Ride of a Lifetime | HistoryNet MENU
Clad in an ice-encrusted buffalo overcoat, John "Portugee" Phillips arrives at Fort Laramie on Christmas night 1866 after his 236-mile ride in aid of imperiled Fort Phil Kearny, Dakota Territory.

Ride of a Lifetime

By Gene Gade
9/28/2016 • Mag: Wild West Hero, Wild West Features

The situation was desperate at Fort Phil Kearny in Dakota Territory on the evening of Dec. 21, 1866. Shortly after noon that day hundreds of Sioux, Northern Cheyenne and Northern Arapaho warriors had annihilated Captain William J. Fetterman and the 80 men under his command on the far side of a bleak, windswept ridge, out of sight of the post but within earshot. Five wagons sent to retrieve the fallen returned after nightfall bearing a ghastly cargo of 49 frozen bodies that had been scalped, stripped naked, unspeakably mutilated and perforated by hundreds of arrows. Thirty-two corpses remained on the field.

More than one-quarter of the fort’s fighting men had died with Fetterman. Most of the garrison’s remaining rifles were obsolete and in poor condition. Ammunition stocks had been inadequate from the beginning of the operation and were dangerously low. Best estimates were that some 1,500 to 3,000 warriors were in the vicinity, eager to finish the fight. Warriors openly surveilled the soldiers that afternoon, and signal fires were visible on nearby ridges after dark.

The threat of being overrun by Indians loomed large. Colonel Henry B. Carrington, commander of the fort, prepared his men for an assault on the stockade at dawn on December 22. With wagonloads of dismembered soldiers yet to be buried, it required little imagination to envision the horror that would ensue were warriors to capture the fort. The prospect was so grim that Carrington made a dire contingency plan: Were defeat imminent, the women and children were to be corralled in the fort’s magazine, where Carrington himself would set off the powder stores and kill all rather than let them be captured and tortured. Accentuating the psychological chill, air temperatures dropped precipitously in the hours after the battle. By nightfall the mercury was well below zero and still falling.

Accentuating the psychological chill, air temperatures dropped precipitously in the hours after the battle. By nightfall the mercury was well below zero and falling

The primary hope for reinforcements and supplies was Fort Laramie, a perilous 236-mile ride to the southeast. Crews had yet to string telegraph wires along the Bozeman Trail, so mounted couriers had to carry any communications. Carrington considered sending a detachment of troops for help. However, Indians would surely target soldiers riding in the open, and the colonel couldn’t afford to further deplete an already diminished defense force.

Such were the circumstances when Carrington asked for civilian volunteers to carry news of the disaster and his plea for reinforcements. Thus far in his life John Phillips, a wiry man with dark eyes and a pointed beard, had done little to distinguish himself from the thousands of other seekers out West. But at that critical moment “Portugee” Phillips agreed to make the ride for help and thus rode into a revered place in history.

This much is known: In the midst of the bitterly cold night following the battle Phillips quietly led the commanding officer’s own horse from the fort and vanished into the teeth of a gathering blizzard. Almost exactly four days later, on Christmas night, the courier stumbled from the frigid darkness of the Fort Laramie parade ground into the midst of a full-dress garrison ball with the stunning news of the Fetterman disaster and Fort Phil Kearny’s dire predicament.

Phillips’ feat was extraordinary. His personal courage, commitment and stamina are beyond question. However, there is much confusion and misinformation about the details of Phillips’ ride. Is it possible to separate settled fact from the romance and myth associated with his justly celebrated achievement?

The most dramatic versions of the legend claim Phillips made his journey alone in a continual blizzard, breaking trail through deep snow most of the way, hiding from Indians by day and riding by night. Legend holds that Phillips rode Carrington’s personal horse and that the exhausted animal died on the Fort Laramie parade ground almost immediately after arrival.

As more information came to light, the story came into sharper focus. Most important, Phillips did not ride alone, nor was he, strictly speaking, an unpaid volunteer: He and fellow volunteer Daniel Dixon each received $300 for taking on the dangerous and arduous mission.

One can never know the thoughts of the previously obscure seasonal worker and would-be prospector when he accepted the duty. Some accounts claim Phillips did it to save Frances Grummond, the young, pregnant wife of 2nd Lt. George W. Grummond, who died alongside Fetterman that day.

Carrington gave Phillips his choice of the garrison’s remaining horses, and the courier did in fact choose the colonel’s favorite, a steed named Dandy, described in several sources as a part- Thoroughbred “Kentucky charger,” with discrepancies as to its appearance. In any case, the animal proved to have incredible stamina. Phillips carried only a small sack of grain for the horse, a few hard biscuits for himself, a good rifle and 100 rounds of ammunition. He strapped the rifle rounds to his lower legs, partly as ballast to keep him from falling out of the saddle.

Carrington assumed the Indians had posted sentries to detect and intercept anyone who left the fort. One version of Phillips’ ride had the courier cautiously and quietly leading Dandy some distance from the stockade before mounting. Private John C. Brough, posted that night to watch the water gate at the southwest corner of the fort, later recalled that Carrington, in the company of a civilian leading a horse, approached around midnight on December 21 and had the sergeant of the guard open the gate. After a short, quiet conversation the civilian mounted the horse, and the colonel took his hand and said, “May God help you.” According to Brough, the rider then trotted from the fort. Crooking his head to catch the sound of the fading hoofbeats, the colonel expressed his relief the rider had chosen to diminish the noise by riding on the softer ground alongside the trail.

Daniel Dixon also left from Fort Phil Kearny that night carrying a copy of Carrington’s dispatch. It is likely he, too, left via the water gate, which opened from the quartermaster’s storage area to the southwest, making a rider’s exit less conspicuous. The larger main gate faced east toward the presumed Indian sentries on Lodge Trail Ridge.

It’s small wonder there were discrepancies among eyewitnesses. The events of the day were bewildering. Enlisted men probably weren’t familiar with the civilian contractors and certainly wouldn’t know details of the mission. It is likely planners intentionally staggered the departures of the two couriers to lower their profile and lessen the odds both would be captured. Given the frigid temps, sentries rotated frequently, so any one soldier probably witnessed only a portion of what was happening. And the darkness would make identification of the heavily bundled riders (Phillips was wearing a buffalo overcoat) difficult if not impossible.

Records concur the weather was bitter. The heavy snow and high winds apparently swept in overnight on December 22–23, catching the couriers and their mounts in the open as they rode south. Indian hunters or war parties likely roamed the route, especially near Fort Phil Kearny.

Legend has it Phillips and Dixon rode parallel to, but some distance from, the Bozeman Trail and traveled only at night. Having arrived at the fort that autumn from the west, Phillips likely hadn’t ventured down the trail to Fort Laramie. High winds and driving snow are the rule along that route in winter. A full-on blizzard would have drastically reduced visibility and blown deep drifts the men and horses would have had to struggle through or navigate around. When landmarks such as the Bighorns, Pumpkin Buttes and Laramie Peak are not visible, the snow-covered hills south of Fort Phil Kearny have a sameness to them that makes route-finding difficult, even in daylight. If Phillips and Dixon did skirt the trail and ride only at night, they accomplished a truly amazing feat of navigation.

In any case, Phillips and Dixon arrived together at Fort Reno about midmorning on December 23, a day and a half after leaving Fort Phil Kearny. They had averaged less than 2 miles per hour. There Brev. Brig. Gen. Henry Walton Wessells, Fort Reno’s commander, gave them an additional message to carry to Fort Laramie. Around noon the two couriers, joined by rider Robert Bailey, departed for the longest stretch of the epic—the 130-plus miles to Horseshoe Station (near present-day Glendo, Wyo.), which housed the nearest telegraph relay.

Some accounts claim Indians had burned the station and/or the telegraph lines were down. Neither statement is true. The trio arrived at Horseshoe Station around 10 a.m. on Christmas Day. Telegraph operator John Friend tapped out a synopsis of the Fetterman disaster and Carrington’s plea for reinforcements, but the Fort Laramie operator either didn’t understand or discounted the garbled message. Dixon and Bailey, suffering from exhaustion and exposure, elected to end their ride at the station. But Phillips was determined to hand deliver the dispatches to Fort Laramie, some 40 miles farther southeast. Shrugging off the frightful weather, his own diminished state and the admonitions of his companions, he remounted the colonel’s horse and rode off into the snow.

One can imagine the astonishment of the officers in dress uniform and ladies in their finery when the apparition that was Portugee Phillips—in ice-encrusted buffalo overcoat, hat and gauntlets, his lower legs wrapped in feed sacks—stumbled in from the parade ground and asked in raspy tones to see the commanding officer

At 11 o’clock on Christmas night a full-dress garrison ball was in full swing at “Old Bedlam,” Fort Laramie’s bachelor officers’ quarters turned post headquarters. Outside the snow had accumulated 10 to 15 inches deep, the temperature dropping to 25 below zero. One can imagine the astonishment of the officers in dress uniform and ladies in their finery when the apparition that was Portugee Phillips—in ice-encrusted buffalo overcoat, hat and gauntlets, his lower legs wrapped in feed sacks—stumbled in from the parade ground and asked in raspy tones to see the commanding officer. Captain David Gordon, a participant in the dance, was surely understating their reaction when he recalled, “The dress of the man, and at this hour looking for the commanding officer, made a deep impression upon the officers and others that happened to get a glimpse of him and consequently, and naturally too, excited their curiosity as to his mission in this strange garb.”

The courier and his horse had suffered greatly from exposure and were beyond exhaustion. Phillips essentially collapsed after delivering his message and required weeks to regain his strength. Carrington’s marvelous horse is said to have died soon after arriving at the fort. (Forty-two years later a frail Carrington expressed grief for Dandy when he returned to Wyoming for the dedication of the Fetterman Battlefield monument.)

Thanks to Phillips’ fortitude, Fort Phil Kearny got its desperately needed reinforcements and supplies. On December 27 a hastily dispatched party of three officers and 22 enlisted men from Fort Reno arrived at the beleaguered garrison. It was an inadequate but welcome relief. Meanwhile, the weather remained so severe that the main body of reinforcements and supplies wasn’t able to leave Fort Laramie until January 6 and then took 10 days to travel the distance Phillips had traversed in four.

The expected follow-up attack on Fort Phil Kearny never materialized. When the mercury plummeted on the afternoon of the Fetterman battle, the Indians apparently had considered the fighting season over and ridden north to celebrate their great victory in the relative warmth of winter camps. They welcomed the time to hunt, tend to their families and care for their own dead and wounded. The warriors had enjoyed overwhelming numerical superiority, and a determined assault might have taken the fort, dooming its inhabitants. Knowing such a campaign would likely incur steep casualties, however, the warriors had decided against a prolonged winter siege. They would fight again when the snows retreated.

Phillips enjoyed the adulation stemming from his famous ride. He likely enthralled guests with the tale and may have embellished a bit. (Illustration by Greg Proch)

So what is known about the hero of our tale, Portugee Phillips, and his life beyond the four days that brought him fame?

John Phillips was born Manuel Felipe Cardoso on Pico Island in the Azores on April 8, 1832. His first language was Portuguese, hence his nickname “Portugee.” As a teen he left the archipelago aboard an American whaling ship to seek his fortune in the California goldfields. Anglicizing his name soon after arrival, Phillips spent the next 15 years drifting from one strike to another, bouncing from California to Oregon and Washington territories before landing in Dakota Territory (which included present-day eastern Wyoming). He never struck it rich. The summer of 1866 found him prospecting in the Pryor and Bighorn mountains. As winter approached, Phillips and fellow diggers thought it best to seek paid work. The major employer in the area was the U.S. Army, whose regional mission was to safeguard Montana-bound travelers on the Bozeman Trail.

The Army happily hired civilians for its many menial tasks, including freight hauling, cutting and milling the timber used for fort construction or firewood, and harvesting hay to feed horses and other domestic livestock. Phillips found work hauling water at Fort Phil Kearny and was present when Fetterman and his men marched out to meet their fate. Then came his epic ride.

By the spring of 1867, his health and strength recovered, Phillips worked for the Army as a mail carrier and courier between Forts Laramie and Phil Kearny. After one such trip in April he reported that 15 Sioux warriors had surrounded him en route. “Without aid of my faithful horse and good revolver,” he only half-joked, “I would have lost my hair, the part of my body I feel most anxious about on the prairie.”

The Bozeman Trail and its three forts—Reno, Phil Kearny and C.F. Smith—remained open another year and a half, a period marked by sporadic clashes, notably the Wagon Box and Hayfield fights in August 1867. Meanwhile, a newly built rail line offered faster, safer access to the goldfields. Maintaining the trail and its forts in the face of continued Indian resistance ultimately proved more trouble and expense than it was worth. The trail closed to civilian traffic in 1867, and in March 1868 President Ulysses S. Grant ordered the forts closed and abandoned. The last soldiers marched away that August, and the Cheyennes later burned the posts to the ground.

That put Portugee Phillips out of work. Relocating west to Elk Mountain, he spent a year or so hauling ties for the Union Pacific Railroad and freight to Forts Laramie and Fetterman. Sometime later he ventured eastward again to start a small ranch near tiny Chugwater, and on Dec. 16, 1870, he married Indiana-born Harriet “Hattie” Buck. While he built up his stock, Portugee continued to supplement his income hauling freight and doing other contract work.

In 1876 the Black Hills Gold Rush was in full swing, and the Phillips’ property was smack along the Cheyenne–Black Hills road. In addition to the hundreds of miners flooding north, there were countless freight wagons, a burgeoning stagecoach service and routine Army traffic between Forts D.A. Russell and Laramie. A veritable who’s who of the era and region passed the Phillips’ door. To profit from this influx of travelers, Portugee and wife opened a hotel in Chugwater. Hattie soon earned a reputation as a baker of excellent bread and other products, while Portugee apparently raised both beef and dairy cattle to supply their enterprise. One Cheyenne paper ran the following testimonial: “His ranch is the finest in the West, and all who travel on that road report that he furnishes the best accommodations to be found between Cheyenne and Custer City.” Some nights the couple housed and fed more than 60 guests.

Phillips clearly enjoyed the adulation stemming from his famous ride. He likely enthralled guests with the tale and may have embellished a bit. For example, one circulated version included an episode in which he singlehandedly fended off a sizable Sioux war party from a hilltop at night and made a run for it in the morning. There is no evidence Phillips encountered any Indians on his ride to Fort Laramie. Perhaps the incident he reported to superiors as a mail carrier got incorporated into or confused with the epic ride.

Phillips made the story all more personal than it probably was, maintaining throughout his life that the Sioux were enraged he’d managed to slip away from Fort Phil Kearny and were committed to exacting vengeance. He further claimed the Indians repeatedly tried to capture, torture and/or kill him and to destroy his livestock and other property as part of their vendetta. This was almost certainly a falsehood, as the Sioux and Cheyennes did not capture and torture male enemies. Farther north and east raiding parties did pillage ranches and attack wagons and traveling parties along the routes to the Black Hills. However, it’s unlikely the Indians even knew about Phillips’ ride at the time it occurred, let alone fixated on an individual and his little ranch and hotel along Chugwater Creek a full decade later. By the late 1870s the Indians had far bigger issues with the disastrous effects of the Treaty of 1868.

John and Hattie Phillips had five children of their own, four of whom died in childhood. The only one to reach adulthood was son Paul Revere Phillips, named for an even more famous American messenger. They also adopted two daughters. By the time of Paul’s birth in the early 1880s, Portugee, in failing health, had sold his Chugwater property and moved to Cheyenne. There he dabbled in a few business and real estate transactions. He and Hattie remained in Cheyenne until his death from kidney failure on Nov. 18, 1883, at age 51.

Hattie and John Phillips had acquired some 300 acres of land along the Laramie River, a dozen miles upstream from the storied fort. Widow Phillips lived on that property for 12 to 14 years. For decades Hattie and various advocates, including Henry Carrington and his wife, had petitioned lawmakers to recognize John’s heroism, as well as to recognize an outstanding Indian depredation claim from his 1870s stint as an Army contractor, with a cash award. Congress, citing discrepancies with Phillips’ naturalization papers, hadn’t granted it in his lifetime. But in 1900, 34 years after his epic ride and 17 years after his death, Congress enacted a resolution granting Hattie $5,000. She used part of the money to erect a graveside monument to her late husband at Laramie’s Lakeview Cemetery and the rest to help build a Methodist church near Gray Rocks. In 1912 she moved to Los Angeles, where she died in 1936 at age 93.

Just east of Fort Phil Kearny is a pyramidal stone marker with a bronze plaque, erected in 1940 by the Wyoming Historical Landmark Commission to commemorate John “Portugee” Phillips’ praiseworthy ride. And as the state geared up for its 1990 centennial, the Wyoming State Historical Society commissioned artist Dave Paulley to render oil paintings depicting remarkable people or events in Wyoming history—one being Phillips’ arrival at Old Bedlam, Fort Laramie, on Christmas Day 1866.

The incredible ride that brought Phillips fame requires no embellishment. As with many heroes, he was a seemingly ordinary man who, when faced with extraordinary circumstances, responded with Herculean effort. Outside of those dramatic four days John Phillips lived an interesting, if not particularly exceptional, life by the standards of the late-1800s frontier West. He had small successes, failures, human flaws. However, when history called, Portugee Phillips answered with selflessness, stamina and, yes, exceptional courage. MH

Retired educator Arnold Eugene “Gene” Gade, of Sundance, Wyo., became captivated by Bozeman Trail stories nearly 60 years ago and has studied historic sites associated with Fort Phil Kearny for a quarter-century. Suggested for further reading: Give Me Eighty Men: Women and the Myth of the Fetterman Fight, by Shannon D. Smith, and Red Cloud’s War: The Bozeman Trail, 1866–1868, by John D. McDermott.

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