Often referred to as the Last Indian Battle in Kansas, the Battle of Punished Woman Fork took place in the valley and canyons that are located just south of present day Scott County State Lake. Scott County Lake is a spring fed lake and the battle site gets its name from the small creek that flows into the lake. Originally known as Punished Woman’s Fork or Famished Woman’s Fork the creek is now named Ladder Creek but is also known locally as Beaver Creek.
The Battle of Punished Woman Fork took place on September 27, 1878 between the Northern Cheyenne and the United States Army. Located in Scott County, Kansas the battle site including the natural cave known as “Squaw’s Den” was given by local rancher Ben Christy to Scott County for use a county park in June 1958. Today the site is marked by stone monument that overlooks the canyon and cave known as Squaw’s Den which is where the Indian women and children hid while the Cheyenne warriors waited to ambush the United States Cavalry led by Lt. Colonel William H. Lewis.
The Northern Cheyenne led by famed Chiefs Dull Knife and Little Wolf had fled the Cheyenne Reservation in Oklahoma in a desperate attempt to return to their native hunting lands in Montana. Because of extremely poor conditions on the reservation, where they had been relocated to in 1877, a large group of Cheyenne, consisting of ninety two warriors, one hundred and twenty women and one hundred forty one children escaped the reservation at Fort Reno, Oklahoma on September 9, 1878 and headed north.
As the Cheyenne made the way north they had several encounters with local settlers along the way resulting in the deaths of several men and increasing the pressure on the U.S. Army to stop them. Lieutenant Colonel William H. Lewis, the commander of the Nineteenth Infantry garrison in Fort Dodge, Kansas was assigned to lead a detachment of some 250 men, including soldiers from the Fourth Cavalry and Nineteenth Infantry in an effort to recapture the Cheyenne.
Tired and thirsty the Northern Cheyenne arrived in the lush valley along the Punished Woman Fork and found not only a good place to camp but also a strategic place of defense, including a natural shelter for their women and children. The Cheyenne camped there for two days resting and preparing for the upcoming battle before the Army caught up with them. During that time Dull Knife and Little Wolf made plans to ambush the soldiers after which they would continue their flight north. On the hills surrounding Battle Canyon the Indians dug shallow rifle pits and surrounded them with stones. Some of these rifle pits are still visible today. With their plans in place Dull Knife and Little Wolf watched the soldiers approach through binoculars describing the string of covered wagons as looking like “a long white snake” as it approached the battle site.
After marching some 52 miles in two days, Colonel Lewis and the solders approached the battle site around 4:00 to 5:00 PM on September 27, 1878. Intending to use decoys to draw the soldiers into the narrow canyon to be ambushed, the plan failed when a young warrior ended up firing upon the Cavalry Scouts before they were within range. At that time Little Wolf led several mounted warriors against the soldiers and wagons that accompanied them. Ordering his men to move the wagons west through a draw to higher and safer ground, Lewis had Companies H and G of the Fourth Cavalry establish a skirmish-line about a quarter mile north of the valley gap. These men were tasked with driving the Indians from their rifle pits and other defensive positions on the west side of the canyon. At the same time Captain James Bradford and Company G of the Nineteenth Infantry were dispatched to the east side of the creek in an effort to flank the Cheyenne from the Northeast.
As the soldiers moved to completely surround the Cheyenne, Lewis “maintained a high profile riding his horse back and forth behind the troopers.” For the next two hours as the heavy fighting continued both Colonel Lewis and Captain Clarence Mauck continued to ride their horses around the canyon while encouraging their men to advance closer to the Cheyenne positions. Both men remained mounted while the rest of the soldiers and officers fought dismounted. With the Fourth Cavalry on the west side of the canyon and the Nineteenth Infantry approaching from the east, Colonel Lewis’ strategy was working as the Cheyenne were being forced farther back into the box canyon that ended at the natural cave known as Squaw’s Den.
As the battle progressed Colonel Lewis’ horse was struck by a bullet and went down but Lewis, who was unharmed, continued to lead and encourage his men in the battle by walking calmly back and forth between the soldiers encouraging them to advance closer to the canyon rim. As he did that he was suddenly hit in the right thigh by a large caliber bullet. The bullet severed his femoral artery and was so severe that despite the field surgeons’ best effort Lewis would not survive and became the last army officer killed in military action in the State of Kansas.
Not long after Lewis was hit darkness set in and having forced the Indians into the canyon and cave known as Squaw’s Den, Captain Mauck, who had assumed command, ordered some of the troops to withdraw to a camp near where the wagons were circled with a few troops left to guard the canyon during the night. That night was very dark and windy which allowed the Northern Cheyenne to climb out of the box canyon where Squaw’s Den was located and silently escape through a shallow ravine to the north.
After fleeing the soldiers Dull Knife and Little Wolf led the Cheyenne into Northwest Kansas to the banks of the Republican River. There they camped and carried out raids along the Sappa River and Beaver Creek to replenish the many horses they lost or left behind at the Battle of Punished Woman Creek. During that time numerous attacks were made on settlers and it is estimated that some 40 people were killed in one day including nineteen in what is now Decatur County near Oberlin, Kansas. Colonel Lewis and the other three soldiers that were wounded were transported to Fort Wallace, Kansas while Captain Mauck continued in pursuit of the Northern Cheyenne.
While some of the rock ledge that once was part of the roof of Squaw's Den and helped protect the Cheyenne women and children has collapsed, today’s visitor to the Battle of Punished Woman’s Fork site can still easily envision the battle unfolding before them as much of the area is relatively unchanged today. As you explore the canyon and the hills surrounding it you can still see the remains of some of the rifle pits used by the Cheyenne. For those visiting the area please be respectful and take nothing out of it and only leave your footprints behind. If you visit it during the summer months be on the watch for rattlesnakes who find the same rock ledges that once sheltered the Cheyenne warriors to be good places to sun themselves.
The battle site can be reached by taking Highway 95 from Highway 83 north of Scott City, Kansas. If you are approaching from the south you will find the gravel road leading to the battle site just south of “Devils Backbone” where a cut allows Highway 95 to pass through a ridge of hills. Caution should be used if the area has seen heavy rain.
While in the area be sure to check out the El Quartelejo Museum in Scott City as well as the Jerry Thomas Gallery and Collection. A talented wildlife and historical artist Jerry Thomas has one of the best collections of artifacts, weapons and uniforms from the Battle of Punished Woman’s Fork including the only known picture of Colonel Lewis, his sword and the original map referenced above in the photo showing key locations of the battle. Mr. Thomas’ paintings include several related this specific time period in Kansas history and a recent one of this Colonel Lewis during this battle. The Jerry Thomas Gallery and Collections is one of the best in the nation for this type of artifact and is a must see stop when you are in the Scott City area.
For Additional Information on the Battle:
- The Battle of Punished Woman's Fork...By Albert and Vernon Maddux.
- Tell them we are going home...By John H. Monnett