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Reprinted with permission from “Hometown” magazine, Winter, 1991.

Copyright ã 1991, Ohnick Enterprises

A Book Report

By Nancy Ohnick

 “Without Quarter The Wichita Expedition and the Fight on Crooked Creek”

By William Y. Chalfant

At the Meade Historical Society annual banquet in February of 1989, Bill Chalfant, an attorney from Hutchinson, was the speaker for the evening. He told of a book he had written about a famous Indian battle that took place in 1859, on the banks of Crooked Creek just a few short miles north of Meade. 

I was in the audience that evening totally intrigued by his account which was the first time I had ever heard of the Battle of Crooked Creek or even thought much about the Indians that occupied this area long before Meade was established. 

Bill and I kept in touch over the last two years and finally this fall his book was released by the University of Oklahoma Press. I obtained a copy for review and offer now a short synopsis of the book and encourage everyone to obtain a copy and get ready for some very interesting reading about a time in history when the soil we walk on today hosted a drama that played an important part in the settling of the west and the shaping of our nation. 

In the Prologue of Without Quarter, Bill describes our portion of the plains and what the area of Crooked Creek meant to the Indians who inhabited it.  “Crooked Creek is a small stream that flows in a generally south-southeasterly direction across southwest Kansas to its junction with the Cimarron River. In years past, before white men came, it provided favored camping grounds for Kiowa and Comanche Indians – of the latter particularly the Kotsoteka and Yamparika bands. In the upper reaches it was a scant eighteen miles south of the Santa Fe Trail’s Middle (Cimarron) Crossing of the Arkansas River. The Lower Crossing and the river’s South Bend were only a few miles farther to the northeast. More importantly, Crooked Creek was at the western edge of prime buffalo country, making it a superior location for the villages of Plains Indians. A scattering of cottonwood groves and occasional stands of scrub trees and bushes – ash, hackberry, mulberry, and willow – along the narrow bed provided wood, water, and a little shelter. The great herd of buffalo, a multitude of pronghorn antelope, and innumerable deer and elk supplied fresh meat. With the coming of the Europeans and the opening of the road to Santa Fe, the trade caravans afforded new opportunities to supplement their material goods and food supply. All in all, at least to the nomadic hunters of the plains, the valley of Crooked Creek provided most of the things necessary for a good life.” 

“As the westward movement of whites assumed greater proportions and the trickle of traders became a massive influx of immigrants, gold seekers, hunters, and others, whites turned into a threat to the way of life of the natives, and to their very existence. The Indians fought back the only way they could against the superior numbers and weapons of the intruders; they raided the trails, attacked the settlements, and killed whites in an effort to expel them. It was to no avail, of course, and in the end most of the Indians’ country was taken from them. This violent reaction brought retribution in the form of the army, white militia, and rangers. Military posts dotted the plains, and mounted troops took to the field to find and fight the elusive warriors. The story was to be repeated often in the West, with cavalry attacks upon unsuspecting Indian villages and death of women, children, and the old as well as of fighting men. One such attack took place on Crooked Creek.” 

Though the book gives us an overall history of all the Indians that inhabited the Plains it concentrates mostly on the Comanche tribe. A map showing the tribal territories of the southern Great Plains shows our area as being the northern edge of Comanche territory as it extended south of the Arkansas River that basically runs along highway 50 between Garden City and Dodge then northeast to Great Bend and again southeast to Hutchinson and Wichita. From the Arkansas the territory extends south into the middle of Texas including the entire western half of Oklahoma and a small portion of eastern New Mexico. 

The Comanche were excellent horsemen and fierce warriors. Efforts to control the Indians were useless, though many tried, from Spanish and Mexican rulers to Texans trying to protect the settlers edging their way west. Many treaties were made and broken.  

The ever westward push of white settlement increased after the end of the Mexican War in the late 1840’s. The gold rush to California began and increased harassment along the Santa Fe Trail caused the American government to take a serious look at defending the whites against the Indians. 

In 1853 President Franklin Pierce appointed Jefferson Davis as Secretary of War. Davis was instrumental in strengthening and reorganizing the U.S. Army, changing the country’s military policies, and training officers and men for waging war on horseback across the Great Plains. By 1855, he had convinced Congress to authorize two mounted regiments that would be designated as cavalry, the first in the American military to bear that title. 

From their organization in 1855 to the start of the Wichita Expedition in 1858, the book describes the First and Second Cavalry, from the training they received to the officers in charge. The Second Cavalry was sent to the Texas frontier and the First Cavalry patrolled along the Santa Fe Trail and the Kansas Plains. 

On August 9, 1858, Special Order No. 71 was issued authorizing a punitive expedition by troops of the Second Cavalry from Fort Belknap, Texas, into lands assigned to the Choctaw Nation. These troops were to actively pursue the Comanche and Kiowa Indians in their own territory, place them on reservations and keep them from raiding into Texas and provoking tribes already contained. 

The Wichita Expedition was under the command of Earl Van Dorn and consisted of four companies of the Second Cavalry. They established a temporary post, Camp Radziminski, at the southwest edge of the Wichita Mountains (if I am reading the map right, this is near present day Snyder, Oklahoma, 36 miles west of Lawton). 

After establishment of the camp late in September, Van Dorn led his troops on the first offensive action of the expedition into what was later named the Battle at the Wichita Village. This action was a direct assault on a Comanche village, which claimed the lives of some seventy Indians and at least three soldiers. The fight lasted nearly two hours and ended when….”the superior firepower of the cavalry weapons prevailed over the bows and arrows of the Comanche and the Indians fled the field.” 

Van Dorn himself was critically wounded in the battle, but was back in command of the expedition within five or six weeks. The troops spent the unusually hard winter of 1858-59, scouting the Indian Territory and preparing for action in the spring. “With one eye on the calendar and the other on the grass and the sky, Van Dorn decided that the expedition would depart Camp Radziminski on the last day of April. The route would be nearly due north to the Canadian and beyond to the Arkansas. Wherever they might be, the Wichita Expedition was going to find and fight the Comanche once again.” 

Early in their trip a young Comanche boy was captured. The boy gave Van Dorn the location of massive Indian villages to the north-northwest camped along Crooked Creek. The troops marched for ten days, much of the time through raining stormy weather and over difficult terrain until they reached the Cimarron River. They crossed the river and made camp on the north banks on May 10. (From looking at the map this would have been just into the southwest corner of Clark County.) 

While at this camp a small party of five Comanche warriors were discovered. One warrior was killed but the others escaped, “into the broken country to the west and north.” (what would be the southeast corner of Meade County.) 

By May 12, the troops had made camp along Crooked Creek, which by the map would have been near the site of present day Meade. The following morning they once again took to the trail of the Comanche, still experiencing heavy rains and some hail as they marched. By 2:00 pm they had traveled some twenty-one miles and stopped to make camp and rest. 

Once again Indians were discovered near their camp and troops were dispatched to scout the area. They followed the Indians a short distance southeast and, once a Comanche village was found, sent a messenger back to alert Van Dorn. Still traveling through pouring rain, Van Dorn and his troops arrived at the scene of the village, and the pages of Without Quarter describe the Battle of Crooked Creek in its every detail. 

The Indians were no match for the six companies of cavalry. Forty-one warriors and eight of their women died in the fight. Only five men survived, too badly wounded to fight to the death. Van Dorn departed Crooked Creek on May 15, dividing his command and leaving two companies near the battle site until the wounded recovered sufficiently to make the journey. By the time the last of the troops departed, there were two soldier’s graves on the banks of Crooked Creek and the wounded were transported on litters made from poles and buffalo hide from the Comanche lodges. By May 31, all the troops had returned to Camp Radziminski, completing the scout. 

The rest of the book goes on to describe the lesser actions of the Second Cavalry as its existence leads up to the start of the Civil War, at which time Texas seceded from the Union and the soldiers were transported to the east coast for new assignments. The author summarizes his story by telling the reader what happened to each of the officers he has become acquainted with throughout the book. Some of them served in the Union Army and some of them in the Confederacy, some even to return to the cavalry after the war. 

The plight of the Comanche Indians that roamed our county over a century and a half ago is a sad story. “The struggle for survival by the Comanche moved from Crooked Creek to other arenas, and the story was to be repeated often before the end of their freedom came in 1875. Yet the fierce encounter that had taken place along its banks did have more significance than might appear from the casualty figures. For a limited time at least, the violent and unexpected offensive actions of the Second Cavalry during the Wichita Expedition had the Comanche on the run, with no apparent safe haven and no place to stop for even a brief rest. It accomplished its purpose of reducing the raiding parties and easing pressure on the frontier settlers. Two soldiers died and fifty Comanche were killed during the expedition’s march to Crooked Creek; of the latter, forty-two were men and eight women, while the rest of the band was captured. Imperial conquest of their domain by a flood tide of seemingly irresistible alien people had brought them to this end. History cannot be altered, but it somehow seems important that their story not disappear, as have so many others, lost forever in the dark of time.” 

Through the pages of Without Quarter, the Battle of Crooked Creek was revealed for the first time to many of us. Those of us who live in Meade County can’t help but feel moved as we read the account of the Cavalry’s crossing over the Cimarron River. As the author describes the terrain we can easily follow their march in our mind’s eye all the way to the site of the battle approximately thirteen miles north of Meade. Without Quarter beautifully documents a little piece of our hometown history. 

 

 

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