Lake Scott — High Plains of Western Kansas

2201113_LakeScott.jpgWhile RVing across the western Kansas prairie on U.S. 83, you won’t readily see Lake Scott State Park unless you’re looking for it. Atop a lonely ridge in the High Plains badlands of Western Kansas, where fierce and relentless wind propels rough prairie grasses into an unending dance, and solitary hawks ride the sky in search of scant meals, stands a cairn – testimony that something important happened here.

The 10-foot-high cairn, a lone pyramid-sentinel built of limestone quarried nearby, marks the spot, a rugged “draw” 12 miles north of Scott City, where the Battle of Punished Woman’s Fork, the last battle of the Indian Wars in Kansas, took place on September 27, 1878.

A placard on the cairn gives a brief version of the story. A party of Cheyenne, led by Chiefs Dull Knife and Little Wolf, had escaped from their guards at Fort Reno, Oklahoma, and, homesick and ill, were attempting to return to their former home in North Dakota. As they came through Kansas, Colonel William Lewis of Fort Dodge was dispatched to capture and return them to Oklahoma.

As the troops approached, Cheyenne scouts planned to ambush them from circular pits surrounded by rock barricades still visible today, while the women and children hid in a shallow cave at the end of the draw now called Battle Canyon.

Lewis was mortally wounded during the fight, and the Cheyennes escaped by night, continuing to Nebraska where they were captured. The 30-acre battle site was donated to Scott County by local banker/stockman R.B. Christy.

On a recent frigid afternoon, my husband, Guy, and I visited this lonely place, where now the only sound is the wild rushing of the wind, and tried to visualize what had happened here nearly 130 years ago. Later, Jerry Snyder, a retired teacher, history enthusiast and member of the Board of Directors of the Scott County Historical Society, provided a more detailed account.

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Two years before the fight, Cheyenne and Sioux had defeated the 7th Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in Montana. As retribution and to put an end to all hostilities, the U.S. Army moved onto the Plains in force, and defeated the Cheyenne in Wyoming several months later. After the surrender, 937 people were forcibly relocated many miles southeast at the Darlington Agency in Indian Territory, says Snyder, of Scott City.

Life at Darlington was anything but agreeable. Conditions were dire, and after enduring months of starvation and disease, Dull Knife and Little Wolf decided to take their people north before they died; 92 warriors, 120 women and 141 children slipped away on September 9 and started home to Montana, a distance of about 1,500 miles.

With 220 U.S. troops under Colonel Lewis in hot pursuit, the Native Americans tried to reach the badlands of North Dakota before making a stand. Failing that, the cavalry close behind, they stopped at dry Punished Woman Creek and dug breastworks overlooking the rugged draw, hid 60 of their supply-laden horses, and prepared to ambush the troops.

However, Lewis detected their position, and as his troops advanced the Native Americans were pushed back up the draw, and the soldiers, it seemed, would prevail. Then toward dusk Lewis was seriously wounded and Captain Clarence Mauck, who took command, halted the attack, planning to continue the next morning. But the Native Americans had no intention of waiting around, and escaped in the night, though obliged to leave behind the 60 horses and supplies.

They were again pursued, eventually captured, and their troubles continued. But white sentiment had begun to change, and though several Cheyenne leaders were tried in court none were convicted, and ultimately the survivors, including Dull Knife and Little Wolf, were allowed to return to Montana. In 1884, largely because of the escape from Indian Territory, the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, still in existence, was created.

Eighty-two years after the battle, banker/stockman Christy deeded the 30 acres encompassing Battle Canyon to Scott County for $1 with the condition it be maintained as a historical park accessible to the public. But it is rugged and remote, and thus few folks know about it, fewer have been there, and it remains one of the best preserved sites along the route the Native Americans traveled – which makes it of particular interest to the National Park Service.

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The battle, says Snyder, had national significance because of the changes in policy toward Native Americans that resulted. On October 10, 2007, thanks to the long-time efforts of Snyder and others, Battle Canyon was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Signage will be needed and a walking trail with narratives at selected sites will likely be built.

For now directions are scant. To get there from Scott City drive north on Highway 83, then west on Highway 95, a total of about 12 miles, and watch for the sign for Griffith Ranch on the left. An easement exists for the gravel road that crosses private land to reach the battle site.

Once through the gate, the road is so potholed and bulging with rocks no vehicle other than a wheelbarrow could negotiate it, so we parked and walked. The battle site is to the west about half a mile, reached by a narrow gravel trail. It’s a stout climb up the ridge but you soon see the high-up cairn that from its wind-whipped position overlooks Battle Canyon and the cave where the women and children hid.

Just north of Battle Canyon on Highway 95 is Lake Scott State Park and Wildlife Area, a stunning prairie oasis. The High Plains road drops suddenly, arcs down into a world of cottonwoods thick in late fall with shiny yellow leaves, surrounded by cone-shaped hills rimmed with fortress-like rock parapets and spiked thickly with bayonet-leafed yuccas.

Park manager Rick Stevens explains that the 100-acre lake was created by a dam in 1930 and attracts some 150,000 visitors a year (so different from its solitary neighbor to the south). Fishing and swimming are popular, and in summer visitors can rent canoes and paddleboats. Nature trails for hikers and horseback riders web the park, and offer sightings of the creatures that live here – wild turkeys and deer, occasionally beavers, even shy bobcats among others. And there’s a campground open year-round, with 55 level tree-shaded sites with water and electricity, and 120 primitive sites.

Other attractions include the Steele Homestead Museum and El Cuartelejo Indian Pueblo. Stevens says that half of the park’s 1,280 acres were owned earlier by Herbert Steele, who arrived to homestead in 1888. He and his wife, Eliza, lived for a time in a dugout on Ladder Creek, later building a simple four-room house of sandstone from surrounding bluffs. The couple wanted their land to become a public park and recreation area, said Stevens, and in 1928 the Kansas Forestry, Fish and Game Commission acquired the homestead and 640 additional acres.

The Steeles’ house, surrounded by woods and overlooking the lake, is the same today as when they lived there a century ago, and now a museum, displays the furnishings and tools used by early settlers in the area.

Elsewhere in the park a 12-foot gray granite obelisk placed by the Daughters of the American Revolution marks the site of El Cuartelejo, the northernmost pueblo in the United States. According to placards two groups of Pueblo Indians came to the area from New Mexico, fleeing into the Plains to escape Spanish rule. The first were Taos people who settled here with a band of Plains Apache in 1664 and built El Cuartelejo, which means “old barracks or building.” They stayed 20 years, grew crops using a system of irrigation ditches from a nearby spring, and then returned to their homes in the south.

In 1696 a group of Picurie people joined the Apaches, and remained 10 years before also returning to New Mexico. Local Apaches, known as the “Cuartelejo band,” last reported French traders visiting the pueblo in 1727. But shortly thereafter, Comanche, Ute and Pawnee attacks forced the Apache southward out of the Plains and El Cuartelejo was abandoned.

Weathered by time and the elements, the pueblo slowly disappeared, and but for a mound and the irrigation ditches, was completely gone when homesteader Steele arrived. He used the ditches to water his vegetable garden and found the ruins, which were excavated in the 1890s by archeologists from the University of Kansas. In 1964 El Cuartelejo was listed on the National Register of Historic Landmarks, and several years later the stone foundations of the seven-room pueblo were rebuilt.

Lake Scott State Park, (620) 872-2061, www.kdwp.state.ks.us. Information about the last battle in Kansas between Native Americans and U.S. Army is available online at “The Battle of Punished Woman’s Fork.” 

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