They didn’t know that day would be their last 149 years ago

Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Cavalry fights Sioux Indians at Fort Larned in an 1867 edition of Harpers Weekly. The burning of an Indian village led to the deaths a day later of three station agents in Kansas.
Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s 7th Cavalry fights Sioux Indians at Fort Larned in an 1867 edition of Harpers Weekly. The burning of an Indian village led to the deaths a day later of three station agents in Kansas. Courtesy photo

The wind still rustles across the prairie as it did on the day when three station agents along the Butterfield Overland Dispatch stagecoach trail were killed.

And although they were buried by Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s troops not long after they died, the graves of Robert Anderson, John Reynolds and Frank Carter went unmarked and unnoticed for 149 years.

Until a week ago, when members of the Smoky Hill Trail Association held a conference and marked the graves at Lookout Station in Ellis County.

“I wanted to make people aware,” said Jim Gray, director of the National Drovers Hall of Fame in Ellsworth.

“I ask people to put themselves back in time to 149 years ago to the day it happened. These were three men trying to make a living and were hired on to do a job. They had no idea that the morning they got up would be their last.”

On Kansas soil

In April 1867, Custer was on his first command in the Indian Wars with the 7th Cavalry crossing the Kansas prairie when Gen. Winfield Hancock ordered him to surround a Cheyenne-Sioux village in a show of force.

The village was about 20 miles northwest of Fort Larned, said Leo Oliva, a Kansas historian and author.

The village’s residents – a number of whom had survived the Sand Creek Massacre in eastern Colorado three years earlier – saw the approaching troops and fled.

Hancock ordered the village burned.

Historians say the act was a turning point in the nation’s Indian Wars, instilling fear and mistrust among American Indians and setting up major conflicts in the future.

“The killing of these station agents is part of a much larger story,” Oliva said. “They are the first victims of Hancock’s war.”

Hancock ordered the village, in Ness County, burned on April 14, 1867.

The Butterfield Overland Dispatch agents were killed in Ellis County the next day.

“The Oglala Sioux were headed north to go home,” Oliva said. “They came to Lookout Station and saw three guys, and that’s where they took revenge. The Indians had lost everything and were responding to that.

“The guys at the station had no warning, no idea what was happening. They were innocent victims, too.”

Fallout from Sand Creek

Next year will mark the 150th anniversary of when Kansas became exceedingly violent and deadly as two cultures clashed on the plains.

For perspective, consider that one of the chiefs in the Indian village that Hancock surrounded in 1867 was Black Kettle, a peaceful Southern Cheyenne. Just a few years earlier – on Nov. 29, 1864 – troops under the command of Col. John Chivington, a former Methodist preacher, attacked and destroyed a Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho village in eastern Colorado called Sand Creek.

Black Kettle saw the troops surrounding the Sand Creek village, waved an American flag and put a white cloth in front of his teepee, hoping it would bring peace.

It didn’t.

He watched helplessly as soldiers slaughtered nearly 150 men, women and children. He and his family retreated to Kansas to heal.

Changing prairie

In 1867, an Illinois livestock trader named Joseph McCoy developed an idea to drive longhorn cattle from near San Antonio north through Fort Worth into Oklahoma along the Chisholm Trail through Duncan and Enid and then on to Kansas through Caldwell, Wichita, Newton and Abilene.

To help monitor peace, Hancock was put in charge of Indian relations – and he was joined by Custer.

From 1866 to 1871, Custer and his wife, Libby, were stationed at various encampments across Kansas. Custer, by now a major general, was assigned to the 7th Cavalry Regiment based at Fort Riley.

Oliva and Gray see the station agent killings as the beginning of the end for many Indian tribes that for centuries had considered Kansas their home.

“Hancock creates a war where none existed before, and the Indians retaliated,” Oliva said. “Before Hancock’s war is over, 127 U.S. citizens are killed, and we don’t know how many Indians are killed.”

Recent times

Lookout Station is about 5 miles south and 3 miles west of Hays.

On April 14, 1867, the station included a few buildings: a dugout and roughly constructed barn that helped shelter horses for stagecoaches.

The day the Indian village was burned, Hancock ordered Custer to head north to overtake the Indians. Custer and his troops arrived at the station at least two days after the men were killed.

“I caused them to be buried near the station with as much care as the circumstances would permit,” Custer wrote.

In 2007, several members of the Smoky Hills Trail Association were at Lookout Station, Gray said. Ruts from the trail are still visible, as is a square mound where the station was located, a stable and dugout.

“We study the things that happened there and then what we can find that is still left,” Gray said. “There is still so much to learn about the trail.”

As members of the association fanned out to look over the site, a friend came up to Gray and asked him about a particular area along the rolling draw. It was Linda Kohls of Ellsworth.

“I was wondering where the graves could be and was looking at the grass and could tell a difference in the grasses and the weeds,” Kohls said. “There was no indentation at all – but there the grass and weeds were a different color, a brighter green.”

It was the graves of the station agents.

“It gave me goosebumps that something was finally done to memorialize their lives.”

Beccy Tanner: 316-268-6336, @beccytanner