John “Portuguese” Phillips is largely credited with bringing the news of the Fetterman disaster through hostile country from Fort Phil Kearney to Fort Laramie. He appears in novels, histories, poems and movies as a Wyoming frontier hero. While his achievement has been somewhat diminished over time, there is still no doubt that he exemplified the essential pioneering qualities of self-sacrifice and endurance.
He was born on the island of Pico, in the Azores in 1832. The fourth of nine children of Felipe and Maria Cardoso, his given name was Manual Felipe Cardoso. As a teenager, he left the Azores on board a whaling vessel bound for California. Like so many others, his intent was to pan for gold.
Over the next 15 years he followed gold discoveries from California to Oregon, Idaho and Montana. In September of 1866 he was working at Fort Phil Kearney as a water carrier for a civilian contractor. On December 21, he volunteered to ride 191 miles to the telegraph office at Horseshoe Station on the Platte River with the dispatches reporting the annihilation of Capt. Fetterman and his troops. While some stories reported that he was alone, he was accompanied by Daniel Dixon, as far as Fort Reno, and by others along the way including Robert Bailey.
Col. Henry Carrington stated that Phillips chose one of his (Carrington’s) horses for the ride. The name of the animal was “Dandy” a “blue grass horse, black with three stocking feet.” Phillips was also assigned a Spencer repeating rifle and 100 rounds of ammunition. His original mission was to ride to the telegraph office at Horseshoe Station on the Platte. At Fort Reno however, he received an additional message to take to Col. Innis Palmer at Fort Laramie. This extended his ride from 191 miles to 236 miles. The challenging ride was made through hostile territory in subzero weather.
He arrived at Horseshoe Station at 10:00 a.m. on December 25th and at Fort Laramie at 11:00 pm. Tales describe the arrival of a huge, frosty Phillips (garbed in buffalo overcoat, pants, gauntlets and cap), bursting in on a full dress ball at Fort Laramie to deliver the message. It was also reported that the horse, sadly, keeled over and died upon arrival. Snow was so deep that the rescue party from Fort Laramie could not leave until January 6. Clearly, Phillips was issued a new horse for the return trip. His pay for the service was $300, which he received in January, 1867. (The experience was priceless!)
Phillips continued to carry mail between Fort Phil Kearny and Fort Laramie until mid-April, 1867. When the army abandoned Fort Phil Kearny he moved to Elk Mountain, west of Cheyenne where he supplied ties for the Union Pacific Railroad during construction of the transcontinental railroad. He then spent another ten years furnishing supplies and transportation back at Fort Laramie and Fort Fetterman.
Phillips was actually a national figure following his adventurous ride. It was reported that when he visited Milwaukee in 1876, he attended a parade honoring presidential candidate Ulysses S. Grant. The procession was stopped and Grant insisted that Phillips ride with him in his buggy.
In December of 1870 he married Hattie Buck, a native of Crownpoint, Indiana. Among their several children, was one named Paul Revere Phillips. (It seems Mr. Phillips may have had a sense of humor.) About the time of his marriage Phillips moved his contracting base to a ranch near Chugwater, north of Cheyenne. Among other ventures on this property were accommodations for travelers, a dairy herd, and (are you ready for this?) he grew watercress. Phillips left his ranch and moved to Cheyenne in 1878 where he remained until his death from nephritis in 1883. John Phillips was preceded in death by four children who are buried beside him. His widow Hattie purchased the headstone stone with borrowed money and left Cheyenne to move back to the Chugwater ranch. Hattie, died in a Los Angeles nursing home at the age of 94.
His tombstone can still be viewed in Lakeview Cemetery in Cheyenne. Located just east of Fort Phil Kearny, the John “Portuguese” Phillips monument is part of the National Historic Landmark designation for the Fort Phil Kearny sites.