In 1858 when William Russell and other prospectors arrived, the area’s native inhabitants did little to oppose them aside from raiding and killing some of the argonauts. The reason for this mild initial reaction was that most local natives had seen Anglo-Americans come and go in northeastern Colorado for decades. The Native Americans did not realize that thousands of newcomers would stay. Lands along the front range that attracted most Anglo activity were also a no-mans’ land between the Ute and various Plains Tribes.
By 1861 the situation changed as the area’s Native Americans opposed American encroachment. To reduce the friction Federal officials began a series of treaty talks with various tribes. In 1861 negotiators attempted to convince the Plains Tribes to relinquish title to most of northeastern Colorado and to take up reservations along the Arkansas River. This became known as the Treaty of Fort Wise. Two years later, territorial governor John Evans worked out an agreement with the Ute giving them an informal “reservation” west of the front range. In 1865 a final treaty with Arapaho and Cheyenne leaders, the Treaty of the Little Arkansas, extinguished the last native claims to northeastern Colorado’s plains. Three years later, Alexander C. Hunt, territorial governor and Indian Agent, entered into another contract with the Ute that established definite boundaries for their lands west of the Continental Divide. This series of treaties removed nearly all Native American titles in the region. But, the actual reduction of their power proved more complicated.
The natives of northeastern Colorado were dependent upon Euro-American trade by 1859, but, since the fur business declined during the 1840s tribesmen were forced to find new sources of supply. Many immigrants of 1859 and 1860 reported natives along the trails begging for food and metal goods and noted even a few who were starving. They could not satisfy their needs from occasional hand-outs, so many took to raiding small migrant parties and freight wagons along various routes. Horse and cattle herds kept at way stations also became targets for aggressions. This pattern continued into 1864. The intensity of raiding increased as did Anglo-American reactions. The attacks on stage stations and against travelers, especially along the South Platte Trail, were so frequent that for a period during late summer 1864, Denver and the mining camps were actually cut off from communication with the outside world.
To counter these attacks Coloradans organized local militia companies and prepared to defend their towns. Families who settled at stage stations, along the various trails, turned their houses into fortresses. The territorial government sent repeated messages to Washington, D.C., for aid in the form of troops and supplies. No response came until 1864 because nearly all available men and material were in use to fight the Civil War. Taking matters into his own hands, Governor John Evans dispatched Major Jacob Downing and the First Colorado Regiment up the South Platte Trail in April 1864. This detachment spent a month searching for hostiles and finally on May 2, 1864, they encountered a group of Cheyenne along Cedar Creek. A battle took place in which 26 natives died, 60 were wounded, and Downing’s forces suffered one dead and one wounded. Feeling confident the natives were pacified, the cavalry returned to Denver.
Those optimistic predictions were soon shattered by revenge raids of the Cheyenne. Throughout the summer such events continued and in August tempers reached their limits. That month the Hungate family, who operated a layover station on the Smoky Hill Road about 20 miles southeast of Denver, were found murdered and mutilated. Their bodies were brought to Denver where the public reaction was a mixture of indignation and panic. Stage and freight drivers refused to cross the plains and Colorado was isolated from the rest of the United States. Responding to the hysteria, Governor Evans called for “100-day” volunteers to battle the natives. While these new troops, the Third Colorado Volunteers, were mustered into service, General Samuel R. Curtis took 600 men up the South Platte Trail and successfully re-opened that route to the East. Curtis’s efforts eased the crisis but not the mood of settlers in northeastern Colorado.
The Colorado Thirds leader, Brevet Colonel John M. Chivington, Methodist bishop of Colorado, had previous military experience fighting Confederates in New Mexico. He also viewed the plains natives as “heathen savages” who were instruments of the devil that should be smitten. This attitude was widely shared by other Euro-Americans in 19th Century Colorado. As the Civil War calmed in September and October 1864, many citizens felt the Third Colorados would never see combat. However, their leader conceived a plan to gain glory for his troops and put an end to the native problem. In November, as the 100-day enlistments approached expiration, Chivington marched his forces southeast out of Denver to find and destroy hostiles. Learning that many Cheyenne and Arapaho, under Chief Black Kettle, had established a winter camp on Sand Creek near Fort Lyon, the Third Colorados proceeded in that direction. By the end of the month, Chivington’s scouts reported locating Black Kettle’s village. During the night, troops surrounded the encampment and at first light, attacked. Men, women, and children all fell before the rifles and sabers, and when the battle ended Chivington’s soldiers had committed mutilations and other atrocities that rivaled any the natives had ever done. While this battle took place just outside northeastern Colorado, its ramifications were felt throughout the region.
The battle of Sand Creek enraged and unified many Plains Tribes into a common desire for revenge. The tribesmen felt betrayed because they had been told to gather at Fort Lyon (near Sand Creek) and were promised safety. Chivington’s actions were seen as duplicity and as soon as the natives could re-group, the war in northeastern Colorado began again. This time the Sioux joined in opposition to American presence in the area. The first new attacks came in January 1865, when a band of plainsmen raided Old Julesburg. They returned the next month and burned the town. The war spread down the South Platte River as marauding natives attacked stage stations and ranches. Again, travel on the plains became risky and for a time, during the spring of 1865, trails were closed; this time by the United States Army.
As early as 1863 the Army pondered how best to protect Colorado settlements and the Overland Trail. It was decided that a line of forts along the South Platte (and other trails) would be most effective. From these posts, escorts could be sent with travelers. However, it was not until 1864 that any action was taken. That summer General Robert B. Mitchell received 1,000 troops to both patrol the Platte River Road and to establish outposts. At the same time, four sites were located and forts built throughout northeastern Colorado. Near Old Julesburg, Camp Rankin, later renamed Fort Sedgwick, was built. Further upstream the South Platte Valley Station near present-day Sterling, was taken over for military use. Near the mouth of Bijou Creek, Camp Tyler was established. It was soon renamed Camp Wardell and later Fort Morgan. Instead of using typical wooden stockades these “citadels” were constructed of sod and adobe. To protect westbound travelers on northern stage roads the Army also built Camp (later Fort) Collins on the Cache la Poudre. Camp Weld, near Denver, was used as a base and supply depot for the regular Army.
By 1865, as Colorado’s war escalated, the Army had its forts established and began to fill them with Civil War veterans from both sides. To meet manpower needs the Federal government started a program of offering Confederate prisoners-of-war freedom in exchange for moving to frontier areas to man Army posts. The ex-Confederates swore an oath of loyalty and entered Federal service. Many were sent to posts in northeastern Colorado. They were nicknamed “Galvanized Yankees” an allusion to the galvanizing process used to stop rust on iron tools. Except for a few days a year battling natives, life for these soldiers involved garrison and escort duty. Morale was usually low and alcoholism became a problem. As the Civil War ended desertions diminished the Army’s effectiveness as drafted soldiers returned home to rebuild their past lives. Nevertheless, the presence of these outposts did make travel and life in northeast Colorado less risky. Many settlers felt the forts represented security and small communities soon sprang up around them.
During 1866 and 1867 relative calm existed in northeastern Colorado. Sporadic raiding and livestock stealing continued. As more and more Europeans moved into the area, the level of hostile activity increased, especially as the Union Pacific made its way west across Nebraska. The Army, fearful of a repeat of Sand Creek, took over responsibility for protecting settlers. In 1867 a new strategy was introduced to quash native activity. Roving patrols were sent out to look for hostiles. The government also undertook new treaty talks with the Cheyenne and Arapaho. By this agreement, the Treaty of Medicine Lodge Creek, the Cheyenne were removed to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) but maintained hunting privileges off the reservation. The Arapaho were sent to the Wind River reservation in Wyoming. That summer, to enforce its new strategy, the Army ordered Brevet General George Armstrong Custer and the Seventh U.S. Cavalry to patrol western Kansas, Nebraska and northeastern Colorado. His quarry was a band of Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho led by Chief Roman Nose. Custer found signs of Native American activity but he never engaged in battle with his foe.
Roman Nose decided, by 1868, that Anglo encroachment had to be stopped. He and his followers increased their attacks on homesteads and small communities in Colorado and western Kansas. To stop Roman Nose, Army officials determined to mount a summer campaign to force the natives onto a reservation. Among the units charged with this task was Major George A. Forsyth’s Volunteer Scouts, a group of 50 frontiersmen who joined the Army for the summer to track Native Americans. By September 1868, Forsyth’s force was on the Arikaree River in northeastern Colorado in hot pursuit of Roman Nose’s band. On September 17, the hostiles ambushed the detachment. The soldiers made their way to an island in the river and dug in. The battle lasted more than a week as the group of 50 held off an estimated 1,000 warriors. After nine days, help arrived in the form of the Tenth U.S. Cavalry, a unit of black “buffalo” soldiers. Amazingly, the volunteers lost only five killed, but many were wounded. Among the dead was Lieutenant Frederick Beecher for whom both the island and battle were subsequently named. While native casualties were unknown, Roman Nose, the much-feared war chief, died leading a charge on the embattled soldiers.
The battle accomplished little except to convince the Army of a need for winter campaigns against the Native Americans. The Cheyenne were most vulnerable during winter months because of decreased mobility while their ponies were weak from lack of forage. To lead an expedition into Indian Territory against the natives, General Philip Sheridan chose George A. Custer and his Seventh Cavalry. The Seventh moved, in November 1868, from Camp Supply toward reported Cheyenne encampments along the Washita River. Custer pushed his men hard across the snowy plains. In late November they had reached their objective. Custer repeated Chivington’s strategy and surrounded the camp at night. When first light dawned the attack began. Again Black Kettle was the victim but this time he did not escape. As the regimental band played the Seventh’s battle song, “Gerry Owen,” Custer’s troops went about their business of extermination. The Battle of the Washita did much to break Cheyenne power but it was not until the next summer that the last battle for northeastern Colorado was fought.
Tall Bull, leading a band of Cheyenne and Sioux, left the reservation in May 1869 and moved north toward their old hunting grounds. Along the way, they skirmished with General Eugene H. Carr’s Fifth U.S. Cavalry in western Kansas. They also raided a Kansas Pacific Railway section station at Fossil Creek. Carr’s troops attempted to stop Tall Bull with little success. However, under increased pressure by the troopers, he was forced to move west into northeastern Colorado to rest. Helping guide the Fifth Cavalry was William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody and Major Frank North’s Pawnee Scouts. Finally, on July 11, 1869, the Pawnee Scouts located the hostiles encamped at Summit Springs. Carr decided to attack before his presence was discovered. Using the cover of hillocks and ravines, as well as a fortuitous dust storm, the army approached within a mile of the camp sounding the charge before they were discovered. The surprise was complete and the troops were in camp before the warriors could gather their horses and weapons. The Pawnee, in particular, relished this attack on their old enemies. By the end of that day, Tall Bull was dead and Carr had crushed the last pocket of Native American resistance in northeastern Colorado.
Even before the Battle of Summit Springs, the Army began to lessen its role in the area. A technological revolution took place and the older concept of static forts was replaced by that of a “mobile force”. As railroads built across the plains, the Army sought to take advantage of this new agility. No longer would garrisons be necessary every few miles since now an entire army could be moved within a few days. Taking this into consideration, and the fact that most hostilities, by 1868, were outside of northeastern Colorado, the Army started to close its outposts. Closure of forts did not mean the Army completely abandoned northeast Colorado. Detachments occasionally operated in the area. An experimental heliographic signal base was set up on Pike’s Peak but it proved a failure and was soon closed. By the early 1870s, settlement became so intense in northeastern Colorado that the cavalry went the way of the buffalo into extinction.
Source: Steven F. Mehls, New Empire of the Rockies, Bureau of Land Management, 1984.