I don’t always think of myself as living in a historic area, although I should, because during the days of the Old West, at least, much history happened here. In fact, on this day, July 28, 1865, twenty year old Caspar Collins…a gutsy lieutenant from Dogwood Knob and Hillsboro, Ohio led 20 men to fight a battle against 1,000 to 3,000 Indians, just outside Platte Bridge Station, which was near Casper, Wyoming, where I live. The battle had been coming, and everyone knew it. The Lakota Sioux and the Cheyenne Indians had been attacking the United States Army for a couple of months now. The Indians had raided outposts and stagecoach stations over a wide area of Wyoming. On this day back in 1865, the Indians assembled their warriors and descended on Platte Bridge Station. The Platte River bridge was guarded by 120 men near the bridge, and another 28 soldiers guarded a wagon train a few miles away. The Indians killed 29 soldiers, while only losing 8 warriors in the raid.
In reality, the Army was unprepared for this attack or the ones leading up to it. Colonel Thomas Moonlight had led a 500 Cavalry force out to seek out and punish the raiding Indians on May 26, 1865. He hung to minor Oglala leaders…Two Face and Black Foot. He left them hanging for days. I’m sure this infuriated the Indians. On June 3, the army began to worry that the 1,500 Lakota, mostly Brulé, and Arapaho who were living near Fort Laramie, might become hostile. So they decided to move them about 300 miles east to Fort Kearny in Nebraska. The Indians protested that Fort Kearny was in the territory of their traditional enemies, the Pawnee. The next day, near present day Morrill, Nebraska, most of the Indians refused to accompany the soldiers and began crossing the North Platte River, assisted by Crazy Horse and a band of Oglalas on the other side. Attempting to stop them, Captain William D. Fouts and four soldiers were killed. Informed of the disaster, Moonlight departed Fort Laramie with 234 cavalry to pursue the Indians. He traveled so fast that many of his men had to turn back because their horses were spent. On June 17, near present day Harrison, Nebraska, the Lakota raided his horse herd and relieved him of most of his remaining horses. Moonlight and his men had to walk 60 miles back to Fort Laramie. He was severely criticized by his soldiers for being drunk and not setting a guard on his horses. On July 7, Moonlight was relieved of his command and mustered out of the army.
The Platte River bridge was a key crossing point of the North Platte River for wagon trains of emigrants traveling the Oregon and Bozeman Trails. The Indians wanted to stop traffic on the Bozeman Trail which led through the heart of their hunting territory. The bridge had been constructed in 1859 and was almost 1,000 feet long and 17 feet wide. On July 20, Indian leaders made their final decision to launch an attack against the bridge. The warriors gathered and set out southward from the mouth of Crazy Woman Creek on the Powder River. The Platte River Bridge was 115 miles south. The army was the largest they had ever seen. It was estimated to number 3,000 men. U.S. army accounts state that the wagons were forced into a hollow where they held out for four hours, using fire from Spencer rifles to repel assaults until a large group closed on foot and overwhelmed the defenders, killing all.
Then came the attack of Platte Bridge Station. The battle that left 29 men dead…including Lieutenant Caspar Collins, and at least 10 more men seriously injured. The battles before had involved maybe 1000 Indians. This battle was different…this one involved 3000. They were seriously outnumbered, but Lieutenant Caspar Collins went out to fight anyway. The day after the battle, the Indian army broke up into small groups and dispersed. A few remained near the Oregon Trail for raiding but most returned to their villages in the Powder River country for their summer buffalo hunt. Indians lacked the resources to keep an army in the field for an extended period of time. The Army officially renamed Platte Bridge Station to Fort Caspar to honor Collins, using his given name to differentiate the post from an existing fort in Colorado named after Collins’ father.
My Uncle Bill has been a self proclaimed “gun nut” for years. He collected them, sold them, traded them, and went to gun shows for many years to deal his guns. He knows more about guns than most people know about themselves. I don’t remember a time that he didn’t deal guns. He knew about guns of all kinds, and could talk to you for hours about any gun you wanted to discuss, but by far his favorite, was the Spencer Rifle. He was always into the family history, and the inventor of the Spencer Rifle was an ancestor of ours, so that held particular interest for my Uncle Bill. What has always alluded my uncle, however, was exactly how we are related to Christopher Miner Spencer. Knowing how long and hard he has searched for that relationship, and that dementia has now stopped that search for him, made me sad. I decided to expand my own records in search of the elusive relationship…doing so for me, but more importantly for my Uncle Bill. I only wish he would be able to remember it once we tell it to him. As I searched, first backward from Christopher to someone I recognized, and then forward in my own tree to Christopher, my thoughts centered on my uncle and how excited he would be. I intend to write him a letter and include my story, and I only wish I could be there to see his face light up. My search finally paid off, and I know that Christopher Miner Spencer is my 5th cousin 5 times removed. I believe that would make him my uncle’s 5th cousin 4 times removed. Now that I have the relationship straight, I feel like I can proceed with the story about this amazing man.
Christopher Spencer was trained as a machinist beginning at the tender age of 14 years, while working as an apprentice in a silk manufacturing company and then went to work at the Samuel Colt factory in Hartford, Connecticut, where he learned arms making. The colt factory made pistols and other side arms, but Christopher was convinced that he could design a breech-loaded repeating rifle that would be easily and rapidly reloaded. Once he had his rifle…the Spencer rifle finished, it was put through rigorous testing, including burying it in the sand and immersing it in salt water overnight. The rifle fired successfully over 250 times, with only one misfire. The gun was shown to army and navy commanders, including General Ulysses S Grant, who called it “the best breech loading arms available”. The next step was to take it to the White House.
On August 17, 1863, Christopher Spencer arrived at the White House with the rifle in hand. Imagine that happening today…you couldn’t do it. Abraham Lincoln, welcomed Christopher into the White House, and after a brief introduction, the two men went over the rifle top to bottom and inside out. The President then invited Christopher back to the White House for a demonstration to take place on The Mall…another amazing thought in this day and age. The demonstration took place the next day, and the rifle headed to the Civil War. In fact, the rifle was to the Civil War what the Atomic Bomb was to World War II. Uncle Bill was always proud that a Spencer ancestor had made such a remarkable and valuable contribution to the victory in the Civil War.