Archive for the Wild West Category
From 1861-1865, the attention of the United States was firmly fixed on the bloody Civil War in progress. This did not mean, however, that the Indian wars which had been fought on and off for decades came to a halt. In fact, it was 150 years ago this month that the United States undertook the largest expedition against the natives in its history.
In 1862 conflict had broken out with the Sioux, who lived in what is now the Dakotas, Minnesota and Iowa. The United States government, to protect their western settlers, especially those going to the goldfields in Montana and Idaho, determined to send an expedition to drive back the Indians. Major General John Pope, commander in the area and former commander of the Army of the Potomac, ordered Brigadier General Alfred Sully, actor and West Point graduate, to set out with over 3,000 men. He marched along the Missouri River until he got news of a large encampment of Sioux with at least 1,500 warriors. Sully established and garrisoned Fort Rice in what is now North Dakota. He took the rest of his troops to attack the encampment – 2,200 men and eight cannon.
After skirmishing with a small party of Sioux, Sully’s scouts discovered their camp on July 28, 150 years ago today. They would be fighting in the Badlands – terrain unsuited for the linear military tactics of the day. Sully therefore ordered his men to dismount and form a square with the horses and artillery inside. Each side of that square was over a mile long. The Sioux warriors gathered in the shelter of the broken terrain, and skirmished with the American troops. They advanced with terrific yells, which the soldiers said sounded like “the imps of hell let loose.” One American in the expedition later wrote:
The Indians made repeated charges at the full speed of their ponies, keeping up meanwhile their unearthly yelling. In these charges many of them were killed, while no casualties occurred on our side. They soon learned the range of our small arms, and were careful not to come within it. Our lines advanced slowly but steadily, repulsing the repeated charges of the Indians, and when they collected on the hills, as they frequently did, a shell from the batteries would scatter them with considerable loss. The cannons were a revelation to these Sioux, or at least to most of them. They had probably never seen, much less heard, one before.
With their probes driven back by artillery fire, the Indians soon realized they were too weak to halt the soldiers. They began packing up their camp and renewed their attacks to cover the retreat of their families and goods. They tried charging both flanks of the army, but groups of American soldiers remounted and counter charged, breaking up the Indian attack with saber and pistol.
Around nightfall Sully reached the Sioux’s camp, from which the Indians were streaming into the surrounding hills. There he halted for the night, and the next day began the work of destruction. Many tepees and other goods had been left by the Sioux in their hurry to retreat, and the soldiers burned immense amounts of stores. This was a very serious blow to the Indians, far more impactful than the casualties they suffered. The expedition had lost 3 killed and 10 wounded, the Indians between 30 and 150 killed, depending on which side you ask.
Sully’s supplies were running low, but he pushed forward through the Badlands toward the Yellowstone River. The Indians gathered on the mountains, and harassed the expedition, but the Americans pressed through, losing only about a dozen wounded. After much suffering on the march through the desert, Sully reached the Yellowstone where two steamboats were waiting with supplies. Returning back to the Missouri River, he found that a Sioux raid had succeeded in capturing a large number of his horses, putting an end to any further plans for the expedition.
The king of the Old West’s con men was Jefferson Randolph “Soapy” Smith. He made his money by running “sure-thing” con games, which he would use to trick naive gamblers out of their money. But Smith wasn’t just skilled at slight of hand. He was adept at organizing gangs of criminals until he gained influence in town politics. He did this in several places until he was finally shot in Skagway, Alaska, during the Klondike Gold Rush.
Smith got his first great success in Denver in the late 1880s. His most famous game was the “prize soap racket.” He convinced people to buy overpriced soap in the hope of finding the one which contained a five dollar bill, but the prize bar always ended up in the hand of one of his accomplices. It was this con that got him his nickname, when he was arrested for selling this soap without a license. The policeman could not remember his given name, so he wrote down “Soapy,” and the nickname stuck. A soapy and slick individual he certainly was.
As Soapy continued his cons, he worked on building a criminal empire until he was able to influence politics by supporting corrupt politicians, using his gambling money to buy votes. By 1889 newspapers reported that he was giving bribes to the mayor of Denver, chief of police and many officers, which allowed him to continue his crimes with impunity. He left town in 1892 after some legal reforms, but these were short lived. A few years later he was back in Denver at his old ways, opening businesses to serve as fronts for his criminal activities.
Davis Hanson Waite was elected governor of Colorado in 1893, and he set out to dismantle the political system that allowed men like Smith to continue unchecked. He was given power over two seats on the Denver Fire and Police Board, and he fired both Jackson Orr and D. J. Martin for refusing to enforce the gambling laws, thus shielding men like Soapy Smith. They refused to leave their offices, and barricaded themselves in the city hall.
They were joined by other disgruntled officials, and they barricaded the doors and prepared to hold out against anyone who might come against them. Some of the governor’s party wanted to pursue the matter in the courts, but Waite thought it was a time for action and not trials. He called out the state militia, and Federal troops were sent to join the group. They marched into Denver with cannon and Gatling guns on March 15, 1894. A photographer was on hand to capture the event.
300 men gathered inside the hall, Soapy Smith among them. They knew that defeat meant the downfall of their political system, so they were prepared to fight to the last. Details of photographs taken at the time show interesting moments in the mob. You can see closeups in this gallery:
The military moved in to the square in front of the hall, and planted their cannon in front of it. The town seemed to be on the brink of war. But the order from the governor to open fire never came. In last minute negotiations the Colorado Supreme Court agreed to take on the case, and the governor decided not to use the military against the rebels.
In its decision, the court held the governor did have the power to remove the officials, but he was not allowed to call out the militia to force them to vacate their offices. After this decision the governor’s appointees were installed.
The City Hall War was the beginning of the end of Smith’s criminal empire. His saloons were closed one by one, for violating the gambling laws. Finally Smith left Denver, escaping from punishment for assaulting a saloon owner. He would continue his cons for several more years, moving to stay ahead of the law. He traveled to Mexico and finally Alaska. It was there, in the boomtown of Skagway, where he met his end in the shootout on Juneau Wharf.
Unless otherwise noted, images are from the Western History/Genealogy Department, Denver Public Library.
“That Fiend in Hell”: Soapy Smith in Legend by Catherine Holder Spude (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012).
“The Reign of ‘Soapy’ Smith” by Harry L. Suvdam. Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthy vol. 51, no. 3, January 1901 (New York: Frank Leslie Publishing, 1901).
Sketches of Colorado edt. Will C. Ferril (Denver: The Western Press Bureau Company, 1911) vol. 1, p. 47.
The History of the Government of Denver with Special Reference to its Relations with Public Service Corporations by Clyde Lyndon King (Denver, CO: Fisher Book Company, 1911) p. 211 – 216.