During an expedition in June 1867, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer received orders to locate Pawnee Killer, but that supposedly friendly Oglala Sioux leader found him first.
Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, with about 200 men of the 7th Cavalry, was camped for two days in June 1867 close to the forks of the Republican River near the site of present-day Benkelman, Nebraska. At dawn on the 24th, a single gunshot awakened the camp. It was a desperate warning shot fired by sentry Private Patrick Ford of Company H after he spotted Indians working their way closer, using the cover of a nearby ravine. At that point, 50 or so Indians began firing at him and the other soldiers. A large-caliber rifle ball penetrated Ford’s left side, gravely wounding him. Custer had seen his share of fighting during the Civil War, but those shots marked the beginning of his first skirmish with American Indians.
More Indians moved in, and soon hundreds of them had the cavalry camp surrounded. Several mounted warriors galloped over the wounded Ford, but they were unable to stop to scalp him because of the hasty return fire of the soldiers. They did capture the private’s carbine and ammunition. Custer believed that his attackers were Cheyenne warriors, but he later learned that they were “friendly” Sioux under the leadership of Pawnee Killer, an Oglala.
The skirmish came during Custer’s summer campaign, which had its roots in earlier trouble. The Great Plains had been in turmoil since the beginning of 1864. Kansas, Colorado Territory and Nebraska Territory (including the area that would become Wyoming Territory in 1868) were the scenes of many Indian raids, skirmishes and battles. Among these engagements were the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864, the plundering of Julesburg and burning of several stage stations in early 1865, the subsequent fight at Platte Bridge (in present-day Casper, Wyo.), and then, in late August, Maj. Gen. Patrick Edward Connor’s fight with Arapahos along the Tongue River near Ranchester (14 miles north of present-day Sheridan, Wyo.).The natives were clearly anything but friendly when it came to white encroachment, and many whites preferred their Indians dead. Following bloody 1865, the deadly climate showed little signs of improving, certainly not after the December 1866 Fetterman Fight (about midway between Sheridan and Buffalo, Wyo.).
With all that violence fresh in everybody’s head in the spring of 1867, the military began an expedition to gather the Plains Indians near Fort Larned, along Medicine Lodge Creek in Kansas, for peace talks. Leaders from the Cheyennes, Sioux, Kiowas, Comanches and Arapahos came there, many of them wanting an alternative to hostilities. One purpose of the gathering from the military point of view was to demonstrate to the various tribes that the Great Father was willing to fight a war if that was what the Indians preferred. The large military presence included 11 companies of the newly formed 7th Cavalry.
Fearing an attack similar to the one at Sand Creek three years earlier, many of the Sioux and Cheyennes bolted, leaving behind their tepees and other belongings. Subsequent Indian attacks on stage stations inspired Maj. Gen. Winfield Hancock to burn the abandoned villages. Meanwhile, Custer had been sent in pursuit of the Indians but could not catch up to them, primarily because Indian ponies were much more adaptable to the prairie than grain-fed cavalry horses. Custer eventually retired to Fort Hays, his horses spent in the spring chase.
Custer remained at Fort Hays until June 1, when he received orders to embark on a summer expedition. He was to report to Fort McPherson and then “proceed up the south fork of the Platte to Fort Sedgwick, and thence in the direction of Fort Morgan….The object of the expedition is to hunt out and chastise the Cheyennes and that portion of the Sioux who are their allies between the Smoky Hill and the Platte.” Custer had been told that the Sioux in the vicinity of Fort McPherson were friendly, and he was to avoid any conflict with them.
Along with Custer on the excursion were Companies A, D, E, H, K and M of the 7th Cavalry, many Delaware Indians, Will Comstock and other scouts and two wagons. According to the odometer report kept by 2nd Lt. Henry Jackson, the itinerary officer for the campaign, 704 miles were traveled during the 43-day expedition that included a total of 338 enlisted men. Company strength varied from a high of 66 enlisted men to a low of 35.
Staff officers beside Custer included Major Joel Elliott, Major Wycliffe Cooper, 1st Lt. Myles Moylan, Assistant Surgeon Isaac Coates, 2nd Lt. William Winer Cooke and Lieutenant Jackson. Officers assigned to the companies included Captain Louis Hamilton, 1st Lt. Samuel M. Robbins, Captain Edward Myers, 1st Lt. Thomas Ward Custer (George’s younger brother), Captain Robert West, 1st Lt. Owen Hale and 2nd Lt. James Leavy. Harper’s Weekly correspondent and artist Theodore Davis also accompanied the expedition.
The expedition was marked by unusual events, from the suicide of Custer’s second-in-command, Major Cooper, to the desertion of 60 men, including Sgt. Maj. Charles Keyne.
Custer’s command arrived at Fort McPherson on June 10 and stayed there until the 18th. During that time, the colonel met with Pawnee Killer twice. One officer described the Sioux chief this way: “So far as villainy can be depicted in the human countenance, it was to be found in Pawnee Killer’s. His face had a lean and hungry look: he was long and lank, and reminded one of a prowling wolf. He seldom smiled while talking with his companions, but stalked about with his blanket closely wrapped around him, as if expecting at each turn to pounce upon an enemy, or be himself attacked. He had a murderous looking set of followers.” Before Custer’s campaign was over, he would observe firsthand the “villainy” of Pawnee Killer, both with his first skirmish and later with the gruesome discovery (on July 12, 1867) of the remains of 2nd Lt. Lyman S. Kidder, his 10 2nd Cavalry troopers and a friendly Sioux scout (see “Custer, Kidder and Tragedy at Beaver Creek,” in the June 2002 Wild West).
After conferring with Custer a second time, Pawnee Killer went south to his village near the Republican, with the promise of returning with his tribe to McPherson. Custer’s earlier orders explicitly stated that he was to “avoid a collision” with friendly Sioux, and since Pawnee Killer professed his peaceful intentions and desire to be separated from the warring Cheyennes, Custer was dutifully following orders by accepting the chief’s appeals of peace. The day after Pawnee Killer left the fort, Lt. Gen. William T. Sherman arrived at McPherson. When the general learned of Custer’s pow-wows, he expressed no faith in Pawnee Killer’s band and ordered Custer to bring the chief back.
Specifically, Custer was ordered to move his command southwest to the forks of the Republican, locate the village, and bring Pawnee Killer nearer the fort and away from anticipated hostilities. He was to thoroughly scout the area surrounding the forks of the Republican and then march his command to Fort Sedgwick, where he would either meet General Sherman or there receive written instructions. While at the Republican, if Custer found hostile Indians, he was to kill the men and capture the women and children.
With Sherman’s new orders in hand, Custer’s command left McPherson and on June 22 arrived on the North Fork of the Republican River. As the camp was being prepared, Custer sent Captain West with Company K to Beaver Creek, about 33 miles south. Lieutenant Robbins and Company D were sent with a wagon escort to Fort Wallace, about 75 miles south, carrying orders to replenish supplies. They left at 5 p.m., with Lieutenant Cooke commanding the wagon train. Custer’s command would remain in its camp for a week.
On June 23, Custer ordered Major Elliott, Lieutenant Leavy and 10 other men north to Fort Sedgwick. They left at 3 a.m. under cover of darkness. Elliott was entrusted to deliver a letter that Custer wrote in camp on June 22. Addressed to Colonel Christopher C. Augur (who had been a major general of Volunteers during the Civil War), the commander of the Department of the Platte, Custer wrote in the heretofore unpublished letter:
In obedience to instructions received from the Lieut. General Commdg Military Division of the Missouri, I have the honor to report the location of my command and the probable time of arrival at Fort Sedgwick. My command arrived at this point today. Before leaving McPherson I had two interviews with Pawnee Killer, a Sioux Chief, whose band is reported as being on Beaver Creek some forty or fifty miles distant. At these interviews it was agreed that Pawnee Killer and his entire band should remove at once to a point on North bank of Platte, near McPherson, forty days was fixed as the limit within which this move must be made. I regard this agreement if successfully executed as of no little importance. Pawnee Killer’s band being the owners of the lodges burned by General Hancock’s command on Pawnee Fork. General Sherman rather mistrusted the sincerity of Pawnee Killer. I do not. I was directed to send this band in to McPherson under escort, it being supposed I would meet them en route to that post. They have not had time to move. I am now seventy five miles south east of Sedgwick, the same distance north east from Wallace. I had sent one squadron this evening to Beaver Creek forty five miles distant to bring Pawnee Killer and band to my camp. From Beaver Creek to Wallace it is thirty miles. I send one company of the squadron detached as above to proceed to Wallace from Beaver Creek with twelve wagons to procure supplies, while the other company under Captain West is collecting Pawnee Killer’s band. My supplies can be drawn to this point from Wallace with greater facility than from Sedgwick. The Guides informing me it is almost impossible to conduct a train across the country south of Sedgwick, there being no water for fifty five miles. If I can get Pawnee Killer’s band north of the Platte, there will be only the Cheyennes to deal with South. I am confident from all the information I can gain that the Cheyennes are the authors of the depredations lately committed in the Platte Route. Pawnee Killer represents the Cheyennes as all intending to move south of the Arkansas, but before doing so parties of their young men numbering from five to fifty have been making raids on the Platte Stations. The Cheyenne village is represented as being south west from this point and on a tributary of the South Republican. Guides and Sioux agree in this opinion. I think I could do much toward breaking up the raids on the Platte Stations if allowed to scout the country in which this village is represented to be. No trails of Indians have been discovered between McPherson and this point, which is confirmatory of Pawnee Killer’s story. General Sherman in the absence of contrary instructions from you directed me to keep on the move by easy marches and in this way make the Indians in this section feel unsafe. Shall I after scouting up North Republican as far as opposite Valley Station turn and hunt the Cheyenne village. I believe I can find Indians. I will have twenty days rations when my train returns, which will be as soon as the officer bearing this can return. I have about three hundred and fifty men all told, quite a number dismounted, and mounted on unserviceable horses. General Sherman promised me some fresh horses from Omaha. I have six companies and ten officers. I wish I could have twenty five or more of your Pawnees, for trailers. In the absence of definite information as to distance from here to Valley Station by proposed route, I cannot tell the exact day upon which I can make Sedgwick. I would prefer making the strike for the Cheyenne village before going to Sedgwick, unless you otherwise order. The officer bearing this to Sedgwick, Major Elliot of 7th Cavalry, will occupy two days in reaching that post. I will instruct him to wait instructions from you until the morning of the twenty seventh, then to rejoin me at this point. I will send messengers to Sedgwick from time to time to receive any instructions sent there and will try and reach that post in ten days from time of return of Major Elliot, unless I go on my proposed scout, which would probably delay my arrival at Sedgwick five days more. Please inform me fully of your wishes and whether my proposition merits your approval.
Very Respectfully, &c
Brevet Major. Genl. Commdg
Sherman had promised Custer at McPherson that if not at Sedgwick he would leave instructions for Custer there. No instructions, however, were awaiting Custer when Elliott arrived, nor was Elliott able to connect with Sherman via telegraph. While Augur did not have specific instructions from Sherman to Custer, he did telegraph from Fort Leavenworth to Elliott at Sedgwick what he inferred Sherman’s instructions might be:
…I infer from a dispatch recd. from Gen. Sherman that he will order you again to Smoky Hill Route. If not, proceed to carry out such instructions as you have already recd. from him concerning your present scout, and having completed it, return to Sedgwick….I think it very important to get Pawnee Killer and all other Indians who desire to be friendly, out of the Republican country, and wish you to do all you can to accomplish it….Unquestionably the Cheyennes are the depredators along the Platte and I hope you will be able to punish them.
Augur’s orders committed Custer to return to the Platte once the train returned from Fort Wallace. No doubt what Custer received from Augur was disappointing, as it indicated that Indians were hostile down at the Smoky Hill River and not at the Platte, where he was again ordered to go. Augur’s orders did not relieve him from Sherman’s earlier orders, and thus Custer was obligated to proceed north.
On June 24, while Custer was awaiting the return of Elliott from Sedgwick and the wagon party from Wallace, that portion of his command remaining in camp (Companies A, E, H and M) had its first fight with Indians. At dawn, sentry Private Ford and the others were surprised when Indians raided the camp. The Indians, according to Jackson’s report, “tried to stampede stock but failed.” After the sentry was wounded, the Indians withdrew to a high knoll to the south about a mile away from the camp. There, using mirrors to signal their comrades, numerous parties of warriors came from all directions and soon joined the main body.
Custer then sent an interpreter named Gay to signal the Indians to parley. Custer had several motives for wanting to communicate with the Indians. First, he wanted to learn who they were and where they came from. He obviously knew their intentions were malicious, given their earlier attack upon the camp. Second, Custer was well aware that, should the Indians encounter Elliott’s small command returning from Sedgwick, the men would likely all be killed. In addition, the wagon party and two companies were also at risk to the south. For Custer, stalling the Indians was a wise move.
A few Indians rode out to communicate with Custer’s interpreter and told him they would meet with a similar number of officers. The Indians were on one side of the North Fork of the Republican River, Custer’s men on the other. Custer soon learned that one of the Indians was Pawnee Killer. Custer, six officers, a bugler and Gay rode forward to a designated point. They dismounted and proceeded on foot to the banks of the river.
The conference accomplished nothing other than giving Custer time to plan his next move. Remembering Sherman’s orders to move Pawnee Killer’s band up to the Platte, Custer told him he intended to follow him to his village. Pawnee Killer would not divulge its whereabouts, nor promise to move it down near Custer’s camp. While the parley was going on, several other Indians crossed the river and joined in the proceedings. Custer warned them that if another Indian crossed he would signal his bugler to summon the entire command, and the parley would be over. That stopped the influx of warriors, but it also brought things to a grinding halt. The Indians departed after Custer refused to give them sugar, coffee and ammunition.
When Custer returned to camp, his men were ready to move against the Indians, now about two miles from camp. The men left camp at noon. They crossed the Republican, turned southwest and followed the Indian trail for seven miles. They then turned northwest and finally northeast and then back to camp. The wily Indians were able to elude pursuit. Upon returning to camp, the cavalrymen discovered that the Indians had raided it while they were gone. Pawnee Killer apparently got the coffee and sugar that Custer had refused to give him earlier.
Shortly after the command returned, about 15 Indians were observed on bluffs to the north. Captain Hamilton, who would die the next year in the fight at the Washita (in what would become Oklahoma), was ordered to take 24 men from Company A and pursue them. After the pursuit had gone about eight miles, the small band suddenly grew to at least 50 warriors. It was obviously a trap, and a hot skirmish ensued for an hour or two. During the clash, the Indians circled the soldiers, firing at them from atop and beneath their ponies. Although their horsemanship was remarkable, their aim was not so good. They killed a cavalry horse but no soldiers. Meanwhile, Hamilton and his men killed three Indians and wounded several others.
George Custer later added another story to this fight, writing that Hamilton took his whole company in pursuit. After several miles, the Indians divided into two parties, whereupon Hamilton split his company into two squadrons, Lieutenant Tom Custer in charge of the second squadron. Both detachments then went in different directions to trail the Indians. While Hamilton had the fight noted above, Tom Custer did not engage any Indians and eventually returned to camp. Surgeon Isaac Coates, accompanying the younger Custer’s detachment, somehow got separated from the men. Soon he heard the fight between Indians and Hamilton’s detachment, so he rode in the direction of the gunfire. But before he could reach Hamilton, the warriors spotted him and gave chase. Coates desperately raced back to camp. The race lasted about four miles, but Coates reached safety just when the Indians were about to catch up with him.
Although certainly dramatic, that story is problematic. First, Hamilton reported the fight happened 15 to 20 miles away from camp. Coates never could have run his horse that distance. Second, neither the account of Hamilton nor that of Harper’s Weekly’s correspondent Theodore Davis mentioned the entire company chasing the Indians. It is thus unlikely that all of Hamilton’s company was engaged, and Coates probably would not have been with Hamilton’s detachment. More important, Tom Custer was detached from Company A and in charge of Company H. He thus would not likely have been with Hamilton as he left camp.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that George Custer was fabricating a story when he wrote My Life on the Plains. Surgeon Coates could very well have been chased back to camp by a small party of Indians, perhaps after getting separated from a small detachment led by Tom Custer, possibly sent out later in the day to scout for the whereabouts of Hamilton’s detachment. Regardless of how it might have happened that Coates was nearly killed by Indians, June 24 was certainly the most memorable day of the campaign for George Custer.
On June 25, in response to the fight of the day before, George Custer ordered Captain Myers to take his company south to Beaver Creek, anticipating that the wagon train might come under attack while returning from Fort Wallace. Pawnee Killer had now proved himself to be anything but friendly, and Custer was worried for the safety of the wagons and the company escort. Custer’s command remained in camp on June 26, and the wagon train, along with Companies E, D and K, returned the next day. At that time Custer learned that the wagon train had indeed been attacked.
The wagons, which had left Custer’s camp on the forks of the Republican on June 22, had arrived at Fort Wallace on the evening of the 24th. The wagons were loaded, and they left the fort the next evening. On the morning of the 26th, a war party of at least 500 Indians attacked the wagons and Company D near Black Butte Creek, about 10 miles south of present-day Edson, Kan. The ensuing fight lasted three hours, and would have gone on longer except for the timely arrival of Captain West’s and Captain Myers’ companies from Beaver Creek. By the end of the fight, at least five warriors had been killed, several wounded and one pony captured. Two soldiers received minor wounds. One cavalry horse was killed and two were abandoned.
Both Theodore Davis and George Custer provided more details of that fight. Davis reported as many as 800 Sioux and Cheyennes. While Cooke had charge of the wagons and Robbins had charge of Company D, they both worked together in repulsing the attack. Cooke ordered the wagons in double columns with the cavalry horses between them, thus protecting them from the Indians’ fire as they circled the moving train. Company D was positioned outside the wagons in a skirmish line and thus was able to fire upon the Indians from any direction. The fight continued for 15 miles before relief came.
Custer reported that there were between 600-700 warriors, most armed with a rifle and two pistols. They came from the very direction that scout Will Comstock had warned the officers on the march to Fort Wallace. Apparently the Indians’ intent was to stampede the horses, but each time they tried to move toward the wagons, the soldiers poured a volley from their Spencer carbines, repulsing them. Every time an Indian fell, his comrades immediately retrieved his body. Several Indians were shot and thus removed. The reason Indians took their fallen was because, as Custer noted, “if a warrior loses his scalp he forfeits his hopes of ever reaching the happy hunting ground.” They feared the soldiers would scalp the dead.
After three hours, the Indians seemed to lose interest and began to withdraw. This was good news to the troopers because they were close to running out of ammunition. Not long after, another column of men was observed approaching from the north. The soldiers’ anxiety increased until it was evident that the companies of Captains West and Myers were advancing. No doubt the Indians had seen the approaching troopers. The relieved soldiers soon reached Beaver Creek and camped. They resumed their march back to Custer’s campsite, arriving on the afternoon of June 27.
Earlier on the same morning as the Robbins/Cooke fight, another fight was brewing 28 miles to the south, near Fort Wallace. In that engagement, which began shortly after dawn, Indians clashed with Captain Albert Barnitz’s 7th Cavalry soldiers from the fort. Five troopers were killed and six wounded. The possibility exists that both fights were planned on the evening before. It is even possible the two fights were carried out by the same group of Indians.
After the southern column returned to Custer’s campsite, the command remained in camp, awaiting the return of Major Elliott’s party from Sedgwick. While in camp the men, both those with Custer and those with the wagon escort, shared stories of their first Indian fight. They were all impressed with the horsemanship of the Indians. When the men took their horses to the river for water, nearly all the soldiers tried the horsemanship tricks of the Indians. Davis noted that there “was not a trooper in camp who had not made the effort to ride beneath his horse instead of above him.”
On June 28, Elliott’s small detachment arrived, and Custer learned that Elliott was unable to obtain any new communications from General Sherman. Elliott did give him the aforementioned orders from General Augur, which did not relieve Custer of his orders to proceed to the Platte after scouting around the Republican. Custer thus marched his command into Colorado Territory, camping on July 5 at Riverside Station, a stage stop alongside the Platte River (near the site of present-day Iliff). His men had had their first fight with Indians. Apparently many of the men did not like their warring experience, since 34 deserted from their Colorado campsite. But that is a story for another day.
Jeff Broome, who teaches at a Colorado community college in metro Denver,located Custer’s 1867 Republican River campsite in 2006.Most of his information came from untapped sources in the National Archives in Washington,D.C.Suggested for further reading is My Life on the Plains, by George A. Custer.
Originally published in the June 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.