Battle of the Cimarron

Michael has a BA in History & American Studies and an MSc in American History from the University of Edinburgh. He comes from a proud military family and has spent most of his career as an educator in the Middle East and Asia. His passion is travel, and he seizes any opportunity to share his experiences in the most immersive way possible, whether at sea or on the land.

Part of our in-depth series exploring the forts of Comancheria

Battle 1

July 9, 1848; Protection, Kansas: On 7 July 1848, Capt. John C, Griffin and 101 men of Companies A, B, C, and D of William Gilpin's Indian Battalion, with one six-pound howitzer, set out to scout for Comanches who had been causing chaos on the Santa Fe Trail. Their march began from the cavalry camp (Camp Gilpin) across the Arkansas River from Fort Mann. They traveled south to Crooked Creek, which they followed down to the Cimarron River. They marched east along the Cimarron about eight miles and camped on the south bank, in present-day Harper County, Oklahoma. From a high point, Griffin spotted a large grove of trees at the mouth of Clark Creek, about twelve miles ahead, possibly sheltering Indians.

The morning march on 9 July revealed that the grove had indeed been home to a Comanche village. While the soldiers watered their horses, they spotted a mounted Indian, and Lt. Joseph C. Eldridge, Company B, took twenty men to investigate. As the detachment rode east, a Mexican boy rode up to them. Eldridge took the youngster to Griffin, who suspected that he could be a Comanche spy. The boy revealed that the Comanches were camped about nine miles downstream. Griffin ordered a pursuit.

After a three-hour trek, Griffin reported, the soldiers "came in sight of their warriors, about 600 strong, posted on a well-chosen piece of ground on the north side of the Cimarron." The Indians formed into a double-lined battle formation, with their flanking wings thrown forward. The left wing was on the ridge of a low sand dune, and the right wing was on a higher ridge behind the left wing. Griffin ordered his men to the center of the Comanche line. The artillery crew unlimbered the howitzer in a dry arroyo nearby and fired at a cluster of Indians while the cavalry prepared for a charge. Griffin sent some mounted men toward the Indians' left wing. At the same time, Lieutenant Benson, Sergeant Clark, and twenty soldiers attacked some warriors to the left of the arroyo. Benson's soldiers pushed the Indians to the crest of the embankment. At the top, however, Benson was surprised by 200 mounted Comanches poised to charge. The soldiers dismounted and formed a line, loosing a barrage of fire that drove the Indians back. More Comanches appeared in the soldiers' rear and fired at them ineffectually with small arms.

Griffin had meanwhile crossed the arroyo with his remaining men and the howitzer, while Eldridge and twenty men went to strengthen Benson's position. When a new group of Indians threatened Benson's rear, Griffin blasted away at them with the howitzer. The Comanches' right flank gave way, and their left flank retreated to its original position in the sand dunes. Eldridge pursued the retreating Indians, with Benson providing support. Griffin fired a few long-range howitzer shells, killing two Indians. From a hill, Griffin saw the fleeing Comanches about six miles downstream. Two groups of cavalry pursued but could not catch them.

At a cost of only slight arrow wounds to Eldridge's hand and Gibson's head, the soldiers estimated thirty Indians were killed in the three-hour battle. Griffin and his exhausted troops set up camp on the river next to the battlefield. The next day, they marched north toward Mulberry Creek, but for two days they found no water. Late on 11 July, they reached the dry creek, but it took another hour to find a water hole and relieve their extreme thirst. They reached Fort Mann the next day.

Battle 2

August 21, 1864; Cimarron, Kansas: From camps in western Kansas, Cheyennes continued to send out war parties to the Arkansas River throughout the summer of 1864. Only large and well-armed wagon trains were allowed to travel past Fort Larned. In August, a caravan that included a Mexican wagon train, another train of fourteen wagons under Andrew Blanchard, and a Stuart, Slemmons & Company train under Charles P. McRae and John Sage passed Fort Larned with 95 wagons and more than 100 armed men. They approached the Middle Cimarron Crossing of the Arkansas on 21 August with McRae leading, followed by Sage, the Mexican train, and Blanchard. As they stopped to rest, the first three trains formed up in a circle, leaving an opening for Blanchard, but inexplicably he moved on and corralled half a mile beyond the others.

The party camped early in the day, trying to rest up for the long, dry journey ahead, and most of the men were asleep when the Indians appeared around 1 p.m. Three men from McRae's train were outside the wagon corral shooting prairie dogs when one of them shouted, "Indians!" About forty Cheyenne warriors under Little Robe charged in from the north, trying to cut the three hunters off from the wagons. Before the other teamsters had even awakened, six mess cooks grabbed rifles and rushed to the edge of the circle, covering the three hunters as they ran to safety.
Five Indians led by Bear Man cut in between McRae's and Blanchard's trains. Blanchard, in a foolhardy move, drew his pistol and rode out after the five, evidently not noticing the other Indians circling around his wagons nor the mounted Indians still waiting on the bluffs. He was 200 yards from the camp before he realized his mistake. While most of the Cheyennes drove off his cattle, several warriors rode up to Blanchard, knocked him off his horse, and captured him.

About fifteen of Blanchard's teamsters grabbed their weapons and rushed out to help him, firing as they ran. As the teamsters closed in, the warriors were forced to drop their prisoner. Upon reaching Blanchard, however, the teamsters discovered he had been wounded several times, with multiple gunshot wounds, an arrow protruding from his stomach, and a lance gash through his shoulder. They carried him back to the corral, but he died within the hour. They buried him beside the road. Ten other train members were also killed in the attack.

The Cheyennes drove off 130 mules, about one-third of McRae's and Sage's herds. Of Blanchard's stock, all but two oxen were taken. The Indians took their plunder south of the river and ultimately escaped. Another wagon train with a cavalry detachment from Fort Lamed eventually reached the stranded caravan. Thus fortified, the wagoners continued their journey.

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