Battle of Camp Supply
June 11, 1870
Barely eighteen months had passed since the establishment of Camp Supply in the valley created by the confluence of Beaver River and Wolf Creek. The supply depot for General Philip Sheridan’s winter campaign of 1868–69 had grown to a garrison of five companies of the Tenth US Cavalry and three of the Third Infantry. In the late spring of 1870, there were two camps, with about six hundred yards distance separating the commands of the two regiments.
The older of the two camps was as a rambling arrangement of log buildings and tents that had sprung up around the fortified stockade built in November 1868. To the southwest was the more orderly compound of log buildings. African American troopers of the Tenth had built picket-style log structures around a cavalry-sized quadrangle parade ground. On the west side were the stables for the cavalry horses.
The garrison consisted of white officers and African American troopers of five troops of the Tenth: A, F, H, I, and K. Three companies of the Third—B, E, and F—were carried on the monthly returns of the post. Company E was actually on detached duty at the new Cheyenne and Arapaho Agency at Darlington. When on post, the soldiers performed routine garrison duties. Troops escorted supply trains from Fort Dodge and to the agency. Small units were sent to watch Indian movements and keep track of small bands away from the reservation. When the Cheyenne and Arapaho villages were camped at Campy Supply as the location of their agency, they were easily observed. By June, they had gone south to the new agency or had dispersed throughout the region. The eight companies at Camp Supply were stretched thin.The post was to act as a buffer between the Southern Plains tribes—Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, Comanche, and Plains Apache—and the settlements in Kansas. The Native bands had supposedly settled on their reservations to the south in western Indian Territory. By the winter of 1870, the hostile factions among the warriors wanted to discredit the peace factions within the tribes and drive the army out of the region. The action on June 11, 1870, proved to be the climax in their efforts to bring war to the region.
The Kiowa and Comanche were openly hostile as early as January when 300 warriors held up a Texas cattle herd bound for the Cheyenne and Arapaho Agency at Camp Supply. The drovers were saved by Kiowa peace chief Kickingbird, but the cattle were stampeded and several hundred killed. Harassment and depredations would continue into the spring.
In the late spring, the decision was made to relocate the Indian agency at Camp Supply further down the North Canadian River and away from the fort. This increased tensions as many Cheyenne wanted to remain in the area even though it was not within the boundary of their reservation. All of the Arapaho and many Cheyenne bands eventually moved south with agent Brinton Darlington. However, by late May, most of the Cheyenne had scattered out to the north and west of the new agency.
During the ten days of the Kiowa Medicine Lodge ceremonies, delegations of Comanche, Cheyenne, and Kiowa met in council to discuss war. Most Cheyenne decided not to follow the warpath with the Kiowa and Comanche. Cheyenne Chief Little Robe secretly warned Camp Supply commander, Lieutenant Colonel Anderson Nelson, to expect trouble. It came within days.
Little Heart, a Kiowa war leader, began a series of depredations by murdering an officer’s Mexican servant as he slept in a tent at the post on May 28. The next morning, post interpreter Dick Curtis reported two horses stolen from his home five miles west of the post. The same day Kiowas attacked a supply train forty miles southeast of the post bound for the new agency. One teamster and fifty-eight mules were lost before the siege was lifted by Captain Louis Carpenter and his company of Buffalo Soldiers.
The trail to Fort Dodge became increasingly dangerous for travelers. On May 31 at Bear Creek mail station, two privates of the Third Infantry were killed, and their sergeant wounded. A supply train and an army paymaster’s escort were attacked in the first week of June. In each instance, the arrival of troops from Camp Supply averted disaster.
The post itself became the target of hostilities when a civilian employee was killed while looking for stray stock within three miles of the post on May 30. On June 2 and 6, the post’s beef herd was attacked. The raiders came within a quarter of a mile in their attempts to run off stock.
As a precaution, Colonel Nelson had given orders that no American Indians were permitted in the vicinity of the camps. Troopers were to graze their mounts under arms at specified times each day. A detail of five horses from each company was to be kept saddled at the stables in case of emergency, twenty in all. The cavalry camp commander was responsible for their deployment since the post commander’s quarters were in the infantry camp. The precautions would prove necessary.
At about 3:30 p.m. on June 11, a force of approximately two hundred warriors emerged from the timber and brush along the Beaver River or charged down the ridge slope near Wolf Creek. Two public horses that were picketed out because of disease and a pony belonging to Lieutenant Mason Maxon were carried off. It seems to have been a ploy to draw the troops out of the post for a fight as the cavalry mounts had been brought in from grazing earlier. The warriors demonstrated their contempt for the soldiers and awaited the desired counter-attack.
The alarm was sounded, and the detail of the Tenth was sent in pursuit. Lieutenant Maxon and eighteen troopers gave chase over the divide to the southwest into the Wolf Creek valley. Captain Nicolas Nolan’s company was sent up the Beaver River after warriors. Nelson ordered the infantry to guard both of the camps. Nelson, post medical officer Captain John Fitzgerald, and a staff escort rode to the west end of the ridge a half-mile southwest. With good binoculars, he could see troops pursuing or engaged with the hostiles along either valley. The ground to the west between the two streams, an area of four miles, was alive with hostiles.
Lieutenant Maxon gave up the chase or was recalled to prevent his small unit from being cut off and decimated. Upon his return, Nelson ordered him to proceed along the divide of hills to the west to its highest point two miles away. This could clear that area and put him in position to support Captain Nolan along the Beaver River. The detail rode west for only three-quarters of a mile before they broke into a run and charged off toward the Beaver River. Soldiers in Troop I were sent several miles west up the Beaver to protect the home of Dick Curtis, the post interpreter.
Lieutenant Robert Smithers, with all the remaining cavalry in camp, was also ordered out. Lieutenant John Thompson with a mountain howitzer and its crew of infantrymen was sent to join the fight. Fighting had grown heavy to the west and northwest within the northward loop of the river. Soon Nelson and his group left the ridge for the scene of the fighting that had been screened by the trees along the small tributaries and the river itself. Two sharp fights had flared and died by the time Nelson arrived involving units under Maxon and Lieutenant Myron Amick. The warriors had tried to cut off one of the units, probably Nolan's, and they had come to his relief.
The fighting ended as abruptly as it had begun. As with many of the long-range, running fights of the Indian Wars period, the number of combatants engaged and the number of casualties were light. Two cavalry horses were wounded. A bugler captured an Indian pony and let one of the dismounted troopers ride it back to camp. No troops were killed or wounded. The official report listed six warriors killed and more wounded. Several wounded Indian ponies were captured. The warriors remained in the area for several days to harass the garrison. They fired into camp from nearby hills and killed a group of woodcutters north of the camp.
Nelson requested additional troops be sent to aid in the defense of the post as he believed that the region would soon be engulfed in war that summer and fall. His request was denied and the depredations during the next few weeks were minor. The flurry of incidents in May and early June that seemed a precursor of a major uprising proved to be the end of hostilities in the region. Fighting on that scale did not return to the region until the Red River War of 1874–75.
The Battle of Camp Supply was the largest, most serious encounter in western Indian Territory between late 1868 and 1874. It demonstrated to the allied tribesmen that it would take more and bolder fighting to intimidate or defeat the army.
It was this action and others like it that helped gain the respect of American Indians and white officers for the Black American regular soldier. In his after-action report, Nelson wrote, “In the series of conflicts narrated above, I would invite especial attention to the admirable conduct of the enlisted men. They justify every confidence and the splendid espirit exhibited by them making no question where victory will rest what ever the odds against them.”
Order of Battle
Lieutenant Colonel Anderson B. Nelson, commanding post
Tenth US Cavalry
Company A, Captain Nicholas Nolan, commanding
1st Lieutenant George Raulston
Company F, 2nd Lieutenant Mason Maxon, commanding
Company I, 1st Lieutenant Myron Amick, commanding
Company K, 1st Lieutenant Robert Smithers, commanding
2nd Lieutenant William Davis
Third US Infantry
Company B, Captain Verling Hart, commanding
1st Lieutenant John Thompson
Company F, 2nd Lieutenant William Mackay, commanding
Soldiers on extra duty at the post were probably involved in the fighting and defense of the garrison. They would have been from the companies cited above. Company E, 3rd Infantry of the garrison was on detached service at the Darlington Agency Cheyenne and Arapaho Reservation.
Approximate total strength of the garrison was 250.
Casualties: None, two cavalry horses wounded.
Approximate strength at 200. Kiowa probably led by Little Heart. Comanches and Plains Apaches.
Casualties: Army estimated six killed and more wounded.
Carricker, Robert C. Fort Supply, Indian Territory: Frontier Outpost on the Plains. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970. 46-55
Leckie, William. The Buffalo Soldiers. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1956.
National Archives and Record Administration.
Office of the Adjutant General, Record Group 94, Letters Sent, Department of the Missouri
Fort Supply Post Returns
Medical History Fort Supply
United States Army Commands, Record Group 98
Organization Returns, Tenth Cavalry
Organization Returns, Third Infantry
Anderson Nelson to Assistant Adjutant General Department of the Missouri, June 12th, 1870. Letters Sent, Department of Missouri
Smither to Mackay, June 12, 1870
Nye, W.S. Plains Indian Raiders: The Final Phases of Warfare from the Arkansas to the Red River. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968. 161
Rea, Bob. “Battle of Camp Supply.” American Battlefield Protection Program 1994 Battlefield Survey Form. July 1997.
US Army, Military Division of the Missouri. Record of Engagements with Hostile Indians within the Military Division of the Missouri, from 1868 to 1882. Washington, Government Printing Office, 1882.
War Department, Circular No. 4, Surgeon General’s Office. A Report on Barracks and Hospitals, with Descriptions of Military Posts. Washington, Government Printing Office, 1870.
Warde, Mary Jane. “Attack on Camp (Fort) Supply” Oklahoma Historical Society, 1994.
National Archives and Records Administration
Captain E.B. Kirk, “Ground Plan of Camp Supply, Indian Territory dated December 13, 1870.”
1873 US Government Survey map, Oklahoma Department of Libraries.