Shaded by a tree under a clear blue sky Saturday at Historic Fort Hays, Jim Sellers, Stafford, and his son, Robert, were demonstrating the art of loading pack horses the way it was done in the 1860s for a U.S. Army excursion.
“With a wagon, you have to have relatively smooth ground and it’s slow going,” Sellers explained. “Pack animals — mules or horses — can travel faster and over much rougher ground.”
As part of the weekend’s activities at Historic Fort Hays on Old Highway 40 Bypass, Sellers was playing the role of Martin Burke, a civilian scout at Fort Hays who signed up with a band of 50 men later dubbed the Forsyth Scouts.
The two-day event at the fort on Saturday and Sunday commemorates the 150th Grand Reunion of Forsyth Scouts. Hardy frontiersmen, the men signed up at Fort Hays in August 1868 to help the U.S. Army scout western Kansas for Plains tribes unfriendly to settlers.
Vastly outnumbered by Native Americans when they reached the Colorado border, many of the scouts and soldiers were killed or wounded. That armed conflict is now called the Battle of Beecher Island.
Jim Sellers knew little of Burke or his plight. The group’s supply list, however, was another matter.
“The normal military detachment would figure one mule to two-and-a-half soldiers, to carry food and gear,” Sellers said. “The Forsyth Scouts were traveling very light and fast, so they only had four pack animals for 54 people. In my opinion, they probably hunted for a fair amount of what they ate. The list of what they packed was very marginal. We do know they carried medical supplies and ammunition and then rations.”
Then or now, there are a few tricks to packing a mule or horse, he said.
“You gotta know your animals, you gotta know your load, and it’s critical you don’t overload your animals. You have to balance them,” Sellers said. “If they get lame or their backs get sore, then it’s just like with today’s army — your equipment breaks down.”
The Battle of Beecher Island isn’t well-remembered by the average person. But at the time, it was a big deal, said Jake Bauer, a re-enactor who traveled from Oakley, and who describes himself as a veterinarian who likes to play cowboys and Indians.
“It was the biggest battle in the papers up until the Little Big Horn,” said Bauer, who is portraying Maj. George Alexander Forsyth.
Following the armed conflict, Forsyth’s band of wounded and dead were stranded for nine days on Beecher Island on the north fork of the Republican River near present-day Wray, Colo. The living survived by eating the meat of their horses killed in battle, Bauer said.
From his research, Bauer learned that during the Civil War, if there was a fight, Forsyth was going to be in it.
“I believe that mindset contributed to what happened to them at Beecher Island,” he said, noting that being so far outnumbered by the Indian tribes, the men could have chosen to mount up and ride away. But Forsyth stayed to fight. “He could have been more cautious.”
The military hired scouts because they were more mobile than the soldiers, said Loren “Tangle Tooth” Smith, Cheyenne, Okla.
Smith is portraying the plainsman Elijah Gilbert, an undercover agent in Indian Territory who came up to fight the Cheyenne.
“I’m the eyes and ears of the soldiers,” Smith said, perched on his horse Mud amid tents and a campfire site, where he and other re-enactors had slept in canvas tents through light rain Friday night.
Also at the campsite, Jeff Hensley, Strong City, Okla., was dressed as a sergeant in the 7th Cavalry. He commented on Smith’s character.
“We listen to what he says about what they’ve seen out in the Kansas wilds,” Hensely said. “They tell us if they’ve found water, good grass, seen Indians, how many, what tribes, and any buffalo to hunt.”
From beside a stack of cast iron skillets and pots at the site, Jerrod Frederking, a native of Dodge City who now lives in Cheyenne, Okla, pulled out a red tin and popped open the lid.
“Have some hard tack,” Frederking said, holding out the little crackers as hard as a rock.
As camp cook, Frederking warned against taking a bite, suggesting instead that it be dipped in coffee or beans to soften it up first. The biscuit of flour, water and salt is slowly baked at 250 degrees for several hours. A staple for the traveling soldier, it could last forever, then expand in the stomach.
“These might be three or four years old,” he said, “left over from the Civil War.”
Nearby, Chuck Hartline from Canadian, Tex., had just fired his 500-pound mountain howitzer, the gun the cavalry units liked to travel with.
“Howitzers were a lightweight delivery device,” said Hartline, a re-enactor in the First Texas Light Artillery, Battery A. “They shot exploding rounds.”
Riding up on his horse, scout re-enactor Mike Mapel, Butler, Okla., dismounted and held out two small buttons. “Deer horn buttons,” he explained, rolling down the sleeve of his shirt cuff to demonstrate their utility.
“You had to use what’s out there,” Mapel said. “You couldn’t run down to Wally world to get what you need.”
Mapel’s re-enactor name is Bois d’Arc, like the tree.
“If you think about it, the cavalry was made up of immigrants,” he pointed out, explaining the soldiers were Italians, Germans, Norwegians, Russians, Welsh and Czech, among others, who joined the Army for lack of finding other work.
At a neighboring tent site, Jessalyn Brungardt, Hays, was dressed in a pink bonnet and blue long-sleeved pioneer woman dress, with her white apron blowing in the light breeze.
“I’m a laundress,” Brungardt said. “They did the soldiers’ laundry and they fixed the uniforms.”
Despite a chance of rain Saturday night, she and her husband, Zachary, were planning to spend the night in one of the tents. “I like it. I enjoy being out here,” she said. Brungardt has been coming to the fort since she was about six, said her dad, John Allen, Hays, a volunteer at the event and former board member for Friends of Fort Hays.
Karci Kimzey, Catharine, is six-years-old now, and she was at the fort on Saturday dressed in a bonnet and pioneer dress as Laura Ingalls. The best part of the day, said Kimzey, is “getting to have the fun of dressing up as her and being her.”
“She was eight when we were watching her on the movie,” Kimzey explained. “She had a horse like I do. She had the exact same hair color as me and she liked to wear two braids like me. And she called her pa ‘pa’ and her ma, ‘ma.’”
A little kitty trailed Kimzey.
“I found this kitty in the office. He touched me with his tail,” she said. “I have the secret touch for animals, especially kitty cats.”
By noon, lunch served by the Hays High wrestlers and ice cream from John D. Anderson, Colby, were drawing lines of both visitors and re-enactors. Anderson’s 1927 Fairbanks three-horse engine was churning two five-gallon buckets to produce homemade vanilla ice cream.
“All I need is a reason to make it,” Anderson laughed. This is his sixth year, and after today he figures he’s made 1,800 gallons.
Meanwhile, Bauer as Maj. Forsyth had signed up his scouts by early afternoon. Among them were Jim Sellers and his son, Robert, who says his dad got him involved in re-enacting.
“He got me started doing pack demonstrations when I was eight,” Robert said.
That’s the idea, according to Bauer.
“I enjoy history and I like to spread my enjoyment to others. You’ll notice most of the guys out here today are white bearded like me,” he said, tugging at his own beard. “We’re trying to reach out and get younger people involved.”