Indian Terrors on the Santa Fe Trail

By Colonel Henry Inman in 1897

Indian Attack by Frederic Remington, 1907

Indian Attack by Frederic Remington, 1907

Almost immediately after the ratification of the purchase of New Mexico by the United States under the stipulations of the “Guadalupe-Hidalgo Treaty,” the Ute, one of the most powerful tribes of mountain Indians, inaugurated a bloody and relentless war against white settlers in the Territory. It continued for several years with more or less severity; its record a chapter of history whose pages are deluged with blood, until finally the Indians were subdued by the power of the military.

Along the line of the Santa Fe Trail, they were frequently in conjunction with the Apache, and their depredations and atrocities were numerous as they fearlessly attacked freight caravans, private expeditions, and overland stagecoaches, robbing and murdering indiscriminately.

In January 1847, the mail and passenger stage left Independence, Missouri, for Santa Fe on one of its regular trips across the plains. It had its full complement of passengers, among whom were Mr. White, his wife, a small child, and a colored nurse.

Day after day the lumbering Concord coach rolled on, with nothing to disturb the monotony of the vast prairies, until it had left them far behind and crossed the range into New Mexico. Just about dawn, as the unsuspecting travelers were entering the canyon of the Canadian River and probably waking up from their long night’s sleep, a band of Indians, with blood-curdling yells and their terrific war-whoop, rode down upon them.

Stagecoach attacked by Indians, Daniel Cavaliere

Stagecoach attacked by Indians, Daniel Cavaliere

In that lonely and rock-sheltered gorge, a party of the hostile Indians, led by “White Wolf,” a chief of the Apache, had been awaiting the arrival of the coach from the East; the very hour it was due was well known to them, and they had secreted themselves there the night before so as to be on hand should it reach their chosen ambush a little before the scheduled time.

Out dashed the Indians, gorgeous in their feathered war-bonnets, but looking like friends with their paint-bedaubed faces. Stopping the frightened mules, they pulled open the doors of the coach and, mercilessly dragging its helpless and surprised passengers to the ground, immediately began their butchery. They scalped and mutilated the dead bodies of their victims, not a single individual escaping, apparently, to tell of their fiendish acts.

If the Indians had been possessed of sufficient cunning to cover up the tracks of their horrible atrocities, as probably white robbers would have done, by dragging the coach from the road and destroying it by fire or other means, the story of the murders committed in the deep canyon might never have been known; but, they left the tell-tale remains of the dismantled vehicle just where they had attacked it, and the naked corpses of its passengers where they had been ruthlessly killed.

Canadian River Breaks near Nara Visa, New Mexico

Canadian River Breaks near Nara Visa, New Mexico by Kathy Weiser-Alexander.

At the next stage station the employees were anxiously waiting for the arrival of the coach, and wondering what could have caused the delay; for it was due there at noon on the day of the massacre. Hour after hour passed, and at last, they began to suspect that something serious had occurred; they sat up all through the night listening for the familiar rumbling of wheels, but still no stage. At daylight next morning, determined to wait no longer, as they felt satisfied that something out of the usual course had happened, a party hurriedly mounted their horses and rode down the broad trail leading to the canyon.

Upon entering its gloomy mouth after a quick lope of an hour, they discovered the ghastly remains of twelve mutilated bodies. These were gathered up and buried in one grave, on the top of the bluff overlooking the narrow gorge.

They could not be sure of the number of passengers the coach had brought until the arrival of the next, as it would have a list of those carried by its predecessor; but, it would not be due for several days. They naturally supposed, however, that the twelve dead lying on the ground were its full complement.

Not waiting for the arrival of the next stage, they dispatched a messenger to the last station east of where the passengers were murdered, and there, learned the exact number of passengers it had contained. Now they knew that Mrs. White, her child, and the colored nurse had been carried off into a captivity worse than death; for no remains of a woman were found with the others lying in the canyon.

Kit Carson

Kit Carson

The terrible news of the massacre was conveyed to Taos, New Mexico, where were stationed several companies of the Second United States Dragoons, commanded by Major William Greer; but as the weather had grown intensely cold and stormy since the date of the massacre, it took nearly a fortnight for the terrible story to reach there. The Major acted promptly when appealed to, to go after and punish the Indians concerned in the outrage, but several days more were lost in getting an expedition ready for the field. It was still stormy while the command was preparing for its work; but, at last, one bright morning, in a piercing cold wind, five troops of the dragoons, commanded by Major Greer in person, left their comfortable quarters to attempt the rescue of Mrs. White, her child, and nurse.

Richens "Uncle Dick" Wooten

Richens “Uncle Dick” Wooten

Kit Carson, “Uncle Dick” Wootton, Joaquin Leroux, and Tom Tobin were the principal scouts and guides accompanying the expedition, having volunteered their services to Major Greer, which he had gladly accepted.

The massacre had occurred three weeks before the command had arrived at the canyon of the Canadian River, and snow having fallen almost continuously ever since, the ground was deeply covered, making it almost impossible to find the trail of the Indians leading out of the gorge. No one knew where they had established their winter camp — probably hundreds of miles distant on some tributary of the Canadian far to the south.

Carson, Wootton, and Leroux, after scanning the ground carefully at every point, though the snow was ten inches deep, in a way of which only men versed in savage lore are capable, were rewarded by discovering certain signs, unintelligible to the ordinary individual — that the murderers had gone south out of the canyon immediately after completing their bloody work, and that their camp was somewhere on the river, but how far off none could tell.

The command followed up the trail discovered by the scouts for nearly 400 miles. Early one morning when that distance had been rounded, and just as the men were about to break camp preparatory to the day’s march, Kit Carson went out on a little reconnaissance on his own account, as he had noticed a flock of ravens hovering in the air when he first got out of his blankets at dawn. This was sufficient indication to him that an Indian camp was located somewhere in the vicinity; for that ominous bird was always to be found in the region where the Indians took up an abode, feeding upon the carcasses of the many varieties of game killed for food. He had not proceeded more than half a mile from the camp when he discovered two Indians slowly riding over a low “divide,” driving a herd of ponies before them. The famous scout was then certain their village could not be very far away. The Indians did not observe him, as he took good care they should not; so he returned quickly to where Major Greer was standing by his camp-fire and reported the presence of a village very close at hand.

Cavalry and Indians

Cavalry and Indians

The Major having sent for Tom Tobin and “Uncle Dick” Wootton, requested them to go and find the exact location of the Indians. These scouts came back in less than half an hour and reported a large number of teepees in a thick grove of timber a mile away.

It was at once determined to surprise the Indians in their winter quarters by charging right among their lodges without allowing them time to mount their ponies. The command succeeded in getting within good charging distance of the village without its occupants having any knowledge of its proximity; but, at this moment Major Greer was seized with an idea that he ought to have a parley with the Indians before he commenced to fight them, and for that purpose, he ordered a halt, just as the soldiers were eager for the sound of the “Charge!”

Kit Carson in 1854 by William Ranney

Kit Carson in 1854 by William Ranney

Never were a body of men more enraged. Carson gave vent to his wrath in a series of elaborately carved English oaths, for which he was noted when young; Leroux, whose naturally hot blood was roused, swore at the Major in a curious mixture of bad French and worse mountain dialect, and it appeared as if the battle would begin in the ranks of the troops instead of those of the Indians; for never was a body of soldiers so disgusted at the act of any commanding officer.

This delay gave the Indians, who could be seen dodging about among their lodges and preparing for a fight that was no longer a surprise, time to hide their women and children, mount their ponies, and get down into deep ravines, where the soldiers could not follow them. While the Major was trying to convince his subordinates that his course was the proper one, the Indians opened fire without any parley, and it happened that at the first volley, a bullet struck him in the breast, but a suspender buckle deflected its course and he was not seriously wounded.

The change in the countenance of their commanding officer caused by the momentary pain was just the incentive the troopers wanted, and without waiting for the sound of the trumpet, they spurred their horses, dashed in, and charged the thunderstruck Indians with the shock of a tornado.

In two successful charges of the gallant and impatient troopers, more than 100 of the Indians were killed and wounded, but the time lost had permitted many to escape, and the pursuit of the stragglers would have been unavailing under the circumstances; so, the command turned back and returned to Taos. In the village was found the body of Mrs. White still warm, with three arrows in her breast. Had the charge been made as originally expected by the troopers, her life would have been saved. No trace of the child or of the colored nurse was ever discovered, and it is probable that they were both killed while en route from the canyon to the village, as being valueless to keep either as slaves or for other purposes.

Apache Warrior by Herman Wendleborg Hansen

Apache Warrior by Herman Wendleborg Hansen

The fate of the Apache chief, “White Wolf,” who was the leader in the outrages in the canyon of the Canadian River, was fitting for his devilish deeds. It was Lieutenant David Bell’s fortune to avenge the murder of Mrs. White and her family and in an extraordinary manner. Bell, a scout stationed at Fort Union, New Mexico led about 30 men to the Canadian River canyon, where they met about the same number of Indians. A parley was in order at once, probably desired by the Indians, who were confronted with an equal number of troopers. Bell had assigned the baggage-mules to the care of five or six of his command and held a mounted interview with the chief, who was no other than the infamous White Wolf of the Jicarilla Apache. As Bell approached, White Wolf was standing in front of his Indians, who were on foot, all well armed and in a perfect line. Bell was in advance of his troopers, who were about twenty paces from the Indians, exactly equal in number and extent of the line; both parties were prepared to use firearms.

The parley was almost tediously long and the impending duel was arranged, White Wolf being very bold and defiant. At last, the leaders exchanged shots, the chief sinking on one knee and aiming his gun, Bell throwing his body forward and making his horse rear. Both lines, by command, fired, following the example of their superiors, the troopers, however, spurring forward over their enemies. The warriors, or nearly all of them, threw themselves on the ground, and several vertical wounds were received by horse and rider. The dragoons turned short about and again charged through and over their enemies, the fire being continuous. As they turned for a third charge, the surviving Indians were seen escaping to a deep ravine, which, although only one or two hundred paces off, had not previously been noticed. A number of the Indians thus escaped, the troopers having to pull up at the brink, but sending a volley after the descending fugitives.

In less than 15 minutes 21 of the 46 actors in this strange combat were slain or disabled. Bell was not hit, but four or five of his men were killed or wounded. He had shot White Wolf several times, and so did others after him; but, so tenacious of life was the Apache that, to finish him, a trooper got a great stone and mashed his head. This was undoubtedly the greatest duel of those times; certainly, nothing like it ever occurred on the Santa Fe Trail before or since.

Setangya, aka: Satank, Sitting Bear, by William S. Soule

Setangya, aka: Satank, Sitting Bear, by William S. Soule

The war chief of the Kiowa nation in the early 1850s was Satank, a most unmitigated villain; cruel and heartless as any Indian that ever robbed a stagecoach or wrenched off the hair of a helpless woman. After serving a dozen or more years with a record for hellish atrocities equaled by few of his compeers, he was deposed for alleged cowardice, as his warriors claimed, under the following circumstances:

The village of his tribe was established in the large bottoms, eight miles from the Great Bend of the Arkansas River, and about the same distance from Fort Zarah, Kansas. All the bucks were absent on a hunting expedition, excepting Satank and a few superannuated warriors. The troops were out from Fort Larned on a grand scout after marauding Indians, when they suddenly came across the village and completely took the Kiowa by surprise. Seeing the soldiers almost upon them, Satank and other warriors jumped on their ponies and made good their escape. Had they remained, all of them would have been killed or at least captured; consequently, Satank, thinking discretion better than valor at that particular juncture, incontinently fled. His warriors in council, however, did not agree with him; they thought that it was his duty to have remained at the village in defense of the women and children, as he had been urged to refrain from going on the hunt for that very purpose.

Sometime before Satank lost his office of chief, there was living on Cow Creek, in a rude adobe building, a man who was ostensibly an Indian trader, but whose traffic, in reality, consisted in selling whiskey to the Indians, and consequently the United States troops were always after him. He was obliged to cache his liquor in every conceivable manner so that the soldiers should not discover it, and, of course, he dreaded the incursions of the troops much more than he did raids of the Indian marauders that were constantly on the Trail.

Satank and this illicit trader, whose name was Peacock, were great chums. One day while they were indulging in a general good time over sundry drinks of most villainous liquor, Satank said to Peacock: “Peacock, I want you to write me a letter; a real nice one, that I can show to the wagon-bosses on the Trail, and get all the ‘chuck’ I want. Tell them I am Satank, the great chief of the Kiowa, and for them to treat me the best they know how.”

“All right, Satank,” said Peacock; “I’ll do so.” Peacock then sat down and wrote the following:

“The bearer of this is Satank. He is the biggest liar, beggar, and thief on the plains. What he can’t beg of you, he’ll steal. Kick him out of camp, for he is a lazy, good-for-nothing Indian.”

Satank began at once to make use of the supposed precious document, which he really believed would assure him the dignified treatment and courtesy due to his exalted rank. He presented it to several caravans during the ensuing week, and, of course, received a very cool reception in every instance, or rather a very warm one.

One wagon-master, in fact, black-snaked him out of his camp. After these repeated insults he sought another white friend and told of his grievances. “Look here,” said Satank, “I asked Peacock to write me a good letter, and he gave me this, but I don’t understand it! Every time I hand it to a wagon-boss, he gives me the devil! Read it to me and tell me just what it does say.”

His friend read it over, and then translated it literally to Satank, who assumed a countenance of extreme disgust, and after musing for a few moments, said: “Well, I understand it all now. All right!”