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Surrounded, low on food and ammo - the only
hope was Fort Laramie,
His name was a plain one - John Phillips. Some called him Portugee or Portuguese Phillips. But whatever they called him, they couldn't have said that he wasn't a man: a man's man.
John "Portugee" Phillips was a combination scout, trapper, Indian fighter and all-round plainsman. A man of medium height with dark semi-wavy hair, dark but not deep eyes, and a bearded strong face, his country was that of the Northern plains, the Wyoming-Dakota-Montana territory. He received his moniker because he was Portuguese: born Manual Felipe Cardoso on April 8, 1832, the fourth of nine children of Felipe and Maria Cardoso. Born near the town of Terra, on the island of Pico, in the Azores, he entered life as a citizen of Portugal. At the age of 18, he left the Azores aboard a whaling vessel bound for California, where the youth intended to pan for gold.
It was December 22, 1866. Just twenty-four hours before, Captain Wm. Fetterman and eighty men had been killed by Sioux and Cheyenne in a battle that history calls the Fetterman Massacre. The Sioux were holding Ft. Phil Kearny under a virtual state of siege. Ft. Kearny had been built smack-dab in the middle of Sioux territory. The great Red Cloud, then at the pinnacle of power and leadership, kept the fort under constant watch. Fetterman had gone out under strict orders to "relieve the wood train, drive back the Indians, but on no account pursue the Indians beyond Lodge Trail Ridge." But Fetterman, who once made the grand statement, "Give me eighty men and I'll ride through the whole Sioux nation," disobeyed and, although he had his eighty, he didn't even make a dent. Capt. R. Ten Eyck brought in the pitiful remains.
Gen. Henry B. Carrington, commanding officer of Phil Kearny, was in trouble and knew it. If the Indians attacked, the small garrison would not be able to repulse them. They were dangerously low on men, ammunition and supplies. The nearest help lay at Ft. Laramie, 235 miles away as the crow flies.
That night, the 22nd, a terrific blizzard broke, one harsh even by the standards of that rugged land. Nature gave a last-minute reprieve to the doomed outpost. The mercury dropped to thirty-five below. Sentries were replaced every twenty minutes. Snow piled around the walls so fast that details were sent out to keep shoveling it away, lest the Indians enter the fort by walking on it. No need to worry about that. The Sioux were no fools - they were snug and warm in their tipis. It was pure stupidity to fight; the weather was plain hell.
When the sub-zero storm let up, the Indians would attack. Ft. Laramie was his only chance. But there was no telegraph at Kearny. The only way to get a message through was by courier. Present were several hard-bitten veteran troopers and scouts, but all refused when Carrington asked for volunteers. Riding that distance through hostile Indian country without snow was almost certain death, but with a blizzard to complicate things where you couldn't see twenty yards ahead . . . well, that was just throwing your life away. Not a man volunteered to go. But One!
John Phillips stepped forward. Later he remarked that he felt sorry for a Mrs. Grummond, recently come west to join her husband who had just been killed with Fetterman. Carrington gave Phillips his personal mount, a Kentucky thoroughbred and the fastest horse on post. Taking a handful of hardtack for himself and a bag of grain for the horse, Portugee wrapped himself in a large buffalo robe, took the horse, and slipped out into the milky whiteness.
His ride will always remain one of the unexplained wonders. Walking the horse at first, he stopped at every suspicious sound, powder-keg alert for Indians. He walked for hours in the powdery whiteness, and when he finally felt safe he mounted and rode. Behind him was the fort and security, before him lay only God knew what. And ride he did! He crossed the Piney and frozen Lake De Smet, and rode hell-bent-for-leather. The miles dropped behind him.
Phillips' first stop was at Ft. Reno, a small station. But they had no telegraph or the extra needed men for Ft. Kearny. Phillips rode on, but Major Alson B. Ostrander, then a young clerk at Reno, recalled what passed that freezing night:
"Around midnight I was wakened by a clear call of the guard. At the same time I heard hoofbeats and a shout. I could not distinguish the words, but as they were in English I was relieved of an Indian scare.
"Next morning I heard at the adjutant's office that the midnight messenger was Portugee Phillips, who had brought the news of the Fetterman Massacre and a plea for help from the hard-pressed garrison at Ft. Phil Kearny."
Somewhere galloping along were horse and rider. The storm had not let up in its intense fury, but he rode steadily through the terrible cold. Light ice and snow formed on his buffalo jacket but he shook it off. The lives of Ft. Kearny were depending upon him. Day broke, and he was still riding hard. A slight stop for grain, hardtack and melted snow for horse and rider and he was gone again, riding on, the tracks behind him covered almost instantly by ceaseless falling snow.
How he made his way through the covered land is a mystery. The trail had long since disappeared under the white blanket. All landmarks were covered. Snow drifts ranged from five to twenty feet in depth, but still he rode on. Straight as an arrow he went, guided only by instinct. He passed the Big Horn Mountains.
The day passed and night came. Under him the steady thoroughbred was standing up well. He was alone in the middle of nowhere, riding through snow-covered land that drew its white hell from the Arctic wasteland itself. He was a frozen needle in an icy haystack. Dawn of the following day found Portugee at Horseshow Station, a full 190 miles from Ft. Kearny, just forty from Ft. Laramie. At the relay station the message was telegraphed ahead with the urgent plea. The telegrapher urged Phillips to stay and rest, but he refused. He didn't trust the telegraph. A good thing it was; the lines were down and the message never got through. After a brief rest, more for his horse than himself, he mounted and once again rode into the swirling white nothing.
Still he traveled on, this time the end almost within sight. But now the penetrating cold started to take its toll. Icicles formed on his heard; his hands, knees and feet froze. His lips turned blue. Snow piled up high on his buffalo robe and stayed, but on he went. With indomitable will he forced himself and his horse on. Only another forty, thirty, twenty miles to go!
It was Christmas Eve and at "Bedlam," the officer's club at Ft. Laramie, the annual Yuletide Ball was in progress. The men wore their dress blues with their medals for valor and bravery displayed. The women wore silks and satins, their hair fancifully curled for the occasion. What with the small orchestra and holiday spirit it was a jovial time for all. They never dreamed that at Ft. Kearny . . .
Suddenly the challenge of a sentry rang out. Men in the fort strained their eyes to see what was happening; who was approaching the fort now, in the middle of a cold freeze? The call for the officer of the day went out. The windows of Bedlam were crowded and fogged up by curious people to see what all the ruckus was about. And they saw.
There in the midst of the snow-covered parade ground a horse lay, gasping its last, collapsed and dying from exhaustion. Its rider was reeling like a drunkard, a huge snowy figure stumbling toward the party's lights. Through the door he lumbered, supporting himself by sheer will power, while his eyes grew accustomed to the kerosene lamps and holiday decor. Seeing the post commander, he choked out the story of Ft. Phil Kearny, and their vital need for aid. Then for an eerie moment the snow-crusted giant stood towering and silent; he swayed and collapsed, unconscious from exhaustion, over-exposure and fatigue.
Aiding hands picked him up and carried him to a bed. Within hours, the 1st Battalion of the 18th Infantry left Ft. Laramie bound for Phil Kearny. They arrived in time, and Carrington was saved.
Even with Portugee's rugged will and superhuman endurance, it took him weeks to recover from his ride. He had done the impossible. Portugee Phillips had ridden 235 miles in two and a half days, through sub-freezing temperatures on the same mount over a snowbound wilderness. But his bravery and courage did not go unrewarded. The Government later awarded him three hundred dollars, for his ride and what they termed "other scouting duties."
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