Winners of the West
Vol. XIV No. 2
St. JOSEPH, MISSOURI
May 30, 1928
 
 
 
 
 

The Forgotten Battle Of Soldier Spring

The Daily Oklahoman, Sunday, September 13, 1936

By CAPTAIN W. S. NYE

EDITOR'S NOTE: For part of the material presented herein the author is indebted to Mr. George Hunt, well-known Kiowa historian and interpreter. Mr. Hunt arranged conferences with a number of old Kiowas and Commanches who have personal knowledge of the events described, and accompanied the author in several trips to the battlefield. The white accounts were obtained in the old files of the adjutant general's office, and in the manuscript division, library of congress. It was interesting to find that the Indian accounts agreed with the reports of the whites in practically every particular, except as in the number of casualities.

Three weeks after the Cheyenne chieftain, Black Kettle, and 100 of his people were killed by Custer's Seventh cavalry in the battle of the Washita, another fight between soldiers and Indians took place in what is now southwestern Oklahoma. Through the years the spotlight [ ] continuing publicity has burned on Custer's exploit. But the other battle is forgotten. At the time it occurred it was overshadowed by the deeds of the colorful Custer; there was no one to tell of its excitement and romance. Hence there is today scarcely a mention of it in history. The scene of the action is unmarked and unknown.

In the autumn of 1868 Maj. Gen. P. H. Sheridan was assigned the task of driving into their reservations the hostile savages of Indian Territory. General Sheridan immediately planned a comprehensive campaign which involved a convergence on the Indians from three directions. The main body of troops, commanded by Lieutenant Col. George A. Custer (brevet major general;), and accompanied by Sheridan himself, was to strike south or slightly southwest from an advanced base later known as Camp Supply; a second column under Maj. Eugene Carr was to march southeast from Fort Lyon, Colo.; the third force, commanded by Maj. A. W. Evans, was to move east from Fort Bascom, New Mexico.

The operations of the Camp Supply column, which resulted in the battle of the Washita, are well known. Major Carr's expedition came no farther south than the upper Canadian river, and accomplished nothing. This article will tell what Major Eavan's force did toward compelling the surrender of the Indians.

Major Evans's command, which assembled at Fort Bascom early in November of 1868, was organized as follows:

Commanding officer, Maj. A. W. Evans, Third cavalry. (Evans held the brevet rank of lieutenant-colonel.)
Adjutant, First Lieut. Edward Hunter, Twelfth infantry.
Quartermaster, Second Lieut. A. A. Von Leittwitz, Third cavalry.
Surgeon, Acting Assistant Surgeon L. H. Longwill.
Company A, Third cavalry Captain Hawley.
Company C, Third cavalry Captain Cain.
Company D, Third cavalry Captain Hildeburn
Company F, Third cavalry Captain Cushing
Company G, Third cavalry Captain Monahan and Lieutenant Mulford.
Company I, Third cavalry Captain (brevet major) Tarlton and Lieutenant King.
Company I, Thirty-seventh infantry Captain Gageby and Lieutenant Baird.
Howitzer Battery Lieutenant J. K. Sullivan.
In those days cavalry troops still were referred to as "companies." The troopers were armed with sabers, pistols, and Spencer repeating carbines; their uniforms were of the Civil war pattern blue tunics and trousers, long overcoats with short capes. Both cavalry and infantry companies averaged (in Evans's command) about 40 men each, so that the total strength of the command was about 300 men. This included the personnel of the howitzer battery, which consisted of 20 infantrymen who had had previous service in the artillery. The cannon were small mountain howitzers, drawn by four mules each; 100 rounds of spherical case shot, shell, and canister were carried in the caissons.

This expedition left Fort Bascom on November 18, and marched down the Canadian river along its north bank. After proceeding 185 miles east they reached Monument Creek, in the panhandle of Texas. Here Colonel Evans established an advanced supply depot, protected by a small redoubt and garrisoned by a few infantry soldiers. Leaving all but three of the wagons, and all of the tentage, at this point, Evans continued his march eastward.

After advancing 42 miles Evans struck an Indian trail leading south. He crossed the Canadian and followed this trail toward the North Fork of Red river. On December 23 he arrived near the western extremity of the Wichita mountains, which in this region are bare, detached masses of granite. The most northwesterly of these peaks, which Colonel Evans's Mexican guides told him were the Cejas Sabinas, are know today as Headquarters mountains, and are located near the present site of Granite, Oklahoma.

In front of the troops was the wide, sandy course of the North Fork, curving southeast through the hills toward other peaks which the Mexicans said were the Sierra Juamnes (Wichita mountains.) Still other mountains could be seen to the east and southeast. The column crossed the river early on the morning of the twenty-fourth. The Indian trail had disappeared among the rocks, but Colonel Evans deduced that he could circle the mountains to the south and pick it up again where it emerged on the east. He did not care to march his men through the hills because there was no forage there for the horses and because the water of the North Fork was alkaline.

***

During the day the soldiers trudged wearily across a bleak level plain which sloped gradually to the south. By degrees they changed their course from south to southeast, and finally to the east. Several times individual Indians were seen watching them from distant hillocks, but there were no signs that large groups of hostiles were in the vicinity. That night Evans made a dry camp. The men had no water except what they had carried in their canteens, and the animals were not watered. It was a cheerless Christmas eve for the men. Winter had struck early; the troopers, without shelter, and without bedding except for their saddle blankets, were miserably cold. The only fuel available was buffalo chips. Food supplies, except for fresh beef, had been exhausted; Evans had with him a small herd of cattle driven on the hoof.

Thirteen miles north of where the soldiers were shivering on the prairie the North Fork of Red river makes a sweeping bend to the northeast. The mountains end here, except for a scattering of small isolated peaks. At the base of the last high peak, just north of the bend in the river, was an extensive grove of trees in which was camped the Noconee Commanches. This was one of the wilder bands, one which had furnished many raiders who had committed outrages at Gainesville and Spanish Fort, Texas, during the autumn. The principal chief of the Noconees was Horseback, but he, being friendly to the whites, at this time probably was at Fort Cobb. Chief Arrow Point was in charge of the village, assisted by Howea Habbey-wake, Chee-na-boney, and several other subchiefs

Near the junction of Elk creek and the North Fork, five miles east of the Comanche camp, was a band of Kiowas under Woman's Heart. These Kiowas were part of the group which had fled south after the battle of the Washita: their village was at Sheep Mountain (named in honor of an order of warriors known as the "Society of Wild Sheep"). There were also small bands of Comanches other than Noconees in the vicinity. All of these Indians, both Kiowas and Comanches, had been ordered by the government to report to their agent at Fort Cobb, in order that they might be kept separate from the hostile savages against whom Sheridan's columns were operating. But they had remained "out." and consequentely were chased as hostile.

* * *

Arrow Points scouts had seen Evans's troops moving to the south on the twenty-fourth. But there was no indication that the troops had discovered their presence. The village was stocked heavily with winter supplies. It would have been difficult to move. Therefore, the Noconees decided to lie quiet, in the hope that the white intruders would pass on by.

On Christmas day this hope of the Indians was shattered for the soldiers turned north and headed straight toward the village. Colonel Evans had decided to circle back to the northwest in an effort to discover some trace of the Indians.

It was a bitter day. The troopers doggedly turned their horses heads into an icy, penetrating wind. A thin snow streaked through the frosty air and collected like fuzz on the desolate prairie. Nevertheless the commander kept his mind on his task. Mexican scouts were sent out on the flanks to look for fresh signs of the enemy.

Shortly after mid-day Colonel Evans struck the North Fork, opposite the mouth of Devil's Canyon where Colonel Dodge's Dragoon Expedition had visited the old Wichita village in 1834. Two of the scouts came in to report that they had seen and conversed with a pair of Indians nearby.

These individual warriors seemed to be watching the progress of the command. Colonel Evans determined to neglect them no longer; he sent Major Tarlton with his company, which happened to be at the head of the column, to capture them. Then, not supposing that any great number of the enemy were near, Colonel Evans led the remainder of the command upstream and prepared to go into camp. It was his purpose to take shelter under the side of the mountain, so that the men might enjoy Christmas day as well as possible under the circumstances.

***

But in a short time a sputter of musketry was heard down the river. A message arrived from Major Tarlton stating that he needed help. Captain Monahan mounted up his company, waded gingerly across the quicksands of the stream, and dashed off through the blackjack after Tarlton. Ten minutes later another galloper came in from Tarlton to say that artillery could be used to advantage.

Evans hoisted his eyebrows in surprise. Adjutant Hunter, who was standing beside him, asked to be allowed to take forward one section of the howitzer battery. Evans gave his consent, and also sent along Captain Hawley's company as "supports" for the guns. Finally, Evans became alarmed. He packed up and took the rest of the command toward the sound of the fighting.

What happened was this: When Chief Arrow Point learned that Tarlton and his men were trotting directly toward the Comanche village, he hastily assembled his warriors and rode out to drive the soldiers back. Contact was made about a mile west of the Indian village, between the mountains and the north bank of the river. At the outset the Indians were too much for Tarlton. The major sent for help. When Captain Monahan arrived with his company, Tarlton assumed the offensive, and slowly pushed the Indians back through the sand and scrub oak.

Presently Tarlton's detachment emerged on a level plain about 800 yards wide, on the far side of which was an extensive group of woods. Grey tepees could be seen here and there among the trees, with Indians running around in great excitement. The resistance of the Indians stiffened. The warriors were bravely covering the withdrawal of their women and children. But their tactics were of the customary ineffectual Indian pattern. Instead of making planned, concentrated assaults on the troops, they rode forward individually. Each brave circled across the firing line, trying to see how close he could ride without being hit. This method of fighting was colorful. It was according to the ancient custom. But it did not stop the steady advance of the cavalry.

***

Chief Arrow Point rode too close to the soldiers. A caliber .50 bullet struck him in the mouth knocking him from his pony. Two of his friends galloped forward, threw themselves over the sides of their mounts in the manner which they had practiced since childhood, and, without stopping, picked him up. Arrow Point's weapons, one of which was an old Spanish lance, fell into Tarlton's hands.

About this time Lieutenants Hunter and Sullivan arrived with two howitzers, closely followed by Captain Hawley and his company. Acting under Lieutenant Hunter's direction Sullivan brought his pieces into battery. He barked out a few short commands. The cannon slammed out a volley. The first round was a dud. The second exploded among the Comanche tepees.

The results were marvelous. The Indians had been engaged industriously in packing their belongings. The bursting shell stirred them up like a nest of ants. They evacuated the village immediately and completely, going off three or four to a horse, or scrambling up the sides of the mountain. The noise of the cannon, thrown back abruptly from the cliffs, and rumbling through the chill air of the canyons, stampeded the large herd of Indian horses which had been pastured beyond the village. The frightened animals thundered east across the shallow river and lost themselves among the sand dunes on the south bank.

***

Tarlton, when he saw the effect of the artillery fire, charged through and beyond the village. This drove the Comanche warriors over a low ridge which lay northeast of the village. But they were far from beaten; they commenced circling back, and by vigorous fighting forced Tarlton's men to take cover behind the rocks which jut out from the plain at this point. Tarlton was content to stop here, though Adjutant Hunter urged him to go on. Since the right flank of the position rested on the river bank, and the left against the mountain, Tarlton thought it excellent. Nevertheless it was faulty, being dominated by the mountain on the left, and insecure on the right because the river was easily fordable at every point. Already the Indians who had climbed up among the rocks were beginning to shoot down at the soldiers.

Tarlton was not concerned with them at first. He was occupied with the more numerous warriors in his immediate front. Parallel to his skirmish line, and about 300 yards away, was a wooded draw through which flowed the little creek which rises at Soldier Spring. From the shelter of this gully the warriors were dashing out in half-circles across the face of the troops.

It was exactly like a modern "western" cinema. The Indians were gaily and fancifully dressed; gleaming against the dull winter sky were their scarlet-and-white war bonnets and bright streamers tied to the manes and tails of their ponies. They shook their painted shields vigorously at the soldiers and screamed unintelligible insults. They astonished the troopers with their audacious horsemanship. They maintained a constant refrain of high-pitched yipping, punctuating the vocal effort with shots fired over and under their horses' necks. It was awe-inspiring. But ineffectual.

***

The execrable marksmanship of the Indians was rivalled only by that of the soldiers. In those days the only target practice a a trooper received was when he was permitted to unload his piece by discharging it when he marched off guard. Consequently, although great clouds of white smoke rolled across the snow-spotted ridge, and the sound of gunfire sounded like corn popping in a skillet, no one was hurt on either side.

Tarlton lay happy in what he thought was a snug position until he noticed that bullets fired by the Indians on the mountainside were beginning to strike close to his men. About the same time he saw large numbers of other warriors riding south along the far bank of the river, evidently intent on crossing in his rear.

These new arrivals were Kiowas from Woman's Heart's village, and from the bands of Kicking Bird, Satank and Stumbling Bear, which had fled southwest from the Washita when Sheridan captured Lone Wolf and Satanta. They had been attracted to the scene by the sound of Sullivan's howitzers. On their arrival in the vicinity they had formed a plan to surround Tarlton's little force and "wipe it out." Evidently they did not know that Evans was near by with reenforcements. The scheme was to divide into two groups opposite the mouth of Soldier Spring creek, one party deploying along this creek to attack the soldiers frontally, while the other group crossed the river to the southwest in order to envelop Tarlton's right and rear.

***

This maneuver strongly resembles the tactics of modern cavalry. And it nearly succeeded. The warriors who rode south began to cross the stream. A few even entered the village and exchanged shots with troopers left there to guard the captured property. But the main part of this enveloping force was held up momentarily by heavy fire directed toward it by the troops on the right of Tarlton's line.

These soldiers should have been diverted and pinned to the ground by the frontal attack. But this latter attackthe "pivot of maneuver" was slow. The Indians in this group had galloped up the north bank of Soldier Spring creek hoping to conceal behind the trees their movement into the attack position. When they wheeled to the left to cross the creek they found the banks so high and precipitous that they could not cross. So they continued riding upstream looking for a better place to cross.

This delay saved Tarlton. Colonel Evans arrived with the three remaining cavalry companies; Captain Gageby's infantry were toiling along not far behind. Evans took in the situation at a glance. Quickly he threw Companies C. D. and I. to the river bank to protect Tarlton's right and rear. It was not a moment too soon. Tarlton already was commencing to withdraw. The Indians on Soldier Spring creek, having crossed nearer the source of the stream, were on the point of launching their attack. This assault would have caught Tarlton in the midst of his retreat; it is doubtful if the arrival then of the additional companies could have saved the situation.

***

As it was, Colonel Evans's men, by pouring heavy volleys to the right and to the front, discouraged the Indians at the moment when their offensive spirit should have been at its highest. With yells of rage and disappointment the warriors across the river turned away and took position behind the sand dunes.

In a few minutes Gageby's infantry arrived. Evans had them take up the double-time, and pushed them forward to the left, near the present site of Soldier Spring school. Meantime Tarlton continued to retire by successive waves, the even-numbered files walking to the rear, while the odd numbers covered the movement, and vice versa.

This retreat was accomplished without loss until the very last. All of the men had regained the shelter of the grove except one trooper in the center of the line, who evidently had not heard the order to retreat. Fascinated by the barbarie display in his front, he had not noticed that he was alone. Suddenly, realizing his predicament, he sprang up and started running to the rear.

Mamaday-te, a Kiowa, bounded after him like a tiger. The soldiers in the grove scarcely dared fire for fear of hitting their own man. Mamaday-te, galloped close to the fleeing soldier. His pistol flashed. Almost at the same instant he wheeled back to Soldier Spring creek. The trooper kept on running toward his comrades. Then K'op-ah-hodle-te (Kills Enemy Near Mountain) dashed forward. He overtook the cavalryman just before the latter reached the grove. He thrust at the fugitive several times with his lance. The white man fell, grievously hurt. K'op-ah-hodle-te did not risk stopping to make coup by touching his fallen enemy with his hand. He sped back to his own people, untouched by the shower of bullets sent after him.

***

During the rest of the afternoon a desultory skirmishing was carried on. Evans made several attempts to close with the Indians, but they shied away at his every attempt. Apparently they realized that their chance of success had passed.

Toward sunset Evans ordered all of his troops to retire to the grove and make camp. Captain Gageby sent word that he could not withdraw without many of his men being picked off by Indian sharpshooters perched on the mountain to his left. Evans therefore made arrangements to dislodge these hostilities by driving north to cut them off from their friends. For this purpose three companies were sent forward dismounted and deployed, under Major Tarlton.

Several hundred yards beyond his former position on the high ground Tarlton came upon a large isolated rock. As he approached the rock a party of Indians who were concealed behind it scurried out to the left toward a clump of woods which lies south of the spring. It seems strange that the Indians did not run straight to the rear, but they explain that they believed that there was less chance of being hit if they rode across the front of the troops. Evidently their theory was correct, for although Tarlton poured several volleys upon them at a range of only 150 yards, no dead Indians were found.

***

Colonel Evans, in his report, says that a number of Indians were seen to fall, and that from the blood found on the rocks, supposes that somebody was hurt. The Indians, however, claim that the only casualty suffered by them during this phase of the action was when Mamaday-te suffered several minor bruises through being bucked off his frightened horse. (Note: Mamaday-te was well known in Oklahoma in later years under the name of Lone Wolf, received from his adopted father, the old chief of the same name.)

After gaining the shelter of the woods the Indians fled toward Soldier Spring. Tarlton's men poured several enthusiastic volleys in that direction, but without apparent result. To this day one may pick flattened lead bullets from the rocks around Soldier Spring.

As the Indians faded away the troops returned to the grove, where they constructed a fortified camp. The Indians returning to spy upon the camp from a safe distance, saw the white men lighting little fires to cook their supper. This nonchalance on the part of the soldiers, almost in the midst of a battle, greatly surprised the Indians. It convinced them that the whites must have overwhelming strength concealed in the woods. They therefore made no further attacks in force, but contented themselves with firing occasional shots from the mountainside. This shooting produced better results than all their previous display of martial spirit. One soldier was killed and several were wounded. Nevertheless the troops seemed unperturbed. They commenced to burn the Comanche village.

Bonfires glowed brightly among the trees until early midnight. It had been a rich Indian village of 60 lodges. The soldiers burned everything, including supplies of corn, flour, sugar, coffee (all drawn from the government), buffalo robes, mats, tools, weapons, cooking utensils, and parfleche (leather pouches). They did not even spare the buckskin dolls, miniature tepees and travois, and other playthings left by the Indian children.

***

One of the principal items destroyed by Evans was several tons of dried buffalo meat, the entire winter supply of the Noconees. As this meat would not burn readily, the men dumped it in a pond situated at the base of the mountain, near the upper part of the village. This pool, fed by springs had furnished drinking water to the Indians. In the summertime it was a pretty place, covered with lily pads. But the soldiers spoiled it. Since the battle the Indians have called it "Dried-beef pond."

In the morning it was evident from the trails left by the Indians that they had fled in two directions. Part of them had gone west toward the Staked Plains, while the rest had turned northeast in the direction of Fort Cobb. Colonel Evans at first decided to return to his base on Monument creek, there to refit, then strike south to flush out the refugee Indians from the breaks in the Cap Rock (canyons at the edge of the Staked Plains). On second thought he marched northeast to locate General Sheridan. Evans gives as his excuse for this change of plan the fact that he was nearly out of supplies. This reason is peculiar. By his own confession the colonel had destroyed in the Indian camp enough food to have lasted him until the end of the campaign. Either he was unreasonably fastidious in his diet, or strangely shortsighted.

At any rate he moved out on the twenty-sixth and marched to the Washita river, where he went into camp at the mouth of Rainy Mountain creek, near the present site of Mountain View. He believed that General Sheridan was somewhere in the vicinity.

***

After the Battle of Soldier Spring a number of breathless Indians came into Fort Cobb, where they told the new Indian superintendent, Colonel Hazen, that they had had a fight with a party of whites, who had destroyed their village and killed their chief. The strangers were Texans, or soldiers, they did not know which, and were driving a herd of cattle through the Indian country!

Sheridan, who was at Fort Cobb when this intelligence arrived, sent several friendly Indian scouts up the Washita to locate the warlike party of white men. Some of these Indians returned to Fort Cobb in a few hours; they were considerably dismayed. They said that they had seen the white men, but every one of them had it in his face to kill them. On the twenty-ninth, however, Colonel Evans had a conference with several of these scouts from Fort Cobb. They agreed to guide his representatives to General Sheridan.

***

Lieutenant Hunter set out for Fort Cobb that evening, accompanied by several soldiers and the Indian scouts. During the night the party got lost, and did not arrive at Fort Cobb until the middle of the next day. A strange commentary on the supposed infallibility of Indian guides! Sheridan was pleased to hear of Colonel Evans's success. He sent him several wagon loads of supplies, and told him that he could return to Fort Bascom, as the Indians were coming into Fort Cobb in large numbers daily to surrender. He considered that the war was practically over.

The Battle of Soldier Spring was a singularly bloodless affair. Evans lost two men killed and several wounded. The Indians say that Arrow Point was their only loss. Nevertheless the fight had far-reaching results. It cut down the morale of the "out" Indians, showed them that they were not safe in their distant hiding places, and caused many of them to return to the agency. It was an important part in General Sheridan's main plan to subdue the Indians.

The site of this engagement is in Kiowa county, a few miles west of the town of Roosevelt.