SOME FAMOUS KANSAS FRONTIER SCOUTS
Paul I. Wellman
In the divers Indian wars which kept the western frontier in a turmoil throughout much of the time between 1857 and 1878 Kansas played a tragic and at the same time a heroic part. Like her sister states of Nebraska and Texas and the Dakota territories she suffered under the scourge of the Indian raiders, and many of her citizens died in the glare of their burning homes in the settlements on the Smoky Hill, the Republican, the Arkansas, the Solomon and elsewhere. Like these other states she sent her sons to avenge the atrocities committed.
Thus far Kansas played a part akin to that of all the other frontier states. But there was one respect in which she outshone all the others. That was in her contribution of great plains scouts to this frontier war, in which she surpassed every other state in the West.
Study the big Indian campaigns between 1860 and 1878 - Kansas men were the real leaders in every one. Kansans were the keen-eyed followers of the trail; the cranny diagnosers of ambuscades; the wise advisors to ward off the duplicity of Indian diplomats; the interpreters at the councils. In a word, more Kansas men qualified as high-class scouts in the Indian wars - and the position of the scout was often far more important than was the position of the commanding officer himself - than qualified from any other state or territory.
Sharp Grover, Billy Comstock, Charlie Reynolds, Billy Dixon, Jack Stillwell, Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill Cody, William Mathewson - even Kit Carson and William Bent to mention only a few received a part or all of the training in plainscraft in Indian strategy and in the lessons of hardihood, endurance and loyalty on the plains of Kansas.
To understand why this should be it must be remembered that the frontier history of the West is divided into three epochs, each significant of the progress of the civilized white man in occupying the land, and of the growing resentment of the savage red man because of that encroachment.
First came the epoch of the trapper and the trader. A wild, daring, irresponsible class of men they were, those forerunners of the pale face's civilization. They little resembled heralds of civilization. More savage in dress, actions and habits were many of them than the very Indians among whom they wandered to wrest their precarious livelihood from the wilderness. Yet they sowed the seeds from which were to spring the beginnings of the new era.
These trappers and traders fared forth with a hardihood and resource absolutely amazing, braved the peril of death by torture, and filtered among the wild tribes of the plains and mountains in search of beaver and other peltries. In this search they penetrated to the uttermost corners of the present United States. They went in search of furs; but they acquired something more important to the nation than that-a priceless knowledge of the geography, people and characteristics of the great unknown hinterland, which, disseminated in the East, probably had greater influence on the quick settlement of the West than any other one factor.
To this period belong men like Kit Carson, the Bent brothers and their partner, Ceran St. Vrain, "Old Bill" Williams, Jim Bridger, "Broken Hand" Fitzpatrick, Jim Beckwourth, Ezekial Williams and others. These were but the better-known typical examples of the hundreds who were cut out of the same piece of cloth and who could shoot "plumb-center," trail a moccasin track over a bare rock, battle a grizzly bear with a bowie knife, and live off anything in hunger time, from their own leggings to "raw buzzart," as occurred in one traditional case.
They did not go forth as conquerors of the soil, these forerunners of their race. The land meant no more to them than it did to the Indians. They made friends with the red men whenever it suited their capricoious purpose; often took wives from among them and many times took part in the tribal wars. In some cases they wrought remarkable changes in the relations of the tribes. A typical case of this is quoted by Billy Peacock, for years a member of the Cheyenne tribe, by whom he is still known as Numose, "the Left Hand."
After the building of Bent's Fort, according to Peacock, the Bents and St. Vrain, with Kit Carson and Ed Curtis, traded with the Comanches and Kiowas. The Cheyennes at that time-about 1828 or '29-still lived north in the Black Hills country. To increase their trade, Bent and St. Vrain built the trading post on the Canadian river known as the Adobe Walls from the material used in building the fort. This post was not long occupied. Trouble was stirred up among the southern Indians by the "Spanish" traders of Santa Fe, Taos and other New Mexican towns, who were jealous of Bent and St. Vrain. Things reached such a crisis that St. Vrain, who was in charge at the southern post, was forced to use a subterfuge to get away.
The Kiowas and Comanches had run off his stock. He ran up a white flag and invited their chiefs in for a council. As soon as these chiefs entered the stockade he closed the doors and promised them death unless the stock was returned speedily and he was given safe conduct to Bent's Fort. This stratagem was later used by Custer and others, but this is the first time it appears on the plains. It was effective. The mules were returned and St. Vrain was unmolested in his northward journey.
The Indians still refusing to trade with them, William Bent, with true Yankee cunning, looked around for a new source of business. He had dwelt among the Cheyennes and had a Cheyenne wife. He arranged for a meeting with some of the Cheyenne leaders who were hunting in the Arkansas valley, and after a big powwow induced about half the tribe to move their permanent camps from the northern hunting grounds to the vicinity of the fort.
This, according to Peacock is how the southern Cheyennes separated from the northern Cheyennes who remained in the North. He insists that although these bands have always been considered different and distinct tribes they are in all essentials the same. History records that they were intermarrying and visiting back and forth as late as 1875, when the band of Bull Hump, a northern Cheyenne, returning from a visit to the southern Cheyennes in the Indian territory, was set upon and wiped out by soldiers and buffalo hunters on Sappa creek, in northwestern Kansas.8 If this story is true, it forms an interesting illustration of how the white men changed the habits, history and habitat of many an Indian tribe.
With the beginning of settlement in the eastern part of Kansas and Nebraska began a second epoch. Discovery of gold in the mountains and in California brought a rush of emigrants. The slavery question caused thousands to move into Kansas with the purpose of making it proslavery or antislavery, and thus it was discovered that the "Great American Desert," so-called, was really a fertile and productive territory.
Naturally the Indians resented this high-handed incursion. Beginning in 1857, when Sumner campaigned against the Cheyennes, the frontier was always in danger of a raid, and the youths of that frontier were reared in the art of Indian fighting, taught the secrets of woods and plains craft, and schooled in all the fine arts of combating at their own game the fierce nomads of the wilderness. This was the period when most of the Kansas scouts got their training and fitted themselves for their strenuous and important adventures, which occurred in the third epoch, the epoch of the real Indian wars.
In 1858 gold was found in Colorado and a new rush of emigrants started up the Santa Fe and Platte trails. The passage of thousands of white men with their stock and their families up these trails, frightening away the game, excited and angered the Indians. Trouble soon broke out. There were brushes with the red men on the overland trails and then sporadic raiding began against isolated settlements. In the main, however, the tribes kept the peace until 1863, when minor depredations increased to a point where they resembled a general war, and the government in the throes of civil war, decided it must do something to put an end to these troubles. There were several minor fights with the Indians, and on November 29, 1864, occurred the massacre of Black Kettle's village on Sand creek by Chivington, which set the whole Indian country into a blaze of hatred.
The chief theater of war was in Wyoming and the Platte valley of Nebraska during 1865 and 1866. In 1867 occurred the campaign by General Hancock in southern Kansas and present-day northern Oklahoma, which resulted in nothing except to give the Indians renewed confidence. The following year, 1868, saw the red men receive three stunning defeats-the repulse of Roman Nose's band by Col. G. A. Forsyth's command at Beecher's Island; Gen. George A. Custer's winter attack on Black Kettle's village on the Washita; and Gen. Eugene A. Carr's defeat of Tall Bull's band at Summit Springs. In each case the leading chief was killed. After that the Indians subsided until 1874, when, maddened by white buffalo hunters who ignored the Medicine Lodge peace treaty, they flamed into revolt again. For the next year the troops were kept busy pursuing the hostiles, and the bloody battles of Adobe Walls, R Palo Duro Canyon and elsewhere, together with scores of massacres and raids, painted the frontier a gory hue. Scarcely was this war brought to an end, in 1875, when the Sioux to the north went on the warpath. In the year which followed, Reynolds was defeated on the Powder river, Crook was defeated on the Rose Bud, and Custer and all his immediate command were wiped out on the Little Big Horn. The Sioux were finally subdued and the Northern Cheyennes were rounded up and moved to the reservation of the Southern Cheyennes in the Indian territory, which precipitated Kansas' last real Indian raid-the Dull Knife raid of 1878.
That campaign, resulting in the death of scores of Kansans in the path of the desperate Cheyennes, ended Indian troubles in this state, although in other states, notably in Colorado during the Ute uprising, in Arizona and New Mexico during the Apache wars, and in the Dakotas during the Ghost Dance outbreak, there was plenty of bloodshed and bitter fighting before the red warriors were convinced that, whether it was right or not, might held the winning hand. Now let us glance at the part the Kansas scouts played in this panorama of warfare.
One of the best and bravest of them was Charlie Reynolds. Born in Kentucky in 1842, he came to Kansas when only a boy of sixteen, by way of an emigrant train bound for California. The train was attacked by Indians on the Platte and most of the emigrants were killed, but Reynolds escaped to become a Nemesis to the race which had done that deed. After some wandering he came to Atchison county, and at the opening of the Civil War enlisted in and served in a Kansas regiment for three years, chiefly as a scout. At the end of the war he went on a trading expedition and again ran afoul of the Indians when his party was attacked on the Smoky Hill. Reynolds' fellow trader was killed, but he took refuge in a wolfer's dugout and stood the Indians off until nightfall, when he escaped and finally reached Santa Fe in safety.
During the summer of 1866 Reynolds hunted buffalo in western Kansas and eastern Colorado, where he earned such a reputation as a plainsman that he was appointed an army scout. He accompanied the troops north in 1873 and was Custer's chief of scouts in the Black Hills expedition in 1874. Reynolds it was who discovered that Rain-in-the-Face, the Sioux chief, was guilty of the murder of Doctor Honzinger, a veterinarian, and Balleran, a sutler, during the black Hills expedition. He also helped in the arrest of the chief.
Reynolds was chief of scouts in the ill-fated expedition to the Little Big Horn. He died trying to stave off the rush of the Sioux warriors who were shooting down the soldiers of Major Reno as they tried to retreat across the Little Big Horn river. He is buried, and a tablet shows where he died bravely fighting, on the field of the Little Big Horn.
Another excellent scout and daring fighter was Sharp Grover. He is said to have been a "squaw man," having lived as a member of the Sioux tribe and been married to a Sioux wife. When Colonel Forsyth organized his famous expedition for the Beecher Island campaign Grover went along as chief of scouts.
That was a real distinction in that group, for most of them were veteran plainsmen in their own right. They were all Kansas men, too-trappers and hunters and ranchers and ex-soldiers, many of them former members of the Confederate army. In this hard-bitten and efficient detachment Grover still managed to stand out, and his commanding officer later wrote of his high opinion and trust of him. He could speak Sioux, and was also expert in sign talk, the universal language of the plains. Moreover, he was a finished plainsman.
Largely through his guidance, Forsyth trailed and overtook the Cheyennes and Sioux under Roman Nose and fought the almost disastrous battle with them on Beecher's Island. It was Grover who pointed out a huge Indian as Roman Nose himself, and Grover is reputed to have killed this Indian, although the Cheyennes later denied that this was Roman Nose. Still, Roman Nose was killed in this battle, and Grover should have known him from personal acquaintance. It is the writer's opinion that he was correct in his identification. At the time he scouted for Forsyth, Grover was suffering from a still unhealed wound in the head which he had received when his friend Billy Comstock was treacherously killed by Sioux Indians, in August, 1868, on the Solomon river. This occurred only a month before the Forsyth expedition, yet the painful hurts did not prevent him from riding, fighting and scouting as daringly and as intelligently as at any period in his life.
Grover was killed in a shooting affray at Pond Creek, Kan., in the year following this campaign. He was shot by a man named Moody in a saloon brawl. Grover was not armed, having delivered his pistols to the barkeeper, but Moody was allowed to go free as he claimed he had shot in self-defense, thinking Grover armed, when the latter, drunk, started toward him with a flow of abusive epithets.
The name of Billy Comstock has been mentioned above. He was another Kansas scout who stood high in the esteem of the officers with whom he associated. In General Custer's book, My Life on the Plains, he is referred to as "a host in himself" when fighting against the Indians. Billy Comstock was born in Wisconsin, but came west at an early age, living on the frontier by preference. He was one of the original pony express riders, at the time when Wild Bill Hickok and Buffalo Bill Cody were similarly employed. In the winter of 1867 he got into trouble in a fight with a cheating wood contractor who had agreed to pay him a certain sum of money if he would show him where a good supply of wood for the post at Fort Wallace could be found. Comstock lived up to his part of the agreement, but the contractor failed to pay. This man posed as a bad man and boasted of having been a member of the Quantrill raiders, but that made no difference to Comstock. He met his defrauder on the porch of the post trader and shot him dead. His arrest followed and he was taken to Fort Hays for trial. Arraigned before a judge there, he was asked how he would plead.
"Guilty, sir," Comstock replied.
The astonished judge asked him if he wished to alter his plea.
"No, sir," said Comstock, who did not know what it was to lie.
"In that case I discharge you for want of evidence," said the judge, who seems to have known Comstock's late adversary.
In 1868, when the Indian war broke out, Gen. Phil Sheridan sent for Comstock for the purpose of employing him as chief of scouts. Comstock refused to come at the summons, for fear he was to be rearrested for the killing of the wood contractor, so Sheridan, emulating Mahomet in the incident of the mountain, went to him and offered him the position.
He accepted and left his ranch, never to return to it. It was during this service that he met Custer. He was chief scout for that officer during the campaign which resulted in the massacre of Lieutenant Kidder and his men, and also in the fight of Colonel Cook with the hostiles between Fort Wallace and Fort McPherson. Comstock's tragic death has been mentioned. With Grover he was out on a scouting expedition to see if he could discover any traces of hostiles. About fifty miles from Fort Wallace they found the friendly village of Sioux under Turkey Leg, on the banks of the Solomon river. Grover knew these Indians well, as his wife was a member of the band.
Turkey Leg informed them that Roman Nose and his Cheyenne dog soldiers were in the vicinity. Taking the warning, Comstock and Grover started for the fort. Comstock had a beautiful ivory-handled six-shooter. A young Indian had tried to trade him out of it, but he refused. On the way to the fort the two white men fell in with several young braves and were conversing with them in a friendly manner when two or three suddenly whipped their rifles out and fired, killing Comstock instantly and wounding Grover.
The latter defended himself with a rifle, driving the Indians off. Wounded as he was he made his way to the nearest railroad station, where he was brought to the post. General Bankhead sent out an expedition which brought in Comstock's body and gave it Christian burial.
Jack Stillwell, whose real Christian name was Charles, was an other member of the Forsyth expedition who later became famous as a scout. At the time he enlisted with Forsyth at Fort Hays he was just a boy, only nineteen years old, but already an experienced hunter and plainsman. He took part in the Beecher Island fight, and, with Pierre Trudeau, was the first to volunteer to get through the Indian cordon when night fell and go for help.
The pair managed to get only a short distance when daylight came and they hid all day in a small washout, in full view of the Cheyenne camp. Fortunately no Cheyennes investigated the place and when night fell again they resumed their journey. This time daylight caught them in an open plain, with nothing better to hide in than a buffalo wallow. The story of what followed has been disputed, but it is given for what it is worth:
Soon after they took refuge in the wallow a band of Cheyennes came up and dismounted about fifty yards away. At almost the same moment, a rattlesnake made his appearance, crawling down into the wallow toward the two men. They were in a fearful dilemma. If they killed the snake the noise would be heard by the Indians who were almost on top of them. If they did not kill it, it would be almost sure to bite one or both of them. Stillwell solved the problem in an unexpected way. He was chewing tobacco and as the reptile approached he expectorated a mouthful of tobacco juice all over its head and eyes. That routed the unwelcome visitor, which turned tail and crawled dejectedly away. Soon after the Indians also left and the men were free to continue, eventually reaching Fort Wallace with news of the fight.
After that, Stillwell's reputation as a scout was made. He served with distinction under Custer and was guide for the Nineteenth Kansas during its winter campaign in 1868. He also served during the campaign of 1874, and made a daring ride from the Darlington agency to Fort Sill, seventy-five miles alone through hostile country, to bring news of the outbreak and get help. Later he was a scout for Gen. "Black Jack" Davidson.
At the close of the war he acted for a time as a deputy United States marshal, and later was a United States commissioner at Anadarko. He spent his last days on the Wyoming ranch of Buffalo Bill Cody.
The name of Billy Dixon is known wherever the Indian war of 1874 is recalled. He was probably the outstanding single figure of that struggle being an individual hero at the battle of Adobe Walls and at the Buffalo Wallow fight, and serving with distinction as a scout.
Dixon was born in West Virginia, but came west to Missouri at the age of twelve to live with an uncle. Two years later he went "on his own" to Kansas and the plains. At Leavenworth he obtained a job as a bullwhacker for a wagon train operating between that city and Fort Scott. Later he freighted between Leavenworth and Fort Collins, Colo., and drove a wagon for the government peace commission to the treaty of Medicine Lodge in 1867. From bullwhacking he drifted into wolf hunting, and then into buffalo hunting, in which he engaged from 1870 to 1874, hunting buffalo first in western Kansas, then gradually drifting south into the Indian territory and finally the Texas panhandle. In this work he became a wonderfully proficient rifle shot; in fact, he was one of the most expert ever seen in the Southwest.
During the summer of 1874 he was hunting in the vicinity of the old Adobe Walls location of Bent and St. Vrain, when the Indians, without warning, suddenly went on the warpath. They killed a number of hunters and made a surprise attack on the hunter's stockade at Adobe Walls, where Dixon with twenty-five other men and a woman, the wife of one of them, were headquartering at the time.
They were nearly all Kansans, most of them being from Dodge City, then the buffalo-hide capital of the world. In the bloody fight which followed Dixon and his fellow hunters beat off the Indians with heavy losses and held them at bay until help came from Dodge City. During this siege Dixon made one of the most celebrated shots in the history of the West. At a distance of nearly a mile from the fort which the buffalo hunters were defending, is a steep bluff. Observing some Indians watching them from the top of this acclivity, Dixon decided to try a shot at them. He took careful aim, and pulled the trigger of his big "50" buffalo gun. Incredible as it may seem, the bullet struck its target and an Indian fell from his pony, to be carried away by his friends. In later years a state surveyor measured the exact distance from the bluff to the fort, and found it was 1,538 yards, not far from seven-eights of a mile.
A few months later Dixon, while traveling with a small party with dispatches from Gen. Nelson A. Miles, then camped on McClellan creek, to Fort Supply, was surrounded by a war party of approximately 100 Kiowas and had to fight for his life in a buffalo wallow. In the party were Amos Chapman, another scout, and four soldiers. One of the soldiers was killed and every man in the party was wounded more or less seriously, but they succeeded in repulsing the Indians and holding them off until help came. Dixon rescued his friend Chapman from under the very guns of the Indians during the fight. Every member of the party received congressional medals of honor for their bravery." Dixon died in 1913. He had taken up ranching near the scene of the Adobe Walls fight and was successful. His widow, who is the author of his spirited biography, still resides at Amarillo.
James Butler (Wild Bill) Hickok was another Kansas product. Although his chief fame arises from his exploits as a gun-fighting marshal in various frontier towns, he was long a scout and a good one, too. He had an adventurous experience as a scout in the Union army during the Civil War and later on the plains. Custer speaks of him with high praise.
Wild Bill was born in Illinois, but like the others described in this article, came early to Kansas, then the very focus of adventurous frontier life. He served as an attendant at a stage station, during which time the much publicized ''McCanles gang" fight is said to have taken place.40 Whether or not this fight occurred exactly as has been told, the fact remains that Hickok became one of the greatest of plains celebrities.
After his Civil War experience he returned to Kansas and spent most of the remainder of his life in the state. He scouted for Hancock and Custer, and then was marshal of several successive towns, including Abilene, Fort Hays and Dodge City, finally being shot down from behind at Deadwood, S. Dak., in 1876.
Another Kansas scout about whose career there is much controversy was William F. Cody, known to hundreds of thousands as "Buffalo Bill." Whether or not he killed the numerous Indians he claims to have slain in his autobiography, it is certain that he was employed as a scout by many officers, including Carr, Sheridan, and Miles, and therefore must have been efficient and able in that line. Cody was reared near Leavenworth, and rode pony express before his scouting and buffalo-hunting days. He became world famous as a circus man and probably will always remain an almost legendary character of the frontier.
Comparatively little is known about William Mathewson, although he was an associate and friend of Kit Carson and did many highly important scouting services for the government. Mathewson, of Scotch descent, trapped all over the Rockies in the days before there was any thought of settlement. Later he traded among the Indians in western Kansas for years. In 1853 he established a post known as the Cow Creek ranch on the great bend of the Arkansas.
It was here that Mathewson earned the Kiowa name Sillpah Sinpah, signifying "Long Bearded Dangerous Man," from his treatment of the celebrated chief, Satanta, who attempted to help himself to a part of Mathewson's trade stock without paying for it. Mathewson gave the Indian a terrific beating with his fists and ended by kicking him and his friends out of the store room.
Strangely the incident made a life-long friend out of Satanta, who rode hundreds of miles to warn Mathewson when the Kiowas went on the warpath in 1864. On June 20, 21, 22, 1864, Mathewson and five employees in the Cow Creek ranch fought a three-day battle with an overwhelming force of Kiowas who surrounded them. Finding they could not carry the fort, the Kiowas turned their attention to a wagon train which came into the vicinity, bound for New Mexico, laden with government ammunition and guns. Mathewson had been notified of the approach of the wagon train and its freight several days before. But for some reason the 150 men and boys in the train did not know they were carrying munitions.
When the Indians attacked they at first could scarcely defend themselves from lack of arms, but Mathewson seeing their danger leaped upon his horse, and rode right through the Indian lines into the wagon inclosure. Under his direction some of the boxes of guns and ammunition were opened and the hostiles soon were made to realize that they had better retreat.
In 1864 Mathewson rode as a scout for General Blunt's expedition. Later he did much to bring the Indians together for the Little Arkansas treaty which preceded the great Medicine Lodge peace council.
When the government wished to treat with the Indians and move them out of Kansas into the Indian territory it was Mathewson who went out at the risk of his life and visited band after band and induced them to attend the council. His son, William Mathewson, Jr., told the writer that Mathewson's chief danger in this perilous work was that he would be shot before he could identify himself to the Indians. Once he was known to them he was always received gladly, because his reputation among them as an honest and generous trader was universally accepted. In approaching a village Mathewson made a practice of creeping up close to it, so that when he suddenly revealed himself he was close enough to be recognized, his son says. Largely through his efforts the great concourse of tribes was gathered at Medicine Lodge, with the results which history has recorded.
It was Mathewson, incidentally, who first bore the title of "Buffalo Bill," due to his prowess in killing buffalo for starving settlers in 1860. This title was later conferred upon Cody through the "generosity" of Ned Buntline, the dime-novel writer, who came west to write his particular type of lurid literature. In an interview printed in a newspaper now in the possession of William Mathewson, Jr., Cody acknowledged that Mathewson was the "original" Buffalo Bill.
Among Mathewson's exploits was the rescue of the two Kirkpatrick girls, Helen and Louisa, from captivity among the Indians. Through his influence with the savages he is said to have made arrangements for the release of no less than fifty-four women and children during his years on the frontier.
Mathewson's extreme reticence and modesty were such that he never would talk to newspaper men or relate his adventures except on rare occasions. He is deserving of a much greater place in history than he has thus far received.
These are only a comparative few of the Kansans who won fame as Indian scouts. Even the great Kit Carson got much of his experience in this state. His first Indian fight was in Kansas, and Pawnee Rock is said to have been named by him in honor of a brush with that tribe which took place there. He spent much time at Bent's fort, almost on the present Kansas-Colorado border, and made many trading trips into Kansas. On one occasion, with two other trappers and three Delaware Indians, he was surrounded by Comanches in the southwestern corner of the state, and there fought one of his most spectacular battles.
Ben Clark, Amos Chapman, California Joe, Billy Peacock, John Cook - all spent some part of their lives in Kansas. An so it was with many others. Kansas furnished the scouts who formed the vanguard in the wars which brought civilization to the West. (The Kansas Historical Quarterly, Volume 1, Number 1, November, 1931, pages 345-359)