The Battle of Beecher Island, Colorado

By Addison Erwin Sheldon, 1913

 

Battle of Beecher Island, Colorado

Battle of Beecher Island, Colorado

 

On the 17th of September, 1868, was fought the hardest battle between the white men and the plains Indians 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, Colorado, 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 Cheyenne, Arapaho and Oglala 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 Indians had been murdering the settlers and travelers in western Nebraska and Kansas. Soldiers were sent to pursue them but always arrived on the scene of their action after the Indians were gone, finding nothing but the melancholy duty of burying the murdered citizens.

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 Oregon Trail, made by thousands of Indians 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.

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 Indians. 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 Indians 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 Indians. 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 Indians 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 the Indians 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 Indians so much that they drew back, while the scouts took the time to care for the wounded and to throw up more sand.

Indian Chiefs

Indian Chiefs

About noon there was a great gathering of Indians 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. He was Roman Nose, over six feet tall, the tallest Indian 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 Indians crept up through the grass and fired as fast as they could at the scouts in their sand pits to distract their attention.

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