The tourist, who today, with all the luxuriance of modern railway appointments at his service, crosses the continent via the "Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe" route, will notice nearly midway between the Missouri and the "Foot Hills" of the Rocky Mountains not far from the geographical center of the phenomenal State of Kansas, an isolated, rugged mass of brown sandstone rising abruptly from the painfully level prairie surrounding it.
As the train stops at the thriving little village which has sprung up there, since the advent of the railroad in 1872, should our tourist's curiosity provoke the question, the conductor will tell him: "This is Pawnee Rock" a classic spot in the Indian history of the "Great Plains." In the early Fall, when the "Rock" is enveloped in the soft amber haze of the incomparable Indian Summer of our midcontinent region in this latitude; or in the nascent Spring, when the mirage fashions its wired and mysterious forms out of the landscape, it looms up in the anamalous atmosphere like a huge mountain, and when viewed from the distance of a few miles, to the unexperienced eye on the prairie, appears as if it were the terminal point of the well defined range.
But when the frost comes, and the mist is dispelled, or when the thin fringe of timber on the Walnut not far away has doffed its emerald mantle, and the grass has grown yellow and rusty then in the golden sunlight of Winter, the "Rock" sinks apparently to it natural proportions, cutting the clear blue sky with sharply marked outlines.
In the Summer, when the sun has reached its solstitial point, the precipitous front of the south side of the "Rock" casts a deep shadow for several hours during the day immediately over the broad trail which was the highway for hundreds of years, of all the "Prairie Tribes" on their periodical hunts to the feeding grounds of the buffalo southward across the Canadian, and northward, far beyond the Platte. In the gloom to, of its sombre and rough hewn face not a hundred rods away the "Santa Fe Trail" that once great international roadway now a mere memory passed.
If this giant sentinel of the "Plains" could speak, what an annalist it would be of the terrible events that have occurred on the beautiful prairie stretching out almost interminably at its feet?
All over its scarred and storm beaten front carved in quaint and rude lettering, are the names of hundreds of adventurers, who in the early years of its history made the dangerous and exciting journey of the "Old Santa Fe Trail."
Under the shadow of "Pawnee Rock;" perhaps Coronado, the celebrated, but unfortunate Spanish explorer, and his little band of faithful followers rested on their lonely march in search of the mythical Quivira? The "Rock" is all, probably, that remains intact, upon which the adventurous Spaniards looked; for the mighty interval of nearly four hundred years must have relegated all else trees, water courses, and the entire physical landscape, to the domain of vast modification, if not absolute change and this iron bound hill, whose unsusceptibility to mutation, is almost as the earth itself the only witness of their heroic expeditions.
Today this historic headland looks down only upon peaceful homes and fruitful fields; where for hundreds of years its record was almost ceaseless battle, or revengeful combat; where every rod of the brown sod at its base covered a sanguinary grave; where there was nothing but the awful shadow of the struggle unto death; in place of the horrid yell of the savage as he wrenched the reeking scalp from his vanquished victim, the whistle of the locomotive and the cheering whirr of the reaping machine is heard; where the death cry of the painted warrior rang mournfully over the echoless prairies, the waving grain is singing in synchronous rhythm as it bends to the summer breeze.
Frequently in the opening spring, or before the wheat planting in the early Fall, for several years during the first settlement of the country in the vicinity of "Pawnee Rock" the skeletons of those killed in the decades of long ago sometimes the bones of the White man, oftener those of the Red man, were plowed up; and even now, when new fields are opened , the Sphinx like secrets of this ancient battleground are gradually unfolded a strange discovery, for the "Great Plains" like the ocean, rarely restores its dead.
During the half century included from 1823-73, which latter date marked the advent of the railroad in this portion of Kansas "Pawnee Rock" was the most dangerous place on all the Central Plains for encounters with Indians, for at that particular point on the great international "trail," the Pawnees, Kiowas, Arrapahoes and Cheyennes made their not infrequently successful raids upon the "pack" or wagon trains of the freighters across the continent.
Those of the last generation, who studied the geographies of their date, well remember that most exciting and sensational of all the illustrations to their boyish minds at least which represented the "Santa Fe Traders attacked by Indians," in that mythical locality, laid down on the accompanying map, as: "The Great American Desert" but that was many years ago, and such scenes as the text books then so vividly portrayed, have ended forever.
The now obliterated "trails" then leading in every direction from "Pawnee Rock" where mute witnesses of desperate adventures that always resulted in tragic death, and a volume might be written, where it possible to gather the annals which twenty years ago circulated in legendary form among the old "Plainsmen" but they have, unfortunately passed away, and much that would be of intensely thrilling interest in our "American Classics" has been irrevocably lost.
In those primitive days of the "Border," "Kit Carson," Lucien B. Maxwell, "Old John Smith," Colonel St. Vrain, the Bents and the Boones the latter lineal descendants of the pioneer hero of Kentucky with other famous frontiermen, commenced their eventful lives in the "Far West" mere boys then, but whose exploits have since made for them a world wide reputation.
All those whose names I have mentioned are dead died with" harness on," and on the confines of that civilization which has already closed up the gap to the very crest of the mountains amidst which there would soon have been nothing congenial, so they passed away while there yet remained primeval prairies and quiet streams.
"Kit" one of the most noble men whom it has been my fortune to know, is sleeping peacefully under his unpretentious monument in the quaint and old city of Taos, his beloved home in New Mexico. "Uncle John Smith" lies under the gnarled and knotted cottonwooods in the Cheyenne country, by which tribe he was adopted more than fifty years ago.
Col. A. G. Boone, one of the best authorities on the Indian question, a rare gentlemen of the old school, died in Denver only a few years since.
Colonel St. Vrain, a grand old Frenchman, has long since passed away he was one of the earliest voyageurs, trappers and merchants in the busy days of the "Santa Fe Trail;" for many years retired, and enjoying his wealth in El Moro, a quaint Mexican town, where I knew him a quarter of a century ago, and where he entertained royally his many friends, with all the natural politeness inseparable from his race.
He it was, who in 1823 picked up Kit Carson, a mere boy then about seventeen years old, and introduced him to the mysteries and infatuation of the Great Plains, which that celebrated man never left until he laid down his life.
It was early in the year referred to, a large train of wagons and pack mules, the property of Colonel St. Vrain, in charge of the old gentleman himself, was loading at "Osage Mission" and destined for far off "Santa Fe." Short of a hunter for the expedition, Kit, who was an excellent shot from his boyhood days, presented himself, and the colonel, who was an excellent judge of human nature, was immediately impressed with the wiry, honest looking young man and he was employed on the spot.
The duties were, to be the hunter for the whole outfit, although it was understood, of course, that in case of trouble with the Indians a not at all improbable contingency, his rifle was to be depended upon. After two or three days delay incident to a weary trip across the "Treat Plains" in those early times, the train was ready, and one bright morning in May the venturesome little expedition pulled out.
In a week, after a series of insignificant difficulties, they reached the broad sweep of country stretching from the valley of the Cottonwood, where Emporia is now located, and where soon rolling across the magnificent prairies westward.
Kit, who rode on a wiry Indian pony, and had another already saddled, tied to the rear wagon for use in case a herd of buffalo came in sight, was charmed with the magnificent distances spread out before him, and his deep love for the prairies commenced on this initial trip.
When a bunch of the huge animals were discovered, Kit would mount his extra animal and after them. As soon as the buffalo were aware of his coming they would raise their heads, give a few short sniffs and then make a rush for the river or the bluffs, as the case might be.
Singling out a fine young cow, he would dash among the frightened animals and ride alongside in a short quick lope, keeping time with the pace of the beast. Then a thin puff of blue smoke seen by the men in the train announced that they were to have fresh meat for supper; the wagons halted, and one was sent out and by the time it reached the spot Kit had the buffalo skinned and its carcass cut up ready for transportation.
Not more than two or three were killed in this manner in a single day, and even then much of it was thrown out on the prairie food for the wolves but they were never without meat on the whole trip.
Nothing of special interest occurred until the train approached the vicinity of "Pawnee Rock," then a dozen miles perhaps, east of the "Rock" itself, about twenty Pawnees rushed out of the sand hills south of the Arkansas, and circled around the train with all the demonstration of an intended attack, but the wily savages measuring the strength of their opponents at a glance, soon discovered that they were outnumbered and kept at such a safe distance, that a few shots fired at them showed that they were will out of range, and the balls from the teamster's rifles fell far short of their mark. After a series of harmless yells and a few energetic shakes of their blankets, the Indians retired across the river and the train moved on, proposing to camp at the "Rock."
The Colonel now cautioned his men to be very wary and watchful as no doubt the devils would return with a larger force and attempt to stampede the mules, as it was the animals they wanted more than scalps, though they would not hesitate to gather a few of the latter if opportunities offered.
The "Rock" was reached about four o'clock, and preparations made to more effectually check the Indians if they returned, which was sure to be the case, so a corral was formed into which the mules were to be driven.
Scarcely had these cautionary steps been commenced for all the animals were not yet unharnessed when with an unearthly yell about sixty Pawnees charged down from the divide on the north, and with a terrific waving of their robes attempted to stamped the mules and at the same time threw a shower of arrows into the camp, interspersed with a few shots from their old fashioned guns as rapidly as all this transpired two of the teamsters were killed out right, four or five wounded, and seven mules of the pack train stampeded down the prairie towards the Arkansas.
Some of the men, however, among them the Colonel and Kit, who were on the alert when the Indians made the charge, cooly fired into the yelling Pawnees, and laid three of them dead on the grass.
The Indians cleared out at once without making any effort to recover the corpses of their friends and drove the seven stampeded mules across the river and soon disappeared among the sandhills.
The corral was now completed, and all the mules but Kit's driven into it; he picketed his at the south side of the rock, where the grass was quite tall, intending to watch it himself.
Before supper was ready, the dead teamsters were buried and a pile of rocks placed over their graves to prevent the wolves from digging them up the Indians were dragged a short distance from the camp and left on the prairie.
After their evening meal was finished all set about to repair the damages that had occurred during the excitement of the hurried little skirmish; several tongues had been broken, some of the sheets had been torn from the wagons and many of the saddles and other gear, halters and parts of the packing outfit had been pulled apart and torn by the half unharnessed animals, that nearly frightened to death had reared and plunged, pitched, kicked and pulled while the Indians were yelling and the shots were fired scattering destruction among the train.
The first duty therefore, was to get things in ship shape again for the continuance of the journey tomorrow, so thread and awls, pieces of leather, new tongues and a hundred other little things were brought out from their hiding places, and it was dark before all the damage had been repaired and the men were ready to turn in and enjoy the rest and sleep that was so much needed.
After the animals had all been watered and fed, they were driven into the corral and secured by rawhide hobbles to prevent their escape if they were stampeded. Kit's mule however, was left picketed at the foot of the rock, where at dark Kit himself was posted as sentry; three or four of the other were stationed at different point beyond and outside the circle of wagons, and cautioned by the Colonel to be particularly vigilant, especially about daybreak.
All had retired but those on guard and were sleeping soundly, when about midnight the alarm Indians! was given, and the whole camp turned out; just at that moment a rifle shot was heard at the "Rock," and Kit came down to join the crowd shouting "I've Killed one, I've Killed one."
The whole affair proved to be false, there were no Indians, some one had a fit of nightmare and thinking he was fighting the Pawnees gave the alarm. Quiet was restored in a few moments, and all wondered what Kit had shot; he declared that something had risen up out of the grass and he had fired at it when the cry "Indians" was given.
The next morning, of course, all were anxious to see Kit's dead Indian, and went out en masse to the "Rock" where instead of finding a painted "Pawnee," they found Kit's mule dead shot through the head!
Kit felt terribly mortified over his ridiculous blunder, and it was a long time before he heard the last of his night raid on the mule. He said while he thought it was an Indian it was a "center shot" anyway" for the mule never moved after he was hit.
Just as they were going to breakfast after their visit to the dead mule the Pawnees attacked the train in earnest, which kept the little outfit busy all that day, the next day, and until the midnight following nearly three whole days the mules all the time shut up in the corral without food or water. As soon as daybreak had come, and the Indians left, they hitched up and reached the crossing of "Pawnee Fork" (where Larned is now located).
The old trail at that point crossed the creek in the shape of a horse shoe, or rather, in consequence of the double bend of the stream as it empties into the Arkansas, the road crossed it twice; in making this crooked passage many of the wagons were mashed up in the creek because the mules were so thirsty that their drivers could not control them, and the train was hardly strung out on the opposite bank when the Indians, who had followed them poured in a volley on both sides of the trail, but before they could reload and fire again, a charge was made among them headed by the gallant old Colonel, and it took only a few moments to "clean the Indians out" and the train moved on.
During the whole fight the party lost six men killed, seven wounded, and eleven mules killed not counting Kit's and twenty wounded.
From this fight "Pawnee Rock" derived its name, and it was there that "Kit Carson" had his first encounter with the Indians.
Santa Fe Trail Research Site
"E-Mail & Home Page"
Larry & Carolyn
St. John, Ks.