Friday, April 3, 2015


"The Battle of Beecher Island" by Rufus Fairchild Zogbaum - Harper's New Monthly Magazine, June, 1895, p. 55. File copied from,38417. Public Domain photo.

The great thing about having a personal blog is that I can deviate from the general topic of geology and add other tidbits of my interests!  So, here it is.  Geology comes back next time.

I have long been interested in the conflicts between Native Americans and the US Army in  ~1830-1890.  This was an interesting time in US history as the western expansion was in full swing.  Both dates are arbitrary but in 1830 Andrew Jackson was in his second year of the presidency and quite interested in the expansion of the country to the southwest and west.  1890 is sort of an end since the Wounded Knee Massacre dealt a final blow to meaningful protests by the Native Americans. 

I grew up in central Kansas and was often treated by my great uncle to a day of searching for “arrowheads.”  My mother was quite tolerant of my interest and often hauled me to libraries in Lincoln, and Minneapolis, Kansas, where I could do “research” on battles and voraciously devoured any reading books that could be checked out.  It was then that I learned about the deadly battles between ranching/farming settlers and Native American that took place in Ottawa (my home) and adjacent Lincoln counties.  The area is rich in western history. 

My interest in western history was again piqued in the summer of 1966 when I had a chance to visit Wounded Knee (South Dakota) as I completed field work on my MS thesis.  My first position in academe (1970) was at Fort Hays State University in western Kansas and home to old Fort Hays whose structures were built to protect settlers and the railroad from Native Americans.  The Native Americans were not at all pleased with the disappearance of the big bison herds, the building of the railroads, and the ever increasing settlers. Names like George Armstrong Custer, Wild Bill Hickok, and Buffalo Bill Cody were constantly being dropped in almost any causal conversation as Hays City was their home at one time or another.

In the 1980s I had an opportunity to visit the site known as the Battle of  Beecher Island located along the Arikaree Fork of the Republican River near Wray in northeastern Colorado.  It was then that my mind opened up and I realized the strong connection between my childhood home and Beecher Island.

In summer 1868 General Phillip Sheridan (he of Civil War fame) commanded the US Army’s Department of Missouri.  It was only three years after the conclusion of the Civil War and soldiers were in short supply since most had been released from service after the War.  To compensate for the shortage of regulation soldiers, Sheridan ordered his aide, Major George A. Forsyth, to raise a company of "fifty first-class hardy frontiersmen, to be used as scouts against the hostile Indians." The scouts were to seek out and engage the “trouble-causing” Native Americans using quick hit and run tactics, rather than those used by the lumbering and traditional Army.
Without wasting much time, Forsyth headed to Lincoln and Ottawa counties to recruit scouts who had been affected by numerous raiding parties of Native Americans (Northern Cheyenne).  He then signed up the 50 scouts (more or less) at Fort Harker (Kanopolis, Kansas) and Fort Hays.

In early September 1868 Forsyth and his group of civilian scouts headed to western and northwest Kansas to engage a reported small number of “hostiles.”  Well, they found them along the Arikaree Branch (also known as the Dry Fork) and the scouts spent several days hunkered down on a sandbar island eating rotten horse flesh and holding off numerous frontal attacks by superior numbers of “hostiles.”  Several scouts were wounded and killed, including Lt. Fred Beecher, Forsyth’s second in command.  On two different nights Forsyth send out a pair of scouts with instructions to hoof it to Fort Wallace (in western Kansas) and bring back help.  After several days, relief soldiers did arrive from Fort Wallace and accompanied the remaining scouts, including 16 wounded, back to the Fort.  The five departed scouts were buried on the island while one more died in the Fort hospital.

In short form that was a synopsis of the battle.  Interested readers can simply search the web to locate additional information and appropriate publications.  I wrote the following short article since it appeared that other authors had neglected to gather all of the information about the weapons used in the battle.  It was my way of trying to learn as much as possible about a single event.


As we were dressed and our revolvers and cartridge boxes buckled on and our carbines lying by our sides we were ready for action (Scout Eli Ziegler describing the action at the Battle of Beecher Island)[1]. So, what were the revolvers and carbines used by Forsyth and the Scouts? In Thrilling Days in Army Life [2] Major Forsyth described the U. S. Cavalry’s issue of arms as a Spencer repeating rifle (carrying six shots in the magazine, besides the one in the barrel), a Colt’s revolver, army size, and 140 rounds of rifle and 30 rounds of revolver ammunition per man—this carried on the person. The pack train of four mules carried 4000 extra rounds of ammunition. 

The Spencer repeating rifle was first used by the U. S. military in 1863 and was one of the first rifles to employ a copper rimfire cartridge. These early Spencers (Military-1863 or M-1863), used in the Civil War, were chambered for the 56-56 cartridge (early designations referred to the diameter of the case at the head and at the mouth; the actual caliber was .52) and had a profound effect on battles and perhaps helped the Union forces to several victories (such as Hoover’s Gap, Tennessee). After the conclusion of the War, the Spencer Military-1865 (M-1865) was the standard carbine issued to the U.S Calvary in the west (and continued as such until about 1873 when it was replaced by the Springfield Model 1873 chambered for a .45-50 caliber cartridge). The new Spencer had a reduced cartridge size (down to .50 caliber), a reduced barrel length (20 inches from 22 inches) and was chambered for a 56-50 cartridge (about 45 grains of black powder and a 370 grain bullet). The Smithsonian Institution [3], in describing the carbine, noted that its butt-fed magazine held seven metallic rimfire cartridges (note that Forsyth incorrectly said the magazine held six cartridges) that were fed to the breech by a compressed spring. When the lever-action (trigger guard) was operated the breechblock dropped down and the cartridge case was ejected. As the trigger guard moved back into position it grabbed a fresh cartridge and inserted it into the breech. The Spencer then had to be manually cocked and the copper casings were sometimes prone to jamming (due to black powder residue). A soldier could reload by dropping individual cartridges into the butt, or could use a pre-loaded tube held in a Blakeslee Cartridge Box. I am uncertain if the Scouts had access to the Blakeslees. 

A general consensus among Spencer aficionados is that a good soldier could fire, if needed, up to 30 rounds per minute with a maximum effective range between 200-500 yards. In contrast, the older muzzleloaders could be fired at perhaps 3 rounds per minute. The Spencer Arms Company of Windsor, CT manufactured the Spencers. [3] 

U.S. National Park Service illustration [4]: Spencer Carbine Model 1865 showing butt magazine. 
Smithsonian Institution illustration [5]: Blakeslee Cartridge Box.

Major Forsyth [2] also noted that we had in our command three Springfield breech-loading rifles which I knew would carry several hundred yards farther than our Spencer rifles. I accordingly directed that the men using these guns should sight them at their limit—1200 yards (although 600 yards was probably more realistic in most cases). These weapons [4] essentially were “sniping rifles” and most likely were used to shoot at targets that were out of range for the Spencers. I believe the Springfields were the Model 1866, a retooled Model 1863 rifled musket chambered for a .50/70 metallic cartridge. The Springfield Armory (home of Erskin Allin, the inventor of the trapdoor conversion) converted several thousand of these .58 caliber 1863 muskets (by brazing a sleeve in the bore and installing the trap door breech system) to .50 caliber breech loading cartridge rifles (450 grain bullet with 70 grains of black powder, considerably larger and more powerful than the Spencers). The rifle was a “single shot” model and trained soldiers could fire about 13 rounds per minute. My guess is that Scout Hutch Farley maintained one of the Springfields since Forsyth [2] noted that he was one of the two best shots in the troop (his father Lewis Farley being the other). In addition, Scout Murphy [6] noted that Scout Farley (probably Hutch as Lewis was mortally wounded) gave a group of Cheyennes (on a ridge about a mile away) a parting shot and that his “aim was true even at that range”. That distance, about 1760 yards, certainly was beyond the “normal maximum range of 1200 yards”. 

U.S. National Park Service illustration [7]: Springfield Model 1866, Second Allin Conversion.

There must have been other personal rifles with the Scouts since Scout Peate [8] noted that Scout Pierre Trudeau broke the leg of an Indian at a range of half a mile (880 yards) with a Henry rifle. The addition of a second long gun would not be unusual since the Scouts were frontiersmen and usually carried a number, and variety, of weapons. The Henry most likely was a lever action, .44 caliber rifle shooting rimfire metal cartridges loaded with about 28 grains of black powder and a 210-grain bullet. The breech loading, 15 rounds in the magazine under the barrel, Henry had a fearsome reputation in the west and were favored, over the Spencers, by a large number of former Civil War soldiers. The Henry and the Spencer were extremely innovative weapons (rapid firing) and probably changed the course of history, especially in the frontier west. 

Rare Winchester Society photograph [9]: Traditional Henry rifle Model 1866. 

Forsyth [2] stated that each Scout was also armed with a “Colt’s revolver, army size”. Scouts most likely carried a New Army Model in .44 caliber (M-1860 Army). The original models were introduced in 1860 and were single action percussion revolvers using about 35 grains of black powder and a .44 caliber ball or bullet. They were manufactured with an eight-inch barrel. Since these were percussion revolvers, the caps, powder, and balls had to be individually loaded into the cylinders although some pieces used paper or linen cartridges. Whatever the use, this loading action demanded a substantial time commitment. The first Colt revolvers to use self-contained metal cartridges were not manufactured until 1872, well after the Beecher Island Battle. However, in the years just prior to the issue of this new revolver, thousands of percussive Colts were converted to use a front-loaded, center-fired cartridge [10]. I have no proof that any of the Scouts carried the modified .45-caliber Army revolver; perhaps all carried the standard issue .44-caliber percussion sidearm as Scout Murphy: “I myself had … a Colt .44 pistol” [6]. In addition, it appears that some Scouts packed along personal side arms since Scout Murphy noted that “each man …carried a revolver, and in some instances, two”. One can only assume that the “extra” revolvers were non-Army issues but most likely shot a .44 caliber ball or Minie ball (to take advantage of the Army’s ammunition). 

U.S. National Park Service photograph [11]: Colt Army revolver M-1860.

I have found at least one reference to mountain howitzers traveling with Captain Louis Carpenter and elements of the 10th Cavalry when they reached Forsyth’s command on Beecher Island [12]. However, that may be erroneous since Carpenter [14] noted that his entourage consisted of thirteen wagons carrying forage, rations, ammunition and tentage; there was no mention of howitzers. And, in a letter delivered to Carpenter on the trail (dated September 22, 1868) from the command at Fort Wallace, the Acting Post Adjutant stated Captain Bankhead will leave here in one hour with one hundred men and two mountain howitzers [13]. Therefore, it appears that Bankhead, who arrived at Beecher Island later than Carpenter, had the artillery. In fact, these heavy guns may have slowed down Bankhead’s advance to the Battle. 

There are several different “weights” of these guns and I can only guess they were 12 pounders Model 1835 (the “standard Army issue) for in 1872 the only artillery weapons stationed at Fort Wallace were five 12 pounders. These howitzers, constructed with a brass tube (4.62” bore), were mounted on a single axel two-wheeled carriage and usually pulled by a single mule. However, the howitzer could be broken down and carried on three or four mules. They fired a hollow projectile that was filled with grapeshot, musket balls, or black powder. The projectiles were fitted with a fuse that was trimmed off at range marks before loading, and were ignited by the main charge on firing. The howitzers evidently were accurate for Theodore Talbot of the Second Fremont Expedition (1843-44) stated [14] our cannonnier was very successful in his practice with the howitzer, striking a post 4 feet high at nearly a quarter of a mile with a bomb [shell]. Bankhead’s howitzers were not fired in the relief of Beecher Island. 

U.S. National Park Service photograph [15]: 12-Pound Mountain Howitzer.

I am uncertain about the exact weapons used by the Cheyennes and Lakotas at the Battle. Most likely they were a combination of percussion rifles shooting both round balls and Minie balls, perhaps some retrofitted Springfield cartridge rifles, Henry and Spencer cartridge rifles, percussion revolvers, and hand weapons. Forsyth [2} noted that Roman Nose led the charge twirling his heavy Springfield…(probably one of those he captured at the Fort Phil Kearney massacre [the Fetterman Massacre]). Evidence seems to point toward Roman Nose’s participation in the 1866 Fetterman fight and accounts indicate the victors picked up numerous weapons. Of Fetterman’s 80 men, 49 (the infantrymen) were armed with Springfield percussion rifles, two (the civilian scouts) had 16-shot repeating rifles, and 29 (the cavalrymen) were armed with the Spencers. However, I am uncertain about: 1) how the arms were divided between the 2000 Northern Cheyenne, Arapahoe, and Sioux participants; and 2) the composition of the Indian warriors at Beecher Island and if they participated in the earlier Fetterman fight. At any rate, there must also have been Henrys and Spencers at Beecher Island since Forsyth [2] noted the Indians had the Springfield breech-loaders they had captured at Fort Phil Kearny …as well as Henry, Remington, and Spencer rifles. Custer [16] stated that the warriors were armed with the best quality of guns, many of them having the latest pattern breech loaders with fixed ammunition (as proof of this many thousand empty shells of Spencer and Henry rifle ammunition were found on the ground occupied by the Indians after the fight). Theodore Davis [17], a reporter for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine traveling with Hancock near Fort Larned in spring 1867, reported that Roman Nose of the Dog Soldiers had a Spencer carbine hanging from the side of his pony, four heavy revolvers (probably Navy according to Surgeon Isaac Coates [18]) and a bow and numerous arrows. James Dixon [19], an officer with Hancock, described the Dog Soldiers accompanying Roman Nose as having bows and arrows (steel pointed and barbed tips), a breech loading rifle, one or more large size Colt revolvers, a tomahawk, a scalping knife, and various other hand weapons of war. I would think that Roman Nose would have retained his repeating Spencer rather than switching to a single shot, probably percussive, Springfield (as described by Forsyth). And, one must not discount the bows and arrows for McCune and Hart [20] stated that during the 45 minute Fetterman fight approximately 40,000 arrows were fired! 

At any rate, the Cheyennes, especially individual warriors, may have suffered from a lack of sufficient and/or correctly-sized ammunition, powder, and lead. James Peate [8] noted that one of the Indians fired five shots from a Colt Navy revolver at them (the relief column heading back to Fort Wallace) before the piece jammed and the young warrior was killed by the Scouts/soldiers. In examining the revolver they found [8] that the cylinder would not revolve, and the cause was a bullet from a revolver the same size in the hand of Jack Donovan going into the barrel of the Indian’s revolver and about half of it passing into the cylinder, thereby stopping its revolving and the Indian could not fire his last load. The reason for this jamming is that the Colt Navy was a .36 caliber weapon. The type used by Jack Donavan was an Army issued .44-caliber revolver. The larger caliber projectile of Colt Army could not fit into the chamber of the Colt Navy.
Originally, I thought the Indian warriors might have used a preponderance of percussion weapons. I based this supposition about the arms on the following accounts: 1) Jenness [21] stated in the August 1867 Beaver Creek Battle the Indians were promiscuously armed with Springfield and Mississippi rifles, shotguns, and bows and arrows; 2) Jenness [20}described the wounds of Pliley and Towell at Beaver Creek as coming from balls; 3) Stanley [22] writing about Medicine Lodge is 1867 said the Indians received a pile of revolvers, caps…and ammunition; 4) many of the metallic artifacts recovered from the Summit Springs Battle site [July 1869] were balls, Minie balls, and percussion cap boxes [23]; 5) a lack of cartridges found by metal detector enthusiasts in the ravines and hills surrounding the battle site; 6) a band of Cheyennes led by Turkey Leg, armed mostly with bows and lances, engaged Major Frank North near Plum Creek in late summer 1867; and 7) Forsyth’s leg wound was caused by a Minie ball [16] . Since my original draft was constructed, I found out that: 1) Jeff Broome had correctly located the Beecher Island Battle site approximately four miles from where the detectorists had been searching; that fact would account for the lack of cartridges; 2) the term ball, as used by Jenness, may be generic and refer to any flying lead object; 3) traders selling $15 Spencers to the Cheyennes were probably active in 1867-68. And, perhaps most importantly, one should only present the facts as known; therefore, I have chosen not to challenge the current dogma of a group of warriors armed with the latest edition of repeating rifles. I do, however, continue to have questions. 

Perhaps the most important aspect of this entire discussion on weapons is that the Scouts were very disciplined, were experienced frontiersmen, and had the newest repeating rifles. These Spencer repeating rifles were capable of stopping frontal charges that seemed to be the standard military tactics of the day. That aspect, plus the death of Roman Nose in the heat of the battle, secured Beecher Island until the arrival of a relief force. 

 Colt M-1861 Navy revolver (non-conversion). Public Domain photo.

  • The small town of Culver, seven miles from my hometown, was named for George Culver, a causality at Beecher Island.
  •  My mother personally knew one of the Scouts while growing up in Lincoln County.
  • Two of my aunts, by marriage, were grand daughters of Scouts.
  • Several of the Scouts were interred in the small cemeteries around my hometown.
  • I was able to observe original deeds located in the Ottawa County, Courthouse and noted the George Culver's deed to several acres of land located  1.25 miles from my hometown.  The deed was signed US Grant and awarded to Culver because of his service in the Union Army during the Civil War.  

1. Ziegler, Eli. “The Story of the Beecher Island Battle” In Eyewitnesses to the Indian Wars 1865-1890, edited by Peter Cozzens. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2003.

2. Forsyth, George A. Thrilling days in Army Life. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994. 




6. Murphy, Thomas. “The Battle of the Arikaree” In Eyewitnesses to the Indian Wars 1865-1890, edited by Peter Cozzens. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2003. 

8. Peate, James J. “The Relief of Beecher Island” In In Eyewitnesses to the Indian Wars 1865-1890, edited by Peter Cozzens. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2003.




13. Carpenter, Louis H. “The Story of a Rescue” In In Eyewitnesses to the Indian Wars 1865-1890, edited by Peter Cozzens. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2003. 

14. Talbot, Theodore. The Journals of Theodore Talbot, 1843 and 1849-52, edited, with notes, by Charles H. Carey. Portland, Oregon: Metropolitan Press, 1931. 

17. Davis, Theodore. “A Summer on the Plains” In Eyewitnesses to the Indian Wars 1865-1890, edited by Peter Cozzens. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2003. 

18. Coates, Isaac T. and William J. Kennedy. On the Plains with Custer and Hancock: The Journal of Isaac Coates, Army Surgeon. Johnson Books, Boulder, CO, 1997. 

19. Dixon, James. “Across the Plains with General Hancock” In Eyewitnesses to the Indian Wars 1865-1890, edited by Peter Cozzens. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2003. 

21. Jenness, George B. “The battle on Beaver Creek” In Eyewitnesses to the Indian Wars 1865-1890, edited by Peter Cozzens. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2003. 

22. Stanley, Henry M. “The Medicine Lodge Peace Council” ” In Eyewitnesses to the Indian Wars 1865-1890, edited by Peter Cozzens. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2003.