Dick Curtis - Interpreter
All But Forgotten

     Associated with the celebrated Hancock Expedition over a portion of the Santa Fe Trail in 1867 were a number of army notables who had made their mark in the Civil War. Chief among these personalities was, of course, Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, hero of Gettysburg. Assigned to Hancock's command were George Armstrong Custer, Alfred Gibbs, Andrew Jackson Smith, and John W. Davidson, each of whom had been brevetted to the rank of major general for meritorious service during the war.

     Two civilians, frontier figures who had also served the Union during the war, accompanied the expedition: James Butler Hickok, scout, and Edward W. Wynkoop, Indian Agent. [1] Another civilian of some note was Edmond Guerrier, the half-breed son of William Guerrier, a Bent associate, and the husband of William Bent's youngest daughter, Julia. Were it not for Guerrier, another interpreter associated with the expedition might well have escaped notice. During a 1916 interview, Guerrier recalled, "Dick Curtis the interpreter was there." Guerrier's brief reference was to Theodore Richard Curtis, commonly known as Dick. [2]

     Biographical information with regard to Curtis is scant. His name first appears in connection with trading activities on the North Platte in 1847. There Curtis took a Lakota wife known among the whites as Winty. By her own deposition, she was the sister of Red Cloud, the renowned Oglala chief. In subsequent years, according to historian Larry Skagen, "She and their children shared T. R.'s peripatetic life." Moving from the North Platte to the Arkansas, Curtis was engaged in several pursuits. In 1855 he was appointed interpreter for the Kiowas with the Upper Arkansas Agency; and in 1863 he and Frank Cole purchased a trading ranch at the great bend of the Arkansas near present Ellinwood, Kansas, from William "Buffalo Bill" Mathewson. [3] Cole was left with the management of the ranch as Curtis was in residence at Fort Larned maintaining his employment as interpreter. In 1864 the Curtis/Cole ranch came to a climactic close on May 17. Cheyennes, seeking retaliation for the unprovoked killing of Chief Lean Bear on the previous day northwest of Fort Larned by Colorado Volunteers commanded by Lieutenant George S. Eayre, arrived at the ranch. There they took four mules, nine horses, and a jackass. The warriors made it known to Cole that they intended to return and kill all white men in the area. Taking the Cheyennes at their word, Cole loaded all the merchandise he could carry in a single wagon and hurried eastward to the safety of the Cow Creek ranch operated by William Mathewson. Mathewson's arsenal included a cannon, and his ranch was reinforced by a number of employees. As promised, the Cheyennes returned to the Curt's/Cole ranch, looting the abandoned store and damaging the buildings and corrals. [4]

     Subsequent to the demise of the ranch, Curtis continued to serve as interpreter at Fort Larned, but data with respect to his activities beyond 1864 are limited. In July 1865 Curtis filed a claim in accordance with the Indian Depredation Act for losses to the Kiowas. In the autumn of 1865 Curtis served as chief scout for General William T. Sherman and the Peace Commission that negoiated the Treaty of the Little Arkansas with the Kiowas, Comanches, Cheyennes, Arapahoes, and Plains Apaches in October. In 1867 he received a partial allowance for claims he made on behalf of himself and deceased partner Frank Cole resulting from the 1864 raids on their ranch at the big bend. [5] Theodore Davis, illustrator and journalist with the Hancock Expedition, published a sketch of Curtis and Wynkoop posed in hunting attire in the May 11, 1867, Harper's Weekly. There is Guerrier's statement of his participation in the 1867 expedition. Louise Barry places him still at Fort Larned in 1868. [6] Evidently, in the same year, he served a brief stint as interpreter at Fort Lyon before moving to Camp Supply. At Camp Supply Curtis interviewed the Cheyenne prisoners captured by Custer's troops at the Washita on November 27, 1868. He remained at Camp Supply as chief interpreter and was engaged in business with James Richmond. He died at Camp Supply in 1876. [7]

     Following Curtis's death, Winty and the children moved near Darlington, Indian Territory. By 1889 the family had become destitute, and Winty sought the assistance of John D. Miles, former Cheyenne/Arapaho Indian Agent, in gaining some settlement for Indian depredation claims filed by her husband. Curtis had filed over the years four such claims: two in conjunction with Frank Cole, one in conjunction with James Richmond, and one in his own behalf. Finally, in 1915, the year before Guerrier recalled his participation in the Hancock Expedition; Winty was awarded $1,445 to settle the claim Curtis had filed against the Kiowas in 1865. Even then the monies were not granted until 1917. How ironic that Curtis's wife, an American Indian, did after 52 years receive such a settlement by means of a law intended to compensate white victims. [8]

Footnotes

  1. Francis B. Heitman, Historical Register and Dictionary of The United States Army (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1903), 348, 355, 452-453, 894; Robert M. Utley (ed.), Life in Custer's Cavalry: Diaries and Letters of Albert and Jennie Barritz, 1867-1868 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1977), 255-256, 259, 260, 262-263, 276-277, 282; William E Connelley, "Wild Bill-James Butler Hickok," Kansas Historical Collections, 17 (1926-1928): 26; David Lavender, Bent's Fort (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1954), 349.

  2. Hancock Guerrier interview, October 24, 1916, Camp Mss. Field Footnotes, Walter Mason Camp Unclassified, Envelope 3, Camp Mss. Transcripts, Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.

  3. Larry C. Skogen, Indian Depredation Claims, 1706-1920 (University of Oklahoma Press, 1996), 119, 239n7l.

  4. Louise Barry, "The Ranch At The Great Bend," Kansas Historical Quarterly, 39 (Spring 1973): 96-100; Louise Barry, "The Ranch At Cow Creek Crossing (Beach Valley P.O.)," Kansas Historical Quarterly, 38 (Winter 1972): 432-433.

  5. Skogen, Indian Depredation Claims, 118.

  6. Barry, "The Ranch At The Great Bend," 97-99.

  7. Skogen, Indian Depredation Claims, 119.

  8. Ibid., 118-119.
    Used With Permission of the Author
    David Clapsaddle

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