The battle of the North Fork of the Red River was the climax of Col. Ranald S. Mackenzie's campaign against the Indians of the Llano Estacado in the summer and fall of 1872. Because the Quaker peace policy, although a proven failure, was still in effect, cavalry troops at Fort Sill could not be deployed against Indians. However, the policy did not apply to off-reservation Indians or to the troops at the Texas outposts who were operating outside the reservation limits. Gen. William T. Sherman was determined to bring the marauders in the Panhandle to their knees, break up cattle thefts, and put a dent in the illicit Comanchero trade. In accordance with orders from the Missouri Division headquarters, Mackenzie pulled out on July 28 with twelve officers and 272 enlisted men. These included five companies of the Fourth Cavalry, Company I, of the Twenty-Fourth Infantry, under Capt. J. W. Clous, several wagons and mules, two assistant surgeons, Lt. Peter H. Boehm's twenty Tonkawa scouts, and a Comanchero prisoner named Polonia Ortiz. The contingent traveled northwest across a little-known area to Fort Sumner, New Mexico. After going north to Fort Bascom in mid-August, the command ventured back east into the Panhandle, following Tierra Blanca Creek to the vicinity of present Canyon and then moving along the breaks of the eastern Panhandle back to the supply base. Though no significant encounters with Indians, Comancheros, or cattle thieves occurred during the course of the expedition, Mackenzie and his men had opened two new routes across the plains.
Mackenzie allowed his command to rest at the supply camp while he prepared for another sortie north to the Red River headwaters. On September 21 he pulled out. Following his return route of nearly a month before, he moved up through the Quitaque country, crossed the Prairie Dog Town Fork of the Red River near its junction with Mulberry Creek, and struck the Salt Fork of the Red River about five miles north of the site of present Clarendon. Just north of the Salt Fork he left his supplies with a detachment to guard them. With seven officers, 215 enlisted men, and nine Tonkawa scouts, Mackenzie continued north, crossing the south prong of McClellan Creek near the site of present Alanreed. The column on the afternoon of September 29 sighted a large Indian village in a valley a few miles distant on the south bank of the North Fork of the Red River, about seven miles from the mouth of McClellan Creek and east of the site of present Lefors. After briefly resting his men, Mackenzie formed them in columns of four for a charge.
The village, consisting of 262 lodges, was that of the Kotsoteka chief Mow-way, who had gone to confer with the "peace people" at the Wichita Agency near Fort Sill. In his absence a subchief, Kai-wotche, was left in charge. The village was the largest of several Quahadi and Kotsoteka camps in the area. The Indians, busy at their normal tasks, were taken almost completely by surprise. As Company D, under Capt. John Lee, raced after the nearby horse herd, the remaining columns charged through the clusters of tepees. Within half an hour the village was Mackenzie's. The columns quickly fanned out, pursued fleeing Indians, and easily overcame resistance; some of the women emerged from the bush with their hands up as a gesture of surrender. One group of about eighty warriors made a stand under a creek bank near a large water hole, but Troop A, led by Capt. Eugene B. Beaumont, outflanked them after a brisk skirmish. At the height of the battle some noncombatants were wounded since they were intermixed with the braves; Clinton Smith, a young white captive who was in the fray, afterward accused the soldiers of trying "to make a massacre."
Mackenzie reported twenty-three Comanches killed, although there may have been more; the warriors, who sustained heavy casualties, threw some of their dead into a ten-foot-deep pool to keep them away from the Tonkawas' scalping knives. Listed among the known dead were Kai-wotche and his wife and, in some accounts, a renegade white man named Thomas F. M. (Bise) McLean, a one-time West Point appointee turned desperado, who was wanted in both California and New Mexico. Mackenzie lost two men killed and two seriously wounded. Between 800 and 3,000 horses and mules were rounded up by the troops. The lodges, along with the stores of meat, equipment, and clothing, save for a few choice robes, were burned. About 130 Comanches, mostly women and children, were taken prisoner, but six of these were too badly wounded to be moved long distances. Evidences of the band's past depredations were overwhelming; José Carrión, who had been with the wagon train massacred at Howard's Wells the previous spring, recognized forty-three of its mules.
Soon after dark, Mackenzie's command moved to the sand hills about two miles away from the burned village and camped. Fearing that the captured pony herd would stampede the cavalry horses, Mackenzie had them corralled. That night and the next, however, the Comanches succeeded in recovering most of their horses, plus those of the Tonkawa scouts. During the column's withdrawal Sgt. John B. Charlton was wounded saving Boehm's life. The Indian prisoners were kept securely under guard as the command rejoined its supply train and retraced its route back south to the main supply base on White River. There Mackenzie allowed his men and horses to recuperate for a week before disbanding the expedition and sending the companies back to their respective posts. The Comanche prisoners, eight of whom died en route in spite of medical care, were confined for the winter at Fort Concho. Before returning to his command post at Fort Richardson, Mackenzie conferred at San Antonio with Gen. Christopher C. Augur, commander of the Department of Texas; the two decided to use the captives as a trump to get the recalcitrant bands to exchange the rest of their white captives and return to the agency.
Mackenzie had dealt the Plains Indians a crippling blow and had mastered the terrain over which future battles would be fought. The victory on the North Fork proved that the Llano Estacado was no longer an Indian sanctuary. Upon Mackenzie's recommendation, several officers and men, including Capt. Clous and surgeon Rufus Choate, were awarded the Medal of Honor. The army's stratagem worked, for shortly after the battle Mow-way and Parra-o-coom (Bull Bear) moved their bands to the vicinity of the Wichita Agency. The Nokoni chief Horseback, who himself had relatives among the Indian prisoners, took the initiative in persuading the Comanches to trade stolen livestock and white captives, including Clinton Smith, in exchange for their own women and children. The process was completed by June 1873. The battle site on the North Fork is near State Highway 273 in Gray County, six miles southeast of Lefors.