MANUEL (JOHN “PORTUGEE” PHILLIPS) FELIPE
Finding himself or herself in a situation calling for courageous and unprecedented behavior, a totally unremarkable being is somehow able to perform a feat that is entirely unforeseeable or unpredictable, and then settles back into ordinary life never to do repeat in any shape or form anything approaching the extraordinary feat. Among such people are Holocaust heroes like Oskar Schindler of the famous “list,” various U. S. Congressional Medal of Honors recipients, and, most recently, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who saved his passengers, the crew, and himself when he ditched his craft onto the waters of the Hudson River in 2009. To this group of “extraordinary heroes of a single feat” belongs John “Portugee” Phillips.
“In the folklore of the western frontier, the ride of Portugee Phillips from Fort Kearny to Laramie has achieved a status equal to that of Paul Revere’s ride,” write Dee Brown, the notable historian and novelist of the American West.[i] In the national mythology, however, Phillips’s ride has little or no place, let alone rivaling Paul Revere’s monitory ride of Paul Revere. While the Fetterman Massacre was out-shadowed in the annals of American history and legendry by the Custer Massacre, which took place a decade later, Portugee Phillips ‘great ride has never been in competition with Paul Revere’s dash. It has been largely relegated to being a “Wyoming legend.”[ii] Yet even there, concludes one writer, “Today, in Wyoming, not one man in a thousand could tell you who Portugee Phillips was, or what he had done to deserve immortality in the annals of Western courage.”[iii]
Even the fiction-writers give John Phillips scant atte4ntion, if Michael Straight’s Carrington: A Novel of the West is any indication. When Phillips makes an appearance in its pages, he passes through briefly without being named. In this historical novel about what has become known as the Fetterman massacre, he is introduced only as “the miner” or the “man outside,” wanting to speak with Frances Grummond, the wife of Lieutenant George Grummond, one of those many massacred under Fetterman’s command who were massacred on December 21, 1866.
She [Mrs. Grummond] looked up; the miner stood in the doorway. He wore a hunter’s jacket; he carried a heavy robe. He moved forward, reaching for her hand. She saw by the candlelight that there were tears in his eyes.
“I am going to Laramie-for help,” he said. “With dispatches.” He nodded toward the Colonel’s room [Carrington’s]. “As special messenger.” He held up his hand to cut short what he took to be her protest. “I am going if it costs me my life.”
He waited. She stood bewildered and too weary to speak.
“I am going for your sake,” he said.
She shuddered. He laid the robe across her shoulders. “Here is my wolf robe! I brought it for you to keep!”
He turned at the door, the collar of his buffalo coat already turned up against the wind. “And to remember me by if you never see me again.”[iv]
Only later do we get a hint of who this “miner,” sent off with the desperate news to Fort Laramie, actually is. Lieutenant Alexander Wands cautions Colonel Carrington, who is hell bent to go out to recover the bodies of the dead, “‘I think that we have one bare chance of surviving if Phillips should get through to Laramie. But if another eighty men go out there today and don’t come back, then every last man and woman and child on this post is as good as dead.'”[v]
Here is how Dee Brown describes the man who visited Frances Grummond just before setting out on his do-or-die ride for the reinforcements desperately needed to save Fort Kearny from the attacking Sioux under the infamous Red Cloud. Frances Grummond’s “unexpected caller” was “a swarthy man in his middle thirties, tough and wiry of frame, with a pointed black beard and bright piercing eyes. He was John (Portugee) Phillips, a mining partner of James Wheatley and Isaac Fisher, all of whom had come to Phil Kearny in August  and accepted jobs with the quartermaster.” Had Philips “not been engaged in hauling water to fill the post’s water barrels at the time of the Indian alarm,” he “no doubt would have volunteered and met the same fate as his partners.”[vi] But he was not destined to die with Brevet-Colonel William Judd Fetterman and his eighty men. He had been spared, as it would seem, for a braver and more amazing feat.
Here is Dee Brown’s account of John “Portugee” Phillips’ accomplishment-his ride to bring news of the Fort Kearny disaster to the outside world:
John (Portugee) Phillips had forced his way through almost continuous blizzards, riding only at nights, rationing oats carefully to his horse, sometimes digging tufts of grass for it from under the snow. Late on Christmas morning he rode into Horseshoe Station, accompanied by William Bailey and George Dillon, and handed his dispatches to the telegraph operator, John Friend. Phillips had crossed 190 miles of snow that was in some places four or five feet deep.
After Friend had tapped out a condensation of the messages, Phillips rebound his legs with sacks, wrapped himself in a buffalo coat, saddled up, and prepared to ride the forty remaining miles to Fort Laramie. He had promised Colonel Carrington he would deliver the dispatches to the commander at Laramie, and neither his companions nor the telegraph operator could dissuade him from completing his mission.
After riding all afternoon across a dazzling-white land that blinded him, he welcomed the relief of nightfall even though more snow began falling and the temperature droppe4d far below zero. Between eleven o’clock and midnight he arrived at Fort Laramie. Icicles were hanging from his clothing; snow and ice matted his beard. From lighted windows of the main officers’ quarters, he could hear gay dance music.
Phillips slid out of his saddle, staggering from exhaustion, and a minute later the officer of the guard, Lieutenant Herman Haas, was at his side, asking his name and what he wanted. Phillips was so weak he could barely reply that he wanted to see the commanding officer.
Lieutenant David Gordon… was stationed at Laramie with a company of the 2nd Cavalry. “It was on Christmas night, 11 P.M.,” Gordon later recorded, “when a full-dress garrison ball was progressing and everybody appeared superlatively happy, enjoying the dance, notwithstanding the snow was from ten to fifteen inches deep on the level and the thermometer indicated twenty-five degrees below zero, when a huge form dressed in buffalo overcoat, pants, gauntlets and cap, accompanied by an orderly, desired to see the commanding officer. The dress of the man, and at this hour looking for the commanding officer, made a deep impression upon the officers and others that happened to get a glimpse of him, and consequently, and naturally, too, excited their curiosity as to his mission in this strange garb, dropping into our full-dress garrison ball at this unseasonable hour.
“As we were about to select partners for another dance word was passed into our ball-room that General Palmer desired to
see me….” A few moments later, Lieutenant Gordon met Portugee Phillips face to face.
During the preceding forty-eight hours, Laramie officers had been hearing rumors from Indians around the fort of a great battle which had supposedly taken place near Phil Kearny. At two o’clock that afternoon, General Innis N. Palmer, the new commanding officer, had received a garbled telegram from Horseshoe Station, reporting a massacre. Palmer had immediately forwarded the message to Omaha, but evidently he still considered the massacre a rumor until Phillips arrived with Carrington’s dispatches. Not until early in the morning of the 26th did Carrington’s full report go to Omaha, and Lieutenant Gordon afterward stated that Fort Laramie received “nothing authentic until the dispatch was handed the commanding officer by one Portuguese Phillips, who was employed by Colonel Carrington at Fort Phil Kearny.”
Thus the world outside Dakota Territory learned of the incident which would be known thereafter as the Fetterman Massacre.[vii]
Brown then adds a footnote with more details about Phillips and his mount;
The horse used by John Phillips on his four-day, 236-mile ride died soon after arriving at Fort Laramie. Phillips himself collapsed from exhaustion and exposure, suffering for weeks from severe frostbite. Lieutenant Gordon said that Phillips was paid one thousand dollars for the ride, but official records indicate that the amount he received for quartermaster services at Fort Phil Kearny and for the ride totaled only about three hundred dollars. Thirty-three years later, in 1899, his widow received five thousand dollars in partial recognition of Phillips’ ride from Phil Kearny to Laramie.[viii]
The John Portugee Phillips of history and legend is the one bona fide Portuguese-American hero I know about. We know who he was, who his parents were, where and when he was born, where and when he died. He was born Manuel Felipe, son to Filipe Cardoso and Maris Jesus, on April 28, 1832, in the Azores, on the island of Pico. He died on November 18, 1883, in Cheyenne, Wyoming. He sailed away on an American whaler, disembarking in California, where he made his way to the gold fields as a miner.[ix] His pursuit of gold over, he traveled eastward, and in the late 1860s he found himself in Wyoming working for the U. S. Army troop at and around Fort Phil Kearny. He was working back at the Fort, hauling water, when news arrived of the U.S. Army-Sioux battle that came to be called the Fetterman Massacre. It was then that he volunteered to bring the dire news in the midst of a fierce snow story to the commanding officer at Fort Laramie, well over 200 miles away, with a request for additional troops.[x] That he successfully completed his mission under very nearly impossible contradictions constitutes the great feat of his life. It was, I repeat, the one remarkable thing he is known to have done in the fifty-one years of his life.
Some time after his remarkable ride John Portugee Philips married and became a rancher, an occupation he followed for the rest of his life. Every one of his petitions to the U.S. Congress for compensation for his action in late December 1866 was singularly unsuccessful. It was not 1900, seventeen years after his death, that his widow received any compensation at all. An editorial note in an upstate New York newspaper reminded its readers of Phillips’ feat in its explanation of the Congressional action:
After more than thirty years of delay, a bill has reached the president appropriating $5,000 to Hattie Phillips, the widow of the scout, John Phillips, who saved the little garrison of Fort Phil Kearny, Wyoming, from the Sioux in the closing year of the war. Phillips rode 235 miles in dead of winter to Fort Laramie through the lines of hostile Sioux who followed him all of the way, to bring relief. He was five days on the journey, two days without food for himself and horse, a Kentucky thoroughbred owned by Colonel Carrington, of Fort Kearny. The Indians were so enraged that for years they destroyed his property. The sum finally awarded by congress was for that property. Phillips was a Portuguese and not naturalized, so congress danced around that technicality for thirty years instead of promptly rewarding him for his bravery and devotion.[xi]
While Congress was reluctant to reward Phillips for his heroic ride, the Sioux, “in spite of their victory,” it is said, “never forgave him for his ride.”
“The Sioux were so enraged at being thus outgeneraled that they opened a campaign of annoyance and deviltry against Philips which never ceased till he died. At one time they lassoed him with a view to killing him by torture. Repeatedly they killed his live stock and committed other wanton and vengeful depredations, of which the proof was so clear, including their own admissions that the Court of Claims gave judgment against them for $2,210. His death was traceable to his perils and exposures, and to his later persecutions by the Indians.[xii]
[i] Dee Brown, The Fetterman Massacre (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1971), p. 193. When it was first published, in 1962, Brown’s book was titled Fort Phil Kearny: An American Saga
[ii] Robert A. Murray, Military Posts in the Powder River Country of Wyoming, 1865-1894(Buffalo, Wyoming: The Office, 1990), p. 85. See also Robert A. Murray, “The John ‘Portugee’Phillips Legends, A Study in Wyoming Folklore,” Annals of Wyoming (April 1968), 40: 41-56, and “John ‘Portugee’ Phillip’s Ride,” in The Bozeman Trail, Highway of History (Fort Collins, Colorado: The Old Army Press, 1999), pp. 48-49.
[iii] Bill Brooks, “Portugee Phillips: The Ride That Saved The West,” Complete Man’s Magazine (August 1957), p. 70.
[iv] Michael Straight, Carrington: A Novel of the West (New York: Knopf, 1960), p. 356. Straight’s account draws on Frances C. Carrington’s My Army Life (Philadelphia: Lippincott,1911). Sometime after her husband’s death in the Fetterman Massacre, Frances C. Grummond married Henry Beebe Carrington. Brown writes that Phillips “began speaking in his strange soft accent (Phillips was born in the Azores of Portuguese parents)…” (Fetterman Massacre, 192)
[v] Straight, Carrington, 359.
[vi] Brown, Fetterman Massacre, 192.
[vii] Brown, Fetterman Massacre, 201-03.
[viii] Brown, Fetterman Massacre, 203, note.
[ix] Ermelindo Ávila, “John (Portugee) Phillips: Herói Português em Terra Americana,” Boletim do Núcleo Cultural da Horta, 3.1 (1962), 35-42.
[x] “Paul Revere’s ride was only twelve miles” (Sadie Blake, “Wyoming Fine but It Needs a Press Agent,” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 22, 1949, p. L6).
[xi] Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Mar. 26, 1900, p. 6. Elsewhere there was confusion about Phillips’ national citizenship. “Philips was a British subject at the time of his famous ride,”announced the New York Evening Post, “but afterward became a citizen of the United States” (“A Story of Heroism: John Philips’s Fearful Ride During a Sioux Outbreak,” Utica Daily Union, Apr. 2, 1897, p. 8).
[xii] Utica Daily Union, Apr. 2, 1897, p. 8. See also D. C. Reep, “Only One Would Ride for Laramie,” Chicago Tribune, Dec. 18, 1966, p. 58.
George Monteiro is Professor Emeritus of English and Portuguese and Brazilian Studies, Brown University, and he continues as Adjunct Professor of Portuguese Studies at the same university. He served as Fulbright lecturer in American Literature in Brazil–Sao Paulo and Bahia–Ecuador and Argentina; and as Visiting Professor in UFMG in Belo Horizonte. In 2007 he served as Helio and Amelia Pedroso / Luso-American Foundation Professor of Portuguese, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Among his recent books are Stephen Crane’s Blue Badge of Courage, Fernando Pessoa and Nineteenth-Century Anglo-American Literature, The Presence of Pessoa, The Presence of Camões, and Conversations with Elizabeth Bishop and Critical Essays on Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Among his translations are Iberian Poems by Miguel Torga, A Man Smiles at Death with Half a Face by José Rodrigues Miguéis, Self-Analysis and Thirty Other Poems by Fernando Pessoa, and In Crete, with the Minotaur, and Other Poems by Jorge de Sena. He has also published two collections of poems, The Coffee Exchange and Double Weaver’s Knot.
IMAGE FROM: http://www.philkearny.vcn.com/phillips.htm