The Battle of Hundred-in-the-Hands (Part 1)

It has been a popular misconception that Native Americans’ sole victory was against George Custer and his 7th Cavalry, otherwise the tribes suffered an endless string of defeats. The truth is, although they ultimately lost their lands and way of life, Indians won significant battles along the way. In this and other entries to my blog, I cover some of the battles that highlight Native military triumphs in the long and costly Indian Wars (1609 – 1924).

Here is the story of one such confrontation known as the:

The Battle of Hundred-in-the-Hands or Fetterman Fight

The Battle of Hundred-in-the-Hands, also known as the Fetterman Fight, started a series of hostilities called Red Cloud’s War (1866 – 1868) with the Indigenous tribes as victors. A more complete victory, however, was delayed for more than a century until a Supreme Court case in 1980.

On December 21, 1866, a small band of Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors attacked a wood-cutting detail near Fort Phil Kearny, Wyoming. The fort commander, Colonel Henry B. Carrington (above left), sent a mounted force led by Captain William J. Fetterman (below left) to the rescue. No soldier lived to tell the whole story.

Eighty-one soldiers and civilians died in minutes; the worst military defeat suffered by the U.S. Army until ten years later at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. How did this bloodshed come to pass?

The Setup

In 1863, Gold Rush miners blazed the Bozeman Trail through the heart of the Northern Cheyenne, Northern Arapaho, and Lakota territory despite the warnings of legendary mountain man Jim Bridger, who urged another path. Regardless, from 1864 to 1866, 3,500 miners, settlers and others traversed the trail.

In 1864, furious Arapaho survivors of the Sand Creek Massacre (near present-day Denver) fled north from Colorado Territory to Lakota country attacking white settlements and Army posts along the way, including the Platte Bridge Station (near present-day Casper, Wyoming) in July 1865. Twenty-six solders died.

By mid-July, Carrington had established three posts on the Bozeman Trail, with headquarters at Fort Phil Kearny located on the east flank of the Bighorn Mountains near present-day Story, Wyoming.

Raids and skirmishes continued until June 1866 when the U. S. Interior Department called on Lakota leaders, including the Oglala Chief Red Cloud (above left), to meet at Fort Laramie for a treaty that would ensure security of passage on the Bozeman Trail. During negotiations, Colonel Carrington marched unexpectedly into the Powder River basin at the head of seven hundred soldiers to build fortifications in the area. Enraged, Red Cloud accused the U.S. of bad faith and refused to sign the treaty.

While troops continued wood cutting and building Fort Phil Kearny, Carrington’s scout, Jim Bridger, learned from friendly Crows that more than 2,200 lodges of Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho had gathered nearby in a huge camp – all allies dedicated to closing the Bozeman trail.

Warriors harassed the fort at every opportunity. The civilian contractors who cut the fort’s lumber nearby were prime targets and required constant military escort. By mid-December 1865 (shortly after the end of the American Civil War) nearly seventy soldiers and civilians had been killed in over fifty skirmishes practically within view of the post.

“Lakotas, I am for war!”

Bridger (left) warned Carrington that Red Cloud planned to attack the fort en masse. Carrington sent this intelligence to higher headquarters where it was discarded under the assertion that Bridger had too often amplified the threat of Indian violence. It was no exaggeration.

Red Cloud’s distress with the polluting influence of the invaders had developed into a cold determination to fight against formidable odds rather than bow to the Americans.

“Hear ye, Lakotas!” Red Cloud said. “When the Great Father at Washington sent us his chief soldier to ask for a path through our hunting grounds, a way for his iron road to the mountains and the western sea, we were told that they wished merely to pass through our country, not to tarry among us. Yet before the ashes of the council fire are cold, the Great Father is building his forts among us. His presence here is an insult and a threat. It is an insult to the spirits of our ancestors. Are we then to give up their sacred graves to be plowed for corn? Lakotas, I am for war!”

Two-spirit’s Prophecy

Less than seven days after that speech, Lakota forces with their Cheyenne and Arapaho allies faced Colonel Carrington at Fort Phil Kearny in the opening round of Red Cloud’s War. The inaugural fight would be the most catastrophic.

On the day before the battle, Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors gathered on the butte overlooking the anticipated fighting ground. Red Cloud arranged for a medicine man, the transgender (winkte) Pretty Dress, who possessed the spirit of both sexes. Pretty Dress had special powers and insights so well-known that battles were postponed due to his advice.

Red Cloud waved his arms. Pretty Dress rode blindfolded across the proposed battlefield in an erratic manner four times, each time scooping up “Bluecoats” in his hands while blowing a whistle. Three times he presented his holdings to the war party and three times he was refused for collecting an insufficient number of soldiers to fight.  Pretty Dress returned for the fourth time, dismounted, held up his fists, and shouted, “Answer me quickly. I have one hundred or more Bluecoats in my hands.” The assembled warriors cheered. The chiefs saw this as good medicine and the next morning decided it would be a good day to do battle.

The Battle of the Hundred-in-the-Hands was on.

(To be continued)

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