by lyle e davis
There are few stories that are more entertaining, more interesting, and often more frightening, than the stories that deal with the settling of our western frontiers.
One such story is the Battle of Beecher Island. It took place near what is today Wray, Colorado, in Yuma County, near the Nebraska and Kansas borders.
Major-General Phil Sheridan was in command of all this region, as chief of the Military Department of the Missouri. He had under him twelve hundred cavalry and fourteen hundred infantry, to guard Kansas, Missouri, Colorado, New Mexico, and Indian Territory.
General Sheridan had a young Colonel, George Alexander “Sandy” Forsyth, (see photo above) who was anxious to see action. Sheridan told Forsyth that he might enlist a scout company, and reconnoiter to the north; might try to find the Indians who had been raiding the ranches there.
The plan suited Colonel Forsyth. General Sheridan assigned First Lieutenant Frederick H. Beecher of the Third Infantry as his assistant. That suited Lieutenant Beecher (who happened to be the nephew of the great Henry Ward Beecher, New York preacher and orator). He was a slight, quiet young man, but he had an outstanding Civil War record.
Doctor John H. Mooers of Hays City, Kansas, was accepted as surgeon. All the enlisted men were civilians: ex-soldiers of the Blue or the Gray, or else for the main part skilled frontiersmen. As soon as Colonel Forsyth announced at Fort Hays that he was forming a company to trail the Indians down, volunteers offered themselves by scores, up and down the line.
He chose as his first sergeant William McCall, another Civil War veteran. Abner Sharp Grover, called "Sharp" Grover, would act as guide and was reckoned to be the best
Government scouts on the plains; Dick Parr, "Pet" Trudeau and natty, smooth-cheeked Jack Stillwell, aged nineteen, likewise daring Government scouts; Plainsmen Donovan, Clark, William Wilson, J. A. Pliley, Chauncey B. Whitney, Lou McLaughlin, George W. Culver, Frank Herrington, Howard Morton; Martin Burke; old Louis Farley and his son Hudson, aged eighteen, who were considered extra fine shots; trappers, buffalo hunters, clerks, surveyors, railroad hands, graders, settlers, including college graduates who had made good here on the plains.
Fifty were enlisted at Fort Hays, Hays City and Fort Harker. The last upon the roll was a Jewish boy, named Sigmund Schlesinger. Each man was to be paid one dollar a day; he furnished his own horse—was allowed thirty cents a day for that. He was equipped with canteen, blankets, knife, tin cup, Colt revolver, and repeating Henry or Spencer carbines. The Henry rifle was like the modern Winchester; the Spencer carried six cartridges in the stock and one in the chamber. They both were good guns.
Each man had one hundred and forty rounds of carbine ammunition and thirty rounds of revolver ammunition; there were seven days' rations of bread, salt pork and dried meat, coffee and salt; but no tents or wagons. Four pack mules bore the extra ammunition, the medical supplies, and part of the rations. Colonel Forsyth was resolved to travel light and catch the Indians.
It took only five days to fill the company. He led out from Fort Hays on August 29; scouted to the north, where the Cheyennes had been killing and plundering; and swung in to Fort Wallace—the last of the posts. He had not sighted an enemy. Then at Fort Wallace he heard that a band of the hostiles had stolen horses from the stage company station only a few miles away.
This made "Sandy" Forsyth hot. He telegraphed General Sheridan, saying that he wished to go out again instead of returning to Fort Hays. General Sheridan replied: "Go ahead."
The hardy Forsyth scouts started afresh; left Fort Wallace on September 10. Two of the men were ill and had to remain behind. Now the company numbered forty-eight men and three officers. In a day or two they struck an Indian trail heading for the northwest. They followed it; it split into several trails—an Indian trick. Keeping to one of the trails the Forsyth Rough Riders steadily pursued farther and farther out, clear to the Republican River beyond the northern border of Kansas.
Suddenly, September 14, they came upon a large trail, recently made, pointing up the south bank of the Republican. The next day two other trails joined it. It was so broad and so trampled with pony hoofs and cattle hoofs, that evidently all the Indians whom they were seeking had traveled it.
"We're following the whole Cheyenne nation," said Sharp Grover. "I calculate that four thousand reds have passed here; that likely means fifteen hundred warriors."
"We'll keep after, boys," Colonel "Sandy" declared. "Sheridan sent us out to find Indians."
There are a number of fascinating accounts of what happened next. A diary making notes of the daily occurences, a newspaper interview with a famous scout, “Comanche Jack” Stillwell, and several other contemporary accounts, all of which are collected here and blended together to give on overall view of what transpired:
The North Republican River forks in southwestern Nebraska. One fork is the Arikaree. The Arikaree wends out of northeastern Colorado, and meets the other fork in Nebraska, to help form the main Republican. The broad Indian trail proceeded on, up along the shallow, rippling Arikaree. The fifty-one white men pressed after the four thousand red men and women. On course southwest they crossed into north-eastern Colorado.
In the afternoon of September 16 they entered a narrow ravine or little gorge, of the Arikaree. At the other end the river came down in a curve through a grassy valley some two miles wide and two miles long. About the middle the river broadened in a bed one hundred and forty yards wide, divided by a little island. Most of the bed was dry and sandy; a current of shallow water, a few feet wide and eight or ten inches deep, washed the island on either side. The banks of the river bed had been cut by the spring floods, and were grown to grasses, willows and wild plums.
The valley itself was beautiful, covered with long grass. On the northeast there was a range of bare bluffs, through the north point of which the river passed. The land extended flatly to the base of the bluffs, three quarters of a mile from the island. In the other direction, or toward the west, the land rose in a long slope.
Everything looked peaceful in the late afternoon sun. Colonel Forsyth made camp on the slope side, opposite the little island.
The mules were unpacked and the horses unsaddled, so that they might graze at the limits of their picket ropes. The orders were strict: Every animal was to be staked close in, and strongly staked. Colonel Forsyth suspected that his march had been watched. He wished to take no chances of a stampede.
After sentries had been posted and supper had been eaten, the camp went to sleep, rolled in blankets, here beside the quiet Arikaree, under the stars. It was a silent country, a red man's country still; few white persons, save old trappers and daring buffalo hunters, ever had been into it. No white trails penetrated it. Cavalry scouting between the Platte River and the Kansas River had passed it by.
The Cheyennes were not far. They had been spying upon the column for five days. Now they had turned—had Colonel Forsyth marched on until evening they would have ambushed him at the upper end of this very valley. They were going to attack anyway.
Roman Nose was their war chief. The foolish fifty, cut off by one hundred and ten miles from Fort Wallace and rescue, were to be crushed by seven hundred warriors—Cheyennes, Sioux and Arapahos.
Colonel Forsyth felt anxious. He sensed danger in the air. This evening Indian fire signals flashed through the dusk, from the bordering hills. Tonight he was up and around, every hour, inspecting the sentries and the horses.
When the darkness had thinned a little, and the sky was faintly pink over the crest of the eastern bluffs, he was standing beside the farthest sentry in the rear of camp. Gazing keenly, he chanced to see an alarming sight: the feathered head of an Indian cautiously rising above the brush of a shallow, brushy draw, near by.
Colonel "Sandy" shot instantly; he and the sentry shouted: "Indians! Indians!" But the carbine report and the shouts were drowned by a tremendous outburst of noise. A party of the enemy, yelling, shaking rattles and dry hides, had dashed to stampede the horses.
The scouts had been almost as quick. They were Indian wise—they had dived for the picket ropes. Only two pack mules and five horses broke away; those horses had been hobbled, in disobedience of orders. The Indians drove the seven before them, up the valley, pursued by bullets.
"Saddle up, men! Saddle up, quick! This isn't the end."
Colonel Forsyth and Lieutenant Beecher worked; Sergeant McCall and Sharp Grover worked; the other men worked. In a few minutes they were ready and waiting. The dawn brightened. The colonel and Scout Grover were together, peering and listening. Suddenly Sharp's hand clutched Colonel "Sandy's" shoulder.
"Good Heavens, general, look at the Injuns!"
Scout Jack Stillwell and two other crack shots ran across the lower end and hid in a sand wash of the east bank—a natural rifle pit—to keep the enemy away from there. The rest tied the horses to the willow bushes, in a circle, and made ready to fight from inside the circle. They had managed to bring one mule with the extra ammunition, but they had left the medicine packs and all the camp stuff.
"Lie flat, boys. Now, fire slowly, aim well, keep yourselves covered, and above all, don't waste a single cartridge," Colonel "Sandy" directed.
Here they were, fifty-one surrounded by nobody knew how many warriors. As the morning grew brighter, Scout Grover estimated that there were one thousand. Colonel "Sandy" thought that there were not more than four or five hundred. They moved so quickly that it was hard to tell. But the truth is that there were at least seven hundred.
The island was a piece of luck for the scouts. The enemy could not sneak upon it; the sandy strip on both sides was open to the deadly fire of the repeating carbines.
Chief Roman Nose was angry that his men had not seized the island themselves. He sent two hundred of his best shots to crawl through the grass and weeds to the brush of the banks; lying there they poured bullets and arrows into the white fort.
That was a terrible fusillade. Scout William Wilson was killed, first, but the sharpshooters aimed principally at the horses. The scouts used the ammunition boxes and the horse bodies as breastworks; the bullets and arrows came in over.
A great many Indian women and children had gathered upon the bluffs to the east; they shrieked and waved and urged the death of the white men. Brave Colonel Forsyth walked among his scouts, leading his horse and talking to them. They begged him to lie down, like the rest, but he would not.
"Fire slowly. Choose your marks. Don't throw away a single bullet. That's right—dig when you can, but keep down," he said. "Part of you dig pits, large enough for one or two, while the others shoot."
Old Doctor Mooers was using his carbine. Lieutenant Beecher, Sergeant McCall and Chief Scout Sharp Grover seconded their colonel with cautioning words. The men dug, while they lay flat; wielded knives and tin cups and fingers and toes, scooping out little hollows in the sand. Desperate, Forsyth confided to Mooers, "We are beyond all human aid, and if God does not help us there is none for us."
The sun rose in the clear sky, flooding the island with light and showing the Indian women and children upon the bluffs, and the puffs of smoke from the red skirmishers, and the hissing arrows twinkling in, and the bonneted horsemen of Chief Roman Nose riding around and around, yelling triumphantly.
A bullet had entered Colonel Forsythe’s right thigh and glanced upward, making a painful wound. But he staggered to his feet again; hobbled about, directing and encouraging. Now he paused, and stooped to speak to a man who seemed to be getting nervous. A second bullet struck him—tore into the calf of his left leg, and through the large bone, and out. The bone was broken in two. So he crawled with his elbows and lay beside Scout Grover.
The Indians were blowing an artillery bugle in the distance. Soon the last cavalry horse had been killed. Several survivors later recalled that at this point they distinctly heard an Indian cry out in English: "There goes the last damned horse anyhow!" Some historians believe that "Indian" was actually a renegade ex-7th Cavalry trooper named Jack Clybor. But it was true. Every animal had been killed. The fifty-one white men had been put afoot.
Doctor Mooers' pit was large enough for two men. He had Colonel "Sandy" dragged to him, but could do nothing for him yet.
Nine o'clock had arrived. The sun burned, the air was blue with powder smoke. The circling warriors had disappeared. Roman Nose had withdrawn them.
About three o'clock a third attack was made. The Indians hoped that by this time the island men would be so exhausted by heat and thirst and wounds that they could not resist. The whole force of warriors rushed by horse and foot across the valley, up the river, around a bend that concealed them from the island. They were five hundred. The chief medicine man told them that the white men's bullets should not harm them—should melt before reaching them; his medicine was strong today. They listened, but they believed more in Roman Nose, who promised to lead them into the island and trample the white scouts under the ponies' hoofs.
The word was borne to the skirmishers. The firing from the banks on both sides of the island increased. Two hundred guns and bows deluged the rifle pits with bullet and arrow, preparing the way for the charge. That was good tactics.
Colonel "Sandy" and Sharp Grover and Lieutenant Beecher knew what was to occur. Orders were passed for the men not to reply to the firing, but to keep every carbine and revolver loaded, and wait. The colonel propped himself with his shoulders against the end of his pit, the better to see. A bullet ripped across his forehead; must have fractured his skull; gave him a blinding headache, but he could not attend to that.
Doctor Mooers was shot through the temples. He was unable to see, or speak, but he was alive. Lou McLaughlin had a ball in his chest. He fought on. The island was a hot place. Look! Here came the charge—first at a canter around the bend up stream, to the southwest. Eight ranks of horsemen, sixty warriors front, extending clear across the stream bed and upon the level ground on right and left!
The riders were stripped and painted and feathered, their ponies were painted and decorated with streamers, they brandished bow and lance and gun and shield. Leading these Indians that were soon to attack was the powerful Cheyenne, Roman Nose, who was wearing a magnificent war bonnet. He had received this power of protection from a medicine man who had seen a magical war bonnet in a vision, then constructed it for Roman Nose. It contained, among other items of nature, the skin of a kingfisher whose magic caused a bullet wound to close instantly. It also was adorned with a bat, which extended to Roman Nose protection during night battles.
Roman Nose (whose name was Sauts, or Bat) was chief of the Medicine Lance Men. No finer looking Cheyenne ever rode the plains: a strapping, stately Indian, six feet three, broad chested, clean limbed, with well-shaped head, flashing black eyes, straight thin-lipped mouth, large beaked nose and flaring nostrils, and a stride like a monarch's. The Cheyennes were a proud people; Roman Nose as proud as the proudest. And there he stood, this 230-pounds of bronze glory, very much alive and ready to fight.
Roman Nose with one of his squaws
As Roman Nose led the advance, he shook his heavy Spencer rifle and his followers released their wild pealing war songs. And in one body the horde of Indians charged. At the left of the front line there rode the chief medicine man, painted hideously, and chanting. The women and children upon the bluffs were shrieking and singing louder than ever; medicine drums were being beaten; the bugle was pealing; and the fire from the banks doubled.
But the scouts upon the island waited, as they had been ordered to. Colonel Forsyth, tortured with his head and his legs, gazed cool and tense. Sharp Grover and the other men chewed hard, moistening their dry lips, clutching their guns and peering over the sand mounds and between the horse bodies.
At a ringing whoop from Roman Nose and a flourish of his carbine the red cavalry broke into a gallop. The eight ranks charged, fast and faster, filling the river bed where it widened in the approach to the island. The sand flew, the thud of hoofs and the yells of the riders drowned the singing, in a few moments the first rank was near—the firing from the banks ceased, to let the charge through—Roman Nose, leading at full speed, was only fifty yards away, with his warriors pressing after—
"Now!" shouted Colonel "Sandy," bracing himself to level his own carbine. His scouts surged to their knees.
The carbine levers clicked, jamming fresh cartridges into the chambers. Again: Multiple sharp cracks resounded from the rifles. The front rank of ponies and warriors had been torn to fragments, but the other ranks were coming on. The scouts were working levers and pulling triggers as rapidly as they could. A fourth time—
More sharp rifle cracks filled the air. The red horde broke like a wave dashing against a reef.
Horses were swerving and running wild, some riderless, some bearing wounded warriors; horses were prone and kicking, warriors were lying dead, the river bed was in a turmoil. Down toppled the medicine chief, on the left. Where was Roman Nose? There, at the fore, turned in his saddle and shaking his carbine with lifted arm while he whooped his braves to the charge again.
The fifth volley drove through and through from front to rear. The charge slackened—no, it rallied—the Dog Soldiers lashed their ponies, hammered with their moccasined heels, obeyed Roman Nose and followed him. Their leaders were within ten yards of the end of the island. The scowling faces could be seen over the sights; every wrinkle was plain.
Down went Roman Nose, at last, in mid-leap, just about to plant his pony upon the island itself. Down went many others. The shattered ranks behind tried to stop, and could not. They parted—
The carbines were empty; the Indians streamed by, veering outward on either side, hanging low upon their ponies, racing for the prairie and for life. Cheering, the scouts sprang to their feet and fired shot after shot at close range of their revolvers. That completed the rout. The warriors bolted up the banks and into the valley on right and left.
The time had seemed like an hour, but the whole business was over in two minutes. Now the cries of the women upon the bluffs changed to wails. The flower of the Cheyenne nation had been slaughtered, Sioux and Arapaho had fallen. The Indians in the grass and brush along the banks were furious. They reopened the terrific fire of bullet and arrow. The scouts replied, seaching for every movement, every puff of smoke. After a time the enemy withdrew. There was a lull.
"Can the Indians do better than that charge, Grover?" Colonel "Sandy" asked anxiously.
"I've lived on the plains ever since I was a boy, general, and I never saw such a charge as that. I think they've done their level best," Scout Grover declared.
"All right, then; we're good for 'em," announced plucky Colonel Forsyth.
Young Lieutenant Beecher crept unsteadily to him. "I'm fatally wounded, general," he said. "I'm shot in the side."
"Oh, no, no, Beecher! It can't be as bad as that."
"Yes, sir. Goodnight."
So Lieutenant Beecher buried his face in his arm, to die like a soldier. He murmured the name of his mother. That was all. Pretty soon he became unconscious. By that evening Beecher was dead, leaving behind an island honored with his name.
Thanks to the rapid fire capability of their seven-shot Spencer rifles, Forsyth's volunteers were able to kill or wound many of the Indian attackers, including the war chief Roman Nose.
Of the three officers, only Colonel Forsyth was able to command, and he had been wounded three times. He called for the roll of the loss among the men. Scouts William Wilson and George Culver were dead. Old Louis Farley appeared to be fatally hurt, but was still fighting. Lou McLaughlin had been shot through the chest. Howard Morton had been shot through the back of the head, and one eye was destroyed, but he could aim with the other eye. Frank Herrington had been struck in the forehead by an arrow from an Indian boy; it had stuck fast; a comrade had cut off the shaft, and left the point in; then a bullet had glanced across and taken the point with it. Frank had bound his handkerchief around his head and had fought on. Doctor Mooers was sightless and speechless. Sergeant McCall was wounded. Lad Hudson Farley had been shot through the shoulder, but he said nothing about it until after dark.
In all, two officers and four scouts were dead or dying, one officer and eight scouts were disabled, and eight other scouts were wounded. That made twenty-three out of the fifty-one.
The river bed and the prairie were strewn with ponies and not a few warriors. Thirty-five bodies could be counted. Roman Nose lay where he had fallen. Three warriors were stretched within twenty feet of the rifle pits. They had charged clear upon the island and part way into it!
Scout Jack Stillwell and his two partners ran in and joined the company. The squaws were wailing in a chant that rose and sank and rose again. Tomtoms were being beaten. The Indians had assembled—matters looked like another charge. A chief appeared to be rallying the warriors The scouts saved their ammunition; did not shoot at that distance.
Sharp Grover asserted that the chief was urging the warriors to try again.
"Once more," he was saying, "and we will bring the white dogs' scalps to our lodge fires."
Scout Grover stood up, put both hands to his mouth, and shouted at the top of his lungs, in Sioux.
"Hello, old fellow! Got any more people for killing? This is pretty tough, hey?"
The chief stared in astonishment. "You speak straight," he shouted back.
The island men busied themselves enlarging their pits, binding wounds as best they could with handkerchiefs and strips of clothing, and digging a trench to the water. Near noon the second charge was attempted. The scouts were ready; they held their fire until the foremost warriors were within one hundred yards; then they let loose. This time the charge was not so fierce; no Roman Nose led, and the ranks broke at the third volley. Hooray!
Now the Indians rode around and around in a wide circle, shaking their fists and their weapons, and hooting and threatening. Another medicine man capered, upon his pony, away off toward the bluffs. Six of the best shots on the island aimed high, so as to be sure to reach him, and pulled triggers together. With a great yell he tumbled like a stone; his pony ran for the bluffs, and the women shrieked louder than ever.
The battle waned for a bit and Forsyth sought to cheer his men on: "We're all right, boys," he said. "Not a shot has been wasted. The advantage is ours. First, we've beaten them off; they know they can't lick us. Second, we can get water by digging only a few feet. Third, for food, horse and mule meat is lying around loose in any quantity. And last, we've plenty of ammunition. So we'll win out yet. Now while we've time let's connect all the pits with a parapet of the saddles and ammunition boxes and horse carcasses. Put the saddle blankets down for the wounded, and be cutting strips of meat from the animals, to dry. And start a well. One thing's certain: those Indians won't attack us at night. They never do. It isn't Indian custom. So we'll have peace till morning, and a chance to rest. After dark we'll send two men out, for Fort Wallace, to get help. They can take my field map and compass, and I think they'll get through."
Forsyth estimated the survivors were surrounded by a force of 600 Indians. The whites faced certain annihilation unless they could somehow bring help. Two men - Jack Stilwell and Pierre Trudeau-volunteered to attempt a daring escape through the Indian lines and silently melted into the night.
They set out at midnight, in their stockinged feet, walking backward so that their tracks should mingle with the in-pointing moccasin tracks in the sand.
Nearly everyone of the 100 frontiersmen who composed that celebrated company was wounded, but in the message sent with Stillwell by Forsyth he described his situation in these cool terms: “I am surrounded by several thousand Indians on a little island in the Republican river, with many dead and wounded. We have food and ammunition and can hold out several days longer, but need reinforcements. Please lose no time.”
From a diary account of the battle: Tonight a heavy thunder shower drenched the island. It helped. The men lay quietly, with guards posted. They did not dare to light fires. The Indian camp was wailing and chanting. Before full daylight a party of mounted warriors again approached the island. They acted as though they thought that the white men might have abandoned it and were trying to escape by the trail down the river. The scouts crouched close; waited; we gave them a volley that killed two and scattered the others.
There were no more attacks today. The island was under siege, at long range. The men dug their well deeper; they strengthened their breastworks; gathered arrows and twigs and boiled a little horse flesh, for the wounded, in an old pickle jar that was in Colonel Forsyth's saddle-bags.
Tonight Scouts Pliley and Whitney were started out. They were forced back, before morning; could not find a hole in the Indian lines. This night most of the Indian bodies disappeared; the Indians had been heard, creeping to them and dragging them away. Roman Nose had vanished. Only the three bodies near the breastworks remained.
On the third day the Indian women had left the bluffs; but the warriors stayed, watchful. A party of them advanced with a white flag. "Sign to them to keep off," Colonel Forsyth ordered of Scout Grover. "Tell them this is no peace commission. Shoot the first fellow who comes within range."
It was thought that the Indians hoped to be given the three bodies. Today the island men buried their own dead, while the Indians fired at long range. Lieutenant Beecher and four scouts were tucked to rest beneath the sand. Doctor Mooers moaned occasionally. He could not last much longer; lay stupidly, but seemed to know where he was, for once in a while he reached and touched Colonel Forsyth's foot.
Scouts Pliley and Donovan volunteered to try again with a message for Fort Wallace. It was brave men's duty. The chances were that Scouts Trudeau and Stillwell had been captured. Then the Indians would be looking for other messengers—and capture meant torture. How was it possible for any white man to cross the one hundred miles of plains without being caught?
Colonel "Sandy" wrote a courageous dispatch.
Sept. 19, 1868.
To Colonel Bankhead, or Commanding Officer, Fort Wallace:
I sent you two messengers on the night of the 17th instant, informing you of my critical condition. I tried to send two more last night, but they did not succeed in passing the Indian pickets, and returned. If the others have not arrived, then hasten at once to my assistance. I have eight badly wounded and ten slightly wounded men to take in, and every animal I had was killed save seven which the Indians stampeded. Lieutenant Beecher is dead, and Acting Assistant Surgeon Mooers probably cannot live the night out. He was hit in the head Thursday, and has spoken but one rational word since. I am wounded in two places, in the right thigh and my left leg broken below the knee. The Cheyennes numbered 450 or more. Mr. Grover says they never fought so before. They were splendidly armed with Spencer and Henry rifles. We killed at least thirty-five of them, and wounded many more, besides killing and wounding a quantity of their stock. They carried off most of their killed during the night, but three of their men fell into our hands. I am on a little island, and have still plenty of ammunition left. We are living on mule and horse meat, and are entirely out of rations. If it was not for so many wounded I would come in and take the chances of whipping them if attacked. They are evidently sick of their bargain.
"Bring all the wagons and ambulances you can spare," Colonel Forsyth added. "I can hold out here for six days longer, if absolutely necessary, but please lose no time."
This night of September 19 Scouts Pliley and Donovan took the message out. They did not return; when day dawned they were still absent. They must have got a little way, for no shots nor shouts had been heard.
The battle raged for five more days. Forsyth's effective fighting force was reduced to ten men before the Indians finally withdrew, perhaps reasoning that they had inflicted enough damage. Miles from help and lacking wagons and horses, Forsyth knew that many of his wounded would soon be dead if they didn't get help.
The Indians in sight gradually lessened. The island men ventured to steal to their former camp; they scraped some grains of coffee from the ground and brought in a couple of camp kettles. The mule and horse meat was spoiling rapidly, but they sprinkled gun-powder upon it to kill the odor, and cooked it.
A coyote wandered near. They shot him and ate him.
September 22, the sixth day, dawned, and no rescue was in sight. By the sun and the rains and the night chill and the flies, the wounded were suffering dreadfully. The meat was sickening; the whole place reeked with the carcasses. Even the unwounded were growing weak. So Colonel "Sandy" called the men to him, and spoke.
"You know the situation as well as I do, boys. Some of us are helpless, but aid must not be expected too soon. Our messengers may not be able to get through to Wallace, or they may have lost their way and be delayed. You have stood by me like heroes. I don't ask you to stay and starve. We can't live on this horse meat forever. The Indians have gone; we've given them such a lesson that I don't think they'll attack again. Those of you who are strong enough had better try for escape. You can't do any good by staying, and if you use care I believe you'll get away. The rest of us will take our chances here."
"Never, colonel!" they shouted.
"No, sir!" Sergeant McCall, the ex-brigadier general, added. "Not much, sir! We've fought together, and if need be we'll die together!"
Not a man left the island.
Years later, The Dallas Morning News, on November 24, 1893, ran a reprint from the Chicago Herald newspaper:
One of the Survivors of the Republican River Fight Relates His Experiences on that Occasion
Comanche Jack Stilwell of El Reno, Oklahoma, one of the last of the great scouts now alive who lent so much blood and romance to the operations of government troops against hostile Indians in the 1860’s is at present the guest of his friend, Buffalo Bill (Cody), in this city (Chicago). (Editor’s Note: Where Buffalo Bill was staging one of his many Wild West Shows.)
Jack Stillwell, recounted his memories for the newspaper:
“The Indians bore down on our center and breaking it dashed almost half way to the main party of our men when a bullet struck Roman Nose behind and pierced his abdomen. The old fellow fell nearly to the ground, when with his dying grasp, he caught the horse’s mane and made a desperate effort to return to his seat. But, he was hit so hard that he soon fainted and was born off the field by his soldiers. A young warrior who I have always believed was a relative of Dull Knife, now assumed command. He had just succeeded in rallying his horsemen nearly all of whom were dismayed at the fate of Roman Nose, when he too, fell dead with a bullet in his head. From that moment the Indians didn’t seem to recognize any commander, but kept up the fight in a haphazard way until after 5 o’clock when they received reinforcements and a new man in command. From this time until sundown no one man could describe the fight, as each of us was so busy with his own affairs that he paid no attention to the movements of his neighbor. At sundown the Indians drew off their horses but left their sharpshooters. I then joined the main party and for the first time learned the effect of the fire of the Indians. Col. Forsyth had both legs broken, Lieutenant Beecher had a broken back and three bullets in his body, and Dr. Mooers had been fatally shot in the head. It looked as though I was about the only man left unhurt. As it was over twenty five men or more than one half our force were either dead or wounded It was nearly midnight when Col. Forsyth ordered old Pete Trudell (Trudeau) and myself to make a forced march to Fort Wallace, which was 120 miles away. Pete was an old trapper and one of the best rifle shots I ever saw. Wrapping blankets about ourselves we crawled out among the Indians whose camp we were soon to learn extended in a direct line south to Wallace. Each of us had cut off a chunk of raw horse meat on the way and then with moccasins, made from the tops of our boots and with the rather stinking saddle blankets wrapped around us we made, we thought, fairly representative Indians, at least so far as poverty and filth were concerned. We succeeded in making three miles the first night. Then we hid ourselves in a washout in a ravine where the grass had grown so tall that it hung over the ledges. Here we lay all the next day listening to the fighting on the island, and yet we were powerless to get the relief we were after or return to our party. That night we made more track toward Fort Wallace only to find ourselves within half a mile of the main village of the Indians on the south fork of the Republican. We got into a swampy place and hid during the day, knowing the Indians would not follow us unto the marsh with their horses. The next morning, we found ourselves at the head of Goose Creek on a high, rolling prairie.
The Indians were so thick all around that we had to hide in the carcasses of two buffaloes. The beasts had been killed the year before so that it was an easy matter to crawl into the shells formed by the bleaching ribs. Of course there was more room outside, but it was not half so desirable as the place we had chosen. There was just enough hide on the bones to conceal us and so we lay there and waited for night to come. There was nothing unpleasant about the odor of our hiding places. Of course they were no violets, but we didn.t mind that. When night came we pulled out and reached Fort Wallace. As soon as we told our story General Sheridan ordered all available troops to the scene of the fight. Meantime, however, two couriers had reported the fight to Colonel Carpenter.s command, and that good old soldier, without waiting for soldiers, struck right out and reached the battlefield forty-eight hours before the troops from the fort got there.
“That fight,” the old scout continued, “was fought on the Arickaree fork of the Republican. I don't know how to spell that word and I never saw a man who did.
The message to Fort Wallace had said: "I can hold out here for six days longer, if absolutely necessary." The six days would expire on September 25. The men swiftly grew weaker. The dried meat all was gone, the cooked meat had been eaten; only the carcasses remained, and they—were rotting. Soon the island was upon the shortest of short rations. Every mouthful of soup had to be swallowed with eyes and nostrils closed tight. By the evening of September 24 no one was strong enough to leave the island, afoot, even if he planned to. Matters looked very dubious. Scouts Trudeau and Stillwell had been out seven nights and days; and this was the eighth day for the island.
The morning of September 25, the ninth day, was clear and hot, after a beautiful sunrise. Dark moving objects were seen upon the hills far to the south.
"Injuns! They've come back!"
The men stared with bleared, swimming eyes. "Well, we'll get some fresh horse meat, anyhow."
They were still gritty, those Forsyth scouts.
"Wait ! Isn't that a dog? Looks like Doctor Fitzgerald's greyhound."
Doctor Fitzgerald was the post surgeon at Fort Wallace. Scout Sharp Grover leaped to his feet and flung his carbine into the air.
"By the Heavens above us, boys, there's an ambulance! It's the soldiers! We're rescued."
Lt. Col. Louis H. Carpenter's all-black 10th Cavalry, managed to arrive at the island a day before Bankhead. Carpenter was concerned there would be no survivors left by the time he got there with his entire force and their 13 wagons, so he organized a flying column of 30 troopers and an ambulance and, with John Donovan as guide, set out for the Arickaree. They covered 100 miles in two days. The sight of Carpenter's cavalry coming over the hill understandably set off wild celebration among the remnants of Forsyth's command. Shlesinger described it this way: "When Old Glory and those faded blue uniforms came marching across Arickaree Valley at the double-quick, sobs, tears and even laughter and hysteria mingled."
Scouts Trudeau and Stillwell had reached Fort Wallace; so had Scouts Pliley and Donovan. Scout Donovan was guiding the Buffalo Soldiers and Stillwell was coming with Colonel Bankhead.
The starved island men feebly cheered; they had no words to waste—they rushed the foremost riders, clung to the saddles and tore at the saddle pockets, crazy for food.
But Colonel Forsyth—
Unable to rise, burning with fever and gaunt with hunger, he half lay in his pit, pretending to read a tattered old book. It was a paper-bound copy of "Oliver Twist." He dared not join in the excitement; he was afraid that he would break down—he had to be the soldier and the commanding officer.
Colonel Carpenter galloped in. Colonel "Sandy" closed his book, looked up with a wan smile, and stretched out his quivering hand.
"Welcome to Beecher's Island, Colonel."
Colonel George Alexander “Sandy” Forsyth: For his actions at Beecher Island, he received a brevet to brigadier general effective September 18, 1868. Between 1869 and 1873 he served as military secretary to Lt. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan and between 1878 and 1881 as Sheridan's aide-de-camp. In his permanent rank, he received a promotion to lieutenant colonel of the 4th Cavalry on June 26, 1881.
Forsyth retired from the Army in March 1890 and was promoted to colonel on the Retired List in April 1904. He died at Rockport, Massachusetts, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
“Comanche” Jack Stillwell was later a city judge of El Reno, Oklahoma. He said he accepted the office with a reason that he didn.t know any law and could therefore make an impartial judge.
Jack Stilwell was the brother of Frank Stilwell who was killed by the Earps in Tucson, AZ. Shortly after his brother was killed Jack arrived in Tombstone and joined the posse to arrest the Earps. The Earps, however, had left Arizona.
It is difficult to find information on Commanche Jack" Stilwell. At the age of twelve he spoke fluent Spanish and handled his gun like a veteran frontiersman. At the age of fifteen he worked in the Arkansas Valley as a scout.
Stillwell died of Bright's Disease (kidney failure) on February 17, 1903, in Cody, Park County, Wyoming. and is buried in Old Trail Town Cemetery, Cody, Wyoming.
Jack Stillwell, by Richard Florence
Jack Stillwell’s grave in
Abner “Sharp” Grover: Abner Grover's early years are not known. His first appearance in government records list him as a scout-spy for Fort Kearney and as a guide for the same in 1864. Grover certainly had lived on the plains for a number of years since he spoke Cheyenne and Sioux. He was married to a Sioux woman. In 1868, Abner was hired by Lieutenant Beecher to scout the area north and west of Fort Wallace in Kansas. The year 1868 proved to be a time of uprising with indian raids sweeping through Kansas and Colorado. Forsyth placed Abner Grover in command.
On February 16, 1869, a drunk Grover began to harass a man named Moody. Having had trouble with Grover before, Moody shot and killed an unarmed Grover. Abner Grover is buried in the old Fort Wallace Cemetery which is now part of the Wallace Cemetery near Wallace, Kansas.
Abner “Sharp” Grover’s gravesite
Forsyth Scout and Beecher Island Newsletter, #5 & 6, June & July, 2008
Editor’s Note: They still have reunions at Beecher Island. A regular “Forsyth Scout and Beecher Island Newsletter is published and many of the descendants of those who fought at the Beecher Island Battle attend the reunions and stay in touch via the newsletter. Extensive genealogies on most, if not all of the participants are updated regularly.
This story was brought to us by Keri Feather, who says: I live in Escondido and have been reading The Paper on and off since the article on Kit Carson. About once a month my husband and I go to Casino del Charro on Quince to have lunch. I discovered The Paper there. I finally subscribed a couple of weeks ago. I have no idea of the history behind your paper or if there is any political agenda behind it. I just love the cover stories about the old west. You do a wonderful job and the layout with pictures and all is very nice!
I have family in Kansas about 20 minutes from this battle. If you have ever been to Kansas in September you would be amazed the heat and bugs didn't kill these guys. General Forsyth was a great officer. He was going to school to be a lawyer. He joined the military during the civil war. He eventual became secretary, or something of that nature, to "Little Phil" Sheridan. Was shot in the hip at some big battle during the war. During the Beecher battle he was shot in the head. (This head injury later caused some impulse control problems and chronic headaches. He over spent and borrowed from everyone.) At Beecher he was shot in the thigh and calf. No one would remove the bullet from his thigh since it was so close to the femoral artery so he removed it himself. At one point his men put him on a blanket and lifted him so he could assess the battle. The Indians fired a shot and one scout holding the blanket dropped him and one of his calf bones pushed through the skin. In Dixon's book he is quoted as saying something to the effect, even the Angels in Heaven could not block out the bad words he said at that moment!
When help arrived he laid back and acted as if he was leisurely reading a book! A hero to the end.
The scouts are great too.And each with a colorful history. One of Lt. Beecher’s relatives is the Author of Uncle Tom's Cabin. (Harriet Beecher Stowe - editor). A GREAT book is by Jeff Broome, "Dog Soldier Justice." It is all about the kidnap of scout Alderice(sp) wife and family. The hardships these pioneers endure help keep me from ever complaining. If you get a chance read this book. Jeff Broome is on that email list and is loaded with western history. I don't know how approachable he is but he may give you some ideas for good stories too.
This Mike Day doing these newsletter would probably put you on his list for the newsletters if you contact him. I can't wait to read your article! Take care and God Bless.
Beecher Island after the battle was over. The faded typewritten message imprinted on the photo reads:
“Site of the battle of Beecher’s Island as it appears in 1917. The south channel of the Arickaree has been closed owing to the shifting sands of the stream. Taken at one of the annual reunions of the scouts."