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New book details first time Native Americans derailed a train, raid occurred near Plum Creek in 1867
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New book details first time Native Americans derailed a train, raid occurred near Plum Creek in 1867

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LEXINGTON — A book published this year about the 1867 Native American raid and train derailment at Plum Creek is now available at the Dawson County Historical Museum.

The book, “Attacking the Union Pacific: The Truth and the Legend Behind the 1867 Cheyenne Indian Raid at Plum Creek, Nebraska” was authored by Thornton Waite, a resident of Idaho and the author of 11 books and several articles about American railroad history.

The idea for the book came from Jim Reisdorff, of David City. He did much of the research which went into the content, according to the book’s forward written by Waite. Reisdorff is also behind the company which printed the book, South Platte Press. They publish books on western railroad history.

Reisdorff said he has been a railroad enthusiast all of his life and was interested enough in the Plum Creek raid to write a paper about it when he was in college in 1976. He said this incident has not been researched heavily and felt like it needed more attention.

While the inception for what would become the book was his original college paper, Reisdorff said the Plum Creek Raid was initially going to be a chapter in a book about train accidents with another co-author, but personal circumstances intervened and the book idea had to be dropped.

Reisdorff was still interested in the Plum Creek Raid and contacted Waite, who he had worked with previously on a book called, “Lost Locomotives of North America,” in 2019 and asked if he wanted to author the new book.

In researching the raid, Reisdorff said one thing was apparent, there was a number of conflicting accounts from the sources, as well as later articles and books. He said this was something which was apparent when he wrote his college paper.

“Everything I read an account (about the raid) I felt like I was reading something different,” said Reisdorff.

He also added 150 years after the incident, facts have been distorted and the raid itself is seen in a different like than even as previously as 50 years ago.

Reisdorff came to Lexington and the Dawson County Historical Museum to look over the sources himself and said Executive Director Crystal Werger and the museum staff was helpful in his research.

The raid in question occurred on Aug. 7, 1867, when a band of Northern Cheyenne warriors derailed a Union Pacific freight train near Plum Creek, then only an isolated telegraph station on the Great Plains.

By the spring of 1867, tensions between the Native Americans and white settlers had been festering. Overhunting of bison and other game, military raids into their settlements and broken treaty promises led to native raids on white settlements in Nebraska, Kansas and along the South Platte in Colorado, according to the book.

The construction of the Union Pacific railroad through native territory also caused violent native responses in increasing frequency. It was in Nebraska that many natives saw a locomotive for the first time, many dubbing it the, “iron horse,” or the white man’s, “smoke wagon.”

In one instance, a Union Pacific worker riding a train out of Sidney opened a freight car door for some fresh air and sat down on a trunk. No sooner than he had done so, an arrow landed right between his legs and the worker proceeded to empty his rifle at the overlooking bluffs.

The natives also began to attack the rail workers throughout the summer of 1867. Near Sidney, section hands were shot down by arrows, there were also attacks near Lodgepole.

Chief Turkey Leg, of the Northern Cheyenne, was one of tribal leaders who were angered by the construction of the railroad through the territory.

In the book, Waite recounts a popular story of 50 of the chief’s men attempting to stop a locomotive with a string of rawhide stretched out across the tracks. However, several of the men and their horses were pulled into the locomotive and killed. It is said the chief vowed revenge and started to plan another way to stop a train.

The event which has been called the Plum Creek Raid actually occurred in two different phases, starting the night of Aug. 6, 1867.

The band of Northern Cheyenne warriors had been perused into the Plum Creek area by United States military units and approached from the north. This was likely the first time any of the men had seen a locomotive before and they spent time watching the trains go back and forth, as well as the men on handcarts.

The Cheyenne made the audacious decision to attack one of the trains, possibly surmising there would be significant loot abroad. The raid has sometimes been called the “Turkey Leg Raid,” owing to the idea that Chief Turkey Leg led the raid, however this is a misnomer.

While Turkey Leg was the chief of the warriors, the raid was actually led by Chief Spotted Wolf, the famed chief and medicine man Porcupine and his companion, Red Wolf, helped to plan the attack. Porcupine’s account is the only one from the Cheyenne perspective which has come down through history.

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According to accounts, a group of railroad section workers had been laboring roughly three miles west of Plum Creek and left their tools in the area, which the Cheyenne, watching from the Platte River, did not fail to notice.

The Cheyenne set to work, using the tools to pull up ties and rails in order to derail a train, the warriors also cut down a telegraph pole, severing communications at 7:30 p.m. on Aug. 6, which would in turn lead to the Plum Creek Raid.

At least six section hands from Plum Creek took a handcart to the area to see where the severed line was, the group was aware of Native Americans in the area and came armed. According to Porcupine’s account, the Cheyenne and tied, “a big stick,” to the rails with the telegraph wire.

This was likely a railroad tie and the warriors built a bonfire on the north side of the tracks, possibly to distract crews from seeing the impendent on the tracks. The warriors were expecting a train to come along, but it was the man on the handcart they would encounter first.

The men, spotting the bonfire and suspecting trouble, pumped harder to get out of the area, the cart struck the tied down spike and either the handcart was derailed or the men were thrown clear. Moments later around 25 Cheyenne warriors sprung to action, firing arrows and guns.

One of the men, William Thompson, was chased down by a warrior on a horse and was shot in the shoulder, he kept running but received a blow to the head from the butt end of a tomahawk. Thompson fell and played dead.

A Cheyenne warrior, convinced by Thompson’s act, began to scalp him and he remained still and quiet. He later learned he had been scalped down to his skull.

In a morbid twist, the scalp was lost by the warrior and Thompson was able to retrieve it, possibly thinking it could still be re-attached to his head. The scalp itself would be preserved and made for a sideshow curiosity, an example of the violence surrounding the railroads construction.

One of the section men, Pat Handerhand, was cut off and killed. Six days after the attack his body was recovered, but he had been mutilated so badly it was difficult to identify him. A local newspaper seized on the story and sensationally reported, “he was conveyed out on the prairie, SKINNED ALIVE, SCALPED and THEN KILLED by the blow of a tomahawk,” according to the book.

The other section men were able to escape, but the real attack was yet to come.

A westbound Union Pacific freight train had left Omaha at 8 a.m. on Aug. 6 and had passed Plum Creek at 12:25 a.m. The train was carrying construction material further down the line where it was needed. The train consisted of 25 freight cars.

Exactly how the Cheyenne were able to derail the train is unclear and reports conflict, the most believable is that they were able to bend the rails upwards and rested them on a pile of excess rail ties.

As the train neared the bend in the track, the engineer spotted the bonfire, and pinned the throttle wide-open in an attempt to get out of the area as fast as possible, this was becoming a customary practice for engineers. The engineer spotted the twisted rails at the last moment and hit the brakes, but it was too late. The time was 1 a.m.

The locomotive slammed into the damaged rails and fell into a ravine, two flat cars behind the coal tender shot out and over the locomotive, a third car crashed on top of the engine itself. Five cars had derailed, but the rest kept on the track.

The engineer was thrown clear of the cab, but the throttle lever and torn open his abdomen, resulting in a mortal wound. The fireman had been loading coal at the time of the crash and was thrown against the fire box, killing him.

The men who were in the caboose felt the impact and seeing the Cheyenne attacking, slipped away to the east, heading down the track to warn a locomotive three miles behind them of the crash. As it turns out the engineer of the second train had seen the brake light of the first and stopped well short. The men were able to climb aboard and the train backed up to Plum Creek.

The Cheyenne warriors galloped around the train, exuberant in their victory. They reportedly took bolts of calico and tied them to their horse’s tails, other accounts say the warriors found a barrel of Bourbon whisky and indulged themselves. This raid is cited as one of the first times Native Americans succeeded in derailing a train.

The Cheyenne took what they wanted and attempted to burn the rest, but the other rail cars did not easily catch fire.

As a result of the raid, only three men had been killed, Handerhand from the handcart and the engineer and fireman of the locomotive. The Cheyenne would be perused and tracked down, which is accounted by Waite in other chapters of the book.

Over 70 years later, the raid would be commemorated by a monument at the site, erected by the Bonneville Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1940. A chapter in the book covers the monument in more detail.

Reisdorff said the story of the Plum Creek Raid is one of a clash of two cultures, with the native Cheyenne being seen with more sympathy in recent years. His goal with the book was to bring more light to this incident and to highlight this important part of the local history of the area.

The book is available at the Dawson County Historical Museum’s gift shop for $14.95.

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