Early Rice County
Published, December, 1928
The Old Santa Fe Trail
No road in the nation's life has been the scene of such romantic history as the old Santa Fe trail. The term "fraught with hardships" has come to be a trite allusion to its countless hazards and episodes. Along its course of nearly eight hundred miles there have occurred tragedies beyond number. Some of them have been recorded. Many have been lost with the passing of time; others cling on in legend and tradition, at the border of being forgotten.
It forms an important chapter in our local history, this fading old prairie highway. To pass it by with but brief mention would be to ignore a great wealth of historic treasure.
To say when the old Santa Fe trail was first used by man would be nothing more than a foolish guess. Writers have suggested that it had a prehistoric origin, that it was in use by the Indians long before the arrival of the first white visitor. Likely that is true, for the same thing prompting its use in later years would have accounted for it then. That thing is "accessibility". It may have been, in a way, the path of least resistance, but by that there can be no reflection upon those who chose it, for then the "least" was by comparison the "utmost".
The course of Coronado may have followed the trail for many miles. There are historians who contend that the Spaniard traversed it on his incoming journey. Others differ in that point but route him back to Mexico over that path. Whatever the actual fact, if he set foot upon it at all, and if the accounts of Onate and other early adventurers are true, then they too must have known it shortly afterward. It may have been shown to them by the Indians or they may have discovered it for themselves. But they must have followed it at least a part of the way.
For a period of more than a century after the latest of these Spaniards the trail was little used by white man. It, with all the other possessions of the plains, reverted to the exclusive use of the Indian. Then came trappers and traders-French for the most part, but Spanish and others as well. They were pioneers in every sense of the word for the country was no more civilized then than when first viewed by Coronado and his sturdy little band in 1541.
One of the earliest of the successful trips over the trail was in 1821 when Captain William Becknell and four others started from Arrow Rock, on the Missouri, joining up eventually with a party of Mexican soldiers returning to Santa Fe. Their goods were disposed of at a figure larger than anticipated, and this of course stimulated further traffic when they had returned to relate their good fortune.
Colonel Benjamin Cooper and his two nephews established a line of commerce over the trail from near the same point in 1822. And the following year at least one other party duplicated the feat.
It was in 1825 that congress came to realize the commercial importance of trail traffic, and as a consequence a commission was appointed to survey and map the route, gaining permission of the Indians along the way. This resulted in the treaty at Council Grove, which was signed on August 11, 1825.
The field notes of Joseph C. Brown of the United States surveying expedition, as they concern Rice county, are as follows:
Indian creek (a branch of Turkey creek in the present county of McPherson), 10 links wide, runs southwestwardly. Affords good water and grass but no fuel. From the higher parts of the prairie hereabout the sand hills appear west of the Little Arkansas. Sora Kansas creek, 10 links, bears southwestward. About three miles south of the ford is a grove of timber on this creek, and at the upper timber it may be crossed, but generally the crossing south of the road would be bad. At this grove the commissioners met the Kansas chiefs in council on the 16th of August, 1825 (a few miles south of McPherson).
From the Sora Kansas creek to the ford of the Little Arkansas the road bears to the southward of the direct line to avoid, or head, a branch of the Kansas river. It is important that the ford on the Little Arkansas be found, as it is generally impassable on account of the high banks and unsound bed. The ford is perhaps half a mile below the mouth of a small creek which runs into it on the east side.
At the crossing of the Little Arkansas there is wood for fuel, and the water and grass are tolerably good. Having crossed the creek, travel up a small branch of it, continuing on the south side of it. There is no timber on this creek, which is short. When at the head of it the sand hills will appear a few miles to the left.
Difficult creek (Jarvis creek branch of Cow creek) 10 links, runs south'd. It should be crossed just at the upper timber. Water and grass tolerably good.
Cold Water or Cow creek is a narrow stream from 30 to 50 links wide, for the most part miry, banks commonly high. There is a tolerable crossing just above the largest body of timber on it, which is very conspicuous; on the two branches eastward of the creek is timber. The camping is good on this creek for wood, grass and, commonly, buffalo.
From Cow creek the traveler should be careful not to bear too much to the left or he will get on the sands; he may travel directly west or a little north of west, as he may choose, to fall on the Arkansas. After crossing Cow creek the beaten road, which hitherto has been plain, will probably be seen no more as a guide. The Arkansas will be the guide for about two hundred miles.
On the Arkansas through all the space traveled there is a great similarity of features. The hills are commonly very low and the ascent almost everywhere so gentle that wagons may go up them. They are covered with very short grass and the prickly pear abounds. Soil on the hills is not very good. The bottoms on the river are sometimes good, nut frequently not so. They are sometimes a mile or more in width, frequently rising so gently it would be difficult to designate the foot of the hills. It is generally sandy near the river and the grass coarse and high, consequently the traveling is bad near the river, but a little off of it is almost everywhere good. On Cow creek or Cold Water, short grass commences, and the short grass bounds the burnings of the prairie. This creek is almost as nigh home as the buffalo are found, and from this creek they may be had at almost any place until within sight of the mountains near Santa Fe. Before leaving the river where fuel is plenty the traveler will do well to prepare food for the next hundred miles, as he will find no timber on the road in that distance, except at one place, which will not probably be one of his stages. At least he should prepare bread. In dry weather buffalo dung will make tolerable fuel to boil a kettle, but it is not good for bread making, and that is the only fuel he will have.
Thus we are given a reliable view of our county as it presented itself at the outset of trail commerce, more than a century ago.
One of the most widely known historical land marks in the county exists today in name only. It is the "Old Stone Corral" at the crossing of the Santa Fe trail over the Little Arkansas river, southeast of the town of Little River and a short distance from the McPherson county line.
It is unfortunate, of course, that the corral was destroyed, yet from the arrival of the first white settler its fate was determined. There was no sentiment in those early days strong enough to warrant the preservation of tradition at the expense of livelihood or comfort The stone was needed in the upbuilding of the new country. A little was removed at a time until the once symmetrical work of masonry was a poor reminder of its former state; then gradually it became of less value even as a showplace.
There are few persons who remember it. There are fewer yet who can give a plausible reason for its existence. From the best sources of information available today it would seem that the corral, which originally covered several acres and was from five to seven feet in height, was not intended particularly as a fortification but still was equipped with loop holes for firing. Its chief purpose, as the name implies, was that of sheltering the animals of the wagon caravans and preventing their straying away during the night or while the trains were encamped.
An old history in the possession of George Hodgson, Little River pioneer, tells something of its history in the following words:
In 1865 what was known as Stone Corral was built and owned by a man named Wheeler. It was located on the Little Arkansas river, at the crossing of the Santa Fe trail. Here it was during the next year that Colonel Grierson of the U. S Cavalry encamped with his troops, building huts in which to live. Lieutenant Colonel, afterward General, Custer, was the officer under Colonel Grierson and in 1876 he led this same Seventh Cavalry into the jaws of death. The stockade which was made the headquarters of the regiment in 1866 was built of cottonwood logs set upon end.
The most interesting point in the quotation is of course the reference to General Custer, for, altho not stating it specifically, it implies that the famous and afterward unfortunate officer was located there. In fairness to the reader, however, it should be said that two books on her husband's life, written by Mrs. Custer, do not mention Little River crossing altho they do include much about Ellsworth and Hays. It is not likely that Custer was stationed at Little River crossing all one year, altho it is not to be doubted that he was there on occasions or was familiar with the place.
George Hodgson, who homesteaded in Rice county in 1870, taking out a claim not far from the crossing, remembers much about the appearance of Stone Corral at that time. He is of the opinion, as stated in the history in his possession, that the corral was built by an individual, and was told that it was for rent to whoever wished to use it. It was an excellent example of dry masonry, he says, the walls being so perfectly laid and the sandstone slabs so carefully placed together that little or no light could be seen through at any place.
Mr. Hodgson recalls that there was a small room of the same construction built into one corner of the corral, altho for what purpose he is unable to say. He regards the structure as a marvel of pioneer days and something of a mystery for, he ventures, it must have cost several thousand dollars to build. The stone was obtained a mile north, but the labor of quarrying it, bringing it to location and dressing it down was an enormous item of expense.
Herman Wernet who now lives on a farm close by has a rock fence built of the corral material. A school-house nearby contains more of it, while yet more, and a greater part, was hauled to Nickerson a good many years ago and used in the construction of a roundhouse.
The corral is not the only thing that in early days occupied the site at the crossing. The cavalrymen while stationed there threw up earthen breastworks which could be seen for many years afterward. Their dugouts, too, were long distinguishable as small pits which have since been largely filled in.
Another structure at the place was a good sized bridge, built for toll. George Hoffman of Little River who traversed the trail several times prior to 1870, remembers that it was built of logs and lumber and that the toll was seventy-five cents. The man in charge, he recalls, would extend credit to travelers westward bound if they were without funds and would promise to pay on the return trip. The bridge enjoyed a good patronage because of the difficult crossing at the ford. Mr. Wernet remembers that it was built upon piers of stone exactly like that used in the corral. There were three or four of these piers, all solidly constructed.
The soldiers at the crossing, according to Mr. Hoffman, were living in tents and small huts when he saw them there in the late '60s. They were cavalrymen, he recalls, but he does not remember who they were.
It is likely that the first soldiers ever to occupy the camp at the crossing of the Little Arkansas were those of the Doniphan Expedition in 1846. This military organization was a part of the great "Army of The West" which set out from Leavenworth over the trail as a movement in the War with Mexico, to take Santa Fe.
A regiment of the Doniphan men under Lieutenant Colonel Ruff, according to Inman, reached the Little Arkansas crossing on July 9, going into camp. Soon they were approached by couriers from the party of Doniphan and Kearney who declared they were in a starving condition and wanted Lieutenant Colonel Ruff to send them such provisions as he could spare.
Ruff's soldiers, First Missouri Cavalry, were themselves almost destitute, but the officer did the next best thing. He dispatched couriers of his own who were to hurry to the north fork of the Pawnee in an effort to overtake a supply train and secure provisions. One of the couriers was drowned while attempting to ford the swollen Pawnee and stands in history as the first man to die after the expedition reached the plains. Another structure at the Little Arkansas crossing in the '60s was a trading post owned by William Math-ewson who had a ranch nearby, as well as one at Cow creek and another near Great Bend.
As was the case at Cow creek, the later soldiers stationed at Stone Corral lost several of their numbers by sickness or to the Indians, for a good many graves were there in the early days. These were removed about 25 years ago by the late Jim Crawford, a Little River justice of the peace and the father of Mrs. Grant Greenbank of that city. Mr. Crawford had a contract with the government for the work, and the reason for removal was that the little stream was shifting its course and cutting through the cemetery. Thirteen bodies were exhumed, boxed in one large improvised casket and shipped to Fort Leavenworth where they were given final burial in the military cemetery.
Here is a letter, written for use in this book, which explains itself:
Jan. 31, 1928. My dear sir:
Your letter of Jan. 30, has been turned over to me by my son George F. Sternberg.
I was a boy of 17 in 1867 at Fort Harker where my brother George M. Sternberg was surgeon in charge of the hospital. Theodore (late Major U. S. A.) took a ranch at the stone corral on Little Arkansas that year. He took a team from the livery stable and went down to visit it. On his return he happened to look back and saw six Indians in hot pursuit. Whipping up his team he went at full speed until he was out of sight of the Indians in a small ravine. He cut the harness from the horses and sprang on one bareback. He reached the prairie to see the Indians entering the opposite side of the ravine. He began to gain on his pursuers and reached the home ranch, 2Yz mfi.es below Fort Harker, very much worn out and sore. This, I believe, ended his interest in Stone Corral. However, he went back after the buggy and found it intact though the harness had been cut to pieces and most of it taken away. This is all that I can remember in connection with my brother's homestead at Stone Corral.
Theodore's daughter, Miss Charlotte Sternberg, still lives at Kanopolis, Kansas, where Theodore died a year ago. He was then 86 years old.
C. H. Sternberg.
This communication may settle for all time the dispute as to who was the first person to stake out a claim in' Rice county.
It is understood that a number of battles or skirmishes between white men and the Indians occurred in early days at or near the Little River crossing and the old stone corral. But to trace down these rumors is indeed difficult because of the lack of printed material.
One of the most persistent stories is that of a battle between Indians and soldiers stationed at the crossing. Secretary Connelley of the state historical society has heard of it but has nothing definite concerning it in material owned by the society.
A. E. Duvall of Hutchinson is in possession of perhaps the most reliable version of this legend. His father-in-law, a Mr. McConnell, was a pioneer settler of the vicinity of Little River crossing. In fact he owned the land upon which the corral was located, about 1876, and made his home there.
The story as told to Mr. McConnell by other pioneers was that a company of the 10th U. S. Cavalry, colored soldiers, had camped at the crossing in trail days, and that a party of Cheyennes attacked their station one day. The encounter lasted two or three days, during which the Indians, mounted, made repeated charges upon the colored cavalrymen but were finally defeated. Three soldiers were killed and buried there, but in the early '80s the bodies were exhumed and re-interred at Ft. Leavenworth.
A line of breastworks extending south from the old trail bridge, according to Mr. Duvall, was conspicuous up to eight or ten years ago.
There is perhaps more county history centered about the crossing of the old Santa Fe trail over Cow creek, 5 miles southwest of Lyons, than any one other point. For that reason it is more interesting to learn of the early occurrences at that place.
To begin with, there is "Buffalo Bill's" Well, an unusual piece of pioneer work in that it is about forty feet deep and walled almost from top to bottom with sandstone slabs which could not have been procured closer than fifteen miles away.
From the name that has clung to it through many years it has been presumed that the well was dug by William F. Cody. Tradition has it that Cody once kept a corral and ranch at the point. In fact Major Muscott assures us such was the case. There may be some reason to believe that he did-but more that he did not.
A former Lyons man who lived in Denver in the years immediately preceding Cody's death, and while the latter was residing there, is said to have interviewed Cody in regard to the well at Cow creek crossing. Cody, it is said, claimed the well as his own work, explaining that he started at the bottom with a twenty gallon whisky barrel and walled the well with stone above that.
A few years later, according to another Rice county man, the well was cleaned out and the whisky barrel found to be there just as Cody had described it.
It is a certainty that the late William Mathewson, recently coming into his own as the original "Buffalo Bill" once had a ranch and trading post at the crossing. This makes it seem more likely that the well was named for him. William Mathewson, jr., of Wichita, a son of the plainsman, explains that W. F. Cody worked for his father at Cow creek when Cody was but a boy and before he had become known as "Buffalo Bill."
As stated before, there are evidences that each of the "Buffalo Bills" had a hand in the digging of the old well. Then there is this to confuse us: It was known more commonly in earlier years as "Bottle Bill's" Well-whoever that person may be.
But there is an indication that none of these three had much to do with it unless as a matter of assisting the government. Mathewson's ranch was on the west bank of Cow creek. The well is on the east bank, a quarter of a mile away. Here is what Major Muscott, author of a history of Rice county written in the '70s, has to say:
All along the route in the early history of the road were constructed at intervals forts and stockades for defense against the Indians, the remains of some of them still being visible in the county. One of them now called Stone Corral and loop-holed for gunnery is situated near the Little Arkansas.
Another fort with barracks, blacksmith shop, well, rifle pits, etc., was built on the east bank of Big Cow where the Santa Fe trail crosses that stream. The site of the fort is on the southeast quarter of section 2, township 21, range 9 and is owned by John Cole. The well is in good condition and around the site of the old shop and the suttler's store are to be found scraps of old iron, beads and other trinkets for traffic with the Indians. Quite a number of the rifle pits and soldiers' graves are still plainly visible as well as the location of the shop and suttler's store. At this place a regiment of regular troops was once stationed, but at what time and under whose command I am unable to state, but it must have been as late as 1832 or later and in cholera times as the colonel commanding frequently skirmished with the Indians up and down Cow creek and one intensely hot day while thus engaged lost 3 men by cholera. It is said that a trading post was kept direct west of the post in the same section on the west bank of the stream.
Luther Cotton who at one time lived at the farm has a collection of relics picked up about the place. Among them are numerous ox shoes, all found in one place, which he took to be the remains of a corral, but which, more likely, was the site of the blacksmith shop mentioned in Muscott's article. Mr. Cotton also has two gold coins and several silver ones which, if dropped by the soldiers, would indicate they were stationed there in the late '50s or early '60s. To further substantiate this estimate of the date of military occupancy is the statement of Dan Bell, pioneer settler, who was called upon one day to direct a visiting veteran to Cow creek crossing. As they stood upon the hill overlooking the crossing the old man remarked that he had been stationed there with other soldiers in 1867. He did not say how long they were at Cow creek, or why, or who they were.
There is only one reference made to soldiers at Cow creek in the history of the trail written by Colonel Inman. This is but a casual paragraph in which it is mentioned that Lieutenant Hallowell went out from Cow creek station in pursuit of some Indians who had been causing trouble nearby.
The rifle pits used by the soldiers are still discernable. For many years they were kept in a little strip of pasture by the late Mrs. Elmira Six, then owner of the farm, simply because of their historic interest. There were a half dozen or more, all strung along the brow of the hill overlooking and within rifle range of the crossing. It is probable that some of these pits, which in late years are but shallow depressions approximating two feet in depth and fifteen to twenty feet in diameter, were used as bake ovens. Robert Embree of Lyons assisted in digging into some of them a number of years ago and reports having found ashes and little else.
The strip of sod containing the pits was plowed up in the spring of 1927 by the present owners of the farm, John and Lee Blessing. The narrow piece of land with another narrow strip in cultivation between it and the road, was a handicap to modern, large machinery and had to go to make room for the progress of the age. The depressions are deep enough, however, that it will be many years before they are entirely obliterated.
The pits are less than a quarter of a mile from the old well. About the base of the knoll a few yards from them, Mr. Cotton has picked up several articles which were, unmistakably, the property of soldiers. Among other things he has a copper belt buckle bearing the raised letters "U. S."
"Buffalo Bill" Mathewson's ranch at the crossing was there as early as 1860, at which time he was living at the great bend of the Arkansas where he operated a trading post for barter with the Indians. Some time later he built a similar store at Cow creek and another at the Little Arkansas.
Mathewson gives us much of our Cow creek crossing history. Perhaps the most thrilling of his experiences there was a three-day battle with the Indians in which he is said to have participated.
It was on July 20,1864, according to the story, that Mathewson's trading post, built like a fort, was attacked by 1,500 Kiowas, Comanches, Cheyennes and Arapahoes. With Mathewson were five other men. They barricaded themselves inside the building and met the attack. The battle, after lasting three days, lulled suddenly with the Indians withdrawing.
The men watched them and were horrified to see that they had left the fight at the store to attack a wagon train approaching from the east. It was a caravan of 147 wagons and 155 men of Bryant, Barnard and Company of Leavenworth and Kansas City, bearing supplies for troops in New Mexico.
Because of the fact that the Civil war was in progress the freighters were mostly young men or boys.
They did not even know the nature of the goods they were transporting. But Mathewson did, due to an earlier communication from the freight company.
The caravan went into an enclosure and the men grabbed their guns to defend themselves as best they could. Mathewson, disregarding his own safety, broke from his store and, armed with six cap and ball pistols, started through the ranks of the attacking Indians.
It was all so unexpected that the Indians were amazed at his daring. Eventually they recovered from their surprise and turned their attention to him. Most of them were armed with bows and arrows and one of the arrows struck Mathewson who pulled it out and continued toward the train, shooting as he went. He got through and into the enclosure where he found the wagons bearing guns and ammunition and, breaking open the cases, began handing it out to the youths who had few weapons and did not know of the presence of those consigned to the army.
The Indians were soon convinced of their folly and retired, for good. They had lost twenty of their braves in the three days of fighting, and 160 horses, while the white men suffered little or no loss of life.
Mathewson soon afterward joined General Blunt's forces as chief of scouts and was instrumental in driving the Indians from the country.
On August 28, 1864, he was married to Elizabeth Inman and thev continued to live at Cow creek ranch. His wife made butter and cheese-Mathewson having the first milk cows in Rice county, Selling to trail travelers became an important occupation with them. They put up hay and sold it, along with meat and other necessities, to those who passed by.
Mathewson is also said to have arranged the treaty of Medicine Lodge, at the request of the government. His knowledge of and acquaintance with most of the Indians made him successful in this, and through the treaty the Indians agreed to leave the state.
Chief Satanta, known to all plainsmen in those days as a "bad actor", was one of those with whom Mathewson had to deal. Satanta at one time, while Mathewson was at Great Bend, threatened to kill him, but when Satanta and his braves called to make good the threat, Mathewson met them with perfect calm and manipulated the trend of events to the point that he had the upper hand-then thrashed Satanta to within an inch of his life, throwing him out of his trading post.
The Indian gave him no trouble after this, finally leaving the country, but later compromising with him upon the promise of good behavior and the presentation of twenty horses in return for permission to resume his residence upon the buffalo plains. Mathewson accepted both the apology and the horses but returned the animals to him as soon as he was convinced that Satanta was in earnest.
One day Satanta came to Mathewson, at Cow creek, bearing a note given to him by a rancher named Peacock who lived at the great bend. The letter was thought by Satanta to be a recommendation, for which Satanta had asked the writer. But when he had presented it to the boss of a wagon train he was accorded harsh treatment. He wanted Mathewson to read it to him which he did and here is what it said:
This is the lousiest sneak on the plains. Kick him out of camp."
Satanta was enraged and Mathewson, realizing the seriousness of his anger, warned Peacock at his first opportunity. Peacock, however, refused to become alarmed and soon afterward was killed.
There is another version of this story. It is given by Inman as follows:
Some time before Satank (not Satanta) lost his office of chief, there was living at Cow creek, in a rude adobe building, a man who was ostensibly an Indian trader, but whose traffic in reality consisted in selling whisky to the Indians, and consequently the United States troops were always after him. He was obliged to cache his liquor in every conceivable manner so that the soldiers should not discover it, and, of course, he dreaded the incursions of the troops much more than he did the raids of the Indian marauders that were constantly on the trail.
Satank and this illicit trader, whose name was Peacock, were great chums. One day while they were indulging in a general good time over sundry drinks of most villainous liquor, Satank said to Peacock: Peacock, I want you to write me a letter; a real nice one that I can show to the wagon bosses on the Trail, and get all the 'chuck' I want. Tell them I am Satank, the great chief of the Kiowas, and for them to treat me the best they know how.
All right, Satank,' said Peacock, Til do it. Peacock then sat down and wrote the following epistle:
The bearer of this is Satank. He is the biggest liar, beggar and thief on the plains. What he can't beg of you he'll steal. Kick him out of camp for he is a lazy, good for nothing Indian.'
Satank began at once to make use of the supposed precious document, which he really believed would assure him the dignified treatment and courtesy due his exalted rank. He presented it to several caravans during the ensuing week, and, of course, received a very cool reception in every instance, or rather a very warm one.
One wagon master, in fact, black-snaked him out of his camp. After these repeated insults he sought another white friend, and told of his grievances. 'Look here,' said Satank, 'I asked Peacock to write me a good letter, and he gave me this; but I don't understand it! Every time I hand it to a wagon boss, he gives me the devil. Read it to me and tell we what it does say.'
His friend read it over, and then translated it literally to Satank. The savage assumed a countenance of extreme disgust, and after musing for a few moments, said: 'Well, I understand it all now. All right.
The next morning at daylight, Satank called for some of his braves and with them rode out to Peacock's ranch. Arriving there he called out to Peacock, who had not yet risen: 'Peacock, get up, the soldiers are coming!' It was a warning which the illicit trader quickly obeyed and running out of the building with his field glass in his hand, he started for his lookout, but while he was ascending the ladder with his back to Satank the latter shot him full of holes saying as he did so: 'There, Peacock, I guess you won't write any more letters.'
His warriors then entered the building and killed every man in it except one who had been gored by a buffalo bull the day before. He was saved by the fact that the Indian has a holy dread of smallpox, and will never enter an apartment where sick men lie, fearing they might have the awful disease."
Mathewson earned the sobriquet "Buffalo Bill" while living at the great bend. The settlers came into the region from miles away in an effort to kill buffaloes for meat. Many of them were in dire need of food for their families and few of them were experienced in hunting the buffalo.
athewson volunteered to get them, which he did, bringing down 53 of the big animals for the first group of easterners who called upon him for help. He invited them to come back for more and, needless to say, many of them accepted the invitation. He would take no pay, but the name he received will live longer than any sum of money the grateful settlers could have given him.
The Mathewsons, while living at Cow creek crossing, entertained many men of prominence. Among them were plainsmen, Indian chiefs, and army officers. At one time Henry M. Stanley, afterward famous for his African exploration, was a guest at the Mathewson ranch. He had come out from the east as reporter for Cincinnati and New York papers, covering the treaty of Medicine Lodge.
George Hoffman of little River, an early freighter over the Santa Fe trail, remembers Mr. Mathewson and regards him as the original "Buffalo Bill".
Mr. Hoffman tells of an interesting experience at the crossing of Cow creek one day in the late '60s while enroute to the southwest.
The caravan he was with had camped at Cow creek for the noon meal. Across the stream was a teepee of Indians who proved to be Osages-forty of them-out hunting buffaloes. While the men were eating their dinner the chief, a mammoth Indian, came into camp and begged some tobacco, saying they were out and his men were wanting to "have a smoke around". Hoffman gave him several plugs.
It was not long until one of the braves came to the camp and said his chief had sent for Hoffman. He returned with the Indian and entered the tent where he was invited to take his place in the circle and his turn at the pipe. With grave ceremony he was declared "high chief" for the occasion.
Cow creek crossing, while noted in trail days as a particularly favorable camping place, was also recognized as a dangerous point in the long journey to Santa Fe. We have no way of knowing just how many serious engagements with Indians occurred at the spot, but we have record of a sufficient number to prove they were frequent.
Probably the most horrible of these, if we take Inman's word for it, occurred in the summer of 1864 when every man of a wagon train was scalped and otherwise mutilated and the train pillaged and destroyed.
In July the train had started out from Ft. Leaven-worth laden with supplies, ammunition and provisions for the soldiers at Ft. Union, New Mexico. H. C. Barret was the contracting freighter, and had organized his caravan personnel with difficulty because of the trouble being caused by Indians all along the trail at that time. So he did not hestitate in "signing up" Robert McGee when he applied to him for employment.
McGee, a bold youth of seventeen, had previously attempted to enlist in the army but was refused, and later, learning of Barret's contract and feeling that it would be an opportunity to enter government service, volunteered to go.
As a part of the contract terms, a detachment of cavalry had been ordered to accompany the train and protect it from possible attack. There was no trouble of any sort until Cow creek was reached and the soldiers here became lax to the point of allowing the caravan to proceed unescorted.
It was not long, however, before they realized the gravity of their negligence. At the sound of shots in the distance they hastened to the scene where they arrived too late. Everywhere upon the ground were the bodies of the victims, blood still flowing from the wounds of knives and lances, their scalps slashed away. Wreckage was mingled with abandoned loot which had been scattered aimlessly about the prairie. It was a gruesome, horrible scene and undoubtedly a shock to the cavalry commander who, tho he may have tarried through cowardice, undoubtedly realized that he was confronted by a situation he could never explain to his superiors.
The attacking savages were Brule Sioux, about 150 in number, and were led by Chief Little Turtle.
While engaged in the terrible ordeal of removing the bodies, the soldiers observed that two of the freighters still lived. One of these men died a short time later as they were being hurried to Ft. Larned for hospital care, but the other, young Robert McGee, recovered and lived a good many years afterward.
The boy related a harrowing tale. He had first been taken captive and led into the presence of Little Turtle whose barbarity prompted him to slay him with his own hands. He had been struck over the head with a lance handle, shot in the back with a revolver, pierced through by two arrows which pinned him to the ground, and his scalp removed. The other warriors, as they fled from the scene, jabbed his prostrate form with their long lances. And in spite of all this he recovered !
Chief Red Fox, himself a Brule Sioux, who visited Lyons in 1927, was acquainted with Little Turtle. In fact he was a relative altho his estimation of him was not the highest. When advised of the engagement at Cow creek, Red Fox did not indicate surprise, remarking only that Little Turtle was considered a renegade, even by his own people.
About another fight along the old trail through Rice county, Major Muscott says: "A soldier who belonged to a company of cavalry, encamped near Jarvis creek many years ago, informed Norman Reed that as they lay in camp early one morning they heard the report of firearms in the direction of Atlanta. Mounting their horses instantly they rode in hot haste toward the firing and as they rose over the brow of a sandhill they saw just ahead of them in the trail an emigrant train surrounded by several hundred Indians and fighting desperately for their lives. The cavalry at once charged upon the Indians who at the first appearance of the troops broke and fled in the direction of the junction of the Little Cow with Big Cow. The Indians were mounted but the soldiers pursued them with such vigor that many were killed while crossing the Cow and many more while crossing the Arkansas at Raymond."
Plum Buttes, a trail landmark, was known as such because of the presence of large knolls once topped with plum thickets but now bare except for a scant covering of native grass. In trail days the buttes were much higher than at present and could be seen by the caravans as they set out from Cow creek, ten miles east. They were a guiding mark, serviceable and necessary, yet their irregularity meant the eternal hazard of lurking savages.
History, it seems, has left little or no record of a massacre which undoubtedly occurred at Plum Buttes. Perhaps it was the "talk of the trail" for the time being and may have been noted in the diary of more than one plainsman. But it seems not to have been chronicled in a written history of importance or general circulation.
This massacre is more than a local legend. It was one of the grim realities of the trail days between '49 and '70 and, lost in detail tho it may be, it remains in all probability one of the worst to have occurred on the old highway through this county.
In the 70s J. L. Hathaway and his family arrived at the town of Raymond, setting out immediately for their new home on what is now section 34, Pioneer township, a few miles northwest of Chase. The work of preparing the land for crops had scarcely begun before Mr. Hathaway realized that his farm was the site of an early massacre. Scattered over a good part of one quarter section and extending into the section immediately north was the debris of an ill-fated wagon train. The litter consisted of every part of a train that would not burn-wagon tires, hub rims, lengths of chain, broken dishes and a score of other non-inflammable articles that one might expect to find after fire had exacted its toll.
As the years followed, certain little clues were gathered here and there about the farm in the finding of additional debris. The larger irons, for one thing, were observed to have lain in a somewhat circular position as tho the wagons had either drawn up into the usual protective enclosure and had been fired by the attacking natives, or had been piled up for burning by others who arrived later and made an effort to clean up the debris.
This observation might have served as a fair explanation of how the massacre was staged had it not been for a later discovery.
A strip of ground extending nearly a mile northward from the trail and running almost directly away from it was found to be strewn with smaller debris. Here was an indication either of a running fight of part of the caravan or the scattering of loot by the Indians as they rode away from the burning train.
An old Springfield silver watch, a "six shooter" of early make, a pair of horse hobbles and a gun lock are among the sundry articles to have been picked up in the vicinity.
The actual site of the massacre is a mile and a half east of the dunes for which it has been named.
Major Muscott in an article written in the 70s mentions the Plum Buttes massacre briefly and fixes the year, from tradition, as 1863. He mentions, also that about the same time and immediately east of the Buttes, a party of Mexican travelers were surprised and massacred in a basin surrounded by sand hills.
Not far west of the Cow creek crossing there remains a pasture in the virgin sod. It is known to the majority as "Markle's pasture", and is, to be exact, 4-1/2 miles west and 1/2 mile south of Lyons. Many years ago it was the scene of one of the longest and most strenuous battles between Indians and white men ever to occur in the county.
Early in the summer of 1864 a number of wagon trains belonging to the government set out from Ft. Leavenworth, heavily laden with arms, ammunition and supplies consigned to Ft. Union. Four of the trains were ox-drawn while the fifth, and one of the largest, was hauled by ninety-six sleek mules, the pride of their owners and, incidentally, coveted by the Indians.
Approaching Cow creek the men began to hear rumors of activity on the part of the Indians, altho none had been seen. Accustomed to such reports and in fact prepared for trouble at any moment, they carried on without undue concern.
When making camp for the night, at Cow creek, they crossed the stream and sought the pasture beyond where grass was fresher than on the trail ridge. Camp was formed in the customary manner, wagons placed in horseshoe shape, wheels interlocking, and with the open end barricaded with yokes after the animals had been driven inside.
There was nothing to disturb the peaceful slumbers of the one hundred and four men within the enclosure. Some of them grizzled old veterans of the plains, others mere youngsters who certainly belonged in the tenderfoot class-all had become accustomed to the sounds of the prairie, and the unearthly yelping of coyotes merely served to lull them to sleep.
At daybreak, July 18, a cry of warning from a sentinel brought them all bolt upright from their beds. The first thought of every man was to peer out across the prairie and there, riding pell-mell in one great cloud of dust were painted savages in a horde estimated at six hundred strong. They charged in from the southwest, spurring on their ponies and uttering savage cries as they came.
But the Indians, in attacking this particular train, had not reckoned with its nature. Had they known that fifteen of the ordinance wagons bore ammunition and the others were loaded with guns, they would not have engaged the freighters in battle.
The besieged men had enough ammunition for a month of steady fighting and provisions to have carried them beyond that. As to water, however, the situation was a little more uncomfortable. It was not the custom to carry a large supply, since watering places were charted and, in this country, seldom more than a day's travel apart. The only fear, therefore, was that thirst might within a few days drive them to surrender or a desperate break.
It was generally understood among the freighters that their enemies were attacking to obtain the mules, which were regarded as faster than their Indian ponies. This accounted for their preliminary whooping. They had hoped to stampede the animals into bolting through the barricade and onto the open prairie where they might be driven away.
The savages, for the most part, carried bows and arrows. There were few evidences of rifles for none of the men was wounded by gunshot. They remained well out of rifle range except at intervals but maintained a lively barrage of arrows and kept the camp surrounded. Their cries, too, were continued with almost unaccountable duration but the animals, altho frightened at first, eventually became accustomed to the hubbub and soon there was little danger of a stampede.
How many Indians were killed and wounded during the engagement will never be known, for the red men were lashed to their horses and if killed or wounded were carried off the battlefield. It is said, furthermore, to have been the custom of Indians to remove their dead and wounded whenever at all possible to do so.
The freighters lost only three men. One of them was a Mexican youth who was serving as caretaker of the mules. One of the animals had straved from the others before camp had been made and, since it was a favorite of its owner, its loss occasioned considerable disappointment. During a lull in the fighting the young Mexican begged for an opportunity to go out in search of it, insisting that he could do so without any great risk. He was so insistent that he was finally permitted to go. It was on the night of the third day when he left the enclosure, expecting to sneak through the Indians' ranks without being detected and to return the same way.
He found the prized mule and was bringing it back when he was "spotted" by the savages who immediately shot him down and hurried the mule to a safer distance. He was so close to camp that the men inside witnessed the tragedy and hastened out to his aid. He was returned to the enclosure but died shortly afterward.
The second death occurred soon after the first, when the shortage of water was causing the fighters more consternation than the Indians. The creek was not far distant and a man named Whittaker volunteered to attempt the hazardous trip. He set out with a jug toward the stream which was between the Indians and the campers, but was surrounded and killed. As was the case with the Mexican, his body was recovered. Both men were buried on the battlefield.
The most tragic occurrence of the siege was when a third volunteer, whose name has been lost to history, left the encampment in another effort to get water.
It was apparent that he was not observed by the Indians, but they suddenly shifted their battle lines and the change cut off his chances for retreat. He was forced to throw himself upon the ground in grass barely tall enough to conceal his body. There he remained for three days, beneath the broiling July sun, without food or water. He was brought in when the battle ended but the terrible privation he had suffered proved too much even for a hardy plainsman's constitution and he died soon after the party reached Larned.
There was one effort to send word for help. At the end of the first day the leader of the train asked for a volunteer to venture forth in the hope of reaching a fortification and summon the aid of troops. The man who first stepped forward frankly admitted that he was doing so because he felt it safer to go than to stay. He was successful in his break for the open but the fight was over before he could return with soldiers.
On the fourth day the men, weakened by thirst, decided to dig a well inside the horseshoe. There was no way of telling how far they might have to dig, but since efforts to bring water from the creek had twice been disastrous it was the only remaining possibility. They worked in short shifts until, at a depth of ten feet, their efforts were rewarded. It was little more than a muddy trickle but it served the purpose.
At the end of the sixth day, probably because of a warning of approaching troops brought to them by an Indian scout, the painted warriors withdrew. The trailers, sensing a ruse, did not resume the journey immediately, but remained encamped three days more.
Altho it has little to do with the battle itself, it is an interesting fact that ten days later, on August 7, the ninety-five mules which had really been the cause of their troubles, were finally taken by the Indians.
It happened while the wagon trains were in camp near the crossing of the Gimarron, but it was not a vast horde this time. A mere handful slipped up to the enclosure, started up their war-whoops, and then rounded up the animals as they trampled down the barricade. The men were not molested, of course, but the affair caused much inconvenience since the oxen were forced to assume the entire burden.
The graves of the two unfortunate freighters and, likewise, the depression where the well was dug, were located in 1914 by three survivors of the battle who returned to Rice county for a reunion. The men, John R. Kerr of Independence, Mo., T. W. Carmichael of Odessa, Mo., and I. W. Gray of Urich, Mo., were the source of facts set forth in the preceding paragraphs.
It may have been noted that all three engagements at Cow creek crossing-that referred to by Inman as a massacre, the one in which Mathewson figured so gallantly and the one just related-are said to have occurred on or about the same time, July 18 or 20, 1864.
It is evident there has been some mistake, for it would not have been possible for all three to have occurred in the manners related by the various writers, or at the same place and at the same time. Just where the blame for error should go is hard to determine. There may have been confusion as to the scene of one or more, or as to the dates, or again they may all be the same but with details warped. Of the three the latter is most likely to be correct in every respect, for the three old men gave them out after careful comparison of recollections.
Indicative of the extreme hardships of early trail travel is the experience of a group of young men who started out from Missouri, near Franklin, to cross the trail to Santa Fe in wagons. The difficulties they experienced enroute were numerous but they eventually reached their destination July 20, 1828, after having been several months along the way.
Several of the party returned immediately after disposing of their goods-for this was a freight expedition-and 21 others tarried in the south until Sept. 1, when they set out for home. They had 150 mules, four wagons and considerable silver coin. At the Upper Cimarron springs a large band of Commanche Indians attacked them and killed one of their number, the balance breaking through the ranks of the Indians and fleeing at dark. The Indians attacked their camp, shortly afterward, and they were obliged to remain awake all night in fighting them off. They eventually abandoned the wagons and much of their heavy burden of coin and left camp afoot during the darkness.
They reached Cow creek almost completely exhausted from privation and the necessity of living on buffalo meat alone. They fully expected to lie down and die, but finally decided to send five of their strongest onward afoot. "The little group were without blankets. They were barefooted and their feet became so sore that they left blood tracks wherever they stepped. They were even deafened by their weakened condition. Two laid down their arms and declared they would die if they did not get water, but the remaining three forged ahead eventually to find a dry branch a number of miles farther, and a muddy puddle which gave them about half a bucketful of dirty water. Returning to the exhausted pair, they revived them sufficiently for the five to continue on toward the east. At length they reached Independence, Missouri, where help was recruited and a party started in search of the fifteen others left at Cow creek. All were found alive, but they had left the stream in what is now Rice county, and were trudging along the trail, two within 100 miles of Independence and the others up to 50 miles beyond in pairs or singly, in physical condition that approached living skeletons.
Little Cow creek crossing, two miles east of the big Cow creek, comes in for a place in history through an experience of Dick Wooton, famous early day plainsman, at that place. In 1836 while serving as sentinel one night, that noted plains character observed what he thought to be an Indian or other marauder approaching camp and when the visitor failed to obey orders to halt, Wooten shot him. To his dismay he discovered that he had killed his train's lead mule.
Altho there is no doubt that practically all of the famous scouts and plainsmen knew and frequently visited points in Rice county, there are unfortunately few proofs. It has often been reported to the writer that the name of Buffalo Bill at one time appeared on a cliff in the northwestern quarter of the county. These reports have been received with skepticism because they seemed impossible to verify, and because they smacked of the common prank of carving such things, as indulged in by later residents and young boys. But there is one such report which would appear to be entirely accurate and capable of substantiating rumor.
Mrs. Alex Lantow came to Rice county more than fifty years ago, and found "McName's Grove" to be a popular picnic ground among the handful of settlers. The spot is now known as the Reese farm, and is across the road south of the farm of Emil Cramm, in Section 22, Lincoln township.
Mrs. Lantow remembers distinctly having seen the names of both Buffalo Bill Cody and Kit Carson engraved on the face of the sandstone ledge there, and was impressed at the time with the fact that the carvings bore every evidence of having been made a good many years before, which would preclude any possibility of their having been made by settlers. The spot is well off the trail and could not have been frequented by transients of the pre-settlement period.
The statement of Mrs. Lantow is substantiated by Mr. Lantow who came to Rice county shortly afterward. Mrs. Lantow had made copies of the names, but they have been mislaid in recent years. Neither of them is able to recall whether Cody had carved his name as plain Bill Cody or had used the later and more widely known "Buffalo Bill".
The sandstone outcropping, which occurs on the banks of Cow creek, has in recent years become a veritable autograph gallery. Originally there were Indian hieroglyphics in profusion on the face of the cliff, but these have been erased by time and weather and defiled by modern man who persists in carving his initials wherever he happens to be.
Ever since the county's settlement, but particularly during the past two or three decades, persons living along the Santa Fe trail and for miles on either side of it have been surprised to pick up various small coins and medals.
Most of these have been found during the cultivation of fields or while excavations were being made. It is seldom that two of the same kind have been found in one locality. Naturally they have become something of a mystery, for in their wide variety it is hard to account for them. A good many bear dates and these indicate coinage from the middle of the eighteenth century to the middle of the nineteenth.
L. N. Six has several coins, picked up on the old Elmira Six place at the Cow creek crossing. One is a five cent copper piece coined by the Belgian government and dated 1854. Another is apparently of Mexican mintage, dated 1865, and of the one-fourth "real" denomination, also made of copper.
A few months ago Lawrence Proffitt, son of Everett Proffitt of near Raymond, picked up a small metal disc, apparently steel. The piece is quite thin and seems to have been stamped from a sheet of the metal. It is believed to be a church token of English origin since it bears a likeness of Saint George in combat with a dragon. George was patron saint of England. The inscriptions are in latin.
During the laying of the gas pipeline from Hutch-inson, a year or so ago, Ed Hurst found a large copper penny dated 1797. It was also of English coinage. The scene of the find was the Herschel Hutchins farm southeast of Lyons. The coin is in excellent condition and seems to have been carried but little after being minted.
One of the most unusual of the many coins and medals is one of the latter class found on a ravine along Little Cow creek in section 26, Eureka township. It bears unmistakable Egyptian figures and symbols on both obverse and reverse sides and has an eyelet moulded into the rim. The figures include the sphynx and pyramids and several designs which resemble signs of the zodiac. There are no English letters.
A. R. Foote of south of Chase, who lives near the old trail, has a prized relic of that famous old highway in a French silver "dollar" of early coinage. It was picked up on the banks of a stream near his farm several years ago. Of the 5 franc denomination it is almost exactly the size of our American dollar. The obverse side of the coin is remarkably clear, but the reverse is slightly worn as tho resulting from constant shifting about in the dirt and sand where it must have lain upon one face for many years. Around the edge, instead of a milling as our American coins have, is the phrase: "Dieu protege la France"-God Protects France.
Members of the Prof fit family have picked up numerous coins and medals on their farm near Raymond, but have paid little attention to them. A number of others are reported to have been found along the trail a few miles east of Lyons thirty years ago or more by boys attending a school in the vicinity.
Two plausible reasons have been broached for the appearance of these coins and medals.
One is the presence of the Santa Fe trail over which the money of various countries, received in trade by Mexico and in turn exchanged to trail freighters for American goods, may have been scattered in the looting by Indians of returning caravans.
The other, and applying particularly to the medals, is in the well-known fact that Indians gauged value strictly by the article's appeal to the eye and fancy. A copper coin or medal meant more to them than several buffalo robes, for instance. As a consequence there were plenty of traders who played upon this weakness, and gathering up vast quantities of small coins and odd-looking advertising medals would bring them to the plains for barter. To verify the contention is a church medal of Swedish make which was picked up just beyond the northwestern corner of the county about a year ago. It bears two dates, the most recent of which is 1852.
Judging from the number already found and reported in Lyons, it is probable that hundreds more are still lying about the prairie or under the sod. It would be well for those who may chance to pick them up in the future to notify the county historical society. There is a possibility that at any time a coin or medal may be found which could further or positively identify this as the scene of Spanish exploration.