The Battle of Summit Springs was the last major battle between the US Army and Cheyenne warriors in the Territory of Colorado. The defeat of Chief Tall Bull and the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers on July 11, 1869, ended five years of nearly continuous clashes between Indigenous nations and the US military in Colorado and marked the end of armed Indigenous resistance on the Colorado Plains. With the Plains conquered, the formation of towns such as Greeley soon followed. Over time the battle became an iconic event characterizing the Great Plains “Indian Wars,” with a reenactment of the battle serving as the climax to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
The 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie recognized the Great Plains of Colorado as Cheyenne and Arapaho territory, but the Colorado Gold Rush of 1858–59 brought thousands of white immigrants across the plains to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in violation of the treaty. To accommodate the gold seekers, in 1861 the Treaty of Fort Wise nullified Native American sovereignty of most of Colorado’s northern plains. It ostensibly reduced Cheyenne and Arapaho territory to a relatively small reservation between the Smoky Hill and Arkansas Rivers, though not all bands of the two Indigenous nations agreed to the treaty. Younger Cheyenne and Arapaho, especially those belonging to warrior societies such as the Hotamétaneo'o, or Cheyenne Dog Soldiers, railed against and resisted the white invasion, while older leaders such as Niwot (Arapaho) and Black Kettle (Cheyenne) called for peace.
Intermittent conflicts had plagued relations between immigrants and Indigenous people since the first Hispanos and whites had arrived in what became Colorado. But the unprovoked massacre of peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho by US troops at Sand Creek in southeastern Colorado on November 29, 1864, was a flash point in immigrant-Indigenous relations, resulting in years of sustained violence. In retaliation for Sand Creek, a large group of Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Lakota warriors began attacking immigrant and commercial traffic on the Overland Trail as well as ranches in northeastern Colorado. After an initial attack on a small detachment of US troops at Camp Rankin and the nearby settlement of Julesburg, a raiding party struck Julesburg again on February 2, 1865, burning it down. With the exception of the Battle of Beecher Island along the Colorado-Kansas border in September 1868, much of the conflict shifted north and east on the Great Plains until 1869. By that time the army’s primary adversary was Tall Bull’s band of Cheyenne Dog Soldiers, who were deeply opposed to the increasing influx of whites.
Following a series of deadly raids by the Dog Soldiers along the Republican and Saline Rivers in northern Kansas during late May 1869, Brevet Major General Eugene Carr’s Fifth US Cavalry left Fort McPherson on June 9 to drive the Cheyenne from the region or defeat them in battle. Carr had almost 250 soldiers and 50 Pawnee scouts, as well as the scout William Cody, otherwise known as Buffalo Bill. After more than a month of small skirmishes and tracking the band across Nebraska and Kansas, on July 11 Pawnee scouts found evidence of Tall Bull’s camp south of the South Platte River at Summit Springs, near present-day Sterling.
The South Platte was running at full flood stage that day and Tall Bull decided not to risk fording the river, apparently thinking his band had eluded the pursuing soldiers. He had good reason not to take the risk: the camp consisted of 84 lodges and almost 400 people, along with hundreds of ponies and more than 120 travois (sleds) to transport the camp’s goods. The Cheyenne and some Lakota aligned with them had amassed almost 10,000 pounds of dried bison meat, 700 cured bison hides, and materials and gold coin taken in their raids that spring. They also had two captives, Susanna Alderdice and Maria Weichell, who had been taken in the raids in Kansas.
The cavalry approached the camp from the north, hidden behind sand hills until they were within half a mile. At that point, they divided into three lines of attack: one to the west to drive the pony herd away from the village, one to the center of the encampment, and the third to the east to cut off any chance of escape. The charge came as a complete surprise to the Dog Soldiers, with the only warning coming from the bugle’s signal to charge and a young Cheyenne boy who saw the attack begin and rushed back to the camp.
Much of the fighting pitted the Pawnee scouts against the Cheyenne as small groups of warriors attempted to mount a defense. Warriors such as Heavy Furred Wolf, Black Sun, Lone Bear, and Pile of Bones stood their ground, but their positions were quickly overrun. Tall Bull, part of his family, and some warriors took cover in a ravine just to the southeast, but they too were overwhelmed by the main assault. Major Frank North, who commanded the scouts, was identified by eyewitnesses at the battle to have shot Tall Bull, although the popular press and Cody himself maintained that the future showman was directly involved. Many in the camp were able to escape to the southeast, but fifty-two were killed in the fighting or as they attempted to flee. Of the two captives, Alderdice was killed by Tall Bull as the fighting began and Weichell was shot but survived. Only one soldier was slightly injured.
After the battle, Tall Bull’s band broke into factions. Some fled south to join other Cheyenne on lands set aside by President Grant, while others made their way north to join the Northern Cheyenne.
By capturing the Dog Soldiers’ village, many of the ponies, and practically all of their supplies and equipment, Carr’s offensive effectively ended Cheyenne resistance on the Southern Plains. The battle at Summit Springs was also Buffalo Bill’s first major engagement in the so-called Indian Wars, and a dime-novel narrative was quickly spun that he had killed Tall Bull. His earlier reputation as a hunter for the Kansas Pacific Railroad and the US Army was revised to emphasize his role as an army scout and his heroics in the Indian Wars. By 1883 he had created Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, with a mythic version of the Summit Springs battle as the finale. In the reenactment, Buffalo Bill rode in to dispatch Tall Bull and save the female hostages. It was the conquest of the West wrapped up in one show and one mythic battle.
A century later, efforts by Indigenous people to reclaim artifacts taken at the Summit Springs battle led to new laws governing the restoration of American Indian human remains, funerary objects, and sacred items. In 1986 a delegation of Northern Cheyenne elders, including William Tallbull, a lineal descendent of Tall Bull, attempted to reclaim a ceremonial pipe taken from Tall Bull’s lodge, which was held by the Smithsonian Museum. The Cheyenne were allowed to see the pipe but not to reclaim it. During the visit, they learned that the museum held not only sacred items but also thousands of Indigenous human remains. Tallbull returned to his Montana senator’s office to help compose the first draft of what ultimately became two different laws: the National Museum of the American Indian Act (1989) and the Native Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA (1990).
Those laws have facilitated innumerable important transfers of sacred items back to the appropriate tribes and the repatriation of thousands of Native American remains from American museums. In Colorado the federally recognized Ute tribes, History Colorado, and museums across the state have collaborated to successfully implement NAGPRA. In the process, partnerships with tribes and New Mexican pueblos have been forged so that the very nature of museum work and archaeology has changed for the better.
The Summit Springs Battleground remains a well-known place on the local landscape. Ruins of immigrant homesteads established following the battle dot the surrounding plains. A bumpy dirt road leads toward the now dammed-up springs, the ravine where Tall Bull sought refuge, and a series of memorials on private property. A locked gate now restricts entry to the Summit Springs Battleground overlook in order to protect the area, as signage at the site has been damaged by gunshots in the past. Looking across the placid, rolling hills of shortgrass prairie, it is difficult to imagine the turmoil of that July day in 1869.