The Battle of Beecher
By Addison Erwin
Beecher Island Battle
On the 17th of September, 1868,
was fought the hardest battle between the white men and the plains
in the annals of the West. It was fought on the Arickaree fork of the
Republican River, a few miles from the southwest corner of
Nebraska and not far
from the present town of Wray,
on the Denver line of the Burlington road. Fifty-one scouts and
frontiersmen under the command of Lieutenant George A. Forsyth stood off,
on a little sandbar in the river, the combined forces of the Northern
Sioux for nine days.
They lost more than one third their own number in killed and wounded,
while the Indian
loss was many times as great.
For months these
had been murdering the settlers and travelers in western Nebraska
Soldiers were sent to pursue them but always arrived on the scene of
their action after the
were gone, finding nothing but the melancholy duty of burying the murdered
Lieutenant Forsyth raised a company of fifty
frontiersmen. Many of them had lost their dearest friends and
relatives by the Indians. Some of
them were noted scouts. All of them enlisted to fight.
Early in September this little command started from the
place of the latest Indian murder
near Fort Wallace, Kansas.
They struck a trail leading to the Republican River. Following the
trail up the Republican River in Nebraska
it was joined by other trails and still others until the little party
of fifty men was traveling a great beaten road, as wide as the
made by thousands of
and ponies, and with hundreds of camp fires where they stopped at
night. It seemed a crazy act to follow so great a trail with so small
a party, but the little band had started out to find and fight
Indians and kept
On the afternoon of September 16th, the
Indian signs were
very fresh and Lieutenant Forsyth resolved to go into camp early, rest
his men and be ready to strike the Indians
the next day. An extra number of men were posted on picket duty to
prevent surprise. In the earliest gray of the next morning, the men
were up and saddling their horses when there came a volley of shots
from the pickets followed by the yell and rush of
The savages had expected to find the soldiers asleep and their horses
out feeding. Their plan was to stampede the horses and leave the
soldiers on foot in the open prairie where they could easily surround
them and cut them off. They found their horses saddled, every scout
ready with his rifle, and soon retreated out of reach of the white
men's bullets. As daylight broke, Grover, the head scout, exclaimed,
"Look at the Indians!"
The hills on both sides of the little valley swarmed with them. None
of the scouts had ever before seen so many hostile
in one body.
Lieutenant Forsyth saw the
situation at a glance. A few hundred yards away in the middle of the
river was a sandbar island having one cottonwood tree and a growth of
willows. It was the only cover in the valley. At the word of command
the scouts dashed forward through the water to the island. Every man
tied his horse strongly to a willow bush and dropping on his knee held
his rifle in one hand and dug a hole in the sand with the other. This
move was a complete surprise to the
They had expected to eat up the little band at one mouthful. They now
saw them making a fort out of the little island. The
crowded up to the bank on both sides of the river and filled the air
with a storm of bullets and arrows. A number of the scouts were killed
and wounded, while the poor horses plunged and struggled in misery
until they fell in death.
The fire of
was very hot and accurate. Lieutenant Forsyth had his leg broken by a
bullet and his second in command, Lieutenant Frederick H. Beecher, a
nephew of Henry Ward Beecher, was killed. Forsyth cut the bullet from his
leg, which he bandaged with his own hands, telling his men to be steady,
to help each other and to make every shot count. In the course of an hour
the men became calmer. They were getting a good cover with sand and dead
horses. Every time an Indian
showed himself within range a bullet went after him. This discouraged the
so much that they drew back, while the scouts took the time to care for
the wounded and to throw up more sand.
Old Man Afraid of His
Lone Horn, Whistling Elk, Pipe and an unknown Indian
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About noon there was a great
on the hill in sight of the scouts. Warriors came riding in from all parts
of the field. Among them was one whom every scout knew at long distance.
over six feet tall, the tallest
on the plains, and one of their greatest chiefs. It was evident a big plan
was under way. The council broke up and the plan appeared. Roman Nose
led a body of mounted young men out into the valley. Others joined them.
They drew together in a line facing the island with Roman Nose
at the head. The plan was now clear. This chosen body of two or three
hundred was to charge straight on the island while the rest of the
crept up through the grass and fired as fast as they could at the scouts
in their sand pits to distract their attention.
gave the signal and his horsemen started for the island. Lieutenant
Forsyth had ordered his men not to fire until the first pony reached the
river's edge. The scouts were armed with a new gun, the Spencer
Seven-shooter Carbine. The Indians
knew what a one-shot rifle was, but had never seen one that shot seven
times without loading. On came the line of
yelling and whipping their horses.
Just at the river's bank the rifles of
the scouts flashed from the sand pits and groups of riders fell from their
ponies. On they came. Another volley and more Indians
fell. Another, and another and another and another, with a steady aim and
terrible effect. Roman Nose
himself fell dead from his horse and the Indian
line broke and scattered. Lieutenant Forsyth turned anxiously to his scout
Grover. "Can they do any better than that?" he asked. "I have been on
these plains, boy and man, for twenty years and I never saw anything like
it," answered the scout. "Then we have got them," replied Forsyth.
The battle now changed to a siege, while from the hills
arose that most harrowing of all sorrowful cries, the wail of the
women for their dead. Through many hours this haunted the ears of the men
on the island. There were no more attempts to take the island by storm.
Starvation was the
plan. At the first of the fight the scouts had lost their pack mules with
all their provisions. They had nothing but river water and dead horse.
Attempts were made after dark to creep through the
lines and carry word to the railroad a hundred miles away. One attempt
were too watchful. Another attempt was made, two scouts crept out in the
darkness and did not return. Those left on the island could not know
whether their messengers were dead or not. They could only hope and watch
the line where the sky and prairie met. For a whole week they lay in their
sand pits, drank river water and ate horse meat. The hot sun glared from
the sky, the smell of the dead filled the air, the flies buzzed and the
glided stealthily about the hills. A little charge would have captured the
island now, but the
had suffered too much to try again. They preferred to starve the scouts.
It was in the forenoon of September 25th, when a dark
moving patch appeared far off on the prairie. It grew larger until the
watchers saw that it was an ambulance and a column of cavalry. They knew
then that the battle and the siege of Beecher Island were over. The
fled as the soldiers came near, and soon the starving and wounded were
being cared for.
General Custer said that the Arickaree fight was the greatest battle
on the plains. At Wounded Knee,
lives a tall wise
Sioux named Fire
Lightning. He was in the Arickaree fight and told me this story one summer
afternoon sitting in the shadow of his log house and looking out upon his
garden. He said the Indians
lost nearly a hundred men in the fight and showed by gestures with his
hands how fast the white men fired from their sand pits and how Roman Nose
fell from his horse.
Today a monument has been established at
the site of the Beecher Island Battle. The Beecher Island
Battlefield Monument is a joint
historical site established in 1905 to commemorate the September 17-19,
1868 battle fought there between Colonel George A. Forsyth's Scouts and a
group of about 750 Indians
from several Plains Indian
tribes. Chief Roman Nose
died in the battle. The memorial is located 20
miles south of Wray, Colorado.