Spring 1867

The Hancock Expedition

The year 1867 opened with Brevet Maj. Henry Asbury in command of Fort Larned. The coming year would be a challenging one for the US Army’s frontier forces and Fort Larned would get its fair share of the coming trouble. The fort served as a staging area for mail and commercial wagon trains along the Santa Fe Trail and sent out frequent patrols to deal with the roving Indians. Fort Larned was also an Indian Agency, which made it a central location for Indians to meet with their agents and collect annuity goods. 

The winter of 1866-1867 was a typically cold one for the area so traffic along the trail was relatively light until the spring. Maj. Asbury had command of only 100 men to take care of all the fort’s duties both on and off post. He got a little testy with his superiors when asked to furnish pickets for Fort Zarah. In his reply he suggested they “Let Harker furnish some of the pickets, they have five companies to my one!” Throughout the first part of the year, he had to deal with more shortages of men and supplies, threats from the Indians upset at more incursions into their lands, as well as increased trail traffic once warmer spring weather arrived. 

Probably most alarming were the reports to the Indian Agent, Edward Wynkoop from the Dog Soldier Chief, Roman Nose, that many tribes planned uprisings in the spring. These warnings would eventually bring Civil War hero, Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock to Fort Larned in April of 1867 to deal with restive Cheyenne and Lakota Indians in the area. Hancock commanded the Military Department of the Missouri, which the Army created in August of 1866 to provide better protection to travelers crossing Kansas into Colorado and New Mexico.

One reason the Indians felt confident about taking on the U.S. Army is because they various traders selling them guns in violation of the Army’s General Order No. 70, which stated that only traders authorized by the Army could sell weapons to the Indians. Another “Indian problem” was getting the Dog Soldiers to vacate their hunting grounds along the Smokey Hill River to make way for the Kansas Pacific railroad. The Dog Soldiers had no intention of leaving and rumors of their attacks in the area began to circulate, though many of them untrue.

The government couldn’t ignore current Indian attacks, nor the threat of a future uprising. Congress authorized $150,000 for a spring campaign, to begin before the Indians had a chance to leave their winter camps. Gen. Hancock met the troops for his campaign at Fort Riley, which included the newly formed 7th US Cavalry under the command of George Custer. There were four companies of the 7th Cavalry and one company of the 37th Infantry from Fort Riley, as well as two more companies from the 7th, who joined them at Fort Harker. The force of almost 1400 men arrived at Fort Larned on April 7, 1867.

Before leaving Fort Leavenworth in March, Hancock had sent a letter to Indian Agents Edward Wynkoop and Jessie Leavenworth telling them that he was bringing a large force out to the plains to deal with any tribes that had been attacking travelers. Hancock was proposing to use threat to keep the tribes in line, but both these experienced Indian Agents knew that persuasion and gifts were more likely to get the Indians to cooperate. Regardless, they did get promises from the local chiefs to come to Fort Larned on April 10th for a meeting with Hancock.

On April 9th, two days after Hancock got to Fort Larned, a late spring blizzard dumped eight inches of snow in the area. This much snow made it impossible for the Indians to come to the fort for their meeting on the following day. They had also found a bison herd, which they decided to hunt to replenish their supplies instead of coming to Fort Larned.

Hancock didn’t think either of these were valid reasons to miss the meeting. At best, he thought they were stalling; at worst, they were simply ignoring him. He decided to give them another day to comply, though. By the evening of the 12th several chiefs from a nearby Cheyenne-Lakota village arrived for the meeting. Hancock decided to march to the village because he believed that not all the chiefs had come to Fort Larned. He ordered the expedition to set out the following day.

The force marched 21 miles that day and camped along the Pawnee. Hancock expected the chiefs to come to his camp the following day at 9:00. When they didn’t appear, he broke camp at 11:00 and continued towards the village.

A strong force of mounted braves met Hancock’s force near the village. They were dressed in war gear and clearly ready to fight to keep the Army troops away from their women and children. Hancock was ready to attack but Indian Agent Wynkoop persuaded the general to let him to talk with Roman Nose and Bull Bear. The two chiefs wanted the soldiers to go away, afraid that any clash between the two forces would result in casualties among the women and children in the village.

Painting of Indian warriors riding into battle.
Photo of the original painting of the Indian chiefs from the Cheyenne-Lakota Indian village riding out to meet Hancock's men.

NPS Photo

While Hancock and the chiefs talked, word came that the women and children in the village, fearing another attack like the one at Sand Creek, had started to leave. Furious, Hancock ordered Custer to have his men surround the village to keep any more Indians from leaving. By the time Custer got there the village was empty except for a young girl and an old man. On April 19th Hancock decided to burn the village as retaliation for attacks he believed the Indians had made after fleeing. Afterwards he marched his troops to Fort Dodge.

His men destroyed 132 Cheyenne lodges with 396 buffalo robes, saddles, and travois, along with various household goods. Though a brave and heroic figure in the Civil War, Hancock failed to understand the nature of dealing with the Indians. By trying to intimate the Indians with a show of force, he actually inflamed them more, ensuring the spring uprising he tried to prevent. The incident would also haunt him for the rest of his life and eventually have an impact on his 1880 run for the presidency.

Last updated: February 14, 2024

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