As the Europeans pressed west across Cheyenne hunting grounds,the 1860’s saw a major upswing in confrontations with the local Indian tribes. Depredations on both sides became more severe,the most well known of which, was the Sand Creek Massacre.
For the Plains Indians the options to territorial invasion were essentially between death,and humiliation. Given the numerical,and technological advantages of the whites, military defeat was inevitable, no matter how brave the resistance.
Surrender brought the humiliation of being put on a reservation;in your own lands if you were lucky,or more likely transferred to land less valuable,and less coveted by whites.
Roman Nose, and the Dog Soldiers, chose resistance. They severely harassed settlers,miners,traders,the military,and the coming Union Pacific Railroad. Their mobility,and horsemanship made them hard to fight,and hard to find.
This lead to the Forsythe expedition of 1868, which was to track,and engage the Dog Soldiers, wherever they might be found. Forsythe chose 48- 50 men, who for the most part, were experienced frontiersmen,to go with him.
They tracked,and eventually were confronted,by a large group of Sioux,and Cheyenne warriors, on the banks of the Arikaree River,a branch of the Republican River,in eastern Colorado.
Narrowly avoiding complete surprise,they were able to take up defensive positions on a sand bar- which ultimately became known as Beecher Island.
Roman Nose was a well known Cheyenne warrior. He was physically imposing,and fearless,if not reckless, in battle. The Cheyenne had great confidence in him. He was a flamboyant man ,but also very spiritual. He had great confidence in his “Medicine” . It had been revealed to him that so long as he was true to his people,traditions, and vision,that he could not be killed in battle. Roman Nose was confident in this conviction,but meticulous in adhering to his spiritual,and ritual responsibilities;among which were not shaking hands,or eating from,or with anything metal.
In the days before the battle he had accidentally eaten with a metal utensil ,and was in the process of going through an elaborate cleansing ceremony, when the battle commenced.
Although Forsythe’s scouts were surrounded,and outnumbered,they were also armed with 7 shot Spencer carbines,and the Indians were taking major losses.
Roman Nose was behind the lines,and the cleansing ceremony incomplete,when he was informed the battle was going badly,and he was needed. He decided to go at that moment, knowing that he was going to be killed. Roman Nose was cut down on his first charge.
To the Cheyenne this battle is known as the “Battle where Roman Nose was killed”. It had a very dispiriting effect on the Cheyenne.
These were desperate times for the Indians ,but a lot of courage was shown on both sides. The story of Roman Nose,and his “Medicine “, in some ways reminded me of Samson. Both appear to have been somewhat vain,but also champions for their people.
An additional anecdote about this battle,and it’s people.
One of the Forsythe Scouts who broke through the surrounding Indian lines to go for help was a young Jack Stilwell. He took a perilous journey for 70 miles, on foot, to get to Fort Wallace. He would go on to have an illustrious career as a Marshall,lawyer,and judge.
Interestingly though he was the brother of Frank Stilwell who was an outlaw cowboy,and suspected of ambushing,and murdering Morgan Earp in Tombstone.
The painting is by the talented Colorado artist Paul Kethley.