June 15, 2012

Black Soldiers in the Johnson County War

A little known confrontation ~ the Suggs Incident ~ during the Johnson County in 1892 involving the black soldiers of the 9th Cavalry.  I wrote this with the invaluable help of the lovely archivist Leslie Shores Waggener of the American Heritage Center and the Simpson Institute for Western Politics and Leadership, and it was published in the Casper Star-Tribune on February 24, 2005.  I thought I'd repost it.

by Laurence Bjorklund


Range and Race

by Tamara Linse

A saloon in a tent town just ahead of the railroad. An insult, guns drawn, reinforcements, and then a shootout.

This is what you might expect from Wyoming history, especially during the Johnson County War, except that some of the combatants were African-American soldiers.

On June 16, 1892, Pvts. Abraham Champ and Emile Smith, "buffalo soldiers" of 9th Cavalry, were insulted by a man waving a gun in a saloon in Suggs, Wyo. The next evening, 20 soldiers returned and exchanged gunfire with locals. One soldier was killed, and two soldiers and one local were wounded.

"They were thrust into the tense, volatile situation created by the invasion of Johnson County," wrote Frank Schubert in "The Black Regular Army Regiments in Wyoming, 1885-1912."

A racial insult might have been the spark, but the tension brought on by the Johnson County War invasion was the wood, and one man - an invader named Phil Dufran - was the tinder.

The conflict

The Johnson County War erupted from years of friction between the cattlemen with large operations and the smaller landholders (the "rustlers"). Before 1892, four men and one woman who opposed the cattlemen were lynched or dry-gulched (shot by hidden gunmen).

Many of the cattlemen were powerful politicians and members of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, and many of the smaller landholders were former cowboys who had worked for the cattlemen and then struck out on their own. Cattlemen claimed that smaller landholders stole cattle, or "rustled," and the smaller landholders objected to the Maverick Law of 1884, which favored the cattlemen.

"Wherever we looked during those spring days, we could see riders, all heavily armed, on the tops of each of the high hills. Wherever long-range view could be obtained, a solitary rider would be seen with field glasses always searching the country," said Charles Hayden, surveyor for the railroad.

On April 5, 1892, 49 men, including 25 hired guns from Texas, invaded Johnson County. They killed two men at the KC Ranch before Sheriff Red Angus of Buffalo and a large force of men cornered the invaders at the nearby TA Ranch.

Gov. Amos Barber telegraphed U.S. President Benjamin Harrison, who sent in troops from Fort McKinney. The invaders were removed to Fort Russell near Cheyenne to await trial.

On June 1, the cattlemen sent a blunt message to U.S. Sen. Joseph M. Carey: "We want changes of troops made as follows. Send six companies of Ninth Cavalry from (Fort) Robinson to McKinney. The colored troops will have no sympathy for Texan thieves."

The 9th Cavalry

The soldiers of the 9th Cavalry were disciplined, battle-hardened African-American men from Louisiana and Kentucky, commanded by white officers.

"As they are more temperate in habits, more readily disciplined, they take greater pride in performance of military duty, and therefore as a rule are better fitted for soldiers than white men," reported Major John Bigelow.

Their rate of desertion was much lower than white troops, and their morale was high.

The soldiers were small - they averaged 5-foot-6, as regulations mandated that they be under 155 pounds to place less of a burden on their horses.

There are two stories about the name "buffalo soldiers." One is that the Indians thought their hair resembled that of buffalo. Another says that the soldiers fought like cornered buffalo, suffering wound after wound but recovering.

Before 1892, the 9th Cavalry fought for 26 years in the "Indian Wars" in Texas, New Mexico, Utah, Kansas and Oklahoma. During these campaigns, 11 members of the 9th received Congressional Medals of Honor.

The 9th Cavalry was stationed at Fort Robinson in northwest Nebraska in 1892 when the Johnson County War began.

The Suggs incident

The 9th Cavalry entered the Johnson County conflict on June 13. The expedition consisted of 310 enlisted men and officers, commanded by Major Charles S. Ilsley, and they set up Camp Bettens four miles south of Suggs in southeastern Sheridan County (near present-day Arvada).

Suggs was an end-of-the-tracks tent town. It offered drinking, gambling and prostitution. The Burlington & Missouri Railroad grade had been built, but track was still being laid.

Locals consisted of rough drifters and rail workers, as well as the more-permanent small landholders. A log cabin was converted to a saloon and labeled "Rustlers Headquarters."

Rumors surfaced about why the 9th Cavalry had been called in. Some thought they protected the railway workers from Indian attack, but others said they were tools of the cattlemen.

Wyoming believed in rough justice. As historians such as Michael Pfeifer have pointed out, Wyoming was more apt to hang a person, white or black, for property violations than for anything else. Between 1878 and 1918, 60 percent of those hanged were accused of property crimes.

However, between 1878 and 1918, 10 blacks - 28 percent of those hanged - were killed for everything from theft to rape to murder, this in a population of about 2 percent African-Americans.

Add to this mix one Phil Dufran, who was sent as a guide. Dufran had been the city marshal of Buffalo in 1885-86 and a stock detective, as well as one of the invading cattlemen.

Dufran incited the soldiers against the locals: "He took no pains to conceal his hostility, and the soldiers had offered to escort him into Suggs and defend him," one man later testified.

Dufran also incited the locals against the soldiers. The Buffalo newspaper printed Dufran's claim that he would come back as a U.S. marshal to arrest everyone, and he would bring a regiment to back him up. Consequently, Dufran's presence among the 9th Cavalry signaled to locals that they were there to punish small landholders.

Suggs showed open hostility to the soldiers. "Repeated and constant insults were heaped upon the soldiers by a certain class on account of their being colored," Ilsley said.

On June 16, Pvt. Smith rode into Suggs to put up fliers advertising for freighters and, unauthorized, Pvt. Champ went with him. Champ heard that a prostitute who "dispensed her favors regardless of color" was in Suggs, a woman he had known. He went to see her, but she was now living with a white man and refused entry, so Champ and Smith went to a nearby saloon.

Soon after, the woman's lover entered and put a gun to Champ's head. "Are you the soldiers who kicked on my door?" he asked. Then he insulted Champ, saying, "Ain't your mother a black b- - - -?" Smith pulled his gun.

The situation was defused by the bartender, who led the two soldiers out the back door. Doubled up on the horse, they raced away. One hundred yards from camp, they were fired upon, and Smith took a bullet through his hat.

That night and the next day, the camp was in an uproar, but Major Ilsley did his best to lock it down. Firing was heard at 10:30, and roll-call revealed missing soldiers but no missing horses or mules.

About 20 of the soldiers had snuck past the guard and went into Suggs. Town Marshal Jack Bell tried to dissuade the soldiers, but they pushed past him. One solder pointed to a saloon and said, "There's the place. Close in on it." A signal shot was fired into the air, and then a volley was fired into the saloon. One man in the saloon was grazed on the arm, but otherwise no one in the saloon was hurt.

"The action of the men was more in the nature of braggadocio than a desire to inflict bodily harm, as their shots were in the main too high to hurt anyone," Capt. John Guilfoyle later reported.

Men in the neighboring Rustlers Headquarters returned fire. Two horses tethered outside the saloon died immediately. The soldiers retreated.

People scattered. Men, women, and children tripped over tent guy wires as they ran. A Mrs. Potts ran into the night with her nightgown flapping and her baby Sadie over her arm. She heard the Chinese who owned the bake ovens across Wild Horse Creek talking excitedly.

E.D. Baker, a resident of Suggs who told the story in the 1945-46 Westerners Brand Book, said, "It was about the liveliest three or four minutes I ever saw."

Pvt. Willis Johnson was killed in the street. He was shot twice in the back of the head, the bullets exiting under his right eye. It is unknown whether he was killed by locals or from friendly fire. Champ was shot through the shoulder, and Pvt. William Thomkins through the hand.

Shortly after, Guilfoyle arrived at Suggs with two troops, the Hospital Corps, and a Hotchkiss gun rumbling behind. He reassured the town and gathered people from the sagebrush. He arrested soldiers for being absent without leave.

Dufran said he was sorry that they hadn't killed a whole lot of people. He was escorted to Gillette shortly thereafter.

Johnson, three-quarters of an inch over 5-foot-6, was buried next to a cottonwood tree. It had been Johnson's third enlistment, and previously he had served under the Hospital Corps. He was 31 and came from Dresden, Tenn.

Champ, Smith and Thomkins spent three months in jail awaiting trial and then were fined 50 cents. Champ later fought with the 10th Cavalry in the Spanish-American War, and Smith became a teacher and librarian at Fort Robinson.

The Army buried the incident, and Wyoming citizens turned their attention to the cattlemen. In the years that followed, historians took turns villainizing first one side of the Johnson County War and then the other, but few wrote about the buffalo soldiers.

Leslie Shores of the University of Wyoming's American Heritage Center contributed to this article.

Buffalo soldiers in Wyoming

Buffalo soldiers served in Wyoming almost continuously from 1885 to 1912:
* Fort McKinney, near Buffalo, 1885-90 and 1893-94 (9th Cavalry).
* Fort Washakie, near Lander, 1885-91, 1895-98, and 1901-07 (9th and 10th Cavalry, 25th Infantry).
* Fort D.A. Russell and Camp Carlin, near Cheyenne, 1887, 1898-99, 1902-04, 1906-07, and 1909-12 (9th and 10th Cavalry, 24th Infantry).
* Camp Bettens, near Arvada, 1892 (9th Cavalry).
* Camp Pilot Butte, near Rock Springs, 1898 (24th Infantry).
* Fort Mackenzie, near Sheridan, 1902-06 (10th Cavalry).

2 comments:

Ken said...

It's great to see the role of black soldiers in the American West get some attention. As you noted, lowest desertion rate and lowest alcoholism rate of any who served during that era. I don't remember A.S. Mercer talking about the role of the buffalo soldiers in the Johnson County war....did I miss it?

Tamara said...

Isn't it crazy how we forget whole swathes of history? Well, I guess some would claim that we forget history altogether. I'll have to look more into A.S. Mercer - not sure!

Does it seem to you that our soldiers have become our scapegoats? They often are the men and women who have no other options, and they do our dirty work (or some would say the dirty work of "the king") and then we shove them under the rug when they come home?

Maybe it's always been like this.