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 heretofore 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 the 20th of July, 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 in a very short time and started on their road to the States, leaving 21 of us behind to return later.

On the first day of September, those of us 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 peaceable 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 the purpose of 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 of time 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 once more emerged on the open plains and flattered ourselves we were well rid of the Indians; but about twelve o’clock they came down on us again, uttering their demoniacal yells, which frightened our horses and mules so terribly, that we lost every hoof. A member of our party, named Hitt, in endeavoring to recapture some of the stolen stock, 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 apparently confident we would soon fall a 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.

In order 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 in a northerly direction in order 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, amounting to over ten thousand silver dollars, was cached in the ground between two cottonwood trees.

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, for the purpose of procuring assistance; the other 15 to get along as well as they could until succor 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.

At one place two of our men laid down their arms, 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 on until we arrived at the Big Blue River, in Missouri, on the bank of which 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 terribly 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. In a short time, two men came to the cabin and took three of our men home with them. 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.