Trail’s End – 150 Years Ago: The Indian Raids of Julesburg
In 1859, Jules Beni, a French trader, established Julesburg as a trading post along the South Platte River in the northeastern corner of Colorado. From the beginning, this was an important stop along the Overland Trail, although the trail only crossed this small section of what would become Colorado. Yet the north/south fork of the Overland trail occurred at Julesburg, making it a strategic supply point. The north trail followed the North Platte River through Wyoming to South Pass, on into California and Oregon. The southern trail followed the South Platte River to the early settlement of Denver City. As traffic increased along the route Fort Rankin was constructed nearby to protect the travelers from the often roaming Indian raids.
Following the brutal massacre of innocent Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians at the peaceful Indian camp in southeastern Colorado known as Sand Creek, in November 1864, the Plains Indians formed an alliance for war and revenge, the likes of which the western settlers had never experienced, culminating with the 1876 massacre known as the Battle of the Little Big Horn.
Following the Sand Creek massacre, Indian war councils were held and concluded, preparations for raids along the Platte River were made, including a massive raid at the town of Julesburg, Colo. The immediate concern was fortification of supplies.
“The tradition of the war pipe, when necessary, was sent out in the spring, but after the slaughter at Sand Creek, the war pipe went out in the winter, this was early December. To my knowledge, from the old ones, never before had the war pipe been sent in the time of winter until after Sand Creek,” said John L. Sipes, Cheyenne Nation historian.
Following several small raids along the Platte River, the massive Julesburg raid occurred in January 1865. More than 1,000 warriors of Cheyenne, Sioux and Arapaho made the attack. Included in this war party were the many women who traveled with the group, herding the extra horses needed to carry the supplies obtained back to their camp. Among these women was Mo-chi, a survivor of Sand Creek, who insisted on helping her people in whatever way she could. She would prove herself worthy.
It was an incredible attack; thoughtfully planned and executed brilliantly. The collective warriors, led by the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers, approached the bluff above Julesburg, hiding in the sand hills. It was a crisp cold night, yet it mattered not. Most of the warriors were deep in thought and preparation. The warriors readied their lances, shields, bows and arrows. Only a few had firearms. At sunrise on Jan. 7, 1865, a separate group of warriors, led by Big Crow, quietly approached Fort Rankin and rushed the guards outside the fort walls. The soldiers returned fire and then the gates of the compound opened with over 40 mounted soldiers in pursuit of the Indian war party. The decoy worked perfectly.
Soon the Indian scouts sent the signal and the hidden warriors converged upon the fort and nearby settler quarters. With the soldiers away in pursuit of the decoys, the remaining warriors were at their leave to plunder the area. Barrels of flour, sugar, and molasses were taken, as well as sacks of cornmeal, beans, sides of bacon and canned goods. Both Charles and George Bent, members of the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers, and sons of the famed fort owner, William Bent, participated in the raid. George later recalled the plundering, saying the Indians did not understand things in a can, and were disgusted when George opened a can of oysters and slurped down the contents. Bent also recounted the discovery of green paper by the Indians. Not knowing it was federal currency, they threw it aside, at which point Bent, who knew all too well the value of the money, scurried to scoop it up. George Bent also found a new soldier’s uniform, which he took and proudly wore in future Indian raids.
A short time later the women, led by Mo-chi, entered the fray with packhorses and began loading the goods onto the animals. As the warriors began to leave the scene, Mo-chi busied herself with herding the captured horses.
Meanwhile, with the plundering of Julesburg in progress, the pursuing soldiers who had followed the decoys, amazingly (perhaps in confusion,) had dismounted and staged a counter fight. The warriors pounced on the soldiers, killing 15, including a bugler, who many warriors first counted coup on. When Old Crow made the final attack of death, Cheyenne warrior Medicine Water took the bugler’s horse as his prize. The victorious warriors made their way to the retreating group, where Medicine Water turned his prize horse loose with Mo-chi’s horse herd.
The Indians retreated from Julesburg for a time, and the U.S. Army responded. Within 30 days of the Julesburg attack, the U.S. Army sent added troops to guard stage stops and various trails, including the Overland Trail. The Indians responded by simply changing tactics and destinations; the raids continued. Julesburg was raided again, burned to the ground, and the town relocated, two miles north of the army post. The town of Julesburg would move two more times, unprecedented in Colorado history.
The Indian raids continued along the various overland stage routes, eventually forcing famed overland stage owner, Ben Holladay to near bankruptcy. By 1868, the U.S. government became convinced that peace negotiations were needed once again. Successful at first, Julesburg and most of Colorado Territory were spared from further Indian raids.
And for a time, the U.S. Army prevailed in raids of their own, such as Summit Springs, and Beecher Island. This did not end the Indian wars in Colorado or the West until 1876, in Montana, at a place known as the Battle of the Little Big Horn.