The Battle of Beecher Island—which pitted American scouts against Cheyenne, Sioux, and Arapaho warriors—was one of the most significant struggles in the Indian Wars that took place in eastern Colorado during the late 1860s. The battleground, located on the banks of the Arikaree River about sixteen miles south of Wray, was named for Lieutenant Fred Beecher, who died in the September 1868 engagement. For more than a century, the site has hosted annual reunions commemorating the battle.
In the summer of 1868, Plains Indians in eastern Colorado faced a steadily advancing wave of post–Civil War settlement that destroyed their buffalo hunting grounds. To reconnoiter the country, Colonel George A. Forsyth, stationed at Fort Harker, Kansas, was directed to assemble “fifty first class hardy frontiersmen to be used as scouts against the hostile Indians.” Volunteers were quickly found at Fort Harker and Fort Hays, Kansas.
On August 29, General Philip Sheridan instructed Forsyth to move “across the headwaters of Solomon [River] to Beaver Creek, then down that Creek to Fort Wallace,” on the south fork of Smoky Hill River. On this journey no Native Americans were encountered. Upon approaching the fort, on September 5, however, the scouts charged some Mexican “haymakers,” mistaking them for Indians, and one scout was seriously injured in the melee. On September 10, the command dashed to the aid of freighters under Native American attack near Sheridan, thirteen miles northeast of Wallace on the north fork of the Smoky Hill, then at the end of the advancing Union Pacific railroad track. When the scouts arrived, the action was over, two teamsters having been killed and scalped.
Forsyth took up the trail, but lost it on September 11, apparently because the Native Americans had dispersed. But the scouts pushed on northward across the head of Short Nose (or Prairie Dog) and Beaver Creeks to the north bank of the Republican River, where a small Native American encampment was found. Tracks followed from here merged into a broad road that led to the forks of the Republican, then southwestward up the middle fork, called the Arikaree.
On September 16, because of a shortage of provisions and forage, the command was halted in a grassy valley opposite a sandy island about 250 feet long. At dawn the next day a band of Native Americans succeeded in stampeding seven horses from the picketed herds. Within a few minutes, they were pouring into the bottoms, part of a force of more than 600 Cheyenne, Sioux, and Arapaho men led by the respected Cheyenne warrior Roman Nose.
Before the Native Americans could charge, the scouts retreated to the sandy island. The first day of the battle Lieutenant Beecher and two scouts were killed and several more seriously wounded. Among them were Colonel Forsyth, whose leg was shattered by a bullet, and Surgeon Mooers, who was shot in the head and died three days later. All the horses were killed.
During a lull in the fighting, the men dug shelter pits in the sand, which seemed to minimize later casualties. Later in the day a grand charge led by Roman Nose was routed, and the famous chief was slain. That night two scouts, Trudeau and Stillwell, volunteered to make a dash to Fort Wallace, Kansas, 125 miles away.
On September 18, the Native Americans resumed their charging and infiltration tactics. Although there were fewer casualties now among the outnumbered American troops, the hopelessness of their situation soon became evident. While the day had been blistering hot, a steady cold rain set in at night. Worst of all, starvation confronted the troops, which they allayed by resorting to eating some of their horses.
The fate of Trudeau and Stillwell being uncertain, two more scouts, Allison Pliley and John Donovan, were sent out the second night, but were compelled to return. On the evening of September 19, Pliley and Donovan successfully escaped through enemy lines. The Native Americans withdrew the next day, but the scouts on the island were immobilized, wounded, thirsty, and starving. The rotting horse carcasses, though boiled and salted with gunpowder, now proved to be inedible. A few plums gathered in desperation and a stray coyote provided the only relief from this grim fare.
Rescue and Aftermath
On September 25, the suffering scouts were rescued by a troop of black Buffalo Soldiers from the Tenth Cavalry under Colonel L. H. Carpenter. Shortly after, the units were reinforced by Colonel Brisbin of the Second Cavalry, followed by Colonel Henry C. Bankhead from Fort Wallace. After a harrowing ordeal, Trudeau and Stillwell had reached the stage station at Cheyenne Wells, about thirty miles west of Fort Wallace, then rode the stage into Wallace to give the alarm. Pliley and Donovan also arrived safely.
The scouts lost roughly five killed and sixteen wounded. The number of Indian losses is uncertain. According to Native Americans interviewed by the historian George Bird Grinnell, only seven were killed, whereas Forsyth claims to have personally counted thirty-two dead, and latter-day dime novelists, whose readers would be enthusiastic about higher numbers, have estimated Native American losses at over 100.
Beecher Island was considered a stunning victory for the fifty American volunteers who withstood the attacks of 600 or more Native Americans. This battle, coupled with the later Battle of the Washita, paved the way for the subsequent and final defeat of the Cheyennes under Tall Bull; this was achieved by the Fifth Cavalry under Colonel Eugene Carr at Summit Springs, on July 11, 1869.
Remembrance and Reunions
Reunions at the Beecher Island battleground have been an annual tradition for more than 100 years. In 1899 the Beecher Island Memorial and Park Association was incorporated, and a small wooden monument was erected at the battlefield. The first of several reunions of the survivors was held in September 1900. At the reunion of 1901, the original association was disbanded and the Beecher Island Battle Memorial Association organized. In 1902 Colorado congressmen pushed through a bill to grant to the corporation the 480 acres of land composing the battlefield. Adjoining state lands were later added. The Kansas and Colorado legislatures each voted $2,500 to erect a substantial stone monument in 1905. An auditorium was added to the site in 1928.
After a bad flood destroyed the stone monument in 1935, pieces of the monument were recovered, and it was rebuilt on higher ground just south of the auditorium. Since the 1940s, the association has added a Sunday school building, kitchen, and restrooms to the site, where hundreds of people assemble every September to commemorate the battle and enjoy two days of history and entertainment.
Adapted from Merrill J. Mattes, “The Beecher Island Battlefield Diary of Sigmund Shlesinger,” Colorado Magazine 29, no. 3 (1952).