[logo: Kansas Heritage Group]

Kansas History Web Sites

Old West Ranching in the Early Days

By Robert M. Wright

"Plainsman, Explorer, Scout, Pioneer, Trader and Settler,"
(excerpt from Dodge City, the Cowboy Capital, 1913)

THE ranches in those days were few and far between. Beyond the Grove were Peacock's ranch, at Cow Creek, Alison's ranch, at Walnut Creek, and also that of William Greiffenstein, with whom I afterward had the pleasure to serve in the house of representatives. The following is a true story of the fate of Peacock, as related to me a few years after his death. Peacock kept a whisky ranch on Cow Creek. He and Satank, the great war chief of the Kiowas, were great friends and chums, as Peacock knew the sign language well. He had quite a large ranch and traded with the Indians, and, of course, supplied them with whisky. In consequence, the soldiers were always after him. Satank was his confidential friend and lookout. He had to cache his whisky and hide it in every conceivable manner, so that the troops would not find it. In fact, he dreaded the incursions of the soldiers much more than he did the Indians. One day Satank said to him: "Peacock, write me a nice letter that I can show to the wagon bosses and get all the chuck I want. Tell them I am the great war chief of the Kiowas, and ask them to give me the very best in the shop." Peacock said, "All right, Satank," and sat down and penned this epistle: "This is Satank, the biggest liar, beggar, and thief on the plains. What he can't beg of you he will steal. Kick him out of your camp, as he is a lazy, good-for-nothing Indian." Satank presented his letter several times to passing trains, and, of course, got a very cool reception, or rather a warm one. One wagon boss blacksnaked him, after which indignity he sought a friend, and said to him: "Look here! Peacock promised to write me a good letter, but I don't understand it. Every time I present it the wagon boss gives me the devil. Read it, and tell me just what it says." His friend did so, interpreting it literally. "All right," said Satank, and the next morning a daylight he took some of his braves and rode to Peacock's ranch. He called to Peacock, "Get up; the soldiers are coming." The summons was quickly obeyed. Seizing his field-glass, Peacock ran to the top of his lookout, and the instant he appeared, Satank shot him full of holes, exclaiming as he did so, "Good-by, Mr. Peacock; I guess you won't write any more letters."

Then they went into the building and killed every man present, except one, a sick individual, who was lying in one of the rooms, gored through the leg by a buffalo. All that saved him was that the Indians were very superstitious about entering apartments where sick men lay, for fear they might have the smallpox, which disease they dreaded more than any other. I came from the mountains in the spring of 1864 to Spring Bottom, on the Arkansas River. The Cheyennes, Arapahoes and Kiowas were committing many depredations along the Arkansas that summer. Shortly after our arrival, my partner, Joe Graham, went to Fort Lyon after supplies to stand a siege, as we expected daily to be attacked, the hired man and myself remaining at the ranch to complete our fortifications. On the night of Graham's return I started for Point of Rocks, a famous place on the Arkansas, twenty miles below our ranch, to take a mule which he had borrowed to help him home with his load. The next morning at daylight our ranch was attacked by about three hundred Indians, but the boys were supplied with arms and ammunition, and prepared to stand a siege. After they had killed one Indian and wounded a number of their ponies, the savages became more careful; they tried by every means in their power to draw the boys. outside; they even rode up with a white flag and wanted to talk. Then they commenced to tell in Spanish, broken English, and signs, that they did not want to hurt the boys; they simply wanted the United States mail stock; and if it was given up they would go away. When this modest demand was refused, they renewed their attack with greater fury than ever before.

My wife and two children were with me at the ranch at the time, and, at the commencement of the fight, Mrs. Wright placed the little ones on the floor and covered them over with feather beds; then she loaded the guns as fast as the boys emptied them. She also knocked the chinking from between the logs of the building, and kept a sharp lookout on the movements of the Indians. Often did she detect them crawling up from the opposite side to that on which the boys were firing. Upon this information the boys would rush over to where she had seen them, and by a few well-directed shots make them more than glad to crawl back to where they had come from. This was long before the days of the modern repeating rifle, and of course they had only the old-fashioned muzzle-loaders. For about seven hours the Indians made it very warm for the boys; then they got together and held a big powwow, after which they rode off up the river. The boys watched them with a spy-glass from the top of the building until they were satisfied it was not a ruse on the part of the savages, but that they had really cleared out. Graham then took my wife and two children, placed them in a canoe, and started down the Arkansas, which was very high at the time. The hired man saddled a colt that had never before been ridden, and left for the Point of Rocks. Strange as it may seem, this colt appeared to know what was required of him, and he ran nearly the whole distance-twenty miles-in less than an hour and a half. He was the only animal out of sixteen head that was saved from the vengeance of the Indians. He was a little beauty, and I really believe that the savages refrained from killing him because they thought they would eventually get him. He was saved in this manner: After the attack had been progressing for a long time and there came a comparative lull in the action, my wife opened the door a little to see what the Indians were up to, while the boys were watching at the loopholes; the colt observed Mrs. Wright, made a rush toward her, and she, throwing the door wide open, the animal dashed into the room and remained there quiet as a lamb until the battle was over.

The Indians killed all our mules, horses and hogs--we had of the latter some very fine ones--a great number of our chickens, and shot arrows into about thirty cows, several of which died. The majority of them recovered, however, although their food ran out of the holes in their sides for days and weeks until the shaft of the arrows dropped off, but, of course, the iron heads remained in their paunches; still they got well. I had just saddled my horse, ready to start back to the ranch, when the hired man arrived, bringing the terrible news of the fight. He told me that I would find my wife and children somewhere on the river, if the savages had not captured them. "For my part," he said, "I am going back to my people in Missouri; I have had enough." He was a brave man, but a "tenderfoot," and no wonder the poor fellow had seen enough. His very soul had been severely tried that day. I at once called for volunteers, and a number of brave frontiersmen nobly responded; there were only two or three, however, who had their horses ready; but others followed immediately, until our number was swelled to about a dozen. A wagon and extra horses brought up the rear, to provide means of transportation for my wife and little ones. When we had traveled thirteen miles, having carefully scanned every curve, bend, and sand-bar in the stream, we discovered Graham, Mrs. Wright, and the children about two miles ahead, Graham (God bless him!) making superhuman effort to shove the boat along and keep it from upsetting or sinking.

They saw us at the same moment, but they immediately put to cover on a big island. We shouted and waved our hats, and did everything to induce them to come to us, but in vain, for, as they told us afterwards, the Indians had tried the same maneuvers a dozen times that day, and Graham was too wary to be caught with chaff. At last Mrs. Wright recognized a large, old, white hat I was wearing, and she told Graham that it was indeed her husband, Robert. When they reached the bank, we took them out of the canoe more dead than alive, for the frail, leaky craft had turned many times; but Graham and Mrs. Wright, by some means, had always righted it, and thus saved the little children. A party went with me to our ranch the next day, and we witnessed a scene never to be forgotten; dead horses, dead hogs, dead cows and dead chickens piled one upon another in their little stockade. Two small colts were vainly tugging at their lifeless mothers' teats; a sad sight indeed, even to old plainsmen like ourselves. Both doors of the building were bored so full of bullet holes that you could hardly count them, as they lapped over each other in such profusion. Every window had at least , a dozen arrows sticking around it, resembling the quills on a porcupine. The ceiling and walls inside the room were filled with arrows also. We thought we would follow up the trail of the savages, and while en route we discovered a government ambulance, wrecked, and its driver, who had been killed, with two soldiers and citizens, so horribly butchered and mutilated that the details are too horrible and disgusting to appear in print. They had also captured a woman and carried her off with them, but the poor creature, to put an end to her horrible suffering, hung herself to a tree on the banks of a creek northeast of where the Indians had attacked the ambulance. In consequence of her act, the savages called the place White Woman. The little stream bears that name today; but very few settlers, however, know anything of its sad origin (it was on this creek, some years later, that the gallant Major Lewis met his death wound at the hands of the Indians, while bravely doing his duty).

After the fight at Spring Bottom, I moved down to Fort Aubrey, where, in conjunction with Mr. James Anderson, I built a fine ranch. At that place we had numerous little skirmishes, troubles, trials, and many narrow escapes from the Indians. While at Aubrey, I had my experience with Fred and the bull buffalo, as described in a previous chapter. Just before I moved from Aubrey, J. F. Bigger and I had a sub-contract to furnish hay at Fort Lyon, seventy five miles west of Aubrey. While we were preparing to move up to go to work, a vast herd of buffalo stampeded through our range one night and took off with them about half of our work cattle. The next day the stage driver and conductor told us they had seen a few of our cattle about twenty-five miles east of Aubrey. This information gave me an idea in which direction to hunt for them, and I started after the missing beasts, while my partner took those that remained and a few wagons and left for Fort Lyon. I will interpolate here the statement that the Indians were supposed to be peaceable, although small war parties of young men, who could not be controlled by their chiefs, were continually committing depredations, while the main body of the savages were very uneasy, expecting to go out any day. In consequence of this threatening aspect of affairs, there had been a brisk movement of troops stationed at the various military posts, a large number of whom were supposed to be on the road from Denver to Fort Lyon. I took along with me some ground coffee, filled my saddle-bags with jerked buffalo and hardtack, a belt of cartridges, my rifle and six-shooter, field-glass and blankets, and was ready for any emergency.

The first day out I found a few of the lost cattle, and placed them on the river bottom, which I continued to do as fast as I recovered them, for a distance of about eighty-five miles down the Arkansas, where I met a wagon train. The men told me I would find several more with the train that had made the crossing of the Cimarron the day before. I came up to this train in a day's travel south of the river, got my cattle, and started next morning for home. I picked up my cattle on the river where I had left them, as I went along, and, having made a tremendous day's travel, about sundown concluded to go into camp. I had hardly stopped before the cattle began to drop down, so completely tired out were they, as I thought.

Just as it was growing dark, I happened to look toward the west, and saw several fires on a big island near what was called the Lone Tree, about a mile from where I had halted for the night. Thinking they were campfires of the soldiers I had heard were on the road from Denver, and anticipating and longing for a good cup of coffee, as I had had none for many days, and besides feeling very lonesome, knowing, too, the troops would be full of news, I felt good, and did not think or dream of anything else than my fond anticipation; in fact, was so wrapped up in my thoughts I was literally oblivious to my, surroundings. I was wild to hear the news and wanted a good supper, which I knew I would get in the soldiers' camp. The Arkansas was low, but the bank was steep, with high, rank grass growing to the very waters' edge. I found a buffalo trail cut through the steep bank, very narrow and precipitous. Down this I went, and arrived within a little distance of my supposed soldiers' camp. When I got in the middle of a deep cut I looked across to the island, and saw a hundred little fires and something less than a thousand savages huddled around them. I slid back off my horse and by dint of great exertion worked him up the river bank as quietly and quickly as possible, then led him gently away out on the prairie.

My first impulse was not to go back to the cattle; but we needed them very badly; so I concluded to return to them, putting them on their feet mighty lively, without any noise. Then I started them, and, oh, dear, I was afraid to tread on a weed lest it would snap and bring the Indians down on my trail. Until I had put several miles between them and me I could not rest easy for a minute; and tired as I was, tired as were my horse and the cattle, I drove them twenty-five miles before I halted. Then daylight was upon me and I lay down and fell asleep. I was at what is known as Choteau's Island, a once famous place on the old Santa Fe trail.

Of course I had to let the cattle and my horse rest and fill themselves until the afternoon, but I did not sleep any longer myself. As I thought it was dangerous to remain too near the cattle, I walked up a big, dry sand creek that ran into the river at that point, and, after I had ascended it a couple of miles, found the banks very steep; in fact, they rose to a height of eighteen or twenty feet, and were sharply cut up by narrow trails made by the buffalo. Here I had an exciting adventure with a herd of buffalo, but will reserve the account of it for another chapter. Nothing further, of note, happened during the afternoon, and, resuming my journey, I finally arrived at the ranch without mishap. The day after I arrived at home I was obliged to start to Fort Lyon with fourteen or fifteen yoke of cattle and four or five wagons. A Mr. Ward volunteered to accompany me; and let me say right here, he was as brave a young man as it has ever been my fortune to know. He was true blue; a chip of the old block; a nephew of General Shelby; he might well be proud of his pluck. I coupled all the wagons together and strung all the fifteen yoke of oxen to them, and as young Ward could not drive the cattle he went along for company and helped me yoke up.

We made eighteen miles the first day and stopped at Pretty Encampment, one of the most celebrated camping places on the old Santa Fe trail, located at the foot of Salt Bottom. We yoked up the next morning several hours before daylight, as the moon was shining brightly; we wanted to cross the bottom before we ate breakfast. A few miles from the head of the bottom the trail diverges, one cutting across the bluff and the other following the Arkansas; we were on the lower one. Presently the stage came along, lumbering over the bluff, stopped, and called to us. I went to it, only a few hundred yards over to the other trail, when who should I see but my partner, Mr. B. F. Bigger, and four or five other men in the coach, besides the driver.

They all at once cried out, Bigger leading: "Go back with us, go back with us, or you will both be killed." I said: "Bigger, be a man; stop with us and defend your property; a lot of these cattle here belong to you; and besides you have a splendid rifle." He replied: "No, I must go to Aubrey to protect my wife and child." I answered: "My wife and children are there, too, in one of the strongest little forts in the country, six or eight men with them, and plenty of arms and ammunition; all the Indians on the plains cannot take them." He said: "You don't know how many Indians there are; they stopped the coach, took what they wanted in the way of blankets and ammunition, two or three six-shooters they found on the front seat, besides other things." I asked him why they didn't take his rifle, and he replied: "I reckon they would have done so, but we hid it." I said: "I wish they had; if you won't stop with us, loan us your gun; we have only one rifle and a six-shooter." He said: "No, leave the cattle and go back with us; they will be down on you in a little while." "Well, wait until I see Ward," I answered. "Be quick about it then," replied he. I went back to Ward and asked him what he wanted to do. I said: "You have nothing to gain and all to lose.

The people in the coach yonder say there are several hundred Indians above the bend; and while they are not actually on the warpath, they stopped the coach and robbed it, whipped the mules with their quirts until they got them on a dead run, then fired at them, and shot several arrows into the coach; some are still sticking into the back of it." Ward asked me what I was going to do. I said that a man might as well be dead as to lose his property, and I proposed to stay with it; "Maybe! we won't see an Indian." He replied: "I am going to stay with you." "God bless you for it," I said, "but it is asking too much of you." "Well, I am going to stay with you, anyhow." Then I motioned to the stage-driver to go on, and he did so right quickly. The cattle had all laid down in the yokes while we halted, but we soon hustled them up and started, feeling pretty blue.

We first held a little consultation, and then moved all the ammunition to the first wagon, on which Ward was to sit. I gave him the rifle; I had on a six-shooter and a belt full of cartridges, and we agreed to let the Indians take the grub and the blankets if they came, but that we would stay by our guns and ammunition. Ward said he would never get off the box containing the ammunition. We had proceeded about two miles, were awfully tired and hungry, had just driven out of the road to make a temporary camp, congratulating ourselves that we had missed the Indians, when here they came, two on their ponies at first. I said to Ward that we would lick these two; they dare not tackle us, but we had better keep right on and not go into camp. Ward raised his gun and motioned for them to keep off. They circled and went to the rear, when just over a little rise the whole business of them poured.

I pounded away and yelled at the cattle to keep them moving, but there were so many Indians they blocked the road, and we came to a standstill. They swarmed around us, and on all the wagons, but the front one; this Ward kept them off of. They took all of our grub and rope, but nothing else. After stringing their bows and making lots of threats and bluffs at us, they dropped a little behind and we drove off and left them. We hustled the cattle along five or six miles, when we came to a good place to water. Ward ran up on a bluff to see what had become of the savages, while I drove the cattle chained together to the river. Ward commenced to shout just as I reached the bank. The oxen got no water that day. I turned them around in a hurry, hitched on, and started. Ward said that the Indians were not more than three miles off, coming our way. We never made another halt until we were in sight of the lights on Commissary Hill, at old Fort Lyon, which we reached about one o'clock that night. I reported to the commanding officer the next morning, and we learned afterwards that these Indians had been on Sand Creek to bury the bones of their dead who were killed in the Chivington fight several years before. Only a week after our escape there was a general outbreak and war.

From Dodge City, the Cowboy Capital, by Robert M. Wright; Page © 2005, Ford County Historical Society, Dodge City, KS. Also see: Dodge City history.
Site author: George Laughead, manager, WWW-VL: United States History. Posted: 10 October 2005.

Return to the Kansas History Web Sites directory
or the Kansas Heritage Group
or the Ford County Historical Society.