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
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
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
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,
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.