Frances M. A. Roe was the wife of Fayette Washington Roe (1850-1916), Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Army.
In October, 1871, Roe was sent to Fort Lyon in Colorado Territory. Frances went with her husband and a collection of her letters where she described her experiences, was published as a book, Army Letters From an Officer's Wife, in 1909.
It is late, so this can be only a note - to tell you that we arrived here safely, and will take the stage for Fort Lyon tomorrow morning at six o'clock. I am thankful enough that our stay is short at this terrible place, where one feels there is danger of being murdered any minute. Not one woman have I seen here, but there are men - any number of dreadful-looking men - each one armed with big pistols, and leather belts full of cartridges. But the houses we saw as we came from the station were worse even than the men. They looked, in the moonlight, like huge cakes of clay, where spooks and creepy things might be found. The hotel is much like the houses, and appears to have been made of dirt, and a few drygoods boxes. Even the low roof is of dirt. The whole place is horrible, and dismal beyond description, and just why anyone lives here I cannot understand.
After months of anticipation and days of weary travel we have at last got to our army home! As you know, Fort Lyon is fifty miles from Kit Carson, and we came all that distance in a funny looking stage coach called a "jerkey," and a good name for it, too, for at times it seesawed back and forth and then sideways, in an awful breakneck way. The day was glorious, and the atmosphere so clear, we could see miles and miles in every direction. But there was not one object to be seen on the vast rolling plains - not a tree nor a house, except the wretched ranch and stockade where we got fresh horses and a perfectly uneatable dinner.
The post is not at all as you and I had imagined it to be. There is no high wall around it as there is at Fort Trumbull. It reminds one of a prim little village built around a square, in the center of which is a high flagstaff and a big cannon. The buildings are very low and broad and are made of adobe - a kind of clay and mud mixed together - and the walls are very thick. At every window are heavy wooden shutters, that can be closed during severe sand and wind storms. A little ditch - they call it acequia - runs all around the post, and brings water to the trees and lawns, but water for use in the houses is brought up in wagons from the Arkansas River, and is kept in barrels.
We went to Las Animas yesterday, Mrs. Phillips, Mrs. Cole, and I, to do a little shopping. There are several small stores in the half-Mexican village, where curious little things from Mexico can often be found, if one does not mind poking about underneath the trash and dirt that is everywhere. While we were in the largest of these shops, ten or twelve Indians dashed up to the door on their ponies, and four of them, slipping down, came in the store and passed on quickly to the counter farthest back, where the ammunition is kept. As they came toward us in their imperious way, never once looking to the right or to the left, they seemed like giants, and to increase in size and numbers with every step.
Their coming was so sudden we did not have a chance to get out of their way, and it so happened that Mrs. Phillips and I were in their line of march, and when the one in the lead got to us, we were pushed aside with such impatient force that we both fell over on the counter. The others passed on just the same, however, and if we had fallen to the floor, I presume they would have stepped over us, and otherwise been oblivious to our existence. This was my introduction to an Indian - the noble red man!
As soon as they got to the counter they demanded powder, balls, and percussion caps, and as these things were given them, they were stuffed down their muzzle-loading rifles, and what could not be rammed down the barrels was put in greasy skin bags and hidden under their blankets. I saw one test the sharp edge of a long, wicked-looking knife, and then it, also, disappeared under his blanket. All this time the other Indians were on their ponies in front, watching every move that was being made around them.
There was only the one small door to the little adobe shop, and into this an Indian had ridden his piebald pony; its forefeet were up a step on the sill and its head and shoulders were in the room, which made it quite impossible for us three frightened women to run out in the street. So we got back of a counter, and, as Mrs. Phillips expressed it, "midway between the devil and the deep sea." There certainly could be no mistake about the "devil" side of it!
It was an awful situation to be in, and one to terrify anybody. We were actually prisoners - penned in with all those savages, who were evidently in an ugly mood, with quantities of ammunition within their reach, and only two white men to protect us. Even the few small windows had iron bars across. They could have killed every one of us, and ridden far away before anyone in the sleepy town found it out.
Well, when those inside had been given, or had helped themselves to, whatever they wanted, out they all marched again, quickly and silently, just as they had come in. They instantly mounted their ponies, and all rode down the street and out of sight at race speed, some leaning so far over on their little beasts that one could hardly see the Indian at all. The pony that was ridden into the store door was without a bridle, and was guided by a long strip of buffalo skin which was fastened around his lower jaw by a slipknot. It is amazing to see how tractable the Indians can make their ponies with only that one rein.
The storekeeper told us that those Indians were Utes, and were greatly excited because they had just heard there was a small party of Cheyennes down the river two or three miles. The Utes and Cheyennes are bitter enemies. He said that the Utes were very cross - ready for the blood of Indian or white man - therefore he had permitted them to do about as they pleased while in the store, particularly as we were there, and he saw that we were frightened. That young man did not know that his own swarthy face was a greenish white all the time those Indians were in the store! Not one penny did they pay for the things they carried off. Only two years ago the entire Ute nation was on the warpath, killing every white person they came across, and one must have much faith in Indians to believe that their "change of heart" has been so complete that these Utes have learned to love the white man in so short a time.
No! There was hatred in their eyes as they approached us in that store, and there was restrained murder in the hand that pushed Mrs. Phillips and me over. They were all hideous with streaks of red or green paint on their faces that made them look like fiends. Their hair was roped with strips of bright-colored stuff, and hung down on each side of their shoulders in front, and on the crown of each black head was a small, tightly plaited lock, ornamented at the top with a feather, a piece of tin, or something fantastic. These were their scalp locks. They wore blankets over dirty old shirts, and of course had on long, trouserlike leggings of skin and moccasins. They were not tall, but rather short and stocky. The odor of those skins, and of the Indians themselves, in that stuffy little shop, I expect to smell the rest of my life!
A week or so ago it was decided that a party of enlisted men should be sent out to get buffalo meat for Thanksgiving dinner for everybody - officers and enlisted men - and that Lieutenant Baldwin, who is an experienced hunter, should command the detail. You can imagine how proud and delighted I was when asked to go with them. Lieutenant Baldwin saying that the hunt would be worth seeing, and well repay one for the fatigue of the hard ride.
Well, we rode twelve miles without seeing one living thing, and then we came to a little adobe ranch where we dismounted to rest a while. By this time our feet and hands were almost frozen, and Faye suggested that I should remain at the ranch until they returned; but that I refused to do - to give up the hunt was not to be thought of, particularly as a ranchman had just told us that a small herd of buffalo had been seen that very morning only two miles farther on. So,
when the horses were a little rested, we started, and, after riding a mile or more, we came to a small ravine, where we found one poor buffalo, too old and emaciated to keep up with his companions, and who, therefore, had been abandoned by them, to die alone. He had eaten the grass as far as he could reach, and had turned around and around until the ground looked as though it had been spaded.
He got up on his old legs as we approached him, and tried to show fight by dropping his head and throwing his horns to the front, but a child could have pushed him over. One of the officers tried to persuade me to shoot him, saying it would be a humane act, and at the same time give me the prestige of having killed a buffalo! But the very thought of pointing a pistol at anything so weak and utterly helpless was revolting in the extreme. He was such an object of pity, too, left there all alone to die of starvation, when perhaps at one time he may have been leader of his herd. He was very tall, had a fine
head, with an uncommonly long beard, and showed every indication of having been a grand specimen of his kind.
We must have gone at least two miles farther before we saw the herd we were looking for, making fifteen or sixteen miles altogether that we had ridden. The buffalo were grazing quietly along a meadow in between low, rolling hills. We immediately fell back a short distance and waited for the wagons, and when they came up there was great activity, I assure you. The officers' saddles were transferred to their hunters, and the men who were to join in the chase got their horses and rifles ready. Lieutenant Baldwin gave his instructions to everybody, and all started off, each one going in a different direction so as to form a cordon, Faye said, around the whole herd. Faye would not join in the hunt, but remained with me the entire day. He and I rode over the hill, stopping when we got where we could command a good view of the valley and watch the run.
It seemed only a few minutes when we saw the buffalo start, going from some of the men, of course, who at once began to chase them. This kept them running straight ahead, and, fortunately, in Lieutenant Baldwin's direction, who apparently was holding his horse in, waiting for them to come. We saw through our field glasses that as soon as they got near enough he made a quick dash for the herd, and cutting one out, had turned it so it was headed straight for us.
Now, being on a buffalo hunt a safe distance off, was one thing, but to have one of those huge animals come thundering along like a steam engine directly upon you, was quite another. I was on one of Lieutenant Baldwin's horses, too, and I felt that there might be danger of his bolting to his companion, Tom, when he saw him dashing by, and as I was not anxious to join in a buffalo chase just at that time, I begged Faye to go with me farther up the hill. But he would not go back one step, assuring me that my horse was a trained hunter and accustomed to such sights.
Lieutenant Baldwin gained steadily on the buffalo, and in a wonderfully short time both passed directly in front of us - within a hundred feet, Faye said. Lieutenant Baldwin was close upon him then, his horse looking very small and slender by the side of the grand animal that was taking easy, swinging strides, apparently without effort and without speed, his tongue lolling at one side. But we could see that the pace was really terrific - that Lieutenant Baldwin was freely using the spur, and that his swift thoroughbred was stretched out like a greyhound, straining every muscle in his effort to keep up. He was riding close to the buffalo on his left, with revolver in his right hand, and I wondered why he did not not shoot, but Faye said it would be useless to fire then - that Lieutenant Baldwin must get up nearer the shoulder, as a buffalo is vulnerable only in certain parts of his body, and that a hunter of experience like Lieutenant Baldwin would never think of shooting unless he could aim at heart or lungs.
There have been a great many antelope near the post of late, and we have been on ever so many hunts for them. The
greyhounds have not been with us, however, for following the hounds when chasing those fleet animals not only requires the fastest kind of a horse and very good riding, but is exceedingly dangerous to both horse and rider because of the many prairie-dog holes, which are terrible death traps. And besides, the dogs invariably get their feet full of cactus needles, which cause much suffering for days.
So we have been flagging the antelope, that is, taking a shameful advantage of their wonderful curiosity, and enticing them within rifle range. On these hunts I usually hold the horses of the three officers and my own, and so far they have not given me much trouble, for each one is a troop-trained animal.
The antelope are shy and wary little creatures, and possess an abnormal sense of smell that makes it absolutely necessary for hunters to move cautiously to leeward the instant they discover them. It is always an easy matter to find a little hill that will partly screen them - the country is so rolling - as they creep and crawl to position, ever mindful of the dreadful cactus. When they reach the highest point the flag is put up, and this is usually made on the spot, of a red silk handkerchief, one corner run through the rammer of a Springfield rifle. Then everyone lies down flat on the ground, resting on his elbows, with rifle in position for firing.
Antelope always graze against the wind, and even a novice can tell when they discover the flag, for they instantly stop feeding, and the entire band will whirl around to face it, with big round ears standing straight up, and in this way they will remain a second or two, constantly sniffing the air. Failing to discover anything dangerous, they will take a few steps forward, perhaps run around a little, giving quick tossings of the head, and sniffing with almost every breath, but whatever they do the stop is always in the same position - facing the flag, the strange object they cannot understand. Often they will approach very slowly, making frequent halts after little runs, and give many tossings of the head as if they were actually coquetting with death itself! Waiting for them to come within range of the rifle requires great patience, for the approach is always more or less slow, and frequently just as they are at the right distance and the finger is on the trigger, off the whole band will streak, looking like horizontal bars of brown and white! I am always so glad when they do this, for it seems so wicked to kill such graceful creatures. It is very seldom that I watch the approach, but when I do happen to see them come up, the temptation to do something to frighten them away from those murderous guns is almost irresistible.
Camp Supply is certainly in an Indian country, for it is surrounded by Comanches, Apaches, Kiowas, Cheyennes, and Arapahoes - each a hostile tribe, except the last. No one can go a rod from the garrison without an escort, and our weekly mail is brought down in a wagon and guarded by a corporal and several privates. Only last week two couriers - soldiers - who had been sent down with dispatches from Fort Dodge, were found dead on the road, both shot in the back, probably without having been given one chance to defend themselves.
Fancy our having given a dinner party at this sand-bag castle on the plains, miles and miles from a white man or woman! The number of guests was small, but their rank was immense, for we entertained Powder-Face, Chief of the Arapahoe Nation, and Wauk, his young squaw, mother of his little chief.
Two or three days ago Powder-Face came to make a formal call upon the "White Chief," and brought with him two other Indians - aides we would call them, I presume. A soldier offered to hold his horse, but he would not dismount, and sat his horse with grave dignity until Faye went out and in person invited him to come in and have a smoke. He is an Indian of striking personality - is rather tall, with square, broad shoulders, and the poise of his head tells one at once that he is not an ordinary savage.
We must have found favor with him, for as he was going away he announced that he would come again the next day and bring his squaw with him. Then Faye, in his hospitable way, invited them to a midday dinner! I was almost speechless from horror at the very thought of sitting at a table with an Indian, no matter how great a chief he might be. But I could say nothing, of course, and he rode away with the understanding that he was to return the following day. Faye assured me that it would be amusing to watch them, and be a break in the monotony here.
They appeared promptly, and I became interested in Wauk at once, for she was a remarkable squaw. Tall and slender, with rather a thin, girlish face, very unlike the short, fat squaws one usually sees, and she had the appearance of being rather tidy, too. I could not tell if she was dressed specially for the occasion, as I had never seen her before, but everything she had on was beautifully embroidered with beads - mostly white - and small teeth of animals. She wore a sort of short skirt, high leggings, and of course moccasins, and around her shoulders and falling far below her waist was a queer-shaped garment - neither cape nor shawl - dotted closely all over with tiny teeth, which were fastened on at one end and left to dangle.
High up around her neck was a dog collar of fine teeth that was really beautiful, and there were several necklaces of different lengths hanging below it, one of which was of polished elk teeth and very rare. The skins of all her clothing had been tanned until they were as soft as kid. Any number of bracelets were on her arms, many of them made of tin, I think. Her hair was parted and hung in loose ropes down each shoulder in front. Her feet and hands were very small, even for an Indian, and showed that life had been kind to her. I am confident that she must have been a princess by birth, she was so different from all squaws I have seen. She could not speak one word of English, but her lord, whom she seemed to adore, could make himself understood very well by signs and a word now and then.
Powder-Face wore a blanket, but underneath it was a shirt of fine skins, the front of which was almost covered with teeth, beads, and wampum. His hair was roped on each side and hung in front, and the scalp lock on top was made conspicuous by the usual long feather stuck through it.
Chief Powder-Face, who is really not old, is respected by everyone, and has been instrumental in causing the Arapahoe nation to cease hostilities toward white people. Some of the chiefs of lesser rank have much of the dignity of high-born savages, particularly Lone Wolf and his son Big Mouth, both of whom come to see us now and then. Lone Wolf is no longer a warrior, and of course no longer wears a scalp lock and strings of wampum and beads, and would like to have you believe that he has ever been the white man's friend, but I suspect that even now there might be brought forth an old war belt with hanging scalps that could tell of massacre, torture, and murder. Big Mouth is a war chief, and has the same grand physique as Powder-Face and a personality almost as striking. His hair is simply splendid, wonderfully heavy and long and very glossy. His scalp lock is most artistic, and undoubtedly kept in order by a squaw.
We have felt very brave since the camp has been established, and two days ago several of us drove over to a Cheyenne village that is a mile or so up the creek. But soon after we got there we did not feel a bit brave, for we had not been out of the ambulance more than five minutes, when one of their criers came racing in on a very wet pony, and rode like mad in and out among the tepees, all the time screaming something at the top of his voice.
Instantly there was a jabbering by all of them and great commotion. Each Indian talked and there seemed to be no one to listen. Several tepees were taken down wonderfully quick, and a number of ponies were hurried in, saddled, and ridden away at race speed, a few squaws wailing as they watched them go, guns in their hands. Other squaws stood around looking at us, and showing intense hatred through their wicked eyes. It was soon discovered by all of us that the village was really not attractive, and four scared women came back to the garrison as fast as government mules could bring them! What was the cause of so much excitement we will probably never know - and of course we should
not have gone there without an officer, and yet, what could one man have done against all those savages!
We were honored by a visit from a chief the other day. He was a Cheyenne from the village, presumably, and his name was White Horse. He must have been born a chief for he was young, very dignified, and very good-looking, too, for an Indian. Of course his face was painted in a hideous way, but his leggings and clothing generally were far more tidy than those of most Indians. His chest was literally covered with polished teeth of animals, beads, and wampum, arranged artistically in a sort of breastplate, and his scalp lock, which had evidently been plaited with much care, was ornamented with a very beautiful long feather.
When we got out about fifteen miles on the road, an Apache Indian appeared, and so suddenly that it seemed as if he must have sprung up from the ground. He was in full war dress - that is, no dress at all except the breech clout and moccasins - and his face and whole naked body were stained in many colors in the most hideous manner. In his scalp lock was fastened a number of eagle feathers, and of course he wore two or three necklaces of beads and wampum. There was nothing unusual about the pony he was riding, except that it was larger and in better condition than the average Indian horse, but the one he was leading - undoubtedly his war horse - was a most beautiful animal, one of the most beautiful I ever saw.
The Apache evidently appreciated the horse, for he had stained only his face, but this had been made quite as frightful as that of the Indian. The pony was of a bright cream color, slender, and with a perfect head and small ears, and one could see that he was quick and agile in every movement. He was well groomed, too. The long, heavy mane had been parted from ears to withers, and then twisted and roped on either side with strips of some red stuff that ended in long streamers, which were blown out in a most fantastic way when the pony was running. The long tail was roped only enough to fasten at the top a number of strips of the red that hung almost to the ground over the hair. Imagine all this savage hideousness rushing upon you - on a yellow horse with a mane of waving red! His very presence on an ordinary trotting pony was enough to freeze the blood in one's veins.
Fort Benton is ten miles from camp, and Faye met me there with an ambulance. I was glad enough to get away from that old stage. It was one of the jerky, bob-back-and-forth kind that pitches you off the seat every five minutes. The first two or three times you bump heads with the passenger sitting opposite, you can smile and apologize with some grace, but after a while your hat will not stay in place and your head becomes sensitive, and finally, you discover that the passenger is the most disagreeable person you ever saw, and that the man sitting beside you is inconsiderate and selfish, and really occupying two thirds of the seat.
We came a distance of one hundred and forty miles, getting fresh horses every twenty miles or so. The morning we left Helena was glorious, and I was half ashamed because I felt so happy at coming from the town, where so many of my friends were in sorrow, but tried to console myself with the fact that I had been ordered away by Doctor Gordon. There were many cases of typhoid fever, and the rheumatic fever that has made Mrs. Sargent so ill has developed into typhoid, and there is very little hope for her recovery.
The driver would not consent to my sitting on top with him, so I had to ride inside with three men. They were not rough-looking at all, and their clothes looked clean and rather new, but gave one the impression that they had been made for other people. Their pale faces told that they were "tenderfeet," and one could see there was a sad lacking of brains all around.