Fight with Eagle Claw

Fight with Eagle Claw

On the north side of the Platte River there was a distance of three hundred miles where there were no roads or settlements. There was plenty of good grass on the north side, owing to there being no travel, and for that reason Arthur Lewis went down the north side and camped, June 3, 1867, across from the Spring Hill ranch, twelve miles below Mr. Coburn’s ranch. Mr. Coburn tells the following story about their fight with Chief Eagle Claw:

One of our cows had run away, and I went down to the Spring Hill ranch after it. I stayed for dinner, then immediately afterwards started home. I had gone about three miles when I rode over a ridge, and looking across the river, I saw nine horsemen riding towards Lewis’ wagon and oxen. I rode back to the ranch and asked Mr Freal: “Are there any soldiers out from the fort?” He said he did not know of any. I got my glasses and looked at the horsemen and discovered that they were Indians, coming down from the bluffs toward the wagons, and we realized at once there was going to be an attack. Arthur Lewis had left the wagon and was somewhere around the ranch. I found him and showed the Indians to him and asked if there was any one with the wagons. He said, “Yes, I left a young fellow, George Teal, over there.”

“Did you leave any guns or ammunition in the wagon?” I asked him.
“Yes, seven guns and plenty of ammunition.”

There were eight men and myself at the ranch, and I suggested that we take the boat and cross over to Teal’s assistance. The others all hesitated, and then began to make excuses. They couldn’t all leave the ranch, and some couldn’t swim, in case the boat should tip over, were some of their excuses.

By this time I was getting vexed with them and said, “I believe you fellows are all cowards and afraid to go. I know it is a risky business and all that, but we can’t stand here and watch the Indians get that man without us taking a chance to help him. I am going; is anyone coming with me?”

Tom Fought, who used to work for me and was in several hard fights with me, and Henry Freal spoke up, “Take the lead, Coburn; we will follow you.”

The river was high and running swift, so we towed the boat up stream quit a distance, that we might be able to land on the opposite bank with the wagon between us and the Indians. Tom rowed the boat, Henry steered it, and I sat with my rifle ready in case it would be necessary to use it.

In the meantime, Teal had seen the Indians approaching and got in the covered wagon, tied the canvass sheets together at both ends, loaded up his seven guns and waited for them. When they began to fire at the wagons, Teal just peppered it back into them. The Indians, seeing that they had a harder proposition than they expected, sent a runner back to their camp for more warriors.

The current was so swift, it was taking us below the wagon, and before long the Indians caught sight of us and left the wagon and ran down the bank, waiting for us to get in rifle range, then fire into us. When we were nearing the bank, I saw an Indian with a rifle, that looked about nine feet long to me just then, and he was leveling it in our direction, so I told the boys to drop flat in the boat, and just as I started to drop, crack! went that rifle, and the bullet grazed across my temple. I dropped into the river. I was stunned several minutes and when I gradually came to myself, I was standing in water waist deep and holding onto my rifle, which was also standing in the water. I looked around and saw the boat drifting down stream, and as I was collecting my thoughts as to how I got there, the accident came to my mind and I said to myself, “Well, you have been shot, but where?” and while looking for the bullet hole, I happened to look up and saw an Indian hiding behind a rock, loading a gun. I thought, “Old fellow, I’ll just beat you to it.” I took my gun out of the river, poured the water out of it and had it ready, so just as I saw the Indian edge around the rock and that nine-foot gun aimed at me, I fired. The Indian turned a somersault and limped away. The boys in the boat looked around and I motioned them to pull ashore. One of them landed and the other came back after me. We then got under the bank and taking the boat with us, started toward the wagon. As the Indians saw they could not get to us while we were under the bank, they hurried back to the wagon, intending to get Teal and raid the wagon before we got there. By this time fourteen more Indians had come down from their camp, and a runner had been sent for still more, so their number was increased to fifty-eight, while there were only four of us.

Teal could not imagine what the commotion was outside, as he could not see out, and never once thought that it was someone coming to his aid, since he knew there was no white man for a hundred miles on that side of the river, and he did not think anyone would dare to cross the river when it was so high, and a mob of Indians waiting for them to land. When he heard the Indians returning to the wagon he peeped out and saw us back of him near the bank. He jumped from his hiding place and joined us. We had got there just in time, for he had only three cartridges left, and in another five minutes the Indians would have had him.

We kept up a pitched fight for quite a while, when it died down a little and we had time to look around, we noticed one Indian with the long rifle, making his way to the bank. He was out of rifle reach, so all we could do was to keep watch on him. I surmised that his intention was to get under the bank, crawl up and let our boat downstream and leave us without any means of getting back to the ranch, then while the others held our attention in front, he would pick us off one at a time. While we were watching the Indian and talking about his intentions the other Indians had fallen back to council. Suddenly they charged down on us, yelling and shooting. For ten or fifteen minutes they took our entire attention and when we had a chance to look for the Indian whom we had seen making his way to the river, he had disappeared. About two hundred yards below us was a sharp bend in the bank. I thought he might be hiding back of that until the others could make another charge, then he could get up back of us. I said, “Boys, watch in the grass below here for him and keep an eye on the others; I am going to get under the bank, take my chances and meet that Indian at the turn and see if I can’t head him off.”

I managed to drop over the bank unseen, and crawled to the turn. I then stopped to load my gun, and crouched down, ready to spring, but he did not come, and as I did not want to waste any time, I leaped around the turn, thinking that I would take him at a disadvantage and get the drop on him. But he wasn’t there. I cautiously peeped up over the bank and saw a black head raised up out of a buffalo wallow (a place where the buffalo have pawed out a hole to catch rain water in) a short distance away. Before I could shoot, it dropped out of sight. Again it raised up and took a glance toward the wagon, as though measuring the distance, then dropped down in the grass. I leveled my rifle over the bank and waited. Suddenly he sprang out of the wallow with his gun to his shoulder, aimed at one of the boys back of the wagon, who was unaware of his danger and busy watching the Indians in front. By the time the Indian was on his feet, I fired and he fell. To be sure that he was dead, I leaped up the bank with knife in my hand, and started for him. At the same time Tom came running from the wagon and said, “That is my Indian.” We looked for the bullets and mine struck him square and went clear through, while Tom’s hit him on the left wrist just where it was bent in holding the barrel of the rifle, and as the Indian was turned sideways toward Tom, the bullet went on into the left side of his chest and lodged against the skin on the right shoulder. The boys had followed my advice, and Tom watched in the grass, while George and Henry stood off those in front.

The Indian we killed was Eagle Claw, and when the others saw that their chief was dead, refused to fight any more and went to their camp. The Indian camp was about a half mile from the wagon and I watched them through my glasses, and saw they had three dead and eight wounded. Fearing they might come down in the night and attack again, we decided to make them leave entirely.

George Teal and Henry Freal remained at the wagon, so if the Indians should surround us they could break the ring. Tom Fought and I went toward the camp and on the way we picked up two buffalo heads and took them with us. When we got within rifle range, we laid down in a wallow and placed the heads in front of us and opened fire into the camp. The Indians would not return the shots, but threw their dead and wounded across the ponies and left camp just as it was. We got all the buffalo robes, blankets and trinkets that the boat would hold. We took a large eagle claw, that was on a string of beads, from around the chief’s neck, two five cent pieces that were fastened in his ears with brass rings and a large brass ring out of his nose. He had a bag on a string around his neck that they called a medicine bag, and believed that it would protect him from all harm. We opened the bag just to see what was in it, and found it full of a baby’s hair. We loaded the boat and crossed back to the Spring Hill ranch just at sunset.

The stage route passed the ranch and on this day the stage was going by as we were fighting, and stopped for four hours watching us. The passengers not being used to such sights, were awfully excited. Among them was a son of Jefferson C. Davis, and he wrote back to his father a description of the fight and termed the frontiersmen as barbarians and called the Indians those poor abused people. There was good excuse for him, for at that time he was what we called a tenderfoot, and if he stayed out west very long he would soon learn. But his lesson came sooner than we had expected. The morning following our fight, as the stage was going on to Moore’s place, it was attacked by the Indians and one of the leaders of the six horse team was killed and Davis’ son was shot in the groin, and for two months we did not expect to see him get well. The Indians changed his mind for him concerning themselves, and he wrote another letter to his father about the cruel savages and the brave frontiersmen. A letter entirely different from the first.

Some of the Pioneers of Colorado


Source: True History of some of the Pioneers of Colorado, by Miss Luella Shaw, Press of Carson Harper Co, Denver, Colorado, 1909