Title: Summit Springs

More metadata


By Major General Charles King

DURING the year 1868 all Western Kansas, Southwestern Nebraska and Eastern Colorado had been terrorized by roving bands of renegade Indians, mainly Sioux, Cheyennes and Arapahoes. Many emigrants and settlers had been murdered, many farms and ranches destroyed, many couriers and soldiers ambushed, murdered and frightfully mutilated. The "Smoky Hill" route from Leavenworth and Kansas City to Denver was thickly dotted with graves. The little force of regulars — cavalry and infantry — in the military division of the Missouri had largely been employed in guarding the track-layers and bridge builders of the Pacific railways, and were all too few for the duties demanded of them. Only cavalry could pursue Indians, and when pursued by superior numbers, the warriors scattered over the wide prairies, disappeared in innumerable ravines and valleys, remained in hiding a few days until the troops had passed by; then reassembled and resumed their devilment.

In the spring of '69 General Sheridan determined to put a stop to the mischief. Among the troops designated to take the field was the Fifth regiment of cavalry, eight troops (companies of which marched southwestward from Fort McPherson, Nebraska, and within the week were scouting through the valleys of the Saline and neighboring streams in Kansas. The depredations had become terrifying, and the stories of murder, raping, mutilation and torture told by settlers fleeing eastward for safety inspired the troopers with eager longing to meet the savages. One band in particular, led by the Cheyenne chief, Tall Bull, seemed to have been by far the most cruel and bloodthirsty. Their victims were numbered by the hundred. Their warriors were young braves of different tribes, eager for savage honors and defiant of the authority of chiefs like Spotted Tail, who sought to be at peace with the paleface. Tall Bull was a brute and gloried in it. Men and little children captured by his people died by fearful torture. Women were spared only for a fate more frightful. If Tall Bull and his band could be met, overtaken and overwhelmed, this scourge of the frontier would be swept from the map, and Sheridan looked to the Fifth cavalry to do it.

In all their mettlesome little array the two men most vehemently interested were the major commanding, Eugene A. Carr, who had served in the Civil war with great gallantry as major general of volunteers — and the young chief scout of the regiment, William F. Cody, already known throughout Kansas and Nebraska as "Buffalo Bill." The former was in the prime of his years, brave, ambitious and energetic. The latter was just entering upon the full flush of manhood — tall, slender, beautifully built and proportioned, with clean-cut, handsome features; clear, brilliant eyes, and long, flowing, curling chestnut hair — already an unrivaled shot and rider, and by long odds the most picturesque and popular man in the command — everybody's friend, comrade and favorite. Young as he was, "Bill" Cody had won the faith of the whole regiment, even before the campaign of '69, which was destined to intensify the regard in which he was held.

With the squadrons of the Fifth there rode, too, a motley array of friendly Indians — Pawnees — organized as scouts by Major Frank North, and fitted out by the government with arms and uniforms. The arms they knew how to use; the uniforms they were at a loss how to wear, so wore them anything but uniformly.

AND all this little force, possibly 500 strong, was searching through valleys of the streams north of the Smoky Hill when the dread rumor reached them that Tall Bull had swooped on the German settlements on the Solomon's Fork, far to the west of them, and had murdered most of the luckless settlers. Then, after burning everything they could not carry away, had dragged with them two young wives of the butchered settlers to a fate worse than a thousand deaths.

Almost before the news had spread from lip to lip, there came galloping in search of them couriers from the nearest telegraph station with emphatic dispatches from Sheridan. "Find the trail of Tall Bull's band; recapture those women if a possible thing; pursue and punish those Indians no matter where they go, or where you have to follow," were practically the words. "And that," said Major Carr, "means follow them to Canada, Texas, or hell, if need be, and — gentlemen, we're going." Then, after this impressive close, he looked about him. "Where's Bill?" was the question. There were forty Williams in the command; there was only one "Bill." "Take any Pawnees you want," said Carr, "Strike for Solomon's at once, and find that trail. We follow as quickly as possible."

It was nearly one hundred and fifty miles, but in four days the Fifth were there, finding, as Bill said, "nothing but ruined homes and murdered and mutilated people." They stopped long enough to bury the poor remains, and then for three days more pushed on northwestward on the trail of the foe. The fourth night out, as they slept on the open "bench" by the side of a swift-running stream, with the horses hobbled and dozing, the whole command was suddenly roused by the thunder of a thousand hoofs, a shrill clamor of ear-splitting yells, and a living tornado rushed by the camp, driving forty horse before them, leaving two sentries dead in their tracks, then vanishing into the shadows of night.

Again, a night or two later, the bivouac was roused by sudden attack, but now Carr's sentries were doubled, and the daring warriors got nothing but shots for their pains. The next night, nearly two hundred miles from the scene of the outrage, Cody came upon the first sign that the women they would rescue were still living. In the midst of where the Indians had made their little cook fires, he found the prints of boot heels and slender soles. He found more. Tied to willow twigs were fragments of two calico gowns. In this way the poor tortured creatures had sought to tell of their plight and mutely to beg for aid.

That sight redoubled the energies of the wearied cavalry. Men and horses were gaunt and haggard, but, so they argued, were the Indians by this time. Nearly three hundred miles the trail had led them, and now they were in northeastern Colorado with the Indians still a long day's march ahead.

"It's all very well to order, pursue and punish," said Cody to the major, at last. "We might keep on pursuing forever and only push 'em ahead of us. What we've got to do is to GET 'em, and there's just one way to do it!"

And then he proceeded to tell it.

AT first the cavalry commander was doubtful. Bill's plan was to pretend to give up the chase, to turn away as though marching for home — just the game the cat plays on the mouse. The orders were to follow, to drive them out of the country, and Major Carr feared they might turn back to Kansas and the settlements again. "They won't," said Cody, "they've got scalps and booty enough now to make every Indian envious from the Platte to the Yellowstone. They want to go up there, captives, plunder and all — and just brag about it. If you'll only pull out toward home for a day or two, they'll take it easy and loaf along for a week; then we can make wide circuit for the fords of the Platte and head 'em."

And Carr saw the force of it, ordered accordingly; and so brought on the crowning triumph of the campaign and the total annihilation of Tall Bull and most of his band.

Three days later, at sunset of the 10th of July, after a long round-about march, the squadrons were unsaddling in the shelter of a ravine when Cody came galloping in, weary from a long day's scouting, but alive with hope, energy and enthusiasm. "We've got 'em, sir!" he cried. "Their trail is heading stright [sic] for the South Platte not six hours old, when I left it. I'm betting they'll camp tonight at the Springs in the sand hills. We can circle 'em before morning and hit 'em from the north tomorrow."

And so it was settled. Leaving with the wagons all weak or wornout men and horses, with just three hundred picked officers, troopers, and Pawnee scouts, Carr started at 2 in the morning, jogged forty miles clear around within sight of the old Valley Stage Station on the Platte, then hid his men in the ravines to await Cody's next report, and shortly after noon in he came, his long curls streaming in the rising wind. "The whole outfit's camped six miles off to the west, close to the Springs! You can see the pony herd with your glasses, sir, from that ridge out yonder."

THE final plans were quickly made. Then "mount!" was the order and away they went, twisting and turning, keeping screened by the ridges and divides, until just after 3 o'clock, with the sun well aslant, and a fierce gale sweeping down from the Rockies, the whole command swung out of saddle; the major, with Captain Walker, Cody and North, crept to the top of a low ridge to the southward, and there against the slopes, two miles away, they saw the great herd of ponies peacefully grazing. There from the low ground about the Springs the smoke from the "tepees" could be dimly seen driving thinly away eastward.

Already, back in the sheltered "swale" where the squadrons were eagerly waiting, the Pawnee scouts were stripping off Uncle Sam's uniforms and painting themselves for savage battle. Already the word was going around among the troopers, "Watch out for the women. See that no harm comes to them." And presently, with the battle light in their eyes, the leaders came scurrying back. "Mount!" again was the order — no danger of the Indians hearing it in that gale. Then came the swift instructions. Captain Maley, with his men and the Pawnee scouts to round the east end of the village and stampede the herd — Captain Sumner, with his fine squadron, to sweep on the other flank; Lieutenant Price, with thirty men, to circle to the west and shut off possible fugitives, and Captain Walker, with about one hundred and thirty officers and men, to charge from the north square at the half hidden village. In ten minutes they were off. A swift trot of 600 yards brought them to a little rise beyond which, 600 yards further, and just across the low ground at the Springs, lay the village, full a third of a mile in length.

Even before they reached the low crest, which had hitherto hidden them, an Indian herder, far up the distant slope to the south had sighted the appalling and utterly unlooked-for apparition.

Lashing his pony to headlong speed and screeching shrill warning, he was darting straight for the village — all too late. "Charge!" was the cry from the troop leaders, and with one thrilling cheer, the little command drove at tearing gallop into the very heart of the village, carbines and revolvers plying their deadly work — Cody spurring straight for the lodge of the chief, for something told him the captives were there to be found, and there in all the turmoil and confusion he came suddenly upon them — one poor woman, already weltering in her blood, the other struggling with the red fiends who were hacking at her with their hatchets. To shoot or scatter these was but the work of a second, for a dozen stout troopers were at his heels. Then right, left and everywhere their comrades were darting about the lodges, hurling them to earth where possible and battling fiercely with the few Indians that showed fight. The herder died gamely in the midst of the village; but most of the "bucks," leaving the women and children to look out for themselves, had bounded on the war pony each keeps tethered at his lodge, and so scampered away for safety.

NEVER dreaming that the cavalry could or would march one hundred and fifty miles in less than three days, and never expecting them from the north, the surprise was complete. Forty of their number fell before they could escape, but all of the village, all the women, children, old men, a thousand head of horses, hundreds of robes, skins and stacks of provisions fell into the hands of the troops.

In vain Tall Bull, exhorting his bewildered warriors, came circling back about the spot. His braves had had too much already, and he, himself, galloping past the head of a ravine, was shot from his saddle by Cody's unerring aim, and the "Scourge of Kansas" lay dead in his tracks and his band was scattered forever.

That night the soldiers poured into the lap of the one rescued woman all the money they found in the lodges, almost fifteen hundred dollars, every penny of which had been ravished by the Indians from ruined homes. That night they counted and buried the Indian dead; all warriors, and later took the living as prisoners to Fort Sedgwick. That night the major commanding formally thanked in the name of the Fifth cavalry their gallant chief scout for his invaluable services, and Tall Bull's splendid racer was given to Cody as his souvenir of Summit Springs.

It is pleasant to recall that the legislatures of Colorado and Nebraska passed resolutions, thanking the officers and men of the Fifth cavalry for ridding the territory for all time of the fiercest and most blood-thirsty enemy they had ever known — the Cheyenne Chief Tall Bull and his murderous band.