SCOTT COUNTY — Seeing the remnants of the hand-dug rifle pits where Northern Cheyenne warriors entrenched themselves and the cave where their women and children hid as they awaited the arrival of U.S. troops, one can begin to visualize the dramatic fight that ensued in Battle Canyon more than 140 years ago.
The canyon, about a mile south of Historic Lake Scott State Park in Scott County, was the site of the last Indian battle fought in Kansas, the Battle of Punished Woman’s Fork.
While the battle happened on Sept. 27, 1878, it might as well have happened yesterday, said Scott County historian Dennie Siegrist. Not much has changed at the site over the years, he said, except the addition of a pond.
“In fact, that was one of the reasons we were able to get it on the National Register (of Historic Places) was because of the horizon and the landscape and the site itself being as pristine as it is,” said Siegrist, facility manager at Scott City’s El Quartelejo Museum.
A more famous battle in the Indian Wars, the Battle of the Little Bighorn — also known at Custer’s Last Stand — is where the story really begins, Siegrist said.
Some of the Cheyenne who fought in that battle in Montana in 1876 were rounded up by the U.S. government and placed on a reservation in Indian Territory in what eventually became Oklahoma — far from their native land in Montana.
According to Siegrist, life on the reservation in Oklahoma was rough on the Northern Cheyenne as there was no game to hunt, they were ravaged by malaria and dysentary, and their people were dying daily. Led by chiefs Dull Knife and Little Wolf, the Cheyenne decided in September 1878 that in order to save their people, they had to return to their homeland in Montana.
The group, numbering 353 (92 warriors, 120 women and 141 children, according to the website legendsofamerica.com) set out on Sept. 9. After a series of skirmishes with U.S. troops in Oklahoma and southern Kansas, the Cheyenne found their way to a familiar place where they previously had camped — the banks of Punished Woman’s Fork.
They stopped there on Sept. 25 and decided to dig in and prepare to make a stand against the U.S. troops who had been tracking them.
The Cheyenne women and children dug rifle pits, the men hunted for food and Chief Little Wolf prepared a plan to lure the soldiers into the valley and ambush them, Siegrist said.
The soldiers, numbering roughly 220 to 230 and led by Lt. Col. William H. Lewis, arrived the afternoon of Sept. 27 and entered the south end of the valley, Siegrist said. As the story goes, an overly eager Cheyenne brave prematurely fired and the fighting erupted before the soldiers had fully entered the canyon under the watchful eyes of the awaiting warriors.
Little Wolf’s trap had failed and chaos ensued.
According to an article about the battle on legendsofamerica.com, the Cheyenne women, children and elderly hid in what became known as Squaw’s Den Cave during the battle.
The fighting ended at night fall with the troops surrounding the Cheyenne, Siegrist said. But during the night, the Cheyenne escaped to the north.
Col. Lewis, who had been shot in the thigh during the battle, died the following day. He was the last Kansas military casualty in the Indian Wars.
The Cheyenne continued their trek north. Dull Knife eventually surrendered at Fort Robinson in Nebraska, and Little Wolf and the remaining members of the group made it all the way back to Montana.
“It didn’t mean a lot in the annals of the Indian Wars in history," Siegrist said. "If Little Wolf would have gotten to spring his ambush as he had set for the troops — because they were on the high ground and they had these 200 troops down in the valley below underneath their guns — if they would have gotten to pull off their ambush, this site would have probably been as well known as the Custer battlefield."
While not as famous, or as well-visited as Little Bighorn, Battle Canyon still is frequented by tourists and historians, particularly in the summer months with Historic Scott Lake nearby, Siegrist said.
“It’s just a serene place. If you go out there, you can walk around, you can still see the rifle pits that were dug at the time of the battle, or in preparation for the battle, and so that in itself is just neat to see,” said Scott City tourism coordinator Jennifer Turner.
The site today features a monument placed over Squaw’s Den Cave. It also includes a commemorative plaque, as well as a kiosk with brochures, maps and a story paper telling about the battle, said Siegrist, who leads tours of the site.
“I always advise visitors to stop at the museum and Jerry Thomas Gallery first, let the historians there tell you the story, the history, get a lot of information from them. And then when you go out to the site, it kind of comes alive for the visitor, and they can see it in their mind,” Turner said. “They can walk the paths and kind of know how it took place, and it just makes it that much more meaningful.”
The story means a great deal to Siegrist, who admits he has a passion for it and is happy to share it with others.
“There are very few Native American battlefields that are pristine or even preserved in the United States today, and we happen to be fortunate enough to have one that is,” he said.