The Battle of Punished Woman's Fork title

The Battle of Punished Woman’s Fork in Battle Canyon

The final soldier dies at the Battle of Punished Woman’s Fork

The Battle of Punished Woman’s Fork in Battle Canyon is the first post of a three-part series. The second post discusses the soldiers’ response to the Northern Cheyenne Exodus in Kansas, and the third post tells the story of the Last Indian Raid in Kansas.

A peaceful scene at the Battle of Punished Woman’s Fork

wildflowers in Battle Canyon
Wildflowers with a shortgrass backdrop at Battle Canyon, site of the Battle of Punished Woman’s Fork

The peaceful scene in current-day Battle Canyon is far different from the scene in late September 1878. In that month, war visited Battle Canyon in present-day Scott County. Desperate Tsis tsistas (Northern Cheyenne) people sought to return to their former home. Equally desperate cavalry and infantrymen sought to stop them. They collided at the Battle of Punished Woman’s Fork. A trip along the Western Vistas Historic Byway will lead you to the final clash between Native Americans and the US Army.

The road to the Battle of Punished Woman’s Fork

Starving, ill and homesick, a remnant of the Northern Tsis tsistas (Cheyenne) tribe detested life on the Darlington Agency in what is now Oklahoma. They had decided they would rather die than live on the Cheyenne-Arapahoe reservation. During the night of Sept. 9, 1878, they escaped the reservation and headed north toward home.

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Ad: Learn more about the Tsistsistas and the Darlington Agency by reading Children of White Thunder.

The tribe had signed a treaty that moved them to the Southern Heévâhetaneo’o‘ (Cheyenne) reservation in Oklahoma. If they didn’t like life in Oklahoma, the government said they could return to their Northern Plains homes. The government promised to provide food and supplies. They said the reservation had plenty of wild game, and the Tsis tsistas would be able to hunt.

So much for government promises.

A miserable existence on the reservation

Once on the reservation, the Northern Tsistsistas died from a lack of food. The game had all been chased away. The supplies didn’t come. When supplies did arrive, they were scanty. Not only did the starvation kill them (PDF), but they also died from malaria and measles.

Longing for home

Little Wolf and Dull Knife, leaders at the Battle of Punished Woman's Fork
The Northern Tsistsistas leaders Ó’kôhómôxháahketa (left) and Vóóhéhéve (Wikimedia)

They wanted to go home. The Indian agent, John D. Miles, said no. Miles had his hands tied by bureaucrats above him.

To Vóóhéhéve (Dull Knife) and Ó’kôhómôxháahketa (Little Wolf), the choices were clear. Either they died on the reservation or on the way home. Maybe some of them would reach home. Even the remote chance of reaching home was better than anything the reservation could offer.

Their home was 700 miles away through a country stripped of bison, the tribe’s traditional food source. Their main hope for food would be stealing from the settlers establishing their homesteads along the way. If the tribe couldn’t obtain food, they would starve. On the reservation, they were starving anyway. They preferred to live free — or die trying.



trail to the Battle of Punished Woman's Fork
The arrowheads show the path of the fleeing Northern Tsistsistas through Kansas. (Kansas Department of Transportation)

The flight to freedom

When the tribe crossed into Kansas, panic reigned in Dodge City (PDF) because the Army was not catching up to the Tsistsistas. While the Army dithered, the tribe stole livestock and other supplies. Finally, the Army and armed civilians chased after them. People died on both sides.

Colonel Lewis takes command

Fort Dodge Post Hospital
The former Fort Dodge Post Hospital. Fort Dodge, east of Dodge City, is now a veteran’s home.

When the Tsistsistas crossed into Kansas, they entered the Army’s Department of Missouri. Lt. Col. William H. Lewis was commanding Fort Dodge, a fort in that department. He took command of the pursuit from Cimarron Station. He had four companies of Fourth Cavalry troopers and one company of 19th Infantry soldiers.

Related: Experience Dodge City.

Ironically, Lewis had written to Gen. John Pope, the Department of the Missouri commander, complaining about Darlington’s conditions.

Setting an ambush

The terrain south of what would become Battle Canyon is flat, but a transition comes as travelers approach the canyon. The elevation rises. The creeks have carved sharp canyons.

The tribe was familiar with the area from their days as unfettered roaming communities. They recognized Punished Woman’s Fork as a good place to make a stand. Ó’kôhómôxháahketa prepared to ambush the troopers from three directions. Best of all, they held the high ground.

He hoped to draw the troops into the canyon, then pour fire on them from the walls. The non-combatants went to a cave at the end of the canyon. Warriors in circular rifle pits and behind rock barricades were above them. The ambush was ready.

Would the Army fall for it?

The Battle of Punished Woman’s Fork

As they approached the canyon on Sept. 27, the Army’s scouts saw tribal ponies in the valley. They realized they were walking into a trap. They rushed back to warn the rest of the cavalry. One trigger-happy warrior fired a shot before the trap was fully sprung. The warning was just enough to stave off another United States Cavalry disaster like the Battle of the Little Big Horn, where Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and all the Seventh Cavalry died.

Related: Explore Little Bighorn in Southeast Montana.

With the example of Little Bighorn in their minds, the cavalry on the valley floor panicked.  The warriors had caught them in the open, in an indefensible place. Many of the troopers fled to a dry creek bed. Lewis rallied the troopers.

After their initial surprise, the advancing soldiers charged the bluffs. They gained possession of the high ground. After hours of battle, the bullets had stripped the ground of grass.

Lewis is mortally wounded

anatomical drawing of the legs
When Lt. Col. Lewis was shot in the femoral artery, his death was assured. — (Sobotta’s Human Anatomy 1908, Wikimedia)

As darkness approached, the troopers hesitated to come out from behind the protecting bluffs. Lewis became impatient for the battle to end. He took personal charge of Company B. The Company B troopers begged him to be careful. Instead, he rode to the front of the skirmish line and waved his sword. The warriors shot his horse within 150 yards of the Tsistsistas line,.

About 6 p.m., Lewis took a carbine from one of the troopers and started shooting. He rose on his knees and fired into the breastwork in front of him. One of the warriors shot him in the upper right leg, severing his femoral artery.

For Lewis to have any chance of survival, the bleeding had to be stopped. Lt. John Martin devised a tourniquet, twisting a rifle around a buckskin strap above the wound. Lewis recognized his impending fate. He looked at the wound and calmly said, “I guess it’s all over with me.” The troopers carried Lewis about 300 yards to a military ambulance.

Mauck assumes command of the Battle of Punished Woman’s Fork

Capt. Clarence Mauck
Capt. Clarence Mauck assumed command after Lewis was wounded. (Military History Institute)

With Lewis severely wounded, Capt. Clarence Mauck assumed command.

As the sun set, a storm blew in. High winds brought dark clouds. Under the darkness, the fighting stopped. At about 9 p.m., Mauck ordered his troops to leave the fighting line. He believed the warriors would be forced to surrender in the morning.

The tribe had other plans.

The Battle of Punished Woman’s Fork ends

Sanctuary Cave at the Battle of Punished Woman's Fork
The non-combatants hid in Sanctuary Cave at the end of the draw. The cave is visible today.

As dawn broke on the following day, the troops reconnoitered the battlefield. The tribe was gone. The cavalry could not see a long, deep, narrow draw that led to the northwest. The blind spot allowed the tribe to escape with their non-combatants.

They left their dead, plus ponies packed with much-needed provisions. The Army troops took what they could use and destroyed the rest.

The last Kansas battle was over, but the tribe’s escape attempt would go on.

The Battle of Punished Woman’s Fork aftermath

Lewis suffered throughout the night. When morning came, Mauck ordered 25 cavalrymen to take Lewis, other wounded soldiers, and the surgeon to Fort Wallace, 40 miles to the northwest through broken country. He sent dispatches to the fort with the detachment.

Officers at Fort Wallace
Officers at Fort Wallace, 1867 (Albert Barnitz Papers, Yale Collection of Western Americana)

The detachment arrived at Fort Wallace at 11 p.m. that night. Lewis had died en route. He had passed out several times before his death. Forty miles in a jolting wagon is an unimaginable torment for a wounded man.

His hemorrhaging leg had stopped bleeding on the battlefield and never resumed. After they arrived at Fort Wallace, Dr. Davis discovered a 1.5-inch-long clot in the artery.

Lewis’s body went to Fort Leavenworth, then back to his home in Sandy Hill, N.Y., for his funeral and burial. He was the last army officer to die in a Kansas battle.

Need brooks no delay

Mauck was criticized (PDF) for sending the news about the battle with the wounded. A courier would have been faster. If the news had arrived faster, perhaps the Army could have gotten ahead of the Tsistsistas. The settlers to the north had reason to regret the delayed news. Lewis would not be the last white man to die in a Kansas battle.

Where to find the Battle of Punished Woman’s Fork

Monument at for the Battle of Punished Woman's Fork
Monument at Battle Canyon

From US Highway 83, turn northwest onto Kansas Highway 95 at the sign for Historic Lake Scott State Park. Go 1.3 miles north on Highway 95 to a well-maintained gravel road. An arrowhead-shaped sign reads “Battle Canyon.” Follow the road for about a mile to the battle site. Parking is available next to the monument, now a National Historic Site.

Always bring sunscreen and mosquito repellent, and watch for rattlesnakes. Trekking poles come in handy when hiking here. Walking from the parking lot into the canyon takes you down a steep slope.

The canyon is open all year from sunrise to sunset. Please be respectful. Since the road is gravel, please be mindful of the weather and road conditions before visiting.

How Punished Woman’s Fork got its name

Punished Woman’s Fork received its name from a Tsistsistas legend. According to the legend, a woman who committed adultery was punished in the valley. The site then became a punishment site for future women. No one knows what happened to the men involved.

More to see

El Quaterlejo Ruins
El Quartelejo Ruins excavated at Historic Lake Scott State Park

While at Battle Canyon, head further north on Highway 95 to Historic Lake Scott State Park. Camping and fishing are available.

While in the park, definitely visit the El Quartelejo Ruins. El Quarterlejo is the northernmost pueblo in the United States.

For a fuller picture of the Battle of Punished Woman’s Fork, the pueblo and learn more about Scott County history, check out El Quartelejo Museum and Jerry Thomas Gallery and Collection. Our friend Jerry Thomas is noted for his meticulously-researched and beautiful Western history paintings. Thomas is determined to bring Kansas-related artifacts to the state and keep them here. After a long search, he found the only known picture of Lt. Col. Lewis. Someone else donated Lewis’s sword. Both artifacts are displayed in the museum, along with a Thomas painting of the battle named “To the Front, Boys!

Where to eat

In Scott City, we recommend Tate’s  and Majestic Theatre Restaurant. At Tate’s, try the bison burgers from Duff Buffalo Ranch bison. You can even tour the ranch afterward. For elegance and ambiance, the Majestic cannot be topped. We love the open-faced prime rib sandwich at this restored 1922 movie palace.

How to find the fun in Kansas

Check out what we’ve written about Kansas and Southwest Kansas in particular. Learn more about Butterfield Trail Museum, another attraction along Western Vistas Historic Byway. Garden City is a fun place to visit, and it’s only 38 minutes south of Scott City.


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