The Sidney Sun-Telegraph - Serving proudly since 1873 as the beautiful Nebraska Panhandle's first newspaper

By M. Timothy Nolting
For The Sun-Telegraph 

Across The Fence: A gathering of warriors at Arikaree Fork

 

A few miles east of present day Haigler, Neb., the north fork of the Republican River intercepts the smaller tributary of the Arikaree River as it flows northeasterly from Colorado.

The Arikaree fork meanders across the Colorado plains before it reaches its three-point crossing of the Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado borders. However, before reaching that junction it passes by a soggy sandbar now known as Beecher's Island.

At that place, in 1868, 50 U.S. Cavalry scouts lay under siege by Cheyenne warrior Roman Nose with a force of more than 700 Cheyenne and Arapahoe warriors. Behind a makeshift fortress of horseflesh and sand the besieged scouts fought off repeated attacks and near starvation.

In the late summer of 1868, Gen. Phil Sheridan was given command of the Department of the Missouri consisting of all active U.S. troops from the Missouri River west across the central plains and beyond. In continued retaliation for the massacre at Sand Creek and other military action against the plains tribes, the Cheyenne, Sioux and Arapaho warriors had been raiding white settlements between the Smoky Hill River and the Republican River and into Colorado Territory.

To protect the farms and ranches, and the heavily traveled immigrant routes, Colorado Gov. Frank Hall had asked for military action against the raiding parties after nearly 80 settlers had been brutally attacked and killed.

Previous attempts to track down and punish the marauding Indians had been largely unsuccessful, due in part to the limited number of troops scattered across the region. Of those troops assigned to the western frontier only 1,200 troops were cavalry and mounted troops were the only means of tracking and potentially capturing the raiding parties, a tactic that had failed to produce the desired results.

In response, Gen. Sheridan devised a non-traditional tactic. Sheridan ordered his former aide-de-camp, Col. George Alexander Forsyth to assemble a special company of no less than 50 hardy and battle tested frontiersmen who would form a company of scouts that could match the elusive tactics of the Indians, track down the marauders and engage them in battle or force their surrender.

Under Sheridan's command, Forsyth hand picked his company of scouts at Forts Harker and Hays and proceeded northwesterly to the Southern Nebraska border. Finding no hostiles, Forsyth turned his troops to the south and proceeded to Fort Wallace located about 20 miles from the Kansas/Colorado border (near present day Sharon Springs) and arrived at the fort on the 5th day of September, 1868.

Five days later, Forsyth received word that a freighter's train had been attacked about 15 miles to the east at the railhead of the Kansas Pacific Railroad. Assembling his scouts, Forsyth headed east where he picked up sign of a band of Indians and followed their trail into Colorado and north, crossing the Republican River and proceeding to the Arikaree.

The trail that Forsyth followed indicated a force much larger than his own, but the company of scouts proceeded nonetheless. On the evening of Sept.16, they unknowingly made camp about 12 miles downstream from two large Lakota villages, one camp of Cheyenne Dog Soldiers and several lodges of Arapaho.

Forsyth intended to break camp early in the morning and continue following the trail that had led them to the Arikaree. He hoped to catch the Indians unprepared and to strike them unawares. As such, he had his men saddling their horses at first light but the surprise was on Forsyth and his scouts. As the men were saddling a volley of gunshots from the pickets broke the morning quiet. The echo of gunfire was nearly drowned out by the shrill yells of the Indians as they rushed the camp, sending their own volley of arrows and bullets into the scrambling rush of men and horses.

The warriors had hoped to stampede the horses, leaving the men on foot and in the open. However, with horses already saddled Forsyth ordered the men to regroup on a small sand bar near the middle of the Arikaree River. To Forsyth's advantage, each of his scouts had been equipped with the new Spencer repeating rifle, capable of firing seven rounds in rapid succession. The surprise had been turned around and the attacking force of Indians fell back from the river under the heavy barrage of return fire.

Using their horses as breastworks the scouts fired their Spencers with one hand while digging rifle pits in the sand with the other. The Indians advanced again and lined the banks on both sides of the river continuing to bombard the men with heavy fire. A few of the scouts were killed and Forsyth himself was wounded three times, one shot shattered his leg and Forsyth cut the bullet out and bandaged the wound himself.

As the battle continued all of the horses were shot and were either dead or dying. Forsyth's second in command, Lieutenant Frederick Beecher, was killed and the company surgeon, J.H. Mooers lay dead. Fifteen scouts were wounded and despite the firepower of their Spencers, they were hugely outnumbered by as much as 20 to 1.

Roman Nose, a Cheyenne warrior, was a well-known and much feared fighter. It was said that his "medicine" protected him from enemy bullets and that he could not be killed in battle. However, on this day, Roman Nose believed that his power had been compromised and that the "medicine" he relied on had been taken away. Without sufficient time to hold the proper ceremony to restore his medicine, Roman Nose did not lead the battle but stood back as an observer. When several other warriors rebuked him for not fighting with his warriors, Roman Nose declared that he would lead a charge against the scouts on the island, but warned them that he would be killed.

About midday a force of nearly 200 warriors, led by Roman Nose, charged the entrenched scouts on the island. In the ensuing battle Roman Nose fell from his horse, mortally wounded, and died later that evening. When Roman Nose fell the others retreated, carrying their dead and wounded from the battlefield.

From that point, except for occasional sniper fire from both sides, the battle became a siege and Forsyth and his men were inescapably pinned down.

Though seriously wounded, Forsyth remained in command and told his chief of scouts, Sharp Grover, to have someone attempt to get word to Fort Wallace, more than 70 miles away. Although Grover insisted that no one could possibly get through the numbers of Indians that surrounded them, 19-year-old Jack Stillwell volunteered if he could pick someone to go with him. Forsyth wrote out the call for help and young Stillwell recruited the older, more experience scout Pierre Trudeau to go with him. It took Stillwell and Trudeau four nights, crawling on their bellies and hiding during the day, to get past the mass of Indians surrounding the island in the Arikaree River. Two days later, two more scouts, John Donovan and Allison Pliley were sent out.

When word was received at Fort Wallace three rescue parties were sent out to assist Forsyth's scouts. Each rescue party took a separate route in order to increase the chances of at least one group getting through. When scout John Donovan reached Fort Wallace he immediately recruited four troopers and rode out to return to the Arikaree. On Sept. 25, eight days after the Cheyenne warriors had attacked Colonel Forsyth's scouts, Donovan intercepted Lt. Col. Carpenter with troops H and I of the 10th Cavalry, the Buffalo Soldiers.

On Sept. 27, Col. Carpenter and his troopers arrived at the Arikaree, drove off the Indians who had laid siege to the island and Col. Forsyth's scouts. What they found was perhaps better or maybe worse than they had expected. There were only four dead scouts but more than a dozen were seriously wounded. All of the horses in the command were dead and the stench of rotting flesh was nearly unbearable.

Being pinned down by the Cheyenne snipers, the scouts had run out of food and fresh water and had been eating the putrefied horsemeat. Col. Carpenter quickly set up a clean camp, downwind from the stench and his men set to caring for the sick and wounded.

Col. Carpenter found Forsyth in his rifle pit, surrounded by rotting horses and detached from the reality of the surrounding conditions. Pretending to read a book, in an effort to keep his emotions in control, Col. Forsyth looked up from his reading and greeted Col. Carpenter, saying; "Welcome Sir, to Beecher Island."

Two days later Stillwell and Trudeau arrived at the island with Captain Bankhead and his troops. Lt. Beecher, Army Surgeon Moores, and scouts Culver, Farley and Wilson were buried on the island.

The following spring a detachment was sent to Beecher Island to retrieve the bodies of those who had fallen there. Scouts Culver and Farley's remains were found and re-interred at Fort Wallace but Beecher, Wilson and Doc. Mooers' graves were empty.

M. Timothy Nolting is an award-winning Nebraska columnist and freelance writer. Contact Tim via email at acrossthefence2day@gmail.com.

 

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