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Beecher Island – A Short Detour on the Genocide Train…

March 3, 2019

The Arikaree River Valley by Beecher Island


For the most part, the military “engagements” between Native peoples and the US army, fought on such lopsided terms, ended badly for Native Americans. But at Beecher Island, under the leadership of Cheyenne warrior, Roman Nose, the tides were momentarily turned. If the U.S. army unit was able to survive at all, it was largely because they possessed repeating rifles, the precursors to machine guns. 


It sits in a valley between two rises in the landscape. In between the Arikaree River, there a small stream, flows east and north until it tumbles into the Republican River near Hagler, Nebraska. According to the Wikipedia description:

…it has been made one of the designated areas under the Colorado Natural Areas Program because it is “part of the largest and best remaining example of a naturally functioning Great Plains river system in Colorado.” It has several species of reptiles, fish, and amphibians that are native and uncommon. The area is a sanctuary for many bird species, including burrowing owlsferruginous hawks, and greater prairie chickens. The habitat is near-pristine and there are high-quality riparian and native prairie plants

There in September, 1868, an US Army patrol of some fifty soldiers was surprised and ambushed by a party of some 1000 Indians, Cheyenne, Arapahoe and Ogallalah Sioux among them, the survivors of the Sand Creek Massacre four years previous. Although suffering many casualties, the army patrol held out on the island – a sand bar situated between branches of the Arikaree. It was later named Beecher Island after Lieutenant Frederick H. Beecher, one of the patrol leaders, killed in the skirmish.

Two patrol members were able to escape and locate help from an army base at Cheyenne Wells, to the south and return with reinforcements. After holding out for nine days, the survivors were saved by the Tenth Cavalry Regiment, an all black force stationed at Cheyenne Wells under the command of Colonel Henry Bankhead Carpenter which came to the rescue.

Early on in the skirmish, on the second day, the Cheyenne Chief Roman Nose was wounded. He died a few hours later. 150 years later, in September of 2018, the nearby city of Wray sponsored a series of events marking the anniversary of the skirmish. The city produced a seven minute re-enactment of the battle.

The Arikaree River at Beecher Island

Our visit to Beecher Island

On the afternoon of February 27, 2019, sometime after 3 pm, my brother-in-law, David Fey and I arrived at Beecher Island. We had spent some time earlier in the day at the Bonny Lake State Park and South Republican River State Wildlife Area, south of Idalia, Colorado. While the sun was shining, the temperature was nippy enough, in the mid-to-high thirties with some wind. The next day we would visit another skirmish site, Summit Springs, south and east of Sterling, Colorado of the same period.

There is a small memorial at the Beecher Island site, a brief description of the skirmish, and a path, Roman Nose Path that extends about a mile to the west along the river along the stretch where the actual skirmish took place. We walked it talking and thinking about what had happened there 151 years ago.

As with other shallow, slow flowing rivers in eastern Colorado, the Arikaree splits in two, leaving sand bars between the two branches. These are the same kind of sandbars, that further north, along the Platte in Nebraska, where the tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Sandhill cranes make home on their flights north in the early spring.

In the case of the Beecher Island conflict the sandbars created enough protection for the army patrol to survive the nine days of fighting and attack from Cheyenne, Arapahoe and Ogallalah Sioux warriors. The settlers refer to the encounter as either the Battle of Beecher Island or the Battle of Arikaree Fork. The Cheyenne have their own description of it: The Fight Where Roman Nose Was Killed.

The Wikipedia article on the battle refers to as “a minor engagement of no lasting import whose greater significance, as a model for tactics in successfully combating the Indians, was largely ignored.” The “tactics” referred to here were an early version of American counter-insurgency, fighting indigenous peoples according to their own rules so to speak.

Beecher Island was just one of a number of armed clashes, a step on the Native American genocide train where native peoples were fighting their last and losing battles to defend their homelands and way of life. Of course they never had a chance. Some, those left, surrendered peacefully; but others, including those cited here, did not.

The “Battle of Beecher Island” took place between two other military engagements – one admittedly a genocide – the Sand Creek Massacre of November, 1864. The other bookend to these conflicts in northeastern Colorado is referred to as “the Battle of Summit Springs” which took place on July 11, 1869. But as will be detailed later, it was, like Sand Creek, more of a massacre than a battle, although there was some fighting.

After Summit Springs, Native armed resistance in northeastern Colorado was broken. The Cheyenne, Arapahoe and Ogallalah were reduced to the names of pioneer towns in Nebraska and Wyoming. With great speed, where there were bison a short decade ago,  now cattle roamed on John Wesley Iliff‘s mega-ranch that stretched from what today is I-25 to the Nebraska and Kansas state line, occupying entire third of the modern state of Colorado. At one time, Iliff owned 35,000 head of cattle.

While the U.S. Army and the coalition of native peoples were engaged in mortal combat at Beecher Island, the U.S. government and the railroads were paying buffalo skins money for killing the Native American food supply – the buffalo – to make way for white settlement and the railroads. By some estimates the number of buffalo slaughtered between 1830 and 1874 were as many as 30 million. In 1870 alone some two million were slaughtered; Between 1872-1974 an estimated 5000 bison were killed a day, their bones ground into fertilizer.

Native peoples see it differently as exemplified in the life of Roman Nose, known to his own people as Woquini, or Crooked Nose.

Woquini, or Roman Nose. Fierce, uncompromising Cheyenne warrior who died at Beecher Island

Acknowledged as a great hunter of unique physical prowess, Roman Nose had remained at peace with whites, at a time when many Cheyenne had earlier turned to armed struggle. But the Sand Creek Massacre changed his attitude. In fact, it is only by understanding the horror perpetrated at Sand Creek that one can understand the confrontation four years on at Beecher Island.

The wanton savagery of Colonel Chivington’s attack on the peaceful encampment of Cheyenne and Arapahoe leaving more than 150 native peoples dead, among them many women and children, was more than Roman Nose could endure.

Roman Nose turned to armed struggle, joining  a warrior society, the Pointed (or Bent) Lance Men, the hardcore suicide fighters of the Cheyenne resistance. He was known for his uncompromising attitude towards white expansionism. Once he decided to take the path of armed struggle after Sand Creek, he never turned back, organizing attacks on white settlers, stage coaches and U.S. army patrols.

There is some evidence that Roman Nose understood that against the U.S. Army, battle hardened from the Civil War and armed with modern weaponry, that the Cheyenne would ultimately lose their war with the whites. They would go down and die fighting as he did at Beecher Creek. But by then he was acknowledged as one of the greatest Cheyenne leaders of his generation.

John Koster’s biography of Roman Nose in Wild West Magazine, quoting Cheyenne Chief Leg-In-The-Water, aptly sums up the Cheyenne dilemma:

When Jim Beckwourth, legendary black mountain man and scout, was sent to patch things up after Sand Creek, the Cheyennes sent him packing. “What do we want to live for?” Cheyenne Chief Leg-in-the-Water asked Beckwourth. “The white man has taken our country, killed all of our game; was not satisfied with that, but killed our wives and children. Now no peace. We want to go and meet our families in the spirit land. We loved the whites until we found out they lied to us and robbed us of what we had. We have raised the battle-ax until death.”


One Comment leave one →
  1. William Conklin permalink
    March 3, 2019 7:48 pm

    Great article and some comments about my Great Uncle, William Hadfield, who according to the Logan County Ledger, p. 14, by Dale Wells, was the most revered citizen and the first permanent settler of Logan County. He came from Derbyshire, England. He arrived in the Spring of 1871, He took up the business in Sterling of raising sheep and cattle which he pursued for 25 years. He would ride 100 miles for Masonic meetings in Greeley. To make a long story short, the Indians stole livestock from Hadfield, but he was one of the white racists responsible for their demise. Sitting Bull and his squaw dined at Hatfields on several occasions. The Logan County Ledger tells more of the story. Unfortunately my ancestors remind me of the Zionists as they torture Gaza. It seems that history just repeats itself.

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