Unmarked graves of Kansas 11th Cavalry soldiers remain hidden at Platte Bridge Station

“Guinard Bridge” painted by William Henry Jackson in 1927, depicts Platte Bridge Station as it was in 1866. Photo courtesy of Fort Caspar Museum.

 

 


(Editor’s note: Researcher Steven C. Haack continues an account of the 1865 battle at Platte Bridge Station, Wyoming. See part 1 here.)

By Steven C. Haack

When the leading edge of the Indians struck, five soldiers on horseback were cut off from the train. They fled down a ravine for about a quarter mile and crossed the river. One man was shot and killed as he gained the south bank and another, Edwin Summers, bolted to the south. He was last seen alive with four or five Indians in pursuit. The remaining three managed to work their way among the ravines and make it safely back to the station. One of these men was James Shrader, of Oskaloosa, Kan. He would one day return to play an important role in the story.

The view from the station was partly obscured by the intervening terrain, but it was clear the soldiers there were surrounded by an overwhelming force. With very few Indians remaining in the vicinity of the bridge, Major Anderson ordered a detail to proceed to the east to locate and repair the break in the telegraph line. Lieutenant George Walker, from Emporia, Kan., led the group, which included Henry Lord and James Porter. Things went poorly. They found the break with about 1,000 feet of wire missing, but before they commenced repairing it, pickets stationed on high ground fired their weapons to indicate the detail had been detected by the Indians. A retreat was called. As the men rushed back to the station, James Porter was speared in the back and killed.

The men at the train actually held out for a few hours, but with their ammunition exhausted, they were finally overrun by the Indians. All the men at the station could do was watch as smoke rose from the burning wagons.

That night Major Anderson paid two half-breed Snake Indians who lived on the grounds to slip off under cover of darkness to Deer Creek Station, 35 miles downstream, to request assistance. At Platte Bridge Station, the night passed with little sleep. One diarist wrote that they may be able to hold out for a few hours if the Indians attacked the next day.

As the sun rose, the enemy started collecting on the hills across the river. One witness wrote, “The number in view increased until the forces of yesterday appeared to be all purposely shown to us in a grand parade. Thus they stood until about 11 a.m. when slowly and reluctantly they moved off in small squads, till all were gone. On the distant hills their pickets and rear guard could be seen till late in the afternoon.” It was over. The Indians had killed almost 30 soldiers, but they had paid an enormous price. They had sustained over 100 casualties and had decided to end the operation.

That afternoon, reinforcements arrived from Deer Creek and the men ventured out over the hills to recover the bodies of the men killed with Collins. Two days later a detail, under the command of Josiah Hubbard, of Wabaunsee, Kan., went out to the site of the wagon train. There they found the bodies of 19 of their comrades.

Writing about it from his home in Alma, Kan., a full 45 years later, the scene was still fresh in Stephen Fairfield’s mind. “The soldiers of the Custard party had lain on the hot burning sands of the desert for three days under a scorching sun. Imagine if you can the condition they were in. A ditch was dug some three feet deep, blankets spread on the bottom of the trench. Lieutenant Hubbard, a noble man that he was, got into the trench and placed the bodies carefully side by side while his soldiers passed the mutilated bodies to him. It was a terrible ordeal to pass through, but the brave boys were faithful to their comrades to the last. Rubber blankets were laid over them and the trench was filled with the sands of the desert.” While the burial detail went about this grim task, James Shrader searched the floodplain to the south of the river. He located Edwin Summers’ body and buried it where it lay.

A few days later, the Michigan 6th Cavalry arrived to relieve the Kansas 11th, and men started the long walk back to Kansas.

Among them was Henry Grimm, of Alma. Gravely wounded in the Collins fight, the surgeon recommended that he remain at the station long enough to recover. He said he would prefer to die en route to his home. His comrades gave him what comfort they could in the back of a wagon and kept his wounds cool and clean. He lived another 40 years.

The grave holding the remains of 19 members of the Kansas 11th was never marked and, with time, was absorbed into the landscape of windswept sage and yucca. The construction of the transcontinental railroad the following years changed the pattern and modes of transportation and communication across the west. The string of stations were soon decommissioned and abandoned. It was not until 1888 that a rail spur arrived in the area and the town of Casper, Wyo., was laid out. It was a hardscrabble cowboy town that grew slowly until the oil boom of the 1910s. In the ‘20s, Robert Ellison, an oil company executive with a deep interest in the history of the West, started looking up the surviving veterans of the battles and initiating correspondence with them. A particularly fruitful exchange of letters ensued with James Shrader, one of the men who had been cut off from the wagon train and escaped across the river. In his 80s and living with a daughter in Oskaloosa, his memories of that time were still vivid. In the summer of 1926 he, along with two daughters and a son-in-law, made the long drive out to Casper to meet with Ellison.

They traveled to the west of town and picked up the old trail in an attempt to locate the site of the wagon train fight, but the landscape had changed over the past 60 years and Shrader had difficulty orienting himself. The next day, they scouted the south side of the river and, directed by a local rancher to the site where his father had found human remains, located, to Shrader’s satisfaction, the site of Edwin Summers’ grave. Thus oriented, he approached the North Platte River and, standing on the south bank, identified the ravine down which he and his comrades had fled in 1865. We have long had Ellison’s written account of their explorations, but recently discovered in the archives of Brigham Young University were the photographs taken that day. These have been very helpful in our attempts to locate the burial pit.

The following year, two more veterans came out to Casper. These were John Crumb, of Burlingame, Kan., and John Buchanan, of Leavenworth, Kan. They were both living at the Soldier’s Home in Leavenworth County. Buchanan had been with the burial detail and Crumb had visited the site leaving for home. Like Shrader, they found the terrain to have changed quite a lot, but were satisfied that they located the site of the burial. Again, we have discovered the photographs taken during their visit in the archives of BYU.

The burial site is currently in the path of encroaching real estate development. It is our hope to locate the site in time to preserve it for future generations, but time is running short.

Fifteen of the men who shared this extraordinary adventure now lie in the cemetery at Burlingame. In the letter he wrote during the march out, Henry Dutton tells his family that he had purchased clothing at Leavenworth and had put the items in a box of goods that Jesse Playford was sending home. He requested that they pick them up at the Playford residence. He now lies just a few feet from Jesse. Henry Lord, who extracted the arrow from Jesse’s neck, lies there too, along with two of his in-laws, James Bush and Lucien Adams, who also served with the 11th. Henry Hills, severely wounded in the Collins fight, died in 1922 and lies here as well.

The men of the Kansas 11th Cavalry had many stories to tell. The adventure, privation, tragedy and loss made them who they were and the saga in which they participated became part of our own cultural identity. We can never compensate the men who lie on that windswept hill. However, we can find them and mark the spot, passing their story on to succeeding generations so they too can look upon them with gratitude.

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“Guinard Bridge” painted by William Henry Jackson in 1927, depicts Platte Bridge Station as it was in 1866. Louis Guinard built the 1,000-foot bridge and a trading post in 1859. The Army took over the post in 1862 and named it Platte Bridge Station. Caspar Collins was killed the summer of 1865 and the post was renamed Fort Caspar, which closed in 1867. William Jackson was a teamster in 1866 and came through the fort and crossed the bridge. He was back in the area in 1870 as a photographer for the Hayden Geological Expedition. Photo courtesy of Fort Caspar Museum. Used with permission.


042016-burlingame-Shrader-hSteve Haack, shown here with his good friend Tux at James Shrader’s grave in the Burlingame Cemetery, is an independent researcher living in Lincoln, Neb., and a member of Osage County Historical Society. He and his brother-in-law, Randy Bjorklund, of Casper, have been working on the task of locating the Platte Bridge Station burial site for a number of years. They would be grateful for any family information about the men of the Kansas 11th and their experiences at Platte Bridge Station. Contact Haack at [email protected]

Published with permission of author. Originally published in Volume 42, Number 1, The Hedge Post, newsletter of the Osage County Historical Society Inc., February 2016. For more information about the Osage County Historical Society, see www.osagechs.org. See part 1 of this article here.


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