Travel in the American west was a dangerous undertaking in the 1860s. In the years before the railroad crossed Wyoming, it was up to the stage coach drivers to get passengers and mail safely through the desert landscape and mountain passes. The journey was arduous, over rough terrain sparsely covered by vegetation and offering scant sources of water.
Physical difficulties aside, there was the added danger of encounters with Native Indian tribes. In 1865 a stage coach driver who went by the name of Heenan was hailed as a hero for his fearless defence of a mail delivery he was transporting on a stage of the Overland Trail near Saratoga.
Tensions had been rising in the region since the previous year when an American colonel massacred about 135 peaceful Cheyenne men, women and children at a camp in south eastern Colorado. In response, in 1865, a wave of Indian attacks broke across the whole region.
In an account published originally in the Saratoga Sun in 1865 (republished 1932), fears of an Indian reprisal attack meant the staging post in the Platte Valley had been cut off from communication with the closest station at Sulphur Springs for three weeks. But the mail kept arriving from the east and was piling up so on one night in June 1865 it was decided to try and get out at night .
Two coaches each driven by six horses, were piled with mail sacks and eight men were assigned as guards. One coach driver was a man called Heenan. At the last moment a woman who was at the station on her way to meet her husband in San Francisco, was allowed to go with the coaches.
One of the guards, a young man called Joe J Hurt, gave the Saratoga Sun newspaper his account of what happened next.
He described how the group had set out at around 11pm, under the light of a full moon. As they travelled at full speed they were aware of shadowy forms moving in parallel either side of them. At 3am they arrived at the remnants of the Pine Grove station where the man in charge had been killed, the station burned and the stock stolen some time earlier.
When dawn broke they began to be hopeful they would get through without trouble but as they drove up through a narrow canyon several miles long, they came under fire on both sides. Two or three men of the stage group party were killed immediately.
One Indian armed with a Colt revolver took aim at Heenan, firing five shots in quick succession all of which struck the box on which Heenan sat. The sixth shot found its target, breaking Heenan’s right arm above the elbow. Hurt recounted: “It fell helpless to his side, but nothing daunted, he caught the lines in his left hand and never slackened his pace.” The man sitting alongside the driver was struck by a bullet and would have fallen to the ground if he hadn’t been stopped by Heenan.
A few moments later three of the horses in his lead teams were shot down, Heenan jumped to the ground, cut the four horses loose, and drove to the top of of the canyon with two horses and with but one useful arm.
They spent the whole of the following day on the prairie sheltered in a corral hastily constructed from the coaches and mail sacks. Around them circled about five hundred “hooting, yelling, murderous savages” who fired arrows and gun shots at the travellers.
When night fell, the attackers withdrew, at Heenan’s instigation the group (now further depleted by deaths) hitched up the horses and made a bolt for the safety of the Sulphur Springs station. Within a mile and a half of their destination they came under attack once more but, with the help of men at the station, got to safety without further injury.
According to Joe Hurt, it was Heenan’s courage and resilience that got them through.
Heenan, was, he said, “a superb driver”, a man of “great strength and courage” . Out on the prairie this man “seemed equal to any emergency.”
It was he [Heenan] who gave us orders what to do and how to do it. The man in charge of the guards gave way, and all looked to the young Hercules for inspiration and orders.
Fittingly the headline in the 1932 re-print read:
WHAT-A-MAN HEENAN, HERO OF WYOMING INDIAN FIGHT: Indomitable Stage driver’s Leadership Prevented Massacre On Overland Trail Sixty-Seven Years Ago
It’s a great yarn, an adventure story par excellence. The anti-Indian sentiments expressed are uncomfortable reading now but were very much of their time.
But the newspaper report does raise some questions. Was it true? Who was this heroic figure called Heenan? And what happened to him after this incident?
The Joe Hurt whose recollections formed the basis of the article did exist. He was described in the report as being elected state senator for Carbon and Natrona Counties in Wyoming. In fact he was one of the first representatives for those counties, winning election in 1890 though his name was Joel not Joe. 1
I’ve not found any other records that mention this incident. Perhaps, while it would have been terrifying for the people involved, it was still of a relatively minor nature, just one of many that took place on the Overland Trail n the summer of 1865. A more serious incident occurred the following month a combined force of thousands of Arapaho, Cheyenne and Lakota Sioux warriors attacked the Platte Bridge Station killing two dozen soldiers.
As for Heenan, I have a strong suspicion that was merely a nickname, not his real name. There is a hint to that effect in Joe Hurt’s account where he is reported as saying “We had as a driver of one of the coaches a young man whose name I have forgotten, if ever I knew it, but who went by the name of Heenan.”
This is reinforced by the following snippet in a book by Frank Albert Root, William Elsey Connelley called The Overland Stage to California: Personal Reminiscences and Authentic History of the Great Overland Stage Line and Pony Express from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean.
The reference to Benica is a clue to the origin of the nickname I believe. “The Benica Boy” was the sobriquet of the bare knuckle boxer John Carmel Heenan whose exploits in the ring had transfixed people throughout the world. He’d fought a notorious championship match in England in 1860 that had lasted 47 rounds. Though seriously injured in a train accident, he was still in 1865 a household name – hence I think why his sobriquet was chosen for a stage coach driver who, as Joe Hurt says, was known for his “great strength and courage.”
It would have been interesting to discover if “Heenan” continued to work as a stage coach driver or whether he had to change direction when the railroads arrived. But that is going to be impossible without knowledge of his real name.
Still, it made for some entertaining reading.