The Raynesford Papers: The Butterfield Overland Despatch or Smoky Hill Trail

Notes of Howard Raynesford

The Butterfield Overland Despatch
or Smoky Hill Trail

      When the great "Pathfinder", John C. Fremont, reached Bent's Fort, near the site of the present city of Las Animas on the Arkansas, on the return trip of his second great trans-continental exploration, agreably to his instructions he turned northeast to discover the head waters of the Kansas River and explore its course to its mouth.

     On July 8, 1844, he located the junction of several small sandy creeks which proved to be the beginning of the Smoky Hill River, and from there he followed and explored this stream through to Kansas City, reaching there the last of July.

     So far as is known, Fremont's little party of 16 men were the first white men to traverse this Smoky Hill route, and, following his report, the Government seems to have recognized the importance of the Smoky Hill as part of a national highway, and topographic surveys were commenced along its course. But there was apparently no attempt to lay out a trail until gold was discovered in the Pikes Peak and Clear Creek regions of Colorado in 1858.

     The big rush that followed discovery of gold in California followed the old routes of the Platte and Arkansas, but this new region lay between them and the more direct Smoky Hill had every advantage of the older routes and was shorter by several days travel time. Apparently the first man to recognize these advantages was W. H. Russell of the famous firm of Majors, Russell and Waddell, who in the winter of 1858 conceived the idea of a line of daily coaches on this route between the Missouri River and Denver. His partners would not go in with him on the proposition so he stocked and equipped it himself on a ninty-day credit, and the first stage over this new route reached Denver on May 17, 1859. But the project proved to be premature and at the end of the ninty days his partners took over and transferred the equipment to their regular line on the Platte.

     Though the Government was using it some, as were probably many emigrant parties and gold-seekers, the life of the Smoky Hill route really began when David A. Butterfield took hold of it in 1865. Though living at Atchison, he had an extensive acquaintance in Denver from several years residence there, and the people of Denver had unbounded faith in him. He was a smooth talker was very ambitious and had few equals as an organizer, and evidently believed in advertising, for he spent large sums of money advertising his enterprise through the leading papers in New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Atchison, Denver and Salt Lake, and it became one of the leading topics of the day all over the country.

     The leading newspapers printed column after column about it and everywhere it was talked about. Then Butterfield went to New York and Boston, and laying his plans before leading capitalists, succeeded in organizing the "Butterfield Overland Despatch" with a capitalization of three million dollars, half of which was paid in. Branch offices were soon opened and agents appointed in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Cincinnatti, St. Louis, Chicago, Denver and Salt Lake.

     Meanwhile the actual road was being prepared. The surveying party, consisting of Lt. Julian R. Fitch and four men of the U S Signal Corps, Col. Isaac Eaton and his party of twenty-six constructionists with eleven four-mule teams and wagons, and an escort of two hundred and fifty cavalry under Maj. Pritchard, left Ellsworth July 14 on the actual work of surveying and constructing the road and stations.

     Some extracts from Lt. Fitch's report concerning this particular part of the trail will be interesting, - "Our road from this point laid over a hard stretch of level bench land covered with a luxuriant growth of buffalo grass. Finding fine springs as we traveled along, erecting mounds for every station, forty-six miles from Ft. Ellsworth we came to Big Creek at its mouth, a large stream having a beautiful valley with heavy timber. Here we made a good rock ford and erected a mound for a station. On the morning of the 18th we left camp, bearing a little south of west, close to the Smoky, and at a distance of twenty-eight miles we came to a fine large spring, one of the finest in the west. (This was the spring at Fremont's Pawnee Indian Village located on the N E quarter of 21-15-19, which village site H. C. Raynesford surveyed and mapped in 1953). Fifteen miles further (at the John Allman ranch) we bore away from the river and kept on high level ground about three miles north of the river which here makes a southerly bend. On the south side of the river, opposite this point, we discovered high bluffs covered with cedar. (Cedar Bluffs). Twelve and a half miles west we camped at the head springs of a stream emptying south three miles into Smoky Hill. The water and grass at the place we found unusually fine. We called this place Downer Station. Nine and one-fourth miles furtherwest we crossed Castle Rock Creek (Hackberry). Camped two days to rest. The scenery here is really grand. One mile south is a lofty calcareous limestone bluff, having the appearance of an old English castle with pillars and avenues traversing it in every direction. We named it Castle Rock....The advantages of the Smoky Hill route over the Platte or the Arkansas must be apparent to everybody. In the first place it is 116 miles shorter to Denver, and emigration, like a ray of light, will not go around unless there are unsurmountable obstacles in the way. In this case the obstructions are altogether on the Platte and Arkansas routes. Aside from the difference in the distance in favor of the new route, you will find no sand on it, whilst from Julesburg to Denver, a distance of 200 miles, the emigrant or freighter has a dead pull of sand, without a stick of timber, or a drop of living water, sane the Platte itself, which is from three to five miles from the road; and when it is taken into consideration that a loaded ox-train makes but from twelve to fourteen miles a day, it will not pay and will double the distance to drive to the Platte for the purpose of camping, and all will admit that the Platte waters are so strongly impregnated with alkali as to render it dangerous to water stock in it, whilst on the new route not a particle of this bane can be found." "Another advantage of the new route is hardly a spear of grass can be found to hide the sandy desert-like appearance of the route: whilst on the new route an abundance of excellent buffalo grass and gramma grass can be found all the way."

     Col. Eaton, in writing to the mayor of Leavenworth, because of the deep interest Leavenworth had always taken in the Smoky Hill route, gave a list of stations and told of their splendid stocking, etc., and in his enthusiasm went on to say, - "the cattle stations are selected with reference to the large quantities of hay that can be procured in their immediate neighborhoods, and along the whole route there is abundance of grass and watering places. At fifteen of the stations named there are large springs of water varying from five to twenty feet in depth. There is no alkali whatever on the route and if all the sand, including the crossings of streams, was put together it would not reach five miles. The roadbed is the best natural one I have ever seen, and I fail to do the Smoky Hill route justice when I say it is 100 per cent superior to either the Platte or Arkansas routes in every respect. I have no doubt of the verification of my prediction when I say that in twelve months from now there will not a wheel turn, destined for Colorado, New Mexico or Utah from St. Joseph and points south of it, except by this route....It is the natural track for the Pacific Railroad and the only one in which the people of Kansas, Missouri and the middle western states are particularly interested."

     The enterprise started off with a rush. Business was big from the start. The first train sent out -- a small one -- was on June 4th, 1865 and was known as "Train A", loaded with 150 thousand pounds of freight for Denver. On July 15th another train carried seventeen large steam boilers and another carried 600,000 lbs. of miscellaneous supplies. Steamboats discharged great quantities of freight on the Atchison levee for shipment on the "Despatch line", and a large amount of stuff came by rail through St. Joseph. In one day during the month of July nineteen carloads of freight were received at Atchison consigned to the BOD. But this does not represent all the traffic that went over this trail by any means, for remember, Butterfield had no monopoly of the route. The Government used it extensively for its supply trains and the movement of troops, other companies and individuals engaged in the overland business sent trains over it, and a very large portion of the emigration to the mountains and California went over this trail.

     Butterfield himself went through on the first coach, which reached Denver Sept. 23d, 1865. The people of Denver had the greatest confidence in him and his enterprise and gave him an enthusiastic welcome. They met him a few miles out of Denver with a delegation of prominent citizens -- his old friends and neighbors -- transferred him to a carriage and drove him direct to the Planter's House, where they received him royally with enthusiastic speeches and a great banquet.

     Would you like to imagine yourselves passengers on a trip over this trail? While in Topeka I found a description of a stage coach trip made in 1865, nearly 95 years ago and less than two months after this first coach carrying Butterfield reached Denver. We will have to cut out most of the interesting matter because of time, but possibly you can discover one of the principal reasons why the Butterfield Overland Despatch was not the financial success that it promised to be.

     A party of four persons, entirely innocent of any knowledge of the plains, left Atchison at sunrise on the 17th of November, 1865, and this narrative is taken from the writeup of one of the party.

     "Our outfit consisted of a four-horse concord coach driven by a Jehu who had 'never upset at outfit' and who in his loquasity divulged freely. "Deers you're like to see this afternoon, buffalo tomorrow, and injuns, you bet you get enough of in two days from now." On reaching the first station out from Atchison, the whoop of the driver soon announced his readiness to proceed, fresh stock having replaced the team with which we left Atchison.

     We were now fairly started on our journey. Long trains of prairie schooners were passed so frequently as to become too familiar to occasion remark, but they gave a picturesqueness to the plains that greatly enhances the journey across. Just at nightfall we arrive at St. Mary's Mission the Pottawatomie Reservation. The second day was almost without incident and at evening we passed Fort Ellsworth. At sunrise we were in the Indian country and as we came to the next station we fancied the wild unearthly whoop of the driver could only have been learned from a native whose garments consisted of the brightest paint.

     Along in the afternoon we reached Ft. Fletcher, a newly established Government post garrisoned by a force of three hundred men under the command of Col. Tamblyn, who informed us that the Indians were not troublesome -- that is, they had not committed any outrages for a few days past. This was encourageing and we continued on our journey, arriving at Ruthden Station, Louisa Springs, 22 miles out from Ft. Fletcher, at sunset, where we found a small train camped, water and grass being plentiful. Our repast of Buffalo steak and etceteras disposed of, we started off on our journey. As the darkness settled down about us, a feeling pervaded the party that all was not right. Conversation turned upon Indians. We heartily wished that it was morning. Shortly after midnight the coach stopped. "Turn out!" shouted the driver -- "Indians!" We were off the coach in a moment. A small body of men were visible advancing towards us in the darkness. Revolvers in hand, one of the party started toward the strangers who were discovered to be white men. From them we learned that the coach preceding ours had been attacked by Indians, from whom, after a desperate struggle, these men had escaped. The men were perishing with cold, and were out of ammunition. The Indians were in strong force, and evidently intent on their work of murder and destruction. All things considered, it was determined to return to Ruthden and despatch a messenger to Col. Tamblyn asking for an escort.

     The coach was turned about, the newcomers having been made as comfortable in it as possible, and, as we proceeded on our return, we learned the story of our new passengers. Their coach had arrived at Downer's Station about two o'clock in the afternoon, one passenger, the messenger and the driver being the occupants. At the Station they found two stock tenders, two carpenters, and a negro blacksmith. The mules were unharnessed and turned loose, when a band of mounted Indians charged whooping among them; the men retreated to the cave, or dobe as they designate it. Indians came from all directions, and completely surrounded the abode, the occupants of which prepared to fight. A half-breed son of Bill Bent, the old mountain man, was one of the leaders of the Indians; being able to speak English he managed to call to the occupants of the abode that he wanted to talk. This being assented to, he came up and inquired whether the treaty had been signed. He was informed that it had, to which he replied, "All right." They would have peace if the occupants of the abode would come out and shake hands, leaving their arms behind, and the Indians would do likewise.

     The men came out and a general handshaking followed. The Indians still further deceived the party by driving up the mules that had been stampeded by them, telling the messenger that the coach should proceed without molestation. Such evidence of friendliness or friendship disarmed the party of any suspicion of hostility, though the Indians were in full paint and without squaws. In a moment all was changed. The Indians turned upon the party -- bows, arrows and revolvers were produced -- and a desperate attack at once inaugurated. The messenger, Fred Merwin, a very gallant young man, was killed instantly; others of the party were wounded and the two stocktenders captured. Mr. Perine, the passenger, the driver, carpenters and blacksmith ran for the neighboring bluffs, which they succeeded in reaching. Taking possession of a buffalo wallow [it is still there] they fought until nightfall, when the Indians withdrew, and they made good their escape.

     Mr. Perine gives a very interesting account of the fight from the wallow. "They formed a circle about us riding skilfully and rapidly; occasionally one more bold than the rest would come within range of our revolvers, but he was careful to keep his body on the side of his pony away from us. Arrows came from all directions; a rifle or revolver bullet would whistle past us or strike the earth near. It was evidently their purpose to permit us to exhaust our ammunition when they would be able to take us alive. Of this fact we were painfully aware and only fired when we were sure of a good shot, which kept them at a distance.

     While we were fighting from the wallow we could plainly see the Indians that still remained about the station, at work torturing the stockherders that they had succeeded in capturing alive. One poor fellow they staked to the ground, cut out his tongue, substituting another portion of his body in its place. They then built a fire on his body. The agonized screams of the man were almost unendurable. About him were the Indians, dancing and yelling like demons. The other stockherder was shoved up to look at the barbarous scene, the victim of which he was soon to be, but they reserved him until nightfall, evidently hoping that we might be added to the number of their victims. There could not have been less than 150 Indians in the entire party -- that is, those that were about us and about the station. Bent told us that Fast Bear, a Cheyenne chief, had command, but Bent is worse than an Indian. Had there been a possible chance to rescue the stockherders we would have attempted it. When darkness came the Indians withdrew, and as soon as we were convinced of the fact, we followed their example, going, it is unnecessary to remark, in the other direction. Chalk Bluffs, really Blufton, we found deserted and the station burning. Then we heard the coach coming and came to it. The Indians would probably have taken you if we had not."

     By this time we had reached Ruthden Louisa Springs. It was not yet daylight but we made all arrangements for a fight if we should be attacked at dawn, as we fully expected. A messenger was despatched to Col. Tamblyn, at Ft. Fletcher, 22 miles east, the stock was picketed suffiently near the corral of wagons to enable us to drive them into the circle, our party was disposed at points sufficiently distant from the corral to give the alarm in case of attack, and we were ready to fight Indians. The day passed without incident and at nightfall we discovered a welcome sight -- soldiers marching toward us from the direction of the fort. Very soon the Colonel rode up to us with a small escort of cavalry. A company of infantry soon followed and camped near us. For the time being our anxiety was relieved.

     On the morning of the 21st we left Ruthden, but moved slowly to enable the troops to keep pace with us. Chalk Bluffs, Blufton, a picturesquely located station, we found deserted and burned. What strange convulsion caused this strange crag-like mass? It rises from the plains like a vast castle, fashioned by the most ancient of architects. A fine spring, the water of which is strongly impregnated with magnesia is located here.

     In the afternoon we reach Downers. The devastation here has been complete. The coach and everything that would burn about the station was destroyed. The ground was everywhere tracked over by the unshod hooves of the Indian ponies. We broke camp at daylight and a few miles from Downer we found a body, or rather the remains of a man, evidently killed the night before. The scalp was gone and the few arrows that still remained in the ribs marked the tribe to which the victim belonged, Cheyennes and Arapahoes.

     The stations thus far had been deserted but at noon the next day we reached a station where we found a government train corralled. The Indians had attacked the train and driven off a number of the mules. One soldier had been killed, and another shot through the neck with an arrow and scalped, having feigned dead while the Indian was engaged in lifting his hair.

     The Monuments were reached this evening. Near them is a camp of more than 200 soldiers. A fort is to be built, also a station. These monument rocks are considered the most remarkable on the plains. At a distance it is difficult to realize that they are not the handiwork of man, so perfectly do they resemble piles of masonry. We left Monument early on the morning of the 25th to continue our journey. An ambulance, containing a surgeon and four men, accompanied us, as well as the escort of five cavalrymen, Col Tamblyn having left us, considering it safe to go on. The next station was 22 miles distant and by 11 o'clock the driver pointed it out to us. "Thar's Smoky Hill Springs -- purty place, a'int it?" When within half a mile the ambulance left us, taking a short cut to the road on the other side of the station, which was located for convenience to water at some distance from the direct route. The cavalrymen galloped on to the station, which they reached while we were some distant from it.

     When within 200 yards of the station we glanced back to see the country over which we had passed and discovered, within 60 yards of the coach, a band of nearly a hundred mounted Indians, charging directly toward us. The sight, frightful as it was, seemed grand. "Here they come!" and the crack of a rifle was responded to by a yell, followed by the singing whiz of arrows and the whistle of revolver bullets. The first shot dropped an Indian, next a pony stopped, trembled and fell. The driver crouched as the arrows passed over him, and drove his mules steadily toward the station. The deadly fire poured from the coach windows kept a majority of the Indians behind the coach, some however, braver than the rest, rushed past on their ponies, sending a perfect stream of arrows toward the coach as they sped along. We were by this time in front of the station. The cavalrymen opened with with their revolvers and the Indians changed their tactics from close fighting to a circle. One, more daring than the rest was intent on securing the scalp of a stockherder whom he had wounded but lost his own in so doing.

     The first brush was over. Then we discovered a sight that was not to be looked at quietly. The four mules attached to the doctor's ambulance were flying across the plain at a dead run, the Indians enveloping it like a swarm of angry hornets. The men in the ambulance were fighting bravely, but the Indians outnumbered them ten to one. If rescue was to be attempted there was not an instant to lose. The five cavalrymen went off at a gallop and seeing them, the men in the ambulance jumped out and ran through the Indians toward them, rightly conjecturing that the indians would secure the ambulance before turning to attack them. It was a plucky thing for them to do but the doctor determined that it was their only chance. The Indians caught the mules then turned to look for scalps, which they supposed were to be had for the taking. The doctor and his men were giving them a lively fight when we came up. The value of a well-sighted and balanced rifle was soon evident. With every crack a pony or Indian came to earth. The fire was evidently unendurable and the circle increased in diameter, when, with the rescued men mounted on behind, we slowly moved toward the station, before reaching which, two more dashes were repulsed.

     The doctor was one of the gamiest of little men. "Ah!" quoth he, as he gazed through his glass at the crowd of Indians about his ambulance, "I put the contents of the tartar emetic can into the flour before I left the Ambulance, and if that does not disorder their stomachs I won't say a thing -- I only wish it had been strychnine." A redskin had mounted each of the mules, and as many Indians as the vehicle would contain had located themselves in the ambulance for a ride. The cover had been torn off as it probably impeded their view. Becoming tired of this they detached the mules, unloaded the ambulance and drew it to a point which afforded us the best view of their performance, when, greatly to the indignation of the doctor, they crowned their disrespect for him and his carriage by setting fire to what he declared to be the best ambulance on the plains. The Indians now engaged in a successful dance about the burning ambulance, during the continuance of which, a survey was made of our situation.

     The station had been furnished with a garrison of ten soldiers. Five of these, with the best arms and most of the ammunition, had started early in the morning on a buffalo hunt. We had altogether 21 men, armed with 7 rifles and 13 revolvers. For four of the rifles and five of the revolvers we had abundance of ammunition, which it was not possible to use in the other arms, for which there was a scant supply. The station was well located for defence and surrounded by a well-constructed rifle pit. To attack the Indians was not prudent although all were anxious to do so. We could count in the circle about us 105, many more being visible on the bluffs near.

     A new style of fighting was now inaugurated by the Indians. The bluff in which the station was located was covered with tall grass, dry, and this was in flames before we were aware of a fire other than that about the ambulance. Each man seized his blanket and started out to meet the fire, which was nearly subdued when a sudden attack was made by the Indians on all sides. For a few moments it was doubtful contest but the Indians were at last driven off and the fire extinguished. Several of our men were suffering with arrow wounds, none of them severe, fortunately, but all needed attention. If poisoned arrows had been used our loss would have been serious.

     At nightfall the Indians withdrew, but this was not a subject for congratulation, for we expected them back during the night. The anticipation was not erroneous. Three hours of darkness had passed, when a rustling whiz cut the air over our heads and the sharp twang of a bowstring informed us that the Indians were very near. Arrows came in flights. The Indians were within close revolver range but a shot from a pistol or rifle would have exposed the person firing as the flash would have revealed his precise location. So many arrows could not be fired among our small party without inflicting serious damage, and that something must be done to drive off the Indians was plain. One of the party, an old hunter, volunteered to stampede the Indians if he might be permitted to take four revolvers. If he failed, the revolvers would be lost, which would severely cripple our party. Still, it was the last resort, so, divesting himself of garments with the exception of underclothing, he crawled out into the darkness toward the spot from which the twang of bowstrings came the most frequently. In five minutes the repeated crack of his revolvers and the yells of the Indians told of the successful issue of the bold effort. The bows were still and in another moment our Indian fighter returned to the station to receive the heartfelt thanks of the garrison. The remainder of the night was passed in quiet though sleep was impossible, and dawn found the party on the alert for another attack. It was well for us that we were ready for the Indians had crawled up as closely as possible, evidently intending to rush us if there seemed any chance for success. A single rifle shot seemed to satisfy them as they withdrew in haste, with the exception of one.

     Toward noon a body of men were seen approaching from the east. If they were Indians we were gone. If white men, the danger might be said to be over. The Indians observed them as quickly as we, and a band of 20 or 30 started off to reconnoiter. We watched the result anxiously as they rode up toward the newcomers. The Indians wheeled about and returned to the vicinity and in a moment more the whole band were galloping off out of sight over the bluffs. Then we knew that the strangers were white men. They proved to be a company of infantry in wagons, who, together with a small cavalry command were coming to bury us. The Monuments had been attacked the day previous, and a number of stock driven off. We afterward learned that a general attack had been made along the entire line of 250 miles. The stage company lost eight men and nearly 200 mules; the Government lost several men and a hundred animals, the Indians committing the outrage being at the time on the way to Ft. Zarah to receive the presents stipulated for in the late treaty.

     Leaving Smoky Hill Station, we proceeded with a strong escort and camped at night at Henshaw Springs which we found deserted, and the following evening we arrived at Pond Creek, from which place the stage line had not been disturbed, and we traveled uninteruptedly to Denver."

     That is what ruined the Butterfield Overland Despatch. They could not control the Indian depredations. A similar experience befell many of the coaches and trains. Even with five forts along its course and military escort, it continued, and business grew wary of it. The stations for many miles were all destroyed in the first year of its operation and again and again. Many of their men were killed and there were very heavy losses in stock and equipment. The Indians deeply resented this invasion of their favorite hunting grounds and seemed to concentrate on the destruction of this Smoky Hill route. When the military department headquarters passed out the report that there were no hostile Indians within its borders, officers in the field sneeringly said, "Yes - all you have to do to find out is to make a trip over the BOD." And much later when the Wells Fargo Express Co. who had taken the route over, held a parlay with the Indians at the Big Creek crossing on the Philip Ranch now, they still strenuously objected to the restocking of the line and signified their intention that they would fight it to the finish.

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