Sep 24, 2020 - Sale 2546

Sale 2546 - Lot 240

Price Realized: $ 27,500
?Final Price Realized includes Buyer’s Premium added to Hammer Price
Estimate: $ 15,000 - $ 25,000
SCALPING, TORTURE, KIDNAPPING, CIRCLING THE WAGONS (WEST.) James W. Bentley. Grisly diary of a cavalry officer protecting emigrants on the Overland Trail. [39] manuscript diary pages, plus [20] pages of other memoranda. 8vo, 8 x 5 inches, original limp calf, minor wear; minor wear to contents, some blank leaves removed from rear of volume. Vp, 24 June to 6 August 1865

Additional Details

James Wallace Bentley (1835-1924) of Hastings, MI served as lieutenant and commissary of the 7th Michigan Cavalry. The regiment fought hard at Gettysburg and numerous other battles in the Civil War, under the leadership of General George Armstrong Custer. As the Confederacy fell in 1865 and other soldiers began to head home, the regiment was ordered west for further service in the Indian Wars, now under Colonel Peter Stagg. This diary records their journey following the Overland Trail, beginning at Fort Leavenworth, KS on the Missouri River, northeast to Fort Kearney, NE, west to Fort Collins, CO, and finally northwest to now-defunct Fort Halleck near Elk Mountain, WY.
The Overland Trail was heavily travelled by emigrant wagon trains during this period, but it remained wild country--sparsely settled, hazardous terrain which saw frequent raids by Cheyenne and Arapaho. The 7th Michigan blew reveille at 2:45 each morning and were on the trail by 5:00 to move as swiftly as possible. In his first entry, Bentley reported: "Our first day out has been marked by a sad casualty. John Hill, a teamster from Co. C and a good soldier, was killed by falling from his saddle mule. . . . He never uttered a word after being picked up." On the trail, he describes rattlesnakes, vast fields of bleached buffalo skeletons, and occasional adobe houses built by settlers. In western Nebraska, the tone becomes bleak: "The ranches are barricaded and stockaded. This country was burnt over by Indians last year" (6 July), and "the country over which we are about to pass abounds with alkaloid streams, the waters of which are death to horses and very injurious to men" (8 July). The brigade was reorganized at Julesburg, CO: "This, then, is to be the end of the Mich. Brigade, once the pride of the state, and I may say of the nation, for no troops are more widely known for their daring and bravery than Custer's Brigade, so called in the Army. . . . We should not feel so proud, perhaps, with Col. Stagg at the head of the column as we would if our noble Custer led" (17 July). Soon after, they find a disturbing artifact: "The ranches have all been destroyed, and in the rear of one of them we found a human hand and arm. The flesh was dried and adhered to the back of the hand, the fingernails yet being in their proper places. The boys used it to whip one another with. One of the ranches which we pass today was held by three men all day during the late Indian raid, but night coming on and their ammunition being exhausted, they crawled through a ditch to the river and escaped" (21 July). As the regiment pushed north into what is now Wyoming, they brought one of the best guides in the business, William A. "Medicine Bill" Comstock, a nephew of James Fenimore Cooper. Bentley wrote: "In the evening our guide and interpreter edifies us on Indian warfare, etc., his name is Comstock" (29 July).
The longest and most harrowing entry in the diary was made on 1 August, describing a series of very recent Indian attacks on emigrants near Cooper Creek, WY. It describes settlers circling the wagons, mutilated corpses, a kidnapping, and heroic escapes: "We came to a train which had been attacked yesterday, and which had lost two men killed. . . . They had their wagons parked for defence and the stock out feeding, guarded by drivers, all of whom go around with revolvers and guns. . . . We continued our march for about a mile when another train was seen, and from the manner in which this one was parked, I knew that they had been having a row. The wagons were in a complete circle close together, the tongues run under the hind axle of the wagon in front, the cattle all inside the ring. . . . A family by the name of Fletcher who was travelling in company with this train and who had 3 wagons were all killed or captured except the old man and 3 small boys. Their wagons and all other property was burned up. They were a little in advance of the main train and were first attacked about a mile from it. This is what saved the larger train, for they turned their wagons around on the first attack and thereby saved themselves. They were obliged to remain in full view of the Fletchers and see the Indians, 200 of them, kill the old lady and burn up the things. They got in shape soon enough, however, to save the man who had been wounded by an arrow through the arm. An Indian was just in the act of knocking out his brains while he was down, when the captain of the other train shot him with a Henry rifle. . . . The horrible manner in which the old lady Fletcher was mangled cannot be described. She was scalped, her head broken in, her legs chopped off below the knee, her knees split open with tomahawks and shot full of arrows, beside which another barbarous act was committed on the corps. She was left stark naked with three arrows stuck into her privates. . . . One daughter of Fletcher 16 years old was carried off, and a little girl 2 years old either killed & hidden or carried off." The horrific story of the Jasper Fletcher family, emigrants from England bound for California, is well-known. Older sister Amanada Fletcher was ransomed and returned to her father the following year. The little girl Elizabeth did indeed survive the attack, but did not see her surviving family for 35 years; she never learned English and lived on the Arapaho reservation for the remainder of her days.
Bentley records the saga of another attack 4 days later, this time on a detached company of his own regiment: "The Indians made an unsuccessful attack on Canfield at Cooper Creek, and a more successful one on Sergt. McClouth, Co. B at Little Laramie. The Indians, 400 strong, got all around the Sgt's post and very near to him before they were discovered. . . . Suddenly the Indians broke over the brow of the hill, making the mountain hideous with their war whoops. They had to deal with boys, however, who never ran until hurt. Whooping did not affect them at all. Our boys soon had 3 Spencers in use and succeeded in killing 6 of the redskins. . . . The Indians killed one man, a citizen who was caught out fishing, and mangled him as all the others have been." The same day, Bentley also records the story of "a single wagon, straggling along ahead of its train. . . . The Indians came up to the old man and shook hands with him. He made a sign of peace, but they smiled to one another and tried to get the old man's rifle, but he stuck to it and began going backward with his gun leveled. They had a little girl dressed in boy's clothes who also attempted to follow the father. The Indians shot an arrow through her shoulder, and another through her other arm. At this juncture the team containing the old lady got frightened, and off into the prairie. The Indians all took after it, and the old man and little girl got away by running over the hill, meeting the stage in time to save it and themselves. . . . The red devils murdered the old woman, who was an invalid, 70 years old, and treated her in the same manner they did the other one a few days since, cutting her throat and mangling her in every conceivable way" (5 August).
This intense and gruesome diary of the Old West is accompanied by a complete typed transcript, as well as a summarized itinerary and extensive research notes.