Contrary to what the headline might indicate, this is not a "romance" novel. Rather, it's a lesson in group dynamics and also lends credence to that old saw that "it's an ill wind that doesn't blow somebody some good". You'll see what I mean as we go along.
When this incident happened in 1847, the Mexican War had progressed in Mexico and New Mexico for almost a year. Troops fighting there had not been paid since the war started. On June 8, 1847, Lt. John Love and a company of dragoons left Fort Leavenworth bound for Santa Fe and were given the responsibility of escorting paymaster Major Charles Bodine and his $350,000 in specie for the troops in New Mexico. There were approximately 80 troops in Lt. Love's command and the paymaster's caravan consisted of twelve wagons each pulled by six mules. The caravan was joined later by Indian Agent Thomas Fitzpatrick and Major John Dougherty, ex Indian Agent, who was under a government contract to deliver 550 head of beef cattle to New Mexico. Lt. Love's trip from Leavenworth to the Pawnee Fork crossing was fairly rapid and uneventful except at Council Grove where Major Dougherty's cattle stampeded. Most of the cattle were recovered, but evidently Maj. Dougherty had had enough cattle driving because he left them there to be taken on to Santa Fe with Lt. Col. Easton's Missouri volunteers and returned to Fort Leavenworth. Although there were plenty of Indian signs (including two fresh graves near Walnut Creek) after the column crossed the Little Arkansas, they were not attacked and reached the Pawnee Fork crossing on the Wet Route in the evening on June 23, 1847.
The Pawnee Fork had been flooding for several days before Lt. Love's arrival at the crossing. Two government contract wagon trains, hauling commissary supplies to Santa Fe, were camped on the north bank waiting for the water level to lower. A Mr. Hayden was wagon boss of one of the trains and a Mr. Fagen headed the other. There was also some traders' wagons (James S. Wethered's and Henry C. Miller's) as well as several other travelers waiting as well. On the opposite bank (south), a company of about 85 men including Col. Russell and his escort, an eastbound government train under a Mr. Bell and a Santa Fe trader named Coolidge and company were camped also waiting for the water to recede. One of the travelers with Col. Russell was Lewis Garrard who later wrote the book Wah-to-yah and the Taos Trail telling of his travels on the Santa Fe trail. Garrard was so anxious to hear the latest news from the states that he swam the swollen stream to visit with the men camped on the north side.
On the morning of June 23, the trains camped on the north side of the Pawnee were attacked by about 50 Kiowa and Comanche Indians, however they were able to corral their livestock in time to prevent any loss. One man was lanced in seven places, but recovered, and a couple others were wounded. The Indians broke of the attack and picked up one of their fallen comrades and left. The men in the south side camps were so busy watching the action across the Pawnee that they neglected to provide any security for their own animals. After breaking off the attack on the north side, the Indians reappeared across the stream and managed to stampede the grazing oxen. About 30 of the oxen were saved but 160 others were driven off. After driving the cattle for about two miles from the caravan, the Indians lanced them all and cut off their tails as trophies. A fur trader named Coolidge lost 27 of his 29 oxen. He had large wagons loaded with buffalo robes and hides with no animals to pull them and had to load as many packs as he could in Russell's wagons and send the rest to back to Fort Mann with the westbound trains for storage. Wagon Boss Bell had only 24 oxen left to pull their twenty-five wagons. They loaded as much property and provisions in three wagons and abandoned and burned the remaining wagons and property. Luckily, no one from the south side trains was injured in the fight. Late in the day on June 23, the Pawnee had receded enough that the south side trains were able to cross to the north side. They met with Lt. Love and his dragoons that evening and told him of the Comanche raid. Love promised to get revenge and the Bell, Coolidge, and Russell party moved on the east toward home.
In the next issue of Traces, we'll see if Lt. Love was able to keep his promise of revenge on the Comanches. We'll also see how one Wagonmaster's stubbornness and failure to follow orders was very costly and how one trader was able to survive a disastrous situation.
In the previous issue of Traces we read about the Indian attack on the morning of June 23, 1847 on an eastbound wagon train on the south side of Pawnee Fork crossing. Luckily there were no fatal injuries to any of the men in the caravan primarily because most of the teamsters were green and had not been involved in a fight before and failed to put up any resistance. They did, however lose many of their draft animals and were forced to abandon much of their cargoes and burn several of their wagons. Later in the day, the Pawnee had receded enough that they were able to cross. They met with Lieutenant Love and his dragoons that evening and told him of the Comanche raid. Love promised to extract revenge and the Bell, Coolidge, and Russell caravan moved on eastward.
There were two government contract wagon trains, some traders' wagons, and several other travelers camped on the north bank of the Pawnee who were also waiting for the water level to lower so they could cross. A Mr. Hayden was wagon boss of one of the government trains and Mr. Fagan was boss of the other. The trader's wagons belonged to James S. Wethered and Henry C. Miller. After making camp, Lt. Love, for safety in numbers reasons, determined to take the two government trains under his control and travel with them to Santa Fe. He gave strict orders to the wagon masters to stay close and travel and camp together for the rest of the trip or at least until they were out of danger of Indian attack. Mr. Fagan was agreeable. Mr. Hayden, however, who had been described as being a stubborn and taciturn fellow, was hateful and resentful. He felt that since he was not actually in the military but was merely under contract to the army, he was not required to obey military orders. Lt.Love told him he had better obey since he should not run the risk of Indian attack and the loss of the valuable government property he was hauling.
At dawn on the morning of June 24, Lt. Love's command and the two government trains started their crossing of the Pawnee Fork. It was an extremely slow and difficult crossing because of the muddy conditions caused by the recent rains and high water. They made it across without any trouble, however, and camped on the south bank and made ready to get underway again on the following morning.
After grazing the oxen, mules, and horses at sun-up on June 25th, the wagons were hitched and riders mounted up and the long column slowly got underway. Apparently Hayden didn't want to eat any of the other's dust because he hurried to get in front and leave them behind. He was heard to remark to his men that "if those gentlemen in the rear camped near him that night they would have to travel after dark." Because of the large number of animals, Love decided to take the caravan down the Wet Route. The caravan traveled a little over sixteen and a half miles that day and reached Plain Camp (Site C5 in your Directory of Santa Fe Trail Sites) before sundown. That's a pretty fair days march for a large wagon train considering they would have had to make the Coon Creek crossing on the Wet Route (Site C4). Hayden was out of sight for most of the day and when the rest of the caravan caught up with him he had circled his wagons and made camp nearly a mile west of the Arkansas, five hundred yards beyond Love's camp which was next to the river. Fagan's camp was also next to the river but about 300 to 400 yards to the rear of Love's camp. Lt. Love knew that Hayden was leaving his wagons wide open to an Indian attack by choosing to camp so far from the rest of the caravan but it was too late to make him move. He planned to deliver a stern lecture to him the following morning and insist that he abide by his orders during the rest of the trip.
At dawn the next morning, Saturday, June 26, Hayden's teamsters opened their corralled wagons and began letting the oxen out to graze. All appeared to be quiet and peaceful as they herded the cattle westward to the higher ground to get the good grass. Shortly, as the cattle reached the edge of the river valley, all hell broke loose. Suddenly the air was filled with blood curdling screams as Comanches on horses with shields and lances began rising from the grass all around. Other painted warriors rose out of the ravine of nearby Coon Creek and charged down on the frightened cattle. The Indians were wearing buffalo-horn helmets and had rattles either in their hands or tied to their horse's tails and were shaking buffalo robes. The combined noise of the shrieking Indians with their rattles and popping buffalo robes started the cattle to stampeding. Some of the Indians rode in among the stampeding oxen and lanced a few of them. The noise, the smell of blood, and the charging Indians combined to drive the oxen away from the wagons camped in the river valley. The herders tried valiantly to stop the stampede and gain control but were unable to do so. Failing that, they attempted to line up between the Indians and the fleeing cattle but the Indians charged through their line and wounded three of them with lances.
As was his custom, Love had risen early and rode his horse up to high ground and with his telescope reconnoitered the surrounding country before turning the company's horses out to graze. When he observed the big ado at Hayden's camp he high-tailed it back to camp and ordered his men to saddle up and follow him after the stampeding oxen. Just as they were about to ride out, another group of about 200 Comanches was observed on the southeast side of the Arkansas getting ready to attack the camp as soon as the dragoons had gone. Knowing that his first responsibility was to protect Major Bodine's paymaster's outfit, Lt. Love was forced to divide his troops. He sent twenty-five men under the command of Sgt. Ben Bishop to go after the Indians and recapture the stampeding oxen from Hayden's camp. The rest of the dragoons were stationed around the camp to ward off the expected attack from across the river.
Sgt. Bishop and his men immediately raced after the Indians and fleeing cattle who by this time were across Coon Creek about a mile west of the camp. When they were within 150 or so yards of them, he halted his troops and formed a line for a charge. Bishop and his 25 troopers galloped directly at the 250 to 300 warriors who were driving Hayden's oxen out onto the plains. The clever Indians at first appeared to be retreating and thus drawing Bishop's force further away from the protection of the camp. To make matters worse, the Indians on the southeast side of the river, instead of attacking Love's camp, crossed the river and started after Bishop and his men. When Hayden's herdsmen became aware of this additional Indian threat, they got scared out and headed back to their camp and left Bishop and his 25 man force to face the Comanches all alone.
The soldiers were forced into hand-to-hand fighting with sabers against the overwhelming odds of nearly 500 mounted warriors. The dragoon's horses were fine animals but were new to combat. The noise and confusion of battle panicked many of them and made them unmanageable. The soldiers defended themselves as best they could, but five of them were killed and six were wounded, four severely. Their only hope for survival was to retreat. They broke through the horde of warriors and, without looking back, rode as fast as they could toward their camp. When they got within gunshot range of the three camps, the Comanches broke off the chase. The Indians scalped three of the dead troopers, cut the throat of one from ear to ear, and sliced the ears off another. After they had scavenged the arms, equipment, horses, ammunition, and uniforms of the dead troopers, the Comanches left the area taking the oxen from Hayden's train with them. From the time Bishop and his troops first galloped after the Indians until their return to camp, the Battle of Love's defeat lasted about 20 minutes.
Hayden said that before turning his cattle out to graze, he had climbed up on a wagon tire to survey the countryside, but saw nothing. After the battle he went out to look at the area where the Indians first appeared. He found the depressions in the grass where they had managed to sneak in and hide in the hours before dawn. The Comanches succeeded in driving off 130 yoke of oxen from Hayden's train as well as 30 yoke belonging to the trader Henry C. Miller. The bodies of the dead soldiers were buried in graves beside the Road to Santa Fe. Some were found to have as many as 14 wounds from lances and many were mutilated after death. The two government wagon trains, along with Lt. Love and his dragoons had to remain camped where they were until July 2 in order to allow the wounded soldiers time to recover enough to travel.
On the morning of June 27, the next day after the battle, a small train was spotted up on the Dry Route traveling eastward. There were eight wagons in this train as well as a large number of extra mules. The train, captained by Solomon Houck, included the traders James J. Webb, Cornelius Davy, Christopher C. Branham and Branham's brother. Also traveling with the Houck train was a Taos trader named Peter Joseph who was on his way to the states to purchase merchandise for his mercantile business in Taos. Lt. Love and Fitzpatrick rode up to meet the train and told of their battle with the Comanches. They also told of the plight of the trader Henry C. Miller who had all his money invested in his two wagonloads of trade goods and was facing bankruptcy if he could not get his merchandise to Santa Fe. Can you feel those "ill winds" starting to blow?
The eastbound Houck train turned off the Dry Route, crossed Coon Creek and went into camp at Plain Camp with Love's caravan. You guessed it. During the afternoon, Joseph and Miller started dealing. Soon they struck a bargain and Joseph bought Miller's wagons, trade goods, and ox yokes. Joseph made another deal with Houck for enough mules and harness to pull his newly purchased, two wagon train back to New Mexico. Joseph was money and time ahead by not having to travel on to Missouri. Miller, his bankruptcy problem solved, happily returned to Missouri with Houck and company.
The wounded were healed up enough to travel on the 2nd of July so Hayden borrowed enough oxen from Fagan to pull 13 of his wagons. They cached 180 ox yokes at the campsite and left 17 wagons behind and headed for Fort Mann. Fort Mann was abandoned but Hayden and his men and wagons were left there to await the arrival of additional oxen from Santa Fe. Lt. Love and his dragoons and all the others moved on to Santa Fe, arriving there without further incident on August 6.
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