Fetterman’s Last Ride, Part I

Pulse News Mexico photo/Rich Grant


Captain Tenedor Ten Eyck surveyed the frozen Wyoming landscape and was worried. Where was Fetterman? Captain Ten Eyck, on this very biting and cold day of Dec. 21, 1866, was in command of a relief force sent out from Fort Philip Kearney. He had 75 infantry troops and civilian volunteers and their mission was to find Captain William J. Fetterman and his 80 men and bring them back to the fort.

U.S. Army Captain Tenedor Ten Eyck. Photo: findagrave.com

But Fetterman was nowhere to be seen.

How could 80 men disappear in a little more than an hour? Because it was just an hour since Captain Fetterman with 50 infantry and 30 calvary troopers had been sent out from the fort to protect a wood chopping crew that was being attacked by Lakota Sioux raiders. Everyone in the fort had watched Fetterman and his men march out and disappear over the horizon. It was an almost everyday occurrence here. Nothing unusual. The fort needed wood for fires. When they sent out wood-chopping crews, the Indians attacked. Almost every day. And every day, the Indian attackers would disperse at the sight of an armed force coming from the fort. Then the wood cutters, calvary and infantry would all march back to the fort, where there was a 38-piece band to welcome them and a huge stars and stripes flag flying from a towering flagpole.

But on this cold December morning, no one came back to the fort. Instead, the people in the fort heard gunfire in the distance.

So Captain Ten Eyck was sent out with a relief force. He and his men climbed to the highest point on the landscape. From here, he could survey the entire countryside. He could see the wood crew was safe, he could see the fort was safe, but disturbingly, three miles away, he could see the Sioux – hundreds, maybe thousands of painted and feathered warriors, dancing and taunting him. It was more Indians together than anyone had ever seen before.

U.S. Army Captain William J. Fetterman. Photo: Wikipedia

And there was no sign of Fetterman. Then one of the troopers pointed and shouted. “There’s all the men down there. All dead!” From the distance of three miles, the white smear on the horizon near the celebrating Sioux could have been mistaken for snow on the frozen landscape. But after a moment, there was no mistaking it. The white line along the horizon was the dead, stripped white bodies of Fetterman and his 80 men. They had been wiped out.

Down on the Plateau of Horror

Captain Ten Eyck and his men waited at their lookout until the last of the Sioux rode off, taunting the soldiers as they galloped away, and then, in the darkening afternoon, the soldiers moved down on to what was known as Lodge Trail Ridge. It was a long plateau with very steep sides and a grassy flat top that drifted off into the distance.

Here they found Fetterman’s command – naked bodies arranged in a grotesque scene of horror. As was their custom, the Sioux mutilated their victims so that their spirits would be punished in the afterlife. To blind them in the spirt world, their eyes were cut out. In the same fashion, their ears and noses were cut off. Muscles were ripped out of arms and legs. Private parts were cut off and stuffed into mouths. One man had more than 50 arrows in him. Most of the victims were scalped. Such was the Sioux hatred of these soldiers that the Indians even scalped the soldier’s dead horses. In the frigid weather, the battlefield was dotted with pools of frozen blood and entrails. Everywhere, the pallid, ghastly white bodies of the soldiers had become stiff in gruesome poses that captured their last moments of pain and terror.

Ten Eyck and his men loaded as many of the rigid bodies as they could fit in the wagons, stacking them like cord wood. But in the back of their minds, they had to be thinking of Fetterman. A bit of a braggard, Fetterman despised the Sioux. He boasted that with 80 men he could ride through the entire Sioux nation. In one of the great ironies of history, or perhaps it was just fate, Fetterman had exactly 80 men with him as he took his last ride.

Historian Sid Wilson points out the position on Lodge Trail Ridge where Crazy Horse and Sioux overwhelmed Capt. Fetterman and his 80 men. Pulse News Mexico photo/Rich Grant

Into the 21st Century

It is impossible to imagine the feelings of Captain Ten Eyck and his men as they rolled their hideous wagons back across the bleak, frozen ground to the fort, but you can see where it happened, stand on the same blood-drenched battleground, cross the same landscape, and finally enter a fantastic reproduction of the wooden gates of Fort Phil Kearney, exactly where they stood.

What came to be known as the “Fetterman Massacre” was the greatest defeat of the U.S. Army in its fight against the Plains Indians of the West until George Armstrong Custer and 210 men of the 7th Calvary were also wiped out, 110 years later. Located about halfway between Buffalo and Sheridan, Wyoming, the Fetterman battleground today is a wild, un-touristy place of rolling hills and plateaus in the middle of nowhere.

Grassy knolls and valleys stretch to a horizon of endless skies. Historic markers at key places on the battlefield try to explain what happened, but it is not an easy job. No white man survived to tell the tale. Indian accounts of the battle are varied. One thing the signs do explain: This was no “massacre.” It was a straight-on battle between two armed forces. Ironically, it was a legitimate “massacre,” carried out by white troops at Sand Creek in Colorado, two years earlier, that led to this battle, and ultimately, to Custer’s last stand at the Little Big Horn.

So how did William Fetterman and his 80 men end up dying in this remote and desolate spot? If you have the time, you can follow the story over hundreds of miles from Sand Creek, Colorado, to Fort Phil Kearney and on to the Little Big Horn in Montana, a journey I undertook with Western historian Sid Wilson, a tour operator, international guide and former chairman of the Black American West Museum in Denver.

We started at Sand Creek and the turbulent times of 1864.

The Fetterman Monument is now on deserted rolling hills, Pulse News Mexico photo/Rich Grant

Sand Creek and the Beginning of the End for the Tribes of the Plains

Gold was discovered in Colorado in 1858 and it unleashed a madness the world has seldom seen. In two years, 100,000 men and women risked everything to cross the Great Plains in search of fortune, pulling wagons across the herds of buffalo and the vast rolling hills that were the hunting grounds of the Cheyenne, Arapahoe, Pawnee, Blackfoot and Sioux. War was inevitable. By 1864, the settlement in Denver was the most isolated community on the continent, completely dependent for food and supplies on a ragged, hostile and dangerous 600-mile trail to Missouri, where the rest of the United States was preoccupied with more than 2 million soldiers fighting in a great U.S. Civil War.

When Julesburg, Colorado, and several farm settlements were attacked in raids by a group of military warriors known as the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers, John Evans, governor of the Colorado Territory, panicked and called out the First and Third Colorado cavalry. Led by a giant of a man, a 6-foot, 7-inch Methodist preacher named John Chivington, they were about to make one of the most atrocious mistakes in U.S. history. Chivington had preached: “It simply is not possible for Indians to obey or even understand any treaty. I am fully satisfied, gentlemen, that to kill them is the only way we will ever have peace and quiet in Colorado.”

Instead of tracking down the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers, Chivington took the strategy that any Indians would do and he led his soldiers to a peaceful Cheyenne camp of Black Kettle along the Sand Creek. Pulse News Mexico photo]/Rich Grant

He was about to carry that out. But instead of tracking down the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers, who were at war with the United States, Chivington took the strategy that any Indians would do and he led his soldiers to a peaceful Cheyenne camp of Black Kettle along the Sand Creek. Not only had Black Kettle signed a peace treaty with the whites, he was camped exactly where he had been told to take his tribe, and he was flying an American flag over a white flag, as he been ordered.    

With 425 men (who had spent the previous night drinking), Chivington launched a surprise attack on the morning of Nov. 29, 1864. The Cheyenne were bewildered. “This was the 9-11 for the Plains Indians,” Wilson says. “They had done everything they had promised to do in their treaty, and still the white army came and slaughtered them. After this, many of the young Cheyenne realized that there was no truth in dealing with the whites and no point in honoring future treaties.”

The soldiers became overcome with madness and killed between 125 and 175 Cheyenne, mostly women and children. They scalped and mutilated the dead and brought body parts as trophies back to the Apollo Theatre in Denver, where they were celebrated as heroes.

Colorado Territory Governor John Evans called out the troops that led to the Sand Creek Massacre, saying “All citizens of Colorado go in pursuit, kill and destroy all hostile Indians that infest the Plains.” He was forced to resign after the truth of the massacre came out. Pulse News Mexico photo/Rich Grant

But slowly, the truth came out. Several companies of soldiers had resisted the madness and refused to participate in the massacre. Charges were filed and witnesses made statements. One of them, Captain Silas Soule, testified that he had ordered his company not to fire, but then Soule was murdered on the streets of Denver shortly afterwards. Despite threats from Chivington and his allies, the evidence of the massacre was indisputable. Governor Evans was forced to resign in disgrace, and Chivington was drummed out of the army.

Today, the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site is unique among national parks. It is a stretch of open prairie that is virtually unchanged since 1864. What haunts this place is nothing you can see. Massacre sites do not provide a lot of relics, so the area looks exactly like all the other landscape around it. Some historians and Native Americans are not even sure if the national historic site is even really where the massacre took place. The creek has shifted many times over the years. That matters little.

The important thing is that Sand Creek has been remembered and that the National Park Service is trying to interpret what really happened here. The museum and historic markers on a short trail make a visit to the site an unforgettable experience.

In a contemporary side to this story, in 1909, a statue of a Civil War soldier was erected in front of the Colorado State Capitol in Denver to commemorate the state’s commitment to the Union in the Civil War. Below the statue, a plaque contained all the Civil War battles that Colorado soldiers had fought in. Sand Creek was included, and listed as “a battle.”

To correct this mistake, in 1999, a second plaque was put up next to the Civil War statue, explaining that Sand Creek was not a “battle,” but was in reality a massacre. The new plaque explained the true story of Sand Creek. Ironically, it little matters now. On June 25, 2020, the Civil War statue was set on fire and torn down by unknown people and destroyed.


…July 23, 2020


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