Topics (click on a topic to jump to that section)
Beecher Island Battle | Cheyenne Dog Soldiers | Fort Morgan | Indian Wars | Last Days of Buffalo | Overland Trail | Smoky Hill Stage Station | Smoky Hill Trail
Marker Topic: Beecher Island
Address: : Pulloff-N side of US 34-just E of Yuma
Battle of Beecher Island
In September 1868 fifty civilian scouts left Fort Wallace, Kansas, to fight Cheyenne and Sioux warriors, on the theory that experienced frontiersmen could defeat any enemy force. On September 17 the scouts approached the Arickaree River, twenty-five miles southeast of here, where Indians attacked them. Retreating to a sandbar, the command held off repeated charges for four days. In the fierce combat, the besieged unit suffered eighteen wounded and five men killed, including Lt. Frederick H. Beecher. The great Cheyenne war leader Roman Nose fell on the first day, but otherwise Indian losses were minimal. On September 25 the Tenth Cavalry - the famed African American "Buffalo Soldiers" - rode to the scouts' relief. The frontiersmen had battled heroically, but never again did the army send an independent civilian command to fight Indians.
During the American Civil War, 180,000 African American soldiers participated in 449 engagements, suffering over 38,000 casualties. After the war, Congress continued all-black units, creating two infantry and two cavalry regiments. Sent to the frontier West, black soldiers won the respect of Plains Indians, who called them "Buffalo Soldiers," probably for their remarkable courage and for the resemblance of their hair to that of a buffalo's (an animal the Indians revered). Black troopers of the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry, who comprised 20 percent of all cavalry stationed in the West, proudly accepted the title. The soldiers escorted wagon trains, chased outlaws, guarded railroad work crews, and fought Indians - and fourteen of them earned the Medal of Honor. Yet white officers always commanded black units, and African American soldiers faced racial prejudice in towns and posts across the West. That the Buffalo Soldiers succeeded - magnificently so - in their assigned duties is testament to their bravery, determination, and skill.
Marker Topic: Cheyenne Dog Soldiers
Address: CDOT Pulloff-10 miles E of Holyoke
Marker Text: The rugged individualists of frontier myth had nothing on the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers. Exiled in the 1830s after their leader killed a cousin, this elite warrior society became a virtual tribe apart, answering to no authority but its own. Ironically, the outcasts emerged as the Cheyennes' fiercest defenders in the 1860s, when settlers continually invaded the tribe's homeland. From their stronghold in this area, the Dog Soldiers launched a relentless campaign against U.S. military columns and wagon trains, ranging over the high plains with such deadly swiftness that they seemed to be everywhere at once. They outfought the cavalry for most of the 1860s, but their defeat at the 1869 Battle of Summit Springs (some sixty miles west of here) ended the Dog Soldiers' days as an independent military force. However, remnants of the band continued to resist white domination for years to come.
The last major Indian-white conflict on Colorado's eastern plains took place on July 11, 1869, at Summit Springs Battlefield, south of Sterling. The U.S. Fifth Calvary defeated Chief Tall Bull's Cheyenne Dog Soldiers, killing Tall Bull and fifty-two warriors, and capturing seventeen women and children.
Marker Topic: Fort Morgan
Address: Town Park-E side of Park just off main street, N of I-76-exit 80
City: Fort Morgan
Marker Text: Junction Station, the first settlement at this site, suffered numerous Indian attacks similar to those that raged all along the South Platte during the mid-1860s. To protect the crucial crossroads, which joined the South Platte River Trail with its Denver cutoff, the U.S. Army established Camp Junction in 1864. In 1866 Fort Morgan, roughly the size of a city block, was completed. The post defended the Trail, but traffic soon shifted north to the transcontinental rail corridor, and Fort Morgan was abandoned in 1868. Sixteen years later Abner S. Baker founded the present-day town and named it after the old battle station. Today one of eastern Colorado's most important cities, Fort Morgan has anchored life on the plains for more than a century.
Marker Topic: Indian Wars
Address: Town Roadside Park-E side of town at intersection of 1st and Custer
Indian Wars 1864-1896
Battle of Summit Springs, July 11, 1869
Approximately twenty miles north of here at Summit Springs, the Fifth U.S. Cavalry, commanded by Maj. E.A. Carr, and a force of Pawnee Scouts attacked Chief Tall Bull's Cheyenne Dog Soldier village. Also prominent in the fight was chief of scouts William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody, and the famed North brothers - Major Frank North and Captain Luther North. When the fighting was over, fifty-two Cheyennes lay dead. The Battle of Summit Springs - a great victory for the army - broke the military power of the Dog Soldiers and ended Indian-white conflict on Colorado's eastern plains. Shortly after the battle the United States removed the Southern Cheyennes to reservation lands in present west-central Oklahoma.
1865 Indian War
In November 1864, in southeastern Colorado, U.S. Volunteer troops attacked Black Kettle's peaceful band of Cheyenne Indians at Sand Creek. In retaliation for the massacre and mutilation of 163 Cheyenne men, women, and children, Cheyenne warriors with their Arapaho and Sioux allies struck military and civilian targets along the South Platte River Trail. On January 7, 1865, 1500 warriors attacked stage and telegraph stations, ranches, and wagon trains on a 100-mile front between Julesburg, Colorado - ninety miles northeast of Akron - and Denver. These great South Platte River raids closed Denver to the outside world and resulted in over 250 army and civilian deaths, diverted 8,000 Union troops from battle lines in the East, and cost the government some $30 million.
Marker Topic: Last Days of the Buffalo
Address: Colorado Welcome Center on I-76
Last Days of the Buffalo
For thousands of years, these grasslands have supported tens of millions of buffalo, from the giant species of ancient times to the smaller version of today. As North America's largest land animal, buffalo dominated life on the Great Plains. In 1851, Cheyenne chief Yellow Wolf reported to an Indian agent the staggering news that from the foothills of the mountains to the forks of the Platte, the great herds had largely vanished. In fact, starvation stalked the Cheyenne villages. Twenty years later, not one buffalo could be found on Colorado's eastern plains. Why? The answer is complex, but mostly the herds vanished through human intervention: too many buffalo killed for their hides, too much habitat altered or destroyed.
A Fragile Balance
Native peoples successfully met the challenge of living on the dry plains of eastern Colorado. Mounted on swift ponies, Cheyennes, Arapahos, Kiowas, Comanches, Plains Apaches, and Shoshones moved across the land, hunting the great herds of buffalo. Brought to the plains by the Spanish in the sixteenth century, horses allowed the tribes unprecedented access to the wealth of the plains, but the resultant prosperity came with a price. Horses required grass-lots of it. With ten animals for each person, Indians were forced to constantly move to greener pastures, a serious problem when winter storms struck. Still, this rhythm of life proved successful until railroads, towns, ranches, and farms forever changed the relationship between native peoples and their high plains home.
Marker Topic: Overland Trail
Address: CDOT Rest Area-junction of I-76 and US 6
The Overland Trail
Call it the Pikes Peak Trail, the Denver Road, Overland Trail, South Platte River Trail - by any name, it dominated the movement of people and things in Colorado between 1858 and 1867 and ranks with the great trails of American history. Travelers caught the pioneer highway at departure points along the Missouri River, then rolled along the Platte River through Nebraska to Julesburg, Colorado, where they turned to follow the river's south fork to Denver only 180 miles distant. During its heyday, the road carried perhaps 166,000 people, fortune-seekers mostly, but merchants, settlers, and homesteaders, too. In 1866, however, the Union Pacific Railway chugged its way west to Julesburg, heralding the end of an era. New railheads like Sterling greeted the great engine of settlement, the trail now only a distant memory.
"Old" Sterling dates to the early 1870s, when displaced Southern families moved in and planted fields of wheat. Later, "new" Sterling flourished as a rail, ranching, and farming community. Here on the treeless high plains, settlers found shelter in sod houses - universally and affectionately called "soddies." One pioneer remembered: "The great thickness of the walls and their perfect joining with the earth itself provided a shelter so cozy and proof against the extremes of either heat or cold that [no one] who had once lived in one cared to abandon it completely." Living in their earthen homes, these sodbusters created the great South Platte River farm belt stretching from Denver to Julesburg, Sterling its very heart. Though cattle were the mainstay of the region's economy, in the early 1900s sugar beets emerged as a major crop. Sterling's population boomed again in the 1950s when oil was discovered. From trail days to today, Sterling continues to play an important role in northeastern Colorado.
Marker Topic: Smoky Hill Stage Station
Address: Hugo Rest Area US-287
Smoky Hill Stage Station
David Butterfield had a sound reason for running his stagecoach line over the Smoky Hill Trail: It was the fastest, most direct route from Kansas City to Denver. But it was also the most dangerous - an isolated, undefended road that passed right through the heart of Cheyenne lands. The only stops along the way, Butterfield's lonely stage stations, were mini-fortresses of earthen trenches and clustered sod walls. The stations stood at roughly fifteen-mile intervals, with three of them in this vicinity - one very near here, another just east of present-day Hugo, and one at Hedinger's Lake, near Limon. Butterfield opened the line in 1865, at the height of the Indian Wars, and his stages quickly became favorite targets. Discouraged and losing money, he sold the operation to Ben Holladay in 1866.
Passengers on the Butterfield Overland Despatch (B.O.D.) stood a better-than-even chance of surviving the trip; that was the good news. The bad news was that they had to spend days on end in cramped, stuffy quarters, bouncing over punishingly uneven roads in a spray of slush, dust, and mud. Occasionally they rattled past the scene of a day-old Indian attack, the corpses still lying in the field. Though Butterfield used handsome Concord coaches - the most comfortable, smoothest-riding carriages of their day - this was a miserable journey in every respect, including the price ($75 one way from Kansas City to Denver). But travelers had no better option. Between 1859 and the opening of the Kansas Pacific Railroad in 1870, the B.O.D. and other stagecoach lines brought thousands of passengers out West.
Sand Creek Massacre
At dawn on the morning of November 29 I was still in bed when I heard shouts and the noise of people running about the camp. I jumped up and ran out of my lodge. From down the creek a large body of troops was advancing at a rapid trot, some to the east of the camps and others on the opposite side of the creek, to the west... [I]n the camps themselves all was confusion and noise - men, women, and children rushing out of the lodges partly dressed; women and children screaming at the sight of the troops; men running back into the lodges for their arms, other men, already armed, or with lassos and bridles in their hands, running for the herds to attempt to get some of the ponies before the troops could reach the animals and drive them off. I looked toward the chief's lodge and saw that Black Kettle had a large American flag tied to the end of a long lodgepole and was standing in front of his lodge, holding the pole with the flag fluttering in the grey light of the winter dawn. I heard him call to the people not to be afraid, that the soldiers would not hurt them; then the troops opened fire from two sides of the camps."
- George Bent, 1864. Bent was the son of William Bent and his Cheyenne wife, Owl Woman. Educated in St. Louis, and a Confederate Army veteran, Bent was living with the Cheyennes when Black Kettle's village on Sand Creek was attacked by soldiers.
The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 promised the Cheyennes and Arapahos that the territory between the Arkansas and Platte Rivers would be theirs forever. Forever lasted ten years. The 1859 Pikes Peak gold rush brought thousands of immigrants into Indian land; two years later a new treaty restricted the tribes to a small, remote reservation in south-central Colorado, far from gold country. Big Sandy Creek - Sand Creek to history - flows just west of today's U.S. 40 and marked the reserve's eastern boundary. But many Westerners objected to any Indian presence. On November 29, 1864, sixty miles downstream from this point, U.S. troops wantonly attacked Cheyenne Chief Black Kettle's peaceful village, killing several hundred men, women, and children. The infamous Sand Creek Massacre opened years of high plains conflict that ended only with the tribes' forced removal to lands in Oklahoma, Wyoming, and Montana.
Smoky Hill Trail
Denver-bound travelers could save distance and time on the Smoky Hill Trail - but only if willing to risk death by Indian attack. The trail bisected the Cheyennes' and Arapahos' treaty-granted homeland, and the tribes kept it under siege almost continuously in the late 1860s. One branch earned notoriety as the "Starvation Trail" after an 1859 gold rush met a disastrous end, but the Smoky Hill became a main highway in 1865 when the Butterfield Overland Dispatch began running stagecoaches over it. With fortified stage stops every few miles (including one right here), the route was reasonably well defended, but passengers never rested easy; the war cry might go up at any moment. Enough people took their chances, though, to keep the Smoky Hill Trail busy until the 1870 opening of the Kansas Pacific Railroad.
In 1858, about five miles south of present-day Franktown, William Green Russell and his party discovered gold. Russellville soon grew up at the site of the find. A hotbed of military activity during the Civil War, little evidence of this early mining camp remains today.
Long a landmark on the Trappers' Trail, Castle Rock was named by a gold seeker in 1858.
In 1820, Stephen H. Long led an expedition that traveled through present-day Douglas County. While in Palmer Lake, this expedition made the first recording of what would become Colorado's state flower, the Rocky Mountain Columbine.
Marker Topic: Smoky Hill Trail (1859-1870)
Address: Smoky Hill Trail Monument
City: Cheyenne Wells
Marker Text: The Smoky Hill Trail was the most direct route to Denver and the goldfields of the central Rockies. Emigrants heading west through central Kansas followed the Kansas River, then headed up its Smoky Hill River branch into the high plains of eastern Colorado. Here, the Smoky Hill River ended. Emigrants then turned northwest to Denver over the high, dry rolling prairie country. It was a tough stretch. A Denver newspaper called those who dared it "foolhardy and insane." With full-scale Indian-white wars of the mid-1860s, the trail was extremely dangerous. Still, the Butterfield Overland Stage served the route, and later the Kansas Pacific Railroad built along the trail's ruts.
Cheyenne Wells Stage Stop
Bayard Taylor, a famed adventurer and writer, traveled by stagecoach on the Smoky Hill Trail in the summer of 1866. This is his report of conditions at the Butterfield stage stop at Cheyenne Wells, Colorado: "We found a large and handsome frame stable for the mules, but no dwelling. The people lived in a natural cave, extending for some thirty feet under the bluff. But there was a woman, and when we saw her we augured good fortunes. Truly enough, under the roof of conglomerate limestone, in the cave's dim twilight, we sat down to antelope steak, tomatoes, bread, pickles, and potatoes - a royal meal, after two days of detestable fare."