St. Vrain's Deadly Revenge

by Hazel E. Johnson
Originally published in Out of the Past supplement to the Greeley Journal,  July 5 1959

Fort St. Vrain marker can be found about four miles west of Gilcrest. It was established as a trading post in 1837 by Col. Ceran St. Vrain. General Fremont is said to have reorganized his historic exploring expedition here on July 23, 1843. It is said also that Francis Parkman, historian, and Kit Carson visited this fort.

“The roll of election precincts in Weld County still begins, No.1 Fort Lupton, No.2 St. Vrain. The first county government ever established in northern Colorado was for St. Vrain county, later renamed Weld.” So states Mrs. Geff’s in her book entitled “Under Ten Flags”.

Mrs. H. A. Clingenpeel of Johnstown loaned the writer a manuscript written in 1800 by her father Marshall Cook. According to Cook an Indian named “Old Friday” used to make an annual visit to Fort St. Vrain. “He would paint his face black, come and sit on the old walls and mourn and cry in a most deplorable manner. At times he would rend his excuses for clothing asunder and rave like a maniac and at other times he would sway his body from side to side and howl like a wolf in the most agonizing lamentations. From him the writer learned the cause of his great sorrow.”

The following is a briefed account of what Old Friday told Cook:…St. Vrain had occasion to go to St. Louis to dispose of buffalo robes and peltries preparatory to purchasing other stock of goods, leaving his squaw and child with some of his country men to look after the post during his absence. All went well till about the time that they expected to return, a large party of Arapahoes assembled near the post. Some of the Arapahoes discovered that the squaw and child belonged to a tribe that was an enemy. They decided to kill and scalp the squaw and papoose to avenge some real or imaginary wrong.

“St. Vrain’s men buried them inside the post. The Arapahoes, seeing no harm in taking the life of an enemy, continued to await the return of St. Vrain.

“St. Vrain returned and, ascertaining the sad state of affairs, decided to take his revenge. He kept his plans a secret however. It was his custom, after returning from the east, to invite all his customers to partake of a feast. This time, however, he had a brass cannon mounted in one of the watch towers, plus, around 75 able-bodied men eager to wreck vengeance on the Indians.

“He had procured a fine fat elk, started a fire in the center of the fort and had the elk barbecued. . . When all was about in readiness, one of the young Indians on the outside of the post was sent to gather all the Indians. . .to partake of the feast. . .When St. Vrain appeared before the gate (he) stated to them that as it was a social feast, none would be admitted with their fire arms. He extended them a cordial welcome and invited them in . . .rude tables were placed ranging with the cannon so that a raking shot would kill nearly the whole assemblage at the first fire.

“After all were in, the gates were casually closed and secured and so perfect was the stratagem, that not the least suspicion was suspected on the part of the Indians. . .when the devastating match was applied. When the smoke had sufficiently cleared away it was seen that more than ½ of the reds had fallen. The cannon had mowed a road through the living map of human beings over fifty feet wide killing or crippling all in its scope, the devastating fire of the small arms nearly completing the work of destruction. So sudden was the surprise and so terrific the shock that those of the Indians that had escaped the first fire was so paralyzed as seemingly unable to move a hand or foot, by the time they, begin to recover from their lethargy, the trappers and teamsters employed by St. Vrain poured another deadly fire into the almost paralyzed Indians which fully aroused them to their situation and was thrown in to the wildest confusion. . .a few of the most active only succeeded to getting over (the walls) among those that made their escape was Friday leaving his whole family to be numbered among the dead.

“St. Vrain immediately cast the bodies into the well until it was full, piled the remainder in one corner of the corral. . .while some brought in and corralled the stock, others loaded the wagons and they vacated the post. . .and did not waste much time until they reached Bent’s Fort (near Las Animas).

“Friday and his companions. . .set out for the main village of the Arapahoes at the mouth of Beaver Creek some 80 to 90 miles down the Platte. . .(they)returned with a large party of warriors to the Fort. To their chagrin the post was vacated. Friday found part of his family in the pile and part in the well. With the assistance of his friends and comrades they collected the bodies of their friends and relatives and conveyed them to the north side of Platte river and buried them on a point of land about a mile west of B.H. Howe’s horse and sheep ranch where they rested in peace until the winter of 1869 and 70 when in constructing the Julesburg railroad bed, the bones were unearthed by John M Hews, a contractor on that part of the road.”

Marshall Cook is buried in the Platteville cemetery. His tombstone stands high on a hill east of the town and old timers say it dominated the landscape for many years. A very, very ornate stone, it is adorned with trailing grape vines and grapes. Clusters of acorns and an open book are on it. “One of the founders” can still be read on the stone. It is said to have been cut by and artist in Denver and a six horse team was required to haul the heavy stone from Denver. Cut from sandstone it is weathering badly, and certainly some effort should be made to preserve this important-marker of Weld county’s past.

Mrs. Clingenpeel, daughter of Marshall and Mrs. Cook as stated before, was born two miles south of old Fort St. Vrain. As a child she often went there to pick up colored glass beads left by the Indians. Her father, she stated, once freighted native hay to Denver where he sold it for more than $100 per ton. Cook had great faith in irrigation and was instrumental in procuring the Independent Ditch. He had a favorite expression ”land is silver but water is gold in this country.”