Military Presence in the Valley: 1871-74

(Excerpted from an article by Garry Wells, appearing in the Howard County Historical Quarterly titled The Indian Wars and Howard County.

Howard County was never the site for any of the major battles during the Indian Wars, but it still had an influence on the early history of the Loup settlements. The Skidi Tribe (one of four sub-tribes of the Pawnee) had been living along the lower Loup River for over two hundred years. Skidi in Pawnee translates as “wolf people”. When the earliest whites, the French fur traders, encountered the Skidi, they named the river after the people who lived there. The French word for wolf is loup, so this north tributary of the Platte was named Riviere Des Loup or the Loup River.

The two primary tribes in central Nebraska during the 1800’s were the Pawnee and the Lakota (Sioux), but they were very different. The Pawnee were a semi-sedentary or an agricultural tribe. Their food source came from the women of the tribe growing squash, beans, and corn, with meat supplied by a summer and winter buffalo hunt. They lived in permanent houses made of earth and wood, limiting their mobility. The Lakota were migratory buffalo hunters living in tepees and highly mobile.

Contact with the wasitchu (whites), had very different effects on these two tribes. European diseases such as cholera and small pox, for which the Indians had no natural immunity, killed thousands of Pawnee because of their limited ability to move if their village became infected; whereas, the Lakota would simply pick up and leave. The introduction of the horse and the gun gave enormous power to the Lakota, in hunting and especially in fighting battles with other enemy tribes. The Pawnee, once the dominant tribe in Nebraska, with an estimated 20,000 population, was reduced to a few thousand by the 1850’s, while their arch-enemy, the Lakota, gained hunting territory and maintained a continuous campaign of raids, stealing horses, burning crops and lodges and killing the Pawnee.

By 1857, the Pawnee were so destitute that they signed the Treaty of Table Creek, giving up rights to all of their land in Nebraska in exchange for a small reservation of thirty miles along the Loup River, fifteen miles wide (present day Nance County), small annual payments and protection from the Lakota, by the U.S. Army. The U.S. Government did a poor job fulfilling their part of the treaty, as the Civil War diverted money and soldiers away from the west. Retaliation for the Pawnee against the Lakota finally came in 1864, when the Department of the Platte (district army headquarters) requested Pawnee volunteers to join the Army in their fight against the Sioux and Cheyenne, under the command of Frank North, as the Pawnee Scouts. Frank had worked at the Pawnee Agency for many years and spoke fluid Pawnee. He and his brother Luther North led the Pawnee Scouts on numerous engagements, including protecting the workers building the Transcontinental Railroad in Nebraska, and removing the Cheyenne from the Republican Valley in the Campaign of 1869, with General Carr commanding and Buffalo Bill Cody as scout. During this campaign, Major Frank North was credited with the killing of the Cheyenne Chief Tall Bull, at the Battle of Summit Springs, and honored by the Nebraska Legislature in 1870 for his part in the Campaign. The Pawnee called him the “Great White Father”.

Few settlers had pushed into the Loup River Valley before 1870, probably due to the proximity of the Pawnee Reservation on the lower Loup. Even though the Pawnee were relatively harmless, it would have taken real courage for early settlers to travel through their villages, to reach the rich farmland beyond. That same year, the Paul brothers (J.N. and N.J.) and the North brothers (Frank and Luther) departed from Columbus with a small group of men, and went up the Loup to the forks on a hunting trip. That trip resulted in dreams of a cattle ranch and the determination to establish a new county called “Howard”.

Once Howard County was formed, it drew new settlers into the Loup Valley, but the Lakota were still using the trail down the Loup River Valleys, to raid the Pawnee on their reservation. The Norths and the Pauls knew that these new settlers would need to be protected, so a request was sent to General C. C. Auger (Christopher Columbus Auger), commander of the Department of the Platte, in Omaha, to send troops. The government had been lax on protecting the Pawnee, but with the white settlers in danger, two companies of soldiers were dispatched. Company C of the 9th Infantry under the command of Captain Samuel Munson and Company E of the 2nd Cavalry commanded by Captain Elijah R. Wells. They traveled by train to Grand Island, marched north to Howard County and established “Camp Ruggles”(named for the Assistant Adjutant General Dept. of the Platte, Lt. Col. George D. Ruggles) (1 mile southeast of present day Elba) in May 1871. The new camp conveniently gave Frank North a job as army scout for the cavalry and Luther North a contract to provide hay for the army’s horses. The two companies of men would have included over one hundred enlisted men, five officers including General Auger’s son, Lt. C. C. Auger Jr. and a surgeon, Dr. George Washington Towar.

Dr. Towar wrote an article late in his life describing the military camps in Howard County entitled “Some Reminiscences of the Military Occupancy of the Loup Valley.” Parts of those writings are reprinted in the book Entering Howard County. Towar relates that both he and Captain Munson filed land claims in 1871, Capt. Munson filing on a creek two miles northwest of Camp Ruggles (a mile and one-half northwest of present day Elba). Through the summer the Captain and some volunteers built a nice log cabin on his new claim. Just as they put on the finishing touches, Camp Ruggles was visited by Gen. Auger’s Daughter Jennie, (probably there to visit her brother) and her cousin from Chicago, a Miss. Coates. Champagne was appropriated and a party at the new log cabin to celebrate its completion was underway, as Captain Munson raised his glass in a toast and exclaimed that in honor of Miss Coates, this place would be named Coatesfield. The stream flowing past the cabin was named Munson Creek and the stream to the south was named Augur Creek. In late summer, Camp Ruggles was moved six miles north, up river. (1 mile southeast of present day Cotesfield) The military presence in the county had worked, as the Indians were quiet all summer. Finally in late October, General Augur sent orders to pack up camp and return to Omaha Barracks for the winter.

In the spring of 1872, a second camp, “Camp Vincent” (named after Lt. Fredrick Vincent, who was killed in April 1872, by Indians in Texas), was established just north of the second site of Camp Ruggles. Once again this camp consisted of two companies of soldiers, Company C of the 9th Infantry under Capt Munson, with Lt. Thaddeus Capron second in command. The cavalry company was Company M of the 2nd Cavalry, under Captain John Mix and Lt. Frank Nye, with Major Nelson Sweitzer acting as Battalion commander. Frank North had been called away to Fort Russell in Wyoming Territory, so his brother Luther as hired as scout, along with a well-known soldier-scout by the name of Conrad Wentworth, better known as “Little Buckshot”. Ned Buntline, the man who had made Buffalo Bill famous with his dime novels, had written also about Little Buckshot calling him “the Little White Whirlwind of the Plains”. When Buffalo Bill began appearing on stage back east, it was Wentworth’s Indian jacket that he wore. (This jacket is on display at the Cody Museum in Wyoming.)

Luther North relates some information of this second camp in his book Man of the Plains. He states that the elk were so plentiful in the valley, that his and Little Buckshot’s hunting expeditions were supplying meat for the whole camp. He also tells the story of a cavalry scouting expedition, in which he was the guide and Maj. Sweitzer was in command. They started out with the cavalry company of fifty men and three supply wagons, first moving a day’s ride up the North Loup River and then east to the Cedar River. From this point, the commander requested that Luther guide them directly back to Camp Vincent, which was no problem until they arrived on top of the rugged hills to the northeast of camp (east of present day Cotesfield). It was no secret that Luther North and the good Major did not see eye to eye and after the failure of several attempts to descend the hills to camp, visible in the valley below, Sweitzer recommended a different route. The hotheaded scout turned to his commander and said, “If you know so much about this country, you don’t need a guide,” and galloped off, arriving at camp an hour later, telling the quartermaster he was through. The rest of the cavalry company arrived a day later, having lost a wagon that rolled over the side of a steep hill, while they were looking for a way down. (That wagon is still in the hills somewhere east of Cotesfield.) In the fall, Camp Vincent was packed up and the group went back again to Omaha Barracks for the winter.

During the early spring of 1873, the settlers on the upper North Loup, led by Happy Jack Swearingen, tried to pursue some raiding Lakota, resulting in the Battle of Sioux Creek. Being heavily out-gunned by the Sioux warriors, they were lucky to escape with their lives, but a request to send troops was sent to the Department of the Platte. Captain John Mix was sent with Company M 2nd Cav. to scout the upper North Loup. After finding no new sign of Indians, the group moved south and followed the Middle Loup, arriving at a small settlement, (near present day Loup City) on April 13, just as the Easter Blizzard of 1873 hit. The men where able to get cover in the two buildings available, but they lost twenty-five horses and four pack mules, smothered in a canyon later named “Dead Horse Creek”. After three days of cold and blinding snow, the company was forced to walk twenty miles to Coatsfield, where the locals donated food and warm blankets to ease their suffering. In Captain Mix’s final report, he commends the people of Howard County for their generosity to provide relief for the soldiers as they too were ravaged by the blizzard. Shortly after company M returned to Omaha, Company C 2nd Cavalry commanded by Major James Brisbin arrived, with Co. C of the 9th Inf. under Capt. Munson and Lt. Capron, establishing “Camp Canby” two miles up-stream from Camp Vincent. (Camp Canby was named after General Edward Canby, killed by the Modoc Indians in the Lava beds of northern California and southern Oregon on April 11, 1873. (He was the only Army General ever killed in battle during the Indian Wars.) The camp was located about two miles north of present day Cotesfield. In the fall, the camp was once again packed up and moved back to Omaha ending the military’s presence in Howard County.

In January of 1874, the settlers on the upper North Loup again fought with marauding Lakota, this time losing Marion Littlefield, brother-in-law to their leader Buckskin Charley White, in the Battle of Pebble Creek, just north of Burwell. The final temporary “summer” camp was established in April of 1874. It was sited some forty-five miles up the North Loup river from the earlier camps in Howard County near Cotesfield. It was on the south side of the Loup River about six miles below its fork with the Calamus. It was located in Valley County, on railroad owned land joining the M.B.Goodenow homestead. Happy Jack’s gulch and its live creek ran through the site and its north boundary was the North Loup River.

The Camp was on the high terrace above the flood plain. The officers of the Company “C” of the 9th Infantry Regiment garrisoning the camp were Captain Sam Munson and First Lt. Thaddeus Capron. This camp was also called “Ruggles” in honor of the popular Assistant Adjutant General Colonel George Ruggles of the Department of the Platte headquarters in Omaha.

Officers families, Quartermaster, Headquarters office, possibly laundresses and other administrative structure were housed in dugouts on the terrace edge near the river. Remembering the loss of Captain Mix’s animals in the Easter Blizzard of 1873, provisions for horses and mule protection in case of blizzards were sited in Happy Jack gulch. Happy Jack, noted local scout, had his dugout nearby. The balance of soldiers were housed in so-called “A” frame tents. These were tents capable of housing four to six men. The little camp was well fitted out with its own blacksmith, its own Quartermaster outfit of escort wagons, ambulances and horses and mules.

By early September of 1874, the new permanent fort construction was underway. It was across the river near the famous trail on present-day Bean Creek. By December of 1874 some of the new fort’s buildings were complete. All government supplies, soldiers and tentage had been removed to the new site and Camp Ruggles was soon forgotten to all but a few.

This new permanent fort was not to be made out of wood, but a lime, gravel and cement mixture, resembling today’s concrete. Rather than transport large amounts of lime from eastern Nebraska, the quartermaster advertised locally for a contractor to supply the lime. Joseph “Doc” Beebe, a close friend and neighbor of the North family in Columbus, bid and won the contract. Doc built three lime kilns in the hills east of the North Loup River in northern Howard County (east of present day Cotesfield) and burned chalk-rock, taken form the nearby side-hills, in the kilns, using wood from the surrounding canyons, to produce his quick-lime product. (All three kilns are still visible today.)

On completion of Fort Hartsuff, Doc Beebe started construction of a two-story hotel, using the same construction techniques used at the fort. The new hotel became known as the “Concrete Hotel” or the “Half-Way House”, as it was on the main supply road, half-way between Fort Hartsuff and the rail line in Grand Island. The eighty-mile trip was too long to travel in one day, so those traveling back and forth would stop at the Half-way House to eat and spend the night.

Doc’s next-door neighbor to the south was none other than Conrad Wentworth. Still being employed by the military as a scout, Little Buckshot was so impressed with Howard County, that he staked a land claim and moved his family to his new homestead. He originally built a dugout for shelter, as many did in this area, but later built a small house out of stone blocks carved from the chalk-rock in the surrounding hills. (Both the dug-out and the stone house are still visible today.)

During the Sioux Wars of 1876, Company C 9th Infantry (who spent four summers camped on the Loup) and Company E 2nd Cavalry (who was at the first Camp Ruggles) were with General Crook, out of Fort Laramie, fighting in the Rosebud Battle prior to the engagement on the Little Bighorn. Before George Custer left on his fateful scouting expedition on the Little Big Horn, Maj. James Brisbin (grasshopper Jim) recommended to General Alfred Terry, Custer’s commander, that Custer take three additional companies from the 2nd Cavalry to accompany his 7th Cavalry, but Gen. Terry’s offer of extra men was refused. This battalion of the 2nd Cavalry was commanded by Major Brisbin. On June 25th 1876, Custer was defeated at the Little Bighorn, but by 1880 most of the “hostile” Sioux and Cheyenne tribes had been either forced onto reservations or pushed into Canada. The Pawnee, after being denied the option to hunt buffalo by their new Indian Agent and losing their entire crop to grasshoppers in 1874, gave up their Loup reservation and moved south to Oklahoma in 1875-76. Just as construction on the new Union Pacific Railroad, being built from Grand Island to Fort Hartsuff, reached St. Paul in 1880, the decision was made to close and abandon the Fort. The North Brothers finally started their ranch in partnership with Buffalo Bill Cody on the Dismal River and with the closure of the Fort, Conrad Wentworth decided to move south to San Antonio Texas, to be with his old friend General Auger, who was now Commander of the Department of Texas.