W.S. Ketchum Part II


The Fort Laramie Years









An artist’s rendition of Fort John which had timber picket walls. By the time the Fort was purchased by the US Army in 1849, the walls were gone. As Fort Laramie, the fort relied upon its location and skills of its garrisoned riflemen for its own protection. Note the difference between this rendition versus the one drawn from life below in this section.


     Ketchum took command of Ft. Laramie in September of 1850. He replaced Major Sanderson who was the first officer to be in command of the newly acquired fort and former trading post. Sanderson was charged with the construction of barracks, stables, and other permanent buildings needed to bring the fort into operation. But resources and adequate manpower were very scarce. Ketchum did what he could as the Winter of 1850 closed in. In a letter, Ketchum relates his disappointment with the situation he was left with by Sanderson,

“not a single set of quarters was completed and that the soldiers were in canvas. Since that time, ‘G’ Co. 6th Infty has been comfortably quartered in one end of one of the large stables, & the two Rifle Cos, in a new building intended for one company. The infantry moved into quarters, one block, so as to accommodate four officers. This block still requires pillars to the porches, which are now being sawed, also a ceiling to the upper porches, and yards, the post for which are on hand, and the slabs being sawed.”   -WSK

It was rough going that Winter. Ketchum and his men were able to construct three canvas clad storage buildings to protect what valuable supplies they had from rain and snow. They also manage to build a guardhouse at the northeast corner of the parade grounds and a kiln for firing bricks. Slow was the progress of building with men divided in duties at the fort and patrolling long sections of the Overland Trail. 






Map of Fort Laramie ca. 1874. Well after Ketchum’s command.





      James Michener’s novel, “Centennial” featured William Scott Ketchum in the role of Commander of Fort Laramie. In  Chapter 7, “The Massacre,” Michener describes him as in charge of 160 men and as “prim and tall” and “accepting the responsibility for the safety of an empire.”  The role of Ketchum in the novel seems to be that he was a key factor in the attempt to facilitate the bringing together of the many indian tribes such as the Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Comanche, Pawnee, and Utes that surrounded the Fort Laramie and Platte River region.  An agreement was reached there in 1851 called The Fort Laramie Treaty, or also known as the Horse Creek Treaty.  The Treaty of 1851 was proposed by the United States Government for the purpose of requesting a right-of-way so a road could be constructed through the Lakota lands to newly discovered gold fields in Montana. The road was to become known as the “Bozeman Trail,” and the right-of-way was supposed to endure only as long as it took to remove the gold. It also required the halting of acts of hostility toward those travelling the roads and that restitution be paid for the destruction of property. Borders to tribal lands would be created and neighboring tribes would be expected to cease hostilities towards one another. The treaty was short-lived, promises were broken and hostilities resumed. A second more lasting treaty was established after the Civil War had ended.

    Michener’s novel was made into a made for a weekly tv mini-series that aired in Winter 1978-79. In this scene Captain W. Scott Ketchum is played by actor David Jansen of tv’s  “The Fugitive” fame. This was revelation to me since I remember watching this mini series when I was in junior high. I watched a portrayal of an ancestor of mine on national television and I did not even realize it!

Here is a clip of “Major” Ketchum played by David Jansen and Chad Everett playing the part of Maxwell Mercy. According to records that I have read, he was not promoted to Major until 1860.

I had found this account of W, Scot Ketchum’s demeanor in my research. It sounds as though he was a no-nonsense type of man. Perhaps he seemed “quarrelsome” to some because he demanded discipline from his men in a harsh environment.

“Captain Ketchum is spoken of by old timers in Wyoming as a man who did not regard the position of commander at Fort Laramie at all exalted or desirable. He longed to get back to civilization. Some say he had a quarrelsome disposition and was always in hot water. He did his duty, but was not disposed to make things pleasant for his associates or chance visitors at the fort. He was happy when relieved and the employes at the post were not sorry.”

From 1852-1854, Ketchum served as recruiter for the US Army out of Fort Laramie. It was tough to attract volunteers to such a difficult life on the frontier. While there, one of his men painted this picture of the fort and presented it to him. He kept it and by the looks of it, stored it folded up. It has been passed down through our family since then and I feel I am very fortunate to now own it.

Painting of Fort Laramie given to W. S. Ketchum by one of his men

Note: The painting has the title “Fort Laramie from the South, 1854.”

Note: I’m not sure what exactly is going on in the foreground, but it appears to be a man shooting a horse.

      In July of 1852 Captain Ketchum was ordered away from the post on regimental duties. Officers and volunteers were in very short supply on the frontier. Ketchum would travel back to the St. Louis and other cities to the east to search out  and sign up new recruits for service on the frontier. While he was away the rank of those commanding the fort rapidly diminished from Ketchum’s rank of Captain to 1st Lieutenant Garnett and then down to 2nd Lieutenant Fleming. This decline in commanding rank and experience at a time when it was most needed would soon prove troublesome for Fort Laramie and for relations with the local Northern Plains indian tribes, especially the Sioux.

-The Cow that Started a War-

The Grattan Massacre and Beginning of the First Sioux War

    Beginning in 1852 the Miniconjou Sioux began slowly drifting southward from the Black Hills down to the Platte River territory to join with the Lakota Sioux. The Miniconjou found the wagon trains passing through the area easy targets for plunder, often stealing supplies and livestock from the defenseless pioneers. In 1853 1st. Lt. Garnett was commanding officer of Fort Laramie.  In 1854 the mounted riflemen were withdrawn and reassigned elsewhere leaving only an infantry force of about 70 strong at the fort. 1853 also saw a brash, bellicose, overconfident, and academically underachieving 2nd. Lt. John Grattan fresh out of West Point. A month late in arriving to the fort, Grattan was quick to make clear his dislike for the indians often making outlandish boastful claims that he could defeat a tribe with ten men and a howitzer.

     Later that same year 1st. Lt. Garnett was transferred out of Ft. Laramie leaving a very green and inexperienced 25-year-old 2nd Lt. Flemming in command. The Sioux and Cheyenne on their swift horses began harassing and stealing at will from the not only the wagon trains, but the fort as well, which was extremely frustrating for the horseless soldiers stationed at the fort. It was becoming clear that the 6th Infantry was losing both power and respect. Several small, and some might say petty, disputes became more common place.

     Soon, one of these petty disputes would lead to a costly and bloody war between the Sioux and the US Army. The first Sioux War, as it would become to be known, began over the simple theft of an old lame cow. And the new arrogant unproven 2nd Lieutenant would play a key role.

    On August 18, 1854 a member of a wagon train of recently converted Mormons of Scandinavian decent that had just arrived at Ft. Laramie complained that his cow which had been left in a nearby pasture had been stolen. He found out it was now in the possession of a Brule encampment a few miles away. Upon learning this, the Mormon tried to reclaim his property, but was forced away. It was reported that a Brule male named High Forehead fired shots at the Mormon to discourage his attempts at getting his cow back. This act was seen as unacceptable behaviour, and the Army gave orders to bring High Forehead in as prisoner to send a message to the local Sioux tribes.

    The facts of what actually happened to to the cow and how it came to be located in a Brule camp about eight miles away to the East have never been determined. For months the local tribes encamped around the fort had been dependent upon trade with the fort for their supply of beef and other food and supplies. But, due to the recent uptick in theft and harassment by the local Sioux and Cheyen, Flemming had refused to trade with them. The local Brule Sioux were suffering in particular and were in a state of hunger. They saw the arrival of the cow in their village as an unbelievable windfall. The missing Mormon’s cow may have been spooked off by a barking dog? It may have wandered off on it’s own? It may have been stolen? It did not really matter, 2nd Lt. Flemming  demanded High Forehead be brought in as prisoner, and by force if need be.

     Flemming assigned the arrogant and unproven Lt. Grattan the task to retrieve the cow from the Brule camp. Half of the men at the fort were out on patrol or gathering hay for the stables. Flemming let Grattan have 29 enlisted men who volunteered for the expedition, which would only leave ten soldiers to man the fort, and an untrustworthy interpreter named Lucien Auguste who was part French and part Iowa. He was often to be found in an inebriated state, but he was valued since he was the only individual around Ft. Laramie who could speak Lakota, French, and English.  Also granted to Gratten by Flemming were two 12 pound mountain howitzers, and a wagon. Both to be pulled by teams of mules. Grattan would be the only soldier on horseback. At 3:00 in the afternoon of August 19th, The loudly boasting and naive Grattan along with his detachment of volunteers armed with muskets left the fort to bring back the missing cow.

    Along the way the procession from the fort drew a small following American Fur Trading company employees eager to see what might turn out be a real showdown the likes of which had not been seen in those parts. They would soon get their wish.

     About half way to the village, Grattan realized nobody on this expedition had been trained to load and fire the howitzers which were not loaded before they set out. Grattan halted the column and loaded the howitzers himself. He gave his horse to one of the infantrymen to ride and marched with the others as part  of the artillery unit the rest of the way on foot. Auguste, the interpreter, was riding his horse alongside of the wagon containing some of the soldiers at the rear of the column. Auguste had enough experience with the Sioux to know what lay ahead would not turn out fortuitously for Grattan and his men. Knowing what the likely result would be, Auguste became distressed and began to drink in excess.

   It wouldn’t be long before Grattan would realize how terribly he had underestimated the Brule’s numbers when he stopped the column on a bluff overlooking the village encampment below. The men were astounded to see not one, but half a dozen encampments spread out over a distance of about three miles consisting of Brule, Ogala, Miniconju, and Sioux. After all the lodges had been counted it was determined that there were nearly 4,800 villagers of which 1,200 were warriors! Some of the party after seeing the vast number of lodges below tried to dissuade Lt. Grattan from going any further and to return to the fort. Grattan believed he would be disgraced if he were to abandon the mission he so hoped would prove his leadership and courage to all. One of his men is said to have asked Gratten, “Lieutenant, do you see how many lodges there are?” to which Grattan replied in naive foolish bravado, “Yes, but I don’t care how many there are; with 30 men I can whip all the indians west of the Missouri!”

     The indians were all too aware of Grattans prescence. The took measures to prepare for battle. By this point they were quite fed up with the Army and how the white man was encroaching on their land more and more. Not to mention the hardships caused by the refusal to trade with them thus causing them to go hungry. They were spoiling for a fight. Tagging along with the march was an Ogala named Man-Afraid of-His-Horse. Grattan saw the nearby Ogala camp preparing for battle so he asked Man-Afraid-of-His-Horse to deliver a message demanding that they stay in their camp and not to interfere or “I will crack into them!” This remark deeply insulted Man-Afraid-of-His-Horse and he walked away from Grattan never to deliver the message.

     Becoming aware that his chances of successfully completing this expedition were rapidly dwindling before him, Grattan moved the column to a local trading post near the Brule camp that was run by a Frenchman named John Bordeau. Bordeau, who was married to the sister of the Brule chief, Swift Bear.  Grattan believed Bordeua could convince Swift Bear to hand over High Forehead without incident. While Grattan and Bordeaux talked, hundreds of  agitated Sioux on horseback surrounded the post. An ominous sight. Seeing this, the intoxicated Auguste began hurling insults at the Sioux while riding with frenzied abandon before their ranks. Auguste was in an uncontrollable state. The Sioux knew him well and despised him. Referring to an incident the year before when a handful of Sioux were killed by members of the 6th Infantry from Ft. Laramie in a skirmish, Auguste shouted “Last Summer we killed some of you, but now we have come to wipe you out!”  Auguste went on to taunt the Sioux claiming “We have come to drink your blood and eat your liver raw!” Grattan told the drunk Auguste to cease, but he had no control over his explosive ranting and insults. Grattan was giving the appearance of a leader without control of his men. Bordeau said he could resolve the matter in about 30 minutes with a Brule named Conquering Bear if Grattan could restrain and silence Auguste. Grattan tried and tried to control Auguste but could not. Seeing Grattan’s lack of control over Auguste, he pointed to High Forehead’s lodge and told Grattan he was on his own to meet with Conquering Bear for the handing over of High Forehead. Grattan drew one of his two revolvers and marched the procession to the lodge. About 40 yards away from High Forehead’s lodge, Grattan positioned the two howitzers and divided his men in single file on each side of the howitzers believing the sight of the men and howitzers would be an intimidating show of force. This proved to be a major tactical miscalculation on Grattans part. The original plan called for the howitzers to positioned a couple of hundred yards away which would give the artillery crew time to fire and reload at least once before the indians could rush forward and overrun the howitzers. Placing the howitzers so close  to the enemy made it impossible to get off a second shot.

A replica Mountain Howitzer being fired by re-enactors at Ft. Laramie.

     It was now early evening. Grattan’s men sat and rested after an afternoon of marching seemingly unaware or unconcerned about their deteriorating situation. Conquering Bear came over to meet with Grattan and negotiate with him. Conquering Bear would only offer two horses in trade for the now butchered cow. Handing over High Forehead was totally out of the question. More and more Sioux began to gather and as the likelihood of a amicable solution diminished, an unpleasant fate for Grattan and his men seamed undeniable. Grattan, feeling he had no choice but to defend his arrogant sense of honor, returned to his men and called them to prepare to fire on the vast group of Sioux gathered by High Forehead’s lodge. The indians knew some of the firing characteristics of the howitzer having seen them in action before. They knew the damage they could inflict and they knew how they were fired.  It was time for Grattan to make his fateful decision now that an impasse had been reached. He ordered his men to fire the howitzers now trained on the Sioux. The Sioux watched for the pulling of the howitzer’s lanyard and all in unison, they fell to the ground. The blazing shots passed overhead and struck behind the indians’ position. They rose with a yell and rushed Grattan’s line. His inexperienced men had no time to reload the howitzers. A quick volley of musket fire was unleashed as Grattan and all but one of his men were overrun and quickly massacred. The lone, but seriously wounded survivor was permitted to return to Fort Laramie alive to tell Lt. Flemming what had happened but he died the next day of his wounds before he could do so. The Army deemed it necessary seek out and punish the tribes involved, thus initiating the First Sioux War.

     It would be later lamented by a frontier reporter that had the Army not removed Ketchum, and later Garnett, who were both liked and trusted by the local Plains Indians there would likely have been no need for any blood to be spilled.

W. Scott Ketchum’s participation in expeditions against the Cheyenne and the Sioux

(extreme hardships experienced)

 From 1855-1857, Ketchum was assigned to frontier duty at Fort Laramie and he did participate in expeditions against the Sioux in 1855 and two years later in 1857 against the Cheyenne.




During July and August, 1857, Companies C, D and G, Captain William S. Ketchum commanding, took an active part in the expedition against the Cheyennes commanded by Colonel Sumner, 1st Cavalry, experiencing unusual hardships. On July 6, with six companies of cavalry and four mountain howitzers, with pack mules for transportation, they crossed the Platte River, and proceeded in the direction of the Republican and South Fork. On the 29th the cavalry in advance met a body of some four hundred Indians, and an engagement occurred in which the mounted troops had one killed and seven wounded.

After this affair Company C (Captain R. W. Foote and Lieut. John McCleary) remained with the wounded, sick and disabled, and threw up a. breast-work called Fort Floyd.

Companies D and G, Captain William S. Ketchum, 1st Lieutenant William P. Carlin, and 2d Lieutenant Orlando H. Moore, marched with the command in pursuit of the Indians.

The duty required of the companies of the regiment on this campaign, in keeping up and coöperating with the cavalry, was especially trying in its forced marches and deprivations. Companies C and D in returning suffered particularly. The former left Fort Floyd on August 8, after having been constantly harassed by the Indians, and finally reached Fort Kearney about the 21st, much wearied and broken down, having been out of rations some eighteen days. From August 2d to the 19th Company D had nothing but fresh beef for food, the rations with this exception having become exhausted. The men suffered much, and many were bare-footed, and otherwise destitute of clothing.

In January, 1858, the headquarters, with Companies A, D, E, G, H and K, were at Camp Bateman near Fort Leavenworth, Companies B and C were at Fort Laramie, F at Fort Riley, and I at Fort Kearney.

The Sixth was now preparing for its grand march across the continent from Fort Leavenworth to the Pacific Ocean.

**End Part II

2 Responses to “W.S. Ketchum Part II”

  1. Sandra Lowry, Librarian December 3, 2012 at 4:33 pm #

    Andrew, I suspect that others have written you about the first image of Fort Laramie in your article, but I thought that I should tell you that the image is of Fort John, also known as Fort Laramie. It was done by Alfred Jacob Miller prior to the acquision of the fort by the U.S. Army.

    • andrewtuckerart November 4, 2013 at 9:01 pm #

      Thank you for the correction, Sandra.

      Sorry for the very late response. I only have just now opened the blog dashboard to see your message and make changes. I have had little time to work on the blog, artwork, or genealogy research the past two years.


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