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Carbine and Lance: The Story of Old Fort Sill

Carbine and Lance: The Story of Old Fort Sill

by Wilbur S. Nye

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Fort Sill, located in the heart of the old Kiowa-Comanche Indian country in southwestern Oklahoma, is known to a modern generation as the Field Artillery School of the United States Army. To students of American frontier history, it is known as the focal point of one of the most interesting, dramatic, and sustained series of conflicts in the records of western


Fort Sill, located in the heart of the old Kiowa-Comanche Indian country in southwestern Oklahoma, is known to a modern generation as the Field Artillery School of the United States Army. To students of American frontier history, it is known as the focal point of one of the most interesting, dramatic, and sustained series of conflicts in the records of western warfare.

From 1833 to 1875, in a theater of action extending from Kansas to Mexico, the strife was almost uninterrupted. The U.S. Army, Kansas militia, Texas Rangers, and white pioneers and traders were arrayed against the fierce and heroic bands of the Kiowas, Comanches, Cheyennes, Arapahoes, and Kiowa-Apaches.

The savage skirmishes with the southwestern Indians before the Civil War provided many army officers with a kind of training that proved indispensable to them in that later, prolonged conflict. When hostilities ceased, Sherman, Sheridan, Dodge, Custer, Grierson, and other commanders again resumed the harsh field of guerrilla warfare against their Indian foes—tough, hard fighters.

With the inauguration of the so-called Quaker Peace Policy during President Grant’s first administration, the hands of the army were tied. The Fort Sill reservation became a place of refuge for the marauding bands that went forth unmolested to raid in Texas, Oklahoma, and Mexico. The toll in human life reached such proportions that the government finally turned the southwestern Indians over to the army for discipline, and a permanent settlement of the bands was achieved by 1875.

From extensive research, conversations with both Indian and white eyewitnesses, and his familiarity with Indian life and army affairs, Captain Nye has written an unforgettable account of these stirring times. The delineation of character and the reconstruction of colorful scenes, so often absent in historical writing, are to be found here in abundance. His Indians are made to live again: his scenes of post life could have been written only by an army man.

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“Fort Sill, established by Sheridan in 1869 . . . was the focal point of all Indian warfare on the southern plains, warfare which was fast, furious, heroic and romantic . . . Colonel Nye gleaned his materials from old army files, from the few printed sources, and by word of mouth from Indians who had figured in the events he records.”—Christian Science Monitor

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University of Oklahoma Press
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Carbine & Lance

The Story of Old Fort Sill

By Colonel W. S. Nye


Copyright © 1969 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8718-1




ONE of the landmarks of the great war trail which led south from Arrow-Point River (the Arkansas) into Texas and Old Mexico was a detached hill which stood in a mesquite-dotted plain north of the Wichita Mountains. It is a tradition among the Kiowas that whenever one of their roving bands camped near this peak a rainstorm descended; therefore they named it Rainy Mountain.

A little creek, rising near Rainy Mountain, meanders north for fifteen miles to empty into the Washita River at the present site of Mountain View, Oklahoma. Along this creek valley the grass once remained green, even in the wintertime. Buffalo and antelope were to be found there throughout the year; there was ample grazing for the Indian ponies; there was an abundance of firewood and sweet water. For these reasons the mouth of Rainy Mountain Creek was a favorite camp ground of the Kiowas and Comanches.

In the late spring of 1833 the entire Kiowa tribe was camped in this locality. There was color and jollity—yet industry—in that great village of skin lodges. A successful hunting party had just come in. Throughout the encampment strips of drying meat hung over saplings supported by forked sticks thrust in the ground. Women were scraping fresh hides pegged to the ground, cooking buffalo meat in brass buckets suspended from crude tripods, or baking tortillas made of mesquite-berry meal. Young girls clad in long buckskin garments, and wearing moccasins that reached halfway to their knees, were cutting firewood and carrying water from the stream. Small boys were frolicking naked, wrestling with each other furiously, or shooting at marks with bows and arrows. Little girls were playing quietly with toy tents and buckskin dolls. Older children were harnessing a miniature travois to an embarrassed camp dog.

Ancient warriors sat in the sun smoking kinnikinic. Infants, strapped upright in their wood-and-leather carriers, dozed in the warm limpid atmosphere, while wolfish dogs, with the corners of their mouths drawn down grimly, scratched elusive fleas.

Through the air drifted innumerable bits of down blown from the cottonwoods which shaded the riverbank. Bluejays and squirrels scolded in the elms, swelling the babel rising from the great barbaric encampment. The tepees showed light grey or buff against the trees; their tops were blackened from the smoke of many campfires. A few of the lodges were distinguished by the weird and colorful designs painted on them. From one of these dwellings came the fragrance of cedar chips and sage grass smouldering on the embers of a ceremonial fire. Within the dim interior a medicine man reclined on a pile of buffalo robes, crooning falsetto melodies and softly shaking a pear-shaped rattle made of rawhide.

In one part of the camp a group of men were beating tom-toms and shouting war songs; one of the chiefs was recruiting a war party to ride west against the Utes. On the outskirts of the village youths were practicing warlike feats, preparing for the day when they too could join a band of raiders. Some were exercising with lance and bow, others riding their ponies at breakneck speed, hanging over the sides of their mounts, with only a hand and foot exposed to the "enemy." Others were galloping in pairs, reaching down to rescue comrades supposed to be wounded and dismounted in battle.

Elsewhere gambling games were attracting crowds: Here an awl-game (like parchesi), there the favorite hand-stick guessing game. On the flats along the creek a score of braves were horse racing, wagering everything they possessed on the outcome of a single heat.

Beyond the camp an immense herd of horses grazed in the deep meadows, tended by a few boys. Some of the animals were frisking in rough play, others rolling contentedly in the dust of dried buffalo-wallows. On all sides the gentle folds of the prairie stretched afar to the rim of the sky. At this season of the year it presented the appearance of a vast carpet of indescribable beauty. On the background of chrome green were massed in bright confusion millions of wildflowers—gold with wine centers, azure, white, scarlet, purple, salmon.

The village had been here only a few days when a party ot buffalo hunters, riding north of the Washita, came upon the carcass of a freshly slain bison from which protruded an arrow. The markings on the shaft showed that it was of Osage manufacture. At once the Kiowas returned to camp. The whole tribe was aroused. On the south side of the river adobe works were thrown up for defense. The Osages, being armed with flintlocks secured from white traders on the Missouri, were feared by the Kiowas.

Several days passed but no enemy appeared. The alarm subsided. The big war party which had been planning the expedition against the Utes departed, leaving the camp guarded mostly by old men and young boys. The people who were left decided to divide the village into several groups and disperse. One part moved south toward the present site of Mountain Park, on Otter Creek. Here this portion subdivided, one band remaining on Otter Creek, the other going northwest to the mouth of Elk Creek. The purpose of this maneuver was to get as near as possible to the range of wild horses. The Kiowas planned to liberate their brood mares, hobbled, near the wild herds so as to breed them to wild stallions. In this way the endurance and hardiness of the domestic stock would be increased.

A few days later the remainder of the tribe which had stayed on the Washita split into two divisions. One of these went to a camp site four miles southwest of Rainy Mountain. The other group traveled southeast to Eagle Heart Springs, near the head of Cache Creek. Ahda-te, principal chief of the tribe, was in charge.

They stayed in this locality for only a day or two, then moved to Saddle Mountain Creek, about a half-mile from the site of Saddle Mountain Post Office. Still not satisfied, they made a final move westward through that gap known today as Cutthroat Gap, to a glen at the head of the west branch of Otter Creek. Here they pitched their tepees and prepared to await the return of the war party. They were unaware that a large band of Osage warriors, traveling on foot, had followed their plain trail from the Washita.

Before the sun appeared over the eastern crags a Kiowa youth went up the canyon to gather the ponies belonging to his family. In the dim light his startled gaze fell on the shaven head of an Osage, who was bobbing behind the rocks. The boy ran to give the alarm.

Old Ah-da-te sprang up shouting, "To the rocks! To the rocks!"

Women and children swarmed from the lodges. They scrambled up among the boulders atop the little butte lying south of the camp site. But the Osages were upon them with long knives, searching them out to cut their throats. There was no attempt to stand; it was simply a butchery of panic-stricken noncombatants.

Some of the people escaped by fleeing west. The Tai-me Keeper (custodian of the great medicine) abandoned one of the sacred idols to the Osages. An elderly warrior named Anzah-te ran away without his war shield. Kiowa law brands this as inexcusable cowardice, and it indicates the terror which the Osage attack inspired. The refugees continued their flight until they arrived at the camp of the band which had gone to hunt wild horses. The panic was communicated to them. Many ot the frightened Indians attempted to dig hiding places in the bare rocks of the little hill which stands a mile or so northwest of the mouth of Elk Creek. From this incident the knoll thenceforth was known to the Kiowas as "Scratching Rock."

There were, however, a few feats of individual heroism at the Massacre of Cutthroat Gap. Some of the Kiowas were killed defending their children. Tai-on paused to snatch up the cradle containing his infant son. As he fled he stopped several times to shoot arrows at his pursuers. As he did so he held the top of the cradle in his teeth. The Kiowas say that if all the warriors had been present the whole story would have had a different ending.

After the affair was over the Osages decapitated their victims, and placed each ghastly trophy in the Kiowa camp buckets. These buckets later were found standing in rows in the midst of the litter of the camp. This was a sacrificial rite peculiar to the Osages, who were accustomed to offer the heads of their victims to propitiate the gods and to facilitate the passage of deceased relatives into the spirit world.

Two children—brother and sister—were taken away as captives. A woman also was captured but later escaped. The Osages found in the camp a number of silver dollars, which they carried to Fort Gibson. This was part of the loot taken the preceding year by the Kiowas in an attack on a party of traders returning from Santa Fe.

The Kiowas were thrown into great consternation by this Osage invasion of their territory. The alarm extended to their allies the Comanches, who promptly commenced assembling for common defense. Nearly all of the Comanches who lived north of Red River—the Kotch-atekas, or Buffalo-eaters, the Yapparikas, or Rooteaters, and the No-yika or Noconee (Antelope Band)—gathered together at the east end of the mountains. This was unusual. The Comanches spoke a common language had common customs, and were associated with each other in war. But the various bands rarely assembled in one place, as the Kiowas did for their annual sun dance.


Tribal organization among the plains Indians was loose. Discipline or authority, aside from that imposed by the bare necessities of primitive camp life and religious taboo, was almost non-existent. The so-called principal chief of a tribe or subdivision thereof was little more than a sort of billeting officer who decided when the village would move, and to what place. A war chief was an individual who had organized a raid and had made several coups against an enemy; to use modern terms, he was a man who had made his major varsity letter. However, his advice might be sought on account of his proved courage and experience, and he was "looked to in time of danger." There might be a number of these petty chief in each band.

It was the custom of the Indians to spread out their encampments along watercourses They disliked being crowded, and required considerable pasturage for their vast horse herds. Consequently the Comanche village which lay east of the Wichita Mountains in 1834 extended along Cache Creek form Medicine Bluff north to Chandler Creek and south to Wolf Creek. The principal part was in the center, with tepees located as for west as Signal Mountain.

Sentry duty was purely voluntary; and, as nearly a year had elapsed without a reappearance of Osage invaders, the Comanches had relaxed their vigilance. A party of warriors had gone east toward the Keechi Hills to hunt the wild horses which abounded in that area.

On July 16 the rays of the sun clutched the valley of Cache Creek with the usual summer ferocity. The Comanches lolled indolently under brush arbors built in front of the tepees. The afternoon stillness was broken only by the rhythmic hum of locusts in the fields. Suddenly a cry of alarm went up from one of the camps, repeated, as if in waves, from band to band.

A column of dark-clad horsemen had appeared on the high ground three miles east of the camp. They had stopped on the knoll later known as Dodge Hill, and seemed to be studying the Indian camp. The sunlight flashed from their weapons and uniform ornaments. American soldiers had arrived, for the first time, in the heart of the Comanche country.

The Comanche camps were thrown into immediate and violent commotion. Warriors ran around to catch up their war ponies. Women yelped shrilly as they packed camp gear for flight. Disturbed infants bawled lustily; a thousand dogs barked and howled.

Into the midst of all this rode calmly the party of horse hunters. They assured Chief Sequito-tori that there was no danger. They had met the strangers two days ago at Keechi Hills and had guided them to the village. The newcomers were white soldiers, but they came to shake hands and to make peace.

The Comanches were relieved and pleased. At this early day they believed what the white man told them, and in this case it happened to be true. The soldiers were a part of the dragoon regiment, mobilized at Fort Gibson for service on the western frontier. They had been sent out under Colonel Henry Dodge to contact the wild Indians and to bring some of them back to Fort Gibson for conference and treaty. The purpose of the government was to secure protection for the Santa Fe trail, for hunters, trappers, and traders who desired to enter the plains, and for the Five Civilized Tribes who were being settled in the eastern part of territory.

Sequi-to-tori called for a piece of whitened buffalo hide, which he fastened to a stick as a flag. He mounted a hundred of his braves and led them off at a gallop to meet the soldiers. The Indians formed in line and "dressed up" their ranks like cavalry, no doubt in imitation of Mexican lancers with whom they had fought. Opposite them were two hundred and fifty dragoons formed in columns of twos, with three columns abreast. If the Comanches displayed a colorful spectacle with their gay trappings and flowing war bonnets, so did the dragoons. Judged by present-day standards, the latter were attired in costumes better suited to comic opera than to summer field service in Oklahoma.

At the head of the regiment was the commander and his staff, with a white flag planted in the ground in front of them. The Indians placed beside it their "flag." The chief greeted Colonel Dodge warmly, taking him to his breast and giving him a hearty hug. Fortunately an interpreter was available. This was a Mexican captive member of the Comanche tribe who had been present at the first meeting with the dragoons at Keechi Hills. He had not forgotten all his Spanish, and among the officers was one who spoke this language brokenly. The interpreter had told Colonel Dodge that his name was Hi-soo-san-ches, no doubt a phonetic variant of Jesus Sanchez.

Atter the chief greeted the colonel, the whole troop of Comanches rode down the columns shaking hands with each grinning dragoon This ceremony consumed nearly an hour, after which the Indians invited Colonel Dodge to cross Cache Creek and camp with them.

The good colonel declined. He preferred to keep the stream between himself and the savages. He made his camp in the form of a hollow rectangle, pitching it in on the flat ground just north of where the remains of the first stone bridge now stand, near Magazine 19. It was called Camp Comanche. The bend of Cache Creek, with its precipitous banks, afforded protection against mounted attack from the front and from the south flank; a tributary protected the rear. A chain of sentinels was posted about the encampment. Strict orders were issued prohibiting any member of the command from visiting the Indian village after dark. Indian tepees were directly across the creek; Colonel Dodge was astonished see an American flag hoisted over the lodge of the chief!

The following day Colonel Dodge held a conference with the headmen of the Comanche village, while the lesser Indians gathered about staring in curiosity at the troops and their camp. At first there was some trouble with the interpreter; the rascal seemed to have lost his sense of hearing. Colonel Dodge presented him with a fine yauger (jaeger) rifle. His hearing magically was restored. The powwow proceeded without further difficfulty.

Colonel Dodge told the Comanches that he had with him two captive Indians whom the Osages had taken from the Pawnee Piets. The Comanches made no reply. They had seen these captives in the soldier camp, and recognized one of them as a Wichita and the other as a Kiowa girl. Colonel Dodge went on to explain that the soldiers had come to restore these captives to their own people. He desired to know where the Pawnee Picts lived.

The Comanches shook their heads dubiously. The only Pawnees known to them lived far to the north, on the Platte River. Colonel Dodge attempted to clarify matters by saying that Pawnee Piet was what the Americans called all of the wild Indians of the southwestern plains; he understood that the Pawnee Picts tattooed their faces and lived in peculiar grass houses.

This was sufficient identification for the Comanches. They knew the Pawnee Picts as Towyash (Wichitas). They stated that the Towyash village was about three days' march to the west. They agreed to furnish a man who could guide the soldiers there.

Official matters now being concluded, and friendly relations established with the Comanches, the dragoons spent the following two days visiting the big Indian camp, and in bartering cheap trade knives for good horses. Artist George Catlin had an umbrella which the Indians coveted. But Catlin, being ill, used the device as a sunshade and would not part with it. Years later, when traders were established in the Fort Sill country, every Indian equipped himself with an umbrella.


Excerpted from Carbine & Lance by Colonel W. S. Nye. Copyright © 1969 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Captain W. S. Nye (more recently Major W. S. Nye, U.S.A) was born in Canton, Ohio. As a boy he moved with his parents to California and can remember when Hollywood was a barley field. Upon the entrance of the United States into the World War, he enlisted in the ambulance service. Soon, however, he received an appointment to West Point where he was graduated in 1920. Major Nye has seen service at Camp Knox, Kentucky; Camp Lewis, Washington; Schofield Barracks, Hawaii; Fort Bragg, North Carolina; Fort Sill, Oklahoma; and in Washington, D.C. He was stationed at Fort Sill in 1933, as a student in the advanced course of the Field Artillery School, when he began the researches in Indian history that led to the writing of Carbine and Lance.

A frequent contributor to the military journals and the author of many featured articles on western history, he is now editor of The Field Artillery Journal.

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