Beecher Island, which is the scene of perhaps the most determined fight against overwhelming odds ever put up by white men against the Indians on the Plains, is an island in the Arikaree river about seventeen miles to the south of Wray. The island and the battle both take their name from Lieut. Fred H. Beecher, 3d United States Infantry, who was a nephew of the great Brooklyn preacher, and who was killed in the first day's fight.
In August, 1868, General Sheridan, then in command of the Department of Missouri, in response to a call from Acting Governor Frank Hall, of Colorado, for assistance, issued orders for an independent expedition to be sent out against the Indians. The party consisted of fifty scouts and frontiersmen under the command of Col. Geo. A. Forsyth. The expedition reached Fort Wallace the night of September 5, without finding any trace of Indians. While remaining there word was brought from Sheridan, a little village sixteen miles to the east, that the enemy had attacked a Mexican haying outfit that was there putting up hay for the Government. At this point the scouts picked up the trail, which led to the northwest. It was followed across the prairies until indications pointed to the fact that they were close to the Indians. At 4:00 P.M. on the night of September 16 the party went into camp on the north side of the Arikaree river, about forty rods north of Beecher Island. This island was about 250 feet long, dotted with clumps of small cottonwood trees, and surrounded by a shallow stream some fifteen feet wide. The river bottom on either hand recedes to high buttes and desolate hills.
Early in the morning of the 17th the Indians attempted to stampede the stock of the scouts, and partially succeeded in the attempt, capturing two horses and five pack mules. The scouts took up their position on the island and by sunrise the Indians began pouring from up the river by the hundreds. In all there were about one thousand warriors from a band of Cheyenne Indians, assisted by the Ogallala, the Brule Sioux, and Dog Soldiers. The Indians were commanded by the Cheyenne Chief, Roman Nose.
General Fry, in his book, "Army Sacrifices," gives a graphic description of this celebrated Indian:
"The shock of battle and scenes of carnage and cruelty were as of the breath of his nostrils. About thirty years of age, standing six feet three inches high, he towered giant-like above his companions; a grand head, with strongly-marked features, lighted by a pair of fierce black eves a large mouth with thin lips, through which gleamed rows of strong white teeth; a Roman nose, dilated nostrils, like those of a thoroughbred horse, first attracted attention, while a broad chest, with symmetrical limbs on which the muscles under the bronze of his skin stood out like twisted wire, were some of the points of this splendid animal. Clad in buckskin leggings and moccasins elaborately trimmed in beads and feathers, with a single eagle feather in his scalp-lock, and with that rarest of robes, a white buffalo, beautifully tanned, and soft as cashmere, thrown over his naked shoulders, he stood forth the war chief of tbe Cheyennes."
The scouts had no time in which to make preparations, for their retreat to the island had been hurried. The horses were tied to the cottonwoods, which gave very scanty protection, and every man dug up, as best he could in the sand, a little barrier. Soon the last horse was killed. Most of the scouts were wounded, and while dismounted Indian warriors crawled as close to the island as they dared, and the hills to the north were covered with their women and children, chanting war-songs and filling the air with whoops and yells, the mounted warriors began to form for the furious charge which proved to be the climax of the battle.
The scouts knew the crisis was at hand. Each Spencer repeating rifle was charged with six shots in the magazine and one in the barrel. The guns of the dead and mortally wounded were loaded and lay close at hand. For a few moments the galling fire of the dismounted Indians rendered it impossible for any of the scouts to expose themselves. Thus, to the chanting of war-song and the crack of rifle and the yell of Indian warrior, and the moans of their wounded comrades, American scouts awaited the charge.
In his description of that attack General Forsyth says:
"We had not long to wait. A peal of the artillery bugle, and at a slow trot the mounted warriors came partially into view in an apparently solid mass at the foot of the valley, halting just by the mouth of the canyon on the opposite side of the river from which we had emerged the preceding day.
"Closely watching the mounted warriors, I saw their chief facing his command and by gestures evidently addressing them in a few impassioned words. Then, waving his hand in our direction he turned his horse's head towards us, and at the word of command they broke at once into a full gallop, leading straight for the foot of the island.
"As Roman Nose dashed gallantly forward and swept into the open at the head of his superb command he was the very best ideal of an Indian chief, mounted on a large, clean-limbed chestnut horse. . . He was a man over six feet three inches in height, beautifully formed, and except for a crimson silk sash knotted around his waist and his moccasins on his feet, perfectly naked. His face was hideously painted in alternate lines of red and black and his head crowned with a magnificent war bonnet, from which, just above his temples and curving slightly forward, stood tip two short black buffalo horns, while its length of eagle's feathers and heron's plumes trailed wildly on the wind behind him.
"Turning his face for an instant toward the women and children of the united tribes, who literally by the thousands were watching the fight from the crest of the low bluffs back from the river's bank, he raised his right arm and waved his hand with a royal gesture in answer to their wild cries of rage and encouragement as he and his men swept down upon us; and, again, facing squarely toward where we lay, he drew his body to its full height and shook his fist defiantly at us; then, throwing back his head and glancing skyward, he suddenly struck the palm of his band across his mouth and gave tongue to a war cry that I have never heard equaled in power and intensity.
"Scarcely had its echoes reached the river's bank when it was caught up by each and every one of the charging warriors with an energy that baffles description.
"On they came at a swinging gallop, rending the air with their wild war whoops, each individual warrior in all his bravery of war paint and long braided scalp-lock, tipped with eagle's feathers, and all stark naked but for their customary belts and moccasins, keeping in line almost perfectly, with a front of about sixty men, all riding bareback with only a loose lariat about the horses' bodies, about a yard apart, and with a depth of six or seven ranks, forming together a compact body of massive fighting strength and of almost resistless weight.
"Riding about five paces in front of the line, and twirling his heavy Springfield rifle about his head as if it were a wisp of straw probably one of those he had captured at the Fort Fetterman massacre, Roman Nose recklessly led the charge with a bravery that could only be equaled but not excelled, while their medicine man, an equally brave but older chief, rode slightly in advance of the left of the charging column."
General Forsyth says of the scene that followed:
"In the meantime the valley was resonant with the shrieks of the women and children, who from their coign of vantage on the hills had safely but eagerly watched the result of Roman Nose's desperate charge and now as their fathers, sons, brothers, and lovers lay dead on the sands before them, their wild wails of passionate grief and agony fitfully rose and fell on the air in a prolonged and mournful cadence of rage and despair. And as for a short time many of the Indians rode circling around yelling and waving their arms over their heads, hither and yon, apparently half dazed at the death of the medicine man and their great war chief, as well as distressed at the disastrous failure of their charge, the whole scene, combined with the steady crack of the rifles of the Indians in ambush, the reply of the scouts, the smoke of the powder, and the view of the dead warriors and horses lying on the sand before us, seemed for a moment or two almost uncanny, and weird in the extreme."
That night two scouts, Jack Stillwell and Pierre Trudeau, were sent to Fort Wallace to inform Colonel Bankhead of the condition of things. On the third night two more scouts were dispatched for assistance. In the meantime the fighting continued, but in a desultory manner, the Indians apparently settling down to starve out the besieged. For eight days the scouts remained on the island, suffering all the hardships possible to a wounded band, without food or medical relief, but on the morning of the ninth day assistance came when a troop of the 10th Cavalry, under Lieut. L. H. Carpenter, arrived.
During the battle five of the Americans were killed and were buried on the island. Their names are: Lieut. Fred H Beecher, 3d U. S. Inf., Surgeon J. H. Mooeres, and scouts Louis Farley, G. W. Culver, and William Wilson.
In the year 1899 the Beecher Island Memorial and Park Association was organized. In 1902 a bill passed Congress and was signed by the President granting to the incorporation three quarters of land composing the battlefield. In 1903 the legislature of the state of Colorado granted to the Association a tract of 120 acres, which the State owned adjoining the island. Finally, in 1904, the states of Colorado and Kansas appropriated $5,000 to be used in the erection of a suitable monument. This monument is eighteen feet and one inch high. It was unveiled on September 18, 1905, General Forsyth and four of the old scouts being in attendance. Every year since 1901 reunions have been held, and people come by the hundreds to these gatherings. Full accounts of these meetings are given in the Beecher Island ANNUAL, published every year by the Association, and to be obtained for 10 cents of Robert Lynam, editor, Wray, Colorado. The Association has planted trees on the island, and in a few years the scene of this conflict will be a beautiful park.
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