One-Way Ticket to Kansas, the autobiography of Frank M. Stahl, as told and illustrated by Margaret Whittemore. University of Kansas Press, 1959.

XVII - On the Trail of the Indian

Up to the close of the Civil War, only the eastern third of Kansas was considered tenable. Marysville, in the northwest and Council Grove to the southwest were the last settlements. Beyond that it was dangerous for men to settle. The few who dared to homestead on the high plains were in constant peril from hostile Indians.

Early in 1866 the state legislature authorized the sale of 500,000 acres of land to foster the building of railroads. From that time on, the situation became more and more acute. Indians resented the white man's intrusion into their world and fought to retain their choice hunting-grounds. Attacks upon slowly moving trains and railroad workers made railroad construction most difficult.

By the summer of 1867 raids and outrages became so general that Governor Samuel J. Crawford issued a call for volunteers to help subdue the marauding tribes. Nearly four hundred recruits from many parts of the state were mustered into the Eighteenth Kansas Volunteer Battalion on July 15. They were to work with the government troops in patrolling the frontier and keeping the Indians at a safe distance. We were stationed at Fort Harker, the new terminus that year of the Kansas Pacific Railroad. This post in the heart of Indian country was a freighting and distributing depot for southern and western forts, and a starting point for stage lines to Santa Fe. There were a number of regulars at the post, among them a colored regiment.

Our battalion was a single squadron of four companies under the command of Major Horace L. Moore of Lawrence. The captains commissioned by Governor Crawford were Henry C. Lindsey of Topeka, Company A; Edgar A. Barker of Junction City, Company B; George B. Jenness of Ottawa, Company C; and David L. Payne of Atchison, Company D. Recruits from Topeka and Junction City were assigned to Company B, my company, with John Price of Indianola, first lieutenant, and Samuel Hybarger, second lieutenant. Non-commissioned officers were, as a rule, selected by the volunteers, but contrary to the usual plan, I was appointed first sergeant by the governor, with the private understanding that I should fill the first vacancy by a commissioned officer, should there be one. Since most of the volunteers were fresh from the Civil War, they needed little training to become effective soldiers.

Along in August, cholera broke out, becoming virulent. Men were dying daily. Hybarger was one of those who died. The governor commissioned me to fill the vacancy as second lieutenant. In the hope of staying the plague, our battalion was ordered to move out onto the plains. We marched to Fort Larned, many dying along the way. Indians west of Fort Dodge had attacked three Mexican wagon trains and taken mules and cattle. We guarded the wagons until fresh oxen could be obtained to move them, and tried unsuccessfully to intercept the Indians.

In our scouting trips up the Pawnee Fork we followed the route taken by General Custer in the preceding spring, and noticed that seed had sprouted where he had fed oats to his horses. Well-headed plants had grown to a height of three or four feet. If oats sown in this manner grew so abundantly, I wondered why they might not do even better if properly cultivated. But never was the suggestion voiced by anyone that agriculture on the plains was feasible. "Farming? Why, this land wouldn't raise white beans!" The high prairies with their soapweed and prickly pears were considered fit habitations only for prairie dogs and buffalo. In spite of the far-reaching work of the pioneers, how blind they were to the possibilities of the future!

One expedition we made northwest of Harker included a hundred Negro soldiers from the regulars at the base. Our command was split up into three parts of two hundred and we traveled chiefly at night, hiding in ravines or canyons by day. We passed one Indian camp where the coals of a testing fire were still alive. A post set in the ground was so arranged as to turn, while fastened to it was a lever or pole about sixteen feet long. As this was moved around, it made a circular path perhaps one hundred feet in circumference, on which were live coals—a well-beaten path where young braves had been required to prove their courage and endurance by walking barefoot over the coals.

Just at daylight one morning we discovered the head of a buffalo that had been freshly killed. We knew what that meant. Removal of the whole carcass of the animal was a sure sign of an Indian camp nearby with women and children. At the summit of an adjacent ridge we saw more than a thousand Indians. What a sight they were, forming less than a hundred yards to our left near the head of a ravine! The tails of many of their ponies had been lengthened out to ten or fifteen feet, with a small stick plaited or tied crossways in the tail about every three feet. They were, of course, trailing on the ground. The reason for this I have never learned.

I was riding a spirited bay mare. She bolted and was uncontrollable, taking me close to the Indians. It became necessary for me to dismount quickly, seize her by the bit, and lead her back. Not a shot was fired at this time, since the Indians were intent on getting between the advance guard and our main command. This they failed to do. Our main body fell back for some distance. The battle that ensued was later referred to as the Spillman Creek fight. We had less than two hundred men, completely surrounded by many hundred Indians fighting desperately for their squaws and papooses.

Our horses were placed in the bottom of a ravine, a few soldiers being left there to guard them. We quickly formed a hollow square, all of us lying flat on the ground. The Indians would shoot from the top of the ridge, principally with arrows that came by the hundreds. They also had a few revolvers.

Occasionally a brave would ride full speed in front of their line at a distance from us of 75 yards or less. All you could see were his head and arm under the back of his pony, and one foot above. Our men took pot shots, but seldom hit. It was necessary to curb the shooting at these Indian runners, for ammunition was getting low.

Our situation was desperate. Not only were we surrounded by bloodthirsty Indians, our ammunition nearly gone, but we were practically out of food and water and were separated from our other two detachments. Already we had a number of dead and wounded men; and few, if any, of us ever expected to get away alive.

About an hour before sundown, a tall Negro sergeant, whom I had previously befriended, came running over to me from the opposite side of the field, tears streaming from his eyes.

"Lieutenant," he gasped, "I heard sharp-shooting over the south ridge, and quite close. It may be our rear guard. Won't you chance a run with me to the top of the ridge to see what it means?"

This from a colored sergeant to a white lieutenant was surprising, to say the least. The sergeant had already run a regular gauntlet by himself. Whenever a man rose to his feet, he at once became a target for the bullets and arrows of the Indians. Nevertheless, we started off together on the run, knowing we were playing with death. Although showered with bullets and arrows, we gained the top of the farther ridge, and what a sight met our eyes! It made the blood run cold! Just a quarter of a mile distant was our lost rear guard on the open prairie, entirely surrounded by Indians and fighting hand-to-hand.

Our return to the command amid flying arrows was accomplished successfully. I lost my mustache and nursed a pair of very sore lips, but the sergeant came in unscathed. I at once reported the situation to Major Armes, who was in command of the front line, and suggested our helping the rear guard. He replied that it was utterly impossible to move.

"Major," I insisted, "I'll tell the boys. You know what they'll do. You'd better give the orders."

Major Armes had little use for the officers of the Kansas troops, while the Kansas officers had no use whatever for him. But it was his to command and theirs to obey. He finally complied with the suggestion, however, and ordered me to notify the commanders on the lines.

This was a dangerous assignment, but was done without a scratch. We placed the dead and wounded men on horses, tying many of them to their mounts. The hollow square formation was retained, but this time by mounted men.

"Forward!" was the order, the Major taking command of the front line.

When we reached the ridge, the Indians gave way and let us pass. Few shots were fired. We were, of course, running from the enemy. There was no getting around that. It hurt these Western boys, many of whom were fresh from the Civil War. Strange to say, after a mile or two, the Indians ceased to harass us in any way. We knew that the respite was only temporary, however, and that soon, as the boys put it, "There would be hell to pay."

As the sun went down, a full moon rose in the east. It was almost as light as day and as fine a night as one could wish. Our general direction was southeast towards Fort Harker, but we found no sign of the rear guard that the sergeant and I had seen from the ridge. What had become of it? The main hope now was to strike the trail of our other two detachments. The one with the big guns had been sent southwest, while the other detachment under Lieutenant Price, wagons containing food and ammunition, was supposedly following a northeasterly course.

Something now took place that was strange and unexplainable. After we had proceeded a few miles, I happened to notice that the moon had either gone to the west or that our command had about-faced. We were headed northwest, toward the battleground we had just left. I rode back to Captain Barker.

"Captain, what direction are we going?" I asked.

He took a good look. There was the full moon. The startled answer came, "Why, back to our starting-place!"

We rode to the front, saluted the Major, and asked, "What direction are we going?"

"Southeast, gentlemen," he replied.

Our rejoinder was, "We are going due northwest."


We pointed out the moon in our rear. He finally halted the command, dismounted, and placed a small watch compass in his hat. After lighting a match and getting his bearings, he remarked, "Gentlemen, I am completely bewildered!"

Then to me he said, "Lieutenant, take two men and a guide, take a southeastern direction, and keep in front of the command a short distance."

I gave the order, "Attention. About-face, March!"

Only once during the night did the Indians fire on the retreating soldiers. This assault came from the head of a ravine on the left flank. It was answered quickly by the boys. A sharp yelling from the Indians ended the attack. Several times they fired the dry prairie grass. Once, when the smoke came rolling over the marching boys, for some unknown reason, they seemed to be magnified to many times their natural size. Mounted men appeared thirty feet high, their horses stepping in proportion to their height. This strange illusion lasted fully half an hour.

Before dawn we came to a stream—the Republican, I think—and struck camp. The men were told to get what rest they could, but not to unsaddle their mounts. They were completely worn out after traveling two nights in succession and fighting all day. Many of our men had either an arrow or bullet wound to show for their part of the work. I was ordered to place guards. As far as I could tell, everyone, including the guards, went to sleep. I, too, slept on the ground, holding my little mare by her halter.

A few hours later I was awakened by the report of gunshots.

"Fall in!" was the order, and in less than three minutes the boys were counted off and ready for action. Up the ravine a mile or so we saw Indians running on horseback and could discern the smoke of their rifles. They occupied all the high points overlooking the valley. There were hundreds of them. The course of the river was crooked and the valley narrow. At times the land jutted out hardly a quarter of a mile above the stream, and every elevation was alive with Indians.

The Negro sergeant and I were sent ahead to reconnoiter. Upon rounding a point of land and gaining a farther view of the valley, we saw, less than a mile ahead of us, a covered wagon—one of those belonging to our lost detachment. We stopped to consider the situation, and as we stood there, men in blue seemed to come right up out of the ground. One or two climbed on top of the wagon. It was our wagon and those were our boys! The sergeant and I eagerly started toward them, but we were halted by the Major. He had caught up with us and naturally wanted to be in first. The other four wagons of this train were hidden in one of the deep impregnable cuts or gullies, common in that part of Kansas. The Indians had tried to attack the train the previous evening, but found it well protected against assault.

That afternoon a man came riding in from the southeast on a wounded horse. It was Allison J. Pliley, who had been with the rear guard and was suffering from a bullet wound in his leg. Pliley, a natural leader and scout at Fort Harker, was one of the bravest and most effective cavalrymen of the West. His story was quickly told. He had participated in the hand-to-hand fighting which the black sergeant and I had witnessed the day before. Though apparently on level ground, they were actually near a deep and rocky arroyo, which they managed to reach, and when night came on they had started in the direction of Fort Harker. All of their horses were killed or captured except two—the big roan that Pliley rode, and a little white pony that carried an arrow in his jaw. We were unable to pull it out until we got back to Harker. Soon after Pliley came in, a couple of our troops went out and brought in the rear guard.

It was a joyful reunion of the three sections of our command. Who dare say that an overruling Power does not bring things to pass? Think of it—there was our attacked party of the morning before without food and nearly out of ammunition, surrounded by howling savages. There was the rear guard, worse off by far, and there was the wagon train with the food and ammunition. None of these three companies knew where the others were, although for ultimate safety they were absolutely dependent on one another.

Each started out, like of old, "not knowing whither he went." Two of the companies marched all night. In the morning, strange to say, the three groups found themselves within two miles of one another, and quickly combined forces. Did it just happen that way? I think not. Even the most hardened Western men got down on their knees and gave thanks.

Upon returning to our base at Fort Harker we found large herds of cattle there. They had been driven up from Texas to be shipped by train to Eastern markets. One day, when a construction train came in, loaded with ties and rails, three burly cowboys standing nearby watched a medium-sized man step off. He wore a white shirt, collar, and necktie.

There was an unwritten law of the plains that nobody should wear a "boiled shirt."

"I'm going to have some fun with that fellow," remarked one of the cowboys to his buddies. Stepping up to the newcomer, he said, "Well, Mr. Brown, I see that you are back again."

The little man replied in a mild voice," My dear sir, you are mistaken; my name is not Brown, and I was never in this town before."

"Indeed, you were here yesterday," insisted the cowboy. "I talked with you myself and you gave me considerable lip."

"You are certainly mistaken," returned the stranger. "I repeat, I was never here before, nor did you ever speak to me before."

Growing still bolder, the cowboy declared arrogantly, "It's no use for you to lie to me. You knocked my hat off yesterday and I'm going to give you a trouncing!"

He advanced slowly toward the little man, but there was a lightning change. The stranger's necktie and coat came off with a flash, and he squared himself for action in such good form that the big fellow hesitated.

"Well, sir," the cowboy conceded, "it is possible that I may be mistaken. At any rate, I'll give you the benefit of the doubt."

"No, indeed," declared the newcomer, rolling up his sleeves. "You are right; my name is Brown, just as you said. I was here yesterday and knocked your hat off. Pull yourself together. One of us is going to get a trouncing."

The turn things were taking alarmed the cowboy. Remembering his boastful defiance, he knew his partners were waiting to see the fun; there was no way out of it now.

After a pass or two the little fellow "got in" and the cowboy measured his full length on the ground. He staggered to his feet, only to be knocked flat again. This happened three times, the stranger cool as a cucumber and always receiving his opponent with a smile.

Going down for the third time, the challenger stayed there. "Who in creation are you?" he asked weakly.

"My name is Jack Dempsey."

He was the original prize-fighter of that name—middleweight champion of America. It was clear that the onlookers enjoyed the scrap far more than the cowboy, who bit off more than he could chew. f

During our four months at Fort Harker excursions into outlying districts covered some 2,200 miles. We had encounters with Kiowas, Comanches, Cheyennes, and Arapahoes.

In October, 1867, five of the most warlike tribes met with a United States commission on the banks of the Medicine River and signed a treaty which did much to end Indian fighting in Kansas. About 15,000 tribesmen were present, each of whom received gifts of food and clothing and the promise of a new outfit annually. Seed and farming implements were also supplied in abundance.

Under terms of the compact the Indians agreed to cease their attacks on railroad construction crews and to capture no more women or children. They were to move farther south, away from the Kansas branch of the Union Pacific Railroad, but were permitted to hunt on their old reservations until white settlements increased.

There were violations of these agreements by Indians and white men alike. Congress failed to make appropriations to carry out the provisions, and as a result, there were subsequent outbreaks.

After a bitter winter campaign by the Nineteenth Kansas Regiment of Cavalry in 1868, the five tribes were finally compelled to keep the peace, and harmony and friendship have continued ever since between the Indians and white men. In November, 1867, when there seemed to be no further need of the Eighteenth Battalion, we were mustered out of service, glad to return to our homes after the rigors of warfare.

table of contents next chapter- XVIII
back to A Prairie Life home page