The foothills of the Rockies lie
Afar athwart her western sky;
Her rolling prairie, like the sea,
Held long in virgin sanctity,
Her fertile loam.
Her wild-life roamed o'er treeless plains,
Till came the toiling wagon-trains, —
And settlers bold, far westward bound,
In broad Nebraska's valleys found,
Their chosen home
Stretched across the sea of vast prairie that lie west of Omaha/Council Bluffs and St. Joseph, starting points to the new land of riches in the Rocky Mountains and beyond, were a chain of stage and train stops for the westward adventurer.
Along the Platte River route, to Cherry Creek, Kansas Territory (now Denver), dozens of designated stops dotted the passage to the west. Names such as Liberty Farm, 32 Mile Creek, Gilman's, Log Chain and O'Fallon's were all places to rest or refuel.
Plum Creek, just a few stops past Ft. Kearney, about halfway through Nebraska, was the scene of a bloody Cheyenne Indian ambush in 1867. The year was a time of high fever in western expansion, and the quest to divide the Plains by rail and rid the settlers of the “Plains people” who were fighting a losing battle to retain their way of life was at an all-time peak of excitement.
“All conquering civilization will be borne upon the wings of steam to the utmost parts of the western plains,” wrote the Chicago Journal, “preparing the way for safe and rapid settlement by white men, and compelling the savages to either adopt civilization or suffer extinction.”
The Medicine Lodge Treaty of 1967 was a first step to clearing the Native Americans from the Transcontinental route. But not all was peaceful, nor was the incursion of settlers into sacred hunting lands ceded easily by agreements on paper.
On Aug. 7, 1867, shortly after dark on a section of railroad track, near Plum Creek, where men had been working, and where they left their tools alongside the tracks, a group of Cheyenne took the tools, pried out the spikes and raised the rails to a height of three or four feet. They took down the telegraph wires and fastened blocks of wood to each rail.
At once, a telegraph agent discovered that he couldn't send or receive messages, and sent a party of six men via hand car west from Plum Creek station to find the trouble. The men noticed a fire burning on the north side of the tracks, then the hand car hit blocks of wood the Cheyenne had tied to the tracks and jumped the tracks.
It was then that about forty Indians on ponies rode in from the tall grass on the south side of the tracks and, circling the men, began shooting guns and arrows at the men, who returned fire.
The first man captured was Handerhand, who the Indians cut to pieces with their tomahawks. Thompson was next. He was scalped. Griswold got shot in the hip and was killed. Three others escaped into the night toward the sand bluffs, where they remained until morning.
Meanwhile, a train pulling 25 cars had left the Plum Creek station. Thompson, scalped and bleeding, feigned death and was left alone at the scene. He could do nothing but watch and bear witness as the train came down the tracks.
“Mr. Thompson lying, perfectly conscious, within a few rods of the track, listening with all the intensity of one who was so soon to witness a scene of carnage and blood to which his whole nature revolted, even after the suffering and torture to which he had himself been subjected, and yet not daring to interfere between the train and its impending doom, inasmuch as such interference would be but to seal his death warrant,” wrote the Rocky Mountain News.
The train, too, jumped the tracks. Cars were jammed into a mass, their contents crushed and scattered.
“No sooner were the cars off the track,” reported the News, “than about one hundred Indians leaped out of the darkness, surrounding the entire train, making it impossible for any one to escape.”
The engineer, fireman and brakemen were immediately shot and scalped. Then the ambush party set fire to the wreckage. The conductor, who had been in the caboose, ran off down the track. Another train was on the way, and the conductor managed to flag it down and stop it.
Flames from the burning wreckage shot upward, lighting up the prairie in the night, as the other train backed its way down the track to Plum Creek. The forms of Indians riding around the wreckage were clearly visible in the fire light to those on the retreating train.
Thompson, after both attacks had quieted, grabbed his scalp from the dirt and crawled on hands and knees back to Plum Creek. “The way his head was torn in the removal of his scalp is horrible to witness,” the News continued, “the whole of the skin and flesh being torn away clear to the bone, which is uncovered entirely, presenting a ghastly and sickening spectacle which is impossible to describe.”
Once the train was back to Plum Creek, it dispatched another train east with the women and children who were at Plum Creek. The next morning a flat car was attached to an engine, and the men traveled back toward the wreckage and smoke. About a mile away from the wreck, the Indians were seen, still celebrating their conquest.
One of the men on the flat car, a crack rifle shot, took his long range rifle and picked off the one who appeared to be the leader of the Indians, and the whole group scattered onto the islands of the Platte.
The men then made it to the wreck, hooked on the caboose and a few other cars that were still upright, collected provisions scattered on the ground such as sugar, coffee and other dry goods and made their way back to Plum Creek.
Thompson tried to keep his scalp damp in hopes of having it reattached. But it was in too bad a shape, so “he had it tanned and later on carried it around to show, and horrify, his acquaintances.”
In the quarter of century between 1866 and 1891, four transcontinental railroads stretched to the Pacific. The Plum Creek ambush was a small battle won in a losing war for the Plains Indians as eventual routes to Colorado, Oregon and rest of the west bisected the Great Plains.
Sources: “Hymn to Nebraska,” by William H. Russ; “Iron Horse and Buffalo,” 1988, by Brian Hosmer; Chicago Journal, Nov. 18, 1867; usgennet.org, NEGenWeb Project; The Rocky Mountain News, Aug. 13, 1867.
Alan Todd is a 35-year newspaper veteran and board member of the Ouray County Historical Society. He lives in Ouray County and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.