Fighting the Comanche on the Santa Fe Trail

By Colonel Henry Inman, 1897

Wagon Train

Wagon Train

Early in the spring of 1828, a company of young men residing in the vicinity of Franklin, Missouri, having heard related by a neighbor who had recently returned the wonderful story of a passage across the great plains and the strange things to be seen in the land of the Mexicans, determined to explore the region for themselves; making the trip in wagons, an innovation of a startling character, as previously only pack-animals had been employed in the limited trade with far-off Santa Fe. The story of their journey can best be told in the words of one of the party:

We had about 1,000 miles to travel, and as there was no wagon-road in those early days across the plains to the mountains, we were compelled to take our chances through the vast wilderness, seeking the best route we could. No signs of life were visible except the innumerable buffalo and antelope that were constantly crossing our trail. We moved on slowly from day to day without any incident worth recording and arrived at the Arkansas River, made the passage, and entered the Great American Desert lying beyond, as listless, lonesome, and noiseless as a sleeping sea. Having neglected to carry any water with us, we were obliged to go without a drop for two days and nights after leaving the river.

Cimarron River

Cimarron River

At last, we reached the Cimarron River, a cool, sparkling stream, ourselves and our animals on the point of perishing. Our joy at discovering it, however, was short-lived. We had scarcely quenched our thirst when we saw, to our dismay, a large band of Indians camped on its banks. Their furtive glances at us, and significant looks at each other, aroused our worst suspicions, and we instinctively felt we were not to get away without serious trouble. Contrary to our expectations, however, they did not offer to molest us, and we at once made up our minds they preferred to wait for our return, as we believed they had somehow learned of our intention to bring back from New Mexico a large herd of mules and ponies.

We arrived in Santa Fe on July 20, without further adventure, and after having our stock of goods passed through the custom-house, were granted the privilege of selling them. The majority of the party sold out quickly and started on their road to the States, leaving 21 of us behind to return later.

On September 1, those who had remained in Santa Fe commenced our homeward journey. We started with 150 mules and horses, four wagons, and a large amount of silver coin. Nothing of an eventful character occurred until we arrived at the Upper Cimarron Springs, where we intended to encamp for the night. But, our anticipations of peaceful repose were rudely dispelled, for when we rode up on the summit of the hill, the sight that met our eyes was appalling enough to excite the gravest apprehensions. It was a large camp of Comanche, evidently there for robbery and murder. We could neither turn back nor go on either side of them on account of the mountainous character of the country, and we realized, when too late, that we were in a trap.

There was only one road open to us; that right through the camp. Assuming the bravest look possible and keeping our rifles in position for immediate action, we started on the perilous venture. The chief met us with a smile of welcome and said, in Spanish: “You must stay with us tonight. Our young men will guard your stock, and we have plenty of buffalo meat.”

Realizing the danger of our situation, we took advantage of every moment to hurry through their camp. Captain Means, Ellison, and I were a little distance behind the wagons, on horseback; observing that the balance of our men was evading them, the blood-thirsty Indians at once threw off their masks of dissimulation, and in an instant, we knew the time for a struggle had arrived.

The Indians, as we rode on, seized our bridle-reins and began to fire upon us. Ellison and I put spurs to our horses and got away, but Captain Means, a brave man, was ruthlessly shot and cruelly scalped while the life-blood was pouring from his ghastly wounds.

We succeeded in fighting them off until we had left their camp half a mile behind, and as darkness had settled down on us, we decided to go into camp ourselves. We tied our gray bell-mare to a stake and went out and jingled the bell whenever any of us could do so, thus keeping the animals from stampeding. We corralled our wagons for better protection, and the Indians kept us busy all night resisting their furious charges. We all knew that death at our posts would be infinitely preferable to falling into their hands, so we resolved to sell our lives as dearly as possible.

Comanche Indians

Comanche Indians

The next day we made but five miles; it was a continuous fight and a very difficult matter to prevent their capturing us. This annoyance was kept up for four days; they would surround us, then let up as if taking time to renew their strength, to suddenly charge upon us again, and they continued thus to harass us until we were almost exhausted from loss of sleep.

After leaving the Cimarron River, we emerged on the open plains and flattered ourselves we were well rid of the Indians. But about noon, they came down on us again, uttering their demoniacal yells, which frightened our horses and mules so terribly, that we lost every hoof. When trying to recapture some of the stolen stock, a member of our party named Hitt was taken by the Indians but luckily escaped from their clutches, after having been wounded in sixteen parts of his body; he was shot, tomahawked, and speared.

When the painted demons saw that one of their numbers had been killed by us, they left the field for a time, while we, taking advantage of the temporary lull, went back to our wagons and built breastworks of them, the harness, and saddles. From noon until two hours in the night, when the moon went down, the Indians were confident we would soon fall prey to them, and they made charge after charge upon our rude fortifications.

Darkness was now upon us. There were two alternatives before us: should we resolve to die where we were or attempt to escape in the black hours of the night? It was a desperate situation. Our little band looked the matter squarely in the face, and, after a council of war had been held, we determined to escape, if possible.

To carry out our resolve, it was necessary to abandon the wagons, together with a large amount of silver coin, as it would be impossible to take all of the precious stuff with us in our flight; so we packed up as much of it as we could carry, and, bidding our hard-earned wealth a reluctant farewell, stepped out in the darkness like specters and hurried away from the scene of death.

Arkansas River

Arkansas River

Our proper course was easterly, but we went northerly to avoid the Indians. We traveled all that night, the next day, and a portion of its night until we reached the Arkansas River, and, having eaten nothing during that whole time excepting a few prickly-pears, were beginning to feel weak from the weight of our burdens and exhaustion. At this point, we decided to lighten our loads by burying all of the money we had carried thus far, keeping only a small sum for each man. Proceeding to a small island in the river, our treasure was cached in the ground between two cottonwood trees, amounting to over 10,000 silver dollars.

Believing now that we were out of the usual range of the predatory Indians, we shot a buffalo and an antelope which we cooked and ate without salt or bread; but no meal has ever tasted better to me than that one. We continued our journey northward for three or four days more when reaching Pawnee Fork, we traveled down it for more than a week, arriving again on the Old Santa Fe Trail. Following the Trail three days, we arrived at Walnut Creek, then left the river again and went eastwardly to Cow Creek.

When we reached that point, we had become so completely exhausted and worn out from subsisting on buffalo meat alone that it seemed as if there was nothing left for us to do but lie down and die. Finally, it was determined to send five of the best-preserved men on ahead to Independence, Missouri — 200 miles ahead, to procure assistance; the other 15 to get along as well as they could until assistance reached them.

I was one of the five selected to go on in advance, and I shall never forget the terrible suffering we endured. We had no blankets, and it was getting late in the fall. Some of us were entirely barefooted, and our feet so sore that we left stains of blood at every step. Deafness, too, seized upon us so intensely, occasioned by our weak condition, that we could not hear the report of a gun fired at a distance of only a few feet.

Two of our men laid down their arms at one place, declaring they could carry them no farther and would die if they did not get water. We left them and went in search of some. After following a dry branch several miles, we found a muddy puddle from which we succeeded in getting half a bucket full, and, although black and thick, it was life for us, and we guarded it with jealous eyes. We returned to our comrades about daylight, and the water so refreshed them they were able to resume the weary march. We traveled until we arrived at the Big Blue River in Missouri; on the bank, we discovered a cabin about 15 miles from Independence. The occupants of the rude shanty were women, seemingly very poor, but they freely offered us a pot of pumpkin they were stewing. When they first saw us, they were frightened because we looked more like skeletons than living beings. They jumped on the bed while we were greedily devouring the pumpkin, but we had to refuse some salt meat which they had also proffered, as our teeth were too sore to eat it. Two men came to the cabin and took three of our men home with them in a short time. We had subsisted for 11 days on one turkey, a coon, a crow, and some elm bark, with an occasional bunch of wild grapes, and the pictures we presented to these good people they will never, probably, forget; we had not tasted bread or salt for 32 days.

Independence, Missouri Square, 1855

Independence, Missouri Square, 1855

Our newly found friends secured horses and guided us to Independence the next day, all riding without saddles. One of the party had gone on to notify the citizens of our safety, and when we arrived, general muster was going on, the town was crowded, and when the people looked upon us, the most intense excitement prevailed. All business was suspended; the entire population flocked around us to hear the remarkable story of our adventures and to render us the assistance we so much needed. We were half-naked, foot-sore, and haggard, presenting such a bleak picture that immediately aroused the greatest sympathy on our behalf.

We then said that 15 comrades were struggling toward Independence behind us on the trail somewhere or were already dead from their sufferings. In a very few minutes, seven men with 15 horses started out to rescue them.

They were gone from Independence for several days but had the good fortune to find all the men just in time to save them from starvation and exhaustion. Two were discovered a hundred miles from Independence, and the remainder scattered along the Trail 50 miles further in their rear.

Not more than two of the unfortunate party were together. The humane rescuers seemingly brought back nothing but living skeletons wrapped in rags, but the good people of the place vied with each other in their attention. Under their watchful care, the sufferers rapidly recuperated.

One would suppose that we had had enough of the great plains after our first trip; not so, however, for in the spring, we started again on the same journey. Major Riley, with four companies of regular soldiers, was detailed to escort the Santa Fe traders’ caravans to the boundary line between the United States and Mexico, and we went along to recover the money we had buried, the command having been ordered to remain in camp to await our return until October 20.

Fort Leavenworth, Kansas

Fort Leavenworth, Kansas

We left Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, about May 10 and soon on the plains. Many troops had never seen any buffalo before and found great sport in wantonly slaughtering them.

At Walnut Creek, we halted to secure a cannon thrown into that stream two seasons previously and succeeded in dragging it out. With a seine made of brush and grapevine, we caught more fine fish than we could dispose of. One morning the camp was thrown into the greatest state of excitement by a band of Indians running an enormous herd of buffalo right into us.

The troops fired at them by platoons, killing hundreds of them. We marched in two columns and formed a hollow square at night when we camped, in which all slept excepting those on guard duty. Frequently someone would discover a rattlesnake or a horned toad in bed with him, and it did not take him a very long time to crawl out of his blankets!

On July 10, we arrived at the dividing line separating the two countries and went into camp. The next day Major Riley sent a squad of soldiers to escort me and another of our old party, who had helped bury the $10,000, to find it. A few miles further up the Arkansas River than our camp, in the Mexican limits. When we reached the memorable spot on the island, we found the coin safe, but the water had washed the earth away, and the silver was exposed to view to excite the cupidity of anyone passing that way. However, there were not many travelers on that lonely route in those days, and it would have been just as secure, probably, had we poured it on the ground. We put the money in sacks and deposited it with Major Riley and, leaving the camp, started for Santa Fe with Captain Bent as leader of the traders. We had not proceeded far when our advanced guard met Indians. They turned, and when within 200 yards of us, one man named Samuel Lamme was killed, his body being completely riddled with arrows. His head was cut off, and all his clothes were stripped from his body. We had a cannon, but the Mexicans who hauled it had tied it up in such a way that it could not be utilized in time to affect anything in the first assault; but when at last it was turned loose upon the Indians, they fled in dismay at the terrible noise.

The troops at the crossing of the Arkansas River, hearing the firing, came to our assistance. The next morning the hills were covered by fully 2,000 Indians, who had congregated there to annihilate us, and the coming of the soldiers was indeed fortunate, for as soon as the Indians discovered them, they fled. Major Riley accompanied us on our march for a few days, and, seeing no more Indians, he returned to his camp.

We traveled for a week, then met a hundred Mexicans who were out on the plains hunting buffalo. They had killed a great many and were drying the meat. We waited until they were ready to return, and then all started for Santa Fe together.

Rabbit Ears, New Mexico

Rabbit Ears, New Mexico

At Rabbit-Ear Mountain, the Indians had constructed breastworks in the brush to fight it out there. The Mexicans were in the advance and killed one of their number before discovering the enemy. We passed Point of Rocks and camped on the river. One of the Mexicans went out hunting and shot a huge panther; the next morning, he asked a companion to go with him and help skin the animal. They saw the Indians in the brush, and the one who had killed the panther said to the other, “Now for the mountains,” but his comrade retreated and was dispatched by the Indians almost within reach of the column.

We now decided to change our destination, intending to go to Taos, New Mexico, instead of Santa Fe, but the governor of the Province sent out troops to stop us, as Taos was not a place of entry. The soldiers remained with us a whole week until we arrived at Santa Fe, where we disposed of our goods and soon began to prepare for our return trip.

When we were ready to start back, seven priests and several wealthy families accompanied us comfortably fixed in carriages. The Mexican government ordered Colonel Viscarra of the army, with five cavalry troops, to guard us to the camp of Major Riley.

We experienced no trouble until we arrived at the Cimarron River. About sunset, just as we were preparing to camp for the night, the sentinels saw a body of a hundred Indians approaching; they fired at them and ran to camp. Knowing they had been discovered, the Indians came on and made friendly overtures. Still, the Pueblo Indians who were with the command of Colonel Viscarra wanted to fight them at once, saying the fellows meant mischief. We declined to camp with them unless they would agree to give up their arms; they pretended they were willing to do so when one of them put his gun at the breast of our interpreter and pulled the trigger. In an instant, a bloody scene ensued; several of Viscarra’s men were killed, together with several mules. Finally, the Indians were whipped and tried to get away, but we chased them some distance and killed 35.

Our friendly Puebloans were delighted and proceeded to scalp the Indians, hanging the bloody trophies on the points of their spears. That night they indulged in a war dance which lasted until nearly morning.

We were delighted to see a beautiful sunshiny day after the horrors of the preceding night and continued our march without farther interruption, safely arriving at the camp on the boundary line, where Major Riley was waiting for us, as we supposed; but his time having expired the day before, he had left for Fort Leavenworth. However, a courier was despatched to him as Colonel Viscarra desired to meet the American commander and see his troops. The courier overtook Major Riley a short distance away, and he halted for us to come up. Both commands then went into camp and spent several days comparing the discipline of the two nations’ armies and having a generally good time. Colonel Viscarra greatly admired our small arms and took his leave in a very courteous manner.

Fort Leavenworth, 1867

Fort Leavenworth, 1867

We arrived at Fort Leavenworth late in the season, and from there, we all scattered. I received my share of the money we had cached on the island and bade my comrades farewell, only a few of whom I have ever seen since.

Mr. Hitt, in his notes of this same perilous trip, said:

When the grass had sufficiently started to ensure the subsistence of our teams, our wagons were loaded with a miscellaneous assortment of merchandise, and the first trader’s caravan of wagons that ever crossed the plains left Independence. Before we had traveled three weeks on our journey, we were one evening confronted with the novel fact of camping in a country where not a stick of wood could be found. The grass was too green to burn, and we were wondering how our fire could be started with which to boil our coffee or cook our bread. One of our number, however, while diligently searching for something to utilize, suddenly discovered scattered all around him a large number of buffalo chips, and he soon had an excellent fire underway, his coffee boiling and his bacon sizzling over the glowing coals.

The End of the Santa Fe Trail by Gerald Cassidy, about 1910

The End of the Santa Fe Trail by Gerald Cassidy, about 1910

We arrived in Santa Fe without incident, and as ours was the first train of wagons that ever traversed the narrow streets of the quaint old town, it was, of course, a great curiosity to the natives.

After a few days’ rest, sightseeing, and purchasing stock to replace our tired animals, preparations were made for the return trip. All the money we had received for our goods was in gold and silver, principally the latter, in consequence of which, each member of the company had about as much as he could conveniently manage, and, as events turned out, much more than he could take care of.

On the morning of the third day out, when we were not looking for the least trouble, our entire herd was stampeded, and we were left upon the prairie without as much as a single mule to pursue the fast-fleeing thieves. The Mexicans and Indians had come so suddenly upon us and had made such an effective dash, that we stood like children who had broken their toys on a stone at their feet. We were so unprepared for such a stampede that the thieves did not approach within rifle-shot range of the camp to accomplish their object; few of them coming within sight, even.

After the excitement had somewhat subsided and we began to realize what had been done, it was decided that while some should remain to guard the camp, others must go to Santa Fe to see if they could not recover the stock. The party that went to Santa Fe had no difficulty recognizing the stolen animals; but when they claimed them, they were laughed at by the officials. However, they experienced no difficulty in purchasing the same stock for a small sum, which they at once did, and hurried back to camp. By this unpleasant episode, we learned of the stealth and treachery of the miserable people in whose country we were. We, therefore, took every precaution to prevent a repetition of the affair and kept up a vigilant guard night and day.

Indian attack on a wagon train by Charles Marion Russell

Indian attack on a wagon train by Charles Marion Russell

Matters progressed very well, and when we had traveled some 300 miles eastwardly, thinking we were out of range of any predatory bands, as we had seen no sign of any living thing, we relaxed our vigilance somewhat. One morning, just before dawn, the whole earth seemed to resound with the most horrible noises that ever greeted human ears; every blade of grass appeared to re-echo the horrid din. In a few moments, every man was at his post, rifle in hand, ready for any emergency, and almost immediately, a large band of Indians made their appearance, riding within rifle-shot of the wagons. A continuous battle raged for several hours, the Indians discharging a shot, then scampering off out of range as fast as their ponies could carry them. Some, braver than others, would venture closer to the corral, and one of these got the contents of an old-fashioned flintlock musket in his bowels.

We were careful not to fire at the same time, and several of our party, who were watching the effects of our shots, declared they could see the dust fly out of the robes of the Indians as the bullets struck them. It was learned afterward that a number of the Indians were wounded and that several had died. Many were armed with bows and arrows only, and to do any execution, were obliged to come near the corral. The Indians soon discovered they were getting the worst of the fight and, having run off all the stock, abandoned the conflict, leaving us in possession of the camp, but it can hardly be said masters of the situation.

There we were; 35 pioneers upon the wild prairie, surrounded by a wily and cruel foe, without transportation of any character but our legs, and with 500 miles of dangerous, trackless waste between us and the settlements. We had an abundance of money, but the stuff was worthless for the present, as there was nothing we could buy with it.

After the last Indian had ridden away into the sandhills on the opposite side of the river, each one of us had a thrilling story to relate of his narrow escapes. Though none was killed, many received wounds, the scars they carried through life. I was wounded six times. Once was in the thigh by an arrow, and once while loading my rifle, I had my ramrod shot off close to the muzzle of my piece, the ball just grazing my shoulder, tearing away a small portion of the skin. Others had equally curious experiences, but none were seriously injured.

After the excitement incident to the battle had subsided, the realization of our condition fully dawned upon us. When we were first robbed, we were only a short distance from Santa Fe, where our money could easily procure other stock; now, there were 300 miles behind us to that place, and the picture was anything but pleasant to contemplate.

To transport supplies for 35 men seemed impossible. Our money was now a burden greater than we could bear; what was to be done with it? We would have no use for it on our way to the settlements, yet the idea of abandoning it seemed hard to accept. A vigilant guard was kept up that day and night, during which time we all remained in the camp, fearing a renewal of the attack.

The next morning, as there were no apparent signs of the Indians, it was decided to inspect the surrounding country in the hope of recovering a portion, at least, of our lost stock, which we thought might have become separated from the main herd. Three men were detailed to stay in the old camp to guard it while the remainder, in squads, scoured the hills and ravines. Not a horse or mule was visible anywhere; the stampede had been complete–not even the direction the animals had taken could be discovered.

Indian Attack by Frederic Remington, 1907

Indian Attack by Frederic Remington, 1907

It was late in the afternoon when I, having left my companions to continue the search and returning to camp alone, had gotten within a mile of it that I thought I saw a horse feeding upon an adjoining hill. I at once turned my steps in that direction and had proceeded but a short distance when three Indians jumped from their ambush in the grass between me and the wagons and ran after me. The men in camp had been watching my every movement, and as soon as they saw the Indians were chasing me, they started in pursuit, running at their greatest speed to my rescue.

The Indians soon overtook me, and the first one that came up tackled me, but in an instant found himself flat shared the same fate. By this time, the third one arrived, and the two I had thrown grabbed me by the legs so that I could no longer handle myself, while the third one had a comparatively easy task in pushing me over. Fortunately, my head fell toward the camp and my fast-approaching comrades. The two Indians held my legs to prevent my rising, while the third one, who was standing over me, drew from his belt a tomahawk, and shrugging his head in his blanket, at the same time looking over his shoulder at my friends, with a tremendous effort and that peculiar grunt of all Indians, plunged his hatchet, as he supposed, into my head. Still, instead of scuffling to free myself and rise to my feet, I merely turned my head to one side, and the wicked weapon was buried in the ground, just grazing my ear.