Military History & Espionage


Island of Death

First published in
January-February 1994

by Michael Antonucci
The desperate fight at Beecher's Island in September 1868 has passed into legendary status in the history of the American West. The tale of 51 army scouts holding off the attacks of some 700-1,000 Indian warriors, and suffering near-starvation before being saved, is one of the most dramatic incidents of the 19th century Indian Wars.

In the summer of 1868, settlers in western Kansas and eastern Colorado were suffering severely from raids by Indian war parties of Cheyenne, Arapahos, Kiowa and Sioux. These tribes had uncharacteristically formed a strong alliance against encroachments into their territories. Major General Philip Sheridan, then commanding the Department of the Missouri, didn't have the manpower to deter those attacks.

After the end of the Civil War, Army demobilization had come quickly and there simply were not enough soldiers available to defend so vast an area along the frontier. In the traditional manner of guerrilla fighters, Indian raiders would strike a settlement or wagon train and be far away by the time the cavalry arrived on the scene. Pursuit was encumbered by the need for transporting supplies, which could slow an army unit to a crawl, while the Indians stayed out of reach. The cavalry would often return to their base without having engaged any braves, only to be sent out again after another war party. Chasing a foe that was never caught created great frustration throughout the Army, and especially in the headquarters of General Sheridan.

Two years earlier, an article written by the famous scout Jim Bridger had appeared in the Kearny Herald. Bridger suggested the best way to fight Indians was to imitate their tactics. His plan was to create a small, highly mobile, well-armed troop of horsemen with tracking and scouting experience who would be able to shadow and harass Indian riders. It's possible the article came to the attention of Brevet Colonel George Alexander Forsyth of the 9th Cavalry Regiment.

Forsyth had served with distinction under Sheridan during the Civil War, and was a capable soldier. In late August 1868, he proposed raising a troop of scouts to trail the hostiles, thus freeing the regular units to defend the larger settlements. Sheridan liked the idea, and ordered Forsyth to immediately muster "50 first class frontiersmen, to be used as scouts against the hostile Indians." Forsyth quickly went to work.

George Alexander Forsyth

He chose as his second-in-command Lieutenant Frederick H. Beecher, another Civil War veteran and nephew of the famous cleric Henry Ward Beecher. Dr. John H. Mooers was brought on as surgeon, and W.H.H. McCall was chosen as first sergeant. Forsyth gathered another 47 civilian volunteers from around Fort Hays and Fort Harker. These men were attracted by the opportunity for steady work and action. Because the Army had made no provision to pay the scouts, Forsyth was eventually forced to enlist the men as part of the Quartermaster Corps. Each was promised $50 per month, plus another $25 if he supplied his own horse.

The scouts were a mixed group. About half were Civil War veterans, and other were experienced frontiersmen, but some were simply enthusiastic amateurs. From among them, Forsyth chose as guide one of the best frontier scouts of the time, Abner "Sharp" Grover. He was married to a Sioux woman, spoke that language fluently, and was unmatched as a tracker.

The detachment was no sooner organized when it was sent out in pursuit of some Cheyenne who had been raiding near the Saline River in west Kansas. The small band set out from Fort Hays on August 29. Their supplies and arms were in keeping with the tactics Forsyth planned to employ. They were armed with Spencer seven-shot repeating carbines and Colt Army revolvers. Each man carried 170 rounds of ammunition, and an extra 4,000 cartridges were hauled by four pack mules. They also brought a week's worth of provisions, with some extra coffee, and salt to preserve any game they might shoot.

Eight days later they were settled in at Fort Wallace, having spent the week in a fruitless search for Indians. This first foray had exposed some flaws in Forsyth's idea. While many of his men were experienced trackers, they were also operating in areas where few of them had been before. They lacked adequate maps, and that made it difficult to find anyone, much less an elusive and clever enemy. The scouts were certainly mobile enough to keep up with the Cheyenne, but they were limited by supplies to a week's campaigning. That limit meant the troop needed quick results once on the trail.

On September 10 word reached Fort Wallace a large war party of Cheyenne had attacked a wagon train near Sheridan City, a settlement with a population of 150 a few miles to the east. The scouts drew seven days' rations and rode out. Grover found the Indians' trail almost immediately, and the party followed it in a northwesterly direction. But the Indians employed their standard technique of dividing and sub-dividing their numbers every few miles, thus scattering their trail.

The scouts soon lost track of the Indians, but continued to the northwest, where there was good buffalo country, and where they might expect to again pick up the trail.

After a couple of days, they instead came upon the signs of what seemed to Grover to be an entire Indian village moving north. Tracks of tent poles being dragged and the lack of game in the vicinity indicated a group of perhaps 2,000 men, women and children was on the move. It was at this point one man suggested that perhaps heading back to Fort Wallace would not be such a bad idea. But after spending the better part of two weeks searching for Indians and not finding any, Forsyth was concerned about how Sheridan would react to the news of his abandoning a fresh trail. He decided to press on.

By the afternoon of September 16, the scouts had been out for a week and rations were running low. Around 4 p.m. they arrived in a broad valley; they had reached the Arickaree Fork of the Republican River. The river was almost completely dry, with only a shallow trickle of water running through the middle of the riverbed. With that water and good grazing nearby, Forsyth decided to bivouac early and continue upstream next morning.

The scouts set up camp on the south bank. The riverbed was about 140 yards wide at that point, with a low, narrow island in the center. The island was about 100 yards long, with a single cottonwood tree and overgrown with grass and alder bushes. Grover and 19-year-old Jack Stillwell reconnoitered before settling down for the night. The horses were picketed and guards posted.

Less than 12 miles downstream stood two large Sioux villages, plus one of Cheyenne and Northern Arapaho. Early in the morning of September 16, Sioux scouts had spotted Forsyth's troopers. While some went off to warn their chiefs, the rest followed as the white men headed upstream, away from the villages. SInce Forsyth had planned to continue upstream the next day, it's possible he might have missed the Indians altogether had they not set an ambush.

The Sioux were led by their chief, Pawnee Killer; the Cheyenne were led by the chiefs White Horse and Tall Bull. Also with the Cheyenne was one of their best warriors, Roman Nose. He had a long string of coups (physical contract with an enemy in battle) and, though not a chief, he was considered by his people to be a natural warlord. He once declined to become a chief on the grounds that after years on the warpath he lacked the civil qualities to that all-round job well.

Upon receiving word of Forsyth's location, the chiefs immediately mustered some 700 to 1,000 braves and set out for the Arickaree. Completely undetected by Forsyth's men, they set an ambush upstream from the island. Sigmund Schlesinger, a young member of Fosyth's band, later recounted how lucky they were to have chosen that particular campsite: "Had we traveled but a half a mile further, we would have fallen into an ambush most ingeniously prepared, and the scheme so favored by the topographical formation of the country, that had we passed that way, not a mother's son of us would probably have escaped alive."

A unit mustered to track and harass Indians thus found itself in hostile territory, vastly outnumbered, and saved only by good fortune from being wiped out to a man. Forsyth's scouts spent the night undisturbed, due to the Indians' aversion to night attacks. They believed if a brave were killed in the dark, he would spend all eternity in darkness. Thus they avoided night battles whenever possible.

The troopers were awakened at dawn by shouts of "Indians!" Cheyenne braves Starving Elk and Little Hawk, along with six Sioux, had gotten among the mounts, then rattled bells and pounded buffalo hides to drive them off. Most accounts state that seven horses stampeded away, but it's more likely it was the four pack mules that were immediately lost, as the troopers were later to suffer from a lack of medical supplies. But the roused soldiers soon drove the infiltrators away. There was a short pause, then Grover shouted: "My God! Look at the Injuns!"

On the horizon, lined up in the drying riverbed to the south, were hundreds of mounted braves adorned in full war regalia. As they began their charge, Grover and Stillwell quickly realized the precarious position they were in and suggested to Forsyth they all move to the island and make a stand there. Forysth immediately agreed.

Once on the island, the troopers barely had time to circle their horses, scoop shallow rifle pits with their hands, tin cups and knives, and get under cover. The Indian attack was fierce, but concentrated volleys from the Spencer repeaters forced them to ride around the island instead of over it. Stillwell and two others sniped effectively from the tall grass beneath the river bank. The battle soon settled down into a regular siege, and with food and medicine gone, prospects were not good for Forsyth and his little army.

A Cheyenne chief exhorted his band: "Young warriors, we are many and the whites are few. The white bullets are wasted. Once more and we bring the white men's scalps to our fires."

A hail of fire fell upon the scouts and Forsyth was hit in both legs. Dr. Mooers dragged him to a centrally located rifle pit, where Forsyth was struck again - this time in the skull. Desperate, he confided to Mooers, "We are beyond all human aid, and if God does not help us there is none for us."

Soon the last cavalry horse had been killed. Several survivors later recalled that at this point they distinctly heard an Indian cry out in English: "There goes the last damned horse anyhow!" Some historians believe that "Indian" was actually a renegade ex-7th Cavalry trooper named Jack Clybor.

Roman Nose had stayed out of the fight because a broken taboo caused his war bonnet to lose its magic. The headdress had made Roman Nose invulnerable to enemy bullets. But by the afternoon, with the attack stalled, a brave named White Contrary berated Roman Nose: "You do not see your men falling out there? All those people... will do all that you tell them, and here you are behind this hill."

Shamed into action, Roman Nose gathered some 500 braves and began a long charge toward the island. Volley after volley sounded from the scouts' Spencers, and ragged holes began to appear in the lines of riders. Roman Nose, in the vanguard of the assault, was almost on the island when he was shot in the spine by one of Stillwell's snipers hidden along the bank. Their leader mortally wounded, the Cheyenne broke off their attack.

Roman Nose

As night fell, the scouts set about improving their defenses. Lt. Beecher and scouts Wilson and Culver were already dead. Doc Mooers had been shot through the forehead, but lingered for two more days. Nineteen others were wounded. It was almost 125 miles through hostile territory to Fort Wallace. Jack Stillwell and the old trapper Pierre Trudeau volunteered to go for help. Forsyth gave them the only crude map he had, along with his compass. They set out at midnight.

On the morning of September 18 there were a few half-hearted charges, which were easily driven off; only one more scout was wounded. The irony of the situation really set in on the third day of the siege, when the Indians began to dig their own rifle pits and gave up the mounted charges that had been too costly in lives. A company formed to compete with the Indians in their own special brand of mobile, unconventional warfare was now engaged in a trench fight with a numerically superior foe - a situation perfectly suited for the regular Army.

Water was available by digging down into the riverbed, but food was becoming a problem. The scouts covered their rancid horse meat with gunpowder in a futile attempt to make it palatable. They were forced to survive on plums and prickly pears, and managed to make a sparse meal from an unfortunate coyote that wandered too close. They built cooking fires with expended Indian arrows. The medical supplies were gone, and Forsyth was compelled to remove the slug from his own leg with a razor and no anesthetic. On the night of the 19th, Forsyth sent Allison Pliley and John Donovan toward Fort Wallace.

September 20 dawned with no more firing from the Indians, who were beginning to question the value of continuing the siege. Forsyth had ordered the remaining scouts to attempt to break out and scatter, but Sgt. McCall spoke for them all when he responded, "We've fought together and, by God, if need be, we'll die together."

In the meantime, the two pairs of scouts who had gone for help did their part to save the situation. At one point Stillwell and Trudeau had to hide themselves inside a buffalo skeleton to escape a Sioux war party. They had trouble finding the fort, with an exhausted Trudeau exclaiming, "Christ! There's the damn road!" when they finally came across the newly built Federal road to Fort Wallace.

That such experienced men had become lost indicates a lack of familiarity with the territory that was essential for the type of operations envisioned by Sheridan and Forsyth. Stillwell and Trudeau arrived at Fort Wallace on the night of the 21st, and left again on the relief mission the next day with Lt. Col. Henry Bankhead, 100 men and two mounted howitzers. Details of Bankhead's march are hard to find, but they must have gotten lost on the way to the Arickaree, because Pliley and Donovan made it to Fort Wallace after Bankhead had gone, set out to return, linked up with a detachment of Lt. Col. Louis H. Carpenter's all-black 10th Cavalry, headed up the wrong fork of the Republican River, and still managed to arrive at the island a day before Bankhead. Granted, Carpenter made uncommonly good time and Bankhead was laden with howitzers, but the delay might have cost the lives of Forsyth's entire troop.

Carpenter was concerned there would be no survivors left by the time he got there with his entire force and their 13 wagons, so he organized a flying column of 30 troopers and an ambulance and, with John Donovan as guide, set out for the Arickaree. They covered 100 miles in two days. The sight of Carpenter's cavalry coming over the hill understandably set off wild celebration among the remnants of Forsyth's command. Shlesinger described it this way: "When Old Glory and those faded blue uniforms came marching across Arickaree Valley at the double-quick, sobs, tears and even laughter and hysteria mingled."

What Shlesinger didn't consider, and what historians have ignored, is the possible fate of Carpenter's troops had they run into the Cheyenne while wandering around the forks of the Republican River. Fortunately for them, by this time the Indians had no interest in attacking the small band of buffalo soldiers and withdrawn to care for their wounded and mourn their dead.

Also barely mentioned by the chroniclers of the fight and subsequent rescue is the fact that with Forsyth, Carpenter and Bankhead all in the field together, Fort Wallace was left with no horses and only eight men under the command of a lieutenant, for defense. Forsyth's foray could have been even more costly to the settlers than it was to his unit, as their towns were practically stripped of their defenses for the duration of the rescue.

After the fight at Beecher's Island, scouts were employed in their customary role as auxiliaries to the regular Army and much less often as an independent force. It's interesting to speculate how Forsyth's scouts might have evolved had they been given more adequate training and maps, more time to familiarize themselves with the territory, and less incentive to force an engagement with a large band of Indian warriors. The "Island of Death" has long been the focus of a tale of the battle on the Arickaree. Forsyth's experiment in counterinsurgency warfare had gone largely unexamined, perhaps helping to ensure the U.S. Army would continue to make the same mistakes when again faced with skilled guerrillas in inhospitable environments.