On July 11, 1869, the Fifth US Cavalry defeated a band of Cheyennes in a battle at Summit Springs, about fifteen miles southeast of present-day Sterling. It was perhaps the most conclusive battle fought on Colorado soil and possibly the most significant in the entire central plains area. As the last major battle with Native Americans on the eastern plains, it represented the opening of the territory for continued western migration.
The Battle of Summit Springs has been described by historian James T. King as “one of the few in the history of the frontier which would measure up to all the requirements of the writers of western fiction.” It included a stirring cavalry charge, the rescue of a captured white woman, the death of a noted Native American chief, and the complete rout of his followers, along with the capture of a large amount of weapons and other property. It was also the culmination of a long, arduous expedition that had followed a 300-mile trail through the states of Kansas and Nebraska to the Colorado Territory.
In 1868, conflict with Native Americans along the route of the Kansas Pacific Railroad— then being constructed from Kansas City to Denver—was severe enough for the US Army to launch a large-scale campaign against them that winter. A group of Cheyenne Dog Soldiers led by Tatonka Haska, or Tall Bull, refused to move to reservations. Determined to make a last stand for their central plains refuge, they had been strengthened by the addition of some Sioux warriors.
After successfully eluding the cavalry during the winter campaign, the Dog Soldiers began a series of raids in Kansas the following May. Operating in the Saline and Solomon River Valleys, their first attack was on a hunting party in what is now Republican County, Kansas, on May 21. They then proceeded to attack frontier settlements and homesteads. Their last and bloodiest raid was the massacre of a German settlement on May 30. They killed thirteen and carried off three captives: Susanna Alderdice, her baby, and Maria Weichell. They soon killed the Alderdice baby, annoyed by her crying.
Republican River Expedition
Appeals for protection arrived at the office of the Department of the Platte in Omaha, where plans were already being made for a military expedition that would depart Fort McPherson on June 9. In the view of the commanding general, Christopher C. Augur, “the only permanent safety to your frontier settlements is to drive the Indians entirely out of the Republican country. This is what I hope to do this summer.”
The Republican River Expedition, as it was called, was led by Bvt. Major General Eugene A. Carr. It consisted of eight undermanned companies of the Fifth Cavalry. It was augmented by a battalion of Pawnee Indian scouts, which consisted of three companies led by Major Frank J. North. On June 9, the column marched out of the gates of Fort McPherson amid the strains of the regimental band, moving south and east along the Platte River. The next morning the cumbersome column, which included fifty-four wagons, veered south toward the Republican River.
After a flurry of early contacts with small groups of Native Americans, the expedition lost track of them and meandered for two weeks on both sides of the Republican without a fresh sign. Finally, on July 3 a scouting party found a fresh trail and an abandoned camp on the Arikaree Fork of the Republican. Two days later another scouting party attacked thirteen Cheyennes, killing three and capturing eight horses, a few of which bore an army brand. On July 8, four US soldiers who had left the main party to bring in a stray horse were attacked by eight Cheyennes. That night, at the expedition’s camp on the Arikaree just a few miles east of the Colorado border, Cheyennes raced past the sentries and charged right through the center of the camp, but they failed in their objective to stampede the command’s horses and left without inflicting damage. The attempted delaying tactic verified that Tall Bull and his band were in the vicinity, close enough that a forced march might overtake him.
Early the next morning the forced march began, heading north for Frenchman Fork of the Republican River. The second day, July 10, the trail grew hotter—three abandoned Cheyenne camps were found in quick succession along the stream. Sporadically, prints of a woman’s shoe were found on the trail, indicating that this was the same group of Cheyenne that had been raiding in Kansas.
Accounts vary as to why Tall Bull, knowing he was being trailed, decided to establish a camp after leaving Frenchman Fork and heading west toward the South Platte. Possibly because the river was flooded, he chose to set up camp among the gently rolling hills of northeastern Colorado, beside a narrow stream, White Butte Creek.
Before dawn on Sunday, July 11, Carr marched out of camp with a fighting force of about 300 men who had horses fit for service. Shortly after noon Pawnee scouts riding ahead of the column saw Tall Bull’s tipi camp of about eighty-five lodges. The cavalry force was able to move within a mile of it, cautiously concealing itself in the hilly terrain.
At about 3 pm the bugler sounded the call for the charge, and the first rank of cavalry sped down the ravine over the last mile to the camp. Lt. George F. Price, who was on the right side of the first wave, later described it as “one of the most superb charges ever made by the Fifth Cavalry.”
The charge completely surprised the Dog Soldiers. Excitement and confusion dominated the scene. Some Indians ran to their ponies, mounted, and scurried out of the village. Others, unable to reach a horse, raced for the hills on foot. Some sought the protection of a large ravine on the southeast side of the village, while others fell with the crack of a rifle. The fighting probably lasted an hour or two. The death of Tall Bull, probably at the hands of Major Frank North, signified the defeat of his warriors. Of those who evaded death or capture that day, none were known to have participated in subsequent forays in the central plains.
The rescue of the captured white women was only partially successful. Susanna Alderdice had been killed at the start of the attack. She was buried the next morning, her gravesite marked with a wooden headboard. Maria Weichell was found in one of the lodges, alive but seriously wounded. She had been in captivity for forty-two days.
The official accounting that day testified to the nature of the battle. While only one soldier was wounded, the count revealed fifty-two dead Native Americans and seventeen captured women and children. Captured goods included 274 horses and 144 mules as well as a large quantity of food and weapons. Before leaving, Carr ordered the lodges to be burnt. With the remains of the village in flames, Carr then headed northeast along the Platte for Fort Sedgwick, near Julesburg, Colorado, arriving there on July 15. Thus ended the Battle of Summit Springs.
Accolades for both Carr and the expeditionary force followed the victory. Both the Nebraska and the Colorado legislatures, when they next met, passed resolutions of commendation and thanks.
The Battle of Summit Springs ended hostilities with Native Americans on Colorado’s eastern plains, so that when the Kansas Pacific reached Denver in 1870 there were far more opportunities for white settlement in the territory.
The chief scout on the expedition, William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody, recognized the theatrical qualities of the fight at Summit Springs. Its reenactment was the climax of his famous Wild West Show for years, playing to both European and American audiences. As late as 1907 it was still a part of his performance when he appeared at Madison Square Garden.
Despite its importance, the battle eventually slipped into obscurity. By the 1920s almost no one in the area knew where it had taken place. Since then several historic markers and memorials have been placed at the site to mark its location and explain its significance.
Adapted from Jack D. Filipiak, “The Battle of Summit Springs,” Colorado Magazine 41, no. 4 (1964): 343–54.