Following Custer's Trail

BACKGROUND

I want to say at the very beginning that I have no opinions or agenda either way in the events relating to the now famous Battle of the Washita where BMG George Armstrong Custer attacked the Cheyenne village of Chief Black Kettle in western Indian Territory (Oklahoma). I'm simply relating the known history which led up to the event. My only purpose is to retrace on a bicycle, as closely as possible, Custer's march route from Camp Supply (now Fort Supply) on the Beaver River to the battle site on the Washita River near the town of Cheyenne.

Most of the tribes relocated to the Indian Territory had settled into a peaceful agrarian lifestyle but some of the more warlike ones, especially the Kiowa, Cheyenne and Arapaho, continued their hostile ways by sending out raiding parties to attack Indian villages, white settlements and wagon trains in raids as far as 300 miles from their assigned territory. One of the rites of passage into manhood in those tribes was to take the scalp of a victim with no distinction of whether it was Indian, black or white. When they attacked a settlement, homestead or wagon train, they would kill the men, rape and kidnap the women, take the children hostage to use themselves or sell as slaves to other tribes. Then they would burn what they could not carry or drive away.

The Indian Commission had attempted to bring peace and harmony to the territory by getting all the tribal chiefs together to smoke peace pipes and sign treaties. The way this would be accomplished was by offering food, blankets, coats, guns, horses and other goods in exchange signing peace treaties. Most of the tribes would readily agreed to accept the conditions set forth in the treaties but the Cheyenne and Arapaho always resorted to a number of ruses to delay signing the agreement, mostly to gain concessions and offers of more goods. Finally they would announce that while they might sign it, they basically would not abide by it. The frustrated Indian Commission figured that signatures of all the chiefs, even under those conditions, would be better than total failure. Then as soon as all the chiefs made their marks the goods were distributed, the Cheyenne and Arapaho attacked the other tribes, take everything for themselves and flee back to their villages to continue raiding and war parties.

When the US Government finally conceded that the civilian-led Indian Commission was totally ineffective in solving the problem, they transferred the responsibility to the War Department under General Sherman of the famous "Sherman's march to the sea" during the civil war. He assigned his longtime friend and fellow officer, General Sheridan, whose motto was,  "The only good Indian is a dead Indian" to bring an end to the problem. His solution was the same as it had been during the Civil War; kill all men of fighting age, destroy their means to wage war, and remove the survivors to prison camps.


George Armstrong Custer

The Indians tended to disperse into small groups that moved often during the summer but in winter, they would gather in large camps because the army usually stood down during the winter and they felt safe from attack. Sheridan decided that would be the time to bring the situation to a conclusion. In preparation for the winter campaign of 1868, he ordered the 7th Calvary Regiment be brought to full strength and moved to an assembly area on the Beaver River known as Camp Supply. On November 8th, 1868, he placed General George Armstrong Custer in command and ordered him to bring the 7th Calvary to battle readiness, locate the Cheyenne's winter camp and defeat them. Custer's actual rank was Lt. Col., but during those days, it was common to give what was known as a Brevet promotion to a lower ranked officer who was given a higher responsibility and authorized to wear that grade insignia. Custer took command wearing two stars of a Major General.

It had been snowing all night when revile was sounded at Four O'clock in the morning on November 23rd, 1868 and the men of the 7th Cavalry crawled from their tents into boot-deep snow to set out on an epic journey which would go down in history. Men struck tents, rolled blankets, saddled their mounts and huddled around campfires with collars of their great coats turned up against the biting wind. Breakfast, as on any march day, was black coffee and a tough army bread known as hard tack. Teamsters threw on harness, buckled them with numb fingers and mules grunted in protest as they were moved in front of wagons loaded with supplies to sustain a full regiment for 30 days in the field.

It was still dark when the order, "To Horse" was called and each trooper moved to his animal's head. That was followed by "Prepare to Mount" then "Mount" and the officers and men wheeled their horses into line. The bugle sounded "Advance" and the band began to play "The Girl I Left Behind Me" as Cutter and his staff officers led eleven companies of the 7th Cavalry, plus four attached units for a total of about seven hundred troopers out of camp. Fifty Osage scouts led by a Mexican known as California Joe fanned out a couple miles ahead and seven man troops were dispatched as flankers a quarter mile to either side of the column. A train of a hundred twenty wagons lumbered along behind them, followed by a squad of men whose duty it was to guard the rear and butcher any animals that dropped out. The whole procession was over four miles long as it moved southward along the west bank

 

THE TOUR

The idea of this tour came while reading "The Battle of the Washita" by Stan Hoig. The more I read, the more I realized that this would make a great bicycle tour to explore the history of Oklahoma. The only times I can remember ever being in that particular part of the state was several years ago when I was flying and would occasionally land at the Gage airport for fuel or to check the weather ahead at the flight service station. The only reason for an airport with full facilities in such a location was because it was established by the government as an emergency field half way between Wichita Kansa and Amarillo.

Then I read George Armstrong Custer's rather self-aggrandizing, "My Life on the Plains" which only added to my resolve to follow his epic march route from Camp Supply on the Beaver River to the Washita Battle Site near the town of Cheyenne.

There were no actual maps available of the area and Custer had to set his direction by compass and terrain favorable to the wagon train. Bob Rea, curator of the Camp Supply National Museum, using daily distances recorded by the Quartermaster and various descriptions of landmarks, has been able to narrow it down to a rather precise line.  I wanted to follow the actual march route as closely as possible which would have me riding much of it on county dirt roads or private ranch roads. The riding distance would be around 90 miles and while it took Custer five days, I planned to do it in three with the first night's camp near Shattuck, the next somewhere in the Antelope Hills and the last one at Cheyenne.

That area of Oklahoma has been cattle country ever since it was opened for settlement. The open, arid grassland would support only about one cow for every hundred acres so it has always been rather sparsely populated. Most of the hardy people who settled there have dwindled away over the past fifty years until it's now the least populated counties in the whole state. There are only two tiny towns along the entire route, one of about 200 people and the other not much larger. There are two or three other places which are now ghost towns.

I would be going self-contained as far as having a place to sleep but planned to eat at restaurants where available and buy food as needed. I would carry only enough food for the one night I knew there would be nothing available.

Day One: 50 miles (more or less)

Camp Supply was established in the summer of 1868 at the confluence of the Beaver River and Wolf Creek in western Oklahoma Indian Territory as a staging area for the Winter Indian Campaign to quell the increased fighting among the various tribes and bring to an end the raids on settlers and wagon trains north of the Arkansas River. The small town of Fort Supply sprang up to the west of the fort but neither of them ever amounted to much. The state built a prison and a teaching hospital there but they are more or less self-contained behind locked gates. The Camp Supply National Historical site is behind the locked gates and can be visited only Friday through Monday. I arranged with the people at the Corps of Engineers office at the lake to leave my car there. Since this is where Custer began his march, this would be where I would begin my tour to follow his route. .

My first order of business was to find breakfast so I rode into town. There is a building that says CAFE but the 0 on the sign over the pumps also indicates the amount of food one could expect to find there. It had obviously been closed for some time as most of the roof had caved in. A man in a pickup stopped as I was shooting a picture of the place and wanted to know if I needed help. I asked if there was any place to find food but all he could offer was hot coffee from a big stainless steel thermos if I had a cup. I got out my cup and a Granola Breakfast Square that I had brought along. We visited while I ate and he explained that he worked for the Department of Agriculture. Seems that the only employment around there is in the dwindling oil patch or with some branch of the government.

It was a balmy spring morning when I set out southward on the road that skirts around Lake Fort Supply. It was hard to imagine that there had been two inches of snow on the ground only two days before but that's typical Oklahoma spring weather. The weather was also a lot nicer than it was that cold Monday morning when Custer began his march into a blinding snow storm on November 23, 1868. The snow was boot deep as they saddled up and falling so thick that, as one of the troopers put it, "You couldn't see past the horse in front of you."

Custer made 14 miles that first day when he called a halt on the banks of Wolf Creek a mile north of the town of Fargo. It took me slightly over an hour to make the same distance. Fargo never was much more than a huge grain elevator where wheat is loaded into rail cars. The block-long Main Street, if you could call it that, gives way with stop signs to traffic on Highway 15 which runs between the railroad tracks and town. I turned right without stopping at the service station next to the Coop Elevator.

The green sign said it was 9 miles to Gage, I made it in a little under an hour and stopped at a service station with a sign that said, "Deli". I poured myself a cup of coffee and as I suspiciously eyed the lone cinnamon roll in the glass case, the guy behind the counter said, "That's it, all that's left. We only get one delivery a week and the next one ain't till day after tomorrow, but you can have it free if you want it." Dunking coffee makes nearly anything edible.

Custer spotted a small herd of buffalo somewhere around Gage and called a halt so the hounds he had brought along could chase them. Once they were running, he would ride up next to one, reach down with his saber and slash the tendons in their back legs, bringing them to the ground. Then he left them for the butcher wagon that was bringing up the rear to finish off. The butcher wagon was there to turn horses or oxen that couldn't keep up into fresh meat for the troops.

Highway 15 has about a two-foot shoulder but I never saw more than one vehicle at a time and they not only gave me plenty room but most of them waved as they went by. The only horn was a quick toot by a trucker a hundred yards back as he pulled completely into the other lane to pass. Eight miles from Gage I rolled into Shattuck, the biggest town I'd find on this tour. The sign across from the closed grocery store claims a population of 1148 but that seems rather optimistic. Perhaps it had been correct twenty years ago but from the looks of Main Street, things are definitely on the downhill slide there. Three cafe signs on main street but all vacant, as was the Rexall Drug Store and a car dealership. There was a Western Auto Store open, first one of those I'd seen in thirty years, probably just never changed the sign.

Custer had camped for two nights just north of Shattuck and sent out scouts looking for fresh Indian tracks. He had covered a total of about 31 miles which I had ridden by 11:00 am, far too early for me to even consider stopping.  I asked a guy loading blocks of salt into his pickup in front of the feed store if there was any place to eat there, "Pizza place." he said, pointing down the street. "Only thing that's left."

"How about a grocery store?" I asked.

"Venture store out at the south edge of town," he replied. "Milk, bread, eggs and things like that, not much else."

The Pizza place had a buffet line and a salad bar. I was the only person in there as I helped myself to a salad, some spaghetti and a slice of pizza, I wondered why he had such a large number and variety of pizzas under the heat lamps. I'd no more than sat down when the parking lot was suddenly filled with cars jockeying for parking spots. Running, pushing and shoving; the place was jammed with teenage kids trying to be first in line. "Two slices each to start with, more of them in the oven." yelled the pizza guy above the ruckus.

I was glad that I'd taken everything I wanted on my first trip because they cleaned out the buffet like a swarm of locusts and were waiting in line for more to come out of the oven. I'd considered taking a couple slices for my dinner but that was obviously out of the question.

Across the street from the pizza place is Shattuck's main tourist attraction, a windmill park and museum. Seems that some guy there used to repair windmills and had begun to collect them. Over the years he had gathered quite a number so they were set up in a display which covers just about every sort of windmill ever used in this part of the country.

While I was shooting photos of the windmills, a deputy sheriff stopped by so I asked if he knew about a low water crossing of the Canadian River north of the Antelope Hills. He said he knew exactly where it was but that he'd come from Cheyenne that morning and a good rise had come down from rains over in Texas and there would be no way anyone could get across there. He asked if I knew of the bridge upstream a few miles and I told him I did.

Custer's records indicate that he marched 22 miles directly south on the 3rd day and camped on the banks or Commission Creek in view of the Antelope Hills across the Canadian River. His march route would have been about a mile east of Highway 283 that runs south from Shattuck. My atlas shows the road on south from there to be paved. There is a Lake Lloyd Vincent located in a Wildlife Management Area about five miles west of where Custer had camped on his third march day. It would make a great place for me to camp.

The Venture store was little more than a service station and convenience store. The people of Shattuck probably had to drive 30 or so miles to do their grocery shopping. I'll bet they have to plan their trips to take care of everything. I did notice they had a nice looking hospital with an emergency room and an ambulance parked at it. I bought a large can of stew and a small can of peaches for dinner.

Shortly after passing where Highway 283 ends 9 miles south of Shattuck, I hit my first dirt road. It wasn't bad and lasted only about a mile. I learned that county maps were not always accurate when it came to whether roads were paved or not.  Then it seems they would pave one mile and leave the next one dirt. It was this way until I reached the road to the wildlife area. It was about two miles from the turnoff to where I found the small lake, a windswept parking lot, boat launching ramp and an old fashioned outhouse. The door had come off the hinges and was laying on the ground in front of it. Oh well, at least it faced away from the parking lot.

There was a large fifth-wheel RV parked on the lot along with an empty boat trailer beside it. I could see the boat pulled up on the shore next to the launch ramp but no other vehicles were about. The wind had been picking up from the south for the past hour so I found a level spot just off the parking lot next to a couple large cedar trees to shelter it from the wind. It was an ideal camping spot.

I heard it before I saw it, the clatter of a diesel engine. A red Ford pickup pulled in and parked next to the camper. They carried several bags of groceries inside and then he walked over to where I was putting up my tent. We visited for a bit then he said that his wife was fixing dinner and would I like to join them. I told him that sounded a lot better than what I was planning to have.

After a great dinner of pork chops, mashed potatoes and green beans, I told them what I was doing. They said they were from near Eu Claire, Wisconsin and headed south each winter to escape the snow. They had stayed in RV parks along the Texas coast the first two or three winters but they were just too congested and noisy. After that, they just sort of moved from one place they could park free to the next. He said they liked to park near lakes or streams so he could fish. I asked how they were biting in this lake and he replied, "Not a nibble." They planned to be home in about two weeks. Said winter should be pretty well over by then.

I drifted off to sleep listening to coyotes yipping and yapping to one another some distance away. When I got up for my usual 2:00am pee call, I heard a rustle in the grass as something raced away. The sky was inky black and the stars so bight it looked like you could reach up and touch them. Not a single light was visible anywhere. As I crawled back into my warm sleeping bag, a couple coyotes started talking to one another very close. I'm sure they were discussing me but I didn't care.

Day Two: 50 some miles

A rooster crowing? In my half-awake stupor, I was sure I heard a rooster crow... then it came again. Gray light was creeping inside my tent, that would be the right time for a rooster to crow. I was fully awake now and sure enough, I heard a rooster crow, but it had a strange sound, not like the usual farm rooster. Then it crept from the deep recesses of my mind, I'd heard that sound when I was a kid on the ranch. It was a prairie chicken. They had been taken almost to extinction but were evidently returning in places like the wildlife areas.

I checked my watch, ten of six, too late to go back to sleep but not yet really daylight. I looked hopefully across at the fifth-wheel but not a soul was stirring. I pulled on my clothes and unzipped the front of the tent. Not four feet away was a pile of fresh coyote scat. They are famous for leaving their calling cards, as if saying, "I was here and you didn't know it." I found a stick and flipped it away into the brush.

There wasn't even a picnic table around so I found a level spot for my stove and lit it under a pot of water. While it was heating, I picked a handful of raisins out of my trail mix. After making a cup of instant coffee, I tossed the raisins into the hot water to plump up before I added a pack of instant oatmeal. Not bacon and eggs, but at least it was a hot breakfast made far better by a glorious sunrise. It was a bit past seven by the time I was packed and ready to leave. Still no signs of life in the trailer; bedroom windows still open and shades up. Being late sleepers, they were missing the best part of the day and a glorious sunrise.

Custer had camped between Commission and Red Bluff Creeks on the north side of the Canadian River where it makes a large horseshoe bend to the north. He called a staff meeting the following morning in which he dispatched Major Elliot to take three troops and scout westward along the Canadian River to see if they could find any trails headed south. He assumed that the snow storm would cause raiding parties to return to their main camp and their trail would be easy to spot in the fresh snow.

It took quite a while to get all the wagons across the river and he regrouped his regiment just east of the Antelope Hills. It was near sunset when major Elliot returned with word that they had found a fresh trail headed southeast and estimated the number of Indians at about thirty. This was certainly a large raiding party. Custer prepared his troops for a forced march and left the wagon train to travel at it's own speed. Custer marched straight south until he intercepted the Indian trail then followed it along the east bank of the Washita River.

The pavement ended a few miles from the turnoff and turned into some of the worst dirt roads I encountered. They had just been graded and ranged from smooth and firm to soil so soft and loose that I had to walk my bike. I might ride half a mile and then push it a hundred yards. It was six miles of this before I finally reached the bridge and pavement.

The Antelope Hills, formerly known as the Border Mountains because most everyone took them to be the border between Indian Territory and Texas lay only a couple miles away across the Canadian River, yet they were ten or twelve miles via the route I'd have to travel to get to them. Cattle drives going north stayed east of them to comply with the Texas Tick law which prohibited cattle from south Texas from spreading tick fever into the Panhandle and people headed west on the California Trail looked forward to passing them because it meant they were out of "Indian Territory" where attack was far more likely.

I stopped in the ghost town of Durham, named for a bag of Bull Durham tobacco when they needed a name for the town so they could get a post office. The postal department dropped the "Bull" because it couldn't be the name of a product. Wonder how towns like Hershey or Corning got away with their names. Porter's store was the only place of business that was ever in Durham and operated until Mr. Porter finally died ten or fifteen years ago. They locked the place up and looking through the dirty windows gives you a view of how the place had looked for years.

The map showed a paved loop around the Antelope Hills to where Custer separated his regiment. Had I known that four miles were torn up and being repaved, I'd have bypassed that loop. However it turned out to be about as good as pavement.

County roads, some paved and others dirt, roughly follow Custer's route along the Washita River. It zigs and zags to a point just across the river from the Cheyenne camp. Custer's troops had no problem in crossing the river but one must make a detour to get there by road. You can turn south a few miles before you reach the battle site to reach Highway 47 west of Cheyenne or continue to a point north of Cheyenne.

The battle site is now a National Park with an observation area, picnic pavilions, water and bathrooms. It would be a nice place to camp but it's closed between sunset and sunrise. However, a ranger told me that camping was allowed just north of the information center at the entrance.

I finished shooting photos around 2:00pm so I rode into Cheyenne to have lunch and visit the Black Kettle Museum but it was closed. Since it was early in the day and some 85 miles back to where I parked my car, I asked a few of the people in the restaurant if anyone was going in my direction in a pickup so I could hitch a ride. No one responded. I decided to ride as far as daylight would allow in order to shorten the next day's ride and hit the road.

I hadn't ridden more than four or five miles when a pickup truck slowed, pulled up beside me and honked his horn. I looked up at him and he motioned me to pull over. He said they had told him at the cafe that an old man was riding a bicycle north and needed a ride. He said he was going to Woodward and was glad to give me a ride. We loaded my bike and when we reached the place where he'd turn off to Woodward, he continued on north, saying it wasn't far out of his way and took me right to where my van was parked.

I drove home that night. I'd done what had been planned for four or five days in two rather long ones. It was a fun and enjoyable trip into history.

MY EQUIPMENT

Many people like to know what sort of bike and equipment is used on tours. Here's mine.

The Bike: Giant Sedona MTB modified for touring. See: http://www.JimForeman.com/Stories/Evolution.htm

Ortleib Light MTB panniers and a medium size handlebar bag for the trip. I wasn't carrying enough to justify front panniers but they would have been more stable on the dirt roads.

The tent, footprint, Therm-A-Rest pad, inflatable pillow and 2 liter bottle for emergency water went in the left pannier and everything else in the right. I rolled the tent poles inside the Therm-A-Rest and folded the tent so its length matched the depth of the pannier. The pad and poles extended above the top of the pannier but not as high as the saddle or the sleeping bag which was strapped on top of the rack. I stowed the tent poles under the straps holding the sleeping bag the second day. They worked well either way.

The handlebar bag carried things that need to be handy like protection device, camera, cell phone, film, compass, maps, wallet, notebook, pencil, cable lock, Swiss Army knife, sun screen and a couple granola breakfast bars as snacks.

    [Used everything except the protection device]

The left pannier weighed 12 pounds with the emergency water, the right 10, the sleeping bag 4 and the handlebar bag 4 for a total weight of 30 pounds. I travel light; no laptops, books or anything that I can do without or buy if needed. I don't normally not carry emergency water except when I expect to camp overnight and am not sure if any will be available. I had no problem in finding water when I needed it but did fill the 2 liter bottle in Shattuck. [Used most of it for bathing]

Tools, Parts and Spares are carried in a pack on bike and not included in the weights above:

Topeak Master Blaster Pump
Cannondale multi tool
6" Adjustable wrench
Chain tool
Quick Link
Spoke wrench
Flexi Spoke
Tire levers
Patch Kit
Spare tube
1' Duct tape around film can containing $7.50 in quarters
3 Plastic zip ties
2 Spare screws for rack or bottle cages
2 Extra spare tubes carried one in each pannier

    [Used none of the tools or parts]

Sleeping:

30 Sleeping Bag
3/4 length Therm-A-Rest
Air pillow
Coleman Backpacker Tent
Plastic footprint

    [Used all of above]

Clothing:

This is in addition to what I wore getting there. I changed into cycling clothes before I began riding and left the street clothes in the van.

2 pr cycling shorts
1 pr walking shorts to wear over cycling shorts when off the cycle
White cotton dress shirt (in place of jersey)
Long sleeve T shirt
Nylon long pants
Nylon wind/rain jacket
4 changes underwear
4 changes socks
Shoes (Avocet Touring)

    [Slept in T-shirt, didn't use the long pants, jacket and half the underwear and socks]

Cooking equipment:
GAZ stove w/fresh canister
Bic lighter
Non-stick pot w/lid
Plastic cup
Plastic spoon
Waterproof matches

    [Used everything except waterproof matches]

Food:

Since I planned to eat in restaurants when possible and buy what I needed for any meals while camped, I took along only enough food for one emergency dinner, one breakfast and a noon snack.

1 pkg. Ramen Noodles
1 6 oz can chicken
1 Can Sardines
2 Granola Breakfast Bars
2 pkg instant oatmeal
2 pkg. Hot Chocolate mix
Small jar instant coffee
16oz Trail Mix

    [Didn't use the Ramen noodles, chicken, sardines or hot chocolate mix. Ate all the trail mix. That was a good idea, made good munchies]

Plan to buy on the tour:

Meals where available
Food for meals where not available

    [Bought can of stew and peaches. Didn't eat the stew but did the peaches]

Misc.:

Toiletries and Rx meds, plus
Benadryl, Ibuprofen, Neosporin, Band Aids
1 oz. can Bag Balm
Glasses repair kit
Wash cloth & hotel bar of soap
Sunscreen
Toilet paper
AA Battery operated travel shaver
Headlight which will sub as flashlight
AM/FM/SW/WX radio
Cell Phone
Camera + extra film
4 Spare AA Batteries
Country road maps
Compass
Notebook and pencil
Cable Lock
Credit Cards

       [Didn't use compass. spare batteries, radio, Bag Balm, glasses repair kit or drugs]

Maps  |  Photos

Related Story: Evolution of a Touring Bike


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