The stagecoach bounces roughly along a dirt road, its passengers jostled, tired, dust-choked and dripping in the scorching desert heat. But the uncomfortable ride abruptly becomes the least of their worries when an arrow zips through an open window and thuds into the chest of an unsuspecting passenger. Apaches! Where did they come from in midday on an open road, and how did they get so close yet remain unseen?
This memorable stagecoach attack appears in John Ford’s 1939 Western classic Stagecoach, starring John Wayne as the fugitive Ringo Kid. How such an attack could have occurred, and what happened to passengers caught in the crossfire we will examine later. Suffice it to say, however, that stagecoach attacks were not a fiction concocted in the minds of novelists and filmmakers.
‘In a scene reminiscent of many Hollywood Westerns, the bouncing coach careened along as the Indians closed on the junction, with passengers and guards leaning out to shoot at their pursuers. With all the jostling, they probably hit nothing, though Indian bullets holed two passengers’ hats.
Stagecoaches were a staple of Western movies, and road agents in search of treasure often chased, stopped and robbed those coaches. The real West also experienced its share of stage robberies, probably beginning with one pulled off in California in August 1856. For the historical white bandits, however, chasing down a stage was not common practice, as it was easier to hit a coach when one forced it to travel at a slow speed (up a steep grade, for instance) or come to a complete stop (by placing logs or some other obstruction in the road). Indians, in both film and real life, were more apt to actually chase a stagecoach, and they would do so not necessarily for treasure but perhaps for the company horses or to harm the passengers. But Hollywood didn’t invent the scenarios.
Ironically, one place Indians didn’t seem to attack stagecoaches was in the Black Hills of Dakota, even though showman extraordinaire William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody made such attacks on the Deadwood Stage a highlight of his performances, playing to rapt audiences in America and Europe. As one historian wrote, “many crimes for which the Sioux had been blamed were actually committed by white men in disguise.”
Stagecoaches plied the Lower Military Road through southern Texas across terrain that could have worked for John Ford’s Stagecoach and many other Westerns. The road was a dangerous place in 1854, when Henry Skillman and George H. Giddings operated the San Antonio to El Paso mail. The first coach under their new partnership ran for El Paso on November 1, led by George’s brother, Frank. Skillman and merchant A.C. Rand followed in a second coach the next day. Skillman caught up with Giddings two weeks later southeast of Van Horn Wells in west Texas.
Skillman got started early the next morning with Giddings following behind. A dozen miles up the road, Skillman stopped to shoe a mule. Giddings had almost caught up to Skillman when, instead, some 50 Mescalero Apaches caught up with him.
The Indians reined up 200 yards away and called out, “Amigos!” When their leader approached, guard Louis Dixon warned them all to stay back. The warriors did pull back and began circling, one waving a bloody jacket belonging to a dispatch rider they had killed a week earlier. Before they could attack, however, they caught sight of Skillman and galloped off toward him. Reaching his coach, they tried their ruse of friendship again, also to no avail. When Skillman waved them away, however, they opened fire. Things got hot when Giddings charged up with his coach and broke through the circling warriors.
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“The prettiest part of the fight was now coming on, and the fun was not stopped till sundown,” one coach passenger recalled. The 15 Texans atop and inside the stages held off repeated charges. Some Mescaleros climbed a rise a few hundred yards away and began dropping bullets into the coaches. They soon wounded two passengers and hit several mules, including Skillman’s favorite animal. Giddings then hitched up the teams to pull out of range while Skillman covered him. Eyewitnesses praised Skillman’s marksmanship with a rifle. After he killed three Mescaleros at 300 yards, the raiders continued the siege from a respectful distance and finally left the determined Texans at nightfall. When the stages reached El Paso, and the men shared their harrowing story, the citizenry feted them like heroes. It was a very real incident that some 20th-century historians claim never happened but was a figment of novelists’ and filmmakers’ imaginations.
John Butterfield, whose Overland Mail Co. stages ran from Missouri to San Francisco, warned his drivers and conductors, “You will be traveling through Indian country and the safety of your person cannot be vouchsafed by anyone but God.” In late March 1861, one of Butterfield’s coaches left Mesilla, New Mexico Territory, bound for Tucson. Conductor Anthony Elder and the driver, a man named Briggs, rode outside; inside were company employee Sam Nealy and passengers Michael Neiss and John Giddings. At dawn, the coach was approaching Stein’s Peak Station, at the eastern entrance to Doubtful Canyon on the New Mexico–Arizona border. From behind a stone parapet famed Chiricahua Chief Cochise and his warriors opened fire, killing Elder and Briggs. The driverless mules ran more than a mile before the coach capsized. Neiss knew Cochise and tried to parley, but the chief was in no mood. He later boasted the men had “died like poor sick women.”
Men on another stagecoach a few months later made a better show. In Virginia on July 21, men in blue and gray were fighting the first bloody clash of the Civil War near a little stream called Bull Run. That same day, 2,000 miles west, a small group of Unionists decided to abandon Franklin (El Paso), Texas, on the approach of Confederate forces. Some of the evacuees were former Butterfield employees, and they agreed to take the San Antonio and San Diego Mail Co.’s coach to California. Leading the party were Freeman Thomas and Emmett Mills, brother of Anson Mills, who would become a brigadier general in the Union Army. Other members were Joe Roescher, Mat Champion, Robert Aveline, John Portell and John Wilson.
The party was experienced and well armed. They camped at the abandoned stage station near Cooke’s Spring and continued the next morning. A mile into Cooke’s Canyon, about 150 Apache warriors under Mangas Coloradas and Cochise attacked, and the coach sped away trying to reach higher ground. Halfway up Little Massacre Peak, the passengers stripped the coach of guns, ammunition and water and sent the team downhill, hoping it would satisfy the Indians. Then they piled up stones into a makeshift breastwork. But the Apaches surrounded them and fired on their position for the next two days.
Four of the party died within the breastwork. Two apparently made it about 50 yards before bullets found them. John Wilson ran 150 yards before the Apaches finished him off. Freighters found their bodies a few days after the fight. The bodies had been stripped, their arms broken, their heads riddled with bullets. Wilson’s corpse bristled with a dozen arrows. Spent bullets littered the ground around the breastwork, and one tree about 150 yards from the redoubt bore 11 ball holes. A penciled note scrawled on the second day of the fight related that five of the besieged men had already been killed. It was said the Americans wounded Cochise and eldest son Taza. Mangas reportedly conceded 25 Apache deaths and concluded that had the Apaches been as brave “as these few white men, he could whip the world.”
Apache attacks on stagecoaches happen quite often in Western films, as in fact they did in the 19th-century Southwest. In a key scene from the 1950 movie Broken Arrow, Cochise (portrayed by Jeff Chandler) makes a pact with Tom Jeffords (James Stewart) to stop attacking coaches and mail riders of the Butterfield Overland. Historians still debate the factuality of that pact, but it appears stagecoaches did have a “free pass” for some time while crossing Chiricahua Apache lands.
Not so elsewhere. In August 1854 in Nebraska Territory, after Lieutenant John Grattan foolishly provoked a fight over a stolen Mormon cow—killing a chief and losing his life and the lives of his soldiers in the process—many Brulé Lakota warriors sought revenge. Red Leaf, Long Chin, Spotted Tail and two others, headed for the Overland Trail. About 12 miles west of Horse Creek they waylaid a stage headed for Salt Lake City, killing three men and robbing the coach of a metal box containing $20,000 in gold. No one ever found the gold, but the Indians went to nearby Bordeaux’s trading post and may have engaged in quite a shopping spree.
Cheyenne and Lakota warriors were in the midst of a devastating raid along the Little Blue River in southeast Nebraska in August 1864 when stage driver Bob Emery pulled in to Kiowa Station on the morning of August 9. Though the Indians were active farther west, Emery was determined to go through and reluctant to join a slower wagon train also about to leave the station. Station owners John Gilbert and James Douglass and a man named Lan Hoffman grabbed guns and climbed aboard to help him. On the box with Emery was the guard, John Ames. Five passengers rode inside.
Emery pulled ahead of the wagon train. Just over 2 miles beyond the station the road forked: The right fork took the bluff, while the left cut through the valley and was a little easier. Gilbert suggested they keep to the bluff road, as the valley trail went along the river and was obscured with trees and brush. It was a good decision, as waiting amid the trees along the river were scores of mounted Indians. As coach skimmed the bluff, Gilbert saw the Indians ahead. “They looked awful naked sitting there on their ponies,” he said, “their lances glistening in the sun.”
The Indians were apparently so intent on watching the valley cutoff, they failed to notice the coach on the bluff above them. After a quick discussion among the passengers, Emery decided to turn back. Unfortunately, the Indians spotted the coach as it swung around, and the race was on. As the warriors galloped through the valley, Emery and his coach thundered along the bluffs, trying to beat them to the fork where the roads converged. The stage had a slight downhill, and the Indians had to go uphill, but they were faster. It would be close. In a scene reminiscent of many Hollywood Westerns, the bouncing coach careened along as the Indians closed on the junction, with passengers and guard leaning out to shoot at their pursuers. With all the jostling, they probably hit nothing, though Indian bullets holed two passengers’ hats.
Emery beat the Indians to the junction by 50 yards and kept going as fast as the horses would pull until they met up with the lumbering wagon train. Emery had raced nearly 3 miles in less than eight minutes. The Indians stopped some 400 yards short of the train and pulled back, and Emery decided he would go the rest of the way with the wagons.
1865 saw little improvement. In central Kansas on June 11 Lieutenant Richard W. Jenkins, 2nd Colorado Cavalry, left Cow Creek Station with the mail coach and a six-man escort. Four miles down the road 100 Kiowas jumped them. The driver spun the coach around, but the warriors caught up and stabbed their lances through the windows while the passengers blasted away at them, killing one Indian and hitting four ponies. Two soldiers, Privates Cutting and Platt, took lance wounds to the head.
Captain Elisha Hammer, 7th Iowa Cavalry, in command of Cow Creek Station, witnessed the attack from the roof of one of the buildings, threw together a relief force and rushed out to meet the stage. The Indians fled at Hammer’s approach, and then it was the soldiers’ turn to do the chasing. They drove the Kiowas 6 miles until they escaped across the Arkansas River, but Hammer claimed he got “close enough to empty eight saddles.”
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On September 13, 1866, Northern Paiutes under Paulina attacked The Dalles & Canyon City Stage west of Mountain House, Ore. Aboard were $10,000 in greenbacks, 1,200 ounces of gold dust, $300 in gold coins and a number of diamond rings. Bullets struck Wells Fargo messenger Henry Paige in the side and driver Henry Wheeler in the face, tearing out his tongue. Although badly wounded, the men managed to climb down and cut loose the lead horses to make their escape. A warrior named Tall Man rode in quickly to stop them. He got within point-blank range of Paige and pulled the trigger, but the pistol misfired. With the tables suddenly turned, Tall Man peered down the barrel of Paige’s .38 Colt. That revolver worked fine, and Tall Man fell dead with a shot to the head. Paige and Wheeler had mounted the lead horses, when Paige was bucked off. Wheeler stopped to pull him aboard his horse, and the pair escaped. Paulina got the diamonds, greenbacks, coins and horses. The gold dust blew to the four winds.
Raiding warriors attacked stagecoaches in virtually every state or territory from the Great Plains west. On November 8, 1866, Paiutes attacked a coach leaving Silver City, Idaho Territory. The warriors fired a volley while concealed behind a low rock wall they had built along the road. One bullet tore into passenger W. Wilcox’s chest.
“Oh my God, I’m killed!” he cried out, and his head slumped onto George Harrington’s knee. Seconds later Harrington caught a bullet in the left hip. One bullet tore through the carriage and clipped driver Wash Waltermire in the side. Waltermire whipped the horses into a run, but they galloped right into more mounted Indians just down the road. The converging groups of warriors then sought to hem in the stage. As Wash whipped the horses, guard James McRae fired his carbine, keeping the warriors at bay for about 2 miles. A bullet hit one of the wheel horses and it fell, dragging the stage to a halt. While Wash unhitched the team, McRae kept firing, and Harrington got out of the coach, assisted by passengers J. M. Holland and P. Casey.
They all tried to mount the horses, but the spooked animals bolted, and the men ran the last 2 miles to the ferry. Employees and soldiers stationed there had heard the firing, and a sergeant, 11 soldiers and four other men hurried back to the stage. The Indians had already left, but not before cutting out Wilcox’s heart, scalping him and stealing his clothes. They had cut up the mail sacks and scattered their contents but did not have enough time to destroy the coach. The soldiers buried Wilcox, pulled the stage to the station and repaired it. Others tended to Harrington, and by that evening, with a fresh team of horses, the stage continued its journey.
The cost to run a stagecoach company was high, especially given the recurring losses to Indian raiders. After the firm of Russell, Majors & Waddell went into bankruptcy in 1862, its primary creditor, Ben Holladay, bought out the partners for $100,000 and expanded the service. But he faced the same problems. Holladay repeatedly called on the Army for protection, but there never seemed to be enough soldiers to cover the roads. Years later Holladay filed federal claims for nearly $370,000 in losses due to Indian depredations alone.
In early 1866 Holladay made a last-ditch attempt to corner the market by buying out the Butterfield Overland Despatch, but to no avail. The handwriting was on the wall for the company. The losses were too great, and as the railroads extended west and east, Holladay saw the day when the stage would be obsolete. In late 1866, he sold out to Wells Fargo. That company managed to stay alive, though the great disruption caused by Indians almost did it in, too. A historian writing about the company and the era concluded, “They were called the Indian wars but could just as well been named the stagecoach wars.”
Such stagecoach attacks represent but a sample. Indian attacks on coaches arguably occurred as often in reality as they did on screen. The most famous Hollywood depiction of one, of course, was the chase scene in Stagecoach, one of the most analyzed films of the genre. Director Ford’s first Western in 13 years, it has been called the most significant Western talkie ever made. It was the first film made in Monument Valley, the film that rescued Wayne from the B Western doldrums, the first of the genre of modern Westerns and the film that bridged the gap between the A and B Westerns.
The clichéd main plot centers on Wayne’s Ringo Kid, who is determined to track down the murderers of his father and brother. The Kid breaks out of prison and heads for Lordsburg, New Mexico Territory, but when his horse dies in the desert, he encounters a passing stagecoach, and shotgun-riding Marshal Curly Wilcox (George Bancroft) takes him into custody. The coach is a microcosm of stereotypes: drunken Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell), Southern gambler Hatfield (John Carradine); crooked banker Gatewood (Berton Churchill); pregnant Army wife Lucy Mallory (Louise Platt); effeminate whiskey peddler Samuel Peacock (Donald Meek); fat, comical stage driver Buck (Andy Devine); and kindly whore Dallas (Claire Trevor). Social outcasts of one sort or another, they reveal their true natures during the course of the journey from Tonto to Lordsburg, but with the desert and raiding Apaches to contend with, they realize they must work together, and thus reveal an innate nobility in each of them.
When the Apaches attack, the Kid has to choose between escape and helping the passengers survive. He chooses the latter, gives his word, and Marshal Curly gives him back his gun to help fight. Thus the Kid, with his professional violence, again becomes an accepted member of society. The scene is attendant with all the spills and thrills of the stagecoach chase, made all the more spectacular by stuntmen Yakima Canutt and Iron Eyes Cody managing and participating in the falling, diving, jumping and dragging. The classic scene of a man leaping from a stagecoach amid the galloping team of horses was done many times, even as late as 1970, when stuntmen did a spoof of the action in Little Big Man.
In Stagecoach the cavalry inevitably rides to the rescue, and the stage eventually reaches Lordsburg. The Ringo Kid has his showdown with the Plummer Gang and kills Luke Plummer (Tom Tyler), who murdered his father. And because the Kid has redeemed himself, Marshal Curly lets him go. The love-struck Kid and Dallas, however, cannot find a real place in society, so at the end of the film they set out by wagon to a little rancho the Kid has in old Mexico. America, it appeared, was still not tolerant enough to welcome all would-be members of its community. The dream for some was ever onward, beyond the next horizon.
Stagecoach has elements of the A Western, which focuses on the epic journey west and its process of moving and becoming, and the B Western, which more often focuses on the problems of a single agricultural community. It is free of specific historical connections and thus works as something as a fable or folk story, while illustrating some of the very real trials and tribulations of the Western experience.
While Stagecoach has won general acclaim, some critics miss the point. One reviewer wondered how the stage could have been surprised, as the Apaches would have had to travel for miles across open country and would undoubtedly have been discovered. She also questioned how an Apache with a bow and arrow could have gotten so close to the coach to fire an arrow into it, and why the Apaches seldom hit anyone, while the whites in the coach couldn’t seem to miss. She also dismissed the inconsistencies, saying the mistakes were “irrelevant to audiences,” as only speed and action were important, “not reality.”
Some critics just don’t know history. A similar chase did play out in reality. On July 3, 1865, along the Silver City road in southeast Oregon, wagons with outriders were crossing an open sage plain when 50 mounted Paiutes popped up as if they had sprung from the ground. No one expected an attack on such open ground. So how did the warriors manage it? They had cleverly hidden themselves behind the sagebrush along the trail, tying down each horse with a rope looped around the horse’s neck and pulled up tight under one of its forefeet. The animals were hunched down and helpless until the warriors jerked their cinching ropes free. As their horses jumped up, nearly half of the raiding party fired their rifles, striking four of the white men.
Another critic who should have known better, given his claims of being an old-time cowboy, was William S. Hart. Hart, who had acted in or directed nearly 100 films, was an aging ex-star in his 70s when he commented on Stagecoach. The movie was magnificent, he said, but unrealistic. Why? Hart believed that the Indians, being intelligent warriors, would have just shot down the horses and ended the chase before it began. Ford barked back that had the Indians shot the horses, “it would have been the end of the picture.”
Aside from the cinematic necessity of keeping the horses alive, real-life pursuing Indians generally had the same end in mind. A contemporary observer in New Mexico Territory wrote that Indians would never steal or kill all the available horses or stock, as they wanted to leave some to steal in the future. The pure murder raid was far less frequent than the stock raid. Horses and mules represented wealth, and Indians would try to capture the animals, not kill them. That reality is depicted in a number of Westerns, including The Outriders (1950), Westward Ho, the Wagons (1956) and How the West Was Won (1962).
If it seems unreal to some folks that attacking Indians hit fewer targets than defending whites, it is nevertheless true. Unless achieving complete tactical surprise, attackers almost always take more casualties than defenders. Hollywood film coverage of the Indian wars centers on the years 1850–90. During that time span in the real West, records account for some 21,500 casualties, both Indian and white. Of that number, about 6,500 were Army and civilian losses, while Indian losses totaled about 15,000. The Indians did get hit more often.
Some critics may consider John Ford’s Stagecoach unrealistic, but many of its scenarios had historical antecedents. Once again Hollywood, through hard research or serendipity, understood some basic facts of the West better than do some of its detractors. Its tales of Indian attacks on stagecoaches were not fabrications.
Gregory Michno is a Wild West special contributor and author of more than a dozen Western history books. This article is adapted from his 2008 book Circle the Wagons! Attacks on Wagon Trains in History and Hollywood Films.