The year 1867 opened with Brvt. Maj. Henry Asbury in command of Fort Larned. The coming year would be a challenging one for the U.S. Army’s frontier forces and Fort Larned would be unable to avoid any of the coming trouble. The fort provided a staging area for mail and commercial wagon trains along the Santa Fe Trail, sent out frequent patrols to deal with the roving Indians while also serving as a central location for Indians to meet with their agents and collect their 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. Without consideration for his diminished garrison he was asked to provide pickets for Fort Zarah, to which he replied to his superiors, “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 that came with the warmer spring weather.
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 were apparently being armed by various traders 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.
Neither current Indian attacks, nor the threat of a future uprising could go unanswered by the government. Congress authorized $150,000 for a spring campaign, which would begin before the Indians had a chance to leave their winter encampments. Gen. Hancock met the troops for his campaign at Fort Riley, which included the newly formed 7th U.S. Cavalry under the command of George Custer. The force consisted of 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 when both these experienced Indian Agents knew that persuasion and gifts were more likely to secure the Indians’ cooperation. They did, however, get promises from the local chiefs to come to Fort Larned on April 10th to meet with Hancock.
On April 9th, two days after Hancock’s arrival, a late spring blizzard brought eight inches of snow to the area, making it impossible for the Indians to come to the fort for their meeting on the following day. The Indians had also found a buffalo herd, which they decided to hunt to replenish their supplies instead of coming to Fort Larned. Hancock did not consider either of these valid reasons to miss the meeting and believed the Indians were at best stalling, and at worst, simply ignoring him. He decided to give them another day to comply, though, and when April 12th arrived with still no chiefs in sight, Hancock 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 did not appear, he broke camp at 11:00 and continued on towards the Cheyenne and Lakota village. As his troops neared the village they were confronted by a strong force of mounted braves wearing war gear. Hancock was ready to attack but Indian Agent Wynkoop persuaded the general to allow 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.
While the chiefs were conferring with Hancock they received word that the women and children in the village, fearing another incident like the one at Sand Creek, had begun to flee the village. Furious, Hancock ordered Custer to take his men and surround the village to prevent 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 travoises, 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, his actions 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.
By May 20th, Major Meredith H. Kidd, 10thU.S. Cavalry, arrived at Fort Larned to assume leadership of the post and Maj. Asbury returned to his position as infantry commander. The situation Maj. Kidd inherited was one that required heightened vigilance from the fort’s garrison. Hancock’s expedition, intended as a way to end Indian attacks in the region, had actually stirred the flames even higher. The summer of 1867 promised to be a hot one for the fort in more ways than one.