One of the last Indian battles to have taken place in Denton County happened in the northwestern part of the county in 1871. A small Kiowa raiding party was found butchering a stolen beef in a ravine located in present day Slidell. This was known alternately as the Keep Ranch Fight or the Battle of Slidell and there are different versions of what exactly happened. These accounts differ on several things, including names, and even the year in which the battle took place (1870 or 1871).
The first account I present here is by Eddie Matney, a writer and researcher who spent years studying some of the gunfights and battles of the Texas frontier. He draws upon historical documents from Company "F" of the Frontier Force. The second account is by Judge I.D. Ferguson, a participant in the Battle of Slidell, writing of his experience some thirty years later for the Denton Record Chronicle. Naturally, Judge Ferguson's account places him more in the center of the action than does the account by the rangers.
It is interesting to compare these two accounts.
The Monthly Return for Company "F"
The Keep Ranch Fight
by Eddie Matney
Unknown to the men at that time, they had ridden up onto a war party of Kiowa led by Sittanke, a nephew of old Sittanke a terror of North-Texas settlers, and a party of Comanche, led by Oska Horseback. As the little band of ten Rangers and two citizens gazed out at the Indians, they perhaps felt that little tinge of fear from such a large number of wildly painted braves. However the boys wanted a fight, so dismounting they begin checking their tired horses and the loads in their firearms.
The Indians not having posted any lookouts, and caught by surprise, were glaring up towards the little band of Texans. Presently, they begin shouting loud yells and hoops and those with horses begin to mount up.
Observing the raiding party, Sergeant Cobb counted forty-one warriors, about half had horses while the others were afoot. Many were armed with rifles and a few even had pistols. Each brave was carrying a tough rawhide painted shield, which at a distance a bullet would not penetrate. Also, they carried the bow with arrows and an occasional lance. This war-party was well armed and the Sergeant perceived that they were not going to retreat or leave the field.
Individual braves begin to make short advances towards the Rangers, and shaking their shields or weapons would make terrible yelling noises. Presently, one of the braves rode to the top of the prairie swell behind the party to observe if there were any more of the white men behind the rise on which the Rangers were on. Satisfied, he rode back to the party, giving the information that this small group of Texans was all there is.
Besides the forty rounds of carbine ammunition each of the Rangers carried, the Sergeant had extra cartridges in his saddlebags which he handed out to the boys. A hurried discussion was made between the Sergeant and Mr. Harvell as to where there might be aid near by. Mr. Harvell suggested that at the old Keep ranch house about three miles to the east, there might be two or three men. Before the Civil War, two brothers named Keep had built the house for use by their cowmen but it had been abandoned for some time, however occasionally it was used by traveling settlers crossing over the prairie. It was agreed that Mr. Harvell would ride for help while the eleven men would try to keep the raiders in check until his return.
Mounting their horses, the men watched as their messenger rode off. The Indians watched, but offered no resistance to his passing. Prepared now, the little band of Rangers began to ride down the swell, moving a little farther east and closer to the Indians. The boys began to shout words of defiance at the yelling Indians. During this period, the Rangers moved closer to the north bank of the creek, described as “resembling a ditch or washed-out road, more than a creek.” Several of the warriors, mounted on horses, individually were making mock charges toward the men. As the boys would raise their carbines to fire, the braves would stop and return to the main force.
Realizing that the Texans were going to fight, the Indian band moved back a few hundred feet to the crest of the next swell where they formed in a line of battle, the warriors on foot standing along side those on horses. Although a frightful and imposing sight the Rangers knew that the Indians had in all probability not fought anyone having the new repeating rifles. These Winchester carbines would equalize the fight against the superior number of warriors. The Indian party now sat almost motionless and quiet, their painted faces looking towards the little band of men, watching to see what comes next.
Sergeant Cobb and his men, regardless of making taunting motions and yells, could not draw an attack by the Indians. A charge was then suggested and the boys then crossed the creek and galloped their horses toward the center of the warrior line. Knowing that help could not arrive before nightfall, the men knew that now there was no hope of retreat or of prisoners being taken by either side. It was to be a fight to the death, or of one side leaving the field of battle. When within about eighty yards of the line, seeing the Indians were going to fire, the men suddenly reined to a halt, dismounted, and dropped to the ground. At the crack of the rifles, bullets whistled over their heads and into the ground around the men. Astonishingly, not a man or horse was hit in this first volley. As the Ranger force returned the fire, the combined war-party suddenly made their charge down the slope of the swell towards the men.
A.J. Sowell, one of the Rangers in the fight, described the charge, “The Indians evidently were not aware that we were armed with repeating rifles, and it seemed, were trying to run in on us, before we could reload; as they generally did the settlers. But we gave them two more rounds, in quick succession. Some of our balls cracking loudly, on their dry buffalo hide shields, and they fell back in some confusion. One horse, having been killed, and evidently, some of them Indians wounded, from their actions. One of them went off into the prairie, and remained alone, some distance from the fight”.
After regrouping, the warriors again charged, the ones on horses going around either side of the Rangers, while the braves on foot made a straight-on rush. Spreading out, the little force was able to drive back several charges. The mounted Indians, leaning over on the side of their horses presented very little target for the Ranger fire, but also were firing inaccurately at the Rangers. A lot of noise, and gunfire, but little damage being done on either side. A few horses being wounded or killed.
With another determined attack, one brave and one horse, were killed by the Ranger fire. As yet none of the men or horses had received any serious wound. It would seem that the Indian plan was to wear down the men with repeated attacks, and then with a determined rush finish them off. However, their attacks were not coming as close because of the almost constant fire from the repeating rifles. While the combatants had now been fighting for almost an hour and a half the sun was becoming low in the western sky. The noise of the fighting combatants rose over the prairie while the smoke from the guns lay heavy around them.
Sergeant Cobb then made the decision to move the men back perhaps four hundred yards to the swell behind them for better protection. The men mounted and still firing to hold back the Kiowa and Comanche warriors, they began to move to the low ridge. One of the Rangers, Gus. Hasroot, found that his horse would only move very slowly, being entirely worn out. The Indian braves, seeing the hated Texans riding off toward the north thought they were giving up the fight. Launching another determined attack, the raiders were soon close up with the Rangers.
Mr. Hasroot, bringing up the rear of the command, looking back found a warrior advancing close to spear him. Swinging his carbine, and shooting a lucky shot, Hasroot happily saw the Indian fall from his horse, dead. The men, seeing the situation Gus was in, wheeled their horses and returned to give him protection.
As the mounted braves rode around them, the braves on foot came up shooting. Again there was a lively fight. The Ranger force, fighting on horseback at close range with the Indians. The Indians were now pressing their attack. Several wounds were inflicted on both sides, yet none of the Rangers wounds were serious. Billy Sorrells, only sixteen, was hit in the left side by a pistol shot was no longer able to stand.
Osca Horseback, the Comanche leader, gathered his men and made another close charge. Being fired on by several of the men, he and his horse were instantly killed. The Indians wheeled away and moved back. Sorrells, seriously wounded, and bleeding badly, dismounted and continued to shoot from behind his horse. Leadership now fell on the remaining leader, the young Kiowa named Sittanke. He rallied his men along with the Comanches for another and perhaps final attack.
The Sun was now on the horizon and nightfall would soon be upon this field of fighting combatants. Sittanke rode among his warriors and formed them up for the charge. The Sergeant moved his men around Sorrells, for his protection and prepared them for the charge which was to come. The men dismounted and observed their Sergeant out in front ready for the fight.
The combined Indians charged at full speed, firing their guns while others were shooting arrows. They seemed to want to ride over the Rangers and came straight toward the little group. Coming within a few yards and firing a pistol, Sittanke was shot in the chest. Dropping his shield and pistol he hung to the saddle until he rode through the Rangers, falling off his horse, dead. Another brave also died and several were wounded in this charge.
Seeing their leaders now dead the party no longer wanted to face the fire of the Rangers. They turned away and retreated out of range. Sensing that they now had the Indians on the run, the Rangers who were not wounded, mounted their horses and charged west after the retiring band of Indians. The warriors on foot were running ahead of the horsemen who sometimes would turn their horses and shoot at the Rangers to keep them back.
As the men’s ammunition was now getting low Sergeant Cobb ordered his men back to young Sorrells laying still on the prairie. After checking Sorrell’s wound it was decided to take him to the nearest aid, the old Keep ranch house, about three miles east across the prairie. The men lifted him onto his horse then set out at a slow pace, one man on either side to support their courageous comrade. As they rode along the men watched and listened in the growing darkness for any of the Indian warriors that had not given up the fight.
They were met by Mr. Harvell returning with only one man, a Mr. Ferguson. Earlier, having not found any men at the Keep ranch, Harvell had ridden about three miles farther to a mill located on Clear creek in Denton County. There, he found a few men working and informed them of the fight taking place about six miles west on the prairie.
Mr. Ferguson, a local Indian fighter agreed to return with Mr. Harvell, while the other men set out to spread the warning to the other settlers along Clear creek, that a band of Indians were in the vicinity. As they rode along with the Rangers, Mr. Ferguson, being told of the great struggle expressed his sorrow at not having arrived in time to help in the fight.
Arriving at the ranch house after dark the men carried Sorrells inside and laid him down. Believing him to be near death from loss of blood, a Doctor known to be a few miles east in the community of Bolivar, was sent for. The men ministered to the boy as best they could. Sorrells, although badly wounded would make a full recovery. He was the only man on the Ranger force to sustain a serious wound in those hours of close combat with a determined enemy which had out numbered the boys four-to-one.
A.J. Sowell later wrote that there were seven Indian warriors killed and an unknown number were wounded. “The Indians had been worsted on this trip, and driven beyond the settlements before they did much damage”. Back at the Ranger station in western Wise County, Lieut. Hill, being informed of the fight wrote a report to Texas Adjutant General Davidson.
After Billy Sorrels recuperation, grateful citizens of Wise County later gave a banquet for the men, in Decatur, and for their valor presented each of the men with a new revolver. For once, a raiding party had been meet and perhaps, bested in their unprovoked attacks into the settlements.
Documentation on the Keep Ranch Fight.
Thompsonville Station, Wise Co. February 9th 1871
I have the honor to report to you a fight with nine of our men, and forty Indians well armed with Henry rifles, needle guns, six shooters, bows and arrows.
One of our men severely wounded.
Two Indians killed dead on the ground and quite a number wounded.
On the morning of the 7th inst., Sergent Cobb who is commanding at Perryman Station received word that Indians had gone east to the settlements, down Clear Creek.
He started immediately and followed the trail about 30 miles and came in light of the Indians on the high prairie near the corners of Wise, Cook, Denton and Montague Counties. The Indians were well armed and half their number was mounted on good horses. So soon as the Indians discovered our men, they retreated to a drean of high grass, just over the first rise with infantry concealed and cavalry formed on right and left.
As our brave boys dashed up, the Indians rose and attempted to surround them. The chief was instantly killed, but clung to his horse until his horse dashed through the lines and kicked him loose just in the rear of our men. This gave them check for a few moments.
Little Billy Sorrells Son of Mr. F.M. Sorrells was wounded in the hip with six shooter ball. The Chief had two six shooters. Billy was wounded in the first charge but fought bravely to the end. They got the Chiefs horse, with his very fine silver bridle worth forty five dollars, his extra fine bow and quiver, and his richly adorn cap with plumes, and was about to lift his scalp when the enemy dashed up to rescue the body of their Chief which brought them again in close combat. Gus Hasroot being a little to one side an Indian dashed up to him to spear him.The boys all thought Gus was all gone up, but he made the lucky shot that droped the Indian dead before him, but a few steps.A.J. Sowell while contending and exchanging several deliberate shots with one, was satisfied he had got him badly hurt, judgeing the stagering retreat he made.
Sgt Cobb withdrew his men in good order to a better position not taking time to secure the so much desired Scalp.
The Sergent came out bloody all over, but could not give a Satisfactory account of it. The Indians pow woed and yelled mournfully over the remains of their Chief, and warriors that was killed and wounded. The Sgt. Took Billy to the nearest house and secured a good physician to attend him till our Surgen could go up and left two of our men with him.-------------------
Your most obt Ser.
Lieut Co F
Lt A. C. Hill's discharge papers from the Frontier Forces.
Sgt Cobb, A.J. Wilhoit, Billy Sorrells led the party into the fight. A.J. Wilhoit was first to open fire on the enemy. Gus Hasroot had his clothes filled with holes from the balls of the enemy. Should anyone doubt any part of this lengthy letter, Those two citizens who witnessed the fight will make affidavit before the proper authorities. --------------
Our good Surgeon Dr. C Gillespie went up with them last night to give attention to our young brave soldier Billy. I do assure you Genl Davidson, that Sgt. Cobb managed nobly as well as his brave squad who so promptly obeyed every order. Two citizens of that vicinity stood and witnessed the whole affair. All the citizens say with one accord, and proudly too, they never saw Rangers like these, to contend with such great odds. Allow me to give you the names of the entire squad to hold in remembrance.
Sgt. E.H. Cobb
Wm R Sorrells
The Indians waved their battle flag defiantly with their death mark on it, to all Texans. The Chief in his clownish movements tried to taunt our brave boys but they had not forgotten their brutal work so recently committed, on the families in that vicinity. They were like the boys who remembered the Alamo.
On February 27, 1871, Adjutant General Davidson issued a General Order to all the Companies of the Frontier Forces:
Adjutant Generals Office
State of Texas, Austin,
Febry. 27, 1871
The thanks of the people of Texas, are hereby tendered to Sergt E. H. Cobb and the following detachment of Company “F”. Frontier Forces, for the great gallantry displayed by them in their recent engagement with ( 40) forty Indians in Denton County.
Sergeant E.J. Cobb Commanding
Private A.J. Wilhoit
“ W. Caruthers
“ George Howell
“ D.W. Edwards
“ J.R. Ewers
“ A.J. Sowell
“ Darkin Cleveland
“ W.R. Sorrels
“ Gus. Hasroot
Sergeant Cobbs action in successfully engaging such overwhelming odds is deserving of the highest praise and should be emulated by other companies of the Ranger Troops now on the Frontier of Texas.
By order of the Governor & Commander-in-Chief
(Signed) James Davidson
*Illustration courtesy Dorothy Sloan- Books