Battle of Coon Creek
"James H. Birch, Interview"
"Kinsley Graphic October, 1907"

     On the morning of the 19th of May, 1848, there was marshalled on the campus at Fort Leavenworth a body of recruits, seventy-six in number, under the command of Lieutenant William B. Royall, who, having afterward entered the regular army, died a few years since, a retired brigadier general. The recruits were mostly boys from the backwoods of Missouri, who had never been that far away from home before, but with their frontier breeding were well fitted for the service required. They had been recruited to fill up the decimated ranks of the Santa Fe battalion, then in Chihuahua.

     As good fortune planned it, there had arrived at the fort from Germany a consignment of breech-loading carbines. They could be loaded and fired five times in a minute, and being a cavalry arm, our little squad was armed with them. They were fearful weapons. Loaded with an ounce ball, it emerged as a slug and for four hundred yards held up its force. In the hands of these backwoods boys, who had been raised on horseback with guns in their hands, they soon became a toy and a delight. We were the only soldiers in the Mexican war that were armed with breech loading guns.

     Saluting the old flag, we wheeled into line and began to sing "Ho for the Rio Grande," as we started on our long march.

     Without special incidents we passed through Council Grove, then established as a place of repair and a blacksmith shop, and later camped on Cow Creek. There it was I killed my first buffalo. I visited the maginificent cottonwood, then fully six feet in diameter, whose broadspreading limbs gave sweet repose from the summer sun. It was under this tree that McDonald and his men murdered and robbed the old Spanish merchant named Shavez {Chavez}, in 1843. Shavez was making his yearly journey to the states to lay in his merchandise, when McDonald intercepted him, and after robbing him, shot him under the old cottonwood. He begged them to take his money and spare his life, but no, the human fiends were not so content.

     This incident when known created great excitement in Missouri, and especially in St. Louis, where he bought his goods. The federal government took up the matter and finally captured McDonald and one other of his gang, and they were hung in St. Louis by my uncle, Weston F. Birch, who was then United States marshal for Missouri.

     Passing Plum Buttes and crossing the Little Arkansas, Pawnee Fork, and Wilson Creek, we struck the Great Bend and proceeded up the river.

     {It should be noted; that as Birch says later on in the article, it was more than 60 years after the incident that he gave this account. This would explain his lapse in geographical memory. He probably meant; after crossing the Little Arkansas, Jarvis Creek, Plum Buttes, and Walnut Creek, we struck the Great Bend and proceeded up river.}

     The banks of these streams were so high that we were forced to attach ropes to the wagons in order to let them down the ford. pawnee Rock was covered with names carved by the men who passed it but it was so full that I could find no place for mine.

     On the evening of the 17th day of June, Tandy Giddings, an old plainsman, rode forward and doffing his cap, said: "Lieutenant, you should double your guards to-night." "Why so?" asked the Lieutenant. "We haven't seen a buffalo for two days, and that is a sign there are Indians around."

     Crossing Coon Creek we spread our tents on the banks of the river close by the present town of Kinsley. We were escorting Major Bryant, paymaster, who wanted to reach Fort Mann (now called Fort Dodge, I believe) to pay off the troops stationed there. My mess, among others, was detailed to escort them. I was up early to give my horse grass and took him out about a quarter of a mile west to a depression where the grass was not so short. I had already gotten back to camp before I heard the wolves howling on the south side of the river that was answered by a similar sound from up the river and repeated form the north and further repeated from down the river. Attention being called to the wolves, old Tandy Giddings, who was up, said: "Lookout, boys I have heard them wolves many a time. It is Indians howling." Of course we didn't believe it. Shortly afterwards an immense herd of buffalo appeared coming up the river. Some of the boys got their carbines, saying: "Let's get some fresh meat for breakfast: Again Giddings put in: "Hold on, boys, the Indians are behind the buffalo."

     The buffalo were making straight for our camp, and there were many thousands of them, but they took a scare at our tents and passed up the bottom, and, sure enough, behind them were the Indians. On they came, and they were reinforced by their comrades from up the river and from the uplands.

     It was then our long-range breech-loaders came into play. As it turned out later, it was a war party, 800 strong, of Comanches and Apaches. They had attacked Captain Love's company of regulars and after killing a number of his men, took all his stock. Their mode of warfare, not having any guns, was under the protection of their shields, each one made of the hide from the neck of a buffalo bull, and was to draw the fire of the soldiers and before they could reload their muzzle-loaders to rush up and lance them to death. Great was their surprise when, after drawing our fire, we were ready to shoot them again. This fact astounded them and they drew off, but soon returned, but were met with closer shots and a number of them were killed. They drew off again about a mile to ride in the bottom and there held the first Populist meeting ever held in Kansas. We could easily hear them shouting or howling and for a quarter of an hour they kept up their ferocious outbreaks, angered, no doubt, by the loss of their comrades and thirsting for revenge.

     Sudenly they spread out in a line about a hundred yards front and eight to ten deep and started for us. Chinese-like they set up the most unearthly yells, and came shaking their shields and shouting. By this time the sun had risen and we could see their lances flash in the sunlight. In front of their line was a woman, who like Joan of Arc, urged them on. On they came, determined to drive us into the river, and let their comardes, stationed there for that purpose, relieve us of our scalps. It was a square, stand-upfight between 800 enraged savages and 76 boys. There was not a tree or a shrub in the way, and only the river behind us. On they came, and the boys commenced shooting at 400 yards, then at 300, then at 200, and then at 100, and ready to shoot at closer range. Our shots seemed to have but little effect, for they were protected by their shields, and we could hear our balls strike their shields and sound like striking a board fence. The woman was still in the front and some of the boys were ungallant enough to say "Shoot the damn woman." It looked as though they were determined to ride us down, for the front line was held in position by the rear lines. When they were within forty yards of us, some one shouted: "Shoot their horses." This was taken up and down the line, and everbody dropped his carabine to the level of the horses. The effect of this was not merely astonishing, but instantaneous. A number of horses were killed on the front lines. Their fall was not only seen by those on each side, but those in the rear saw that the devil was to pay in front, and the whole crowd stopped and fled like the breaking of the waves on the seashore. That it was a great relief to us to see them retreat can well be imagined.

     Another minute and we would have been beneath the horses' hoofs with nothing to defend us from their lances, for revolvers were not in use then. They retreated and crossed the river below us, and our lieutenant ordered us to mount and follow them.

     After crossing the river we ascended one of the numerous sandhills on the south side and saw the Indians on the crest of the next hill. He led us down and up the hill. When about half way up, the Indians came pouring around and we saw we were being caught in a trap. The order for retreat came and we began to get away and they were not slow to follow us. One of my messmates, Smith Carter, dropped his gun, and getting off to get it his horse threw him and he was forced to follow on foot, with the Indians after him. He was a man and had sense enough, when the Indians dashed over him and attempted to lance him, to drop on the ground, and only received a bruise on the shoulder from the horse's foot. In our party was a man named Dave Rupe of Ray County. He was a hunter and kept his old Missouri rifle to kill deer and antelope with. Seeing Carter's danger, he turned, and the Indian came at him with his lance, and Rupe drew a bead on him, but his rifle only snapped. On the Indian came. Instead of having on a United States belt, Rupe wore his belt with a large iron buckle. The Indian's lance struck the buckle and the tongue held it. Rupe seized the lance with one hand, and drawing his holster pistol blew the Indian's head off. The lance, which he took, was an officer's Infantry saber.

     Getting back to the top of the hill we halted, and were comparatively safe, as we could use our carbines. The Indians gathered on the surrounding hills and replied to our shots by shooting their arrows up into the air with sufficient incline to let them fall among us. One of them struck a soldier and went through the fleshy part of his thigh and into the saddletree and held him there until we cut the arrow off, and lifted him out. We soon quit this long-range fighting and made our way back to the river and to camp without further trouble.

     When the Indians first appeared I started after my horse. Part of their tactics was to send out Indians with crooked lances well sharpened. Our horses, tied to iron harpoons with heavy ropes, could not get away. Just as I got into the little hollow where my horse was picketed, an Indian man on a little pony came around the bend with a crooked lance and rode up to my horse and cut the rope. He did not see me until after he had cut the rope. He then dropped his shield so as to cover his body and looked at me, and, I could see his eyes plainly. I dropped my carabine until the sight was below his shield and fired. Tumbling him over but he was tied to his pony which, carried him off.

     Our last shot killed a splendid iron gray horse. The saddle and bridle plainly showed that it belonged to an Apache chief. The Indian started to follow the others in their retreat, but turned and attempted to take off his saddle. This act caused him the loss of his life, for the boys shot him. Now, when this was done, a boy--say 12 to 14 years of age--left the retreating party and with the speed of lightning came dashing back. As he reached the dead Indian, stopped instantly and went over the head of his pony with a lance in his hand, and putting it around the body of the dead Indian, remounted his pony and dragged the body off the field. Strange to say, the men who had remorselessly killed the Indian never raised a gun against the boy. I have tried to analyze the feelings, which possessed them, but can only come to the conclusion that it was pure admiration for the boy's courage. I have of late years had a theory as to who that boy was. The dead Indian was an Apache chief, and I believe the boy was Geronimo, that it was his father whom we killed, and that it was on that battlefield that he became imbued with that deadly hatered of the white man. If I could see old Geronimo I would ask him if he was in that fight.

     We killed one Indian within twenty steps of our line. He was tied on his horse and was shielding himself behind his horse and with bow and arrow in his hands, was shooting at our men. The ball that killed his horse went through its neck and struck the Indian on the front of his forehead, taking the whole skull off. When found he was untied, and one of the boys kicked him and he sat up, feeling of his head with his hands. One lobe of his grain was badly torn, but the other was uninjured. After passing his hand over his wound he placed it on the top of his head and felt to see if his scalp was gone. He then turned, and with a look of intense hatred said, "Kioombre, Kioombre:" and then one of the boys shot him. Reaching Fort Mann, this story was related to an old Indian fighter, who said the words meant "I'm a brave, I'm a brave."

     Before leaving the fort {Fort Leavenworth} I went over to Weston and bought a fine bowie knife, which I wore in my belt. We had no revolvers then. Mr. Giddings, whom I had known since a boy, said to me: "Jimmy, what are you going to do with that bowie knife?" I replied that I intended to scalp an Indian with it. "Oh Jimmy!" he said "you can't do that; your heart's to soft." Of course I felt like resenting this reproach to my manhood, but I didn't. After the fight was over I went out to hunt for a scalp and came across a splendid-looking Indian lying on his back, and then I found out that Mr. Giddings had sized me up about right.

     We got a late breakfast that morning and renewed our journey westward.

     This is about all I have to say about this fight, and I expect it is more than many people will believe and yet every word of it is true, for it has been on my memory for nearly sixty years.

     I may be mistaken about the location of this episode, but I feel sure it was between where the town of Kinsley is now located and the banks of the Arkansas River.

Back to Research Articles

Santa Fe Trail Research Site

Santa Fe Trail Research Site
"E-Mail & Home Page"
Larry & Carolyn
St. John, Ks.
© "Forever"