Kidder’s Last Stand
In 1867, Sherman County did not exist. No one permanently lived within what would become the county. But history was made here that year, a last stand involving George Armstrong Custer and the Seventh Cavalry. Nine years before Custer’s Last Stand at the Battle of Little Bighorn, Custer found the corpses of M Company of the Second Cavalry, Kidder’s Last Stand.
Kidder takes a dispatch to Custer
No one had heard from Lt. Col. Custer since mid-June. New orders had arrived via telegraph at Fort Sedgwick, a mile from current Julesburg, Colo. The fort’s commander, Lt. Col. J.H. Potter, thought Custer was 90 miles southeast of the fort, near present-day Benkelman, Neb.
Potter ordered Second Lt. Lyman Stockwell Kidder, an officer new to the fort, to take 10 men of M Company and a Lakota scout Red Bead to take dispatches to Custer. Kidder was an experienced officer, having served in the Civil War.
If Custer had moved (and he had), Potter ordered Kidder (PDF) to hunt Custer until he found him. Since Maj. Joel Elliott recently had come safely from Custer’s command with 10 men, having seen no sign of Native American activity, Potter believed Kidder could do so also. He left June 29, 1867.
However, Custer’s activities had drawn Native American warriors angry about settlers and soldiers pushing them off their land. They had already attacked Custer’s soldiers twice.
Kidder never found Custer.
Custer eventually found Kidder — what remained of him.
Custer reached Riverside Station, some 40 miles west of Fort Sedgwick, and sent a telegraph message asking for further orders. When he learned that Kidder had been sent out, he became very concerned and started searching.
Missing the trail
While Kidder had been searching for Custer, Custer had left the trail to Fort Wallace, turning sharply to the west. Kidder and his party had missed Custer’s deviation from the trail, perhaps while traveling at night, and had continued in the direction of Fort Wallace, southeast of present-day Wallace, Kan.
Kidder’s Last Stand begins
Many years later, Good Bear told George Bent what had happened. A group of Lakota warriors, accompanied by some Cheyenne Dog Soldiers including Good Bear, Howling Wolf, Big Head and Tobacco, had been buffalo hunting in the area. Some Lakota warriors spotted the patrol on or about July 2, 1867, in what is now northeast Sherman County. They rushed into the Dog Soldiers’ camp saying that soldiers were coming and would arrive in a few minutes.
The soldiers tried to outrun the warriors on horseback for five to 10 miles, but failed. The warriors herded the soldiers into a little hollow near Beaver Creek. Kidder apparently ordered his men to dismount and arrange themselves in a circle, facing outward. The soldiers carried new seven-shot, caliber .56/50 Spencer carbines and a Remington revolver, superior weapons to what the warriors carried.
However, the warriors’ larger numbers overcame the soldiers’ superior firepower.
The Dog Soldiers circled the dismounted soldiers and fired upon them from horseback. The soldiers shot Good Bear’s and Tobacco’s horses from underneath them. The Lakota dismounted and crawled through the grass toward the soldiers. The soldiers killed two Lakota warriors, Yellow Horse and another. The Lakota crept closer and closer until they killed all the soldiers.
A patrol of corpses
On the fourth day of the search, Custer found a patrol of corpses.
Rain had fallen during Kidder’s journey, so Custer’s scouts easily found M Company’s trail. Custer’s guide William Comstock could even tell how many horses had been in the party. Custer sent his Delaware Indian scouts ahead of the main party. About 10 days after the battle, Custer’s troopers found a dead white horse branded U.S. They found another two miles away. Maj. Elliott recalled that one of Ft. Sedgwick’s companies had ridden white horses.
Guided by hovering buzzards, Comstock and Custer’s Delaware scouts found the bodies in high vegetation, all peppered with arrows. The stench was unbearable.
Some had been killed while they were fighting. Some had been tortured with fire before they died. All their bodies had been mutilated. The bodies had been stripped. One of the bodies was wearing a collar from black undershirt with white stripes. The collar would not come away from the body, so the warriors left it.
Comstock recognized Red Bead. The Lakota had seen Red Bead as a traitor and had scalped him. But because he was one of them, they had left his body in a recognizable state.
The others were unrecognizable.
Custer and his party found hundreds of arrows in the ground and in the soldiers’ bodies.
Usually, the military would send an officer’s body to his family for burial, but no one could tell which body had been Kidder’s. Because they were unrecognizable and had died together, Custer decided that burying them in a common grave would be appropriate.
Judge Kidder searches for his son’s body
Kidder’s father, Dakota Territory Judge Jefferson P. Kidder, wanted to properly bury his son’s body. Custer said that one soldier had had a collar remaining on his body which matched an undershirt Kidder’s mother had made for him. The judge wrote Custer, including a sample of fabric from that undershirt. The fabric matched. Judge Kidder became determined to claim his son’s body. His request went all the way to the top of Army command, to Ulysses Grant, who was then Secretary of War.
Fort Wallace was 47 miles from the massacre site, an estimated five days’ journey away. The military advised the judge to let them bring in the bodies, but he was utterly set on seeing where his son had lost his life.
Soldiers commanded by Lt. Fred Beecher escorted the judge to the grave site to disinter Kidder’s body and bring it home. They reached the site March 1, 1868, after being caught in a blizzard. They had crossed the site before, but it had been obscured by snow. The area was in a severe cold snap. Judge Kidder wrote his younger son Silas Wright Kidder that they had had to burn their wagons in order to stay alive. The usual High Plains fuel, buffalo chips, had been too wet to burn. The party exhumed all the bodies, placing Kidder’s in a separate box. The party also brought the other remains to Fort Wallace.
The lieutenant goes home
At the fort, the judge prepared his son’s body for burial with the assistance of post surgeons. They wrapped his body in a sheet that the judge had brought, then in a white military blanket. Then they placed the lieutenant’s remains in a black walnut coffin and placed the coffin in a pine box for transport. A wagon pulled by a six-mule team, escorted by 12 soldiers, was tasked to take the body to the railroad, five days away.
The judge noted that, except for military posts, no houses existed within 150 miles of the fort. The only civilian habitations were dugouts, holes in the ground. He also noted the High Plains’ utter lack of trees. The judge estimated that his trip home to St. Paul, Minn., would require about 10 days.
Lt. Kidder is buried in the St. Paul family plot. Judge Kidder thought the massacre site was in Colorado and his belief is reflected in Lt. Kidder’s military headstone.
The patrol is laid to rest twice more
The soldiers were buried in the Fort Wallace Post Cemetery. An obelisk honoring them still stands in the Post Cemetery, the only part of the fort remaining. When Fort Wallace closed in the 1880s, the soldiers’ bodies were reinterred (PDF) at Fort Leavenworth, where a marker honors them today. Enlisted men were Sgt. Oscar Close, Cpl. Charles Haines, Pvts. Rodger Curry, Michael Cornell, William Floyd, Michael Gorman, N.J. Humphries, Michael Lawler and Charles Taltin.
History loses Red Bead’s identity, but a photographer finds it
Red Bead’s body is also interred in that same grave, but his identity was lost to history. The marker lists him as an “unknown citizen guide.” A Wichita newspaper photographer Ron Stover of KAKE-TV proved Red Bead’s identity. At the massacre’s centennial, July 1, 1967, the cemetery held a ceremony to dedicate a plaque at the foot of the enlisted men’s marker. Apache Chief Glittering Rainbow accepted Red Bead’s memorial flag on behalf of the Mid-America All-Indian Center in Wichita.
Comstock had a year and a month to live. An assailant shot outside a Cheyenne village in August 1868. He was supposedly interred in Fort Wallace Post Cemetery, but maybe he wasn’t. Beecher had a year and two months to live. On Sept. 17, 1868, Beecher was killed at the Battle of Beecher Island, which bears his name.
Capt. Theophilus Turner, M.D., one of Fort Wallace’s post surgeons, probably helped Judge Kidder prepare his son’s body. Turner and Comstock roamed the area, hunting and collecting fossils. In late 1867, Turner, perhaps with Comstock, discovered dinosaur vertebrae in a ravine. The vertebrae belonged to an Elasmosaurus platyurus. A replica of the Elasmosaurus platyurus now hangs in the Fort Wallace Museum.
After the Battle of Summit Springs July 10, 1869, members of the Fifth U.S. Cavalry captured a Cheyenne Dog Soldier’s ledger book which had an image of Kidder’s Last Stand. The ledger book is in the collections of History Colorado, where it was named one of the museum’s Most Significant Artifacts.
A week short of nine years after Kidder and his men had died, Custer and his men met their fate at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Capt. Myles Keogh, who commanded Fort Wallace at the time of the Kidder battle, was one of the slain.
The massacre site today
In 1969, the State of Kansas erected a marker memorializing Kidder’s Last Stand. It’s a mile southwest of the site at the County Road 28 and 77 intersection. Please sign the register in the mailbox next to the state’s marker.
For those who want to see the site more closely, Friends of the Library of Goodland dedicated a stone monument near the massacre site Aug. 3, 1969. To reach this monument, take the field road a bit north of the County Road 28 and 77 intersection. Keep Beaver Creek always in sight and drive this road about a mile. Memorial is on the side of the hill facing the creek. Take the road at your own risk and beware of rattlesnakes and poison ivy.
The Historic Preservation Alliance dedicated silhouettes of a warrior and a soldier at the site above Beaver Creek Sept. 28, 2003. These stand in a field to the north of the road. Lloyd Harden created the silhouettes. In 2012, Sherman County and the Historic Preservation Alliance erected markers to guide people to the massacre site.
To reach the site from Interstate 70, take Exit 27 at Edson and go west one mile on Old Highway 24 to County Road 28. Turn right (north) and drive about 12 miles. State marker is on east side of gravel road. Go east a mile to the site.
A geocache is hidden nearby.
For more information
A diorama at High Plains Museum in Goodland depicts the Kidder Massacre.
In 2008, the Eight Wonders of Sherman County contest named the site as No. 8.
For more links, see the Kidder Massacre Pinterest board.by