The Ride of Portugee Phillips – The WyoBraska Christmas Miracle of 1866

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HistoryThe Ride of Portugee Phillips - The WyoBraska Christmas Miracle of 1866

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December 21, 1866. William J. Fetterman, who had once arrogantly boasted, “Give me 80 men, and I’ll ride through the whole Sioux nation,” was dead. After disobeying orders and being lured into an ambush, Fetterman, and the 81 men under his command, were slaughtered in less than 45 minutes- mirroring the Sand Creek Massacre of November 29, 1864, in which US Army soldiers had butchered a peaceful village of Cheyenne and Arapaho, ⅔ of which were women and children. All but one of Fetterman’s troopers were stripped and horrifically mutilated.


The only soldier whose body was not mangled beyond recognition was Adolph Metzger. In honor of his courage in standing alone against over 1000 Cheyenne, Lakota, and Arapaho warriors, while armed with only a bugle, the Indians covered his corpse with a buffalo robe and left him untouched.

The death of Fetterman and his soldiers left Fort Phil Kearny, located deep in the heart of Crow territory near present-day Buffalo, Wyoming, in incredible danger. Fort Phil Kearny was dangerously low on men, food, and ammunition. General Henry B. Carrington, the commanding officer of the fort, knew that if the Indians decided to attack, the 300 soldiers garrisoned inside would never be able to defend the 3900 feet of perimeter walls that surrounded the 17 acres of grounds comprising the fort.

Having seen the carnage of the Fetterman Massacre just hours earlier, Carrington gave orders that when the attack happened, the women and children of the fort were to be barricaded inside the powder magazine, where spare ammunition and explosives were stored. If the defense was overrun, the surviving soldiers would retreat to the magazine, and Carrington would blow up the building with everyone inside to ensure that no captives would be taken.

The only hope of rescue was contacting Fort Laramie, 236 miles away, to ask for reinforcements and weapons. Unfortunately, Fort Phil Kearny, less than 6 months old and in the middle of nowhere, had no telegraph. The only way to save the fort and its inhabitants would be on horseback, through hostile Indian territory, and in the teeth of a raging blizzard. The temperature had plummeted to -35F, and the soldiers were continuously shoveling snow away from the walls, preventing the Indians from entering the fort by simply walking on it and stepping over the eight-foot-high walls.

On December 22, 1866, General Carrington asked for volunteers to undertake the nightmare journey to Fort Laramie. Unfortunately, only two brave civilians stepped forward. One was named Daniel Dixon, whose existence has faded into history, and the second was John “Portugee” Phillips.

Cold Ponies‘ by Hawk Buckman™

Portugee Phillips, born Manuel Felipe Cardoso in Portugal in 1832, had come to America at 18 to chase dreams of California gold and instead became a civilian trapper, scout, and Indian fighter on the plains of Wyoming and the Dakotas. He may have been partially motivated by survivor’s guilt, having been sent to haul water on December 21 instead of joining Fetterman’s troops. He also later stated that he felt sorry for the pregnant wife of Lieutenant Grummond, who was killed in the debacle.

Wrapped in buffalo robes against the brutal weather, Dixon and Philips mounted the fastest horses in the fort and set off into the raging whiteout on their impossible mission. Phillips rode Carrington’s personal mount; a black Kentucky Thoroughbred named Dandy. Luckily for the two messengers, the Indians were hunkered down in their tipis, waiting for the blizzard to subside, and they saw no one on their ride, not that a person could see more than 20 yards in any direction in the first place.

Both Dixon and Phillips to Fort Reno, traveling only at night, and then another 130 miles to the old Pony Express stop of Horseshoe Station, located near present-day Glendo, Wyoming, where a telegraph wired the news of the Fetterman Massacre and pending destruction of the fort to Washington on the morning of December 25.

Portugee and Dandy raced on from Horseshoe Station alone to Fort Laramie as the thermometer hovered around -25F.

Arriving at Fort Laramie just before midnight on December 25, Phillips, nearly frozen to death, interrupted the full-dress Christmas Ball in Old Bedlam. One can only imagine the confusion and shock among the officers and their wives as he staggered in from the maelstrom whirling outside, clad in an ice-encrusted hat and buffalo overcoat, with feed sacks wrapped around his legs to protect him from the elements. The great Thoroughbred who had carried him from the Powder River country had run his heart out and died on the parade ground as Phillips delivered his plea for rescue to the post commander of Fort Laramie.

Due to the terrible conditions and deep snow, reinforcements could only leave Fort Laramie on January 6, 1867. Finally, on January 16, two companies of cavalry and four infantry arrived at Fort Phil Kearny, taking ten days to travel the distance that Phillips and his horse had covered in four. Sixty soldiers escorted the women and children back to the safety of Fort Laramie in -38F weather, while the remaining soldiers stayed to protect Fort Phil Kearny against the threat of Indian attack.

For his heroic endeavor, Portugee Phillips received $300, which the US government may have never given him. He died from kidney failure on November 18, 1883, at 51. In 1900, his widow, Hattie, was finally awarded $5000 for her husband’s service. She used part of the money to build a monument to her husband in Cheyenne, Wyoming’s Lakeview Cemetery. Another memorial to Phillips stands not far from Fort Phil Kearny.

As for Dandy, who gave his life to safely carry Phillips and his message through one of the worst winters in WyoBraska history and deserves as much recognition as his rider, a plaque stands near the entrance to Fort Laramie, honoring the memories of both Dandy and Phillips.


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Christmas Dinner 1888: The Lady’s Receipt Book/Eliza Leslie [Philadelphia: 1847] (p. 382-383)

Great Ride Story by: Kathrine Rupe
The Real Story of the Great Ride by: Hawk Buckman



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