KanColl Books


by Adolph Roenigk

U. S. Army Surgeon Tells of Crossing the Great Plains of
Kansas Accompanied by His Courageous Wife and two
Small Children.
Contributed by D. B. Long

     On the 20th of August, 1866, I was ordered to report to the Post Surgeon at Fort Wallace, Kansas, for duty. At that time I was stationed at Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis, Missouri, as Hospital Steward. I had my wife and two small children with me, and apprehensive for their safety, disliked the transfer very much. The Indians were on the war path at the time and it was indeed a dangerous undertaking to cross the plains at the mercy of those inhuman savages.
     I gave my wife the privilege of returning to Ohio where my father and mother were living or accompanying me to Fort Wallace. She made up her mind very decidedly to share the dangerous journey with me. We took the Missouri Pacific to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and secured transportation to Fort Riley. At that time the Union Pacific Railroad was finished only to Wamego, Kansas. At that point we took the overland stage to Fort Riley.
     I reported to the Commanding Officer for the Fort and was ordered to report to the Surgeon of the post and await for transportation.
While at Fort Riley the cholera broke out and many of the soldiers were striken with the fatal disease. I had just left Jefferson Barracks where they were dying at the rate of a hundred a week and was congratulating myself on getting away, when here I was in the midst of it again, but fortunately there was a wagon train dispatched westward and we were soon on our way to Fort Ellsworth, or Fort Harker, as it was afterward named. We had a large wagon with six mules, and my small family and the mess chest and a few blankets was what it contained. I had for arms a musket and revolver and felt about as safe and willing to fight Indians as to fight the cholera.
     We made about fifteen miles a day on our trip, from Riley to Harker and had ample opportunity to observe the country through which we were passing. After a lapse of so many years one can look back and pause in amazement at the vast


change in this country since 1866. Salina at that time consisted of about six or eight houses, or rather, log huts. Abilene was no larger. I noticed a large number of prairie dog villages where the town now stands. There were no bridges to cross the streams, no fine farm houses or farms--all one vast prairie following beneath the azure skies and genial sun, awaiting the plowman’s coming. At long intervals we saw a tiny patch of corn marking the place where some one had taken a claim.
     We reached Fort Elsworth near the Smoky Hill River September 4th, where we were met by Dr. George M. Sternberg. U. S. A., and later Surgeon General, with whom I had served at the close of the war in the United States Hospital, Cleveland, Ohio, and also at Jefferson Barracks, Misouri, in 1865. He was very much interested in the country, had faith in its future, and advised me to locate a claim, so we went down below the Reservation on the river and made selection of nice bottom land and sent in our filings to the land office at Junction City. Hon. George W. Martin, now Secretary of the Kansas State Historical Society, was receiver.
     We did not have to wait long at Fort Ellsworth for transportation. A train of five ambulances was ordered to meet the General W. T. Sherman at Denver, Colorado, who was on an inspection tour of the Western Departments, so we were nicely fixed for the two hundred-mile trip from Fort Ellsworth to Fort Wallace. We left Fort Ellsworth on the 7th of September, 1866, with a bodyguard of five soldiers, five teamsters and a wagon boss.
Myself and wife and two small children, one four years old and one nine months old, completed the party, fifteen souls in all, now made the real start of our journey. The first day we reached Wilson Creek near where the town of Wilson now stands. It goes without saying that the town at that time was one of the unborn possibilities of man’s creation.
     We were now in the Indian country proper, and as many depredations were being committed by the red savages we naturally felt a little nervous, but as became pilgrims in a savage land, we daily pressed forward trusting in Him who watches over earth and all, for protection and a safe deliverance to our destination. The most of man’s troubles are created off-hand by himself, and so it immediately proved in our case. Our escort had a good supply of “fire water” laid in as a precautionary measure against snake bites, rattlesnakes being very


numerous on the Kansas plains. Fearful that the Indians might successfully raid our camp and capture the good liquor, the escort drank it all the first night out. Whether it was Indians, wolves or drunken soldiers and teamsters, they made the night hideous between them, and in the morning our transportation was missing and we were stranded on the prairie without motive power to proceed.
     The wagon boss was fortunate in having a saddle horse which did not get loose and returned to Ellsworth where he found all the mules, bringing them back in time to make a drive of ten miles that day. The following day we made camp at Big Creek near the present location of Hays. Here one of the teamsters saw a large rattlesnake and must dismount from his mule and try to capture it. The snake resisted and the man received te serpent’s fangs in his hand. All the “remedy” having been used the first night, we had to go into camp and send the unfortunate teamster back to Ellsworth for treatment, but the bite proved fatal.
     Near our camp were numerous herds of buffalo and it was here I killed my first of the shaggy brutes. As we continued westward their numbers increased. Long droves would pass our train and often we would be obliged to wait for them to make way for us.
     As yet we had seen no Indians, but we knew they were in the country from many indications. Only a few days before they had burned a stage station on the Overland route, killed the guards and driven off the horses. As we approached the station, which had been rebuilt, we saw a man whom we took to be an Indian on a bluff about a mile from the train. Soon another and another appeared and we prepared for defense. Taking our arms, the five soldiers and the wagon boss and myself started in advance of the train, expecting to take their dare and meet the enemy half way, but before we had gone far we found they were the new guard to replace the ones recently murdered. We went into camp and with th additional force felt quite secure.
     On the 16th of September we reached Fort Wallace. The Fort was mostly tents; no fortifications as I had supposed there would be in that exposed frontier position. The Post Commander was Lieutenant Hale of E. Company, 3rd United States Infantry. Lieutenant Fred Beecher was Adjutant and


Quartermaster. He was a nephew of Rev. Henry Ward Beecher and a brave soldier. He was killed by Indians at the battle of the Arickaree where Colonel Forsythe was surrounded for nine days by a vastly superior number of savages before relief came from Fort Wallace. Colonel Keough with Company I of the 7th United States Cavalry took command in December, 1866.
     Three days after our arrival the Indians made a raid on the small garrison and ran off the mules and horses.
     The quarters first assigned me was a small officer’s tent, but the Quartermaster had a small building, 10X12, put up for a living room and with this we managed very well by using the tent for a sleeping room. There was but one other woman at the fort, but for even this concession from utter isolation my wife was thankful. This woman and her husband had come from Denver, Colorado, to keep officers’ mess. The affliction that formed the daily dread of every pioneer’s wife became a reality to this poor lady. Her husband had a team of mules which strayed away from camp and he went to look for them but did not return. A rescue party found his body about seven miles from the post. He had been killed, scalped, body stuck full of arrows and horribly mutilated by Indians.
     In the spring of 1867 the Indians were very troublesome, capturing trains and making the crossing of the plains very hazardous. A large body of Indians attacked the stage station at Pond Creek two miles west of the fort. The horses at the station made for the fort, with the redskins in pursuit. It was a beautiful race; the horses came in four abreast with the Indians pursuing with in gunshot of the fort where they gave up the chase and made for the bluffs.
     Captain Barnitz of Company G, 7th Cavalry, and Company C, 3rd Infantry, went out to attack them and a severe fight ensued, as the Indians were well armed and fought with great boldness, making several grand charges on our soldiers. As the savages were in superior force our men were driven back to the fort with the loss of several killed and wounded. One sergeant named Williams was killed, stripped of his clothing, scalped, and hacked with tomahawks, heart cut out and sixteen arrows shot into his body. Several of the wounded soldiers had arrows sticking in them when brought to the hospital. In two cases these arrows had to be shoved through their bodies before they could be taken out. One poor fellow had an arrow in his


back that required the strength of two men for its removal. A teamster was knocked from his horse and his scalp partly removed by a big Indian, but our soldiers were pressing so closely that the savage did not have time to finish the job. This man came to the hospital for treatment and I sewed the scalp back in place. I saw this man a year or two afterward and only a small scar remained as a momento of his brief encounter with the “noble red man.”
     My time of enlistment expired March 17, 1868, when I returned to Elsworth county and located on my claim where I began civil life as a stockman and dairyman.
     Ellsworth was a wild frontier town containing many saloons, dance houses and gambling rooms. Many died with their boots on. The big cottonwood tree by the bridge on the Smoky River was often decorated with the lifeless body of a man whose demise the vigilance committee thought desirable for the betterment of social conditions.
     At this time the country was in as much danger from horse thieves, cut throats and murderers as from Indians. Everybody went armed as a measure of safety. I had six horses stolen at one time and seventy-five head of cattle were driven off during a storm and were a complete loss to me. It required nerve to live on the frontier in the sixties, and yet the old timers were big hearted and hospitable. No one was ever turned away unrelieved from their doors, and to offer payment was almost an insult. Indian raids, buffalo hunts, hangings and country dances kept up the wholesome excitement and prevented stagnation of the community; everybody was poor and happy. When the grass hoppers came in 1874 and ate up everything, leaving the entire country destitute, many people who are now well off received aid, and some lived better that year than ever before or since.
     The first Fourth of July celebration held in Ellsworth County was in a little grove below Kanopolis on the Smoky Hill River where the Missouri Pacific Railroad crosses the stream. The farm was owned at that time by the Rev. L. Sternberg.
     Note: History, like the violin, improves with age. To chronicle comparatively recent events is more difficult than to record the happenings of by gone days, when all conflicting testimony and trivial details have been softened and ameliorated by the waves of time, leaving the silent facts easily welded into a lucid and connected narrative.
     The old cottonwood tree upon which many a man, guilty or innocent, was swung high twixt earth and heaven during the lawless period spoken


of by Mr. Long, has scant mention in the annals of our state, and the difficulties experienced in securing information regarding the historic tree and its gruesome office are partly expressed in the first paragraph of this note.
     Not the tree, but the necessities that gave it a use, we regret, and so, although decades have passed since the grim gibbet put forth its strange fruit, eyes that saw and ears that heard are closed, not all by the seal of death but by the unspoken desire that the cruel past be buried with its dead.

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