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Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 16, No. 2
June, 1938
EXCITEMENT ON THE SWEETWATER

By
Captain W. S. Nye

Page 241

Several of Colonel Nelson Miles' fights with the Indians during the 1874 campaign are fairly well known; among these are Lieutenant Frank Baldwin's famous charge in wagons into the Cheyenne camp where the German sisters were retaken, Lone Wolf's siege of Captain Lyman's wagon train, and the Buffalo Wallow fight. Less attention has been paid to the operations of the Fort Bascom column which was operating in this part of the plains at the same time. Herein is a description of a brush between these troops and the Indians, which occurred on or near Sweetwater Creek, somewhere near what is now the western border of Oklahoma. The story is arranged so as to give first the Indian version, followed immediately by the official report of the officer commanding the troops. Note the close agreement between them, even in a number of minor particulars.

Botalye,1 aged Kiowa, presents the Indian side of the picture substantially as follows:

"About noon we began to leave the wagon train fight, because we thought that our women and children might be in danger of an attack by other troops which we knew were moving about on the prairie not far away. My companion wanted to refresh himself after the strenuous fight by taking a swim in the creek, but I, thinking that this would be a little too much, refused. As we left the wagon train we heard the sound of gunfire to the southwest. Riding in that direction about three miles



Page 242

below the Washita we found that some of the Kiowas had surrounded a party of five or six white men, several of whom were soldiers. The Indians seemed to be having a lively time, and one of them, a young fellow named Pay-kee, had had his horse shot under him. Two horses had been captured from the whites; the Kiowa who claimed them was having an argument that nearly ended in a fight with a Comanche who also claimed the animals. The white men were kneeling in a little buffalo wallow, firing at the Indians; I noticed a Caddo Indian with the whites.2

"After this fight, and while we were eating dinner, more soldiers appeared far off to the west; they were riding in a column of twos, and approached rapidly. About this same time we were joined by a small group of Indians who had come west from Fort Sill under a white flag. They had a message from Kicking Bird and the commanding officer ordering us back to the post. We tried to get the bearer of the flag of truce, a Mexican Kiowa named K'ope-to-hau (Mountain Bluff), to go out to meet the troops and show them the friendly papers which he had brought from Sill. But the old fool wouldn't go; he wanted to smell some powder first. We worked hard with him, but finally had to let him join in the fight.

"Now the troops were getting closer. We saw something moving towards the west. It was Set-maunte,3 who had on his war bonnet. The soldiers saw him. They halted, faced to the southeast, with Set-maunte opposite them. The rest of us were on the north and east side behind a low ridge, planning to surround them. Set-maunte galloped across toward us. The soldiers fired at him but he was not hit. We now planned to attack with groups dashing in from the north, northeast, west, and





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northwest. I joined the nearest group. At this moment another troop of cavalry appeared; behind them was a small two-wheeled cannon. The first troop went toward the southeast while the new troop with the cannon waited for them to start the fight. We were anxious to start it right then, but our chiefs were trying to keep us from shooting because our village, which at that time was packed and on the move, was so close still that it was risky for us to start anything.

"There was a short pause. Then a Comanche rode out from a little creek branch about three hundred yards away from us and went toward the two officers who were out in front of the troops. The officers, probably thinking that the Comanche was a chief approaching for a peace parley, started to put away their guns. At that instant the Indian shot at them, whereupon they reached for their pistols again. The troops opened fire. When the Comanche returned to where the rest of us were, his horse was bleeding from the shoulder.

"We were behind a hill. When the firing started, various Indians started out over it toward the soldiers, making their circling charges. All of us were whooping. The firing was almost continuous; the excitement was grand. It had been raining hard, so that the women and children behind us were having a hard time crossing the rapidly rising creek. But finally they were on the other side, and we also began to withdraw. My companion, Little Owl, and I were among the last to make a charge toward the firing line. We were almost on top of the gun flashes when I noticed that my horse was faltering. For a moment I thought that he had been hit. Then I saw that he was choking, and thought that his bridle was too tight. Although the bullets were singing all around me, I started to dismount to fix the bridle before the horse fell with me. This probably would have been the end of me—the soldiers would have got me sure. But just at that moment a skinny little Indian named Haun-goon-pau4 came my way, shouting, 'Don't get off! Stay on him. Your horse is choking on a wad of grass in his throat.' He gave my pony a



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couple of hard licks across the rump with his quirt. The animal gave a big belch and disgorged a bunch of grass, enabling me to escape.

"The creek was now running bank full. We jumped in and began swimming our horses across. Two soldiers arrived, saw a number of us in the water, and rode back to bring up the rest of the cavalry. If these had arrived promptly it would have gone hard with us. But they were slow, and we all gained the far bank safely. It was now dusk. The soldiers began to ride up on the far bank, but hesitated to plunge into the flood after us. We thought that we were safe, and began to cut capers and yell back at them. A shower of bullets put a stop to this. Away we went on the run again, toward the northeast. Late that night we camped at the head of Elk Creek, where we breathed slowly once more."

*    *    *    *    *    *

The troops involved were four companies of the Eighth Cavalry from Fort Bascom, New Mexico, under Major William Price. Extracts of his official report,5 written a few days after the engagement, follow:

"On the 28th of August I moved from Fort Bascom to the old Fort Smith road6 and along it on the south side of the Canadian to Canyon Bonita7 where I arrived on the morning of September 4. The fresh trail of a party of Mexican Comanche traders had been seen on the road for eight miles. At this point they seem to have been joined by a party of Indians, and left in a southeasterly direction. My guides, who had been Comanche traders and were perfectly acquainted with the country, said that I could strike the headwaters of Red River and the homes of the Indians by a march of fifty miles across the plains in a southeasterly direction. My orders leaving it discretionary with me







Page 245

and as I assumed that General Miles' command would be far to the southeast of Antelope Hills by that time, I directed Captain Farnsworth with 'H' Company to conduct the wagons in the direction of Antelope Hills, making marches of about twenty miles per day.

"...On the sixth we began to see signs of retreating Indians, and about 3 PM struck the wagon trail of General Miles three miles north of the Salt Fork of Red River, or the Capolin. The main body of Indians had gone down this stream in a southeast direction, followed by General Miles' command. I inferred that they were making toward their reservation and that General Miles had gone to Fort Sill. Some forty Indians had been in his camp after he left. The sign was very fresh and led in a southwesterly direction.

"A heavy rainstorm set in about 9 o'clock on the morning of the seventh and continued in torrents during the entire day.... I moved to General Miles' camp. He informed me that the Indians were all out, that he had made several ineffectual efforts to communicate with me, and as his scouts had not returned he feared that they had been killed. His troops were then falling back, as they were out of rations. The heavy rains had swelled the dry arroyos to deep running streams. I moved as nearly due north as possible on the eighth, camping that night on the Salt Fork, on the ninth on Whitefish Creek,8 on the tenth on McClellan Creek, and on the eleventh on the plains near one of the branches of the Sweetwater. I sent up rockets each night as a signal to the train.

"I now came to the conclusion that my couriers had met with disaster and had not reached Captain Farnsworth. On the twelfth I took a northeast course for Antelope Hills. It rained heavily in the morning; about noon, while moving in a northeast direction between the Sweetwater and the Dry Fork of the Washita, I saw what appeared to be a long column of troops moving westward across my front. It soon proved to be a large body



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of Indians. They selected their own ground on the crest of a steep ridge, and awaited my attack. I had with me 110 men and a howitzer with eight rounds of canister. My shell had become wet with heavy rains and was useless. Lieutenant Sprole with the guard of twenty men had been sent over General Miles' road to intercept the wagons should they come that way. As I threw out skirmishers and advanced, the Indians sent forty or fifty of their number to my right and rear. The animals on my howitzer were very much fagged by the heavy roads, and were unable to keep up with the rapid movements of the troops. I directed Captain Hartwell, Captain Morris, and Lieutenant Rogers, with Companies K, L, and C to charge the crest and, turning to their left, to pivot on the gun and sweep the ridge of Indians. At this time Lieutenant Fuller, Officer of the Day, with a guard of twenty men, was protecting the gun. He sent me word that the Indians were concentrating on the gun, dismounting, and getting into ravines, and were getting his range and closing in on him. I took a platoon and went to the relief of the gun. The Indians fought very stubbornly, and during the first hour and a half of the fight were very bold, exposing themselves by rapidly riding on every side of us and firing at short range. Our line drove them from every position they occupied, charging whenever the ground would, permit of it. We drove them for six or seven miles, occupying two and three-fourths hours' time, when they fled in every direction. They left no dead on the field; a number were seen to fall from their horses but they were immediately surrounded and carried off by others.

"I went into camp a short distance from where I engaged them, but they made no effort to molest me during the night. Neither did they attempt to harass Captain Farnsworth, who was passing to the west of them on the twelfth and thirteenth. He crossed their trail on the fourteenth; it was a mile wide, moving in a southwesterly direction, and showed signs of one thousand head of stock. He killed and captured over thirty ponies. My first impression when I engaged them was that it was a party of bucks from those who had gone south on the advance of General

Page 247

Miles... but when I came in contact with the officers who had been on the hill, and with the Navajoes,9 I was informed that they had a large herd of stock and their women and children with them, and they crossed the Rio Negro in a northwesterly direction. I infer that it was a fresh party direct from Fort Sill. I understand that General Davidson thinks it was Lone Wolf and a large party.

"My six days' short rations had been exhausted on the tenth, and my command had been eating nothing but buffalo meat without salt... it was impossible to follow farther. I moved eastward on the Rio Negro on the thirteenth, and in eight miles struck the wagon road. While halting here, a man was discovered off to our right on foot, endeavoring to communicate with us. He proved to be a scout from General Miles' command, named Dixon. He said that he, with another scout and four soldiers, had been sent to communicate with the wagon train. Early on the morning of the twelfth they had been attacked by a large party of Indians. They at once abandoned their horses, and endeavored to reach some point where they could defend themselves; they succeeded in reaching a buffalo wallow on some rising ground, and dug a hole with their hands in the sand, but before they could accomplish it, four out of the six had been wounded, one of whom lingered during the long stormy night and had died in the morning. They had had nothing to eat since the night of the eleventh. They thought that our command was the Indians returning. Dixon had been watching the road in hopes of relief. I directed the surgeon, Dr. McClain, to go with a few men and see the wounded. The men in the pit, thinking it was Indians, fired on the doctor's party, killing one fine horse instantly. The suffering of these men was extreme, and their condition fearful. In the hole six feet square and a foot and a half deep were one corpse and three badly wounded men, the hole half full of water, and they had to keep bailing to keep from being drowned



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out, yet these men had kept up their courage and defended themselves until the Indians left them upon the approach of my command. My men gave them some buffalo meat which they were glad to eat raw, and I detailed Lieutenant Rogers and Company C to go back and notify General Miles of their condition, and to get an ambulance forward as soon as possible. They could not have survived the exposure of another night in such a pelting storm. An ambulance reached them and they were made comfortable between ten and eleven that night.

"When on the divide between the Washita and the Canadian, and near the latter stream, I thought I heard, and the command said they did hear three or four cannon shots or volleys of musketry on my right. I halted, and three mounted men were seen on a hill about two miles off. I detached two men to go and see who they were, and had bugles sounded to indicate that we were soldiers, but before my men could get near them they turned and galloped out of sight. I concluded they were Indians. My men continued on over the ground where they had been seen and to the hill beyond; other men were sent to their support, but they returned and reported that they could see nothing of them.

"I believed that my own and General Miles' train was somewhere in the vicinity, but thought that the best way to reach them was to keep on the road. I mention this as the sounds we heard came from General Miles' (Lyman's) train, which had been besieged by this same band of Indians for four or five days, and the officers in charge were signaling to us by firing volleys. I understood that there was some feeling expressed because we did not come immediately to their relief.10 I was very much in need of everything supposed to be in a supply train, and certainly thought that I would soonest reach them by keeping on the road.



Page 249

I reached the river where the road crosses the Canadian, about 9 PM. My impression gained from the Mexicans, the Navajoes, and from my own information is that the main body of Indians with their families are now on the two forks of the main Red River (Palo Duro and Tule), in the Canyon Blanca, and on the Staked Plains adjacent to those streams."11



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