Located southwest of Lyons, Kansas in Rice County, Kansas is an important historic site on The Santa Fe Trail known as Buffalo Bill’s Well or the Cow Creek Crossing. This area was an important campground on the Santa Fe Trail from 1822 to 1871 and the site of several skirmishes or battles with Native Americans as well as other events of historical significance.
In 1858 Dr. Asahel Beach and his son Abijah built a trading ranch in the area. Their ranch served travelers along the Santa Fe Trail supplying them not only with feed for their livestock but also fresh vegetables when in season. The Beaches also built several smoke houses where they cured buffalo meat which they sold to markets back east. Some historical accounts indicate that well known frontiersman and trapper William “Buffalo Bill” Mathewson was a partner with Mr. Beach on the ranch while others say he was a “ranch hand”. Either way many of the events in area and the hand dug well that gives the site its name center around the colorful life of William “Buffalo Bill” Mathewson.
While not as famous as Buffalo Bill Cody, Mathewson is considered by many to be the original “Buffalo Bill” having been given that nickname in the winter of 1860-61 when he saved many settlers from starvation by providing them with buffalo meet while refusing any payment. It is said that he killed as many as 80 buffalo in a single day in his effort to feed the local settlers who ran out of food due to the drought of 1860 which ruined much of the local harvest.
While little remains of this important stop on the Santa Fe Trial, the original hand dug well known as “Buffalo Bill’s Well” has been preserved thanks to local efforts and is a monument to the sacrifice and historic significance of this site.
As an important campground on the Santa Fe Trail the Cow Creek Crossing was also the site of several conflicts with Indians. To protect passing caravans there were often soldiers stationed at trading post. It is said that they had a flagpole on the low hill that is just north of the hand dug well.
A bridge over Cow Creek was constructed in 1859-1860 and reports have Buffalo Bill Mathewson being associated with the ranch until around 1866-1867. While some stories have a young William F. Cody working for Mathewson before he earned the name Buffalo Bill Cody there is little evidence to support this story so it is disputed by historians as to its accuracy.
While at Cow Creek trading post and ranch Buffalo Bill Mathewson had a run in with the famed Kiowa chief Satanta. Satanta entered the trading post with several warriors saying he was there to kill Buffalo Bill. Instead Mathewson used his revolver to knock Satanta down and then beat him severely after which the chief and his warriors left the area. This act earned Mathewson the nickname of “Sinpah Zillpah” which means the “Long-bearded Dangerous Man”. It is reported that Satanta initially vowed revenge on Matheson to which Buffalo Bill promptly set out to find the chief which prompted Satanta to head farther west for most of a year. When Satanta later returned to the Cow Creek area he entered into a treaty with Mathewson rather than seeking revenge which not too long afterwards would play an important part in what would be one of the major battles that took place at the site.
The treaty between Satanta and Mathewson would come into play in the summer of 1864 when Satanta would warn Mathewson of the possibility of an upcoming attack on the trading post by the Kiowa’s. However instead of abandoning the trading post as Satanta had hoped he would, Mathewson instead warned the other settlers of the upcoming attack and stayed behind with four other men to defend the post and try to prevent it from being ransacked and destroyed. Armed with new breech-loading rifles the brave men soon found themselves facing almost insurmountable odds as a large group of over 700 Kiowa Indians attacked the trading post on July 20, 1864. For the next three days the Indians laid siege to the men at the trading post but the accurate rifle fire from breech-loading rifles allowed the experienced fighters with Mathewson to hold off the Indian’s. The siege was finally broken after three days of intense fighting due to the accurate rifle fire of the defenders and their use of a small “six pound cannon.”
While accounts seem to differ somewhat it appears that during the same time frame as the siege on the Cow Creek Trading Post a large wagon train carrying military supplies from Fort Leavenworth to Fort Union was camped several miles west of Cow Creek when it also came under attack by a large force of Kiowa Indians. The wagon train is reported to having between 80-135 wagons that were loaded with military supplies, including several wagon loads of Sharp’s rifles and Colt Navy revolvers which had been disguised so that even the teamsters were unaware of them . Some accounts say that this train was under attack for as many as six days with the siege finally broken when Mathewson was able to leave the trading post and go assist the wagon train. It is reported that with the Indians circling the wagon train and their attention on it, Mathewson was able to break through their ranks and jump his horse into the circle of wagons at which point being aware of the hidden rifles he was able to quickly distribute them to the teamsters and help them turn the tide on the attacking Indians. Now adequately armed the teamsters were able to successfully defend the wagon train and once the Indians began to retreat, Mathewson led a group of teamsters to purse them and driving them several miles away. It is said that the Kiowa’s had extensive loses during these two battles including losing two of their war chiefs. It is reported that Mathewson was later presented with a special pair of pistols by the wagon train owners for his valent efforts during the battle.
Another instance that happened in this area was when yet another wagon train was attacked after camping at Cow Creek by an estimated 150 Sioux Warriors. This wagon train was also carrying military supplies to Fort Union but this wagon train was accompanied by a detachment of troops as an escort. After camping overnight at Cow Creek the wagon train started off early in the morning before the troops. A short time later the Sioux led by Chief Little Turtle attacked the wagon train before the Army troop caught up with them. By the time the troops got there the battle was over, the wagon train was looted and all but two men had been killed. One of those would later die from his wounds but the second one named Robert McGee survived and lived for many years until he died of old age.
Today the original hand dug well is all that remains at this important site on the Santa Fe Trial. A shelter has been erected and there is a small picnic area close by. The site is easily reached and is worth your visit.