Remains of Kansas Cavalry soldiers elude searchers

Instruments probe the sands of Wyoming, but the search for the long-lost bones is unproductive.

08/18/2012 12:00 AM

08/18/2012 8:50 PM

The sands refused to give up the long-lost bones of Sgt. Amos Custard and those troopers he led into a massacre.

The Wyoming resting place of perhaps 20 soldiers of the 11th Kansas Cavalry is still a mystery of the Old West despite the 10 summer days a well-equipped team of archeologists and history-loving volunteers dedicated to crisscrossing the stretch of land west of Casper.

“There were about four or five competing thoughts as to where that battle was, and we covered every one of them over 45 acres,” said Danny Walker, Wyoming assistant state archaeologist. “We were not successful.”

Similar efforts were made in 2006 and 2008 to find and protect the soldiers’ remains. This time, Walker and the team were equipped with a new, more powerful magnetometer to register any anomalies in the sand layers below.

Amid a wide uprising of Plains tribes seeking revenge for the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado, the Battle of the Red Buttes on July 26, 1865, pitted the mostly wagon-bound Kansans against a couple thousand Cheyenne and Sioux warriors. The troopers sent out to help guard the Oregon Trail against Indian atrocities became the victims of one.

The bodies were never collected in later years for reburial at area forts like many of their brethren, including a handful slain that day in the close-by Battle of the Platte Bridge Station. Old comrades went out to Wyoming in 1927 and declared they had found the grave but apparently left it unmarked.

Steve Haack, an independent researcher from Lincoln, Neb., who has written about the 11th Kansas in Wyoming, had a theory on the location, based on old photographs from that expedition.

“That was my best shot, but, really, not much showed up there,” he said.

Now he’s wondering about a faint reading atop a dune not far from that spot.

“An anomaly found the next-to-last day was a few hundred feet east of the place from where those 1927 photos were taken,” he said.

While he’s still awaiting the data to be sorted, “I’m not waiting for a big break from it.”

The team then did a core drilling there to about 5 feet down, but hit no bones. The men supposedly had been buried less than 4 feet in the sand. But Haack is wondering about what geologists told him, that in summers like this one, when the Platte River practically dries up, sand blows around and the ground level could have been lifted by perhaps as much as 3 feet over the last 147 years.

“I’d like to run ground-penetrating radar on that spot,” he said, but that won’t happen any time soon.

It wasn’t a complete loss, he said. A large area has been eliminated from consideration, and “they found branches of the Oregon Trail that have never been recorded before.”

In 2008, he said, burned wagon parts and square-cut nails were found, good clues to the likely location of the barricade of three wagons and dead mules where Custard’s troopers made their last stand. The sergeant had been warned of the swarms of hostiles ahead but is said to have scoffed that the 11th Kansas had whipped the Confederates in Missouri the previous year and therefore could handle a few Indians.

He and the others ended up bullet- and arrow-riddled, scalped and stripped of their gear, according to members of their regiment who found them three days later. They were placed in a long trench somewhere just across the Oregon Trail from where they died.

“I’ve gotten a better feeling for the country. I’ve become convinced that (Haack’s) spot may be closer than what the historians have been saying,” Walker said. “The problem is that’s where most of the trash has been dumped. The area was sort of an unofficial dump for years.”

This, he said, handicapped the magnetometer, which couldn’t penetrate the debris.

“There averaged probably nine or 10 people out there every day,” Walker said.

The team tramped the heat-reflecting white sand through temperatures that reached 108 degrees. Haack said he came home “sunburned, windburned, dehydrated, the whole thing. And all the plants out there wanted to hurt me.”

While final processing of equipment readings might indicate something missed amid the disappointing raw data, Walker plans to go back to the archives for a review of what’s been written. He’d like to get time to go to Topeka and look at the records there, too, then wait for a couple of years for some new grant money to show up and make another run at it.

Some worry that a developer or road builder’s backhoe or bulldozer might disturb the troopers’ shallow trench or that it might be lost under suburban development. Walker believes the lethargic economy has given the searchers time.

Neither he nor Haack is giving up.

“It’s kind of a challenge to me, one of the unexplained mysteries of Wyoming history,” Walker said. “Every other battlefield of the 1860s, we know exactly where it’s at, but this one we don’t. We really want to locate it, and one of these days I think we will.”

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