did catch up to them.”

University of Texas archaeology professor Thomas Hester, who is not connected to the project, says Allinger's challenge to conventional wisdom has drawn widespread attention from her peers.

“As an archaeologist, you dream about the chance to uncover unknown facts that change or reshape the way an event is looked upon,” Hester said. “Allinger is definitely doing that. There is no question that the previous notion of the Indian War on the plains is changing.”

However, the findings do not surprise Susan Kurranah, one of the last living relatives of Comanche chief Quanah Parker.

“Among the Indians, the story has always been told in a way that showed there wasn't any intention of fighting a war,” Kurranah said. “If this means that the history books are going to finally get it right, then I'm happy.”

Meanwhile, the fate of the recently discovered artifacts is uncertain.

Because ranchers own most of the land being scoured, any recovered artifacts technically belong to them. Allinger said the ranchers allowed her to catalog the items in Austin.

The Texas Historical Commission hopes to persuade the ranchers to donate the pieces to a museum.

“Even if we don't get to keep everything,” she said, “the most important thing in archaeology is what you learn about an event.”

Added Rusty Winn, one of the students along for the ride: “You just do the best you can at uncovering the truth. And hopefully, that truth finds its way into the textbook.”


  • DATE OF DEATH: 04/07/1909


  • DATE OF DEATH: 02/03/1900

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