February 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 2
Surrounded, starving, far from help, Major Forsyth and his gallant little band of scouts prepared to face wave after wave of Indians.
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.
… they came a little earlier than we had expected them and woke us up. I heard the first whoop they gave, but I was so sleepy I thought it was a flock of geese; just then the guards fired. I gave a jump and said to Culver, “They are here!”
As we were dressed and our revolvers and cartridge boxes buckled on and our carbines lying by our sides we were ready for action. … It was not hardly daylight yet, but we … could see the flash of their guns. Culver and I made for our horses as they rode by; they were whooping and yelling and shouting and shaking their blankets to make a stampede.
HURST: Colonel Forsyth gave orders to saddle up, which we did, and were standing by our horses … when some of the men got permission to drive off some Indians that were hiding behind rocks on the side hill north of us. When they got onto the high ground they shouted to us to look up the creek, and by this time the Indians were in full view, and such a picture! All were mounted on their war horses, in war costume, with feathers and plumes flying, shouting war whoops, their horses running at full speed and seeming to have partaken of the spirit of the fray. … We … knew that we would be no match for that army of red men, in the open, and as we were close by the small island … Forsyth gave orders … to move onto the island.
McLOUGHLIN: The island was about three feet above the level of the sandy bed of the creek and was about 40 feet wide and 150 feet long. The upper end was covered with high blue stem grass and small cottonwood trees, none larger than six inches in diameter. The dry channel of the creek was about 70 feet wide on each side of the island.
HURST: We made a grand rush for the island, without order, and tied our horses to the trees. Some ran across to the south side and crouched down in the long grass … and were hardly located when the Indians were charging through us. Comrade Armstrong was close by my right, and another comrade on my left, each one by a tree. John Stillwell and his party were on the east end of the island, and Jack Donovan and his party were on the west end, and some were in the central part, all pretty well hid, and all [were] shooting when the Indians came in close range. … Our bullets coming from all directions seemed to bewilder them.
A warrior coming from the north almost ran over me, and would have but for his horse shying to one side, which saved me. It rather surprised me, as my attention was directed toward the south. … as he rode straight away from me I had a good chance to shoot. … I think I must have hit him. …
Armstrong and the other comrade were both wounded … I was afraid the Indians would get between me and the other men. … Soon [I] saw an Indian creeping through the grass toward our horses. … Well, I did not want to be scalped out there on the island alone, so fired at the Indian … and without waiting to see the effect of my shot jumped up and ran to where some of the comrades were located. Some had dug holes and made banks of sand around them, and some were using the dead horses for protection, and so I dropped down beside an unoccupied dead horse and went to digging. … While I was busy digging, Comrades McCall and Culver came in … and went to work digging. …
Comrades on the inside of the circle shouted, “If you fellows on the outside don’t get up and shoot, the Indians will be charging us.”
McCall and Culver got up to look for Indians to shoot, and some sharpshooter fired at their exposed heads. The bullet grazed McCall’s neck, stunning him, and hit Culver in the head, killing him.
ZIGLER: I saw George Clark and Parley and a couple of others running across the river; they got behind a bank on the north side, so I thought that would be a good place to go. As I started, the Indians made a charge down through that way so I had to stop. I stopped where there was a little bunch of brush and a few horses tied; some of the horses were hit by the flying bullets and commenced charging and jumping, so I had to get away from there. ... Just then the Colonel saw me … he said, “You can come with me, I want you around on this side.”
We went a few steps toward the east; the Indians were making another heavy charge. … we got down on our knees. … As we shot a time or two I heard something strike and the Colonel said, “I’m shot,” and put his hand on his leg. … He turned over a time or two and said, “I am shot again.” … the first chance we got, we carried him farther in, near the center of the bunch.
Later in the day, Forsyth sustained a third wound when a bullet grazed his head. Though he was unaware of it at the time, that bullet fractured his skull. On the fourth day of the fight, the ball in his right thigh became so painful that he removed it himself with a razor.
ZIGLER: About the time I had dug a hole that I could partly lie in, I heard [Henry] Tucker say, “I’m shot through the arm and I would like to have someone tie this handkerchief around it to stop the blood.”
John Haley was nearer to him … but before he got it tied, a bullet struck him. I told [Tucker] to come over where I was. … We lay facing each other. He wanted me to draw the handkerchief pretty tight … and just before I got done tying the knot … I felt an arrow strike me on the upper part of my right leg. Looking down, I saw the arrow had passed through Tucker’s left leg above the knee. … I examined the arrow and found that just part of the steel had come through. Tucker asked me to pull it back, so I pulled it once; it was very painful to him … and I could not move it. I then took hold of the point of the arrowhead that was sticking through his leg, and with the other hand hit the feather end of the arrow and drove it through. After tying the arrow wound, I left him … thinking I might yet get across the river, but just as I came to where Jack Donovan was lying behind a little bunch of grass, with a little sand thrown up around, he said, “You stop here. One of us can dig while the other shoots and we will soon have a hole big enough for both of us.”
HURST: … Comrade Burke then came in and dug a hole near by us and kept digging until he came to water. He filled his canteen and passed it over to the next, and so on … until all in reach had been supplied. … Burke then told us his experience. He had crawled along [toward an Indian] until he reached a hummock, and raising himself, almost bumped noses with the Indian and it so surprised him that he … punched his gun at [the Indian] and shouted, “Booh!” and ran for us. He said he thought the Indian ran the other way, as he did not hear him shoot. …
Frank Harrington and George Clark were on the north bank with Parley from early morning until after dark, and though they were all wounded, they did not cease firing. Several times the Indians rode over them. Harrington was wounded by an arrow in the forehead over the left eye. Clark, who lay next to him, tried to remove it but could not. Shortly afterwards a bullet hit a little above the arrow, cutting through the skin, but not fracturing the skull; it came so near that it knocked the arrow loose.
McLOUGHLIN: The Indians expected to get the scouts in a very short time and kept charging in a circle. With short intervals they charged on every side at the same time. They expected the scouts would fire all their shots and when they stopped to load would ride onto them and slaughter them. The Indians nearly all rode on the opposite side of their horse and shot under their necks.
The scouts were all good shots and the slaughter of the Indians and their horses was terrible. … Two or three times if the Indians had kept on a minute or two longer they would have got us, as sometimes we would hardly have a shot left when they broke. Finally … about half of them crept up all around [us] as close as they could get shelter and commenced to sharpshooting, and the rest kept charging.
… we dug holes in the sand. In the meantime, they shot our horses down. … At this time Wilson and Culver were dead, Lieutenant Beecher and Surgeon Mooers were mortally wounded, the Colonel was shot through the thigh and the ankle. About seventeen of the men were wounded, some severely. Louis Parley was mortally wounded, and he died nine days later.
Spurred on by confidence that great magic protected him against harm, the Cheyenne warrior Roman Nose had often acted with extraordinary fearlessness during battle. He believed, though, that his special “medicine” could be destroyed if his food was touched by iron after being cooked. Shortly before the battle, the warrior had visited the lodge of a Sioux chief where he was served food that his host’s wife had lifted with an iron fork. Roman Nose had eaten before he discovered what had happened, and the battle at Beecher Island had begun before he could go through a purification ritual. Believing that without the protection of his magic he faced certain death, Roman Nose entered the battle only after much urging by his men. Scout McLoughlin described what happened in the first charge Roman Nose led:
About noon a large body under Roman Nose formed out of gunshot in the stream and charged us. There must have been 700 or 800 of them. Roman Nose himself led the charge. Just as they got to the upper end of the island he was mortally wounded, and we poured such a terrible fire into them that they broke and scattered. That was the last charge they made that amounted to anything.
McLoughlin’s estimate of numbers involved in the charge is probably high. Others have estimated the Indian force at four to six hundred.
SCOUT SIG SCHLESINGER: As the fighting progressed, it began to tell on us. Every once in a while the cry went up that this one, or that one, was hit. … I have often been asked whether I have killed any Indians, to which my answer must truthfully be that I don’t know. … I did not consider it safe to watch the results of a shot. … [I took] general observation by suddenly jumping up and dropping back into my hole, which enabled me to take a shot … without undue exposure and yet be in touch with the general situation. Several times [I saw] two horsemen drag a body away between them. I saw bodies of Indians both on foot and horseback coming toward us. These I considered good targets. …
In the south channel of the dry creek was a tree trunk. … From this stump came many shots, to the annoyance of Lou McLoughlin and myself. McLoughlin was wounded. … I employed my tactics of suddenly going up in the air and firing at the stump. After several shots, the sniping… ceased.
An Indian, evidently a chief [was] standing on a high elevation a little south by west of our position, talking loudly and giving commands. He was in sight of all of us. Grover, who was in the next pit east of ours, and next to Colonel Forsyth, interpreted to us the chief’s orders, stating that he wanted his young bucks to persist in charging, as we had only a handful of cartridges. Grover yelled back at the chief in his language to “send on the bucks, that we each have a hat full which we will give them.”
ZIGLER: About dark … one of the party came from across the river and said the rest were alive but badly wounded; we went over and found them. Parley’s leg was badly broken and we carried him over.
We first cared for the wounded the best we could and then … built small fires in the rifle pits and then went to the [dead] horses and cut off small pieces and roasted them. … After supper we held a council. … We thought our best show was to try to send a dispatch to Fort Wallace. It looked almost impossible to get out, but Jack Stillwell came forward and volunteered to go if they would let him pick a man to go with him. … [He] chose Pierre Trudeau … and as Pierre was older and a good Indian fighter, the Colonel agreed. … The Colonel then wrote a dispatch to Fort Wallace. Jack was the best imitator of an Indian I ever saw, so they fixed themselves up as Indians as best they could and took off their boots and tied on some rags and blankets on their feet so that if Indians saw their tracks next day they would think it some of their own party and not follow them. … We … roasted them some horse meat, enough to last three or four days. … At a late hour they … crawled out. We listened, expecting to hear them run into some Indians and fire, but we heard nothing. The next thing in order was to fix our rifle pits. We had been keeping in our holes as much as possible; we commenced digging to one another so as to connect them all together and by working hard all night we got all connected together and enlarged our hospital, as we called it.
[They came early]—just before the sun rose. It seemed to me that there were just as many … as the first day. … Our orders were about the same, “Hold your fire till they get close, but don’t let them ride over us.”
It seemed to me that the Indians were more determined than ever to get us out, as they charged in from every direction, and it seemed to take more than one volley to stop them. … When we summed up the [second] day’s work, we had one man killed and one wounded, so we got off easy from a hard day’s fighting and I think we broke their backbone that day. We heard nothing from Stillwell and Trudeau and fearing they had not succeeded in getting through [two more] attempted to go out the second night, and after having been gone three hours returned saying they could not get through the Indians’ line. The [third] morning about daylight a smaller party of Indians charged down on us. There were not as many as the other two mornings. We laid low and let them come close; then we raised up and gave them a couple of volleys and started them back. … They continued their fight all day but not as strong, I did not think, as it had been the other two days.
… we still did not believe that Stillwell and Trudeau had got through, [so that night] Jack Donovan and A. J. Pliley said they would try it again. The Colonel … wrote another dispatch. They fixed themselves up to imitate the Indians, [and] … we cut them off some of that poor, rotten horse meat.
ZIGLER: [Fourth day] Our horses lay just where they were shot down the first day, and were getting pretty badly spoiled and the smell was not very pleasant, but our appetites were good so we made out a fair breakfast.… We got our supper from the same source, only now it was a little more tender. [Fifth day] Our breakfast … still came from the same place, and was getting very tender by this time.
HURST: The Indians left us after the fifth day. … We had nothing then but our horses that had been dead six days, and when we would cut into the meat we found it had green streaks through it and was fast decaying. … [We sprinkled] it with [gun] powder while it was cooking, which partially took away the bad odor, but we could only eat it when we were starving.
… our systems cried out for [salt]. One of the men found a small piece of pork rind in his haversack and chewed it until he thought he had all the good out of it and spit it out; when another comrade took it up and chewed it for a while and spit it out, and then I took it and chewed it up and thought it tasted delicious on account of the salt.
The action of the Indians in breaking off the siege is readily understood in light of the fact that the Plains Indian loved the fast hit-and-run fight, the raid, and had little stomach for a long siege, particularly after suffering a few casualties. But Forsyth had no way of knowing how many of his attackers might still be lingering in the vicinity, waiting to finish off his command. His horses were dead, he had no food, and if he moved out he would have to do so on foot, slowed down by the burden of his wounded. It seemed more sensible to stay where he was, hoping that at least one of his messengers had gotten through and that relief was on the way.
UNKNOWN SCOUT: On the evening of the sixth day our leader called us to him. How gray and drawn his face looked in the shadowy gray light, but his eyes were clear, and his voice was steady.
“Boys, we’ve got to the end of our rope now.” [He pointed to the low hills.] “Over there the Indian wolves are waiting for us … but we needn’t all be sacrificed. … To stay here means you all know what. Now, the men who can go, must leave us to what’s coming. I feel sure now that you can get through together somehow, for the tribes are scattering. It is only the remnant left over there to burn us out at last. There is no reason why you should stay here and die. Make your dash for escape tonight. …”
When the response came, it was: “It’s no use asking us, Colonel. We have fought together, and, by heaven, we’ll die together.”
ZIGLER: [Sixth day] [The] sour horse meat was so rotten and alive with maggots we thought we would try to find some game… so we rustled out a little and found nothing but prickly pears. We lingered along on our old butcher shop until the eighth night. [Ninth day] I went to the old slaughter house and after looking over several, I found them all of the same material and price, so I cut off a slice and laid it on the coals and roasted it and ate it. [Fletcher Villot and I] took our guns and started north across the river [to hunt]. … [Fletch] looked way over to the south on the far hills, and asked, “What is that?”
We jumped to our feet and walked up the hill a little farther, where we could plainly see that they were coming over the hill toward us. … We fired a [warning] shot … and hurried back to camp to make ready in case it was Indians.
“I think it is the relief,” the Colonel said. “But get the men all in, and we will be ready for anything.” I thought there were two of the boys out of sight around the hill to the south of us, so I went across that way.
HURST: … the ninth day I went out to the [prairie] dog town [we had found the day before], but [again] no dog came out. … I began to think I would starve to death, and was having the blues pretty bad when I started back for camp. I had not gotten far when … some of my comrades … motioned to me to come to them, and the thought that Indians were coming took possession of me and I started to run as fast as I could, but soon got tired and thought they would surely get me before I could make camp, so I thought I might as well die fighting, and turned around and sank down on the ground and saw three horsemen coming directly toward me. … the closer they came the more they looked like white men.
ZIGLER: In a short while I saw a man at full gallop. When he got a little closer … it was my old friend, Jack Peate. He asked, “How are the rest of the boys?” and I said, “Have you got anything to eat?”
[Peate] reached into his saddle pockets and brought me out a hardtack and a little piece of bacon.… Then he put spurs to his horse and rode on to the island. When I got there the boys were laughing and cheering and the tears were running down their cheeks and Peate said that Donovan was coming … and Colonel Carpenter and his command. …
Forsyth’s hopes had proved well-founded. Stillwell and Trudeau had gotten through to Fort Wallace, and the commanding officer there sent word to Cheyenne Wells, about 100 miles from Forsyth’s position, where a company of the 10th U.S. Cavalry (For a history of the regiment and its most famous alumnus, see ” ‘Black Jack’ of the 10th,” in this issue.) under Lieutenant Colonel Louis H. Carpenter was on patrol. Jack Peate was one of Forsyth’s scouts who through a mixup in orders had been left behind when the main body moved out. Now he was temporarily attached to Carpenter’s command, which headed immediately to Forsyth’s relief. On the way, quite by accident, the troopers ran into Donovan, who, with Pliley, had also succeeded in reaching Fort Wallace and was returning to the Arikaree with a group of scouts.
SCOUT JACK PEATE: Crowned king nor conquering general ne’er received so royal and hearty a welcome as I did when I rode into that island among those staunchhearted men, who lifted me from my horse, embraced me, and strong men though they were, wept, as cheer upon cheer arose. … All had that wolfish, haggard look on their countenances which indicates hunger. … None of the wounds had been properly dressed, as the doctor had been killed in the battle. A terrible stench from the dead horses, which lay where they had fallen during the battle, filled the air. …
Louis Parley was the most desperately wounded, and died that night after his shattered leg had been amputated. … Blood poisoning had already commenced in [Colonel] Forsyth’s wounds and had medical attention been delayed twenty-four hours, he could not have lived.
TROOPER REUBEN WALLER: Jack Stillwell brought us word of the fix that Beecher was in … and in 26 hours [actually about 48 hours—G.M.H.], Colonel Carpenter and myself, as his hostler, rode into the rifle pits. And what a sight we saw … wounded and dead men in the midst of 50 dead horses, that had lain in the hot sun for [nine] days. And these men had eaten the putrid flesh of those dead horses for eight days. … we began to feed the men from our haversacks. If the doctor had not arrived in time we would have killed them all by feeding them to death. … Sure, we never gave a thought that it would hurt them. … It was all done through eagerness and excitement.
The Battle of Beecher Island, one of the finest stands against long odds by a small force, was not a key fight in the Indian wars. The scouts sustained losses of five killed and eighteen wounded. George Bird Grinnell, in The Fighting Cheyennes , wrote that in later years the Indians could identify only nine warriors killed. At the other extreme, some estimates have placed their losses as high as four or five hundred. Forsyth officially reported that he counted thirty-two dead Indians, and was later told by a Brulé Sioux, who participated in the battle, that there were seventy-five killed. The truth probably lies between these latter two figures.
After Beecher Island General Sheridan abandoned his idea of using civilians to bring peace to the plains. But he was still confronted with the problem of marauding Indians, and decided that the only way to pin down the elusive foe was to hit him in his winter camps, where he would lose his advantage of mobility. Accordingly, the General organized a campaign against the large bands wintering in Indian Territory—now Oklahoma. George Custer’s 7th Cavalry struck the first blow in a surprise attack on Black Kettle’s camp of Cheyennes on the Washita River at dawn, November 29, 1868. His orders from Sheridan had been to hang any warriors not killed in battle, to take prisoner all women and children, to destroy all lodges and supplies, and to kill all ponies. Custer carried out these instructions with a relish. The engagement at Washita River was followed by other punitive measures, and by the following spring a majority of the Indians of the central plains had been brought under control. But as George Custer discovered one June day seven years later, the control was only temporary.