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Indian Attacks at Pawnee Rock

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By Colonel Henry Inman, 1897

 

Early Pawnee Rock, KansasThat portion of the great central plains which radiates from Pawnee Rock, including the Big Bend of the Arkansas, thirteen miles distant, where that river makes a sudden sweep to the southeast, and the beautiful valley of the Walnut, in all its vast area of more than a million square acres, was from time immemorial a sort of debatable land, occupied by none of the Indian tribes, but claimed by all to hunt in; for it was a famous pasturage of the buffalo.

 

None of the various bands had the temerity to attempt its permanent occupancy; for whenever hostile tribes met there, which was of frequent occurrence, in their annual hunt for their winter's supply of meat, a bloody battle was certain to ensue.

 

The region referred to has been the scene of more sanguinary conflicts between the different Indians of the plains, perhaps, than any other portion of the continent. Particularly was it the arena of war to the death, when the Pawnees met their hereditary enemies, the Cheyennes.

 

Pawnee Rock was a spot well calculated by nature to form, as it has done, an important rendezvous and ambuscade for the prowling savages of the prairies, and often afforded them, especially the once powerful and murderous Pawnees whose name it perpetuates, a pleasant little retreat or eyrie from which to watch the passing Santa Fe traders, and dash down upon them like hawks, to carry off their plunder and their scalps.

 

Through this once dangerous region, close to the silent Arkansas, and running under the very shadow of the Rock, the Old Trail wound its course. Now, at this point, it is the actual road-bed of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad, so strangely are the past and present transcontinental highways connected here.

 

Who, among bearded and grizzled old fellows like myself, has forgotten that most sensational of all the miserably executed illustrations in the geographies of fifty years ago, "The Santa Fe Traders attacked by Indians"? The picture located the scene of the fight at Pawnee Rock, which formed a sort of nondescript shadow in the background of a crudely drawn representation of the dangers of the Trail.

 

If this once giant sentinel of the plains might speak, what a story it could tell of the events that have happened on the beautiful prairie stretching out for miles at its feet!

 

In the early fall, when the Rock was wrapped in the soft amber haze which is a distinguishing characteristic of the incomparable Indian summer on the plains; or in the spring, when the mirage weaves its mysterious shapes, it loomed up in the landscape as if it were a huge mountain, and to the inexperienced eye appeared as if it were the abrupt ending of a well-defined range. But when the frost came, and the mists were dispelled; when the thin fringe of timber on the Walnut, a few miles distant, had doffed its emerald mantle, and the grass had grown yellow and rusty, then in the golden sunlight of winter, the Rock sank down to its normal proportions, and cut the clear blue of the sky with sharply marked lines.

 

In the days when the Santa Fe trade was at its height, the Pawnees were the most formidable tribe on the eastern central plains, and the freighters and trappers rarely escaped a skirmish with them either at the crossing of the Walnut, Pawnee Rock the Fork of the Pawnee, or at Little and Big Coon creeks.

 

Today what is left of the historic hill looks down only upon peaceful homes and fruitful fields, whereas for hundreds of years it witnessed nothing but battle and death, and almost every yard of brown sod at its base covered a skeleton. In place of the horrid yell of the infuriated savage, as he wrenched off the reeking scalp of his victim, the whistle of the locomotive and the pleasant whirr of the reaping-machine is heard; where the death-cry of the painted warrior rang mournfully over the silent prairie, the waving grain is singing in beautiful rhythm as it bows to the summer breeze.

  

 

 

Kit CarsonPawnee Rock received its name in a baptism of blood, but there are many versions as to the time and sponsors. It was there that Kit Carson killed his first Indian, and from that fight, as he told me himself, the broken mass of red sandstone was given its distinctive title.

 

It was late in the spring of 1826; Kit was then a mere boy, only seventeen years old, and as green as any boy of his age who had never been forty miles from the place where he was born. Colonel Ceran St. Vrain, then a prominent agent of one of the great fur companies, was fitting out an expedition destined for the far-off Rocky Mountains, the members of which, all trappers, were to obtain the skins of the buffalo, beaver, otter, mink, and other valuable fur-bearing animals that then roamed in immense numbers on the vast plains or in the hills, and were also to trade with the various tribes of Indians on the borders of Mexico.

 

Carson joined this expedition, which was composed of twenty-six mule wagons, some loose stock, and forty-two men. The boy was hired to help drive the extra animals, hunt game, stand guard, and to make himself generally useful, which, of course, included fighting Indians if any were met with on the long route.

 

The expedition left Fort Osage one bright morning in May in excellent spirits, and in a few hours turned abruptly to the west on the broad Trail to the mountains. The great plains in those early days were solitary and desolate beyond the power of description; the Arkansas River sluggishly followed the tortuous windings of its treeless banks with a placidness that was awful in its very silence; and whoso traced the wanderings of that stream with no companion but his own thoughts, realized in all its intensity the depth of solitude from which Robinson Crusoe suffered on his lonely island. Illimitable as the ocean, the weary waste stretched away until lost in the purple of the horizon, and the mirage created weird pictures in the landscape, distorted distances and objects which continually annoyed and deceived. Despite its loneliness, however, there was then, and ever has been for many men, an infatuation for those majestic prairies that once experienced is never lost, and it came to the boyish heart of Kit, who left them but with life, and full of years.

 

There was not much variation in the eternal sameness of things during the first two weeks, as the little train moved day after day through the wilderness of grass, its ever-rattling wheels only intensifying the surrounding monotony. Occasionally, however, a herd of buffalo was discovered in the distance, their brown, shaggy sides contrasting with the never-ending sea of verdure around them. Then young Kit, and two or three others of the party who were detailed to supply the teamsters and trappers with meat, would ride out after them on the best of the extra horses which were always kept saddled and tied together behind the last wagon for services of this kind. Kit, who was already an excellent horseman and a splendid shot with the rifle, would soon overtake them, and topple one after another of their huge fat carcasses over on the prairie until half a dozen or more were lying dead. The tender humps, tongues, and other choice portions were then cut out and put in a wagon which had by that time reached them from the train, and the expedition rolled on.

 

Pawnee Warriors, photo by John CarbuttSo they marched for about three weeks, when they arrived at the crossing of the Walnut, where they saw the first signs of Indians. They had halted for that day; the mules were unharnessed, the camp-fires lighted, and the men just about to indulge in their refreshing coffee, when suddenly half a dozen Pawnee, mounted on their ponies, hideously painted and uttering the most demoniacal yells, rushed out of the tall grass on the river-bottom, where they had been ambushed, and swinging their buffalo-robes, attempted to stampede the herd picketed near the camp. The whole party were on their feet in an instant with rifles in hand, and all the Indians got for their trouble were a few well-deserved shots as they hurriedly scampered back to the river and over into the sand hills on the other side, soon to be out of sight.

 

The expedition traveled sixteen miles next day, and camped at Pawnee Rock, where, after the experience of the evening before, every precaution was taken to prevent a surprise by the Indians. The wagons were formed into a corral, so that the animals could be secured in the event of a prolonged fight; the guards were drilled by the colonel, and every man slept with his rifle for a bed-fellow, for the old trappers knew that the Indians would never remain satisfied with their defeat on the Walnut, but would seize the first favorable opportunity to renew their attack.

 

At dark the sentinels were placed in position, and to young Kit fell the important post immediately in front of the south face of the Rock, nearly two hundred yards from the corral; the others being at prominent points on top, and on the open prairie on either side. All who were not on duty had long since been snoring heavily, rolled up in their blankets and buffalo-robes, when at about half-past eleven, one of the guard gave the alarm, "Indians!" and ran the mules that were nearest him into the corral. In a moment the whole company turned out at the report of a rifle ringing on the clear night air, coming from the direction of the Rock. The men had gathered atthe opening to the corral, waiting for developments, when Kit came running in, and as soon as he was near enough, the colonel asked him whether he had seen any Indians. "Yes," Kit replied, "I killed one of the red devils; I saw him fall!"

 

The alarm proved to be false; there was no further disturbance that night, so the party returned to their beds, and the sentinels to their several posts, Kit of course to his place in front of the Rock.

 

Early the next morning, before breakfast even, all were so anxious to see Kit's dead Indian, that they went out en masse to where he was still stationed, and instead of finding a painted Pawnee, as was expected, they found the boy's riding mule dead, shot right through the head.

 

Kit felt terribly mortified over his ridiculous blunder, and it was a long time before he heard the last of his midnight adventure and his raid on his own mule. But he always liked to tell the "balance of the story," as he termed it, and this is his version:

"I had not slept any the night before, for I stayed awake watching to get a shot at the Pawnees that tried to stampede our animals, expecting they would return; and I hadn't caught a wink all day, as I was out buffalo hunting, so I was awfully tired and sleepy when we arrived at Pawnee Rock that evening, and when I was posted at my place at night, I must have gone to sleep leaning against the rocks; at any rate, I was wide enough awake when the cry of Indians was given by one of the guard. I had picketed my mule about twenty steps from where I stood, and I presume he had been lying down; all I remember is that the first thing I saw after the alarm was something rising up out of the grass, which I thought was an Indian. I pulled the trigger; it was a centre shot, and I don't believe the mule ever kicked after he was hit!"

The next morning about daylight, a band of Pawnees attacked the train in earnest, and kept the little command busy all that day, the next night, and until the following midnight, nearly three whole days, the mules all the time being shut in the corral without food or water. At midnight of the second day the colonel ordered the men to hitch up and attempt to drive on to the crossing of Pawnee Fork, thirteen miles distant. They succeeded in getting there, fighting their way without the loss of any of their men or animals. The Trail crossed the creek in the shape of a horseshoe, or rather, in consequence of the double bend of the stream as it empties into the Arkansas, the road crossed it twice.

 

Wagon Train

Wagon Train

This image available for photographic prints  and downloads HERE!

 

In making this passage, dangerous on account of its crookedness, Kit said many of the wagons were badly mashed up; for the mules were so thirsty that their drivers could not control them.

 

The train was hardly strung out on the opposite bank when the Indians poured in a volley of bullets and a shower of arrows from both sides of the Trail; but before they could load and fire again, a terrific charge was on them, led by Colonel St.Vrain and Carson. It required only a few moments more to clean out the persistent Indians, and the train went on. During the whole fight the little party lost four men killed and seven wounded, and eleven mules killed (not counting Kit's), and twenty badly wounded.

 

A great many years ago, very early in the days of the trade with New Mexico, seven Americans were surprised by a large band of Pawnees in the vicinity of the Rock and were compelled to retreat to it for safety. There, without water, and with but a small quantity of provisions, they were besieged by their blood-thirsty foes for two days, when a party of traders coming on the Trail relieved them from their perilous situation and the presence of their enemy. There were several graves on its summit when I first saw Pawnee Rock; but whether they contained the bones of Indians or those of white men, I do not know.

 

Carson related to me another terrible fight that took place at the Rock, when he first became a trapper. He was not a participant, but knew the parties well. About twenty-nine years ago, Kit, Jack Henderson, who was agent for the Ute Indians, Lucien B. Maxwell, General Carleton and myself were camped halfway up the rugged sides of Old Baldy, in the Raton Range. The night was intensely cold, although in midsummer, and we were huddled around a little fire of pine knots, more than seven thousand feet above the level of the sea, close to the snow limit.

 

Kit, or "the General," as every one called him, was in a good humor for talking, and we naturally took advantage of this to draw him out; for usually he was the most reticent of men in relating his own exploits. A casual remark made by Maxwell opened Carson's mouth, and he said he remembered one of the "worst difficulties" a man ever got into. So he made a fresh corn-shuck cigarette, and related the following; but the names of the old trappers who were the principals in the fight I have unfortunately forgotten.

 

Two men had been trapping in the Powder River country during one winter with unusually good luck, and they got an early start with their furs, which they were going to take to Weston, on the Missouri, one of the principal trading points in those days. They walked the whole distance, driving their pack-mules before them, and experienced no trouble until they struck the Arkansas valley at Pawnee Rock.

 

There they were intercepted by a war-party of about sixty Pawnee. Both of the trappers were notoriously brave and both dead shots. Before they arrived at the Rock, to which they were finally driven, they killed two of the Indians, and had not themselves received a scratch. They had plenty of powder, a pouch full of balls each, and two good rifles. They also had a couple of jack-rabbits for food in case of a siege, and the perpendicular walls of the front of the Rock made them a natural fortification, an almost impregnable one against Indians.

 

They succeeded in securely picketing their animals at the side of the Rock, where they could protect them by their unerring rifles from being stampeded. After the Pawnees had "treed" the two trappers on the Rock, they picked up their dead, and packed them off to their camp at the mouth of a little ravine a short distance away. In a few moments back they all came, mounted on fast ponies, with their war-paint and other fixings on, ready to renew the fight. They commenced to circle around the place, coming closer, Indian fashion, every time, until they got within easy rifle-range, when they slung themselves on the opposite sides of their horses, and in that position opened fire. Their arrows fell like a hailstorm, but as good luck would have it, none of them struck, and the balls from their rifles were wild, as the Indians in those days were not very good shots; the rifle was a new weapon to them. The trappers at first were afraid the Indians would surely try to kill the mules, but soon reflected that the Indians believed they had the "dead-wood" on them, and the mules would come handy after they had been scalped; so they felt satisfied their animals were safe for a while anyhow. The men were taking in all the chances, however; both kept their eyes skinned, and whenever one of them saw a stray leg or head, he drew a bead on it and when he pulled the trigger, its owner tumbled over with a yell of rage from his companions.

 

Whenever the Indians attempted to carry off their dead, the two trappers took advantage of the opportunity, and poured in their shots every time with telling effect.

 

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