U.S. Fourth Cavalry, under the command of Gen. Ranald S. Mackenzie,
spent 1872 exploring the unmapped Llano Estacado in search of Comanche
chief Quanah Parker
and other bands of marauding Comanches who refused all invitations
to the reservations.
General William T. Sherman sent General Ranald S. Mackenzie and
the U.S. Fourth Cavalry into the heart of Comancheria
on a seek-and-destroy mission in December of 1871. Mackenzie's troops
spent the next year looking for Comanches on the vast, level expanse
of the Llano Estacado, which appeared as unbroken as the sea, but
with a series of canyons and gullies deep enough to hide entire
ecosystems and provided things the plains did not, including refuge.
Some people said there was a trail across the Llanos, but since
most non-Comanches who ventured onto the forbidden plains ended
up dead, Mackenzie had no way of knowing if such a trail existed
or where to find it if it did. An 1857 map shows the trail stretching
from Mexico and across the Llano Estacado, where it branched into
One branch went up the Yellow House Canyon to Buffalo Springs and
what is now Mackenzie State Recreation Area in Lubbock.
From there, it extended to the Double Mountain Fork of the Brazos
and eventually to New Mexico. The second route branched off to Blanco
Canyon, and from there to Running Water Draw, past present-day Plainview
Mackenzie no doubt knew of the Comancheros,
a group of New Mexico natives who ran cattle from Texas to New Mexico,
legally and otherwise, and who traded extensively with the Comanches.
They had to have a trail to follow into Comancheria. But where was
A captured Comanchero named Polonio
Ortiz provided the answer. He told Mackenzie of a wagon trail with
water and grass that ran east-west across the plains. Ortiz hired
on as a scout, just in case he was telling the truth. Mackenzie
crossed the Llano Estacado twice, by different routes, in the summer
of 1872. In July, Ortiz and some other scouts found the trail. The
trail opened a road into a vast area that the Comanches had ruled
as a "no survival zone" for centuries. If Mackenzie hadn't defeated
the Comanches, another general would have. But Mackenzie did half
the work, just by finding how to get to where they were.
A number of towns have claimed portions of the Mackenzie Trail as
their own, and most of them probably have a right to do so. Aside
from the main trail, the Army established other routes as dictated
by destination. Quartermaster Henry Lawton established one such
trail from Fort Concho
to Blanco Canyon. By 1900 railroads had obliterated much of the
Mackenzie Trail and made it mostly unnecessary. The railroads were
the new trails, and some of them followed Mackenzie's route.
The best of what's left of the Mackenzie Trail today is probably
on private property. You're near it when you're at the intersection
of U.S. 277 and Texas 6 in Stamford,
where a monument tells you the trail ran a little north of there.
The trail also ran between Dickens
so when you're on parts of U.S. Highway 82 from Dickens
you're probably following Mackenzie's path pretty closely.
Historian Ernest Wallace noted in his account of Mackenzie on the
plains that Mackenzie's trail was a highly significant contribution
to the exploration and opening of the American West.
Mackenzie, he wrote, "found two routes across the treacherous plains.
The discovery of the roads and good water would make it possible
to keep the hostile Indians constantly on the run until they surrendered,
or all be surprised and captured or killed."
© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
January 2, 2018 column