On the Trail of the Dog Soldiers (1868)
The "Sandy" Forsyth Scouts
While the Indians in the Southwest were troubling the white men during the Civil War, the Indians of the great western plains had not been idle. The Cheyennes, the Arapahos and the Sioux forayed through Kansas, Nebraska and eastern Colorado; the Sioux carried terror into even Minnesota.
After the close of the War of the Rebellion the United States sent a peace commission into the plains, to talk with the Indians. The Indians were told that now the white armies were done fighting one another; unless the red soldiers made peace also, the thousands of blue-coat soldiers would be turned loose upon them.
There were many councils, with the Sioux and the Northern Cheyennes and the Crows, in the north; with the Southern Cheyennes, the Araphos, the Comanches, the Kiowas and the Apaches in the south.
The plains Indians had been objecting to the white travel through their buffalo grounds. The Overland Stage road and the emigrants were frightening the game by their Platte River trail through Nebraska; the Butterfield Overland Dispatch stages (not the same stages that had pioneered in Arizona before the war) and the emigrants were doing the same in Kansas, on their way between the Missouri River and Denver; and along the Arkansas River, farther south, the old thronged Santa Fe Trail was thronged with wagons bound for New Mexico.
Forts had been built by the United States, to guard the roads. The Indians did not wish soldiers in their country.
Satanta the Kiowa said:
"A long time ago this land belonged to our fathers, but when I go up the river I see a camp of soldiers, and they are cutting my wood down and killing my buffalo. I don't like that, and when I see it my heart feels like bursting with sorrow."
Other chiefs spoke in similar words. But by new treaties they were satisfied. The Southern Cheyennes, the Arapahos, Kiowas, Comanches and Apaches were given all of the Indian Territory, or that which today is Oklahoma. They were pledged to live south of the Arkansas River and the white man's trails; they might hunt, but they must keep away from the traveled roads and the settlements; they would be given food and clothing and powder and lead, on their reserve, and would not be bothered, as long as they were good.
The Sioux and the Northern Cheyennes were granted that which is today the west half of South Dakota. They likewise were to keep away from the white man's roads and settlements.
The wagon roads and military posts were not the only matters that had alarmed the Indians. The white man's thunder wagons were following the horse wagons. The Union Pacific Railroad had started to cross the buffalo range in Nebraska and present southern Wyoming; and a second iron road, the Kansas Pacific, was creeping through northern central Kansas on its way to Denver of Colorado.
The Sioux themselves had won a great victory. A white man's wagon road had been opened, which from Fort Laramie of the Oregon Trail in southern Wyoming should cross northern Wyoming and pass on into Montana. It was a gold seekers' road. The Sioux would not have it. All northern Wyoming had been given them, they said, for their hunting ground, so that they would not need to hunt in the south near the emigrant road.
Under Chief Red Cloud they stopped travel on the new road; they besieged the new forts; and finally the Government ordered the forts to be abandoned and the road closed.
When the Southern Cheyennes and the Arapahos learned what had been granted to the Sioux and the Northern Cheyennes, they decided that if they made a strong fight, then they would be given their own prized hunting grounds of Kansas.
The summer and the fall of 1867; and all the winter had been very quiet in Kansas. The Kansas Pacific trains and workmen, and the stage stations and the ranches were little annoyed. And when the spring of 1868 passed without fighting, there were hopes of continued peace, for at the greening of the grass the young braves always grew restless. The spring was the danger time.
Early this spring the troops were withdrawn from the Wyoming Powder River country of the Sioux. The Indians had only been waiting. The Sioux sent runners down, into the south, to tell the news.
"The white men are afraid," they said. "Now you see. We stood in the way and they yielded. The road is closed. You have a road through your country. If you stand firmly, it will be closed."
The Arapahos and the Southern Cheyennes listened.
In August two hundred Cheyennes, twenty Arapahos and four Sioux made up a war party. They put on their war paint and left their hunting camp in southern Kansas. They said that they were going against the Pawnees, in the north. Instead of going against the Pawnees they stopped and attacked the ranches of north central Kansas, beyond the railroad line.
This was war. It was the beginning of the dreadful plains war of 1868 and 1869, which turned western Kansas and eastern Colorado red.
Major-General Phil Sheridan was in command of all this region, as chief of the Military Department of the Missouri. He had under him twelve hundred cavalry and fourteen hundred infantry, to guard Kansas, Missouri, Colorado, New Mexico and Indian Territory. But when his troops had been scattered, for garrison duties in the posts, and for escorting the trains and the stage coaches, there were only about eight hundred left, for chasing raiders.
The Southern Cheyennes were the most to be feared. The Cheyennes have been a great nation. Their men and women are splendidly built, and handsome, and of lighter skin than the Sioux and the Arapahos. They are smart, their lodges are clean, in the old days their horses were the best. As fighters they have ranked very high; they waged terrible war—their losses in battles with the white men have been larger, when numbers are counted, than the losses of the Sioux, the Kiowa or the Comanches.
Formerly all the Cheyennes lived together in the north, on the Upper Missouri River and in the Dakotas. They are Algonquians, like the Shawnees, the Sacs, the Blackfeet, the Comanches, and so many others. Their name comes from the Sioux name Shai-ena—Strange Speech People; for when they entered the Sioux country nobody there could understand them.
The Sioux drove them west and south. When Bents' Fort was ready for trade, in southeastern Colorado, part of the Cheyennes moved down, to be near it. They became the Southern Cheyennes. The others stayed in the north. They became the Northern Cheyennes.
The Cheyennes and the Arapahos were close friends. The Sioux and the Kiowas made peace with them. So after a time the Cheyennes and the Sioux and the Arapahos, the Kiowas and the Comanches had joined against the whites.
The range of the Southern Cheyennes extended on both sides of the Arkansas River of southern Kansas. They raided in New Mexico and Texas with the Comanches and Kiowas; they raided to the Platte River of Nebraska with the Arapahos and the Sioux. But the hunting grounds between the Arkansas River and the Platte River were their especial field.
At this time, in the summer of 1868, the head chief of the Southern Cheyennes was Black Kettle. He had been head chief for many years. Among the other chiefs there were Tall Bull and Roman Nose. They were not tribal chiefs, but chiefs of Cheyenne clans or secret societies.
The Cheyennes were divided into warrior clans. These were the clans of the Dog Men, Fox Men, Strong Heart or Flint Men, Medicine Lance Men, Red Shield or Buffalo Bull Men, and Bowstring Men.
Tall Bull was chief of the Dog Men or Dog Soldiers, who were supposed by the whites to be the fighting clan, because their members seemed to be as brave as the no-surrender Real Dogs of the Kiowas. The Dog Men were the largest in number, and the most in-dependent; they camped by themselves, they leagued with the Sioux and the Araphos, so that Dog Soldiers came to mean, upon the plains, professional red fighters.
It was Tall Bull's Dog Soldiers that led in the war of 1868.
Roman Nose (whose name was Sauts, or Bat) was chief of the Medicine Lance Men. No finer looking Cheyenne ever rode the plains: a strapping, stately Indian, six feet three, broad chested, clean limbed, with well-shaped head, flashing black eyes, straight thin-lipped mouth, large beaked nose and flaring nostrils, and a stride like a monarch's. The Cheyennes were a proud people; Roman Nose as proud as the proudest. In a peace talk at old Fort Ellsworth of Kansas in 1866 he had said:
"This is the first time that I have ever shaken the white man's hand in friendship. If the railroad is not stopped I shall be his enemy forever."
To the peace commission last year Black Kettle had said:
"We were once friends with the whites, but you nudged us out of the way by your scheming. Now when we are in council you keep nudging each other. Why don't you talk, and go straight?"
Roman Nose himself had not come in to this council. Almost all the Southern Cheyennes had stayed away; they were not to be hurried into giving up their hunting grounds. But Black Kettle and other chiefs had at last signed a treaty.
When General Sheridan heard that the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers were out raiding he started from Fort Leavenworth on the Missouri River of northeastern Kansas to take command of his troops in person. He traveled on the Kansas Pacific Railroad to Fort Harker, first.
On today's map of Kansas the Kansas Pacific is the division of the Union Pacific which crosses northern central Kansas. It had been commenced at Wyandotte, on the east bank of the Missouri River opposite Kansas City. It followed up along the north bank of the Kansas or Kaw River, to Junction City. Here the Republican River from the north and the Solomon River from the northwest join to form the Kansas. The iron trail followed the Solomon for a short distance; then struck westward up the north side of the Smoky Hill Fork of the Solomon, for Denver of Colorado.
That was also the route of the B. O. D. stage road and the emigrant road across the Kansas buffalo plains claimed by the Cheyennes and the Arapahos.
In the summer of 1868 the Kansas Pacific had run trains to Sheridan Station, four hundred and five miles from the Missouri River, and had graded to Fort Wallace, ten miles beyond—or fifteen miles by stage. The trail from Junction City had been bloody; the plains Indians were fighting the surveyors and the graders and the train crews and the station hands; it had proved to be a tough job, to build the Kansas Pacific through the Cheyenne and Arapaho country.
There were four army posts on the road: Fort Riley, near Junction City, at Mile Post 140, Fort Harker (which had been Fort Ellsworth) at Mile Post 230, Fort Hays at Mile Post 290, and Fort Wallace at Mile Post 412 or thereabouts.
Fort Riley was well constructed, of stone; and it is still an army headquarters. Fort Harker was smaller and meaner, constructed of boards and logs; it has disappeared. Fort Hays was no better, upon the treeless buffalo plains about a mile from Hays City. Much of Hays City had moved on, to end of track at Sheridan. Little Fort Wallace, out beyond everything except the stage stations, was the most desolate of all.
So General "Little Phil" hastened by branch line and main line from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Harker; then when the news of the raiding grew he went on to Fort Hays.
Matters looked bad indeed. Wagon trains and stages and ranches were being attacked with bullet, arrow and fire; forty and more persons, men and women, had been killed; other women had been carried from their ruined homes into dreadful captivity. The raids covered all western Kansas and southeastern Colorado. The Arapahos and the Sioux were helping the Cheyennes. Sheridan Station, at end of track, had been threatened with a siege—two hundred miles of railroad travel on the Kansas Pacific was being halted, the stages feared to run to Denver, and to New Mexico by the southern trail—Colorado appealed for soldiers at once. General Sheridan proclaimed war. He divided his field force into columns and sent them out.
Upon his staff of officers there was Brevet Colonel George Alexander Forsyth, aged thirty-one, and major of the Ninth Cavalry. "Sandy" Forsyth, the army called him. He deserved the name. Nothing ever downed him; he had the "sand."
He had entered the army for the Civil War as a private in the Chicago Dragoons; he had cone out in 1865 with the brevet of brigadier general of Volunteers and the double brevet of lieutenant-colonel and colonel of Regulars, as reward for distinguished bravery; had been one of the two staff officers with General Sheridan upon the famous "Sheridan's Ride," October 19, 1864, from Winchester to Cedar Creek, Virginia, which turned defeat into a Union victory.
Now when at Fort Hays General Sheridan started his columns out to strike the Indians, that left Colonel "Sandy" Forsyth with no fighting. This did not please him at all. He wished action. He asked to be detailed for field service, but the columns were sup-plied with officers of his rank. So General Sheridan told him that he might enlist a scout company, and reconnoiter to the north; might try to find the Indians who had been raiding the ranches there.
The plan just suited Colonel Forsyth. General Sheridan assigned First Lieutenant Frederick H. Beecher of the Third Infantry as his assistant. That suited, also Lieutenant Beecher (who happened to be the nephew of the great Henry Ward Beecher, New York preacher and orator) was a slight, quiet young man, but he had a record. He had entered the Civil War as sergeant of Maine Volunteers, had acted the hero at Gettysburg, had been wounded in the leg and lamed for life; and had come back to the army with a limp.
Doctor John H. Mooers of Hays City was accepted as surgeon. He was a middle-aged man, from Plattsburg, New York; had served as surgeon of New York Volunteers in the Civil War, and now had located upon the frontier, to practice his profession and to hunt.
All the enlisted men were civilians: ex-soldiers of the Blue or the Gray, or else for the main part skilled frontiersmen. As soon as Colonel Forsyth announced at Fort Hays that he was forming a company to trail the Indians down, volunteers offered themselves by scores, up and down the line.
He chose as his first sergeant William II. II. McCall, another Civil War veteran. Sergeant McCall had risen from sergeant to lieutenant-colonel of Pennsylvania Volunteers; had been brevetted brigadier general for gallantry on the field; and after having been mustered out in 1865 he had moved into the Far West, as so many ex-soldiers did.
The other men were of the right kind, too: Abner Sharp Grover, called "Sharp" Grover, who would act as guide and was reckoned to be the best Government scout on the plains; Dick Parr, "Pet" Trudeau and natty, smooth-checked Jack Stillwell, aged nineteen, likewise daring Government scouts; Plainsmen Donovan, Clark, William Wilson, J. A. Pliley, Chauncey B. Whitney, Lou McLaughlin, George W. Culver, Frank Herrington, Howard Morton; Martin Burke the Irish-man who had served in the British army in India; old Louis Farley and his son Hudson, aged eighteen, who were considered extra fine shots; trappers, buffalo hunters, clerks, surveyors, railroad hands, graders, settlers, including college graduates who had made good here on the plains.
Fifty were enlisted at Fort Hays, Hays City and Fort Harker. The last upon the roll was a Jew boy, named Sigmund Schlesinger. He was eighteen and under-sized and insignificant and of no reputation as a fighter; had been in America only four years. Colonel Forsyth was in a hurry; finally accepted him in order to fill out. The company did not think much of this latest recruit, but he might prove handy around camp.
Each man was to be paid one dollar a day; he furnished his own horse—was allowed thirty cents a day for that. He was equipped with canteen, blankets, knife, tin cup, Colt's revolver, and repeating Henry or Spencer caibines. The Henry rifle was like the modern Winchester; the Spencer carried six cartridges in the stock and one in the chamber. They both were good guns.
Each man had one hundred and forty rounds of carbine ammunition and thirty rounds of revolver ammunition; there were seven days' rations of bread, salt pork and dried meat, coffee and salt; but no tents or wagons. Four pack mules bore the extra ammunition, the medical supplies, and part of the rations. Colonel Forsyth was resolved to travel light and catch the Indians.
It took only five days to fill the company. He led out from Fort Hays on August 29; scouted to the north, where the Cheyennes had been killing and plundering; and swung in to Fort Wallace—the last of the posts. He had not sighted an enemy. Then at Fort Wallace he heard that a band of the hostiles had stolen horses from the stage company station only a few miles away.
This made "Sandy" Forsyth hot. He telegraphed General Sheridan, saying that he wished to go out again instead of returning to Fort Hays. General Sheridan replied: "Go ahead."
The hardy Forsyth Scouts started afresh; left Fort Wallace on September 10. Two of the men were ill and had to remain behind. Now the company numbered forty-eight men and three officers. In a day or two they struck an Indian trail heading for the northwest. They followed it; it split into several trails—an Indian trick. Keeping to one of the trails the Forsyth Rough Riders steadily pursued farther and farther out, clear to the Republican River beyond the northern border of Kansas.
The land was flat and bare, except for the lone buttes or sharp hills that now and then broke the surface, and except for the trees of the stream banks, and the short curly buffalo grass browned by the September sun.
Suddenly, September 14, they came upon a large trail, recently made, pointing up the south bank of the Republican. The next day two other trails joined it. It was so broad and so trampled with pony hoofs and cattle hoofs, that evidently all the Indians whom they were seeking had traveled it.
"We're following the whole Cheyenne nation," said Sharp Grover. "I calculate that four thousand reds have passed here; that likely means fifteen hundred warriors."
"We'll keep after, boys," Colonel "Sandy" declared. "Sheridan sent us out to find Indians."
The North Republican River forks in southwestern Nebraska.. One fork is the Arikaree. The Arikaree wends out of northeastern Colorado, and meets the other fork in Nebraska, to help form the main Republican. The broad Indian trail proceeded on, up along the shallow, rippling Arikaree. The fifty-one white men pressed after the four thousand red men and women. On course southwest they crossed into north-eastern Colorado.
The Cheyennes seemed to have been in a hurry. The trail began to be littered with lodge poles, moccasins, antelope and buffalo meat. The scouts were short on rations and game had been scarce. The Indians had scattered the buffalo herds. But the scouts did not dare to eat the Indian meat, for fear that it was poisoned. They rode on, nevertheless, hoping for a fight. Every man, said one of them, had a fighting back as stiff as a cat's!
In the afternoon of September 16 they entered a narrow ravine or little gorge, of the Arikaree. At the other end the river came down in a curve through a grassy valley some two miles wide and two miles long. About the middle the river broadened in a bed one hundred and forty yards wide, divided by a little island. Most of the bed was dry and sandy; a current of shallow water, a few feet wide and eight or ten inches deep, washed the island on either side. The banks of the river bed had been cut by the spring floods, and were grown to grasses, willows and wild plums.
The valley itself was beautiful, covered with long grass. On the northeast there was a range of bare bluffs, through the north point of which the river passed. The land extended flatly to the base of the bluffs, three quarters of a mile from the island. In the other direction, or toward the west, the land rose in a long slope.
Everything looked peaceful in the late afternoon sun. Colonel Forsyth made camp on the slope side, opposite the little island.
The mules were unpacked and the horses unsaddled, so that they might graze at the limits of their picket ropes. The orders were strict : Every animal was to be staked close in, and strongly staked. Colonel Forsyth suspected that his march had been watched. He wished to take no chances of a stampede.
After sentries had been posted and supper had been eaten, the camp went to sleep, rolled in blankets, here beside the quiet Arikaree, under the stars. It was a silent country, a red man's country still; few white persons, save old trappers and daring buffalo hunters, ever had been into it. No white trails penetrated it. Cavalry scouting between the Platte River and the Kansas River had passed it by.
The Cheyennes were not far. They had been spying upon the column for five days. Now they had turned—had Colonel Forsyth marched on until evening they would have ambushed him at the upper end of this very valley. They were going to attack anyway.
Roman Nose was their war chief. The foolish fifty, cut off by one hundred and ten miles from Fort Wallace and rescue, were to be crushed by seven hundred warriors—Cheyennes, Sioux and Arapahos.
Colonel Forsyth felt anxious. He sensed danger in the air. This evening Indian fire signals flashed through the dusk, from the bordering hills. Tonight he was up and around, every hour, inspecting the sentries and the horses.
When the darkness had thinned a little, and the sky was faintly pink over the crest of the eastern bluffs, he was standing beside the farthest sentry in the rear of camp. Gazing keenly, he chanced to see an alarming sight: the feathered head of an Indian cautiously rising above the brush of a shallow, brushy draw, near by.
Colonel "Sandy" shot instantly; he and the sentry shouted: "Indians! Indians!" But the carbine report and the shouts were drowned by a tremendous outburst of noise. A party of the enemy, yelling, shaking rattles and dry hides, had dashed to stampede the horses.
The scouts had been almost as quick. They were Indian wise—they had dived for the picket ropes. Only two pack mules and five horses broke away; those horses had been hobbled, in disobedience of orders. The Indians drove the seven before them, up the valley, pursued by bullets.
"Saddle up, men! Saddle up, quick! This isn't the end."
Colonel Forsyth and Lieutenant Beecher worked; Sergeant McCall and Sharp Grover worked; the other men worked. In a few minutes they were ready and waiting. The dawn brightened. The colonel and Scout Grover were together, peering and listening. Suddenly Sharp's hand clutched Colonel "Sandy's" shoulder.
"Good Heavens, general, look at the Injuns!"