From prehistoric times, the watershed of this nearly 600 mile long river that the Indians considered extended from its source in Colorado to where it emptied in the Missouri River contained the finest country--nearly 58,000 square miles of it--in all the great plains east of the Rocky Mountains, and it was a main source of supply for all tribes of Plains Indians, all of which made regular trips into this hunting paradise for their annual needs. And though every tribe claimed it as their own, none could make good their claim, and as a consequence many fierce battles were fought within its confines between the various tribes of Indians long before, as well as after, the white man appeared on the scene.
The great river's middle reaches were probably viewed by the Spaniards -- Coronado in 1541 and Villazur in 1720 -- by the Frenchman Bourgmont in 1724, and by Lt. Pike in 1806, yet its course was not explored until in 1844, when one of the West's most colorful characters searched out its source and followed its course to its junction with the Missouri River.
This great river was known by some of the Plains Indian Tribes as CHETOLAH, and by others as OKESEE-SEBO. The early French and English explorers designated it the RIVER OF THE PADOUCAS, but it finally became known as the SMOKY HILL, some historians say because of the hazy or smoky appearance of its dark shale hills. George Bird Grinnell maintained that the big cottonwood grove known as Big Timbers was the origen of the name. This was a very large grove of immense cottonwood trees on the Smoky Hill almost on the line of Kansas and Colorado. It was a favorite camping place of the Indians, over 1000 under Black Kettle camping there early in 1864, and it was also the place of refuge of the survivors under Black Kettle of the Chivington Massacre on Sand Creek in November, 1864. The trees were very tall and dense with no underbrush and could be seen for a great distance, looking like a cloud of smoke. To Lt. Fitch's party surveying the Butterfield Overland Despatch route it appeared for many miles, as they approached it, like a large blue mound, hence the station built there was called Blue Mound.
Capt. John C. Fremont took particular note of this outstanding landmark when, in 1844 he searched out the River's source and followed its course to its junction with the Missouri River. This intrepid and fearless explorer was best known as "The Pathfinder" because of his several expeditions in which he explored and mapped much of the vast territory between the Missouri River, and the Pacific Ocean, actually saving California to the United States. And all these expeditions were outfitted and started from the mouth of this great Smoky Hill River where it empties into the Missouri River, and all returned to this same starting point. And though in his travels he was often in extreme danger, he perhaps never came nearer death than when he stopped at an Indian camp on this Smoky Hill River in what is now Ellis County on the return trip of his second expedition.
One of the most colorful characters of our great West so renowned that he is best known as the "Great Pathfinder", was the intrepid and fearless John Charles Fremont. All of his several exploring expeditions, in which he surveyed and mapped the vast territory between the Rocky Mts. and the Pacific and actually saved California to the United States, were outfitted and started from the mouth of the Kaw, and all traversed Kansas and returned through Kansas back to the mouth of the Kaw, their jumping-off place. And though he was often in extreme danger, perhaps he never came nearer death than when he stopped at an Indian camp on the Smoky Hill River in what is now Ellis County on the return trip of his second expedition.
On his first exploring trip he had mapped and standarized the route of what became the popular and much used Oregon Trail, going out on the Santa Fe Trail to near the site of the present Gardner, then northwest, crossing the Kaw at Pappan's Ferry (Topeka), up the Kaw and Blue River valleys to the Platte and Sweetwater rivers and through the remarkable South Pass, which was described at the time as having no steeper grade through the great Continental Divide than was that up Tiber Hill on which the National Capitol in Washington stood. The Government "permitted" this first expedition, though they took all the credit for its accomplishments, but the second expedition was actually countermanded by the War Dept. because Fremont took along a small mountain howitzer, and "such military equipment was not thought compatible with his peaceful geographical and scientific objectives", as if Indians would not kill and rob scientific men as well as others if not equipped to defend themselves. But fortunately, due to his wife, the countermanding orders did not reach Fremont before he left civilization and he knew nothing of their existence until after he returned fifteen months later, from a most marvelous and eventful expedition, one to which the United States actually owes its acquisition of California, which was then in the process of becoming a British possession.
When Fremont reached Ft. Vancouver near the mouth of the Columbia, he had completed the locating and mapping of the Oregon Trail from the South Pass, which he had reached on his first expedition, on to the Oregon country. But there was a vast and unknown country farther south and between the Rocky Mts. and the coast which he longed to explore and map. The hospitable Dr. McLaughlin, Governor at Ft. Vancouver of the British Hudson Bay Fur Company, told him that a large river, the "Buena Ventura" (Good Chance) was supposed to run from the Rocky Mts. westward to the Gulf of San Francisco. Fremont decided to return to the United States by pursuing a south-easterly course from Fort Vancouver until he struck this river and winter there. But he soon encountered deep snows on the highlands, and to avoid this he descended to the low country to the left with the very high mountains on his right. But he found no river, only a desert which afterwards came to be known as the Great Basin, from which no water ever gets to any sea, but only to the Great Salt Lake. Fremont had relied on such a large river providing plenty of food and shelter for the winter but the desert he had found instead was absolutely lacking in either food or water, wood or shelter. By his astronomical calculations he ascertained that he was somewhere in the latitude of the Bay of San Francisco but with the mighty mountains between them, mountains which the Indians told him no man could cross in winter. However, realising they would perish in the desert before spring, they turned west and, without a guide, after forty days of terrible experience, they succeeded in crossing the seemingly impossible barrier and as living skeletons crawled into Sutter's Settlement in the beautiful valley of the Sacramento.
On his return trip in the Spring he explored and brought to knowledge most of the great features of this vast region, such as the San Joaquin valley, mountain peaks, parks, rivers, Great Salt Lake and other lakes, etc., and July 1st found him at Bent's Fort in the Arkansas River valley near where Las Animas now is. Fremont's report of the expedition was accompanied by a good map, from which most of his campsites can be located. This report states, "On the 5th July we resumed our journey down the Arkansas and encamped about 20 miles below the fort. Agreable to your instructions which required me to complete as far as practicable our examination of the Kansas River, I left at this encampment the Arkansas River, taking a northeasterly direction across the elevated dividing grounds which separate that river from the waters of the Platte. On the 7th we crossed a large stream about 40 yards wide and one or two feet deep, flowing with a lively current on a sandy bed..." The map shows that this stream was the Big Sandy. "Beyond this stream we traveled over high and level prairies, halting at small ponds and holes of water. On the morning of the 8th we encamped in a cottonwood grove on the banks of a sandy stream where there was water in holes sufficient for the camp. Here several hollows or dry creeks with sandy beds met together, forming the head of a stream which afterwards proved to be the Smoky Hill fork of the Kansas River." Fremont's map shows that this camp was made in Colorado about 20 miles west of the Kansas line. On the 9th he camped about 8 miles east of the Colorado line. On the 10th near the present town of Wallace. On the 12th somewhere east of Russell Springs. On the 13th somewhere east of Jerome near the mouth of Plum Creek. On the 14th near the mouth of Indian Creek near Alanthus. At this camp his report states, "...we were encamped in a pleasant evening on a high leval prairie, the stream [Smoky] being less than a hundred yards broad. During the night we had a succession of thunder storms with heavy and continuous rain, and toward morning the water suddenly burst over the banks, flooding the bottom and becoming a large river 5 or 6 hundred yards in breadth. The darkness of the night and the incessant rain had concealed from the guard the rise of the water and the river broke into the camp so suddenly that the baggage was instantly covered and all our perishable collection almost utterly ruined and the hard labor of many months destroyed in a moment."
On the 16th they camped near the mouth of Page Creek and his report continues "On the 17th we discovered a large village of Indians encamped at the mouth of a handsomely wooded stream on the right bank of the river. Readily inferring from the nature of the encampment that they were Pawnee Indians and confidently expecting good treatment from a people who received an annuity from the Government, we proceeded directly to the village where we found assembled nearly all the Pawnee Tribe, who were now returning from the crossing of the Arkansas where they had met the Kiowa and Commanche Indians. We were received by them with unfriendly rudeness and characteristic insolence which they never fail to display whenever they find an occasion for doing so with impunity. The little that remained of our goods was distributed among them but proved entirely insufficient to satisfy their greedy rapacity; and after some delay and considerable difficulty we succeeded in extricating ourselves from the village and encamped on the river about fifteen miles below."
Thus characteristically Fremont dismisses what was really a desperate situation, because, but for the presence and intervention of some friendly Pawnee Loups, to whose village in Nebraska Fremont had paid a friendly visit some two years before, his entire party of 26 men would almost certainly have been annihilated. Possibly Fremont himself was not fully aware of the seriousness of his predicament for the facts in the case came to light quite accidentally about two months later and several hundred miles away. In Aug. 1844, a five-company expedition under Major Wharton left Ft. Leavenworth to visit the several branches of the Pawnees on the Platte and Loup Rivers in Nebraska. After visiting several of the main villages the expedition had reached the Missouri River at Bellevue and during the delay of the difficult crossing, Major Wharton accidently learned about the contemplated attack on Fremont about two months before. The Journal of Wharton's Expedition records it as follows:
Wednesday, Sept. 11th. The delay in getting over the river here proves one of the most fortunate circumstances of our expedition, as will be presently seen. Our tents were struck this morning, and the two remaining companies A & F, with the Howitzers and Hospital & Company wagons were brought down to the river for the purpose of being crossed over. About this moment, the Comdg. officer learned the facts of the contemplated robbery & murder by some Pawnees of Lieut. Fremont of the Army, and his exploring party, on their recent return from the Rocky Mountains. A rumor that such treatment of Lieut. Fremont had been contemplated had reached Major Wharton, but it ascribed the design exclusively to some Sioux. It is singular that the person from whom the facts are now learned was the Interpreter at both the Councils held with the Pawnees and then never mentioned a word about them. It may be accounted for by the fact, that he has an Indian family, lives at a Pawnee village, and therefore was fearful of disclosing anything which might excite ill feelings towards him on the part of some of the Pawnees. This man is a Frenchman, and is called "Claighorn". It seems, he was with the Indians when they met Lieut. Fremont, and was knowing to their designs and conduct. As the Council which took place today was by far the most interesting of any we have held, it may not be amiss to mention some of the incidents which preceded it. The Indians present within, & near the Square formed by the log houses of Mr. Sarpy, a licensed trader, were numerous, Pawnees, Otoes, Pottawatomies and Poncas forming different groups, the attention of whom was arrested by a conversation going on in the center of the Square between the Commanding officer, the Frenchman already referred to and Mr. Sarpy, who, speaking French fluently was very instrumental in extracting from Claighorn the following facts: It seems he was on a hunt on the prairies with men belonging to the different Bands of Pawnees. That when Lieut. Fremont and his party were met, the idea of robbing & murdering them was suggested by Pawnees who reside on the South side of the Platte, that the proposition, however, was opposed by others and chiefly by the Loup band residing on the Loup fork. The Indians passed part of a day in seriously discussing the proposed measure, but by the firmness of the Loups chiefly it was prevented and they accompanied Lt. Fremont to his camp that night to insure his safety. The countenances of the Indians during this conversation (between the Comdg. Off. & Claighorn) betrayed, that they, especially the Pawnees, knew the subject was of more than ordinary interest. Major Wharton enquired if any of the persons who participated in the desire to attack lieut. Fremont were now here. He replied, that he knew of none, but subsequently named the son of Cha-ra-cha-rish, Head Chief of the Grand Pawnees on the South bank of the Platte, and one who spoke in Council at his village when we were there. He added, as was the case, that there were scarcely any Indians from that village now here. He was then asked if there were any persons present who had participated in preventing the attack on Lieut. Fremont. He said "Yes". he was then asked if he could point out a few who by their activity & fineness had been chiefly instrumental in suppressing the contemplated outrage. He replied affirmatively, and while looking around to select the individuals, the curiosity, the anxiety, the alarm of many of the Indians was apparent in the countenances. Five Pawnee Loups whom he named were immediately called, and, not understanding the motives which led to their selection, they stood much embarassed until Major W. offered his hand to them. It was now determined to hold another Council with the Pawnees for the purpose of bringing to their notice the facts just disclosed respecting the proposed attack on Lieut. Fremont by some of them, and notice was immediately given to the Head Chief of the Grand Pawnees (of the Loup fork village) Us-a-gu-ga-kur-ek, to summon the Pawnees to attend. The Council convened, and the five noble Loups who had been the means of preventing a savage murder were told to take their seats on a box placed in the centre of the circle for that purpose. At this moment another Indian came forward and took his seat beside the five. He was at once recognized by the interpreter as another Pawnee Loup who had exerted himself in behalf of Lieut. Fremont. It may be well to say here, that one of these men is said to have raised his tomahawk and vowed to cut down the first who should attempt to molest that officer or his party. The Commanding now addressed the Indians to the following effect:
"Pawnees: When I was recently at your villages I gave you some good advice, and informed you what your Great Father desired you to do to promote your own happiness. I told you also of his ability and of his intention to protect his white children wherever they may be. Since my arrival at this place I have heard of an outrage that was contemplated on some of his children by a party of Pawnees -- an outrage which was prevented, however, I am happy to learn, by another portion of your people who proved themselves good men and true. Of the latter, six are seated there before us, and their names I shall take down on paper here that their Great Father may know what they have done. The outrage to which I allude was the robbery & murder (as proposed) of one of your Great Father's officers -- one who wears on this coat a button similar to this you see on mine. Had the proposed acts been committed your Great Father would have sent against you a sufficient number of his warriors to have destroyed all of you except those who interposed to save his officers and the party with him. I am told that none of the prominent actors in the plot are now present, but, should there be any present who took even an inferior part in it, I say to them that had I known their conduct when I was at the Grand Pawnee village, South of the Platte, I would have levelled yonder Big guns at it and destroyed it unless ample atonement had been made. Go back and tell your Chiefs, that it is fortunate for them that this conduct of some of their people I was not aware of when I was near them for otherwise I would have made prisoners of all who advocated the measure referred to. These brave Pawnees before me, who interposed to prevent robbery & murder, I thank in the name of their Great Father. Brave men are always generous -- always ready to protect the weak. They who would act otherwise are base cowards. Accept, Pawnee Loups, each of you, this Blanket and Tobacco as a mark of the respect in which your late conduct is held."
(Here the Comdg. officer placed over the shoulders of each of the six a Blanket, the Indians rising to receive it, and gave each Tobacco, as he did also to some of the Principal Chiefs present from the Loup fork village. The scene at this moment was highly interesting. On all sides of us there were spectators, some on the housetops, some on the fences, some in Mr. Sarpy's piazzas, above & below, all gazing on the ceremony with curiosity and no doubt, with envy of the good fortune of the six brave Pawnee Loups, who really seemed embarassed at the novelty of their situation.)
On all of his expeditions Lt. Fremont was equipped with the best astronomical and barometrical instruments, and was well qualified to use them, having been assistent for two years to the learned astronomer, Mr. Nicollet, in his topographical expedition to the upper Missouri and Mississippi valleys. At many of his camps Fremont reckoned longitude and latitude but he had no time or opportunity to make any such observations at this Indian camp. However, from those camps before and after and his description of the location, it is not difficult to locate this camp definitely. Fremont says that this camp was much used by the Pawnees, it being at the crossing of the Smoky on one of the several trails used by them in going and coming on their frequent trips to the buffalo country of the Smoky and Arkansas River valleys for meat, and also for the chance of encountering other Indian tribes and stealing some horses. It afforded wood and an ample supply of good water provided by one of the best springs to be found anywhere in the West. It is not known when the camp ceased to be frequented by the Indians but Mr. Wm. Schutte, who had been a Government scout on the plains and had often traveled the Smoky Hill Trail, said he saw it in use as late as the early sixties. In the early eighties Mr. Schutte took up a claim three miles south of the Smoky and while passing the village site on the trail to Hays, told his son August in response to his wondering inquiry, that those many circles of stones marked the location of the Indian teepees. The old scout explained that this camp was so frequently and constantly used that the Indians had gathered from an exposed ledge on the creek bank these large flat stones to use to keep the teepee sides on the ground instead of fastening them down with pegs.
When the camp was finally abandoned these stones were simply left in the large rings or circles, and since there were about fifty teepees they presented a really curious and odd sight.
Tom Fulghum bought the land in the seventies and built a stone house, and immense barn and a grist mill within a hundred yards of these stone rings or circles. When the Palatine Post Office was moved from across the Smoky on the original Ft. Hays-Ft. Dodge Trail to a new location on the new cut-off trail a half mile east of the Indian village site, a rock crossing on the Smoky south of the Post Office was made but it soon washed out. Thereafter the old Indian crossing was used and the trail passed close along the east side of this unusual looking sight. When the Unreins bought the place these stones were all gathered up and were used to build a barn and nothing was left to identify the location of the teepees but the slight circular depressions. But Mr. Unrein has become so interested in preserving their locations that he has driven a large iron pin into the center of each teepee depression, and to carry out the phantasy, he calls his fine farm with its ultra-modern ranch house, built within a few feet of where the original Fulghum house stood, CHETOLAH, the Indian name for the Smoky Hill River.
Sometime in the 1930s Mr. H.M. Pollack made a partial survey and located forty-eight teepees, and later this survey was complete by H.C. Raynesford and a map made. Thirty of the teepees were seventeen feet in diameter, while another group of sixteen were nineteen feet, and one, a little apart and to the south of the rest, was twenty-four feet in diameter.There were probably others whose location has been obliterated by time and the elements.
This Indian village site positively identifies the place where General Fremont, The Great Pathfinder, perhaps came as near to losing his life as at any time in all his extensive explorations, and so is possibly as historical a place as any in our historic Ellis County and should merit a suitable monument to preserve its identity.