BATTLE CANYON, SCOTT COUNTY — The canyon and the prairie in this area look much like they did 135 years ago.
The pasture is dotted with yucca plants and prickly pear; buffalo grass spans the horizon.
So does the area’s sense of history.
More than 300 followers of Northern Cheyenne chiefs Dull Knife and Little Wolf fought federal troops here during a desperate 1,500-mile run from Oklahoma to their home in Montana.
In the two weeks that the Cheyenne pass through Kansas during September 1878, more than 100 Cheyenne, European settlers and soldiers died during the state’s last major clash between Europeans and Indians.
For a long time, the story was lost.
It took the efforts of a high school cross-country coach – who for four decades climbed the hills around the canyon to research and document the history – to get the site listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
It also took a high-profile artist with the love of the Old West to organize a symposium, reach out to the Northern Cheyenne, and develop collections of artifacts and other memorabilia from the time period.
For the first time in 135 years, the Northern Cheyenne are coming back to Battle Canyon.
So is the 4th U.S. Cavalry.
The battle was one of several turning points for the Northern Cheyenne – and one the soldiers didn’t win.
It was one in a series of events that gained national significance and began to slowly turn the tide of European opinion toward Native Americans.
Jerome Greene is a retired historian for the National Park Service now living in Arvada, Colo. Two years ago, he came to Scott County.
He walked across the bluffs and down into the canyon and the cave where Northern Cheyenne women, children and the elderly took shelter during the battle.
“I had no idea this place was as relatively untouched as it was,” he said. “That’s what makes it unique among Indian War sites now.”
Thirty acres where the canyon and cave are located were donated to Scott County in 1960 by R.B. Christy.
The Cheyenne chiefs knew the terrain of Scott County – how for miles the horizon is flat before it suddenly drops off into plunging canyons and valleys.
The Cheyenne made their stand at Battle Canyon. Their plan was to draw the soldiers into the valley of the box canyon and ambush them.
Cheyenne women and children quickly dug rifle pits into the cliffs as the warriors prepared for battle.
From a military tactician’s view, the move by the Cheyenne was brilliant, Greene said.
“The Cheyenne had fought with the Sioux,” Greene said. “They were good fighters and adept at using the topography when they were confronted and surrounded.”
For years, it had been locally known as Squaw’s Den. Beginning in 1970, Scott City coach Jerry Snyder would load his cross-country team into a bus a couple of evenings a week and take them about a dozen miles north of town to run the hills leading up and down into the canyon.
Snyder, his wife, Margaret, and then-Scott County Commissioner Larry Hoeme pursued historical designation for the property. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2007. And in the process, the name was changed.
The “Squaw’s Den” name was pointed out as derogatory; it was changed to Battle of Punished Woman’s Fork, or simply Battle Canyon.
According to the nomination for the register: “The Northern Cheyenne Exodus Trail is considered of national significance for several reasons: These include the forced relocation of tribal peoples to Indian Territory. ... It is also seen as a seminal event in Cheyenne history and culture ... and the Battle of Punished Woman’s Fork is one of the best-preserved sites where confrontations took place along the route of the Northern Cheyenne Exodus.”
Tim Weston, the Kansas State Historic Preservation Office archaeologist in Topeka, said he immediately went to the site when he got the nomination.
“You can see the setting that Dull Knife and Little Wolf and the other Cheyenne warriors saw as the soldiers approached,” Weston said. “It has been carefully preserved, which speaks well for the county. …
“And it tells the story of how two groups of Americans came together in a confrontation. The National Park Service was impressed.”
Artist Jerry Thomas, best known for his paintings of Western culture and wildlife, helped organize next week’s symposium.
“People don’t know some of our history out here, what took place and how rich our heritage is here,” said Thomas, a native of Scott City. “You can feel there is something special here.”
Sick, starving and far from home, 300 Northern Cheyenne – mostly women and children – slipped away one night from their Oklahoma reservation near El Reno.
The Northern Cheyenne left fires burning and tepees standing and began a frantic journey that would lead them across Kansas in the hope of reaching their home in the mountains of Montana.
Charles Eastman – the renowned 19th-century doctor, government employee, writer and reformer – described their leader, Dull Knife, as one of the greatest Plains chiefs of all time. Dull Knife was nearly 70 at the time of the raid.
“Dull Knife was a chief of the old school,” Eastman wrote.
“… When he realized that his people were dying like sheep, he was deeply moved. He called them together. Every man and woman declared that they would rather die in their own country than stay there longer and they resolved to flee to their northern homes.”
His Cheyenne name was Morning Star. It was the Sioux who named him Dull Knife, said Kathleen Beartusk, a Chief Dull Knife descendant.
“He was not a war chief,” Beartusk said. “He had the wisdom to know we had to learn what the white man had to teach us. He advocated for education, and he knew it was going to be hard – but that would be the only way to survive as a people.
“A lot of Cheyenne turned against him for that. They degraded him and called him a woman, a white man’s wife. They wanted to fight.”
Chief Little Wolf was in his late 50s or early 60s at the time of the raid and was considered a skilled fighter and leader.
“The Cheyenne were dying in Oklahoma from dysentery, malaria and lack of food and not being acclimated to the weather,” said Richard Littlebear, president of Chief Dull Knife College in Lame Deer, Mont. “When they decided to leave, there was this determination to come back to the north country and either we would live here or die here.”
As the Cheynne trekked through Kansas, there was a skirmish near Fort Dodge with the U.S. Army, but it quickly dissipated as the Cheyenne continued pushing north.
At Battle Canyon in Scott County, the Cheyenne prepared to make a stand.
The military was slow and sluggish, with infantry and wagons lumbering in the distance.
“I think it was Bear Shield who rode into the village and warned the Cheyenne and said there are many foot soldiers, many wagons and the dust that was swirling up in the sky,” said Snyder, the former coach. “He said it looked like an angry white snake.”
Approaching the canyon were five companies of the 4th U.S. Cavalry, or about 250 soldiers, said Greene, the retired historian.
Lt. Col. William Lewis and his soldiers came from the south and entered the Ladder Creek valley, crossing its creek and heading north.
A rifle shot was fired.
Lewis led the troops along a ridge overlooking the ravine as one rifle bullet tore through his leg and mortally wounded him. Bullets whizzed around the soldiers, striking them and their horses, Thomas said.
It was dusk and the Army soldiers withdrew for the night to camp and regroup. The fight had lasted only a few hours.
During the night a storm came up with howling winds. The Cheyenne escaped, passing single file through the narrow canyon and leaving more than 60 horses behind, Greene said.
“Most of the Indians were on foot. A lot of the supplies were left behind,” Thomas said. “While they knew the trail, it was dark. And they knew the military was right behind them. They knew they had to get away.”
By sunrise, the Cheyenne were nearly 35 miles north of the military. Lewis died the next day in a military ambulance en route to Fort Wallace, becoming the last military casualty in Kansas from the Indian Wars.
To recover horses and provisions, the Northern Cheyenne attacked settlements in Smith, Rawlins and Decatur counties. On Sappa Creek in Decatur County and Beaver Creek in Rawlins County, they attacked cabins and killed 30 settlers in two days.
One settler was James Smith, who was killed on the South Sappa on Sept. 30, 1878. His great-granddaughter, Loleta Leslie, now lives in Alva, Okla.
“He was working in a field and putting hay up and these Indian warriors came through,” Leslie said. “He was shot with an arrow. It took several days before the poisons from the arrow killed him.”
The Northern Cheyenne continued their exodus into southern Nebraska, then split into two groups. Those who stayed with Little Wolf spent the winter in the sand hills of Nebraska and pushed on into Montana, where they surrendered on March 25, 1879, at Fort Keogh.
Dull Knife’s band was captured and imprisoned in Fort Robinson, Neb., on Oct. 25, 1878.
The Northern Cheyenne refused to be sent back to Oklahoma. On Jan. 9, 1878, Dull Knife’s band broke out of the barracks and escaped. Many were shot and killed as the soldiers chased them.
Dull Knife and Little Wolf faced a trial but were not convicted. The Northern Cheyenne were eventually allowed to return to Montana.
Largely because of the last Indian passage through Kansas and Nebraska, the Northern Cheyenne Reservation at Lame Deer, Mont., was created in 1884.
Conrad Fisher, the Northern Cheyenne tribal historian and preservation officer, thinks the two-day symposium Friday and Saturday will be a healing event for both the Cheyenne and for the state of Kansas.
“It is a symbolic gesture to come back to a place where this battle occurred and dedicate it as a national landmark,” Fisher said. “For some people, it will bring closure; for others, healing.
“For everyone, it will be a chance to look at a part of our history.”
On Friday, the Northern Cheyenne and 4th U.S. Cavalry re-enactors will once again enter Battle Canyon in Scott County. There will be songs and dance and blessings of the land.
The 1,500-mile journey that the Northern Cheyenne took in 1878, Littlebear said, “was a momentous accomplishment. They came back through a heavily populated area, crossed three railroad lines, without food, transportation and were mostly non-warriors.
“I want people to know that the land we live in is sacred because of the blood shed for it, because of the loss we have experienced in both cultures.”