Northern Cheyenne Exodus title

Soldiers fail to stop Northern Cheyenne Exodus

Soldiers fail to stop murders during the Northern Cheyenne Exodus

“We can now see that our troops should all have been on the railroad.…” — Lt. George H. Palmer, discussing the Northern Cheyenne Exodus in “Chasing Dull Knife: A Journal of the Cheyenne Campaign of 1878

This is the second part of three about the Northern Cheyenne Exodus in Kansas. The first post discussed the Battle of Punished Woman’s Fork. The third will tell details about the Last Indian Raid through Sheridan, Decatur, and Rawlins counties.

Northern Cheyenne Exodus and Kansas Pacific Railroad
1878 Kansas Pacific Railroad and Northern Cheyenne Exodus routes

An ordinary morning turns into bloody slaughter and rape

Sept. 30, 1878, was an ordinary morning in Decatur County, Kan. The weather was cool and settlers were accomplishing their everyday tasks. Rather like people in the Twin Towers on a September morning just under 123 years later, their ordinary day was about to become extraordinary — for all the wrong reasons.

They were utterly unprepared for the disaster that was about to visit them. The Northern Tsisistas (Cheyennes) arrived in Decatur County that morning. When they departed, 31 people lay dead in Decatur and Rawlins counties.

“Some of the finest prairie country we had seen”

On Sept. 12, the Weekly Belleville Telescope published an article (PDF) about a trip that ended in Decatur County. “…[W]e passed over some magnificent country… and soil … cannot be excelled. … We found the settlers on the route very hospitable.” Much of the “finest prairie country” they had seen was still “open for homestead settlement.”

Decatur County’s prospects looked good.

Related: Visit enchanting Oberlin.

And then the marauding Tsisistas showed up. Besides the 31 dead citizens, the raiders had wounded others, raped several women, robbed and destroyed property. Many of the settlers had lost nearly all they owned.

“Our whole valley is in mourning”

Decatur County map showing Northern Cheyenne Exodus
Annotated Decatur County map showing the raiders’ depredation locations (Kansas State Historical Society)

Col. Richard Irving Dodge arrived at Sappa Creek in Decatur County Oct. 3. He asked a man if he had “heard anything” of the Northern Cheyenne Exodus.

The man replied, “Yes, we have heard, seen, and felt them. Our whole valley is in mourning, and we are not yet through burying our dead.”

Dodge said the tribe “had pounced upon” the settlers at 9 a.m. Monday, “before I had yet left Sheridan.” He was mortified at this news. In other words, the Army that was supposed to protect citizens’ lives and property had been nowhere near where they were needed.

“I have never seen such a horrid picture of devastation,” he said. For two hours, he listened to terrible accounts of the calamities and griefs that had befallen the settlers.

‘A complete ruin’

Eventually, he rode up to one of the homesteads, “a complete ruin”, and examined it.

This family, the Laings, had lost a father, three brothers, and all of their property. The raiders had raped the mother and two daughters. Dodge reeled in horror, grief, and regret that he could not — did not — arrive sooner.

As he inspected the Laings’ plundered homestead, a little kitten ran up to him with “the most frantic demonstrations of delight & climbed at once to my shoulder.” The rescued kitten was the final straw for this hardened soldier:
“I can write no more.”

“Stricken with horror”

Col. Richard Irving Dodge
Col. Richard Irving Dodge (Wikimedia Commons)

Picture the scene: Col. Dodge is walking around this scene of unspeakable horror, smelling the stench of burning. His face is pinched with grief and horror. He has already heard the terrible, heart-crushing story of what has happened to those homesteaders. They have lost their lives, their property, and their dignity. In other words, they have lost everything that matters to them.

Then the colonel sees something moving. He hears a faint sound.

He looks around.

A frantic, hungry kitten is wiggling out of a woodpile. It is running up to its savior with overwhelming joy. The colonel is scooping up the kitten and holding it to his chest, then sinking to his knees while clutching the only living creature remaining at the site. The colonel is bending over the kitten. The sound of racking sobs is tearing him from the inside out. The kind of sobs that tear his throat with knife thrusts as they exit his mouth.

Dodge had fought in the Civil War. Imagine all the terrible scenes of death he has endured. And yet, this hardened soldier was “stricken with horror” at the suffering the citizens had endured.

Army was unprepared to stop the Northern Cheyenne Exodus

Gen. John Pope
Maj. Gen. John Pope, before his promotion from Brigadier General.

The United States Army’s high command was not prepared to deal with the disaster. They were strangely unworried about the threat.

Gen. John Pope commanded the Military Division of the Missouri from Fort Leavenworth. That meant Pope was in overall command of the Army in Kansas. He was clueless. On Sept. 18, Pope told Kansas Gov. George T. Anthony that the Tsisistas had “not more than 75 warriors in the party and they [were] free from hostile intent upon the lives of settlers.”  Three people had already died at the Tsisistas’ hands.

Pope further said no Cheyennes “had been within many miles of Dodge City.” The day before Pope’s pronouncement, the Cheyennes had attacked cowboys’ camps south of Fort Dodge. Fort Dodge is only five miles from Dodge City. They left another trail of dead bodies. Pope said those reports were “absolutely without foundation” (PDF).

Related: Explore Dodge City.

At least the high command had fortified the Kansas Pacific Railroad. Before the raiders had crossed into Kansas, soldiers from Fort Wallace, Fort Hays, and even distant Fort Leavenworth were posted along (PDF) the KPRR line.

“Not a hostile Indian within a hundred miles”

Even after the Battle of Punished Woman’s Fork on Sept. 27, Gen. John Pope still downplayed the threat. Two days before the battle, Pope had learned that three people had been killed in Kansas and three wounded. The officer in the field Capt. A.J. Johnson said he anticipated “no further trouble” from the tribe. Pope believed that they “were only in quest of food, ponies, and arms.” He was callous to the citizens’ plight. Unless people resisted robbery, he said, the Cheyennes “were not disposed to attack anyone.”

Pope did send Col. Jefferson C. Davis (not the former Confederate President) from Fort Leavenworth to take command of the pursuit.

“Tell the John A. Pope to go to hell!”

Gov. George T. Anthony
Gov. George T. Anthony (Wikimedia Commons)

Anthony was frantic, begging for the military to stop the Tsisistas. The governor rushed guns and ammunition to the embattled area, hoping to reach those who needed to defend themselves.

In contrast to Anthony’s fervent efforts, Pope remained nonchalant. Even after reports came in of massacres in Decatur and Rawlins counties, Pope told Anthony there were “no hostile Indians in Kansas (PDF), no Cheyennes within 100 miles of Buffalo [Park] today.” (Buffalo Park is now named Park, Kan.)

Anthony sent Pope’s message to Ellis, the KPRR’s division point. The enraged telegraph operator replied, “Tell the John A. Pope to go to hell!”

While Pope was busy downplaying the disaster, the men under his command were trying to catch up with the Tsisistas.

Fort Wallace, source of Northern Cheyenne Exodus troops c. 1880
Officers’ quarters at Fort Wallace c. 1880. The commanding officer’s quarters are at left. (Kansas State Historical Society)

Searching for the Tsisistas on the Northern Cheyenne Exodus route

Col. Jefferson C. Davis
Col. Jefferson C. Davis, not to be confused with the Confederate President, took command of the pursuit of the Cheyennes. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Tsisistas had escaped the Army after the Sept. 27 Battle of Punished Woman’s Fork. Maj. Clarence Mauck sent word of the battle’s results with those who had been injured in the battle. The medical transport had necessarily been slow. Lt. Cornelius Gardener and his men arrived at Fort Wallace at 11 p.m. Sept. 28. The slow messengers had given the Cheyennes a three-day start.

The Army believed the Tsisistas’ route had taken them west of Fort Wallace. This potential route made little sense. To continue their flight, the tribe needed provisions and horses. Both would be harder to obtain in a settled country than in the wilderness. Creeks were smaller west of the fort and would provide less opportunity for water.

Davis pulls defenders away from the railroad

In an error that would be fatal to many settlers, on Sept. 28, Davis pulled Army companies from the Kansas Pacific Railroad stations at Monument and Carlyle stations. The tribe crossed the railroad between those stations that night.

In his journal (PDF), Lt. George H. Palmer complained bitterly about Mauck’s failure to warn anyone about the Tsisistas’ escape from Punished Woman’s Fork. “If Mauck had sent word,…” the soldiers would have been ahead of the tribe before they crossed, he wrote.

A railroad section hand discovered their crossing simply by chance. Dodge complained that Davis’ action had prevented any chance of catching the tribe at the railroad.

Soldiers struggle to reach Sappa Creek in time to stop the Northern Cheyenne Exodus

Three companies of infantry left Fort Wallace at daybreak on Sept. 30, along with the Fourth Cavalry detachment that had come from Punished Woman’s Fork.

The soldiers struggled with poor maps and found little water to sustain them. While the tribe had few possessions to hinder their swiftness, the soldiers’ wagon train hampered them. The Tsisistas also enjoyed the great advantage of fresh horses. While they were stealing fresh horses, the cavalry had only the mounts they rode the entire distance from Fort Dodge or Fort Wallace.

Related: The Battle of Punished Woman’s Fork and Fort Wallace are on Western Vistas Historic Byway.

“The troops could have overtaken [the Northern Cheyenne Exodus] had their officers wanted to.”

Decatur County resident H.D. Colvin met Mauck while searching for bodies. In 1909, he told the Oberlin Times (PDF), “The Indians traveled very leisurely, and I have always believed that the ‘Troops’ could have overtaken them had their officers wanted to.” The settlers widely shared Colvin’s opinion about the Army’s performance during the Northern Cheyenne Exodus.

“Our sympathies were … with [the Tsisistas] at first…”

At least some of the soldiers agreed. After the tribe’s odyssey ended far to the north at Fort Robinson, Neb., Palmer shared his opinion in his journal: “After crossing three lines of railroads [Santa Fe, Kansas Pacific, and Union Pacific], it seems miraculous that two or three brigadiers, four or five colonels, majors and about a thousand men with wagons, railroads, and telegraphs were unable to stop the march of this party of 50 warriors who carried their women and children with them and rode broken-down ponies from the Indian Territory away into Nebraska.”

The scenes along the Solomon, Prairie Dog, and Sappa creeks had jolted the soldiers out of their reluctance to pursue the Tsisistas, Lt. Calvin Duvall Cowles wrote. He had stood at the devastated Laing homestead with Dodge.

In a letter to his father, he wrote, “There is no doubt that these Indians were starving and dying … and were justified in leaving their reservations.” … “Our sympathies were therefore with them at first, but when we reached their trail of murder, rapine, and desolation, our blood rose against them, and there was not a man who would not have gladly risked his life to avenge the defenseless men, woman & children who had been barbarously murdered and outraged.”

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Dull Knife, leader of Northern Cheyennes during the Northern Cheyenne Exodus

“Dull Knife has shown himself … among the great warriors”

An editor in Medicine Lodge (PDF) had the last word on the Army’s performance. He said the Tsisistas had “outgeneraled the U.S. troops and Dull Knife [Vóóhéhéve] has shown himself entitled to a name among the great warriors.…”

Death stalks the Sappa

While the Army moved slowly, the Tsisistas were wasting no time. They had lost many ponies and provisions at Punished Woman’s Fork. The fledgling settlements in Sheridan, Decatur, and Rawlins counties were prime places for them to restock their provisions and obtain fresh remounts. Since the Army had no clue where they had gone, the settlers received no official warnings. Many of the settlers didn’t even know what a Native American would look like.

How to learn more about the Northern Cheyenne Exodus

Read the first post in this series, The Battle of Punished Woman’s Fork; and final post in this series, the Last Indian Raid.

Learn more about the Army along the western edges of Northwest Kansas at Fort Wallace Museum and Fort Hays State Historic Site. The best place to learn about the Last Indian Raid is at the Decatur County Last Indian Raid Museum in Oberlin. The Rawlins County Museum in Atwood and Mickey’s Museum in Hoxie are also worth a visit.

Check out what we’ve written about Kansas and specifically Northwest Kansas.

Sources about the Northern Cheyenne Exodus

I have extensively used the books From the Files of the Decatur County Museum, Perilous Pursuit: The U.S. Cavalry and the Northern Cheyenne and W.D. Street’s Twenty-Five Years Among the Indians and Buffalo, The Indian Territory Journals of Richard Irving Dodge, edited by Wayne R. Kime; and John Monett’s Tell Them We Are Going Home.

I first learned about the Last Indian Raid while taking a geography class at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. We read Cheyenne Autumn, Mari Sandoz’s take on the raid. I’m skeptical of her conclusions, but I’ve been interested in the raid ever since.

The Kansas State Historical Society has done a massive favor for all researchers into Kansas history. Any Kansan with a driver’s license may log in to Kansas sources on and for free. Those resources are invaluable. is also invaluable as an image source. I am also indebted to organizations such as Google Books, Hathi Trust, and Internet Archive for digitizing public domain books.


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