Indian Attack on Charles Bent
Bear Creek Pass
Bear Creek Pass
Bear Creek Pass on the Cimarron Cutoff
of the Santa Fe Trail

     The First United States military aid extended to the Santa Fe traders was in the form of escorts, the troops accompanying the traders through Indian country, but remaining permanently stationed in Missouri, Indian Territory, or at Fort Leavenworth on the Missouri River. In other words, instead of guarding the Trail, as the later military posts did, the military escorts guarded only the trade caravans which they accompanied.

     There were at least six such United States Army escorts during the pre-Mexican War era: [1]
1. 1829 -- Major Bennet Riley and four companies of Sixth Infantry,
2. 1833 -- Captain William N. Wickliffe and a few soldiers of the Sixth Infantry and Captain Matthew Duncan's company of United States Mounted Rangers,
3. 1834 -- Captain Clifton Wharton and a company of the Regiment of Dragoons,
4. Spring, 1843 -- Captain Philip St. George Cooke and four companies of First Dragoons,
5. Autumn, 1843 -- Captain Cooke and six companies of First Dragoons, and
6. 1845 -- return escort provided by Colonel Stephen Watts Kearny and the First Dragoons, following their expedition to South Pass on the Oregon Trail. [2]

     Indians, as mentioned above, began to harass the Santa Fe traders soon after the Trail was opened. Nevertheless, it was relatively peaceful along the route until 1828. In that year the large number of traders who journeyed to Santa Fe experienced frequent Indian attacks and sustained heavy losses. Two eastward-bound caravans alone lost several men and $40,000 worth of property.

     These Indian outrages led to demands by the traders, Missouri Governor John Miller, and the Missouri legislature for the federal government to furnish military protection for the Santa Fe trade. [3] Senator Benton pushed for passage of a bill to provide escorts, but Congress adjourned in March of 1829 without enacting the requested legislation.

     It appeared that the traders would receive no escorts, and many of them, reflecting upon the losses of the previous year, were unwilling to take the risks without some protection from the Indians. It seemed that the recently established Santa Fe trade might be terminated; however, some of those who had profited most were determined that the Indians would not close the Trail. A small group of leading proprietors, including Samuel C. Lamme and David Waldo, sent a direct appeal to the newly inaugurated president, Andrew Jackson, for military escort for the caravans as far as the boundary between the United States and Mexico.

     An old Indian fighter himself, President Jackson brought the request to the attention of the War Department, and orders were soon issued directing Brevet Major Bennet Riley and four companies of the Sixth Regiment, United States Infantry, to move from Jefferson Barracks at St. Louis to escort the 1829 caravan. [4] An announcement of the army's plans was published in Missouri newspapers, so that traders desirous of protection could take advantage of it. [5]

     Even after the federal government had come to the aid of the traders, many proprietors were hesitant about venturing into Indian country again. They doubted the effectiveness of infantry (the United States Army had no cavalry in 1829) in dealing with mounted Indians. [6] Also, they were concerned about the safety of the caravan while traveling without military protection from the Arkansas River through Mexican territory to Santa Fe. [7]

     Even with the promise of military protection halfway to Santa Fe, fear of losing life and property made the caravan of 1829 much smaller than the one a year earlier. In 1828 there had been about one hundred wagons and the value of merchandise was estimated at $150,000; in 1829 there were only thirty-eight wagons and merchandise worth $60,000. Only one-fourth as many proprietors and men made the journey in 1829 as had gone the previous year. [8]

     The four companies of infantry left Jefferson Barracks on May 5, 1829, and sailed on the steamboat Diana to Fort Leavenworth. This post had been founded in 1827 as part of the defense line along the Missouri River. [9] The escort departed from Leavenworth on June 3 to join the traders at their rendezvous, Round Grove, arriving there on June 11. Besides Major Riley, there were ten officers and about two hundred men in the battalion. [10]

     Transportation for the troops' twenty wagons of provisions and four carts of camp equipment presented a problem, because the battalion lacked funds to purchase enough horses and mules for them. It was finally decided to experiment with oxen (cheaper than horses or mules by about three to one), which had never been used for draft purposes on the Great Plains. Thus, the first military escort introduced these animals to the Trail. Moreover, after the caravan had reached the Arkansas crossing, the captain, Charles Bent, borrowed one yoke of oxen and used them the rest of the way to Santa Fe. Bent was pleased with their performance, even though on the return trip from Santa Fe the oxen strayed and were lost.

     The experiment proving successful, oxen became a regular sight on the Trail, although they never entirely replaced mules. By the time of the Mexican War, approximately half the draft animals used on the Trail were oxen, and, after the war, with army freighting and developing commercial freighting companies, oxen became the most frequently used means of locomotion. If the first escort did nothing more, it made a significant contribution by proving the efficiency of oxen on the plains.

     The troops and the caravan arrived at Council Grove on June 18 and departed two days later. They reached the Arkansas on June 27, and arrived at the Upper Crossing near Chouteau's Island on July 9. The traders had delayed crossing the river until reaching the westernmost route to the Cimarron in order to have the protection of the escort as far as possible. From Council Grove to Chouteau's Island, a march of twenty days, Indian signs appeared occasionally and six horses were lost, supposedly by Indian theft, but no direct contact occurred with the Indians of the region. As intended, the Indians apparently were overawed by the presence of the troops.

     The caravan crossed the Arkansas on July 10 and departed without the escort the following day. The traders hoped that Riley would accompany them into Mexican territory, but, as Cooke later reported, "Our orders were to march no farther; and as a protection to the trade, it was like the establishment of a ferry to the mid-channel of a river." [11] Before the two groups parted, Major Riley wrote a letter for the traders to present to the governor of New Mexico, informing him of the location of the troops and their orders. Pointing out that the trade was important to Mexico as well as the United States, Riley asked the Mexican government to provide an escort for the caravan's return to the Arkansas in the autumn. [12]

     Following the departure of the traders, the soldiers began to settle down into camp and to enjoy what they anticipated would be a period of restful waiting. The traders had estimated their return date at some time between October 5 and 10, so it appeared that the troops would have about three months of buffalo hunting and relaxation. However, the sojourn on the Arkansas proved to be much more taxing and dangerous than the long march to Chouteau's Island or the return march to Fort Leavenworth in the autumn.

     Before the first afternoon of welcome rest for the tired infantrymen had passed, a small party of traders rode hurriedly into their camp and announced that the caravan had been attacked in the sand hills about six miles south of the river, and that one of the proprietors, Samuel C. Lamme, had been killed. The frightened traders requested Riley and his troops to come to their aid, and, although it meant taking United States soldiers into Mexican territory, Riley did not delay. He led his command across the river and proceeded to the besieged caravan. Arriving at the train during the night and establishing a suitable guard, the soldiers witnessed the withdrawal of the Indians the following morning. The traders, fearing to continue without escort, begged Riley to accompany them onward. He complied, and escorted them for two days, to Drunken Creek (twenty-four miles from the scene of the attack), and then refused to go farther into foreign territory. After resting in camp for one day, the troops returned to the Arkansas and remained on the Mexican side for ten days before recrossing the river and going into camp opposite Chouteau's Island.

     For the duration of their encampment, the soldiers moved camp when necessary for cleanliness or to find grass for the oxen or buffalo for food. They were almost constantly harassed by Indians until August 11, but the remaining two months of their stay on the Arkansas were passed practically without incident. Since they were infantry, Riley and the soldiers found it extremely frustrating not to be able to give chase to the hostile Indians. As Riley reported, following the attack upon their camp on August 3:

     Think what our feelings must have been to see them going off with our cattle and horses [the officers had horses], when if we had been mounted, we could have beaten them to pieces; but we were obliged to content ourselves with whipping them from our camp. We did not get any of the killed or wounded, but we saw the next day where they had dragged them off. They have said since that our fire from the big gun [six-pound cannon] killed five or six. [13]

     About the last Indian attack upon the encamped infantrymen, August 11, Cooke later complained:

     "It was a humiliating condition to be surrounded by these rascally Indians, who, by means of their horses, could tantalize us with hopes of battle and elude our efforts; who could annoy us by preventing all individual excursions for hunting, &c., and who could insult us with impunity. Much did we regret that we were not mounted too." [14]

     Despite the limitations placed upon them because they were not mounted, the soldiers withstood the Indian attacks. The command lost only four men during the entire expedition. For defensive purposes they were effective and successful, but their experiences demonstrated the need for cavalry if they were ever to take the offense against the Indians. This lesson apparently had its effect, because the next escort was comprised of United States Mounted Rangers.

     From August 11 to October 11 the soldiers were busy preparing the wagons and carts for the return trip, standing guard, and obtaining their meat rations from the abundant buffalo herds. In addition to supplying their current needs for food, they were able to garner thirty-two days' provisions of dried buffalo meat for the return march.

     Major Riley had agreed, at the time of the traders' departure, to wait until October 10 for their return. When that day arrived and no caravan was in sight, he decided to remain in camp one more day. Early in the morning of October 11 the troops fired their cannon once and departed without the traders. They had not advanced far when they were overtaken by a party of riders from the caravan, who related that the train, accompanied by a command of Mexican soldiers, was only about one day's march behind them. Riley halted his command, went into camp, and sent Captain William N. Wickliffe and Lieutenant Francis J. Brooke back with a trader to escort the caravan to the camp. The traders and the Mexican troops arrived the following day.

     It was learned from the traders that, after leaving Riley's force on July 14, they had been harassed by Indians for forty days as they continued toward Santa Fe. But no more traders were killed and no property was stolen. Finally, a large number of Mexican buffalo hunters had joined the caravan for its protection, and additional assistance was sent out from Taos. As the number traveling in the train increased, the Indians became less daring, allowing the traders to proceed to Taos and on to Santa Fe.

     At Santa Fe, the traders' account of their difficulties plus the letter of request from Major Riley led an inspector general of the Mexican Army, Colonel Joss Antonio Vizcarra, to offer the services of a mounted escort for the return trip to the Arkansas. During their journey, the Mexican command lost three men during an Indian attack on the Cimarron River, but the traders suffered no losses.

     On October 14 the Mexicans departed for Santa Fe, and Riley's command, with the caravan, started for Missouri. The return march was free from Indian attack, and the caravan broke up and the escort ceased at the Little Arkansas River. Marching quickly because of the approaching winter, the soldiers reached Fort Leavenworth on November 8. They were a tired and tattered bunch of men, but, as a result of their experiences, much wiser about Plains Indians and military needs for escort duty along the Santa Fe Trail.

     Even though the 1829 escort was limited in its military operations against the Indians because it was not mounted, certain accomplishments indicate that the expedition was a success. It proved the efficiency of oxen on the plains. The trade caravan had experienced no Indian hostilities while under the charge of the soldiers. The command had adequately protected itself from Indian attacks while encamped on the Arkansas. A show of force at the Arkansas camp, while not completely restraining the Indians, finally taught them a healthy respect for American troops and artillery and caused them to leave the command unmolested for two months. The soldiers had subsisted upon buffalo meat and the small amount of provisions carried along. And it had been clearly demonstrated that mounted troops would be necessary to deal appropriately, especially offensively, with the hostile Indians who harassed the traders and travelers on the Trail. The expedition also demonstrated the need for securing co-operating Mexican escorts in conjunction with any such efforts in the future. [15]

     The effects of the expedition were felt in Washington, where Senator Benton submitted Major Riley's report to the Senate in 1830 in support of legislation to provide further protection for the Santa Fe trade. The report may have been influential in securing passage of an act, in 1832, establishing the United States Mounted Rangers. [16] Regardless of the report's influence, or lack of it, along these lines, the next escort on the Trail, in 1833, was comprised of mounted soldiers.

     After the successful escort venture of 1829, Secretary of War John H. Eaton immediately began planning for future protection of the Trail. [17] Commanding General of the Army Alexander Macomb also favored additional escorts, and he advocated converting eight companies of infantry into a mounted force to provide protection along the western frontier in general, as well as along the Santa Fe route. [18]

     In addition to this support from top officials in the War Department and the army, the people of Missouri again memorialized Congress to authorize military protection for the Trail, but no responsive action was taken. There appeared to be some thought that sending infantry again would be inadequate; at any rate, no more protection was provided until the army had a mounted force.

     Indian hostilities along the Trail probably helped to bring about the creation of a mounted force. Although no lives were lost during 1830, several men were killed along the route during 1831, including the famous fur trader and pathfinder, Jedediah Smith. In December of that year, Senator Benton introduced a bill to provide for a command of mounted volunteers to serve in the American West. Several reports pertaining to the fur trade and the trade with Mexico, submitted to the Senate early the following year, lent support to the bill. [19]

     Lewis Cass, recently appointed secretary of war, referring to Indian hostilities along the Trail, stated that "the only remedy for this, is to restrain the depredation of these Indians by an exhibition of our strength, or by prompt chastisement."[20] This and similar recommendations, plus the fact that the Black Hawk War was in progress, led to the creation of a new militia unit, the United States Mounted Rangers, June 15, 1832. [21] This six-company battalion of volunteers, which was authorized for only one year, served as a significant link between a United States Army with no mounted troops and an army with a permanent branch of cavalry, beginning in 1833. [22]

     The sixth and last company of the Rangers, commanded by Captain Matthew Duncan, was enlisted in October and November of 1832 and sent immediately to Fort Leavenworth. At about the same time the troops arrived at that post, the Indians again became active along the Trail. On January 1, 1833, twelve traders returning from Santa Fe to Missouri were attacked by a band of Kiowas on the Canadian River. The traders lost their string of pack mules, all supplies, two men, and most of the $10,000 to $12,000 in specie they carried. After being under siege for nearly thirty-two hours, the survivors managed to escape during the night. Five went in a northwesterly direction and finally arrived at a Creek Indian camp near the Arkansas River, where they were treated hospitably. The other five headed east; only two survived, and they did not reach a white settlement for forty-two days. By this time they were nearly starved. [23] This incident, which was reported in Niles' Register on March 23, 1833, probably helped secure the authorization for an escort for the 1833 caravan.

     Secretary of War Cass decided to provide protection for the spring caravan, and since the infantry had suffered limitations in handling the Indians, Captain Duncan's company of Rangers, assisted by two officers, twenty-five privates, and one piece of field artillery from the Sixth Infantry, was selected for the escort. Captain Wickliffe, Sixth Infantry, who had served with the 1829 escort, was placed in command of the expedition.

     Initially, Major Henry Dodge, commanding officer of the Mounted Rangers, had ordered Captain Duncan to proceed with the caravan to the Arkansas Crossing and remain there for its return in the autumn. However, General Henry Atkinson, commanding the Department of the West, after taking charge of provisioning the escort, changed the orders. Instead of requiring the troops to remain on the Arkansas, he instructed them to accompany the traders to the Mexican boundary and then return immediately to Fort Leavenworth. He also placed Captain Wickliffe in charge of the escort and sent the accompanying soldiers from the Sixth Infantry. [24]

     Major Bennet Riley, who had led the 1829 escort and had since been advanced to the position of commander of Fort Leavenworth, put the escort troops through two weeks of training. Then on May 22, 1833, he instructed Captain Wickliffe to take his unit to Round Grove and join the caravan. The total command was made up of 144 officers and men, five supply wagons, and the piece of field artillery and its accompanying ammunition wagon. The soldiers arrived at Round Grove on May 23, and found that the rendezvous was scheduled for Council Grove. They marched on immediately, but did not reach their destination until June 13 because rainy weather forced them to limit their daily marches. There they found the caravan, which consisted of 184 men, 103 vehicles, and commodities valued at approximately $100,000. [25]

     The proprietors of the caravan were unable to agree upon a captain for the journey while at Council Grove, so, after a few days delay, they moved to Diamond Spring. Arriving there on June 20, the traders finally resolved their differences and selected Charles Bent as captain. From Diamond Spring to the Arkansas River, with the escort preceding the caravan, nothing of note occurred, and no Indians were met. The party reached the Great Bend of the Arkansas on July 2. Attempting to follow the Dry Route beyond Pawnee Fork, the soldiers wandered from the Trail and did not reach the river again until July 6. On July 10 they arrived at the Lower Crossing, where the traders decided to cross, and the following day the caravan proceeded toward Santa Fe while the soldiers began their return journey. Experiencing no difficulties, they arrived at Fort Leavenworth on August 4.

     Since the 1833 escort had apparently prevented the Indians from harassing the caravan, plans were made to repeat protection of the Trail the following year. [26] General Henry Leavenworth, soon after his arrival at Fort Gibson, Cherokee Territory, in April, 1834, instructed the commanding officer of the newly organized Regiment of Dragoons, Colonel Henry Dodge, to furnish the 1834 caravan with an escort.

     General Leavenworth sent Lieutenant John Henry K. Burgwin to Missouri to communicate with the traders, inquire whether or not they desired an escort, and find out when they planned to depart for New Mexico. Meanwhile, Colonel Dodge ordered Company A, Regiment of Dragoons, commanded by Captain Clifton Wharton, to proceed to the Cow Creek crossing of the Santa Fe Trail and to escort the caravan from that point to "the supposed boundary of the U. States."[27]

     About fifty Dragoons departed Fort Gibson on May 13 and headed for Cow Creek. While en route they met Lieutenant Burgwin, who informed Wharton that the traders desired the escort and, if he did not suffer serious delays, he should intercept the caravan on the Trail. Wharton decided to take a more direct route to the Trail rather than continue toward Cow Creek, and his command arrived at the crossing of Cottonwood Creek on June 3.

     The caravan, consisting of 160 men and 80 wagons, with goods valued at $150,000, had traveled under the captaincy of Josiah Gregg, arriving at the crossing on June 8. The traders and the soldiers proceeded the following day. Nothing out of the ordinary occurred between Cottonwood Creek and Walnut Creek, where the party arrived on June 17.

     Unlike the mounted escort of the previous year, the Dragoons had some contact with Indians. At Walnut Creek Indians were sighted approaching the camp during the night. They were fired upon by the guards, and the command prepared for an attack, but none occurred. The next day a band of Kansas Indians visited the encampment. Captain Wharton talked with them, even though some of the traders insisted that the troops should fire upon the Indians and others demanded that the band not be allowed to come near the caravan. The Indians, who displayed a copy of the treaty made with them in 1825, asked Wharton to read it to them and pledge their continued observance of its stipulations. Although the Indians denied having approached the camp the previous night, Wharton was certain they were the same ones. The presence of the troops and their alert guards had frustrated what might have been an attempt to rob the caravan and had averted a possible attack. The presence of the escort was probably responsible, also, for the friendly visit and peaceful pledges of the following day.

     The traders and soldiers continued their march on June 19, and no Indians were sighted until they approached the Cimarron Crossing of the Arkansas on the morning of June 26. There a band of approximately one hundred Comanches were encountered, who exhibited a friendly attitude. Hoping to hold council with the Comanches, Captain Wharton, Captain Gregg, another Dragoon officer, and an interpreter crossed the Arkansas to meet with five Indians who had motioned to them to cross over. The Indians invited the party to their encampment for a feast, but, before the conversation had proceeded very far, the crossing of a number of curious onlookers from the caravan alarmed the Indians, Finding that the Indians were uneasy and that their principal chief was absent at the time, Captain Wharton proposed that, later in the day, "five individuals of each party and only five, should meet on their side of the river with a view of having a friendly talk and a Smoke."[28]
Used With Permisssion of the Author:
Leo Oliva

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