“Dont Let Them Ride Over Us”

For five days, beginning September 17, 1868, a party of fifty frontier scouts under the command of Major George A. Forsyth held off an estimated four hundred to one thousand Cheyenne, Sioux, and Arapaho warriors on a small sand island in the nearly dry Arikaree fork of the Republican River in eastern Colorado. The island was later named Beecher Island, in honor of Lieutenant Frederick H. Beecher, a nephew of Henry Ward Beecher, who died there in one of the most dramatic battles ever fought between Indians and white men.

Less than a year before, in October, 1867, more than two thousand Comanches, Kiowas, Cheyennes, and Arapahoes had gathered on Medicine Lodge Creek in southern Kansas for a conference with a United States government peace commission. By terms of the Medicine Lodge treaty, those tribes were denied their ancestral lands and were assigned to reservations south of the Kansas state line, though they were permitted to roam north of it to hunt. Congress did not ratify the treaty until July, 1868, however, delaying food, clothing, and other supplies that had been promised to the Indians.

During August of 1868 Cheyennes and Arapahoes as well as Sioux from the north began raiding along the Saline and Solomon rivers in Kansas and attacked the Smoky Hill road in Kansas and Colorado, killing over 100 settlers. They captured at least a dozen women and children, and burned more than a score of ranches.

The slashing August raids called for fast retaliation, but General Philip H. Sheridan, commanding the Department of the Missouri, was short of troops. In the emergency he decided to organize a scouting party of fifty civilian volunteers to track down and engage the roving marauders and, if possible, head them back to Indian Territory. When Major Forsyth, who was on General Sheridan’s staff, asked for an active command, “Little Phil” put him in charge of recruiting and leading the scouts.

Forsyth, only thirty years old, had participated in sixteen pitched battles and sixty minor engagements of the Civil War. He had been an aide-de-camp to General Sheridan, who had told Secretary of War Stanton that Forsyth was one of the bravest men in the war.

Forsyth recruited his men at Fort Harker and Fort Hays, Kansas, arming them with Colt revolvers and seven-shot Spencer repeating rifles. With Lieutenant Beecher, another regular, as his second-in-command, he headed west from Fort Hays on August 29. Many of his fifty scouts were plainsmen wise in the ways of the Indians—traders, trappers, buffalo hunters, government scouts—but some were merely young drifters. About half had served in the Civil War, coming from both the Union and Confederate armies. They were at Fort Wallace in western Kansas when Indians attacked a wagon train nearby, killing two teamsters and running off some stock. Forsyth and his men (who called their commander “Colonel,” his Civil War brevet rank) at once set out after the raiders. Fortunately, several of the scouts later wrote accounts of this expedition, and we can trace in their own words the course of the battle that followed.

SCOUT JOHN HURST: As soon as the news of the killing reached Fort Wallace we started in pursuit with six days’ rations. We found their trail … but soon lost it on account of the Indians scattering, as they generally do, when they do not want to be followed. We kept travelling north, as that was the direction the trail went as far as we found it. … the morning of the fourth day we found a small trail running up the [Republican] river which we followed until evening. … Next morning we started on the trail, which kept enlarging, and soon we discovered the trail of the lodge poles; then we knew that they had their families with them. The lodge poles are strapped on each side of the ponies, one end dragging on the ground, and their movables are fastened to the poles behind the ponies.

SCOUT LOUIS McLOUGHLIN: It was evidently a large body of Indians; some estimated that there must be four or five hundred lodges, and that would mean nearly a thousand warriors. … Some wanted to get out in the night and try to reach Fort Wallace, as there did not seem to be much show of [our] little band ever getting away from the immense body of Indians, but the Colonel, believing that the Indians were concentrating to make a great raid on the settlements, decided to throw his little band between them and the settlements … and hold them or cripple them so that they would give up the raid.

HURST: … we went into camp early on the north side of what we thought was the south branch of the Republican River, but which proved to be Arickaree Creek. It was a beautiful place opposite a small island.

SCOUT SIGMAN SCHLESINGER: … on September 16, 1868, Colonel Forsyth decided to camp on a spot that |had| good grazing, much earlier [in the afternoon] than usual. [This] proved to be an act of providence. Had we travelled about a half mile further we would have fallen into an ambush, ingeniously prepared … so that had we passed that way not a mother’s son would have escaped alive, but we were ignorant of the fact at that time.