By Jennifer Uhlarik
If you’ve followed my writing here on Heroes, Heroines, and History or my novels, you know that I have concentrated a lot of my posts and stories on the Native Americans. And I’m back again today with another conflict between the whites and the Cheyenne and Sioux from 1868—the Battle of Beecher Island.
After the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado, which I’ve written extensively about here on the blog and in one of my novels (see the end of my post for more about that), the Cheyenne and Sioux nations teamed up together to fight the Frontier army and the white settlers. Every year, they would raid the white settlements in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, and other places. In August of 1868, the Native Americans consistently attacked farms, ranches, way stations, and common travel routes in Colorado and had killed 79 settlers in those attacks. Colorado Governor Frank Hall turned to the military for assistance.
|George A. Forsythe|
The 9th Cavalry’s Major George Alexander Forsyth was tasked with finding fifty top frontiersmen to go after the Plains tribes who were committing these attacks, and he was given permission to use the Indians’ own tactics, rather than typical military protocols in pursuing and fighting them. Forsyth picked forty-eight men from two Kansas forts as his team, and he outfitted each man with the new Spencer Repeating Rifle, which could hold and fire seven bullets in rapid succession before needing to be reloaded.
On The Trail
On September 10, 1868, word came to Fort Wallace that a freighter’s train had been attacked 13 miles away. Forsyth, who’d been made a Brevet Colonel, and his frontiersmen got on the trail and began to follow the Native Americans. For days, Forsyth and his men continued their pursuit, slowly gaining ground. At first, they followed a group of about twenty-five warriors, but as time passed, the group they followed merged with others until the frontiersmen realized they were greatly outnumbered. Within six days, they knew they were close to catching up to the mighty fighting force ahead of them, and on September 16, Forsyth opted to make camp early and rest his men, since he expected to catch the Indians the following day. They camped along the Dry Fork of the Republican River (now known as the Arikaree River) in Yuma County, Colorado. What isn’t clear is whether Forsyth realized he was camped only twelve miles downstream from anywhere between 200 and 1000 (some reports say 200, others 600, and a few say as many as 1000) Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Sioux warriors. He had the wherewithal to post extra guards during the night hours to be ready for whatever may come.
And come it did. During the night, the Sioux discovered Forsyth’s men and alerted the rest of the warriors upstream, who made plans to attack at dawn. As the first signs of light brightened the pre-dawn sky, the warriors set up to drive off the sleeping camp’s horses and strand the men on foot. But they weren’t prepared for Forsyth’s men to be awake, alert, and readying mules and horses. So when the initial attack came, Forsyth’s men were able to hold the horses, though they lost all the pack mules with their foodstuffs and other provisions. As dawn brightened the little valley, Forsyth’s men realized that the hills surrounding them were crawling with more warriors than they’d seen in one place before.
The frontiersmen quickly realized the only cover in sight was on a small sandbar in the middle of the Republican River, which had just one cottonwood tree and some willow bushes. They all made a break for the sandbar with their horses, some men and horses falling immediately to Indian bullets and arrows, but many making it to the safety of that small, sandy island.
Immediately, the men began to burrow into the sand. Where many of the horses had fallen victim to the Indian onslaught, they also used the corpses of the animals for cover. When the greater Indian forces attempted to make several runs at the men, Forsyth’s forces unloaded their Spencer Repeating Rifles. The Indians weren’t familiar with these weapons, so were surprised to learn the frontiersmen could fire seven times before having to reload. The weaponry proved to be a great advantage to the small—now wounded—fighting force.
After various attempts to overrun the sandbar, many of the Indian warriors fell, including the leader of the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers—Roman Nose. The Indians realized they were losing too many of their fighting men to this small group and pulled back to plan a different strategy. Women from the upstream encampment came to mourn their dead, leaving Forsyth’s men to listen to their haunting wails for a day or more.
Forsyth’s men were in a bad way. Of their fifty-man force, Forsyth himself had a bullet glance off his skull and one shatter his shin before lodging against his femoral artery. His second in command, Lt. Fredrick Beecher, was killed along with three others. (After the battle was over, the men named the small sandbar island Beecher Island in Lt. Beecher’s honor). And yet fifteen more were wounded to varying degrees.
The remaining Indians realized all they needed to do to take out these white men was to starve them out. Since their mules with all their provisions were gone, it wouldn’t take them long before they succumbed to hunger. So the Indians drew back a safe distance to wait. The frontiersmen knew they had river water and horse meat they could make do with for a short time, but if something didn’t change, they’d die on that sandbar.
Depiction of the Battle of Beecher Island, Harper's Weekly, June 1895.
A Daring Attempt
Forsyth concocted a daring plan. He asked for two courageous men to attempt to break through the surrounding Indian forces and go for help at Fort Wallace, some 70 miles away. At first, the head of the scouts said that the Indians were too thick around them, and they wouldn’t be able to get through. However, Simpson “Jack” Stilwell thought otherwise. He chose Pierre Trudeau as his partner in the attempt, and the two men set off during the deepest of night hours. They crawled on hands and knees for miles before taking cover as daylight broke. Unfortunately, the men hadn’t gotten away clean. Some of the Indian forces discovered their trail and pursued the men, causing them to have to evade their enemy for the next four days.
The pair had taken some horse meat with them, but it soon spoiled and made Stilwell and Trudeau sick. Yet they pushed through, evading their captors as they made progress toward Fort Wallace, where they were to deliver a note from Forsyth’s hand to the fort commander. After four days, they arrived, Trudeau so weak he couldn’t stand without help, and passed on word of the besieged group.
Three separate rescue parties were sent, each taking different paths in the general direction of Forsyth’s men. On September 25, Lt. Col. Louis H. Carpenter and two troops of Buffalo Soldiers reached the frontiersmen. And as the military ambulance wagon and troops of black freedmen soldiers came over the rise, the Indians realized they would not win the battle with the newly arrived troops, so they fled to safety.
The Rescue (Harper's, June 1895)
The rotting corpses of more than fifty horses and several men filled the air with the stench of death. Swarms of flies buzzed around the scene, feasting on the rancid meat. At some point in the intervening days, Forsyth had used his own razor to cut out the bullet from his leg, and lay in one of the sandy foxholes, in bad shape. Other men also lay wounded, weak, and in need of medical attention. The newly-arrived soldiers secured the area and carried the wounded to a better place upwind of the sandbar, then set about burying the dead—man and horse alike. For several days, they treated the wounded and fed them to get their strength up, then finally brought them back to Fort Wallace on September 30.
All told, Forsyth and his fifty scouts held off at least four times (and possibly many more) their number for more than a week and lost only seven men total—five during the battle itself, and two who succumbed to their wounds later. Of the Cheyenne and Sioux forces, the official military count of the dead was as low as nine, though Forsyth’s scouts claimed to have killed hundreds. The truth probably lies in the middle somewhere.
Award-winning, best-selling novelist Jennifer Uhlarik has loved the western genre since she read her first Louis L’Amour novel. She penned her first western while earning a writing degree from University of Tampa. Jennifer lives near Tampa with her husband, son, and furbabies. www.jenniferuhlarik.com
2020 Selah Awards Fiction Book of the Year
"Uhlarik's research is sound and her characters are intriguing [in]...this well-constructed story..." ~ Publishers Weekly
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