The Mail Station and the Military
Camp on Pawnee Fork, 1859-1860
by Morris F. Taylor
Spring, 1970 (Vol. XXXVI, No. 1), pages 27 to 39
Transcription & HTML composition by Larry E. & Carolyn L. Mix;
digitized with permission of The Kansas State Historical Society.
NOTE: The numbers in brackets are links to footnotes for this text.
IN THE summer of 1859, Agent William Bent was apprehensive about the intentions of some of the Indians in his charge. Recently commissioned to the Upper Arkansas Indian agency,  he now had an official as well as a personal interest in Arapahoes and Cheyennes, Kiowas and Comanches, and any other tribes that might come within his jurisdiction. Although the gold rush into the Pike's Peak area of western Kansas territory had made the tribes uneasy,  the Arapahoes and Cheyennes had taken his advice to remain quiet, but he was less sanguine about the Kiowas and Comanches. Bent planned to meet with the latter, and he expected to find them "purtay saucy." 
The Upper Arkansas agency had headquarters at Bent's new stone fort on the north bank of the Arkansas river, about 38 miles downstream from the adobe Bent's Old Fort. The new fort was on the mountain branch of the Santa Fe trail approximately 120 miles up the Arkansas from the crossing of that river, which was the beginning of the Cimarron cutoff to Santa Fe. The great central portion of the trail from Walnut creek, in Kansas, to Fort Union, in New Mexico, was especially vulnerable to forays by the Kiowas and Comanches, who were also known along the Arkansas for many miles above the Cimarron crossing. Traffic was increasing  offering better chances of plunder, and a particular point of resentment by the Kiowas and Comanches was an attempt by the company carrying the mail between Independence, Mo., and Santa Fe, N. M., to establish a mail station on the Pawnee fork of the Arkansas (later the site of Fort Larned), about 24 miles west of Walnut creek. Kiowas and Comanches had driven off employees of the company, the Independence firm of Hall and Porter, from Pawnee fork in the spring of 1859. Convinced of the need for a mail station there, partner Jacob Hall went to Washington to obtain support from members of Pres. James Buchanan's cabinet, a venture in which he was successful. The postmaster general, Joseph Holt, was the means of Hall's approach to other Washington officials. Holt wrote to Jacob Thompson, secretary of the interior, and to Acting Secretary of War William R. Drinkard about the great need for military protection against the Indians along the Santa Fe road and the particular importance of a mail station on Pawnee fork. The postmaster general reminded Drinkard that there were troops within 60 miles,  which was a reference to three companies of the First cavalry in summer camp near abandoned Fort Atkinson, southwest of Pawnee fork, who were stationed there to protect traffic along the Santa Fe trail, and the Pike's Peak region.  To the secretary of the interior, Holt stressed the need and value of keeping open the great trunk route from Santa Fe to the valley of the Mississippi; a current difficulty was the expensive uncertainty of a long stretch without a relay stop to change horses or mules, a condition that was imposed by the absence of a station on Pawnee fork. 
The acting secretary of war directed Col. Edwin Vose Sumner, commander of the military Department of the West and an experienced adversary of the Plains tribes, to use his own judgment about using troopers based on the summer camp to help reestablish the Pawnee fork station.  Sumner was lukewarm to the idea; he believed that the Fort Atkinson vicinity was the best site for such purposes, and he could not see any value in a mail station on Pawnee fork, only 24 miles west of the one on Walnut creek. However, he ordered the summer camp's commander, Cpt. William De Saussure, to detach one company, whereupon Cpt. Edward W. B. Newby with Company H, First cavalry, headed northeastward across the Plains to Pawnee fork on September 1.  Newby probably went there via the shorter dry route, which was used by the mail wagons. 
In August the Post Office Department directed that the mail service on the Independence-Santa Fe line be speeded up from a 20 to a 15-day maximum, a change that was in operation by August 22. From Jacob Hall's point of view, the faster schedule made a mail station at Pawnee fork imperative. He was aware that Colonel Sumner had been authorized to use troops for its protection, and Hall sent seven wagons on the last day of August with supplies and men towards Pawnee fork, with instructions to cut hay and put up permanent buildings and corrals. It was Hall's understanding, also, that all the troops along the Santa Fe trail in Kansas would be pulled into Fort Riley for the winter. That would be highly unsatisfactory, he thought, if the cavalry companies were recalled before the mail station was as self-sufficient as it should be. To ensure its survival, he urged Sumner to leave a company there until mid-November, by which time the station would be ready for winter. 
Soon after his arrival at Pawnee fork, Captain Newby carried out his instructions to arrange a meeting of Kiowa and Comanche chiefs with Captain De Saussure, who broke camp at Fort Atkinson on September 14 and arrived at Pawnee fork eight days later. Buffalo Hump, a Comanche, and several Kiowas came in to talk, and they agreed not to molest the mail station. Illness had prevented To-ha-san (Little Mountain), one of the foremost Kiowa chiefs, from coming in; instead, De Saussure went to see him in his camp a few miles from Walnut creek. Apparently the captain was able to persuade the chief to abandon the Kiowa association ,with the Comanches. Rejoining his command at the Big Bend of the Arkansas (Walnut creek), De Saussure led them to Cow creek, a little over 20 miles to the east. 
There De Saussure found Maj. James L. Donaldson, Quartermaster's department, with a small wagon train headed for New Mexico. The major and his party went on the next morning, but about midnight an express from him galloped into De Saussure's camp to report a serious incident at Allison's ranch, the trading post on Walnut creek. Two Kiowa sub-chiefs -- Pawnee, who was said to be the brother of To-ha-san, and Satank -- had made drunken threats on the lives of Messrs. Rickman and Flournoy. Donaldson sent for help because he feared an attack in force on the ranch, and De Saussure responded by sending Cpt. William S. Walker and Companies G and K "with all despatch" to the trading post in hope of preventing further trouble. The First cavalry troopers under Walker arrived at the ranch about 6 A. M. He had been directed to furnish an escort for Donaldson's party, but the major was already on the road to New Mexico. For some reason, Pawnee returned alone, and Walker had him put under arrest to hold as a witness and to prevent him from warning the Kiowas of troops at Allison's ranch. Pawnee tried to escape on horseback and was shot to death by 2Lt. George D. Bayard, who, according to military reports, gave the Indian every warning to return before firing the fatal shot. 
Captain De Saussure and his immediate command came back to Walnut creek on the night of September 23, a short time before the appearance of the mail wagon from Independence.  Conductor Michael Smith, assisted by his brother, Lawrence, and William Cole, had left the Missouri town at noon on September 19. At Walnut creek, of course, they were told of the killing of Pawnee, an incident that did not augur well for resumption of the mail party's journey. Conductor Smith was reluctant to proceed without an escort, and, when he refused to leave without protection at least as far as Pawnee fork, Captain De Saussure gave orders to 1Lt. Elmer Otis to accompany the mail party that far with two noncommissioned officers and 28 privates. That was the morning of September 24, and the escorted mail wagon arrived at Pawnee fork about 1 P. M.
The men had their dinner, and the animals were fed and grazed, before the mail party started on alone about half past four in the afternoon. A little over five miles along the road about 15 mounted Kiowas galloped at full tilt out of a ravine which the mail wagon had just passed. The Indians, when they came up to the vehicle, appeared to be friendly, asking for sugar and crackers, which they were given as a matter of custom. But when they demanded more and more with increasing insolence, the members of the mail party, outnumbered as they were five to one, were on the alert.
One of the Kiowas suddenly seized hold of William Cole, but the mail company employee broke away. For this resistance, the Indians began shooting their guns; Cole was wounded in the head and left arm, and Lawrence Smith, sitting on the driver's seat with reins in hand, was shot through the heart. This was followed by a barrage from 10 or 20 guns, but, amazingly enough neither Cole nor Conductor Michael Smith was hit. Cole quickly dragged Lawrence Smith's body back into the wagon, jumped on the driver's seat, and frantically urged the mules to top speed back towards Pawnee fork. Conductor Smith was on a mule riding alongside, whipping up the team, and it was sometime before the Kiowas overtook them. As soon as they were within arrow-shot, however, the Indians commenced shooting, and soon Smith was hit by several arrows, though not fatally. Then one pierced him nearly through, and he called out to Cole to stop. Just as the latter pulled up the wagon mules, Smith was shot through the heart with a ball. In desperation, Cole was whipping his mules into a gallop again while one of the Kiowas tried to ride ahead of the leaders and stop them. Taking aim with his Sharp's rifle, Cole killed the warrior, who fell between the lead mules, scaring the nigh leader so that it reared up and onto the off leader. This tangled confusion brought the wagon to a stop some distance off the road. Fortunately for Cole, the other Kiowas stopped to examine the one he had shot, and it was during this interval that Cole managed to crawl for several rods into the tall grass. When the Kiowas finally reached the wagon, they stripped Lawrence Smith's body and threw it out; they also took various articles from the wagon and the mules, except the one that was badly injured. Cole was crawling throught the grass while all that was going on, and the Indians apparently made no concerted effort to find him. 
Next morning, September 25, Cole found Lieutenant Otis and his men, although just how and where is far from clear. They all returned to the scene, buried the two Smiths, gathered up the scattered letter mail, and started eastward along the Santa Fe trail. After traveling about 130 miles they reached Lost Spring, where they found Captain De Saussure's force and William Butze, Hall and Porter's construction foreman.  The latter had heard of the Kiowa attack while he was at Diamond Springs, from which place he had sent a report to Jacob Hall, saying that he would not stay on the job unless he were assured of military protection from Cow creek to Pawnee fork.  That same day, September 30, Butze had hastened over the nine miles westward to Lost Spring, where he found the troopers and Cole encamped.  Going back to Diamond Springs the next day, Butze sent more accurate information to Hall, while Cole continued on his way to Independence, reaching there on the evening of Wednesday, October 5, 1859. 
After hearing William Cole's account in Independence that night, Jacob Hall sent a telegram to Colonel Sumner, and the next morning he dispatched one to the postmaster general,  both messages being brief accounts of the mail party's fate. By then there was another matter that was uppermost among Hall's worries. The eastbound mail had been due in Independence the day before Cole's appearance, but Butze had written to Hall from Diamond Springs on October 1 (the letter probably being brought in by Cole), telling of reports that the mail stage headed for Independence also had been attacked.  Hall was especially upset because its passengers were his partner, judge Porter, and A. L. H. Crenshaw, both of Independence; Senor Miguel A. Otero, New Mexico's delegate to congress, and his family; and judge John S. Watts, his son and wife, from Santa Fe. 
Greatly to the mail contractor's relief, the mail stage rolled into Independence on Sunday, October 9. He learned that the wagons, which were in charge of Conductor Matthew Kelly with four other company employees, had reached Big Coon creek on the other side of Pawnee fork ahead of schedule. There they met a train of Mexican buffalo hunters, who told them of the killing of the Smiths at a point not far ahead. One of the hunters recognized Otero and told him of Kiowa threats to kill all Americans. That brought a decision to take the Hall and Porter vehicles back towards Big Coon creek to an eastbound wagon train belonging to Majors, Russell, and Company,  which they had passed. The mail company men and their passengers then traveled for five days with the freight wagons over the threatened stretch of the trail before pushing ahead on their own again. 
The Kiowa attack on the Hall and Porter mail stage quickly became a rather celebrated incident of its type, and it brought some responses that helped to shape the course of events on Pawnee fork, where it was crossed by the Santa Fe trail. Samuel H. Woodson, an Independence lawyer and member of the house of representatives in the 36th congress,  was in town when the report came in. Probably prompted by Jacob Hall and Delegate Otero, Woodson wrote at once to the secretary of war demanding vigorous and direct action by the War department to get things under control along the Santa Fe route. The cabinet member was informed that the annual commerce over the trail amounted to $1,500,000 and that the total value of the goods and means of transportation exposed to Indian depredations would reach $3,000,000. It was Woodson's understanding that no fewer than 5,000 American citizens were engaged in the New Mexican trade. To protect men and investments required an increase in the number of troops along the route, and Congressman Woodson also felt that additional military posts were necessary. From Woodson's communication the secretary of war also learned that Allison's trading post on Walnut creek, on one of the most exposed portions of the road, had ample corrals for livestock, as well as shelter for men and provisions, and could be had free of charge for troops during the coming winter. 
News of the incident caused Col. E. V. Sumner to reconsider and send a cavalry company back to Pawnee fork.  For that Hall expressed his gratitude, and then, looking to the future, he recommended regular military escorts for mail from Walnut creek to Fort Union, with permanent posts to be located at Pawnee fork and the upper [Dry] Cimarron. 
Seventy-five troopers of Company K, First cavalry, arrived at the trail crossing of Pawnee fork on October 22. They were led by two West Point graduates, Cpt. George H. Steuart and 1Lt. David Bell.  On the way out from Fort Riley they had been on the alert for hostile Indians, particularly Kiowas, but they had seen none. Hall and Porter employees, who were coming to build the mail station and who were with escort a day's march behind Steuart's command, had seen a large band of unidentified Indians at a distance. Reports were brought in that some Indians had camped during the night of October 29 on the other side of Pawnee fork about two miles downstream. They apparently were Kiowas, and two of them came into a civilian camp (probably that of the mail company people) to find out how many soldiers were nearby. Captain Steuart sent out a small detachment under Lieutenant Bell, who found Indian signs at the crossing of Pawnee fork and then saw two Kiowas with four horses riding upstream. Bell and his men gave chase; the Indians showed hostility and were killed. It was thought that they were spies, their extra horses being for escape. The report which Steuart sent to headquarters of the Department of the West, St. Louis, was just that laconic. 
A Hall and Porter mail stage, which had left Santa Fe on October 2 had turned back at Cold Spring because it did not meet the westbound mail, not knowing that it had been destroyed by Kiowas. A westbound mail did reach Fort Union on October 19, and the delayed eastbound mail resumed its trip on October 21, with a mounted escort of 50 men under Cpt. R. M. Morris, regiment of Mounted Riflemen, as far as Cottonwood Springs. From that point, the escort was reduced to 35 and turned over to 1Lt. Andrew Jackson, Third infantry, who saw the mail through to the crossing of the Arkansas. There was no escort waiting there, but the mail party made it to Pawnee fork safely. 
Between October 21 and 30, three wagon trains, which had come over the Bent's Fort route (mountain branch of the Santa Fe trail), passed the newly designated Camp on Pawnee Fork, and from them Captain Steuart learned something of the disposition and whereabouts of the Indians. Some of the Comanches, Cheyennes, and Arapahoes were said to be in the vicinity of Bent's New Fort; they seemed friendly enough and warned travelers on the trail against the Kiowas, whose main camp was 80 miles up the Arkansas from the Cimarron crossing. A man named Osten, in charge of an eastbound government train, told Steuart that Kiowas told him they had killed a soldier in reprisal for the killing of one of their tribe by whites. It appeared that the Kiowas were not of one counsel, however; To-ha-san (Little Mountain) was said to be friendly, while Satank (Sitting Bear) was spokesman for those inclined to hostility. 
Of course, the killing of the two Kiowas by Lieutenant Bell and his men near Camp on Pawnee Fork quickly became known in lodges along the Arkansas and its tributaries. At his stone fort near Big Timbers, Indian Agent William Bent heard about it and expressed fear that the incident might cause a general rising of the Kiowas, an eventuality which he hoped to be able to Stop. 
About a month after Steuart's establishment of Camp on Pawnee Fork, Bent gave the location of the main Kiowa camp as about 40 miles south of his fort. All the Comanches were encamped on the Purgatoire river, a southern tributary of the Arkansas, about 30 miles west of his place. The Comanches shunned the Kiowas as did the Cheyennes, Arapahoes, and Plains Apaches, and Bent was sure he could bring an attack on the Kiowas by those other Plains tribes. The Indian agent did not think he ought to precipitate such a war, although it would be, in his opinion, the cheapest way to get rid of the Kiowas. The latter had to be whipped, and the United States army should do the job. 
As soon as he could, Captain Steuart gave attention to the problem of protecting the United States mails. Because grass in the vicinity was in bad condition and not much of the forage from Fort Riley was left, and because of the poor condition of his horses, Steuart decided that it was impossible to send mounted escorts with the mail wagons. The mail would be protected by troopers in mule-drawn wagons; he figured that about half his complement of 70 men would be constantly on the road.  His recommendations were accepted at departmental headquarters in St. Louis, Colonel Sumner stating that an escort should consist of at least a noncommissioned officer and 10 men. The cavalry captain was assured that supplies and a medical officer would soon be on the way to Camp on Pawnee Fork. 
A wagon train was ordered to Pawnee Fork with 4,000 rations from Fort Leavenworth and 900 bushels of corn from Fort Riley.  But at the same time orders went out to Steuart that he was to bring in Company K and all the horses to Fort Riley, leaving at the camp only one subaltern, three noncommissioned officers, and 27 privates. Five wagons and mule teams were thought to be enough for this detachment.  Lt. David Bell was given command of this small force. He was informed that a wagon train with provisions for five months would soon be on the way. He was to send in a report once a month to headquarters, Department of the West, and the manner of escorting the mail was left to his judgment. 
No explanation was given to Steuart for his recall, and there was indecision along the chain of command as to just what would be done at Pawnee fork. For example, the order to Steuart to come to Fort Riley was partially rescinded by Sumner, who informed Steuart that he should remain at Pawnee fork with his entire command if he deemed it wise.  The latter concluded, however, that a small unit could be safely left at the camp for the winter.
Lieutenant Bell obviously had his work cut out for him. An inadequate number of troopers conveyed in wagons, together with uncertainties in making connections near the crossing of the Arkansas with escorts from Fort Union, made development of a system very difficult. For instance, he was unable to furnish an escort for the mail wagon that came through from the east in the fore part of November. He told Conductor James Brice that Fort Union troops probably were camped at the crossing of the Arkansas. Brice decided to go it alone that far. On reaching there he found the troops but due to lack of rations and the condition of the horses they could not escort him. Doubtful of making the distance to Fort Union without protection, Brice headed west up the river and on over the Raton pass to Fort Union. This is the first recorded instance of a mail wagon traversing the mountain branch of the Santa Fe trail. 
The eastbound mail which reached Camp on Pawnee Fork on November 25 had made one start from Fort Union but had turned back because of no escort; on the second try it had one, but not a regular one from the post. A detachment under Cpt. John N. Macomb, topographical engineers, left the fort accompanied by the mail stage, but when he stopped near the [Dry] Cimarron river to do some map work, the conductor decided to go ahead with the mail wagon. He and his party were unmolested for three days, then were ambushed at night. They escaped without injuries, but a quick return was made to Captain Macomb and his men, who then brought the mail stage into Pawnee fork. 
By late November comfortable sod quarters were ready for the men at Camp on Pawnee Fork, and an excellent corral was nearly completed. There was plenty of hay for the mules. The chief weakness of the whole setup was inadequate means to put Lieutenant Bell's plan for escorting the mails into operation. With 20 more men and one or two extra teams he thought that a weekly escort could be provided; another officer was not necessary. As it was, he was certain that he could give sufficient protection once every two weeks.  His assurance on that point probably was in response to Colonel Sumner's expressed belief that mail service between Independence and Santa Fe should be reduced from a weekly to a semimonthly one until the Indians could be chastised. 
Bell's proposal was to accompany the mail eastward from Camp on Pawnee Fork to Big Cow creek, a distance of 52 miles, and westward for 88 miles to the Cimarron crossing of the Arkansas; the overall distance was 140 miles. An escort from his post to the crossing would remain as long as four days for the mail coming from New Mexico; a minimum absence from Pawnee fork of 10 days was planned. No escort would be sent eastward until the one from the west had returned. Lieutenant Bell submitted his plan in late November, and a few days later a post office was officially designated for Pawnee fork. 
In response to the need for more men, orders went out on December 6 to Maj. John Sedgwick, commandant at Fort Riley, to send one sergeant, one corporal, and 18 privates in charge of 1Lt. John D. O'Connell, Second infantry, to reinforce the tiny garrison at Camp on Pawnee Fork.  Bell's request for "20 footmen" was fulfilled to the letter.  They went out in three wagons drawn by six-mule teams, the wagons being loaded with forage for the trip and as many rations as the teams could haul.  At the same time a civilian surgeon, Dr. A. L. Breysacker, was employed and sent to the post. All arrived there on December 22. 
Despite the apparent restoration of a semimonthly mail service as suggested by Colonel Sumner, the system of military escorts devised by Lieutenant Bell was not notably successful. Perhaps this was due in part to his conservatism in asking for supplements to his small force. There were, of course, other factors. However well his plan worked within the 150 miles served by the troops from his little post, the absence of escorts from Cow creek east to at least Council Grove,  and the uncertainties of making connection at the crossing of the Arkansas with escorts based at Fort Union, provided enough leeway for human interruption of the mail service to frustrate his own efforts. And the vagaries of the weather, especially in the winter season when most of the freighting traffic disappeared from the trail, could be very disruptive. Given the state of communications of that day, even the most complete and fully implemented plans were subject to breakdown; the evident reluctance of higher military authority to provide sufficient protection compounded the problems faced by men in Bell's position.
A combination of circumstances doubtless explained the cumulative delay of four mails to Independence from Santa Fe in late November, 1859,  and the pileup of four outbound mails at Pawnee Fork awaiting an escort towards Santa Fe in early December.  When at last Lieutenant Bell was able to provide protection for the stalled westbound mails on December 12, no troops were waiting at the crossing of the Arkansas; the mail stage went on down the Cimarron cutoff unescorted. Because of that, Bell equipped his next westbound escort with rations for 20 days and orders to accompany the mail as far as Fort Union, if necessary.  His decision to extend the range of his escorts to the west was countermanded by a modification ordered from departmental headquarters. He was instructed to allow them to go beyond the Arkansas to the point where the road crossed the [Dry] Cimarron, where an escort would wait for an eastbound mail no longer than four days, unless there was certain word that the mail was on the way. 
It was about a month later that Lieutenant Bell received instructions of a different nature. Under date of February 1, 1860, Colonel Sumner ordered that Camp on Pawnee Fork would henceforth be called Camp Alert.  The change of name may have underscored the precarious situation of the little post, but it in no way alleviated the danger or solved the problem of keeping the mails running on, schedule. Around the middle of the month the postmaster at Independence was informed that a detachment of troops would leave Fort Leavenworth for Fort Union on February 20; the detachment would wait at the Little Arkansas for the March 1 mail out of Independence and would escort it and any other mails stranded along the way. 
Military escort service for the United States mails continued to be erratic, Lt. David Bell's exertions notwithstanding. A subaltern could hardly have been expected to secure significant changes almost single-handed. Unsatisfactory circumstances remained until the Civil War brought a new frame of references. 
Morris F. Taylor, native of New York, received a B. A. degree from the University of Colorado, his M. A. from Cornell University, and was awarded the honorary degree Doctor of Humane Letters by the University of Colorado in 1969. He teaches history and political science at the Trinidad (Colorado) State Junior College, and is author of several magazine articles and books.