Pioneer settler John German and his family had been warned against Indians and traveling alone through wild, unsettled country, but when they made camp on the banks of the Smoky Hill River September 10, 1874, they felt safe. They were only a few miles from Fort Wallace and at the site of present-day Scott City, Kansas. They had one wagon, six oxen and one horse. They had left a wagon train of home seekers a few days before. They were from the Blue Ridge Mountains in the South and instead of taking up a Kansas homestead, they were headed for Colorado where they heard there were streams and trees.
It was a tragic error in judgment. They left their campfire burning that night, and the next morning Indians swooped down on the little camp. No tragedy of the plains ever exceeded in horror the raid of the Cheyenne Indians on the German family.
This family was a sturdy one, fitted for pioneer life in the West. John German and his buxom wife had one son, Stephen, 21, and six daughters, Rebecca, 23; Catherine, 19; Joanna, 17; Sophia, 15; Julia, 10; and Adelaide, 5.
Three of the girls were mature young women, all pretty and well-formed. Catherine was considered the prettiest of the six. Sophia, too, was a winsome girl, and Joanna had long, luxuriant, curly hair that fell in shimmering beauty about her shoulders.
It was the custom of wagon travelers to rise early and get started by daybreak. The Germans were ready to be on their way by sunup. Stephen was out a little way from the wagon to try to get a prairie chicken or a rabbit for their supper that night when the family heard the shrill, bloodthirsty yell of Indians.
Up from the gulch behind them rode the red warriors. Young Stephen was shot down before he could fire one shot. Vigorous John German fell next with a bullet through his head.
Forgetting that the savages could not understand her language, Mrs. German ran to her husband and began to plead for mercy. A brawny Indian grabbed her arm, swung her around and plunged a butcher knife in her side. She gasped and died.
When her father was shot down, Rebecca Jane jumped from the wagon and with Amazon-like strength attacked the Indians. She sank her ax blade in a warrior's shoulder, but was shot in the back by another savage.
In an incredibly short time, only five of the family were left. The savages stopped their slaughter for a time and stood regarding the girls. Either the Indians did not want more than four captives, or else Joanna's beautiful long hair, which would make a showy scalp, decided her fate. For a time she was left sitting on a box surrounded by savages while the four other girls were carried away in the arms of the Indians.
As the tribesmen galloped away with the captured girls, a shot was fired. Her sisters did not know it ended the life of Joanna until a savage loped up and, with a hideous grin, displayed a bedraggled scalp that was recognized because of the lovely long hair.
Mile after mile the terrified girls traveled in the clutches of the warriors, who took them to the Indian village of Chiefs Greybeard and Stone Calf. The warriors were rewarded by being allowed to take the older girls to another part of the camp where they suffered the fate of most white women who fell prey to Indians.
Shortly afterward, Stone Calf took his band and the older girls, Catherine and Sophia, and moved to Texas. Greybeard kept the little girls, Julia and Adelaide, and gave them to a niece who had no children. Although the squaw had asked for the children, they suffered greatly.
When Gen. Nelson A. Miles heard of the massacre of the German family, he took steps at once to recover the girls. When it became known that Greybeard's village was where the small girls were held, he sent Greybeard a warning. The chief then deserted the children on the prairie because he was afraid of being caught with them.
For almost three months, the little girls wandered over the prairie eating wild grapes and hackberries found along the streams and sleeping in the tall grass and brush. The country was full of wild game at that time, or they probably would have been eaten by the wolves.
One day a roving band of Indians found the children and took pity on them and took them again to Greybeard's camp. Soon afterward, Lieutenant Baldwin and a detachment of troops made a surprise attack on the village and rescued the children who were gaunt, half-starved and bruised. Dr. James L. Powers, the medical officer, took the small girls to Leavenworth and placed them in the care of a family named Carney.
Their photographs were taken and sent to Gen. Miles with the notice of their recapture. He sent the photograph with a note of encouragement to the older girls and a dire warning to the renegade chief. His message was carried by two faithful Indian scouts who had surrendered to him. They made their way across the snow-covered wastelands and located Stone Calf's camp on a tributary of the Pecos. Stone Calf became frightened and started the long trek across the plains to deliver the girls.
It was a bitter cold day when the general was notified of the approach of the Cheyennes. He had troops form and march to meet the tribe. At a distance of about 100 feet a halt was called, and the two bedraggled girls, hysterical with joy, walked across to the soldiers in blue.
Gen. Miles had the Indian men line up and the girls were asked to identify those responsible for the massacre of their family. The girls pointed out 75 men and these were sent to prison at St. Augustine, Florida. Ten thousand dollars was diverted from Indian annuities and paid to the girls.
Catherine and Sophia were sent to the Carneys in Leavenworth, who gave all four of the German girls a home as long as they needed it. All four regained their health and kept their sanity. All married and lived useful, happy lives.
Back in 1955 a call went out from the editors of the then CAPPER’s Weekly asking for readers to send in articles on true pioneers. Hundreds of letters came pouring in from early settlers and their children, many now in their 80s and 90s, and from grandchildren of settlers, all with tales to tell. So many articles were received that a decision was made to create a book, and in 1956, the first My Folks title – My Folks Came in a Covered Wagon – hit the shelves. Nine other books have since been published in the My Folks series, all filled to the brim with true tales from CAPPER's readers, and we are proud to make those stories available to our growing online community.