Grieving brother’s anger contributes to battle
The deaths of three white buffalo hunters in northeast Sherman County April 15, 1875, at the hands of unknown Native Americans began a chain of events that ended in the Battle of Sappa (or Cheyenne) Hole in neighboring Rawlins County. Three surviving hunters joined a larger group of hunters that eventually joined forces with Lt. Austin Henley’s troopers. The hunters charged in one direction, sparked by one of the fallen hunter’s brothers, while the cavalry troopers crossed a stream below.
Buffalo hunters fed soldiers, settlers and railroad construction crews. They also shipped meat and hides back East for use in restaurants, as blankets and in industrial applications, such as machinery belts.
Buffalo hunters were not popular with Native Americans. Native Americans depended on buffaloes for a myriad of products, starting with food, clothing and shelter. They resented the slaughter. Buffalo eventually hunting became drive-by shooting. Railroad passengers took potshots from rail cars, leaving dead buffaloes to rot on the plains. The United States government supported exterminating the species as a means of forcing Native Americans on to reservations.
Beaver Creek was a popular location because of a reliable water hole, crucial in semiarid country. And water attracted game. Game attracted hunters.
Three buffalo hunters die
In April 1875, several camps of buffalo hunters were located in the area. Partners Sol Rees and Dan Dimmit were camped near the water hole. Early in the day, Dimmit went hunting alone off to the northwest. Reese went north, where he witnessed warriors making ready to attack another, unknown, hunter. He fired warning shots, then rode toward the stranger. He was within rifle range when the stranger fell.
Rees shot one warrior. Dimmit, who had heard the shooting, shot from behind a low ridge and hit two more. The stranger, who was later identified as Bob Canfield, had probably accounted for several before he fell.
When the warriors left, the partners approached Canfield. He was dead and had been scalped. They buried him near their camp. The warriors had removed all their fallen, along with anything that might identify them.
The partners followed the Beaver about five miles to Big Springs, the site of another buffalo hunter camp. They found Daniel Brown’s and James Lucas’s corpses. The partners had started burying them when Brown’s brother Joe arrived from Fort Wallace. Joe Brown had taken their buffalo hides to the fort, where he heard of other attacks on hunters. He had hurried back to warn his brother and their partner, but had been too late. Brown was distraught over his brother’s death.
They all decided to leave the creek and head east to settled country. They met three other hunters, Hank Campbell, Charles Schroeder and Sam Sarch, on Prairie Dog Creek north of present-day Colby and joined forces April 22, 1875. They wanted to attack any warriors to seek revenge for the three deaths, but wisely decided to continue traveling east. More hunters joined them.
A scout for Henely of the Fifth Cavalry, Homer Wheeler, found the hunters. Hunters told him that they had seen Native Americans traveling toward Middle Sappa Creek, about 17 miles north. Wheeler decided the hunters and troopers should join forces.
Battle of Sappa Hole
Joe Brown, furious in his grief over his brother’s death, wanted to attack the Native American camp at Sappa Hole, even though no evidence showed their involvement in the killings. Sappa Hole is 12 miles south and three east of present-day Atwood, Several hunters did not want to join the military and refused to go along until they were promised no one would kill women or children. Apparently, Dimmit left the group at this time.
In heavy fog, the troopers and hunters attacked. Hunters came over a bluff. Troopers came up the creek. Those in the camp below were unprepared.
Joe Brown feared that the military would not punish the Native Americans, that the troopers would only question them about the hunters’ deaths. He wanted revenge, not an investigation. He topped the ridge with guns blazing and was immediately killed. Brown’s actions triggered a general gun battle. When the shooting stopped three hours later, many of the camp’s inhabitants, including women and children, were dead. Henely’s report, which failed to credit the hunters, said that the fight had killed 27 people. Other witnesses counted 70. Only one of the village escaped the battle. Two soldiers were killed.
Joe Brown was buried on the family homestead in Kirwin, Kan. Later the Brown family retrieved Daniel’s body and reburied him beside his brother. Canfield’s wife buried him in Oberlin, the first burial in the Oberlin Cemetery. James Lucas’ body remains in Sherman County, lying west of the bridge on the current County Road 28.
Henely and his troopers had killed one of the tribe’s medicine men. After the battle, he displayed some of the medicine man’s equipment at Fort Lyon, Colo., where Walking Woman, a Cheyenne woman who had married cattleman John Prowers, saw them. She went into immediate mourning, and then predicted that Henely would die within a year. He drowned near Camp Supply, Ariz., July 11, 1878, three years later.
Wheeler, who was a post trader at Fort Wallace at the time of the battle, received a cavalry lieutenant’s commission in October 1875 for his part in the battle.
Near the same site eight years earlier, Lt. Lyman Kidder’s patrol had been wiped out by Lakota and Cheyenne warriors.