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Lieutenant John L. Bullis and three black Seminole scouts scrambled from the safety of the rocks and made for their horses. The scouts mounted cleanly, but Bullis’ horse threw him. Luckily, he fell away rather than beneath his horse, but now he was standing alone with Comanches sweeping down on him. Scout Sergeant John Ward twisted in his saddle, expecting to see his commanding officer riding close behind. Instead, he spotted Bullis far back and on foot, pouring carbine fire at the enemy. Ward alerted the other two scouts and then pulled hard on the reins. His horse reared, but Ward stayed in the saddle. Without waiting for the other two, he turned and raced back to help Bullis.

Ward’s fellow scouts, Trumpeter Isaac Payne and Private Pompey Factor, soon rode back into the fray. They provided cover fire while Ward locked arms with Bullis and lifted the lieutenant onto the rear of his horse. The four men on three horses made their escape, leaving at least three dead Comanche raiders behind. The daring rescue capped off a day, April 25, 1875, in which the fearless four from Fort Clark, Texas, had chased down 40 Comanches driving a herd of 75 stolen horses and given battle to them. Bullis had directed his men to hide amid rocks and fire at the raiders from different vantage points to give the impression of a larger force. Twice during the fight, Bullis and the scouts retrieved the horses, only to lose them in the end when the Indians got wise to their ruse. Fearing they would be overrun, the four had made their escape from the rocks, but when Bullis lost his mount, only his scouts’ courage averted disaster. Later, when asked about the trio’s heroics near Eagle’s Nest Crossing of the lower Pecos River, the lieutenant said they “just saved my hair.” Ward, Payne and Factor each received the Medal of Honor for “bravery and trustworthiness.”

It was not a first for black Seminole scouts (often referred to as the Seminole-Negro Indian Scouts). Some seven months earlier, Private Adam Paine had rendered invaluable service to Colonel Ranald Mackenzie, earning the first Medal of Honor for a Mascogo, or black Seminole. It was on September 26, 1874, that Mackenzie ordered Paine, two other black Seminole scouts and two Tonkawa scouts to search for hostiles on the Texas frontier. A band of 40 Kiowas found the scouts first, near Quitaque Peak, and the scouts made a fighting dash for freedom. To aid his fellows’ escape, Private Paine slowed down and fired repeatedly at the Kiowas. When the enemy, closing fast, shot his horse, he dug in behind the dead animal and continued to fire his carbine. Paine brought down one Kiowa and lit out on the dead Indian’s horse. Like the other three scouts, he returned safely. Paine was commended for “habitual courage” and awarded the Medal of Honor on October 13, 1875. Ironically, as he hadn’t re-enlisted in 1875, he may never have received the medal.

Paine, Payne,Ward and Factor were descendents of slaves or black freedmen who joined forces with the Seminoles in Florida from the late 1700s into the 1800s. While some Mascogos lived in their own circles, many others intermarried. Like many full-blood Seminoles, they were forced to relocate to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma) in the 1840s. Life on the reservation proved intolerable, however, and in the 1850s a group of Seminoles, including some Mascogos, found refuge in Mexico, where they set up homes and defended the borders of their adopted country from Plains Indians and Texans. In 1870 the U.S. Army, in need of seasoned Indian scouts, was able to lure black Seminoles back across the border, including the four future Medal of Honor recipients. Over the next four decades, the Army engaged 50 Mascogos in the Seminole-Negro Indian Scouts.

Army promises to the scouts—food and supplies for their families, pensions, etc.—were slow in coming. The promise of land never materialized, as Indians were to get the land, and clearly these fellows were Negroes. The concept of black Indians didn’t register. Regardless, the scouts continued to prove their tracking and battle skills, although their lack of discipline and indifference to Army regulations often put them at odds with superiors. Lieutenant Bullis, a Quaker who had commanded U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War, became their commanding officer in March 1873. He was interested in how well they could shoot, pick up trails and go long periods on half rations, not on how well they followed regulations.

Adam Paine, 6 feet and 200 pounds, was known as a particularly fierce fighter who adapted poorly to military strictures. His surname might originally have been spelled with a Y, though he probably wasn’t related to Isaac Payne. Born in Florida in the early 1840s, he signed on as a scout at Fort Duncan, Texas, in November 1873 and saw action in such spots as Kickapoo Springs, Tule Canyon and Palo Duro Canyon before turning in his Medal of Honor performance at Quitaque Peak. After his discharge from the Army at Fort Clark on February 19, 1875, he worked as a teamster at Fort Brown. That Christmas Eve, he got into an argument with a cavalryman and stabbed him to death. He found refuge with black Seminoles living in Brackettville, Texas, near Fort Clark, but U.S. authorities caught up with him on New Year’s Eve 1876. When the former scout put up a struggle, Deputy Sheriff Claron “Gus”Windus shot him in the back with a shotgun. (Look for more on this shooting in a future WildWest.) It was a case of one Medal of Honor winner killing another, as Windus had earned that same lofty medal when he rode with the 6th U.S. Cavalry.

John Ward, who was born about 1848 and once bore the surname Warrior, also enlisted at Fort Duncan. With his leadership abilities, he earned promotion to sergeant and was serving in that capacity with the 24th U.S. Infantry Indian Scouts when he saved Lieutenant Bullis’ life in April 1875. Mustered out of the Army in 1894, he lived “quietly” until his death in 1911. He is buried at Brackettville’s Seminole Indian Scout Cemetery, established on the Fort Clark Reservation in September 1872.

Pompey Factor, the son of a black Seminole chief and a Biloxi Indian woman, was born in Indian Territory about 1849 and became a reliable scout with the 24th Infantry. He left the scouts shortly after receiving his Medal of Honor. He died in 1928 and was also buried at the Brackettville cemetery.

Isaac Payne, born about 1854, was the youngest of the four black Seminole Medal of Honor winners. He enlisted in the scouts as a trumpeter on October 7, 1871. With Adam Paine, he was involved in the 1876 New Year’s Eve row, but Isaac escaped to Mexico. When Payne did return to the States, Lieutenant Bullis welcomed him, and the scout re-enlisted. He retired in 1901 and died in Mexico on January 14, 1904. As with the other black Seminole MoH recipients, a headstone at the Seminole Indian Scout Cemetery bears Payne’s name, but some accounts say he is actually buried in Nacimiento, Mexico.

Originally published in the October 2010 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.