Battle of Soldier Spring
The following story is from the book, Carbine & Lance, The Story of Old Fort Sill, by Colonel W. S. Nye; Copyright © 1937 by the University of Oklahoma Press. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
During the day Indians in the surrounding camps received information from fugitives coming in from the southwest that a village of Comanches had been attacked by white men near the western end of the Wichita Mountains. They said that the whites were soldiers or Texans, they did not know which, and that they were driving a herd of cattle with them. Reports of this matter were made to General Sheridan. At first he was inclined to consider it a baseless rumor, but the white scouts insisted that the Indians were telling a straight story. At noon a staff officer, Lieutenant Edward Hunter, from Colonel Evans' Fort Bascom column, arrived at Fort Cobb. He reported that Evans had destroyed an Indian village on Christmas day, and was now camped near the mouth of Rainy Mountain Creek.
Major A. W. Evans (brevet lieutenant colonel) left Fort Bascom, New Mexico, November 17, 1868, with six companies of the Third Cavalry, one company of the Thirty-Seventh Infantry, and a battery of mountain howitzers. He marched down the Canadian River for a distance of 185 miles to the mouth of Monument Creek. Here a small redoubt was constructed, in which Evans left his impedimenta, guarded by a small detachment. He left all his tentage behind, and took only three wagons to carry ammunition.
The march was continued through snow, sleet, and intense cold toward Antelope Hills. Near these hills Evans struck the broad trail made by the Cheyennes fleeing south after the Battle of the Washita. He crossed the Canadian River and followed this trail south until on December 23 he came in sight of Headquarters Mountains. The North Fork of Red River runs southeast toward another group of rough, granite mountains. Evans' Mexican guides told him that these were the Sierra Jumanes (Wichitas). Evans could see that the trail of the Indians had turned southeast into the canyon formed by the North Fork. The water in the stream was impregnated with gypsum and salt; the grass in the surrounding plains had been burned off by the Indians. For these reasons Evans decided to pass south of the mountains in order to find forage for his animals; he hoped to pick up the Indian trail on the other side of the canyon.
Early on December 24 the column crossed the North Fork and marched south and southeast over an extensive prairie which sloped gradually to the south. During the day occasional Indians were seen hovering in the distance. Before long it was evident that the Indians had not emerged from the southeast end of the gorge. No trail was crossed. Evans halted for the night, making a dry camp on the bleak plains. The troops spent a Christmas Eve devoid of cheer.
On Christmas morning Evans turned the head of his command northeast, hoping to strike the trail of the hostiles at the eastern exit of the gap. A biting wind drove thin snow in the faces of the men. The ground was white in patches. The soldiers grew colder as the hours passed. The horses were dying from exhaustion and lack of forage. Not an Indian had been seen. Evans decided to go into camp on the bank of the river under the shelter of the rough granite peaks, so as to permit the men to enjoy the remainder of the holiday as best they might.
The column approached the stream from the south, opposite the mouth of Devil's Canyon, where the dragoons had visited the Wichitas in 1834. Mexican scouts, who had been out on the right flank, came in to report that they had seen and conversed with two Indians. Colonel Evans determined to neglect these individual Indians no longer. They seemed to be watching his command. At the head of the column was Captain (Brevet Major) Tarlton's company of the Third Cavalry, thirty-four men. Colonel Evans ordered Tarlton to pursue the two Indians. The remainder of the command moved upstream and prepared to go into camp, while Tarlton crossed to the north bank and rode southeast between the hills and the river.
Nestled in a grove of trees situated about a mile and a half east of the site of the old Wichita Village was a camp of sixty lodges of the Noconee Comanches. This was the same band from which had come many of the raiders who had participated in the murders near Gainesville and Spanish Fort during the summer and fall. The principal civil chief of this band was Horseback, a signer of the Medicine Lodge treaty. Horseback was friendly to the whites, and disapproved of the raiding done by his people. At this time he probably was at Fort Cobb with his immediate family group. A war chief named Arrow Point was in charge; chiefs Howea and Habby-wake likely were in the village also.
The Indians had been watching Evans' column wandering around, and had hoped that he would not discover their hiding place. When it was seen that some soldiers were coming toward the village Arrow Point hastily mounted his men and rode out to turn them back. They met about one mile west of the village. The Comanches charged Tarlton vigorously, using lances, rifles, and pistols. At first Tarlton had more than he could handle. He sent for help. Soon Captain Monahan arrived with his company, then Captain Hawley. Thereupon Tarlton took the offensive and pushed the Indians back slowly.
When the Comanches had fallen back to the open ground lying west of their village they increased their resistance, which forced the soldiers to halt. During this skirmish Chief Arrow Point suffered a gunshot wound in the mouth, the injury later causing his death. When he fell his comrades carried him away, but his war equipment fell into the hands of Tarlton's men. One of these captured weapons was a lance of ancient Spanish manufacture.
Adjutant Edward Hunter now arrived with two sections of the mountain battery. The small howitzers were placed in position and threw two spherical case shot into the Indian camp. The first round was a dud; the second exploded.
The Indians in the village were industriously engaged in trying to pack their property. The projectile burst in their midst, stirring them up like a nest of ants. The noise of the battle had stampeded the Indian horse herd east across the shallow river, but when the artillery shell burst in the camp the Indians departed in great haste, riding the few animals which had been left in the camp. Three or four were mounted one each horse. Those of the Comanches who could not obtain mounts commenced climbing the rocky mountain which rose abruptly at the northern edge of the village.
Tarlton charged into the village. He dismounted his men in the grove of trees; then, after leaving a few horseholders and sentries to guard the captured property, he pushed forward with the rest of the command to the high ground lying northeast of the camp. A broken line of large granite rocks juts out from the ridge at this point, forming a half-moon from the river bank on the right to the precipitous mountainside on the left. Tarlton's men lay down behind these rocks and commenced sniping at the Indian warriors, who were riding in half-circles across the front of the firing line in the manner of a typical western cinema. No one was hurt. The poor marksmanship of the Indians was matched by that of the soldiers.
Tarlton lay happy in his snug position until he noticed that Indians were crossing the river in his rear and threatening to cut him off. These were mostly Kiowas from Woman's Heart's village at Sheep Mountain, who had been attracted to the scene by the sound of the cannon. Large numbers of them were riding in from the east, fording the river, and taking position on Tarlton's front and right rear. His squadron was in danger of being surrounded, but was saved by the timely arrival of Colonel Evans with the rest of the command. Evans threw two cavalry companies to the river bank to protect Tarlton's right and rear, and pushed Captain Gageby's company of infantry to the left to prevent the Indians from getting between Tarlton and the mountain.
The Indians had divided, part of them riding northwest along the tributary which rises at Soldier Spring, the others cantering southwest along the river bank. Several heavy volleys were fired at both groups of savages, and they commenced to fall back out of range. Those along the river bank took shelter among the sand dunes on the south bank; while the others hid among the trees south of Soldier Spring, or behind a large rock situated six hundred yards southeast of Soldier Spring.
Evans saw that it was useless to try to close with them. Their mounts were too fresh. He therefore ordered Tarlton to retreat to the village. The withdrawal was accomplished quickly, and without incident until all but one soldier had retreated to the grove. This man evidently had not heard the order to retire and, engrossed in watching the Indians, did not notice that he was alone. Suddenly, realizing that his companions had retreated, he too jumped up from behind his rock and started to run back. Mama-day-te, a Kiowa, galloped to cut off the lone trooper. He fired his pistol at the man in the blue overcoat, without apparent effect, then circled back to the shelter of Soldier Spring Creek. Next K'op-ah-hodel-te (Kills Enemy Near Mountain) made a charge. He overtook the soldier, and wounded him severely with a lance thrust. But the fire from the soldiers had begun again, so that the Kiowa was unable to make coup by touching his fallen enemy with his hand.
The infantry company had remained in position at the extreme left. Gageby sent word to Colonel Evans that he was pinned to the ground by fire coming from the Indians who had scaled the mountainside. He could not retire without exposing his men to severe loss. Accordingly Evans deployed three companies of cavalry forward under Tarlton to flank out these Indians. As Tarlton's men approached the sharp rock which juts out of the ridge immediately south of Soldier Sprig Creek, a large number of savages flushed from in rear of the rock and fled west toward the woods bordering the mountain. Several volleys were fired at them at close range. Evans reports that a number of the Indians were seen to fall; but no bodies were found. The Indians claim that the only one of their men who fell at this point was Mama-day-te, whose horse bucked him off during the excitement; they say he was not hurt. To this day one may pick flattened lead balls from the rocks around Soldier Spring, fired by the soldiers at the retreating Indians.
By sunset all of the soldiers were back in the grove in which the Indians camp was located. The Indians, watching from rocks and sand dunes saw them lighting fires to cook their supper. Marveling at the nonchalance of the soldiers under fire, the Indians were afraid to renew the attack. They thought that the indifference of the troops implied overwhelming strength of numbers concealed in the grove.
Evans had his men establish a fortified camp, after which he put them to work destroying the Indian property. This task was not completed until nearly midnight. It was a rich village; the tepees were of the best Indian workmanship, nearly new. Evans burned everything, including a hundred bushels of corn, much flour, coffee, sugar, soap, cooking utensils, mats, parfleche (leather pouches), bullet molds, weapons, and robes. He did not spare even the buckskin dolls, doll dresses, and other playthings left by the Indian children.
One of the principal items destroyed by the soldiers was several tons of dried buffalo meat, the entire winter food supply of the Noconee Comanches. At the head of the Indian village, where the mountain rises from the plain, is a small pond covered with lily pads, and fed by small bubbling springs. The Comanches drew their drinking water from this spring. Into this Evans threw all of the dried meat, and to this day, the Indians call it "Dried-Beef-Pond."
No pursuit of the Indians was made. Colonel Evans says that he was out of supplies. This is a curious reason. Either the colonel was unreasonably fastidious in his diet or extremely shortsighted. According to his own report he destroyed enough food to have lasted him several weeks. The Indians fled in two directions. Some of them surrendered at Fort Cobb, the others went west to join the Quohadi on the eastern edge of the Staked Plains. Evans marched to the Washita, whence he sent to Fort Cobb for supplies. On January 18 he arrived back at Fort Bascom.
The Battle of Soldier Spring was a smaller affair than the attack made by Custer on Black Kettle's village. Only about two hundred soldiers, and perhaps an equal number of Indians (including Kiowas) were engaged. It was singularly bloodless, considering its duration and the amount of ammunition expended; the troops and the Indians each lost but one man killed, with a few wounded on each side.
Yet the fight was not without significance. It was a successful part of General Sheridan's plan to converge on the Indians from several directions. It showed the hostiles that they were not safe from the troops, no matter which way they might turn. It caused the surrender of a number, including Mow-way, who might otherwise have remained out and defied the government for several years. Nevertheless it was so overshadowed by the Battle of the Washita, which occurred three weeks before, that it has become lost in the annals of history, and is mentioned in only one place-Sheridan's memoirs-and there only briefly.