Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Beecher Island: Part One

I know, let’s talk politics today. Ah, just kidding. Actually, I’ve got a really cool story to tell about a road-trip I took a couple weeks ago.

Those of you who read this column on a regular basis know I’m somewhat interested in history, especially the mid-1800’s. It was a time of great change in our country. But it was also a time of great danger.

This is a story about a place I visited in the far, north-eastern corner of Colorado called “Beecher Island,” and in order to do the story any kind of justice at all, I’m probably going to have to spread it out over the next two or three weeks. Maybe four. Besides, I’m sure by now, some of you have grown tired of me going on and on about Obama and his liberal friends anyway. How about it, you ready to take a step back in time?

Beecher Island is the site of one of the fiercest battles between the Plains Indians and elements of the 7th Cavalry during the time America was expanding westward. And just for the record, I’m not telling this story to take sides between the whites and the Indians either. I’m just telling the story.

It was the summer of 1868. General, Phillip Sheridan was becoming frustrated by his 7th Cavalry’s inability to stop the ongoing, brutal attacks against white settlers by the Indian tribes of the western plains. He decided the best way to combat this problem was to form smaller, well-equipped (I’ll get to the well-equipped part in another column) detachments of civilian volunteers to pursue and punish these tribes whenever and wherever they found them. He reasoned it would be easier for a smaller detachment on horses to move around than it would be for an entire Cavalry unit. In August of 1868, he appointed Lieutenant, George Forsyth to head up just such a detachment.

Lieutenant, Forsyth was stationed at Fort Hays at the time. He put the word out and before long he had signed up fifty-one men willing to join him in this fight. Many of the men who volunteered had been victims of earlier Indian attacks themselves. Some had lost loved one’s or good friends and were looking for revenge. In just a short time they were ready and headed west along the trade routes looking for signs of any marauding Indians they could find.

Forsyth and his men reached Fort Wallace late in the afternoon of September, 14th. The Governor of Colorado had sent word to the commander of the fort that there had been another brutal attack in eastern Colorado. Seventy-nine men, women, and children had been slaughtered over the course of the last few days and they were looking for any kind of help they could get.

The group of volunteers from Fort Hays were on their way early the next morning. It wasn’t long before Forsyth’s scouts picked up what seemed to be fresh tracks of a huge band of Indians. They followed the tracks late into the evening.

They got an early start the next morning, Sept.16th, and by that afternoon they had caught a glimpse or two of the Indians they had been pursuing. Because of the distance and the rugged landscape of the prairie, Forsyth and his men couldn’t tell exactly how many Indians they preparing to go up against. But he did know, he and his men were woefully outnumbered. He also knew the Indians were well aware of the fact they were being followed, so the element of surprise he had hoped for was gone.

He needed time to plan his next move. And he knew his men needed to rest, so he ordered them to make camp where they were. He gave them extra provisions that evening. He figured they were camped in a good spot. They were in a small valley just a few hundred yards north of the Republican River. There were hills to the north and south of their position. He posted extra men on top of these hills to guard against a surprise attack.

Under a bright, moon lit sky that night, the men ate till they were full for a change. Afterwards, they broke up into small groups. Some of them talked nervously about the battle that was sure to come in the morning. Some of them used the time to clean their guns and check their ammunition supplies. Who knows, some of them probably even said a prayer or two.

Lieutenant, Forsyth and his second in command, Lieutenant, Frederick H. Beecher retreated to their tent to make their plans. And I’d be willing to bet that they too might have said a silent prayer themselves. For tomorrow they’d more than likely meet their destiny.

Okay, maybe I’ve got some of the details wrong here. Maybe not. But if you’d like to join in on the conversation, stop by the blog this week at:


  1. I wished my students at Kickapoo Nation had been more interested in these great battles and the skill of the Indian cavalry. Not only that, but the warriors traveled with their families, a logistical problem the Union boys didn't have. These great feats didn't happen that long ago. Yet, all too many of my kids felt a stronger identity with the urban rap/death culture than with their factual heritage, regardless how many classes on Native American history they took. So strange. Somehow, contemporary white Americans have forgotten what it is like to be a conquered people. Perhaps that's a good thing, but it's still very, very sad.

  2. You know, that's just kind of the way it is, Fred. Kids really don't care much too much about things that happened last week, let alone 140-years ago.

    And you're right. It wasn't that long ago. Not really anyway. Six or seven generations maybe.

    I studied this story quite a bit before I made the trip that day. So to actually be able to stand in the exact spot this all took place was humbling to say the least.

    I'm not sure where I'll take this story, but I am going to attempt to tell both sides of it.

    And since you're familiar with the story, if I get too far off track, let me know.

  3. Don't mind me. The facts about these battles are difficult because of the cultures involved. One side wrote history on paper; the other side preserved history in song and oral tradition. Larry McMurtry put it best in his book on Crazy Horse. I'm paraphrasing here, but he said that there is more documentation on the life of Jesus of Nazareth than there is on Crazy Horse who died only, what, a hundred thirty years ago. If I've heard different minor facts, it means very little. The real meaning is in the big story. You'll do fine.

  4. honestly mcginty, who cares what you think? and who cares about you're boring little story here? god, you write at about a fifth grade level and it was all i could do just to get through it. tell me, do you have the guts to tell the real story? do you have the guts to tell about how the white man stole the indian's land from him? do you have the guts to tell about how the white man raped and killed their women? how about the way they killed their children and burned down their villages? are you going to tell the story about the white man killing off the buffalo to starve entire populations of people? really mcginty, you truly are pathetic.

  5. You know, bud, it must really suck to be you.

    It's funny that you'd ask who cares what I think.

    What the hell makes you think I give a shit what you think.

    But hey, keep coming back. You crack me up...

  6. You're doing a great public service by allowing Anonymous to post on your blog, Kevin. Anonymous is much like the new Supreme Court nominee: a living, breathing cliche. We must keep them around as museum pieces. Sotomayor's confirmation may seem a bad thing, but we will get to laugh at her for the next twenty years as her racism grows more and more marginalized, just like Anonymous' misinformed version of the noble, pristine, spiritually-minded natives who were actually cutting each others' nuts off for centuries before Columbus landed . . . or before Leif Erikson, for that matter.

    Keep smilin', Brother!

  7. Glad to do it, Fred. You know, it's funny as hell that he's always ranting and raving about how nobody cares what I have to say. But he keeps coming back time after time.

    It doesn't matter to me whether people agree with me or not. My main reason for writing this column and posting it on my blog is to get people talking about the issues we're facing today.

    Anonymous has never had much of anything to bring to the table as far as the conversations go. But he's still reading it. And that's all I can hope for.

  8. Funny how anonymous is too cowardly to even link to his profile...let alone his blog.

    I am biased, big time, against the troops and civilians who stole my ancestors' land. I cannot think of any "battles" in Colorado without remembering the atrocities.

    Sand Creek

    One of my professors, Henrietta Mann, is the daughter of a woman who witnessed this massacre.

    Hope to visit more people these next few days. I've emailed you and Fred, both.


  9. Glad to hear from you again, Cat.

    I'll be talking about Roman Nose in next week's column. In fact, I'm writing it right now. And yes, Sand Creek does come up. Like I said, I'm not telling this story to take sides. I'm just telling the story.

    It sounds like you've got plenty to say about it.

    Looking forward to hearing it from your perspective...