Skip to main content

Bad Day At Walnut Creek

July 2024
1min read

The crowded events of this century have made it easy for us to forget what a relatively new country we are and how close to the surface our past lies. One grisly reminder came to light last April near Great Bend, Kansas, and was reported in the Kansas State Historical Society Mirror .

Spring rains had brought Walnut Creek to flood, and an astonished farmer watched the torrent expose a mass grave containing eight skeletons. The farmer called the Barton County sheriff, who determined that the skeletons were not the product of recent wrongdoing. At this point the Kansas State Historical Society tackled the mystery and came up with the story of a grim and bloody day over a century ago.

July 18 of 1864 found a group of freight wagons toiling along the Santa Fe Trail near Walnut Creek. The freighters, loaded with wagon bows and flour, had set out from Leavenworth and were bound for Fort Union, New Mexico. They were travelling without a military escort, and most of the teamsters were unarmed. Nevertheless, the drivers must have felt fairly secure that day, for they were strung out along the trail in sight of Camp Dunlap, where Captain Oscar Dunlap and forty-five men of the 15th Kansas Volunteer Cavalry were building Fort Zarah.

The wagons were about a mile away from the camp when some hundred and fifty Kiowa, Comanche, Cheyenne, and Arapaho Indians approached the train with signs of friendship and began to file down both sides toward the lead wagon. Then, about midway, they swung in and launched a ferocious attack. The leading teamsters bolted for the fort and escaped with their lives, but those toward the end of the train were massacred. The cavalry did not distinguish itself. The troopers were frightened and would not stir from the camp. (In his report of the action Captain Dunlap greatly exaggerated the number of Indians, although three against one are not good odds in any event.)

It didn’t last long. The Indians killed ten teamsters, scalped and mutilated them, tore the covers from the wagons, and scattered sacks of flour over the prairie. They slaughtered some of the oxen, drove the rest away, and then, flushed with their coup, rode off.

Eventually the soldiers and surviving teamsters came out of the camp and buried the victims in two graves, the larger of which is shown below. There they lay forgotten until Walnut Creek overflowed and the ground yielded them up, reminding us that our past is not so distant as we sometimes think.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.