Battle Of Beecher Island

Major George “Sandy” Forsyth was too anxious to sleep. Rising before daybreak on Sept. 17, 1868, he walked to the edge of camp and joined the sentries keeping watch. They peered into the dark expanse of prairie but saw nothing. Yet.

Forsyth and his handpicked band of Indian fighters were deep in the heart of Indian country – an area now known as Colorado’s Northeastern Plains. The Forsyth Scouts had camped for the night at this spot near the Arikaree River, south of present-day Wray, after their sixth day of hard riding. They were tracking an Indian raiding party whose trail they had followed here from western Kansas, though the scouts had yet to find a single Indian.

Darkness concealed the Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians by night, and the prairie concealed them by day. They had spent generations memorizing all the hiding spots and escape routes in this broken terrain of ridges, valleys, gullies and ravines. If the Indians wanted to stay hidden, this was the place to do it. And if they wanted to show themselves … it would probably mean trouble for the scouts.

Trouble arrived at the first hint of sunrise. Forsyth and a nearby sentry spotted it almost simultaneously: Something out there was moving – and getting closer.

Straining their eyes and ears, and readying their carbines, they heard the soft thud of horses’ hooves, then saw the mounted warriors riding toward them over the ridge. They fired their carbines while running back to camp, sounding the alarm, as Forsyth later recalled in his book Thrilling Days in Army Life.

“Indians!” he shouted. “Turn out! Indians!”

The scouts who were still sleeping bolted awake to the sight of eight warriors riding in at a gallop, lashing their war ponies.

“Saddle up quickly, men!” Forsyth ordered. 

His two blue-coated officers were already on their feet. His buckskin-clad civilian scouts roused quickly, many of them holding tight to lariat lines while reaching for saddles and packs.

But the warriors didn’t attack. They bypassed the scouts and headed directly for the camp’s horses and pack mules, capturing several animals and galloping off again, shouting in celebration. To the scouts’ relief, they left behind the mules carrying the priceless ammunition packs.

Though Forsyth had seen combat during the Civil War, where he rose to the rank of brevet brigadier general, he was new to this kind of fight. He peered through his field glasses to the northeast, where the raiders had disappeared over a ridge. Sharp Grover, his chief of scouts, touched his shoulder and nodded to the southwest, up the riverbed: There were more Indians, and they were about to charge.

Forsyth brought his field glasses to his eyes. His heart quickened. In the distance, hundreds of mounted warriors were forming battle lines. Soon, the massive formation of men and horses began to move as one. 

A combined forces of Sioux, Cheyennes and Arapahos came thundering downriver on their war ponies. No one knows for certain how many warriors joined the charge – 600 to 700, according to most sources, with some estimates going as high as 1,000. Those present that morning didn’t need an exact count to know that the 53 men waiting to meet the charge were vastly outnumbered.

FORSYTH MADE HIS decision quickly: To retreat would mean being chased down and annihilated, so they would have to make a stand right here – or rather, on the nearby island in the river.

Beecher Island, as it cme to be known, was perhaps 200 feet long and 40 feet wide. It was little more than an elevated sandbar during September, the dry season on the Plains. But there was cover – a solitary cottonwood stood at one end of the island, and a thicket of low willows and alders grew in the middle. The dismounted men picketed their horses, hastily began digging rifle pits, then waited for what was coming down the Arikaree seconds behind them. 

“I thought we were all going to be killed and scalped or captured and held for torture,” scout John Hurst wrote in an account published by the Kansas Historical Society. “I heard Colonel Forsyth call out and ask if anyone could pray. He said, ‘We are beyond all human aid, and if God does not help us there is none for us.’ ”

The oncoming charge sounded like a herd of stampeding buffalo, according to one survivor. The warriors closed on the island with the rising sun shining in their faces, illuminating the bright feathers and war paint on man and beast.  

The wave of Indians had nearly reached the island when the scouts’ opening volley exploded across the small valley, splitting the attackers’ formation. Warriors thundered past each side of the island like a raging prairie flood, unleashing a barrage of arrows and gunfire as they rode past.

Cheyenne warrior Wolf Belly rode directly through the scouts’ rifle pits, eagle feathers braided into his long black hair and wearing a sacred panther skin blessed by a Cheyenne medicine man. Wolf Belly rode through the center of the island twice without being hit, astonishing Forsyth’s men. Many of them assumed Wolf Belly was none other than the famous Cheyenne warrior Roman Nose – the Indian they feared above all others – and did their best to unseat him. They would have to face the actual Roman Nose soon enough.


For the rest of the story see the September/October 2018 issue of Colorado Life.

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