Here is the information from the historic gun display I had at the Missouri State Fair this week. Many thanks to those of you who stopped by my booth and said hello.
For those of you at the fair, if you found my book Tales from Clear Creek interesting, here are some blogs I’ve posted in the past about similar adventures.
The Ealer Pennsylvania Long Rifle
This gun is marked on the top land of the barrel near the breech; Ealer gun factory Phila. PA. The top land of the barrel is lightly engraved with an elliptic design. It is a full stock fifty caliber cap and ball with a 39 inch barrel. The right side of the buttstock has a brass oval cap box. The Buck horn type rear sight and a very fine German silver front sight are original. I purchased this gun at a rural auction several years ago. The auctioneer said it was from a Westphalia Missouri, area estate. The stock was in extremely poor condition with pieces missing. All the iron was there with the exception of the lock screw and tang screw. Nails had been substituted for these screws. The gun was probably made in the late 1840’s to the mid 1850’s. Note: Percussion caps were sold by St. Louis merchants as early as the 1830’s.
I dismantled the gun and cleaned it of dirt and scale rust. I inlaid pieces of maple to replace missing wood on the toe, both sides of the breech and along the fore stock. Screws similar to the original lock and tang screws were installed. Ordinarily it is best to leave old guns as found. This one was in very poor shape and I felt that it was a splendid piece of history that should be saved. As I researched its maker I found history indeed!
Lewis W. Ealer was born in 1791 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He received his gunsmith training in Maryland. He was first in the Fells Point area of Baltimore in business as a master locksmith and gunsmith. He later moved to Oldtown, Maryland. He had fought in the War of 1812, serving as a private in Hamilton’s rifle regiment, Pennsylvania militia. Ealer would have been 21 years old.
He returned to Philadelphia in 1837 and continued to follow the gunsmith trade. The 1839 Philadelphia Business Directory shows his occupation as gunsmith. The Federal Census lists him in 1840 and1850 as a gunsmith. The 1850 census shows that Lewis and Susanna had four daughters and one son. Their son being the youngest child at l8 years of age. The son Franklin A. Ealer is listed in later Federal and local censuses only once as a gunsmith, all others as a retailer. Apparently Lewis and Franklin were in business or working in Lancaster County in 1857 because they are shown in the county business and occupation records.
Although Lewis W. Ealer was in his Autumn years at age 71 he enlisted in the 68th Regiment, Pennsylvania Volunteers, August 23, 1862. His gun making experience was no doubt valuable to the military. Some records show him as a Lieutenant and others list him as a Sergeant Major. He was listed as a 1st Lieutenant when he was wounded on July 2, 1863 at the Peach Orchard during the battle of Gettysburg. He died of his wounds on October 6, 1863.
Kentucky Rifle Association
United States Census, 1820, 1840, 1850, 1860
War of 1812 Service Records
U. S. Civil War Soldiers – Ancestry.com
1890 Veterans Schedules, Provo Utah
Philadelphia Directory, 1839
Lancaster County, PA Business and Occupation Records 1857
Kauffman, Henry J., The Pennsylvania – Kentucky Rifle pp. 216
The Lancaster Co. Historical Society – The Muster Rolls of the First Regiment Second
Brigade, Pennsylvania by Brigadier General John Adams
Bates, Samuel P., History of the Pennsylvania Volunteers 1861-65
The Mystery of the Lone Civil War Grave
In April of 1973, I was driving down a dirt road near Grassy, Missouri, headed back to Highway 34 in Bollinger County. Black River Electric Cooperative, my employer, had a branch office in nearby Marble Hill. The day was coming to an end and I was anxious to check in with that office and head back home. I can’t remember exactly what I was doing there. I am sure it was in response to a cooperative member’s request for help with an electrical problem or a billing complaint.
A few hundred yards short of the highway, I glanced over at a scrub timber area to my left. A lone white stone marker among the trees caught my attention. It was strange and almost spooky. I stopped, grabbed my ever-present camera and walked out into the woods. The inscription was brief and to the point with no dates. It read: “W. Wood Union Soldier Died for his Country.”
Later as I worked in the area I quizzed locals about the grave. No one seemed to know much about it. The story that I eventually heard was that a group of soldiers escorting a wagon with a wounded soldier laying on a bed of straw approached a nearby farm and requested some fresh milk for the wounded man. The farmer caught up a milk cow and extracted some milk for the soldier. He raised up to a sitting position to drink the milk and died a short time later. They buried his body just off the road. For decades only a large rock marked his grave.
The grave was still unmarked as a nearby farm family left on a trip to town. As they passed by when they returned that evening they noticed a new white marker was there. Who placed it there? That remains a mystery to this day.
W. Wood was one of nearly six hundred thousand young men that lost their lives in a war with ourselves. Let us solemnly remember the sacrifices of both Union and Confederate forces this Memorial Day.
Sundown Trail extends our thanks to Jeanie Layton of the Bollinger County Library at Marble Hill, for additional information.
Interesting facts about the area:
- The dirt road near the grave marker is part of the old Military Road that extended from Jackson, Missouri to Greenville, Missouri. The original Greenville is now covered by the upper reaches of Wappapello Lake. Greenville was relocated to just east of 67 highway near the lake.
- Originally the towns of Marble Hill and Lutesville were separated by a small creek, named Crooked Creek. Marble Hill was the county seat. The two towns existed side by side for over a century. Finally in 1985 they were incorporated together under one name, Marble Hill.
- The timber industry has always been important to the area. In modern times Lutesville and neighboring Glen Allen were the beginning of a burgeoning shipping pallet industry.
- The Civil War was particularly savage in Southeast Missouri. Probably it was longer and even more ruthless for both sides than the much publicized Western Border area of Missouri.
Much of it was a vast, level prairie broken up only occasionally by rolling hills and the breaks of small creeks and the Republican, Arickaree, and Platte rivers. Roughly, Custer’s patrol area covered the modern day expanse reaching from Sharon Springs, Kansas; north to Julesburg, Colorado; east to North Platte, Nebraska and south to Hays, Kansas. It was a beautiful land, a harsh land, and without a doubt a tough ride on horseback… I know, I have traveled it on a harvest combine and behind the steering wheel of a grain truck. And yes, just a little bit of it on a horse’s back.
Lt. Colonel, George Custer (formally a General) left Ft. Hays, Kansas on June 1, 1867. He led a 1,100 man contingent of the 5th Cavalry. His mission was to put a stop to the Indian raids and punish the Indians severely. He traveled north to Fort McPherson near the location of modern day North Platte, Nebraska. From Fort McPherson he took his cavalry back southwest to a point where the Arickaree joins the Republican River. It was near the location of present day Benkleman, Nebraska. He set up a camp there for a few days.
At some point Custer sent a 50 man wagon train south to Fort Wallace, Kansas to get supplies. On the return trip the supply train was attacked at, or near the crossing of Beaver Creek by a group of Sioux under the leadership of Chief Pawnee Killer.
The attack was repulsed with the help of a relief force sent from Fort Wallace and the wagon train returned to Custer’s camp with supplies. Custer continued to scout the forks of the Republican River. He sent a ten man detail under the command of a Major Elliott to Fort Sedgwick on the Platte to obtain new orders. Elliott returned with no new orders or information.
On June 29, 1867, the day after Elliott left Fort Sedgwick, new orders and a dispatch from General Sherman was received. The commanding officer of the fort organized a new ten man detail to be led by 2nd. Lieut. Lyman S. Kidder and guided by a friendly Sioux named Red Bead. Kidder and his detail left that morning for Custer’s camp.
Near the abandoned campsite they struck the recent trail of the supply train and apparently thought that Custer had traveled south towards Fort Wallace. One logical reason Kidder made the mistake was that his detail probably reached the trail after dark.
As a result, Pawnee Killer’s braves and Cheyenne Dog Soldiers caught them on the open prairie. It was later determined that hey made a running fight for about two miles until they came to a small ravine near the Beaver. They made their stand there and were wiped out by the overwhelming force of Sioux and Cheyenne.
Custer continued to scout the area northwest of the Republican River forks. He arrived at Riverside Station forty miles west of Fort Sedgwick on July 5. Using the newly constructed telegraph, Custer immediately telegraphed Sherman at Fort Sedgwick for new orders. He learned of Kidder and that Kidder may have ran into a large Indian force. Kidder’s order was to find Custer. Now, Custer was to look for Kidder.
On July 10, Custer’s advance scouts found two dead army horses on the trail. Further on they observed buzzards circling above the Beaver Creek crossing. Custer immediately sent out a search party. One of his Delaware Indian guides came upon the bodies and gave the signal. The bodies of the 11 soldiers and the Indian Scout were found piled together. It was estimated they had died 9 or 10 days previously.
The bodies were mutilated and desecrated by the Indians.
Custer could not identify any of them at the time. His troops buried them in a mass grave on a level area above the creek. The bodies were exhumed in late February 1868 and reburied at Fort Wallace. Lt. Kidder was identified by his father and taken home for a funeral and burial in the family burial plot at St. Paul, Minnesota.
I first visited the Kidder Massacre site as a child and revisited it about twenty years ago. It is on private farm land. If you visit remember that, and treat it with respect. Pull off I-70 and visit the town of Goodland while you are there be sure and visit the Sherman County museum. The town is aptly named. On down the railroad tracks, take a look at the huge concrete grain storage bins. For years if not decades the United States’ top export was grain and agricultural products. Western Kansas and its neighboring states have contributed their share. It is one of our favorite places to visit along the Sundown Trail.
Some interesting facts about the Kidder tragedy:
1. Kidder’s dispatch from Sherman to Custer was a warning, “Beware of hostiles.”
2. Lt. Kidder was just a month short of his 25th birthday. In spite of his youth, he was a seasoned soldier. He had joined the Union army and served as an under age enlisted man during the Civil War.
3. Kidder later joined the Minnesota Volunteers with the rank of Lieutenant and fought the Northern Sioux in several battles in Minnesota and the Dakota Territory.
4. Most of the ten men were in their late teens or early twenties. All had been in the Army and on the Plains for at least a year.
5. Kidder’s father identified his son’s body by his shirt collar. The Indians had left it on the body, cutting the remainder of the shirt off. His mother had made the shirt for him.
6. Lt. Frederick Beecher led the reburial detail in February 1868. Kidder’s father accompanied the group. Beecher was destined to die later that year in a fight with the Indians on up the Arickaree River (now labeled a creek).
Find Custer! The Kidder Tragedy
By Randy Johnson
and Nancy P. Allan
I wrote this story years ago, long before lanterns became valuable antiques. The story, or condensed versions, has been picked up and ran by several publications over the years.
A little backstory on Molly the mule. A “Molly” is a name sometimes used for a female mule. My older brother was in his mid-teens at the time of this story. He was a cowboy. He had ridden every horse on the place. But the mule was his nemesis. The hands mentioned in the story would talk him into trying to ride her and then place bets. The odds were long but he was game. They took her into a newly-plowed field close by, so he would have a softer landing. Molly threw him off several times and then she let him ride clear to the other end of the field. Once there, she unceremoniously dumped him and made him walk back. End of game, she was tired of playing.
A story of days gone by.
It was rusted in a place or two, covered with grease and dust. The globe was still intact. The auctioneer set it in for a dollar and started begging for a dollar fifty, wanting someone to get him off the hook. He turned it in his hands and I saw the word Dietz embossed across the top. Dietz kerosene lanterns, they must have made a million of them. They were a common item in rural America a generation ago.
Dietz and John Deere, I could spell the words long before first grade.
I nodded my head and I swear he breathed a sigh of relief. I took it home and hung it on the stairwell.
The kitchen is warm, the smell of sausage, biscuits and gravy, and fresh coffee permeate the predawn air. The hands and family all set at the long table and the platters empty quickly.
We pick our corn by hand. One to three corn huskers work at it most of the winter. They are paid a few cents per bushel and board. I think the board is the most important part of their wages.
Breakfast finished, we put on the heavy clothes and step out on the porch to light the lanterns. The frozen ground crunches underfoot as they move to the barn.
The horses are waiting to be grained and Dad moves through the feed way dropping corn in the feed boxes as the hands put the harness on by lantern light.
“Watch that Molly son, she’ll bite.”
He is right, she will bite, unless she sees that you have a club handy. I guess we keep her because she is good to break young horses to harness with.
It is getting light and there is a flurry of activity. The harness creaks and chains jangle as they bring the teams to the wagons. Ned, Jim, Buck, and Shorty, and the others. They dutifully step across the wagon tongue and back in to be hitched. All but Shorty, every morning she balks at stepping over the tongue. Every morning the hands pop her on the rump with the end of the line and she steps over. She seems to think that is a required procedure.
The wagons rattle as they jolt over frozen ruts on the way to the field. Soon the sound of ears hitting the wagon backboards can be heard. The hands shout the horse’s names and few choice words in the clear morning air. Mom doesn’t allow cuss words around the house, but they are given freely in the field!
By this time he is milking and the lantern’s warm glow is lost in the cold morning light. I’m getting cold and start to whimper.
He ignores my pleas to go to the house, until he finishes milking. He rises from the milk stool and takes the lantern down. He raises the globe and blows out the flame.
“Here,” he says. “Take this back to the porch. Go in and warm up while you are at it.”
I grab the smelly lantern and scamper across the barnyard mindful of its warmth in my hands…
Dusk to dawn security lights, weatherproof lamps, three way switched circuits, and remote controls are a part of my life now. I have no use for an old kerosene lantern, but I’ll leave it hang in the stairwell. When I go by I’ll work the lever and listen to the screak of the globe going up, and remember how it was in the times gone by.
Today, I’d like to welcome a guest blogger, Mary Lou Schulte, Editor of the Osage County Historical Society newsletter. She has graciously given me permission to print this article she had published some time back about John Colter.
I worked for several years in Osage County, Missouri, with Eric Thompson, triple great grandson of John Colter. Like his ancestor, Eric has exhibited considerable athletic prowess. When I mentioned that to him, Eric laughed and said, “He ran from the Indians, and I raced against opponents.”
Here in Missouri, where the real west started, history is all around us, all we have to do is look for it.
– Walt Ryan, Sundown Trail
Bravery Personified: The Life of John Colter
by Mary Lou Schulte
The saying goes that “truth is stranger than fiction.” Sometimes truth is much more incredible than fiction. The life of John Colter is a testament to that concept. His adventures were so unbelievably daring in scope, thrilling in discovery, and terrifying in life-threatening ordeals that we modern folk can hardly take them in. He deserves a place in history beside that of Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett Zebulon Pike, etc. Yet many do not know his name.
John Colter was born about 1775, the fourth generation of his family in America, the first being his great grandfather, Micajah Coalter, a pioneer of Scottish ancestry, who came to Virginia from Northern Ireland around 1700. It is written that John Colter was of sturdy frame, five feet ten inches in height, and a pleasing countenance of the Daniel Boone type. (His last name has also been spelled “Coulter,” but Colter is the accepted version.)
Colter joined the Corps of Discovery, also known as the Lewis and Clark Expedition, on October 15, 1803 at Maysville, KY, the fourth man to join the company. As a private, he was entitled to $5.00 per month pay, but Congress voted to raise the pay to $10.00, and to grant each man 320 acres of land west of the Mississippi River. Meriwether Lewis informed Clark that he had made “a judicious selection,” and although Colter was taken on trial, Lewis believed he would answer “tolerably well.” This opinion turned out to be quite an understatement.Colter was experienced in woodcraft and the use of firearms, and was strong, active and intelligent. At first he was somewhat unruly, but after being forbidden to leave camp for ten days, he settled down and became one of the most dependable members of the company. The party needed fresh meat in their diet, and Colter was an expert hunter. In the late summer of 1804, after a few days’ hunting, it was recorded that Colter brought back “1 buffalo, 1 elk, 3 deer, 1 wolf, 5 turkeys, 1 goose and a beaver.”
In the fall of 1804, they arrived at the Mandan village, and here they built Fort Mandan, which was their winter home. In April, 1805, they again set forth–a total of 33 souls, including Toussaint Charbonneau, his wife Sacagawea (the young Shoshone woman who was to render inestimable service to the expedition), and their infant son, Jean Baptiste. After incredible toils and hardships, they reached the mouth of the Columbia in the first week of November. Near the Pacific Ocean they built a post named Fort Clatsop, where they spent the second winter.
On the way back to St. Louis, Colter met up with two trappers, Joseph Dickson and Forrest Hancock, near the mouth of the Yellowstone. They asked Colter to join them, and he, eager for more adventure, asked for his discharge. Captain Clark wrote, “As we were disposed to be of service to anyone of our party who had performed their duty as well as Colter had done, we agreed to allow him the privilege.” The rest of the company traveled on downstream toward St. Louis. Author Stephen Ambrose writes, “Colter turned back upstream, back to the wilderness, back to the mountains, on his way into the history books as America’s first mountain man and the discoverer of Yellowstone National Park.”
After parting company with Dickson and Hancock in the spring of 1807, Colter came across another fur trading expedition, that of Manuel Lisa. Some of his former companions were in the group, so he was easily persuaded to join them. During his travels, he encountered hostile Blackfeet Indians and was severely wounded in one fight. However, he was determined to trap in the Three Forks region. A one-time companion, Thomas James, once wrote, “Dangers seemed to have for him a kind of fascination.” The next time he confronted the Blackfeet, the result would become a legend known as “Colter’s Run.”
Colter had gone with a companion named Potts to the Jefferson River to look for beaver. Suddenly a war party of several hundred Blackfeet approached and ordered them to come ashore. Colter obeyed, thinking he might escape with losing furs only, but Potts stayed in his canoe, seeing Colter stripped naked by the Indians. Potts foolishly shot one of the Indians, and was then shot, dragged to shore, and cut to pieces with hatchets and knives. Colter had no idea what horrible fate awaited him. After holding a council, the chief waved him away. As he walked toward freedom, he saw some of the braves throwing off all encumbrances, as if for a race. He realized he would have to run for his life. He ran like the wind toward the Madison branch, five miles away. His nose began to bleed profusely. Finally, in looking back, he saw that he had outstripped all his pursuers, save one. He turned, accosted his enemy, seized his spear, and stabbed him to the ground. He reached the stream ahead of his attackers, plunged in, and took refuge inside a pile of driftwood or beaver dam. He remained there until the next morning, when it was evident that the Blackfeet had gone. He headed for Manuel’s Fort, and after about a week, arrived there exhausted by hunger and fatigue. He was emaciated and his feet were swollen and pierced by many thorns, but he was alive. He not only recovered, but went back on his own voyage of discovery.
In the winter of 1807-08, Colter was sent by Manuel Lisa from ‘Fort Manuel, also known as Fort Raymond, at the mouth of the Big Horn River, to invite Indians to bring furs to the fort. He started late in November, alone and on foot, carrying a thirty-pound pack on his back, besides his gun and ammunition. It was during this time that he made the discovery of what is now called Yellowstone National Park. It wasn’t recorded at the time, and many doubted his veracity, but trees and rocks were found there with dates and names on them to verify his claim. Colter is believed to be the first white man to see the stunning hot springs and geysers, one of which is now called “Colter’s Hell.” He must have returned in the spring of 1808, since he made several trips from Fort Raymond that year. When he crossed the rough country to the North Fork of the Shoshone, he noticed the odor of sulphur, and gave that stream the name “Stinking Water River.”
One more time Colter ventured into the Three Forks area and was again attacked, but managed to escape. Finally, he made a vow to God that he would never repeat such a foolhardy venture. However, in late September, 1809, he met up with an expedition headed by Manuel Lisa and Pierre Chouteau. They asked him to be their guide, and forgetting his vow, he agreed. A fort was constructed near the Jefferson River, but only a few days later the Blackfeet attacked. Five members of the expedition were killed, and they lost most of their traps, horses and beaver pelts. This crushing blow caused the enterprise to be abandoned. Colter finally returned to St. Louis, where his stories of discovery and adventure were met with skepticism by some and with awe by others. His claims have been verified over the years, however, and a stone with the inscription “JOHN COLTER -1808” carved on it is now on display in Yellowstone National Park.
John Colter took a tract of bounty land on the south bank of the Missouri River in Franklin County and turned to farming. He married Sarah “Sally” Loucy, and had at least two children: a son, Hiram and a daughter, Evalina, both of whom grew to adulthood.
Never one to shirk his duty, Colter served in the War of 1812 under Nathan Boone, son of Daniel, beginning his service on March 3, 1812 and being discharged three months later on May 6. He must have been ill when he enlisted, as he died of jaundice on May 7, 1812. Nathan Boone held Colter in very high regard, naming his son, born May 13,1816, “John Colter Boone.”
Ruth Colter-Frick, author of Courageous Colter and Companions, believed that John Colter was buried in Franklin County on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River near New Haven. This is the cemetery where his son, Hiram, is buried. An old headstone with the initials “J.C.” carved into it was uncovered close to Hiram’s grave. Other writers have speculated that he was originally laid to rest on Tunnel Hill, a bluff overlooking the Missouri near Dundee, where he lived. When the Missouri Pacific Railroad tunneled through that area in the 1850’s, a number of bones were found, indicating a burial ground. But where he is buried is not as important as the legacy he left. His name will forever be synonymous with adventure, discovery, devotion to duty, and bravery in the face of death.
The story of John Colter is of more than passing interest. Many of his descendants inhabit the mid-Missouri area; some are natives of Osage County, including the children of Frank and Clara Colter Knoerr: John, Wilbur, Marie Thompson and Helen Reed, who descend from Hiram’s eldest son, John B. Colter. Hiram’s daughter, Mary Ann, married Charles C. Davis, from whom the Leonard and Perry Davis families of Linn were descended. In 1994, Blackfeet Indians joined whites at Three Forks in a celebration to honor the memory of “Courageous Colter.”
Recently I wrote a blog about The Battle of Beecher’s Island. There were some interesting stories about this battle that I did not include. I’ve listed them here.
1) The man the battle was named after had several other family members who were in the public light.
Lieutenant Beecher was the nephew of Abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher. He was also the nephew of Harriet Beecher Stowe, known for writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Lt. Beecher’s father was Reverend Charles Beecher, a well-known evangelist of his time. Only a short time before the death of the Lieutenant, the family had lost his two younger sisters in a drowning accident. Beecher’s last words before he expired were of concern for his mother.
2) The indian chief refused to lead his men because he was afraid he would die. After he was talked into leading the second charge, he died. Also he was not a chief.
Roman Nose had initially refused to join the fight at Beecher’s Island because the night before he had unwittingly violated a taboo. As a guest at a Sioux Chief’s lodge, he had been served a piece of meat taken from the fire by an iron fork. He believed that the iron would draw bullets. His men talked him into leading the second charge, where he was shot and killed.
Contrary to many reports, Roman Nose was not a chief. He was a warrior with the reputation of being a fearless battle leader. The Cheyenne had camped outside of Ft. Laramie and Roman Nose observed the soldiers as they drilled. Roman Nose copied many of their tactics. He was a large impressive individual, 6 foot 3 inches tall. His given name was Sautie (the bat). The soldiers nicknamed him “Roman Nose” because of his large hook nose. He took it as a compliment and adopted the name in English and in Cheyenne (Woqini).
3) One solider fought half the battle with an arrowhead in his skull.
Early in the battle, Scout Frank Harrington was struck in the forehead by an arrow. He asked another scout to pull the arrow from his head. The arrow shaft came loose from the arrowhead. They could not dislodge the arrowhead. Harrington fought on with the flint arrow point sticking from his forehead. In the heat of the battle an Indian musket ball struck the arrowhead and dislodged it. Harrington survived and his wound eventually healed.
4) A rattlesnake almost ended a rescue attempt, but was stopped with chewing tobacco.
Forsyth knew they were in a bad spot. He selected Jack Stilwell and an older frontiers man, Pierre Trudeau, to sneak through the Indian lines under the cover of darkness and go to Ft. Wallace for help. The next day they hid in a buffalo wallow to await darkness again. A group of Indians rode near. The two Scouts flattened against the wall of the wallow and waited. The Indians stopped nearby. A large rattlesnake slithered through the grass and dropped into the wallow. It crawled towards the Scouts. Stilwell silently spit a big wad of tobacco juice right onto the snake’s head. The snake made a hasty retreat. Finally the unsuspecting Indians moved on.
5) The youngest fighter was only 16.
Jack Stilwell was 19, but the youngest Scout was a 16-year-old Jewish boy from New York City. He asked to join the Scouts and was turned down at first, but Forsyth relented and let him join them. His name was Sigmund Schlesinger. Forsyth wrote later that he preformed with great bravery. Schlesinger went home to New York City and told the story of The Battle of Beecher’s Island many times.
A Place Called Beecher’s Island
Church was over and the group of friends were looking for something to do that Sunday afternoon. They were teenagers. Beecher’s Island, Colorado, made a nice outing. Just across the Kansas/Colorado state line, it was about twenty-five miles from St. Francis, Kansas, their hometown. They loaded up the old Dodge touring car and a Model T Ford. For a group of teenagers in the late 1920’s, it was an enjoyable ride across the Kansas/Colorado prairie. They still wore their Sunday-go-to-church clothes.
The group’s destination was a small park on the Arikaree branch of the Republican River. It was named Beecher’s Island in honor of Lieutenant Beecher, the army officer that lost his life there. This area is the site of a battle between Frontier Scouts and a large Indian force. Like most streams in that dry country, the Arikaree is a wide, shallow stream, with sandy banks and bottom. It was subject to flooding in the winter and spring months, drying down to a mere trickle between a few pools of water in the summer and fall.
Thirty years after the 1868 battle, some Scouts returned to mark the site and start an annual September reunion of the survivors. The survivors have been gone for many years, but the annual reunion is still held in September each year. The September 24, 1903 issue of the St. Francis newspaper reported that four of the surviving Scouts attended the annual reunion. Some of the descendants of the Scouts have attended in modern times.
I recall my family attending the get-togethers when I was a child. I think I remember attending church services in an old round-topped assembly hall building. The grounds form a park belonging to the Beecher’s Island Association. An Obelisk with the names of the Scouts on it commemorates the battle.
After many floods, only a small vestige of the original island remained as my mother and her teenage friends walked along the sandy shore that day. She worried about scuffing and damage to her dress-up shoes. Her high heels sank into the sand and one struck something. She stopped to take the shoes off. A friend suggested that she might want to check out what the heel had touched. They dug in the heel print and retrieved a musket ball.
Since the Army Scouts were shooting .52 cal. Spencer rifles and .44 cal. Colt revolvers, the much larger caliber lead ball would have came from an Indian musket. The ball had a distinct crease in it. It appeared to have struck a saddle ring or a belt buckle.
Through the years my mother kept the lead ball in a small box, with arrowheads she had found in a former buffalo wallow on our Cheyenne County, Kansas farm. She stored the box in a drawer of her sewing machine cabinet. The story of the musket ball intrigued me through the years. It nourished my interest in Beecher’s Island and the western frontier.
The Battle of Beecher’s Island
During the Civil War, westward expansion slowed. The Indian Tribes of the plains took advantage of the lull and formed alliances with former enemy tribes. Together they vowed to stop the migration of the whites. The Indians attacked the new settlers and railroad crews with a savage vengeance not seen before the Civil War.
The regular Army had difficulty in mobilizing and pursuing the raiding Indians. A large force of soldiers and the required support force just couldn’t move fast enough to catch the raiders. General Sheridan authorized the formation of a special strike force. A well-armed group of 50 civilian frontiersmen under the command of regular army officers was formed. The Scouts were issued Spencer seven shot repeating rifles, Colt six shot revolvers, blankets, horse gear, and other supplies.
Major George A. Forsyth of General Sheridan’s staff was placed in charge. Forsyth had been on Sheridan’s staff since the last year of the Civil War. In fact, Major George Forsyth made the famous ride to Winchester with Sheridan. Forsyth had been breveted a colonel for bravery during the Civil War, giving him the right to the title but not the pay.
Second in command was Lieutenant Fred H. Beecher. Beecher also had a Civil War background, having suffered a leg wound at Gettysburg that left him with a limp. The surgeon assigned to the Scout group was Dr. J. H. Mooers, a former major and surgeon in the Union army. Many of the civilian Scouts had been in the Union or Confederate service. Scout William H. H. McCall had been a brevet brigadier general in the Union army. With the exception of one, all the Scouts had military or frontier experience.
Forsyth picked up 30 Scouts at Ft. Harker and proceeded to Ft. Hays. At Ft. Hays he signed on 20 more men to finish his allotment of 50 Scouts. Among the Scouts was a former army Scout and interpreter named Sharpe Grover. Grover had married a Sioux woman and lived for a time with the Indians. He was still recuperating from a wound in his back that he had received a month earlier in a fight with hostile Indians.
The Scouts traveled west and north to Beaver Creek and found much old sign of a large group of Indians. Since the sign was old, they returned to Ft. Wallace and Sheridan City, the temporary end of the Kansas Pacific Railroad, then under construction. They arrived at Ft. Wallace on the evening of September 5th and found that a wagon train had been attacked. Two teamsters had been killed. The surviving teamsters estimated the raiding party to be about 20 strong.
Forsyth drew rations and struck out at daylight on September 6th, to track the Indians. The Indian raiders broke up into smaller groups to foil attempts to follow them. Grover and Forsyth suspected the move, picked a track, and kept following. They would lose the track and circle around the area until they found it again. The process took several days. They crossed the South Fork of the Republican in the proximity of the modern day Kansas/Colorado state line. On the north side of the river they found signs of much larger numbers. In fact, they knew they had found a large village on the move.
On September 16, they stopped early to camp in a large open valley on the south side of the Arikaree River, a tributary of the Republican River. The valley had good grass for the horses and pack mules, and the stream had fresh water.. There was a small island in the stream near the camp. Forsyth later described the island as about sixty yards long and thirty yards wide. It was covered by grass and brush. A lone small cottonwood tree was growing at the upstream end. The island was about three to four feet higher than the stream bed.
The Scouts had not seen an Indian, but suspected they were being watched. They were indeed being watched. A short distance upstream, around a bend the Indians had an ambush set up.
By stopping early the Scouts had unwittingly saved themselves. The frustrated Indians went back to their camp and considered their next move. The large Indian force, later estimated from 500 to 1,000 strong, was made up of North and Southern Cheyenne, Sioux, and Arapahoe. While the chiefs debated the next move, a group of young braves anxious to get at the hated whites and demonstrate their warrior skills, made their own plans.
A small group of mounted Indians struck just at daylight, rattling dry hides and yelling in an attempt to stampede the horses. However, thanks to their experience and military know-how, the Scouts had their mounts well secured and many of the Scouts were up and ready for trouble. Only six horses were lost.
Forsyth ordered the men to secure their mounts, stand their ground and return fire. After a short skirmish the Indians retreated. It was soon evident that a larger force was assembling around the battleground. Indians came into view, upstream, across the river and on the grassy plain in front. Only the downriver valley, the way the Scouts came in the night before, was left open as the Indians closed in. Forsyth, Grover, and McCall recognized it for what it was. A trap! Forsyth ordered the Scouts to retreat to the Island, tie their horses and start digging rifle pits.
The Indians were both surprised and enraged at the maneuver. It took them time to regroup and organize their attack. During this time the Scouts distributed ammunition and continued digging rifle pits in the sand. Two Scouts were killed and several were wounded by Indian sharpshooters. Forsyth was the first to be wounded, taking a bullet in his right thigh as he directed the fortifications. He would receive two more wounds later on. The Scouts withering rifle fire stopped the first charge. The Indians regrouped and changed their tactics.
The Indians were not prepared to attack a dug-in enemy with seven shot repeating rifles. According to George Bent, the educated son of fur trader William Bent and his wife Owl Woman, a Southern Cheyenne and daughter of a Cheyenne Medicine Man, the Indians were armed with bows and arrows, lances, assorted muskets, and rifles picked up off other battlefields.
*Side note on George Bent
George and his brother Charles were in a Military Academy in St. Louis when the Civil War started. George enlisted in the Confederate Army at age 17 and fought at Wilson’s Creek, Pea Ridge and other battles before his capture. He was spotted in the prisoner camp in St. Louis. Members of the Bent family and his father’s political friends obtained his release. He went to Westport, joined a wagon train and returned home to Bent’s Fort. He said he had not been home in 10 years. Once there, George Bent embraced his mother’s Indian heritage and lived the rest of his life with the Cheyenne.
There were two renegade white men present with the Indians at Beecher’s Island. Many would later claim that George was also in the Beecher’s Island fight. He was in other fights, but he never admitted to being at Beecher’s Island. However, he was able to give a good description of the battle from the Indians’ viewpoint. In my opinion, Forsyth and Bent give the most reliable accounts of the battle. Other writers of the period seem to use the bravado dime novel style that was common at that time.
The Indians regrouped and prepared for a full-fledged charge to overrun the island. Roman Nose, a Cheyenne Dog Soldier War Chief, was persuaded to lead the charge. He had refused to join the fight previously because the night before he had unwittingly violated a taboo. As a guest at a Sioux Chief’s lodge, he had been served a piece of meat taken from the fire by an iron fork. He believed that the iron would draw bullets.
The Indians posted rifles on the banks to keep the Scouts down in their rifle pits. A mounted force of several hundred Indians led by Roman Nose and another chief approached in a headlong charge from the downriver side of the island. They again intended to run full tilt over the Scouts. The entrenched riflemen calmly shot down line after line of charging Indians. At the last second the charge broke and skirted around both sides of the Island. Roman Nose and his horse were both downed at this time. The other Indian leader had been killed early in the charge. Nineteen-year-old Jack Stillwell was credited with killing Roman Nose.
The Indians regrouped and charged again with large losses. By this time, Lieutenant Beecher had been killed and five more Scouts were dead with Dr. Mooers mortally wounded. Fourteen other Scouts were also wounded. All of the horses had been killed by the Indians. The Scouts were out of rations and later resorted to eating horse meat and one coyote that wandered too close.
Forsyth prepared to send Scouts Stillwell and Trudeau out on foot to Fort Wallace for help. The 110 mile journey took them four days and nights. On September 19, it appeared that the Indians were withdrawing. Forsyth sent two more men out after dark with a dispatch to Ft. Wallace. These Scouts, Donovan and Pliley, struck south and after two days intersected the Ft. Wallace to Denver road. They soon made contact along the road with Col. Carpenter of the Tenth Calvary and his troop of “Buffalo Soldiers” as the African American troops were called by the Indians. The Colonel sent a messenger on to Ft. Wallace and proceeded at once to assist the Scouts.
The Scouts spent a total of nine days on the island. Of 51 Scouts, 5 were killed and 15 wounded. The island was named in honor of the fallen Lt. Beecher. It was later determined 75 Indians were killed and hundreds wounded. Years later a Sioux Indian, talking to Forsyth, confirmed the number killed at 75. The Indian then opened his shirt and displayed the scars of his own wounds from the Beecher’s Island battle.
Beecher’s Island. My mother visited it before me, and I have visited there several times as well along the Sundown Trail.
*Technical note: The arms of the Scouts have been called rifles and the next writer will call them carbines. Forsyth called the Scout’s shoulder arms rifles. He also said they slung them across their back… The longer barrel rifles had sling mounts, carbines have saddle rings. I take Forsyth at his word on this one. Also, in comparing my mother’s musket ball, I used .52 caliber to compare to the Spencers because that is the actual bullet size. Normally they designate the Spencer by the cartridge case size of .56 caliber. Thought I should explain, before I get called on it.
Information for the above article was obtained from:
My family’s historical comments and local lore. Letters and papers of George A. Forsyth from the Manuscripts Collection, Stephen H. Hart Library, Colorado Historical Society, Denver CO and The Colorado State Archives. The Story of the Soldier, by George A. Forsyth, published by D. Appleton and Company, 1900. The Beecher Island Battle Ground Memorial Association.
Indian Fights and Fighters
Cyrus Townsend Brady 1904
Republished 1971 By the University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska
Life of George Bent: Written from His Letters
George E. Hyde 1968
University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma
(The struggle for the plains as seen through an Indian’s eyes.)
In the news lately, Popocatepetl located just southeast of Mexico City, is erupting. I took this picture of a dormant Popocatepetl from an airliner window in 1973, as I returned from a cooperative study trip to Costa Rica.