THE FAMOUS RIDE OF JOHN "PORTUGUESE" PHILLIPS

phillips-ride.jpg (31727 bytes)
John "Portuguese" Phillips arriving at Fort Laramie
with news of the Fetterman disaster, 1866.  Painting by Phoebe Blair.
Photo courtesy of Fort Laramie Historical Society.

by John D. McDermott
Reprinted by permission, from 'PORTRAITS of Fort Phil Kearny.'

As the man credited for carrying the news of the Fetterman Disaster through hostile Indian country 236 miles from Fort Phil Kearny to Fort Laramie, John "Portuguese" Phillips has long been celebrated in histories, novels, and poems, as Wyoming's frontier hero.  While time has diminished his achievement, as fact has replaced fiction, he remains a man worthy of respect and admiration, exemplifying pioneer qualities of self-sacrifice and endurance.

John Phillips was 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.

For the next 15 years, he followed the lure of yellow metal in California, Oregon, and Idaho, reaching the Montana fields in 1865.  In spring of 1866, he joined a party of miners headed for the Pryor and Big Horn Mountains, prospecting until the first snows of late summer.  Arriving with 42 of his compatriots at Fort Phil Kearny on September 14, he apparently worked as a water carrier for a civilian contractor.

Following the annihilation of Capt. William J. Fetterman and his command on December 21, Phillips volunteered to ride to the telegraph office at Horseshoe Station on the North Platte with Col. Henry B. Carrington's dispatches, about 190 miles in subzero weather.  While the general story is that he rode alone on this perilous mission, Phillips was in fact accompanied by one Daniel Dixon to Fort Reno and by others along the way, including Robert Bailey.  The pay for the service was $300 apiece for Phillips and Dixon, which they received in January, 1867.

In a reminiscence, Carrington stated that Phillips chose one of his horses for the ride.  Jack Wallace, a contractor's employee, reported the name of the animal as "Dandy," a blue grass horse, black with three stocking feet.  Wallace also stated that Carrington gave Phillips a Spencer repeating rifle and 100 rounds of ammunition, which he strapped on his ankles, the weight keeping his feet firmly in the stirrups.  The first stop was Fort Reno, which the couriers reached in the early hours of December 23.  There they received an additional message from Lt. Col. Henry Wessells to carry to Col. Innis Palmer at Fort Laramie, thus extending their obligation.

According to the telegrapher at Horseshoe Station, Phillips, Dixon, and Robert Bailey arrived about 10 a.m. on December 25, when the dispatches were wired to the headquarters of the Department of the Platte in Omaha and to Washington.  To deliver the message from Wessells to Palmer, Phillips went on to Fort Laramie, arriving at 11 p.m., where a full dress ball was in progress.   The appearance of the huge form of Phillips, garbed in a buffalo overcoat, pants, gauntlets, and cap, quieted the festivities, and his message caused preparations for a rescue party, delayed in departing by deeps snows until January 6.  In addition to receiving his pay, Phillips was given the best horse in Company F of the 2nd Cavalry.

Although Phillips did not ride alone, he was certainly of the stuff from which  heroes are made.  When carrying mail back to Fort Phil Kearny from Fort Laramie in mid-April, 1867, he at one point found himself surrounded by fifteen Sioux in war paint.  With humorous self-deprecation, he wrote in a report to his superiors that he had escaped, but noted that "without aid of my faithful horse, and good revolver, I would have lost my hair, the part of my body I feel most anxious about on the prairies."1

Phillips continued to work as a mail courier for the government, but when the army abandoned Fort Phil Kearny, he moved to Elk Mountain, west of the present day city of Laramie.  There he supplied ties to the Union Pacific Railroad, then being constructed across southern Wyoming.  In the decade that followed, he made his living by contracting with the army to furnish supplies and transportation at Fort Laramie and Fort Fetterman.  On December 16, 1870, in Cheyenne, Phillips married Hattie Buck, a native of Crownpoint, Indiana, then 28 years old.  The couple had several  children, one of whom was appropriately named Paul Revere Phillips.

About the time of his marriage, Phillips established a ranch on Chugwater Creek as a base for his contracting activities.  The ranch also accommodated travelers and served as headquarters for a small stock raising venture.  In 1876, he built a hotel on the property, as travel had increased with the Black Hills gold rush.  One acquaintance describes him as having a fine dairy herd and growing watercress's with diverted river water.

In 1878 he sold his ranch holdings and moved to Cheyenne, arriving on October 18.  There Phillips remained until his death from nephritis on November 18, 1883.  He is buried in Lakeview Cemetery.  Hattie Phillips died in 1936 in a Los Angeles nursing home at the age of 94.

During a visit to Milwaukee in 1876, Phillips attended a parade in honor of General Grant, who was running for the presidency.  Upon seeing the scout in the crowd, Grant stopped the procession and insisted that Phillips ride with him in his buggy.  Although of humble origins and not particularly successful in life, Phillips was a national figure then and today he remains a symbol of courage and devotion to duty.

(Editor's Note: The John "Portuguese" Phillips monument just east of Fort Phil Kearny, is listed as part of the National Historic Landmark designation for the Fort Phil Kearny sites.)

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1.  Letter from Phillips to Quartermaster George B. Dandy, Fort Laramie, May 16, 1867, Letters Received, Records of the Mountain District, Record Group 393, National Archives.


Bibliography

The best critical work  on John Phillips is Robert A. Murray, "The John "Portuguese" Phillips Legends, A Study in Wyoming Folklore, Annals of Wyoming 40 (April, 1968), reprinted in The Army on the Powder River (Belvue: Nebraska Old Army Press, 1969), pp. 11-26.

"Death of Mrs. Portuguese Phillips," Wyoming Tribune, January 17, 1936.

Paul W. Emerson, "Hattie Phillips--Pioneer," (1962), MS, Platte County Vertical File, Platte County Library, Wheatland, Wyoming.

Sgt. W. H. Lovejoy, "Three Year's Experience on the Wyoming Frontier," National Tribune, September 22, 1921, p. 4.

"Scout and Frontiersman," unidentified newspaper clipping, Henry B. Carrington Papers, Sterling Library, Yale University

Jack Wallace, "Portuguese Phillips," unidentified newspaper transcription, WPA File 1519, Division of History Research, Department of Commerce, Cheyenne, Wyoming.

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