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Chapter XIV

  • A winter expedition
  • -- herds of Buffalo -- wolves -- blizzards -- a terrible night -- finding the bodies of Elliott's party -- the abandoned Indian camps -- pushing down the Washita -- the captured chiefs -- Evans's successful fight -- establishing Fort Sill -- “California Joe” -- duplicity of the Cheyennes -- ordered to repair to Washington.

A few days were necessarily lost setting up and refitting the Kansas regiment after its rude experience in the Cimarron canons. This through with, the expedition, supplied with thirty days rations, moved out to the south on the 7th of December, under my personal command. We headed for the Witchita Mountains, toward which rough region all the villages along the Washita River had fled after Custer's fight with Black Kettle. My line of march was by way of Custer's battle-field, and thence down the Washita, and if the Indians could not sooner be brought to terms, I intended to follow them into the Witchita Mountains from near old Fort Cobb. The snow was still deep everywhere, and when we started the thermometer was below zero, but the sky being clear and the day very bright, the command was in excellent spirits. The column was made up of ten companies of the Kansas regiment, dismounted; eleven companies of the Seventh Cavalry, Pepoon's scouts, and the Osage scouts. In addition to Pepoon's men and the Osages, there was also “California Joe,” and one or two other frontiersmen besides, to act as guides and interpreters. Of all these the principal one, the one who best knew the country, was Ben Clark, a young man who had lived with the Cheyennes during much of his boyhood, and who not only had a pretty good knowledge of the country, but also spoke fluently the Cheyenne and Arapahoe dialects, and was an adept in the sign language.

The first day we made only about ten miles, which carried us to the south bank of Wolf Creek. A considerable part of the day was devoted [468] to straightening out matters in the command, and allowing time for equalizing the wagon loads, which as a general thing, on a first day's march, are unfairly distributed. And then there was an abundance of fire-wood at Wolf Creek; indeed, here and on Hackberry Creek-where I intended to make my next camp — was the only timber north of the Canadian River; and to select the halting places near a plentiful supply of wood was almost indispensable, for as the men were provided with only shelter-tents, good fires were needed in order to keep warm.

The second day, after marching for hours through vast herds of buffalo, we made Hackberry Creek; but not, however, without several stampedes in the wagon-train, the buffalo frightening the mules so that it became necessary to throw out flankers to shoot the leading bulls and thus turn off the herds. In the wake of every drove invariably followed a band of wolves. This animal is a great coward usually, but hunger had made these so ravenous that they would come boldly up to the column, and as quick as a buffalo was killed, or even disabled, they would fall upon the carcass and eagerly devour it. Antelope also were very numerous, and as they were quite tame-being seldom chased-and naturally very inquisitive, it was not an unfrequent thing to see one of the graceful little creatures run in among the men and be made a prisoner. Such abundance of game relieved the monotony of the march to Hackberry Creek, but still, both men and animals were considerably exhausted by their long tramp, for we made over thirty miles that day.

We camped in excellent shape on the creek, and it was well we did, for a “Norther,” or “blizzard,” as storms on the Plains are now termed, struck us in the night. During the continuance of these blizzards, which is usually about three days, the cold wind sweeps over the Plains with great force, and, in the latitude of the Indian Territory, is weighted with great quantities of sleet and snow, through which it is often impossible to travel; indeed, these “Northers” have many times proved fatal to the unprotected frontiersman. With our numbers the chance of any one's being lost, and perishing alone (one of the most common dangers in a blizzard), was avoided; but under any circumstances such a storm could but occasion intense suffering to all exposed to it, hence it would have been well to remain in camp till the gale was over, but the time could not be spared. We therefore resumed the march at an early hour next morning, with the expectation of making the south bank of the main Canadian and there passing the night, as Clark assured me that timber was plentiful on that side of the river. The storm greatly impeded us, however, many of the mules growing discouraged, and some giving out entirely, so we could not get to Clark's “good camp,” for with ten hours of utmost effort only about half a day's distance could be covered, [469] when at last, finding the struggle useless, we were forced to halt for the night in a bleak bottom on the north bank of the river. But no one could sleep, for the wind swept over us with unobstructed fury, and the only fuel to be had was a few green bushes. As night fell a decided change of temperature added much to our misery, the mercury, which had risen when the “Norther” began, again falling to zero. It can be easily imagined that under such circumstances the condition of the men was one of extreme discomfort; in truth, they had to tramp up and down the camp all night long to keep from freezing. Anything was a relief to this state of things, so at the first streak of day we quit the dreadful place and took up the march.

A seemingly good point for crossing the Canadian was found a couple of miles down the stream, where we hoped to get our train over on the ice, but an experiment proving that it was not strong enough, a ford had to be made, which was done by marching some of the cavalry through the river, which was about half a mile wide, to break up the large floes when they had been cut loose with axes. After much hard work a passage-way was thus opened, and by noon the command was crossed to the south bank, and after thawing out and drying our clothes before big fires, we headed for a point on the Washita, where Clark said there was plenty of wood, and good water too, to make us comfortable till the blizzard had blown over.

We reached the valley of the Washita a little before dark, and camped some five or six miles above the scene of Custer's fight, where I concluded to remain at least a day, to rest the command and give it a chance to refit. In the mean time I visited the battle-field in company with Custer and several other officers, to see if there was a possibility of discovering any traces of Elliott's party. On arriving at the site of the village, and learning from Custer what dispositions had been made in approaching for the attack, the squadron of the escort was deployed and pushed across the river at the point where Elliott had crossed. Moving directly to the south, we had not gone far before we struck his trail, and soon the whole story was made plain by our finding, on an open level space about two miles from the destroyed village, the dead and frozen bodies of the entire party. The poor fellows were all lying within a circle not more than fifteen or twenty paces in diameter, and the little piles of empty cartridge shells near each body showed plainly that every man had made a brave fight. None were scalped, but most of them were otherwise horribly mutilated, which fiendish work is usually done by the squaws. All had been stripped of their clothing, but their comrades in the escort were able to identify the bodies, which being done, we gave them decent burial. Their fate was one that has overtaken many [470]

General William H. Emory.

[471] of our gallant army in their efforts to protect the frontiersmen's homes and families from savages who give no quarter, though they have often received it, and where the possibility of defeat in action carries with it the certainty of death and often of preceding torture.

From the meadow where Elliott was found we rode to the Washita, and then down the river through the sites of the abandoned villages, that had been strung along almost continuously for about twelve miles in the timber skirting the stream. On every hand appeared ample evidence that the Indians had intended to spend the winter here, for the ground was littered with jerked meat, bales of buffalo robes, cooking utensils, and all sorts of plunder usually accumulated in a permanent Indian camp. There were, also, lying dead near the villages hundreds of ponies, that had been shot to keep them from falling into our hands, the scant grazing and extreme cold having made them too weak to be driven along in the flight. The wholesale slaughter of these ponies was a most cheering indication that our campaign would be ultimately successful, and we all prayed for at least a couple of months more of cold weather and plenty of snow.

At the Kiowa village we found the body of a white woman--a Mrs. Blynn-and also that of her child. These captives had been taken by the Kiowas near Fort Lyon the previous summer, and kept close prisoners until the stampede began, the poor woman being reserved to gratify the brutal lust of the chief, Satanta; then, however, Indian vengeance demanded the murder of the poor creatures, and after braining the little child against a tree, the mother was shot through the forehead, the weapon, which no doubt brought her welcome release, having been fired so close that the powder had horribly disfigured her face. The two bodies were wrapped in blankets and taken to camp, and afterward carried along in our march, till finally they were decently interred at Fort Arbuckle.

At an early hour on December 12 the command pulled out from its cosy camp and pushed down the valley of the Washita, following immediately on the Indian trail which led in the direction of Fort Cobb, but before going far it was found that the many deep ravines and canions on this trail would delay our train very much, so we moved out of the valley and took the level prairie on the divide. Here the traveling was good, and a rapid gait was kept up till mid-day, when, another storm of sleet and snow coming on, it became extremely difficult for the guides to make out the proper course; and fearing that we might get lost, or caught on the open plain without wood or water — as we had been on the Canadian — I turned the command back to the valley, resolved to try no more shortcuts involving the risk of a disaster to the expedition. But [472] to get back was no slight task, for a dense fog just now enveloped us, obscuring all landmarks. However, we were headed right when the fog set in, and we had the good luck to reach the valley before night-fall, though there was a great deal of floundering about, and also much disputing among the guides as to where the river would be found. Fortunately we struck the stream right at a large grove of timber, and established ourselves admirably. By dark the ground was covered with twelve or fifteen inches of fresh snow, and as usual the temperature rose very sensibly while the storm was on, but after night-fall the snow ceased and the skies cleared up. Daylight having brought zero weather again, our start on the morning of the 13th was painful work, many of the men freezing their fingers while handling the horse equipments, harness, and tents. However, we got off in fairly good season, and kept to the trail along the Washita notwithstanding the frequent digging and bridging necessary to get the wagons over ravines.

Continuing on this line for three days, we at length came to a point on the Washita where all signs indicated that we were nearing some of the villages. Wishing to strike them as soon as possible, we made a very early start next morning, the 17th. A march of four or five miles brought us to a difficult ravine, and while we were making preparations to get over, word was brought that several Indians had appeared in our front bearing a white flag and making signs that they had a communication to deliver. We signaled back that they would be received, when one of the party came forward alone and delivered a letter, which proved to be from General Hazen, at Fort Cobb. The letter showed that Hazen was carrying on negotiations with the Indians, and stated that all the tribes between Fort Cobb and my column were friendly, but the intimation was given that the Cheyennes and Arapahoes were still hostile, having moved off southward toward the Red River. It was added that Satanta and Lone Wolf — the chiefs of the Kiowas-would give information of the whereabouts of the hostiles; and such a communication coming direct from the representative of the Indian Department, practically took the Kiowas — the village at hand was of that tribe — under its protection, and also the Comanches, who were nearer in to Cobb. Of course, under such circumstances I was compelled to give up the intended attack, though I afterward regretted that I had paid any heed to the message, because Satanta and Lone Wolf proved, by trickery and double dealing, that they had deceived Hazen into writing the letter.

When I informed the Kiowas that I would respect Hazen's letter provided they all came into Fort Cobb and gave themselves up, the two chiefs promised submission, and, as an evidence of good faith, proposed to accompany the column to Fort Cobb with a large body of warriors, [473] while their villages moved to the same point by easy stages, along the opposite bank of the river-claiming this to be necessary from the poor condition of the ponies. I had some misgivings as to the sincerity of Satanta and Lone Wolf, but as I wanted to get the Kiowas where their surrender would be complete, so that the Cheyennes and Arapahoes could then be pursued, I agreed to the proposition, and the column moved on. All went well that day, but the next it was noticed that the warriors were diminishing, and an investigation showed that a number of them had gone off on various pretexts — the main one being to help along the women and children with the villages. With this I suspected that they were playing me false, and my suspicions grew into certainty when Satanta himself tried to make his escape by slipping beyond the flank of the column and putting spurs to his pony. Fortunately, several officers saw him, and quickly giving chase, overhauled him within a few hundred yards. I then arrested both him and Lone Wolf and held them as hostages — a measure that had the effect of bringing back many of the warriors already beyond our each.

When we arrived at Fort Cobb we found some of the Comanches already there, and soon after the rest of them, excepting one band, came in to the post. The Kiowas, however, were not on hand, and there were no signs to indicate their coming. At the end of two days it was plain enough that they were acting in bad faith, and would continue to unless strong pressure was brought to bear. Indeed, they had already started for the Witchita Mountains, so I put on the screws at once by issuing an order to hang Satanta and Lone Wolf, if their people did not surrender at Fort Cobb within forty-eight hours. The two chiefs promised prompt compliance, but begged for more time, seeking to explain the non-arrival of the women and children through the weak condition of the ponies; but I was tired of their duplicity, and insisted of my ultimatum.

The order for the execution brought quick fruit. Runners were sent out with messages, by the two prisoners, appealing to their people to save the lives of their chiefs, and the result was that the whole tribe came in to the post within the specified time. The two manacled wretches thus saved their necks; but it is to be regretted that the execution did not come off; for some years afterward their devilish propensities led them into Texas, where both engaged in the most horrible butcheries.

The Kiowas were now in our hands, and all the Comanches too, except one small band, which, after the Custer fight, had fled toward the headwaters of the Red River. This party was made up of a lot of very bad Indians-outlaws from the main tribe-and we did not hope to [474] subdue them except by a fight, and of this they got their fill; for Evans, moving from Monument Creek toward the western base of the Witchita Mountains on Christmas Day, had the good fortune to strike their village. In the snow and cold his approach was wholly unexpected, and he was thus enabled to deal the band a blow that practically annihilated it. Twenty-five warriors were killed outright, most of the women and children captured, and all the property was destroyed. Only a few of the party escaped, and some of these made their way in to Fort Cobb, to join the rest of their tribe in confinement; while others, later in the season, surrendered at Fort Bascom.

This sudden appearance of Evans in the Red River region also alarmed the Cheyennes and Arapahoes, and their thoughts now began to turn to submission. Food was growing scarce with them, too, as there was but little game to be found either in the Witchita Mountains or on the edge of the Staked Plains, and the march of Carr's column from Antelope Hills precluded their returning to where the buffalo ranged. Then, too, many of their ponies were dead or dying, most of their tepees and robes had been abandoned, and the women and children, having been kept constantly on the move in the winter's storms, were complaining bitterly of their sufferings.

In view of this state of things they intimated, through their Comanche-Apache friends at Fort Cobb, that they would like to make terms. On receiving their messages I entered into negotiations with Little Robe, chief of the Cheyennes, and Yellow Bear, chief of the Arapahoes, and despatched envoys to have both tribes understand clearly that they must recognize their subjugation by surrendering at once, and permanently settling on their reservations in the spring. Of course the usual delays of Indian diplomacy ensued, and it was some weeks before I heard the result. Then one of my messengers returned with word that Little Robe and Yellow Bear were on their way to see me. They arrived a few days later, and, promptly acceding to the terms, promised to bring their people in, but as many of them would have to come on foot on account of the condition of the ponies, more time was solicited. Convinced of the sincerity of their professions I gave them a reasonable extension, and eventually Yellow Bear made good his word, but Little Robe, in spite of earnest and repeated efforts, was unable to deliver his people till further operations were begun against them.

While these negotiations were in progress I came to the conclusion that a permanent military post ought to be established well down on the Kiowa and Comanche reservation, in order to keep an eye on these tribes in the future, Fort Cobb, being an unsuitable location, because too far to the north to protect the Texas frontier, and too far away [475] from where it was intended to permanently place the Indians. With this purpose in view I had the country thoroughly explored, and afterward a place was fixed upon not far from the base of the Witchita Mountains, and near the confluence of Medicine Bluff and Cash creeks, where building stone and timber could be obtained in plenty, and to this point I decided to move. The place was named Camp Sill-now Fort Sill-in honor of my classmate, General Sill, killed at Stone River; and to make sure of the surrendered Indians, I required them all, Kiowas, Comanches, and Comanche-Apaches, to accompany us to the new post, so they could be kept under military control till they were settled.

During the march to the new camp the weather was not so cold as that experienced in coming down from Camp Supply; still, rains were frequent, and each was invariably followed by a depression of temperature and high winds, very destructive to our animals, much weakened by lack of food. The men fared pretty well, however, for on the rough march along the Washita, and during our stay at Fort Cobb, they had learned to protect themselves materially from the cold. For this they had contrived many devices, the favorite means being dugouts — that is, pits dug in the ground, and roofed over with shelter-tents, and having at one end a fire-place and chimney ingeniously constructed with sod. In these they lived very snugly-four men in each-and would often amuse themselves by poking their heads out and barking at the occupants of adjacent huts in imitation of the prairie-dog, whose comfortable nests had probably suggested the idea of dugouts. The men were much better off, in fact, than many of the officers, for the high winds frequently made havoc with our wall-tents. The horses and mules suffered most of all. They could not be sheltered, and having neither grain nor grass, the poor beasts were in no condition to stand the chilling blasts. Still, by cutting down cottonwood-trees, and letting the animals browse on the small soft branches, we managed to keep them up till, finally even this wretched food beginning to grow scarce, I had all except a few of the strongest sent to Fort Arbuckle, near which place we had been able, fortunately, to purchase some fields of corn from the halfcivilized Chickasaws and Choctaws.

Through mismanagement, as previously noted, the greater part of the supplies which I had ordered hauled to Arbuckle the preceding fall had not got farther on the way than Fort Gibson, which post was about four hundred miles off, and the road abominable, particularly east of Arbuckle, where it ran through a low region called “boggy bottom.” All along this route were abandoned wagons, left sticking in the mud, and hence the transportation was growing so short that I began to fear trouble in getting subsistence up for the men. Still, it would not do to [476] withdraw, so I made a trip to Arbuckle chiefly for the purpose of reorganizing the transportation, but also with a view to opening a new route to that post, the road to lie on high ground, so as to avoid the creeks and mud that had been giving us so much trouble. If such a road could be made, I hoped to get up enough rations and grain from the cornfields purchased to send out a formidable expedition against the Cheyennes, so I set out for Arbuckle accompanied by my quartermaster, Colonel A. J. McGonigle. “California Joe” also went along to guide us through the scrub-oaks covering the ridge, but even the most thorough exploration failed to discover any route more practicable than that already in use; indeed, the high ground was, if anything, worse than the bottom land, our horses in the springy places and quicksands often miring to their knees. The ground was so soft and wet, in fact, that we had to make most of the way on foot, so by the time we reached Arbuckle I was glad to abandon the new road project.

Finding near Arbuckle more fields of corn than those already purchased, I had them bought also, and ordered more of the horses back there to be fed. I next detected every available mule to be put to hauling rations, having discovered that the full capacity of the transportation had not yet been brought into play in forwarding stores from Gibson, and with this regulation of the supply question I was ready to return immediately to Camp Sill. But my departure was delayed by California Joe, who, notwithstanding the prohibitory laws of the Territory, in some unaccountable way had got gloriously tipsy, which caused a loss of time that disgusted me greatly; but as we could not well do without Joe, I put off starting till the next day, by which time it was thought he would sober up. But I might just as well have gone at first, for at the end of the twenty-four hours the incorrigible old rascal was still dead drunk. How he had managed to get the grog to keep up his spree was a mystery which we could not solve, though we had had him closely watched, so I cut the matter short by packing him into my ambulance and carrying him off to Camp Sill.

By the time I got back to Sill, the Arapahoes were all in at the post, or near at hand. The promised surrender of the Cheyennes was still uncertain of fulfillment, however, and although Little Robe and his family had remained with us in evidence of good faith, the messages he sent to his followers brought no assurance of the tribe's coming inthe runners invariably returning with requests for more time, and bringing the same old excuse of inability to move because the ponies were so badly off. But more time was just what I was determined not to grant, for I felt sure that if a surrender was not forced before the spring [477] grass came, the ponies would regain their strength, and then it would be doubtful if the Cheyennes came in at all.

To put an end to these delays, Custer proposed to go out and see the Cheyennes himself, taking with him for escort only such number of men as could be fairly well mounted from the few horses not sent back to Arbuckle. At first I was inclined to disapprove Custer's proposition, but he urged it so strongly that I finally consented, though with some misgivings, for I feared that so small a party might tempt the Cheyennes to forget their pacific professions and seek to avenge the destruction of Black Kettle's band. However, after obtaining my approval, Custer, with characteristic energy, made his preparations, and started with three or four officers and forty picked men, taking along as negotiators Yellow Bear and Little Robe, who were also to conduct him to the head-waters of the Red River, where it was supposed the Cheyennes would be found. His progress was reported by couriers every few days, and by the time he got to the Witchita foot-hills he had grown so sanguine that he sent California Joe back to me with word that he was certain of success. Such hopeful anticipation relieved me greatly, of course, but just about the time I expected to hear that his mission had been achieved I was astonished by the party's return. Inquiring as to the trouble, I learned that out toward the Staked Plains every sign of the Cheyennes had disappeared. Surprised and disappointed at this, and discouraged by the loneliness of his situation — for in the whole region not a trace of animal life was visible-Custer gave up the search, and none too soon, I am inclined to believe, to save his small party from perishing.

This failure put a stop to all expeditions till the latter part of February, by which time I had managed to lay in enough rations to feed the command for about thirty days; and the horses back at Arbuckle having picked up sufficiently for field service they were ordered to Sill, and this time I decided to send Custer out with his own and the Kansas regiment, with directions to insist on the immediate surrender of the Cheyennes, or give them a sound thrashing. He was ordered to get everything ready by March 1, and then move to the mouth of Salt Creek, on the North Fork of the Red River, at which place I proposed to establish a new depot for feeding the command. Trains could reach this point from Camp Supply more readily than from Arbuckle, and wishing to arrange this part of the programme in person, I decided to return at once to Supply, and afterward rejoin Custer at Salt Creek, on what, I felt sure, was to be the final expedition of the campaign. I made the three hundred and sixty miles from Sill to Supply in seven days, but much to my surprise there found a despatch from General Grant directing me to repair immediately to Washington. These orders precluded, [478] of course, my rejoining the command; but at the appointed time it set out on the march, and within three weeks brought the campaign to a successful close.

In this last expedition, for the first few days Custer's route was by the same trail he had taken in January--that is to say, along the southern base of the Witchita Mountains-but this time there was more to encourage him than before, for, on getting a couple of marches beyond old Camp Radziminski, on all sides were fresh evidences of Indians, and every effort was bent to strike them.

From day to day the signs grew hotter, and toward the latter part of March the game was found. The Indians being in a very forlorn condition, Custer might have destroyed most of the tribe, and certainly all their villages, but in order to save two white women whom, it was discovered, they held as captives, he contented himself with the renewal of the Cheyennes' agreement to come in to Camp Supply. In due time the entire tribe fulfilled its promise except one small band under “Tall Bull,” but this party received a good drubbing from General Carr on the Republican early in May. After this fight all the Indians of the southern Plains settled down on their reservations, and I doubt whether the peace would ever again have been broken had they not in after years been driven to hostilities by most unjust treatment.

It was the 2d of March that I received at Camp Supply Grant's despatch directing me to report immediately in Washington, It had been my intention, as I have said, to join Custer on the North Fork of the Red River, but this new order required me to recast my plans, so, after arranging to keep the expedition supplied till the end of the campaign, I started for Washington, accompanied by three of my staff-Colonels McGonigle and Crosby, and Surgeon Asch-and Mr, DeB. Randolph Keim, a representative of the press, who went through the whole campaign, and in 1870 published a graphic history of it. The day we left Supply we had another dose of sleet and snow, but nevertheless we made good time, and by night-fall reached Bluff Creek. In twenty-four hours more we made Fort Dodge, and on the 6th of March arrived at Fort Hays. Just south of the Smoky Hill River, a little before we got to the post, a courier heading for Fort Dodge passed us at a rapid gait. Suspecting that he had despatches for me, I directed my outrider to overtake him and find out. The courier soon turned back, and riding up to my ambulance handed me a telegram notifying me that General Grant, on the day of his inauguration, March 4, 1869, had appointed me Lieutenant-General of the Army. When I reported in Washington, the President desired me to return to New Orleans and resume command of the Fifth Military District, but this was not at all to my liking, [479] so I begged off, and was assigned to take charge of the Division of the Missouri, succeeding General Sherman, who had just been ordered to assume command of the Army. [480]

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