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Promise: Bozeman's Trail to Destiny

Promise: Bozeman's Trail to Destiny

by Serle L. Chapman

Book Review by Bob Reece For The 140th Anniversary Of The Fetterman Battle, December 21, 1866.

Serle L. Chapman at Dog Soldier's Village on the Pawnee Fork

Photo courtesy Simon Morgan


The handful of soldiers, along with their white men scouts Billy Dixon and Amos Chapman, traveled across the Llano Estacado wearily, but alert watching out for Kiowa, Comanche, or whatever else might expose them to immediate danger. It had been a long journey and getting home must have been a priority; however, that homecoming would be cut short in dramatic fashion. 

One can see far and wide while standing on the plains inside the panhandle of Texas. In the days before man built infrastructures and planted trees, one could see forever. Seeing forever must have driven one crazy during a full day’s ride on a horse. When Chapman and the others first saw the dots on the horizon, they wondered what they were. They’d find out soon enough.  

They probably heard the whiz and ping of bullets flying through the air and striking the ground before they figured out what the dots were. So, where does one go for shelter from bullets when on the Llano Estacado? There were no trees, no rocks, no buildings, nothing. One prays that his horse is a bit fresher than the horse carrying the fella shooting at you. If that fails, then one must stand and fight, but what if you’re outnumbered 20 to one?  

Chapman knew what to look for in shelter. Running the horses hard, it still took time to find that shelter. In the distance he spotted buffalo wallows; those shallow earthly depressions where buffalo would roll on their backs into the ground. He moved the soldiers toward those craters as the enemy quickly gained on them. Private Smith went down, the others continued jumping into the wallow. Ping, whiz, ping, ping. 

Chapman finally recognized the enemy: Kiowa, and around 100 of them. Hell, he even knew some of them. He heard the groans coming from the mortally wounded Smith far away, out on the Llano. The horses with their canteens were lost, now in the hands of the Kiowa. Without time to catch his breath, Chapman ran for Smith and his extra ammunition 100 yards away. Whiz, whiz, ping, ping.  

Chapman grabbed Smith and retreated toward the buffalo wallow with a dozen Kiowa in hot pursuit. A bullet struck Chapman in the leg, but he kept moving with his heavy load. As Chapman and Smith tumbled into the wallow, there came a loud crack which must have been recognizable to every soldier cradling hard to the ground. The excruciating pain was undeniable to Chapman. His leg had snapped in two. At least they had the extra ammunition. Smith succumbed to his wounds, and started his final march as he let out his last breath. He was in a better place, and for now the rest of them had a chance. Chapman would worry about his leg and getting home later. For now, he fired his carbine. 

And then, something strange happened; the Kiowa simply rode away. The Battle of the Buffalo Wallow was finished. Chapman and the soldiers felt very lucky. Just moments before, they were doomed; now they would make it home hurt but alive.  

Chapman was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in recovering Smith during the Battle of the Buffalo Wallow. Chapman eventually married Mary Long Neck of the Cheyenne tribe. They had children, and one of their sons became the father of Serle L. Chapman whose book is reviewed here. 

The Promise overture finds Mr. Chapman standing before the monument that remembers his grandfather and the soldiers’ battle in the buffalo wallow on the Llano Estacado. It is here that our journey begins; the narrative style moves gracefully from lyrical to legend to history and back again. It takes a little getting used to, but once understood, the book feels like a journey on a blanket of clouds during time travel. It’s a truly unique and wonderful experience for a historical storyline. 

The spirit and sensitive soul of Mr. Chapman comes through loud and clear in every page of Promise. Amos and Mary Long Neck Chapman shine brightly within their grandson. His words are resolute yet poetic, his understanding of the Cheyenne way and white man’s world combined produce a work of deeper understanding from which the reader can learn and gain enjoyment.  

Promise comes in an oversized package perfect for its display of beautiful photographs (also by Chapman) of Wyoming; its wildlife, its history, and its people both past and present can be fully appreciated throughout the pages of the book. Descendants of important people from the Cheyenne and Lakota share their accounts of life along the Bozeman Trail. Leaders from the Ft. Phil Kearny Association share their knowledge of life in the forts along the trails as well. Wonderful portrait photographs of each of these contributors garnish the pages of this book. Mr. Chapman is an award-winning photographer, and his talent is evident throughout. 

We quickly learn that the classic clash of cultures was very complex. Mr. Chapman first takes us on a fantastic journey of the frontier life through a fictional character, a white woman traveling over the Bozeman Trail. We read from her daily journal and learn of the hardships and dangers these people faced every single day. These travelers of the trail were full of optimism in the challenges that came from making a new life: their new life full of promise and hope. 

Promise soars highest when Mr. Chapman tells the story of Red Cloud’s War with emphasis on the Fetterman Battle. This time his character is an unnamed old Cheyenne warrior reflecting back on his younger years: the days of Sand Creek, the attack on Julesberg, Battle of Platte Bridge, Battle of Beecher Island, and more. It is truly fascinating to experience this history in terms of Cheyenne thought, language, and perspective.  

An incident during the Red Cloud War involved a brief moment when Lakota warriors beat Cheyenne leaders with their bows, while claiming the Cheyenne were cowards; they counted coup on an ally. Mr. Chapman spends valuable time with this incident and for the first time reveals its total effect on the Cheyenne people.  

Mr. Chapman’s story of the Fetterman Battle is the version told from the Cheyenne and Lakota perspective, published here for the first time. Mr. Chapman doesn’t just rely on oral history; he also corroborates these accounts with the historical record. The book includes extensive endnotes. Thus, Mr. Chapman provides us with the most detailed account of the Fetterman Battle to date. 

Mr. Chapman’s old warrior narrator tells a painful story of death and grief with graceful language. Death doesn’t come easy in Promise, and it doesn’t come without purpose. As the Fetterman Battle opens, warriors wait in gullies and ravines for Crazy Horse and the other decoys to return with soldiers to kill. It’s cold; there is fear in the narrator’s voice: 

There were no soldiers, or none that we could see, until Crazy Horse brought them…the soldiers came up in a cloud behind this man and fanned along the edge of the Lodgepole Hills as feathers in a bustle. Bullets fell around him, the hail from that blue cloud, but he was not hit, although I thought the pony must have been shot in the leg when the man began looking at it that way. Yes, this was Little Hawk’s swift pony, and so the man had to be Crazy Horse. As far away as we were, you could see his long hair like the color of that pony, hanging loose and falling over a red blanket which he had tied over his war shirt and blue leggings. It did not seem that the soldiers wanted to follow Crazy Horse, and they stood looking down at him, walking soldiers in the middle of some pony soldiers. (page 102)

Death doesn’t come easy along Massacre Ridge as the narrator explains: 

Those still on horses were whipping them, and it was odd to see these men (soldiers) moving so fast and their horses moving so slow. One of them fell off and seemed to pull his horse on top of him. I saw three arrows in this horse…Some Little Stars counted coup on the soldier but were pushed away from him by much shooting. Then the shooting stopped, and the soldier’s arms started to claw at the ground but his legs would not work. Maybe the horse had broken his back, I do not know. Wherever he is now, he is crawling still, for the women of the Little Stars finished him. The pony soldier on the white horse was still among the Little Stars, and I was much closer now, so close that I could hear the iron hooves of the soldiers’ horses on the hard ground and the noise the pony soldier chief’s long knife made when he cut the head off a young boy who tried to shoot him but snapped his bowstring. (page 105) 

The narrator shares his feelings of battle as Captains Fetterman and Brown come closer to death: 

Some of the pony soldiers were not shooting, they were trying to hold onto their big horses. The smell of blood and smoke was all around, and even now when I see a herd of elk I can see these soldiers. Just as elk cows with their thin-legged calves will crowd together and turn one way and then another and then back again in fear, so did these soldiers. It seemed as if the two soldier chiefs were shouting at each other, but I do not know if they were, as everything was lost in the screams of dying horses and men, the snap of guns, our strong heart cries and the thunder of our ponies’ hooves hunting the soldiers who broke away. We moved as swallows, cutting through the air with our arrows, our ponies on the wing taking us above the fighting where it all became quiet. But it was not, that is just a place you go to sometimes in a fight. (page 107)

There is no doubt in my mind; Mr. Chapman’s accounting of the Fetterman Battle is the best I’ve read for its accuracy and dramatic effect. His battle is not just about soldiers positioned here and Indians attacking from there; instead it tugs at our hearts. Soldiers and Cheyenne men and women warriors were willing to die, for some in a strange place so far from home, in order to make a better life. Finally, there is a version of the Fetterman Battle that is heart filled.


Webmaster's Note: Promise was awarded the Wyoming State Historical Society prize for history writing in 2006. Mr. Chapman, along with his wife Sarah, runs Go Native America, which provides an incredible assortment of tours to historical places in the American West. I had the opportunity to spend a day with Mr. Chapman in early November 2006. He graciously led me across eastern Wyoming, and north of the Black Hills to places of historical significance for the Cheyenne and Lakota. Mr. Chapman is a great storyteller; he is a modern-day oral historian, and anyone lucky enough to take a tour of the west with him via Go Native America is fortunate.

Further Reading On This Subject

Another Version Of The Fetterman Battle By Friends' Member William Price

A Photographic Tour Of The Fetterman Battlefield

John Doerner's report on the discovery of a Fetterman soldier's remains

Bill Markland's Website -- many of the official reports from Col. Carrington, Ten Eyck, and Surgeon Horton.

Billings Gazette Article On The Descendent Of Col. Carrington

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