Powder River Via the Loups

The detailed written orders from General Patrick Connor was dated July 4, 1865 and originated at Fort Laramie. It was delivered to Colonel Cole on the Loup on July 10th. The order was carried by Lieutenant Murphy with the First Regiment of Nebraska Volunteer Cavalry. His detachment was quartered at Fort Kearny approximately 100 miles to the south on the Platte River.

The excerpt from General Connor’s order was also transmitted to the other two prongs of his Powder River expeditionary force. That element of the order assured condemnation of the entire campaign. It was a fair example of the inhumane racist attitude of certain officers of the army toward a foe they considered to be their inferior. To the credit of General Jonathan Pope, commanding the Department of the Missouri at Saint Louis, a scathing directive was dispatched to General Dodge, Connor’s immediate superior. It mandated that “…These instructions are atrocious…take immediate steps to countermand such orders… (if) carried out it will be disgraceful to the government and will cost him (Connor) his commission, if not worse. Have it rectified without delay.”

Our interest lies more in the physical aspects of this expedition than the philosophical ramifications. It was the largest military force to pass almost entirely through the state. It traveled most of that distance blindly, without adequate guides, aided only by Lt. G.K. Warren’s map. It did pass directly through our immediate local vicinity. Our focus will be on the expedition’s journey from near modern-day Saint Paul to the point where they exit the Middle Loup Valley near or west of Seneca.

The east wing of the expedition consisted of two volunteer regiments of Civil War soldiers. One regiment was comprised of the 2nd Missouri Artillery with a section of three inch rifled cannon, the rest of the regiment mounted as cavalry. Their commanding officer, Colonel Nelson Cole, was in command of this whole eastern wing of the three prong movement. The other regiment was the 12th Missouri Cavalry, a seasoned group of veterans. In total there were approximately 1400 mounted soldiers.

The expedition was supported by wagons and ambulances carrying supplies, tentage, food and camp hangers-on. In addition there were at least 140 heavy civilian freight wagons, each pulled by six-mule teams. They were loaded with material for building roads and forts and for use in the expected battles with Arapaho, Sioux and Cheyenne anywhere along the route. They expected to encounter a large band of Indians hostile to government intrusion at the northeast corner of the Black Hills, near Bear Butte, in present-day South Dakota. The main thrust of the three wings of the expedition was to ‘punish’ the Indians believed (correctly) to be concentrated in the Powder and Tongue River basins of southeast Montana.

Cole’s branch of the expedition, which started July 1st from Omaha also included women, both laundresses and officer’s wives. Some of the officers also included their personal servants, generally black, as part of their staff.

We may visualize this expeditionary force as a very long line of mounted soldiers, wheeled artillery, freight wagons and a variety of other support vehicles. Add fifty beef cattle purchased at the Pawnee Reservation, which assured fresh rations. The train must have stretched for miles and have required a square mile of more of good grass for each night’s grazing of a least two thousand head of livestock.

“Pioneers”, soldiers detailed with scrapers, shovels and axes, preceded the column. They improved creek and gully crossing, occasionally bridged the larger streams and assisted the column in fording rivers. An officer who was often detailed to aid in this work will be quoted frequently.

He was Lieutenant Charles Springer of the 12th Missouri Cavalry. His diary was published in 1971 titled Soldiering in Sioux Country: 1865. It was edited by Benjamin Cooling of the Army Military Research Center and illustrated by John W. Compton, western historical artist.

Cole’s column mistakenly followed the Cedar River about 14 miles before discovering they were not on either the Loup’s North Fork or the Calamus River. Lack of reliable scouts and guides and an error in Lt. Warren’s map may be blamed for this detour. The column proceeded with some difficulty to the southwest, striking the Loup near its North and combined Middle-South forks, not far from present-day Saint Paul, Nebraska.

That day’s travel, on the 10th of July, was cold and miserable. They camped on the north side of the river. It was while at this camp that Colonel Cole received his orders from General Connor. Up to this point he did not know his objective, some of his officers speculating that their destination was to be Mexico.

On July 11th, Lt. Springer notes that they crossed the north ‘arm’ of the Loup with “…The bed of the river mostly quicksand and the banks miry. After a good deal of hard work and the breaking of several wagon tongues, we effected the crossing.” They wished to follow the Middle Loup but decided to avoid the long detour to the South because of that river’s large bend. They proceeded up the south side of the North Loup River Valley with little trouble. They passed the obstacles imposed by the Davis Creek/Chalk Hills area by detouring into the hills, then returning to the relatively smooth valley floor.

On July 12th they crossed what is believed to have been Mira Creek with a prairie fire close on their heels. The road was described as “smooth”. The column moved on up the valley crossing modern Dane Creek and approached Turtle Creek, where they camped. During this day’s journey, Lt. Springer took one of his men and went on a diversionary hunt into the hills to the south. They came to “…a very nice little valley with a stream of clear water running through, we saw an antelope on the other side and tried to cross. (This feature was probably the Mira Valley, named for a ‘miry’ creek.) We rode down a ravine and got in the bed of the creek where my horse got mired…and my left foot got fast in the stirrup.”

“The horse jumped up, got scared and ran at the top speed dragging me along, with my carbine slung to me and loaded. I thought, ‘Good-bye Springer’, but luckily the grass was long and thick.”

Upon reaching camp at Turtle Creek near present-day Elyria, Lt. Springer learned that on the 13th, they were to cross the hills to the southwest and enter the Middle Loup Valley. It was near this point that they noted the trail left by Lt. W. D. Smith nine years earlier in October of 1856. He had traveled with a detachment consisting of two officers, 63 men, three laundresses, 105 horses and eight wagons, all guided by a Ponca Indian and a half-breed. Smith’s trail led from Fort Randall to Fort Kearny.

Colonel Cole, in his official report directed to General Ulysses S. Grant in February of 1867, says: “…I moved up the valley of the North Branch to Antelope (believed to be modern Turtle) Creek, where was found Lt. W.D. Smith’s trail of 1856. Leaving this trail to the left, the command moved in a westerly direction following the north branch of Turtle Creek, but from the necessity of selecting ground passable with the trains the course gradually changed nearly south.” It is believed that they struck the Middle Loup a few miles northwest of near present-day Comstock. In describing the country between the two Loups, Cole goes on: “…The country…is high, abrupt, ridgy prairie, the road is consequence sinuous and heavy.” Lt. Springer is a little more descriptive: “…we had to march about 30 miles across the country before we came to water…It was insufferable hot, no cool breeze fanned the brows of the sun burnt warriors, who faced death in many hard contested battles in Dixie, and would sooner do it again than suffer so intensely from thirst in this inhospitable country.” He goes on to say that if they wished to drink, it was “…not only warm, but actually hot pool water with tadpoles, lizards and snakes in it. We struck the middle branch of the Loup Fork…the men and horses rushed in the water and drank as they never did before.” These pools of warm water he describes would be the high tableland lagoons located a few miles north and east of Comstock. In fact, ‘an old military road’ was pointed out to the writer in that vicinity in about 1955. At that time there was no local knowledge or memory of this important expedition since settlement did not occur until well into the 1870’s. Our research team has now traced virtually the entire trail through modern research and on-site investigations.