Winners of the West
Vol. XIII     No. 3
FEBRUARY 29, 1936


The Experience of John Hurst in the Noted Beecher Island Fight of September 17, 1868

NOTE BY AUTHOR - The battle of the Arickaree Fork of the Republican river, in Eastern Colorado, September 17, 1868, between fifty frontiersmen enlisted under the title of "Forsyth's Scouts," and seven hundred Northern Cheyenne Indians under the leadership of Chief Roman Nose, was one of the most decisive battles ever fought between Indians and white men on the Western plains. It broke up the plans of the Northern Cheyennes to raid the rich valleys of the Republican, Soloman and Saline Rivers, murder the settlers and devastate the frontier. For nine days the Scouts were in a state of siege, during which time they had no food save the dead horses and mules about them; but fortunately water was abundant. The stubborn resistance put up by the scouts, all of whom were experienced Indian fighters, together with the heroism of those who stole through the Indian lines after dark and started for relief, 125 miles distant at Fort Wallace, forms one of the most thrilling chapters in the history of Indian warfare of the Plains. The experience of Scout John Hurst as here related is full of interest. Since giving this interview, Mr. Hurst has passed away at his house in Ogdensburg, N.Y. For many years he was a member of the Soldiers Home at Los Angeles, California. - E. A. BRININSTOOL

During the Civil War I enlisted in the First California Infantry and served three years. The greater part of that time was spent fighting Indians in Arizona and New Mexico. I was mustered out of service September 31, 1864, at Los Penos, N.M., and immediately started across the plains for Kansas, via the old Santa Fe Trail. I accompanied an ox team outfit, which was returning after unloading their freight at Fort Union. They were glad of the company of a few men, as the Indians were on the warpath and acting pretty savage. However, we arrived at Fort Leavenworth without incident. This was just after Price's raid through Kansas. I went to work for Uncle Sam driving mules which were used to hauling supplies to the different frontier posts. I continued in that business for some months, having more or less fighting with the Indians meantime.

The latter part of August, 1868 I was at Fort Harker, Kansas, when Col. George Forsyth was organizing a company of frontiersmen to fight the Indians in western Kansas. As men were somewhat scarce, and as the Colonel was anxious to obtain his full complement of fifty men, I joined the organization. I expect it was the love of adventure which is inherent in all American frontiersmen, that prompted me to join.

From Fort Harker we proceeded to Fort Hays, with eight days' rations and four pack mules, which were loaded with doctors' medicines, axes, shovels and picks. We made a circuitous route as far as Beaver Creek, following up that stream for some distance, and then made for old Fort Wallace, where we rested a few days.

We were hurried away because of an attack made by a band of Indians on a freighting outfit. Two of the men in the train were killed, and several head of stock run off. This train was encamped between Fort Wallace and the town of Sheridan. At this period Sheridan was the "end of the track" of the Kansas-Pacific Railroad, and all freight going West was hauled there by wagon.

As soon as the news of this killing reached us at Fort Wallace, we started in pursuit of the marauding redskins, with six days' rations. We had no trouble finding the Indian trail, and followed it for some distance; but it grew fainter the further we went, and finally it "petered out" completely, as the savages scattered and broke up into small bands, as they generally do when pursued or imagining they will be followed after a raid. However, we kept traveling north, as that was the direction the trail led and further, we thought we would eventually run across another trail, or perhaps the Indians themselves; but we saw nothing until we reached the Republican river.

After scouting around until the morning of the fourth day, we picked up a small trail running up the Republican, which we followed until evening and then went into camp. This trail continued to freshen as we advanced other trails leading into it. The following morning we continued in pursuit, and it soon became evident we were not very far behind a large body of Indians. Soon we discovered the tracks made by the lodge-poles dragging on the ground, and we knew they were traveling with travois and ponies.

On the fifth day, as the trail kept enlarging and becoming more and more distinct, some of us became greatly concerned as to the wisdom of following such a large party of Indians with such a small force of men. It was plain that they had their families with them, and could not travel as fast as a war-party alone, and we realized we would soon overtake them, and that a fight would ensue.

We made known our anxiety to Col. Forsyth, who at once halted the column assembled the men around him, and asked if we "did not enlist to fight Indians." That ended the discussion, but nevertheless it did not convince us of the wisdom of following such an immense body of savages. However, we went on in silence until the evening of that day when we came through a narrow defile in the hills that opened into a beautiful valley. We thought we were on the south branch of the Republican river, but it later proved to be the Arickaree fork.

It was such a lovely spot in which to make a good camp, as there was plenty of fine grass for our jaded horses, that Col. Forsyth ordered a halt about 4 o'clock, and we made camp. I am sure that Providence must have had a hand in directing our operations that afternoon, for had we progressed half a mile further we would rode directly into an ambush, which had been cunningly and skillfully prepared for us, and doubtless the command would have been slaughtered to a man.

But aside from the trail we were following we saw not a sign which would indicate that there was an Indian in the country. I was on guard that night. Thomas Murphy was my partner. We cooked some beans for the men who were to relieve us, and had a square meal ourselves - our last, by the way, for nine long, weary, hungry days.

After we had stood our watch out and were relieved, we lay down with our saddles for pillows and with our guns at our sides. Sound sleep immediately followed, for we had not heard the slightest intimation of danger while we were on guard. Little did we dream of the awful peril that was right at our door!

The next thing that I remembered was the sound of guns and the guards shouting "Indians! Indians!" We all grabbed our carbines and were on our feet in an instant. Through the dim morning light we could discern three or four savages driving off several of our horses which had pulled their picket-pins. Col. Forsyth gave orders to saddle up at once, which order we quickly executed. While we were standing by our animals waiting further orders, some of the men got permission to drive off a little bunch of Indians who were hiding behind rocks on the hillside to the north of our position.

After these men had reached high ground they shouted to us to "look up the creek." And such a sight! Indians by the hundred were everywhere in full view! They seemed to spring from the very earth - out of the tall weeds and bushes along the creek; from the depressions in the ground they came, and began swarming out over the hills. It was the grandest and most thrilling sight I ever saw, and have often thot what a wonderful moving-picture that would have made. But to know it just as it was, and to realize that those Indians were after our scalps, gave us no time to think of anything but our own safety. The spectacle was appalling! Hundreds upon hundreds of Indians were pouring down upon us, all mounted on their war ponies and all dressed and caparisoned for battle, with feathers and plumes flying in the dim morning light, and gleaming from gun, pennant and lance. Was it any wonder that some of our men were fairly overcome by the sight? But there were only three who played the coward. I sometimes wonder that there were not more, but thank God the rest of us measured up to the full duty of the hour.

"Col. Forsyth immediately took in the peril of our location. He knew we would be no match for that army of redmen in the open, as they outnumbered us twenty to one. It happened that we were encamped directly opposite a small island in the Arickaree, which was covered with tall grass. At the suggestion of Jack Stillwell, a beardless youth of but nineteen, but a veteran in frontiersmanship and plain craft and one of the bravest, nerviest men in the command, Col. Forsyth gave orders to make for the island. I do not know how the order affected the other men, but to me it was the most welcome and timely one I ever received in all my army experience.

In other historical accounts which have been written about this fight, it has been stated that we moved across to the island in a solid body, with our horses in the center and the men in a circle about them. This is most decidedly erroneous. There was no regular order preserved at all, but we made a grand rush for cover like a flock of scared quail. It didn't take us long to get to the island - which fortunately the Indians had neglected to take possession of. L Here we immediately scattered pretty well out so that we had all vantage points covered. I should judge this little island to be about one-hundred and fifty yards long and seventy-five yards wide, and there was plenty of room for such a small body of men to quickly get under cover.

It seemed to surprise the Indians greatly at the suddenness with which we got under cover and out of sight, and we could tell by their yells of rage and disappointment that they were greatly at not having first taken possession of the island themselves. Had they done so in the first place, the fight would not have lasted fifteen minutes, and not a man would have been left to tell the tale. Out in the open we would have been quickly surrounded and cut down. Getting out of sight so quickly and keeping under cover was what saved the lives of every man that eventually survived that battle.

Hardly were we located on the island before the Indians were charging through us! Not in a solid body, but either singly or in groups of a few warriors. Scouts Armstrong and Barney Day were by my side at the right and left, each by a small tree. Jack Stillwell and several others were at the east end of the island and Jack Donovan and others were at the west end, while others were in the center, all effectually hidden and pumping bullets whenever the Indians came within close range. Our shots, coming in this manner from all directions, seemed to daze the Indians, who could not understand the rapidity of our fire. We were armed with Spencer seven-shot repeating carbines, and it was a great puzzle to the savages how we could load and fire so quickly.

As I have previously remarked, there were but three men who played the coward in the fight. They utterly refused to fire a shot but kept themselves hidden. I shall not mention their names. One of them, who happened to reach the island at the same time as myself, and who tied his horse to the same tree with my animal, was shaking like a man with the palsy, and seemed utterly unnerved by the awful peril we were in. I tried to encourage him by saying "Frenchie, we are in for a fight, so fight like a real man." But it was all to no avail. He made a run for the bushes and took no part in the fighting.

Our horses were, of course, in plain sight of the foe, and were subjected to an immediate fire from them, so that it was not long before they were all shot down. Evidently they thought if they could set us afoot we would never escape. As the last horse fell I distinctly heard a voice exclaim in good English, "Well there goes their last damned horse anyway." Doubtless this was some half-breed or squaw-man who had affillated himself with the Indians.

Soon after the fighting began, our surgeon, Dr. Mooers, was struck in the forehead by a bullet, and although he lived three days in an unconscious state, he never spoke a rational word. Lieut. Beecher was also shot in the side and mortally wounded. He lingered in agony until nightfall, when he too passed away. It was unfortunate that some of the horses were standing within the xone of fire near where many of the men were fighting. This brought them in range of bullets that were doubtless intended for the horses.

Col. Forsyth refused to lie down until struck twice by bullets. The last order I remember hearing him give was for the men to dig holes in the sand and make banks for protection.

While looking through the tall grass, I saw an Indian run his pony into an old buffalo wallow partially filled with water, and it seemed to tax the strength of the pony to get out. This gave me an excellent chance for a shot, and I did so, but must have missed as I didn't see the Indian drop. Another warrior coming from the north on horseback nearly ran over me. He would have
done so had not his pony shied to one side, and the savage hadhard work to retain his seat, so that he had his hands full without trying to shoot at me. I was glad he didn't fall off, as it would meant death for him or me. I shot at him as his pony rushed along, but scored another miss.

My near neighbor, Armstrong and Barney Day, both were wounded in the early part of the engagement, and ran to other comrades to have their wounds dressed. This made me feel mighty uneasy, as I feared the Indians might bet between me and the other men. There was much shooting at the east end of the island, and at the time I attributed this to the Indians, not knowing Jack Stillwell and his party were there.

I kept close watch, and soon saw an Indian creeping through the grass toward our horses and then I felt sure all that firing was from the Indian ranks, and that they were closing in around us. This idea proved to be erroneous; but I surely thought at the time that we were all going to be killed and scalped, or else captured and held for torture, and I think this belief was quite general among the men.

I recall distinctly that Col. Forsyth called out and asked if any man could pray as it seemed that we were beyond all human aid, and that if God didn't help us it was hard lines for us. However, I didn't hear any man volunteer to pray. I guess most of us were too busy working the levers of our carbines.

When I saw this Indian creeping toward our horses, I took a shot at him, but without waiting to see if I scored a hit I ran to where some of my comrades were located. I found that some of the men had dug holes and made banks of sand around them, while others were using the dead horses for breastworks. So I dropped down behind a dead horse and went to digging into the loose sand to make me a shelter. Digging was easy after I worked down through the grass roots, and I soon had a place deep enough for protection.

While I was at work Sergt. McCall and Scout Culver came in, and getting down behind another dead horse they went to work digging. They had been at it but a short time when some of the men on the inside of the circle shouted, "If you fellows on the outside don't get up and shoot, the Indians will be charging us!" At this, both McCall and Culver arose to their feet to look for Indians. Their heads were fully exposed, when suddenly "bang!" came the report of a rifle. The bullet grazed McCall's neck and struck Culver in the head, killing him instantly. That was the last exposure of heads during the battle.

It was shortly after this that Scout Harrington came staggering in covered with blood from head to foot. He had been shot in the head with an arrow, and the barb was yet sticking in his skull. Some of the men tried to pull it out, but the barb was imbedded so deeply that it could not be extricated. It was not long before an Indian bullet came whistling in, and by some freak of good luck, the ball struck that arrow shaft and knocked it from Harrington's head!

Scout Burke then came where we were lying and began to dig a hole near us, keeping up his work until he came to water. Then he filled his canteen and passed it around several times until all within reach had been supplied. It was a boom to us, especially to the wounded, who were becoming feverish and very thirsty. Burke then related to us his experience. It seemed that he did not get across to the island with the rest of us when the first rush was made. During the fighting he saw an Indian some distance away - too far, he thought, for a successful shot, so he concluded to crawl to a hummock of sand which lay between him and the Indian from which he thought he could nail the red devil. Burke carefully hitched himself along to the hummock of sand then slowly straightened up, and to his great surprise and horror there arose from the other end of the same hillock that same identical warrior! Burke was so taken aback that he said he forgot all about shooting. He said he merely poked his gun out at the Indian, shouted "BOOH!" and legged it for the island, expecting every instant to feel a bullet in his back. No shot being fired, he glanced back and saw the Indian running the other way as fast as he could leg it.

The next excitement was when the Indians held up a white flag and called for a truce. We had quite a discussion about recognizing it, but finally concluded it would not do to trust them, as they might take advantage of an armistice to rush our lines. There were two dead Indians lying close to our defenses. Both had been shot by Lewis Farley, the best rifle shot in the command. Farley had been lying in the tall grass on the north bank of the stream with a broken leg. Both these warriors were in plain view of him as they crept along a ridge of sand made by the water where it divided on each side of the island. Farley shot them both through the head, and when I saw the bodies, both Indians carried rifles, as well as bows, and a quiver of arrows each. The killing of these two warriors had a very intimidating effect upon the others, and stopped warfare from that direction in a hurry. Farley was brought to our rifle pits about dark that night. When the relief column reached us on the ninth day, his leg was in such a condition that amputation was resorted to, but he died that night.

Following the white flag incident, fighting was renewed but there was no more charging across the island. The singing by the squaws, who were watching the fight from a high hill at some distance, and which, early in the battle had been joyful and exultant, with the expectation of an easy victory, had now changed to one of sorrow and lamentation for the loss of their braves.

Night came at length as a welcome shadow to hide us more securely and enable us to care for our wounded comrades. It was a dark, rainy night, and our first work was to get the wounded all in and dig a place for them where they would be protected from the Indian fire on the following day, which we felt sure would be more severe than ever. Their loss already had been heavy, and we knew they would make a desperate attempt to end the matter with the light of another day.

After digging a pit in which the wounded were all placed, we got the saddle blankets off our dead horses and made as comfortable beds for our wounded as possible. We then secured the extra ammunition in our saddle bags and cut the hams off the dead horses and hung them on the bushes to dry, as our food was all gone. Our next move was to dig trenches which connected all the rifle pits.

Colonel Forsyth then called a council to determine what was to be done. Our guide, Sharp Grover, an experienced frontiersman and Indian fighter, was asked by the Colonel what the chances would be of sending some one through the Indian lines to Fort Wallace for relief - a distance of fully one-hundred and twenty-five miles. Grover gave it his opinion that it would be impossible for a man to creep thru the Indian lines, and he went on to tell what the savages would do in an emergency like ours. He said they would draw their lines all the closer at night, so they could easily detect anyone who might try to steal through.

We all stood there listening to the dark picture which Grover was painting, and it was with mighty heavy hearts. After he had finished speaking, young Jack Stillwell, who had the courage of a young Spartan, spoke up.

"Colonel," he said, "if I can get someone to go with me I'll take the risk/"

Old Pierre Trudeau instantly replied, "I'll go with Jack."

Colonel Forsyth thereupon wrote a message to Colonel Bankhead, the commanding officer at Fort Wallace, and then turning to Grover inquired if it would be possible to bring wagons directly across country from the fort to us. Grover said the country was so rough that it would be impossible to do this, and Stillwell was thereupon directed to come by another route as far as the Republican river, and then to follow that stream to our position. This made a distance of about 130 miles. It turned out, however, that Grover's knowledge of the country was wrong, for when we returned to the fort, we went straight across country. Sharp Grover was the man who should have volunteered to go for help, but he was afraid to risk his scalp.

We expected to get relief in about six days, providing Jack and old Pierre got through safely. After they left, we just settled down to business, for we didn't know what the Indians might do before morning, and so we kept a vigilant watch all night. There was no attack, however. The next day was one of watching, for instead of more attacks like those of the first day, the fighting was contained to sharp-shooting and "sniping."

When night came, Colonel Forsyth deemed it wise to try and get two more scouts through the lines, not knowing, of course, if Stillwell and Trudeau would be successful. I do not remember the names of the two men who volunteered on the second night, but anyway they could not get through, as every avenue of escape was too closely guarded, and the men soon returned.

The third day was a repetition of the second - very little firing, but close watching on the part of the Indians. Evidently they were going to try and stave us out. And it seemed like they were going to succeed. We were hungry, faint and discouraged in a way, but Forsyth never lost his nerve for a moment although most seriously wounded in two places and his head grazed by a bullet. After dark that third night, he again called for volunteers. Jack Donovan and Al Pliley started out, with instructions to come back straight across the country, with plenty of food and medical supplies, if they reached the fort. These two men had many thrilling and marvelous escapes, but after enduring many privations they ran across Col. Carpenter's command out on a scout, and guided them to the island, arriving a day ahead of Stillwell and Col. Bankhead's command from Fort Wallace.

Meanwhile, we on the island were having a serious time of it. The Indians gave up the siege on the fifth day, and it was suggested - I have forgotten who by - that the uninjured should strike out for Fort Wallace on their own hook. When this reached Colonel Forsyth's ears, he called us together. He said that he expected every man to stick by the command until the men he had sent for relief had had time to get to the fort and back, and that it was our duty, from a humane stand-point, to all stick together. "After that,' said he, "I will have no further claim upon you, and you may do the best you can to save your own lives." We then all swore we would never desert the wounded, come what might, but would remain with them and die with them if necessary.

Our dried meat gave out in six days, and we then had nothing to eat but the dead horses which were decaying all around us and when we tried cutting into that the stench was something frightful. We tried sprinkling gunpowder over it to partially take away the bad odor. I recollect that one of the men found a pork rind in his haversack. He chewed on it until he thought he had taken all the goodness out of it, and then threw it away. Another man found it, and he also chewed on it and tossed it aside. Later on, I discovered it kicking about in the sand and tried my hand on it, and thought nothing ever tasted so delicious as that salty flavor.

On the eighth day several of us made quite a march about the nearby country looking for game. We located a colony of prairie dogs, but none of them came out of their holes. I made up my mind that I would return to the place the following day and try to kill one. Accordingly, the following forenoon, which was the ninth day of the siege, I went out to the dog-town and watched quite awhile, but none of the rodents appeared, and I began to feel pretty discouraged. I had kept up fairly well up to this point, as I was twenty-eight years of age and a pretty husky youngster, but I now began to think we were all doomed to starvation. I was having the blues mighty bad as I started back for the island empty-handed, and with the most empty stomach I ever experienced in my born days. I had not gone very far when I observed some of the men running toward me, motioning for me to hurry. The thought that it was the Indians returning for another invasion of the island took possession of me, and I started on a dead run for my comrades. I was too faint and exhausted, however, to run very far, and I soon fell to the ground, completely winded, and scarcely caring if it was the Indians or not, so discouraged and disheartened was I.

Happening to look up I saw 3 horsemen riding toward me. They did not look like Indians, and I gazed long and earnestly at the advancing riders, and soon saw that they were white men. It proved to be Jack Donovan and the relief party. Never, before or since have I been so glad to see the face of a friend, and the sudden transition from despair to safety was too much for my overtaxed nerves, and I broke down and wept like a child.

There was great rejoicing that day, I can assure you. Donovan had run across Col. Carpenter, who was out on a scout, and the latter started at once to Forsyth's relief. We moved the wounded back half a mile or so from the river, to escape the stench of the dead horses, and if I remember correctly we stayed there three days, Stillwell came in the day after Donovan and his party arrived, so we had a good escort returning to Fort Wallace.

In due time we arrived at the post, where we were most hospitably cared for. Gen. Sheridan issued an order to give any of Forsyth's Scouts any position they were qualified to fill in the quartermaster's department. In a few days I was sent to Fort Harker, where I secured a job as wagon-master, hauling supplies to Camp Supply all winter, while General Custer was operating further south.

In all my experience of fighting redskins on the Plains and the Apaches down in Arizona, I never went through anything that compared to that fight on the little island in the Arickaree, where Death stood mighty close to our side for nine terrible days.