Battle of Summit Springs

A memorial was added to the Battle of Summit Springs site in 1970. It reads: This monument erected by concerned members of both the red and white races in the Moon of Black Cherries, August 1970.

Joshua Hardin

The Cheyenne scouts had just returned from the South Platte River and confirmed what some in the tribe had feared – the river was running high and wide.

In mid-July, the South Platte should have resembled what two French trappers years prior described as a “plate river,” because of its shallow appearance. It should have dozens of small, lazy channels flowing between long, smooth sandbars all the way to the eastern horizon. But unusually heavy thunderstorms had transformed the normally placid South Platte that summer of 1869 into a maelstrom of quicksand, snags and dangerous current.

Still, the scouts had taken their ponies into the belly-deep current and plunged branches into the river bottom, marking a route that would allow the village to cross. They believed their people could follow several bands of Oglala Sioux north to safety, into the Black Hills and Powder River Country.

The late 1860s were a time of great upheaval for the Plains Indians across the eastern Colorado Territory. Gold strikes along the Front Range had brought thousands of strangers into the region. Emigrant traffic along the South Platte Valley had destroyed their ancestral hunting grounds, and the railroads were dividing the plains into giant tracts of land that would soon be overrun by more ranchers and homesteaders. In short, the whites no longer viewed this land as simply empty space between Denver and Nebraska, an arid wasteland fit only for wolves, bison and so-called savages. The Indians were being pushed out.

Despite impassioned pleas to ford the South Platte that morning, Tall Bull – the leader of this militant band of Indians known as the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers – decided it was too risky. They would rest one more day at a small spring-fed valley the whites called Summit Springs, near present-day Sterling in northeastern Colorado. And they would allow the floodwaters to recede a little.

Tall Bull’s people honored the decision and his leadership. Defiant and proud, Tall Bull had proved his wisdom and courage countless times.

So the people acquiesced, despite their apprehensions and fear. They knew soldiers had trailed them into the sandhills of northeastern Colorado Territory. But they would wait one more day with Tall Bull.

In the early afternoon as the men rested around their lodges, the faint sound of a bugle drifted over the valley. It was a hot day and the wind might have been playing tricks. Those who did not hear the bugle, however, immediately saw the danger coming from the northeast ridge.

Lt. George F. Price, who commanded Company A of the 5th U.S. Cavalry, described what happened next as the combined forces of Maj. Gen. Eugene Carr, numbering more than 200 soldiers and scouts, crested the hill: “The spurs sank deep in the flanks of the good but (fatigued) horses, who, seeming to understand the necessity of the occasion, responded with a magnificent burst of speed.”

And down they came into the valley on a dead run, sabers drawn and rifles held high. Leading one of the divided columns was Maj. Frank North and his brother, Luther, together with 50 Pawnee warriors, allies of the whites and sworn enemies of the Sioux and Cheyenne. Acting as the eyes and ears of Carr and his troops since they had left Fort McPherson five weeks before, the Pawnee scouts had tracked the Cheyenne across Kansas, Nebraska and now into Colorado. On July 10, 1869, they had found the travois marks of a large village going northwest from the Republican and Frenchman rivers.

Tall Bull’s village erupted like a great covey of quail. Horses and mules scattered as warriors ran for weapons. Terrified women searched for their children and for safe places to hide in a scene eerily reminiscent of the Sand Creek Massacre, which ignited the Plains Indian War almost five years before. Those unable to grab ponies ran to the ravines and washouts in the surrounding hills. Most were hunted down and killed by the Pawnee, including women and children.

Members of the 5th U.S. Cavalry kept their rifle barrels warm, taking revenge in what had become an endless cycle of violence since Sand Creek. No one needed to remind the soldiers that these were the same “savages” who had inflicted so much pain and suffering on the white settlers in Kansas and Nebraska.

In the eyes of most new Colorado residents, the Battle of Summit Springs was a day of reckoning for the militant Cheyenne Dog Soldiers.

Tall Bull dashed inside his lodge for weapons and for one of his wives and a small daughter. Inside, he shot a young captive named Maria Weichell, who had been taken prisoner several weeks earlier during Cheyenne raids in Kansas.

He grabbed the other white captive inside his lodge, a German immigrant named Susanna Alderdice, flung her outside and reportedly buried a hatchet in the back of her head. He placed his wife and daughter atop the horse he had picketed near his lodge, swung up behind them and galloped across the small valley to a narrow, steep-sided ravine, joining more than a dozen other warriors, women and children who sought safety there.

Once his wife and daughter were tucked back into the narrow ravine, Tall Bull returned to the entrance, next to a warrior named Wolf With Plenty of Hair, who had staked himself to the ground, using the dog rope in the proud tradition of the Dog Soldier Society. As bullets struck the sandy ground around them, the Cheyenne chief pulled back on the reins of his horse until the stallion’s head was almost at its rump and plunged a knife deep into its neck, maneuvering the dying horse to the ground to use as a breastwork. There, behind the dying horse, Tall Bull would make his stand on the high plains of Colorado.

For the rest of the story see the July/August 2019 issue of Colorado Life.

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