My Life on the Plains, by Gen. George A. Custer

Chapter Four.

Indian Raids and Murders.

ALTHOUGH in search of Indians and supposed to be always prepared to encounter them, yet the warning shot of the sentry, followed as it was by his cry of "Indians!" could not but produce the greatest excitement in camp. Where all had been quiet before-men sleeping and resting after their long night march, animals grazing unsuspectingly in the midst of the wagons and tents which thickly dotted the Plain here and there-all was now bustle if not confusion. Herders and teamsters ran to their animals to conduct them inside the limits of camp. The troopers of one platoon of each company hastened to secure the cavalry horses and provide against a stampede, while those of the remaining platoons were rapidly marshalled under arms by their troop officers and advanced in the direction from which the lookout reported the enemy to be approaching. All this required but a few moments of time. Recovering from the first shock of surprise, we endeavored, one and all, to discover the number and purpose of the foes who had in so unceremonious a manner disturbed our much-needed slumbers.

     Daylight had just dawned, but the sun was not yet high enough to render a satisfactory view of the country possible. This difficulty was aggravated, too, by a dull heavy mist which hung like a curtain near the horizon. Yet in spite of all these obstructions we could clearly perceive at a distance of perhaps a mile the dim outlines of numerous figures-horsemen evidently-approaching our camp, not as if simply on the march, but in battle array. First came a deployed line of horsemen, followed in rear, as we could plainly see, by a reserve, also mounted and moving in compact order.

     It required no practised eye to comprehend that be they who or what they might, the parties advancing in this precise and determined manner upon us were doing so with hostile purpose, and evidently intended to charge into our camp unless defeated in their purpose. No time was to be lost. Dispositions to meet the coming attack were rapidly made. To better observe the movements and determine the strength of the approaching parties, an officer ascended the knoll occupied by the lookout.

     We had often heard of the high perfection of some of the Indian tribes in military evolutions and discipline, but here we saw evidences which went far to convince us that the red man was not far behind his more civilized brother in the art of war. Certainly no troops of my command could have advanced a skirmish line or moved a reserve more accurately than was done in our presence that morning.

     As yet we had no means of determining to what tribe the attacking party belonged. We were satisfied they must be either Sioux or Cheyennes, or both; in either case we should encounter troublesome foes. But for the heavy mist we could have comprehended everything. Soon we began receiving reports from the officer who had ascended the lookout. First, there were not more than eighty horsemen to be seen. This number we could easily dispose of. Next, the attacking parties seemed to have changed their plan; a halt was ordered, and two or three horsemen seemed to be advancing to the front as if to parley, or reconnoiter our position. Then the skirmishers were suddenly withdrawn and united with the reserve, when the entire party wheeled about and began to move off. This was mystifying in the extreme, but a couple of young cavalry officers leaped into their saddles and taking a few mounted troopers with them dashed after our late enemies, determined to learn more about them than they seemed willing we should.

     A brisk gallop soon cleared away the mystery and furnished another proof of the deceptive effects produced by the atmosphere on the Plains. Those who have read the preceding article will remember that at the termination of the night march which brought us to our present camp an officer was despatched with one troop of cavalry to find the nearest stage station on the overland route, near which we knew we must then be. Our camp lay on the Smoky Hill River. The stage route, better known as the Smoky Hill route, was known to be but a few miles north of us. To determine our exact locality, as we had been marching by compass over a wild country and in the night-time, and to learn something regarding the Indians, this officer was sent out. He was selected for this service because of his professed experience on and knowledge of the Plains. He had set out from our camp an hour or more before daylight, but losing his bearings had marched his command in a semicircle until daylight found him on the side of our camp opposite that from which he had departed. The conical Sibley tent used in my command, resembling the Indian lodge from which it was taken, seen through the peculiar and uncertain morning atmosphere of that region, had presented to his eyes and to those of his men the appearance of an Indian village. The animals grazing about our camp might well have been taken for the ponies of the Indians. Besides, it was well known that large encampments of Indians were in the part of the country over which we were marching. The bewilderment of this detachment, then, was not surprising considering the attending circumstances. Had the officer in command been young and inexperienced his mishap might have been credited to these causes; but here was an officer who had grown gray in the Service, familiar with the Plains and with Indians, yet so completely misled by appearances as to mistake his camp, which he had left but an hour before, for an Indian village.

     Few officers laboring under the same impression would have acted so creditably. He and his men imagined they had discovered the camp of the Indians whom we had been pursuing, and although believing their enemies outnumbered them ten to one, yet their zeal and earnestness prompted them, instead of sending to their main camp for reinforcements, thereby losing valuable time and probable opportunities to effect a surprise, to make a dash at once into the village. And it was only the increasing light of day that enabled them to discover their mistake and saved us from a charge from our own troopers. This little incident will show how necessary experienced professional guides are in connection with all military movements on the Plains. It was a long time before the officer who had been so unlucky as to lose his way heard the last of it from his brother officers.

     The remainder of his mission was completed more successfully. Aided by daylight, and moving nearly due north, he soon struck the well-travelled overland route, and from the frightened employees at the nearest station he obtained intelligence which confirmed our worst fears as to the extent of the Indian outbreak. Stage stations at various points along the route had been attacked and burned, and the inmates driven off or murdered. All travel across the Plains was suspended, and an Indian war with all its barbarities had been forced upon the people of the frontier.

     As soon as the officer ascertaining these facts had returned to camp and made his report, the entire command was again put in motion and started in the direction of the stage route, with the intention of clearing it of straggling bands of Indians, reopening the main line of travel across the Plains, and establishing if possible upon the proper tribes the responsibility for the numerous outrages recently committed. The stage stations were erected at points along the route distant from each other from ten to fifteen miles, and were used solely for the shelter and accommodation of the relays of drivers and horses employed on the stage route. We found, in passing over the route on our eastward march that only about every fourth station was occupied, the occupants of the other three having congregated there for mutual defense against the Indians, the latter having burned the deserted stations.

     From the employees of the company at various points we learned that for the few preceding days the Indians had been crossing the line, going toward the north in large bodies. In some places we saw the ruins of the burned stations, but it was not until we reached Lookout Station, a point about fifteen miles west of Fort Hays, that we came upon the first real evidences of an Indian outbreak. Riding some distance in advance of the command, I reached the station only to find it and the adjacent buildings in ashes, the ruins still smoking. Near by I discovered the bodies of the three station-keepers, so mangled and burned as to be scarcely recognizable as human beings. The Indians had evidently tortured them before putting an end to their sufferings. They were scalped and horribly disfigured. Their bodies were badly burned, but whether before or after death could not he determined. No arrow or other article of Indian manufacture could be found to positively determine what particular tribe was the guilty one. The men at other stations had recognized some of the Indians passing as belonging to the Sioux and Cheyennes, the same we had passed from the village on Pawnee Fork.

     Continuing our march, we reached Fort Hays, from which point I despatched a report to General Hancock, on the Arkansas, furnishing him all the information I had gained concerning the outrages and movements of the Indians. As it has been a question of considerable dispute between the respective advocates of the Indian peace and war policy, as to which party committed the first overt act of war, the Indians or General Hancock's command, I quote from a letter on the subject written by Major-General Hancock to General Grant, in reply to a letter of inquiry from the latter when commanding the armies of the United States. General Hancock says:

     "When I learned from General Custer, who investigated these matters on the spot, that directly after they had abandoned the villages they attacked and burned a mail station on the Smoky Hill, killed the white men at it, disemboweled and burned them, fired into another station, endeavored to gain admittance to a third, fired on my expressmen both on the Smoky Hill and on their way to Larned, I concluded that this must be war, and therefore deemed it my duty. to take the first opportunity which presented to resent these hostilities and outrages, and did so by destroying their villages."

     The first paragraph of General Hancock's special field order directing the destruction of the Indian village read as follows:

     "II. As a punishment for the bad faith practised by the Cheyennes and Sioux who occupied the Indian village at this place, and as a chastisement for murders and depredations committed since the arrival of the command at this point, by the people of these tribes, the village recently occupied by them, which is now in our hands, will be utterly destroyed."

     From these extracts the question raised can be readily settled. This act of retribution on the part of General Hancock was the signal for an extensive pen and ink war, directed against him and his forces. This was to be expected. The pecuniary loss and deprivation of opportunities to speculate in Indian commodities, as practised by most Indian agents, were too great to be submitted to without a murmur. The Cheyennes, Arapahoes, and Apaches had been united under one agency; the Kiowas and Comanches under another. As General Hancock's expedition had reference to all of these tribes, he had extended invitations to each of the two agents to accompany him into the Indian country, and be present at all interviews with the representatives of these respective tribes, for the purpose, as the invitation states, of showing the Indians "that the officers of the Government are acting in harmony."

     These agents were both present at General Hancock's headquarters. Both admitted to General Hancock in conversation that Indians had been guilty of all the outrages charged against them, but each asserted the innocence of the particular tribes under his charge and endeavored to lay their crimes at the door of their neighbors. The agent of the Kiowas and Comanches declared to the department commander that "the tribes of his agency had been grossly wronged by having been charged with various offenses which had undoubtedly been committed by the Cheyennes, Arapahoes, and Apaches, and that these tribes deserved severe and summary chastisement for their numerous misdeeds, very many of which had been laid at the doors of his innocent tribes."

     Not to be outdone in the profuse use of fair words, however, the agent of the three tribes thus assailed informed General Hancock that his three tribes "were peacefully inclined, and rarely committed offenses against the laws, but that most unfortunately they were charged in many instances with crimes which had been perpetrated by other tribes, and that in this respect they had suffered heavily from the Kiowas, who were the most turbulent Indians of the Plains, and deserved punishment more than any others."

     Here was positive evidence from the agents themselves that the Indians against whom we were operating were guilty, and deserving of severe punishment. The only conflicting portion of the testimony was as to which tribe was most guilty. Subsequent events proved, however, that all of the five tribes named, as well as the Sioux, had combined for a general war throughout the Plains and along our frontier. Such a war had been threatened to our post commanders along the Arkansas on many occasions during the winter. The movement of the Sioux and Cheyennes toward the north indicated that the principal theater of military operations during the summer would be between the Smoky Hill and Platte Rivers. General Hancock accordingly assembled the principal chiefs of the Kiowas and Arapahoes in council at Fort Dodge,12 hoping to induce them to remain at peace and observe their treaty obligations.

     The most prominent chiefs in council were Satanta, Lone Wolf, and Kicking Bird of the Kiowas, and Little Raven and Yellow Bear of the Arapahoes. During the council extravagant promises of future good conduct were made by these chiefs. So effective and convincing was the oratorical effort of Santana that at termination of his address the department commander and staff presented him with the uniform coat, sash, and hat of a major-general. In return for this compliment Satanta, within a few weeks after, attacked the post at which the council was held, arrayed in his new uniform. This said chief had but recently headed an expedition to the frontier of Texas, where, among other murders committed by him and his band, was that known as the Box massacre.

     The Box family consisted of the father, mother, and five children, the eldest a girl about eighteen, the youngest a babe. The entire family had been visiting at a neighbor's house, and were returning home in the evening, little dreaming of the terrible fate impending, when Satanta and his warriors dashed upon them, surrounded the wagon in which they were driving, and at the first fire killed the father and one of the children. The horses were hastily taken from the wagon, while the mother was informed by signs that she and her four surviving children must accompany their captors. Mounting their prisoners upon led horses, of which they had a great number stolen from the settlers, the Indians prepared to set out on their return to the village, then located hundreds of miles north. Before departing from the scene of the massacre, the savages scalped the father and children who had fallen as their first victims. Far better would it have been had the remaining members of the family met their death in the first attack. From the mother, whom I met when released from her captivity, after living as a prisoner in the hands of the Indians for more than a year, I gathered the details of the sufferings of herself and children.

     Fearing pursuit by the Texans and desiring to place as long a distance as possible between themselves and their pursuers, they prepared for a night march. Mrs. Box and each of the three elder children were placed on separate horses and securely bound. This was to prevent escape in the darkness. The mother was at first permitted to carry the youngest child, a babe of a few months, in her arms, but the latter, becoming fretful during the tiresome night ride, began to cry. The Indians, fearing the sound of its voice might be heard by pursuers, snatched it from its mother's arms and dashed its brains out against a tree, then threw the lifeless remains to the ground and continued their flight. No halt was made for twenty-four hours, after which the march was conducted more deliberately. Each night the mother and three children were permitted to occupy one shelter, closely guarded by their watchful enemies.

     After travelling for several days this war party arrived at the point where they rejoined their lodges. They were still a long distance from the main village, which was near the Arkansas. Each night the scalp of the father was hung up in the lodge occupied by the mother and children. A long and weary march over a wild and desolate country brought them to the main village. Here the captives found that their most serious troubles were to commence. In accordance with Indian custom upon the return of a successful war party, a grand assembly of the tribe took place. The prisoners, captured horses, and scalps were brought forth, and the usual ceremonies, terminating in a scalp dance, followed. Then the division of the spoils was made. The captives were apportioned among the various bands composing the tribe so that when the division was completed the mother fell to the possession of one chief, the eldest daughter to that of another, the second, a little girl of probably ten years, to another, and the youngest, a child of three years, to a fourth. No two members of the family were permitted to remain in the same band, but were each carried to separate villages, distant from each other several days march. This was done partly to prevent escape.

     No pen can describe the painful tortures of mind and body endured by this unfortunate family. They remained as captives in the hands of the Indians for more than a year, during which time the eldest daughter, a beautiful girl just ripening into womanhood, was exposed to a fate infinitely more dreadful than death itself. She first fell to one of the principal chiefs, who, after robbing her of that which was more precious than life and forcing her to become the victim of his brutal lust, bartered her in return for two horses to another chief; he again, after wearying of her, traded her to a chief of a neighboring band; and in that way this unfortunate girl was passed from one to another of her savage captors, undergoing a life so horribly brutal that, when meeting her upon her release from captivity, one could only wonder how a young girl, nurtured in civilization and possessed of the natural refinement and delicacy of thought which she exhibited, could have survived such degrading treatment.

     The mother and second daughter fared somewhat better. The youngest, however, separated from mother and sisters and thrown among people totally devoid of all kind feeling, spent the time in shedding bitter tears. This so enraged the Indians that, as a punishment as well as preventive, the child was seized and the soles of its naked feet exposed to the flames of the lodge fire until every portion of the cuticle was burned therefrom. When I saw this little girl a year afterward her feet were from this cause still in a painful and unhealed condition. These poor captives were reclaimed from their bondage through the efforts of officers of the army, and by the payment of a ransom amounting to many hundreds of dollars.

     The facts relating to their cruel treatment were obtained by me directly from the mother and eldest daughter immediately after their release, which occurred a few months prior to the council held with Satanta and other chiefs. To prove something of the character of the Cheyennes, one of the principal tribes with which we were at war, I will give the following extract from an official communication addressed by me to General Hancock prior to the surrender of the little Indian boy of whom mention was made in a former article. My recommendation was not deemed practicable, as it had been promised by us in treaty stipulation to return the boy unconditionally.

     "Having learned that a boy belonging to the Cheyenne tribe of Indians is in the possession of the military authorities, and that it is the intention of the Major-General commanding the department to deliver him up to the above-named tribe, I would respectfully state that a little white girl aged from four to seven years is held captive by the Cheyenne Indians, and is now in the possession of Cut Nose, a chief of said tribe.

     "The child referred to has been in the hands of the Indians a year or more. She was captured somewhere in the vicinity of Cache la Poudre, Colorado. The parents' name is Fletcher. The father escaped with a severe wound, the mother and two younger children being taken prisoners. The Indians killed one of the children outright, and the mother, after subjecting her to tortures too horrible to name.

     "The child now held by the Indians was kept captive. An elder daughter made her escape and now resides in Iowa. The father resides in Salt Lake City. I have received several letters from the father and eldest daughter and from friends of both, requesting me to obtain the release of the little girl, if possible. I would therefore request that it be made a condition of the return of the Indian boy now in our possession, that the Cheyennes give up the white child referred to above."

     This proposition failing in its object, and the war destroying all means of communication with the Indians and scattering the latter over the Plains, all trace of the little white girl was lost, and to this day nothing is known of her fate. At the breaking out of the Indian difficulty Cut Nose with his band was located along the Smoky Hill route in the vicinity of Monument Station. He frequently visited the stage stations for purposes of trade, and was invariably accompanied by his little captive. I never saw her, but those who did represented her as strikingly beautiful; her complexion being fair, her eyes blue, and her hair of a bright golden hue, she presented a marked contrast to the Indian children who accompanied her. Cut Nose, from the delicate light color of her hair, gave her an Indian name signifying Little Silver Hair. He appeared to treat her with great affection, and always kept her clothed in the handsomest of Indian garments. All offers from individuals to ransom her proved unavailing. Although she had been with the Indians but a year, she spoke the Cheyenne language fluently, and seemed to have no knowledge of her mother tongue.

     The treatment of the Box and Fletcher families is not given as isolated instances, but is referred to principally to show the character of the enemy with whom we were at war. Volume after volume might filled in recounting the unprovoked and merciless atrocities committed upon the people of the frontier by their implacable foe, the red man. It will become necessary, however, in making a truthful record of the principal events which transpired under my personal observation, to make mention of Indian outrages surpassing if possible in savage cruelty any yet referred to.

     As soon as General Hancock had terminated his council with the Kiowas and Arapahoes, he marched with the remaining portion of the expedition across from the Arkansas to Fort Hays, where my command was then encamped, arriving there on the third of May. Here, owing to the neglect or delay of the officers of the Quartermaster's Department in forwarding the necessary stores, the cavalry was prevented from undertaking any extensive movement, but had to content itself for the time being in scouting the adjacent country. The time, however, was well employed in the preparation of men and animals for the work which was to be assigned them.

     Unfortunately, desertions from the ranks became so frequent and extensive as to cause no little anxiety. To produce these, several causes combined. Prominent among them was the insufficiency and inferior quality of the rations furnished the men. At times the latter were made the victims of fraud, and it was only by the zealous care and watchfulness of the officers immediately over them that their wants were properly attended to.

     Dishonest contractors at the receiving depots farther east had been permitted to perpetrate gross frauds upon the Government, the result of which was to produce want and suffering among the men. For example, unbroken packages of provisions shipped from the main depot of supplies, and which it was impracticable to replace without loss of time, were when opened discovered to contain huge stones for which the Government had paid so much per pound according to contract price. Boxes of bread were shipped and issued to the soldiers of my command, the contents of which had been baked in 1861, yet this was in 1867. It is unnecessary to state that but little of this bread was eaten, yet there was none at hand of better quality to replace it. Bad provisions were a fruitful cause of bad health. Inactivity led to restlessness and dissatisfaction. Scurvy made its appearance, and cholera attacked neighboring stations. For all these evils desertion became the most popular antidote. To such an extent was this the case, that in one year one regiment lost by desertion alone more than half of its effective force.

     General Hancock remained with us only a few days before setting out with the battery for his headquarters at Fort Leavenworth. Supplies were pushed out and every preparation made for resuming offensive movements against the Indians. To find employment for the few weeks which must ensue before breaking up camp was sometimes a difficult task. To break the monotony and give horses and men exercise, buffalo hunts were organized, in which officers and men joined heartily. I know of no better drill for perfecting men in the use of firearms on horseback, and thoroughly accustoming them to the saddle, than buffalo-hunting over a moderately rough country. No amount of riding under the best of drill-masters will give that confidence and security in the saddle which will result from a few spirited charges into a buffalo herd.

     The command, consisting of cavalry alone, was at last in readiness to move. Wagons had been loaded with reserve supplies and we were only waiting the growth of the spring grass to set out on the long march which had previously been arranged. On the first of June, with about three hundred and fifty men and a train of twenty wagons, I left Fort Hays and directed our line of march toward Fort McPherson, on the Platte River, distant by the proposed route two hundred and twenty-five miles. The friendly Delawares accompanied us as scouts and trailers, but our guide was a young white man known on the Plains as Will Comstock. No Indian knew the country more thoroughly than did Comstock. He was perfectly familiar with every divide, water-course, and strip of timber for hundreds of miles in either direction. He knew the dress and peculiarities of every Indian tribe, and spoke the languages of many of them. Perfect in horsemanship, fearless in manner, a splendid hunter, and a gentleman by instinct, as modest and unassuming as he was brave, he was an interesting as well as valuable companion on a march such as was then before us. Many were the adventures and incidents of frontier life with which he was accustomed to entertain us when around the camp-fire or on the march. Little did he then imagine that his own life would soon be given as a sacrifice to his daring, and that he, with all his experience among the savages, would fall a victim of Indian treachery.

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