Author: David E. Knop

A Southern Californian writer with a true love for Native American and Southwestern culture.

The Nez Perce War (June – October 1877), Part 4

Background

After passing through Yellowstone National Park (see Part 3 of The Nez Perce War (June – October 1877)) the Nez Perce followed the Clark’s Fork of the Yellowstone Rivernorth out of Wyoming into Montana. Chief Joseph shepherded the tribe’s 700 women, children, belongings, guard and baggage dogs by the hundreds, and 2000 horses, most of them the tribe’s treasured Appaloosas.

During that September, the days were agreeable with highs in the 60s and nights chilly in the 40s. Sunrises and sunsets both glowed gold and orange on the high clouds of the Montana sky. But, these travelers were refugees and had no time to enjoy the beauty of the land – they were on the run.

Chief Joseph’s people were fleeing forced relocation from their Native lands on theWallowa Riverin northeast Oregon to a reservation in west-central Idaho far from home. By mid-September, the Nez Perce had trudged nearly one thousand miles and fought battles in which they defeated or stalemated U.S. Army forces that outnumbered and still pursued them.

The eyes-to-the-ground marchers walked in silence. Elders and children struggled at a grueling pace in a line two to three miles long. Even the dogs, wolf/malamute-like creatures carrying loads on their backs or pulling travois carrying household items, were quiet. Some limped on trail-ravaged paws.

Only the oldest and sickest rode among the herd that led the line. The horses plodded, heads low, snatching bites of prairie grass as they walked. The animals snorted and blew out while walking on stiff legs and bruised hooves. In their dulled eyes, the herders sensed their fatigue. The budding of the horses’ winter coats foreshadowed cold weather.

General Otis O. Howard had chased the Nez Perce unsuccessfully for three months and had reassigned the pursuit to Colonel Samuel D. Sturgis. Sturgis was miles (few knew how many) behind the Indians and closing. Sturgis had 360 men divided into two battalions, one commanded by Major Lewis Merrill and the second by Captain Frederick Benteen (a career officer, survivor of the Little Bighorn battle a year earlier, and later, convicted of drunkenness by a military tribunal). Howard reinforced Sturgis with fifty additional cavalrymen, two mountain howitzers, twenty-five white scouts, as well as Bannock and Crow scouts.

Nez Perce tactical leader, Chief Looking Glass, believed they would find asylum and safety among their friends, the Crow, who lived near the Yellowstone River. However, the Crow declined the request for fear of retribution by the Army. Moreover, a few Crow warriors joined Sturgis as scouts with an eye on the large Nez Perce horse herd. At this point, Looking Glass realized that their one hope for safety was to join the Lakota Sioux leader Sitting Bull (a refugee himself from the Little Bighorn battle) in Canada 250 miles to the north.

The Battle of Canyon Creek

The Yellowstone River, above and below the mouth of Clark’s Fork, is bounded on the north bank by cliffs 400 feet high. One passage through the cliffs is called Canyon Creek. Following the creek upstream through open country, about five miles from the Yellowstone River, the cliffs close in on either side and the creek splits into three forks, each running through a canyon only a few hundred feet wide. It was among these multiple canyons and the ridges overlooking them that the battle would take place.

Chief Joseph and his Warriors

The Nez Perce camped September 12 near the entrance to the narrow canyons of Canyon Creek. On the morning of September 13, many of the warriors were raiding ranches for supplies and horses up and down the Yellowstone River when they discovered Sturgis nearby.

Sturgis’ men were exhausted and saddle sore. They needed a rest after they crossed the Yellowstone River that day, but Crow scouts reported the Nez Perce were moving up Canyon Creek six miles away. Seeing an opportunity, Sturgis sent Major Merrill and his battalion ahead atop a long ridge to head off the tribe traversing the shallow canyon below. Benteen’s battalion followed, while Sturgis stationed himself with the rear guard.

Merrill was halted on the ridge by a scattering of rifle shots from Nez Perce warriors. In the words of his civilian scout, Stanton G. Fisher, Merrill’s battalion dismounted and deployed “instead of charging which they should have done.” Fisher was right. In battle, the first thing a soldier does is charge into the gunfire, not seek cover.

A single Nez Perce rifleman held up Benteen’s advance for ten minutes. The caution of the soldiers was perhaps due to the intimidating reputation of the Nez Perce for marksmanship. Gale-force winds impacted marksmanship, a factor explaining low casualties on both sides.

When Sturgis arrived at the battleground, he sent Benteen to the left to plug the exits from the canyon and trap the women, children, and horses. Merrill advanced into the canyon to threaten the rear of the Native column, but the Indians held the high ground. Their snipers, armed with captured Springfield Model 1873 rifles, halted his advance. Benteen also ran into opposition and was unable to capture the Indians’ horse herd. The rearguard of braves held off the soldiers until nightfall. Most of the horses, women, and children reached the plains and continued north. Scout Fisher, among others, was dismayed by Sturgis’ overly cautious management of the fight.

On September 14, Sturgis’ men were joined by a large number of Crow riding fresh horses. They rode ahead with the Bannock scouts, who succeeded in stealing about 400 of the Nez Perce herd. Sturgis and his cavalry followed behind and journeyed 37 miles that day, but at the cost of exhausting their horses and putting themselves on foot. The Crow and Bannock declined to share their captured, war-prize horses with the soldiers. After another long day of travel Sturgis was forced to halt on the banks of the Musselshell River to await supplies and General Howard who arrived two days later.

Sturgis’ suffered three killed and eleven wounded, one of them mortally. He claimed to have killed sixteen Nez Perce, but Yellow Wolf said that only one warrior and two old men were killed, and those by the Crow.

Winners Again: Running Out of Energy

Once again, the Nez Perce escaped from a cavalry force outnumbering them at least two to one. However, the loss of the horses to the Crow and Bannock was a blow and after three months on the run, the people and remaining horses had become physically exhausted.

Cow Creek

A garrison of twelve men under Sergeant William Molchert was deployed at the steam boat mooring at Cow Island Landing with four civilian freight clerks to guard the supplies. Fifty tons of freight lay under tarpaulins at the supply point awaiting shipment by wagon to Fort Benton and other corners of Montana Territory.

An advance party of twenty braves crossed the Missouri on September 23. The main body past the soldiers without incident and camped about two miles up Cow Creek. A small group of Nez Perce rode to the supply point. They asked for some of the stockpiled food. The sergeant’s reluctance reduced them to begging. Finally the sergeant gave them one bag of hardtack and one side of bacon. At sundown, gunfire broke out from Indians who had positioned themselves on higher ground and the soldiers were pinned down. Two civilians were wounded.

As night fell, the Indians filtered into the area where the food was stockpiled, broke into the supplies, took what they wanted, and set the piles of goods on fire. The supplies burned brightly for most of the night. The Indians and the soldiers exchanged sporadic gunfire through the night until about 10:00 in the morning, after which the Nez Perce moved up Cow Creek.

Elsewhere that morning, a small Army relief force under Major Guido Igles approached the rear of the Nez Perce assemblage on Cow Creek. Major Igles had come from Ft. Benton to the aid of the outpost at Cow Island Landing. He led a handful of soldiers and civilian volunteers. After reaching Cow Island on September 24, he continued on the trail of the Natives.

When they discovered Major Igles, some warriors went down the canyon to attack the wagon train. One teamster was killed, and the others fled. The main body of the tribe helped themselves to goods in the wagons, set eighty-five tons of supplies on fire, and continued up Cow Creek.

Meanwhile, Nez Perce snipers had taken up positions on heights facing Major Igles’ small force in Cow Creek Canyon and fired into his position. Knowing he was greatly outnumbered, Igles withdrew to Cow Island Landing, then sent couriers reporting the enemy location to Colonel Miles who was advancing with fresh troops. Two Indians were wounded in the encounter. Five soldiers and one civilian were killed, and one was wounded.

The Nez Perce then proceeded upstream along Cow Creek the next morning toward the Canada–U.S. border. The Nez Perce encountered a wagon train with more supplies, which they looted and burned. Igles sent a message informing Colonel Miles of the location of the Native forces.

The tribe had thwarted an effort by fifty soldiers and civilian volunteers under Igles to pursue them. In their raids around Cow Creek, the Nez Perce killed five men and stole or destroyed at least eighty-five tons of military supplies. Although they gained necessary food and ammunition, Looking Glass had lost a day of travel and allowed Miles to close within striking distance.

Oh Canada! Eighty Miles to Go and It’s Falling Apart

The Nez Perce never had unified leadership during their long fighting retreat: Looking Glass was the senior military leader and strategist. The French-Nez Perce mixed-blood guide Poker Joe had become prominent as an interpreter during the march. Chief Joseph was responsible for camp management and, thus, for the welfare of his people. While camping on the evening of September 24, dissension broke out among the three leaders.

With the forces of General Howard far behind the Natives after the Canyon Creek fight, Looking Glass advocated a slower pace to allow his travel-weary people and their horses an opportunity to rest. Poker Joe argued for the opposite. The disagreement came to a head at a council on September 24. Poker Joe finally yielded to Looking Glass and said, “Looking Glass, you can lead. I am trying to save the people, doing my best to cross into Canada before the soldiers find us. You can take command, but I think we will be caught and killed.”

Looking Glass assumed command of the march and moved toward Canada in slow stages for the next four days under the assumption they had time to rest and hunt. Scouts kept a close eye on Howard to the south. This proved to be a fatal mistake: they had overlooked Miles closing fast from the southeast.

Battle of Bear Paw

By September 29, the tribe camped by Snake Creek in crude lodges and lean-tos, warmed only by blankets and fire pits burning bison dung because they had lost their shelters during the months of fighting.

Bear Paw Camp Ground

The next morning, the Natives broke camp to head north. A rider pulled his horse to a halt on the south bluff waving a blanket to warn everyone that soldiers would be upon them in moments. Miles had found them after marching 260 miles in nine days.

Some Indians tried to escape. Warriors rushed to the bluffs above the camp to defend it. Others ran into camp to aid with the defense. The families trapped in camp sought shelter. The horses, trained to stand by the comfort of their riders during a firefight, stampeded at the sudden sound of gunfire.

The 2nd Cavalry hit the horse herd to the west of camp and in a five mile running battle captured most of the horses. The 7th Cavalry charged directly towards the bluffs above the camp; warriors rose up from just below the edge of the bluff and stopped the charge cold. Soldiers and warriors locked in close combat. The 5th Infantry secured the southern bluff, but the warriors kept the soldiers away from the camp and their families. Twenty-six warriors died the first day including Joseph’s younger brother, as did Chief Lean Elk.

As a freezing night fell, both sides found themselves in a stalemate. The tribe could not escape without their horses and the soldiers could not dislodge them from their camp. The troops dug in while the entrapped Indians used digging sticks, knives, and captured Army tools to dig shelter pits.

The dawn of October 1 brought fresh snow on the ground and ice in water buckets. That day under a white flag, Chief Joseph met with Miles and both sides ventured forth to gather frozen dead and wounded. At the end of the meeting, Joseph turned to leave. He was called back by Miles and was placed in chains. The Natives then captured a Lieutenant Jerome, who was very close to their camp on reconnaissance. By his own account, he was given food, blanket, shelter, and allowed to move freely about the Nez Perce camp while retaining his pistol. The prisoners were exchanged, and both returned to their home camps on October 2.

The same day, a military supply train arrived with a 12-pound Napoleon cannon. The camp was bombarded with cannon fire all day. The next day, Chief Looking Glass was killed by a sniper’s bullet to the forehead.

On October 4, General Howard arrived with a small group. On the morning of October 5, the two remaining hereditary leaders, Chiefs White Bird and Joseph, met two Nez Perce men from the bands honoring the same treaty that started the tribe’s exodus. They tried to convince Joseph to stop fighting. Joseph and White Bird were told they would be returned to Idaho, the leaders would not be killed, and that the Army wanted to quit fighting.

Joseph returned to camp to tell the people that they could be saved by ending the fighting and that decision was up to each individual. Exhausted and hungry, Chief Joseph feared for the safety of his people and knew they could no longer resist.  Choices were few and none were favorable. “Can we continue the fight?” he asked. “The supply of soldiers is endless. Should we try to escape on foot under cover of darkness through the lands of traditional enemies? Not everyone will make this trip. Many are too weak. Who will care for the elders, children, and wounded? Will we be able to bury the dead? Will we be allowed to go home?”

One hundred fifty of Joseph’s followers had been killed or wounded. With a heart numb from regret and as cold as that October day, he appeared at 2 P.M before Colonel Miles, handed over his rifle, and gave his now famous speech:

“I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who say Yes or No. He who led the young men is dead. It is cold, and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are, perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs. I am tired. My heart is sick and sad.

From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

Afterwards, the Nez Perce handed their weapons over to Miles and negotiated peace.

White Bird mistrusted the Army’s promises and refused to surrender. A group of thirty to fifty Nez Perce left with White Bird that night; the last of between 200 and 300 people who actually made it to Canada. All told, over 400 people agreed to quit fighting and turn themselves over to Miles. The 126-day epic and tragic flight was over.

Victors No Longer

Miles told Joseph: “Which is the place that you love to stay in? I want you to tell me, as I have the power to remove these white people, and let you live there.” Miles also promised: “I will give half of the weapons back to you after a while.” He was overruled by Army headquarters in Omaha, and the Nez Perce were instead sent to Kansas and Oklahoma, where the survivors endured many more years of hardship. It was not until the mid 1880s that the Nez Perce were allowed to return to their homelands.

The Press

The Nez Perce campaign was affected by inflammatory articles released by the press. When gold was discovered on Nez Perce land, New York and Chicago press of the day encouraged the settlers to take land from the Native Americans regardless of whether it was against previously established treaties.

The media also helped to tarnish the reputation of the tribe despite the fact they maintained good relations with white settlers for longer than most tribes. Historically, they were favored above many other tribes by Lewis and Clark. As the war continued the media pushed to have General Howard replaced, saying he was too slow or old to catch the hostiles. In response, the government sent Colonel Miles to assist Howard in the chase. Howard assigned Miles the honor of conducting the surrender of the non-treaty Indians. Miles went to the press and tried to take all the credit for the successful surrender.

Legacy

Throughout the summer and early fall of 1877, the fighting skill of the warriors and the military tactics of the leaders, such as Chief Looking Glass and Chief White Bird, enabled them to evade almost certain defeat by superior forces. Nez Perce strength during the 1877 war was estimated to be never more than two hundred warriors. They had no formal military training and traveled with many noncombatants. The Army, however, would use several thousand soldiers during the campaign. These units were commanded by veterans of the Civil War with years of military training and experience.

Route of the Nez Perce

Aftermath

In 1879, Chief Joseph went to Washington, D.C. to see President Rutherford B. Hayes and plead his people’s case. Although Joseph was respected as a spokesman, opposition in Idaho prevented the U.S. government from granting his petition to return to the Pacific Northwest. Finally, in 1885, Chief Joseph and his followers were granted permission to return to settle on the reservation around Kooskia, Idaho. Instead, Joseph and others were taken to the Colville Indian Reservation far from both their homeland in the Wallowa Valley and the rest of their people in Idaho.

Chief Joseph by Edward Curtis

In his last years, Joseph spoke eloquently against the injustice of United States policy toward his people and held out the hope that America’s promise of freedom and equality might one day be fulfilled for Native Americans as well. In 1897, he visited Washington, D.C. again to plead his case. He rode with Buffalo Bill in a parade honoring former President Ulysses S. Grant in New York City, but people paid more attention to his traditional headdress than his mission. Everywhere he went he pled for his people to be returned to their home in the Wallowa Valley.

Joseph’s health and his spirits slowly declined. On September 21, 1904, as he lay dying of an un-diagnosed illness, he asked his wife to get his headdress because “I wish to die as a chief.” Soon after, Chief Joseph’s long journey was over.

Chief Joseph’s Grave Site

His name lives on in the Chief Joseph Dam on the Columbia River, Chief Joseph Pass in Montana, and the Chief Joseph Scenic Byway in Wyoming. Most poignantly, it lives on in the places he loved best: Joseph Creek, Joseph Canyon and the small town of Joseph, Oregon, in the heart of the Wallowa Valley.

Yet his tomb, marked by a tall white monument, remains in Nespelem, Washington, not far from where he died. He never achieved his dream to be buried in the land he loved.


Today

The Nez Perce Tribe of Idaho governs their reservation in central eastern Idaho through a central government headquartered in Lapwai known as the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee (NPTEC). Some still speak their traditional language, and the tribe owns and operates two casinos along Idaho’s Clearwater River, as well as health clinics, a police force and court, community centers, salmon fisheries, a radio station, and other enterprises that promote economic and cultural self-determination of the tribe.

The 1877 route used by the tribe, starting at Wallowa Lake and ending in the Bear Paw Mountains 40 miles from the Canadian border, is now designated the Nez Perce National Historic Trail.

Going Home

On October 18, 2020, The Spokesman – Review of Spokane, Washington, ran the following article:

Nez Perce Returning to Wallowa Valley Tribe Will Convert Cattle Ranch into Habitat for Elk, Salmon

The Nez Perce Tribe is returning to northeastern Oregon’s Wallowa Valley, where it will convert a former cattle ranch into habitat for the elk, salmon, Native grasses, roots and berries that once sustained Native culture in the area.

“It is again a homecoming – a return to an area we’ve always been,” said Jaime A. Pinkham, treasurer of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee.

The $2.5 million purchase of the 10,300-acre ranch was made possible by the Trust for Public Lands, which took an option on the property when it came on the market two years ago. The national organization buys land to sell to governments and public agencies in order to preserve natural resources such as fish and wildlife, and to protect areas with scenic and historical importance.

The Bonneville Power Administration provided funds for the purchase as part of its compensation to the tribe for wildlife habitat lost when the four lower Snake River hydro-power dams were built.

The BPA also is providing $2 million to purchase another 6,200 acres, as well as funds to develop an inventory and management plan for the $4.5 million project, said Keith Lawrence, director of the Nez Perce Tribe’s wildlife program.

Perhaps, after 143 years, the Nez Perce will indeed, come home.

For more information on the flight of the Nez Perce, see Parts 1 through 3 at davideknopbooks.com/

The Lost Mandan War Party

This is another in a series of blogs that highlight battles where the Indians won. In this case, the battle was fought Native against Native. Few know what happened that day.

The Setup

The published journals (1834-1839) of trader Francis A. Chardon, an employee of the American Fur Company at Fort Clark, just off US Route 90 near Brackettville in southwest Texas, chronicled the repeated hit-and-run raids of the Lakota Sioux against Mandan (Miiti Naamni) and Hidatsa (Awadi Aguraawi) Indians. Traditionally, both tribes occupied territory following the Missouri River basin extending from present day North Dakota through western Montana and Wyoming.

The Combatants

The Mandan

The Mandan, were Plains Indians who traditionally lived in semipermanent villages along the Missouri River in what is now North Dakota. They spoke a Siouan language.

Mandan Village by George Catlin

As an aside, 18th-century reports about characteristics of Mandan lodges, religion and occasional physical features among tribal members, such as blue and grey eyes along with lighter hair coloring, stirred speculation about the possibility of pre-Columbian European contact. The artist George Catlin believed the Mandan were the “Welsh Indians” of folklore, descendants of Prince Madoc and his followers who emigrated to America from Wales in about 1170. This view was popular at the time but most historians now disagree.

In the 19th century the Mandan lived in dome-shaped earth lodges clustered in stockaded villages; their economy centered on raising corn (maize), beans, pumpkins, sunflowers, tobacco and on hunting buffalo, fishing, and trading with nomadic Plains tribes. The Mandan also made a variety of utilitarian and decorative items, including pottery, baskets, and painted buffalo robes depicting the heroic deeds of the tribe or of individuals. At this time Mandan culture was one of the richest of the Plains; the tribe hosted many prominent European and American travelers, including American explorers Lewis and Clark, Prussian scientist Prince Maximillian, and artists Karl Bodmer and George Catlin.

Mandan Braves by Karl Bodmer

Traditional Mandan villages consisted of twelve to 100 or more earth lodges. Each village generally had three chiefs: one for war, one for peace, and one as the day-to-day village leader.

In 1750 there were nine large Mandan villages, but recurrent epidemics of smallpox, pertussis (whooping cough), and other diseases introduced through colonization reduced the tribe to two villages by 1800.

The Hidatsa

The Hidatsa originally lived in the Devil’s Lake region of North Dakota, before being pushed southwestward by the Lakota. As they migrated west, the Hidatsa came across the Mandan at the mouth of the Heart River. The two groups formed an alliance and settled into an agreeable division of territory along the area’s rivers.

Hidatsa Dog Soldier by Karl Bodmer

The Hidatsa played a central role in the Great Plains Indian trading networks based on an advantageous geographical position combined with a surplus from agriculture and crafts.

In 1800, a group of Hidatsa abducted Sacagawea in a battle against the Shoshone. She was taken as a captive to a Hidatsa village near present-day Washburn, North Dakota. In 1804, Lewis and Clark came to the Hidatsa in their three villages at the mouth of the Knife River, and the Mandan in two villages two miles down on the Missouri River. Sacagawea was hired as a guide by Lewis and Clark and on several occasions saved the expedition from ruin.

The Lakota (Sioux)

In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the Lakota Sioux lived in present-day Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and the Dakotas, then moved to the upper Missouri River about the time the horse was reintroduced to the Great Plains, in this case about 1730.

From then on, Lakota society centered on the buffalo hunt on horseback. However, the large and powerful Mandan, and Hidatsa villages (along with the allied Arikara) prevented the Lakota from crossing the Missouri to buffalo hunting grounds.

Lakota Sioux War Party

Tit for Tat

By 1750, the tribe grew to become the principle military power of the Northern Plains. For that reason, the Lakota had made it a policy to drive out the Mandan and Hidatsa from their homelands in a long-term effort to eliminate competition for food and trade by all neighboring tribes and to gain control of the upper Missouri River. Hit-and-run raids were frequent and brutal to the point the Mandan and the Hidatsa rarely left their fortified mud-domed homes to hunt or to tend their crops.

In 1790, a Lakota attack on the village of Big Hidatsa, near today’s Stanton, North Dakota, went wrong. The Hidatsa killed 100 or more retreating Sioux in a counterattack. Hostilities continued as the Lakota grew in influence and population. Over a five-year period, Chardon’s journal reports nearly seventy Mandan and Hidatsa were killed in Lakota raids. Mandan war parties struck back and destroyed fifty teepees in the winter of 1835 – 36. In response, Lakota depredations increased until, under pressure of a virtual siege, the Mandan and Hidatsa struck again.

Payback Backfires

Chief Wounded Face led a combined party of twenty-eight composed of Mandan and Hidatsa braves out to the Great Plains in search of retribution, in late May 1836.

Most of the evidence concerning the fate of the war party is second-hand, but from existing documents written by persons who knew Sioux participants, we can get an idea of what happened.

On 31 May 1836, Mandan braves, accompanied by some Hidatsa warriors, left their homes near present-day Stanton, southeastern North Dakota, and travelled nearly 240 miles northwesterly. In June, they met a war party of an unknown number of Lakota Sioux led by Chief Wa-Na-Tah (Waneta) at the elbow of the Sheyenne River, near what is now Lisbon in central North Dakota.

The Sheyenne River is a slow-moving tributary of the Red River of the North. The area around the hook of the river where the battle took place is relatively flat. Here ambush would have been unlikely due to the long distance lines of sight, so let’s assume a full-on frontal battle. Chances are good that day in May was sunny and temperature was in the high seventies with a slight wind.

Without witnesses and little documentation, one can only imagine how the fight went down. Maybe it played out something like this:

The Fight

Indians were protective of their hunting grounds, so Lakota scouts hiding in the spare North Dakota grass lands most likely spotted the Mandan war party in their territory. They sent word back to the main camp and the Lakota warriors grabbed their clubs and bows and mounted up. Some of them may have taken time to paint their faces and war horses. The Sioux favored quick hits in broad daylight. They also favored overwhelming force and probably sent a number of much greater size than the 28-man Mandan/Hidatsa force.

Indian Fight by C. M. Russell

Lakota Chief Wa-Na-Tah had briefed his braves on the ultimate goals of the coming conflict and a general idea of what to do, but once his men hit the field, it was every warrior for himself. Wa-Na-Tah’s second concern would have been to limit casualties of his own men. The low number of Lakota lost is testimony to this. At the same time, there was no shame in retreating to fight another day. The only shame for a Lakota was in surrender.

Warriors rode into battle on their best ponies motivated by the chance to earn bragging rights, feathers, praise, horses, and captives. The ultimate act of bravery was to get close enough to touch an enemy with a coup stick without being harmed. A warrior’s status mattered, and competition to count the greatest coup was intense. Touching the first enemy to die in battle also counted as coup.

Imagine that the Lakota charged the Mandan at first sight. There were no preliminary warnings, just a hoard of horses trained for battle with legs stretched to the limit on a dead run. Understand that decades of war had embedded in each brave a burning hatred that resounded in high-pitched ululations amplified by the pounding of hoofs. Picture the feathered bonnets laid back from the wind across the running horses. Envision the hail storm of arrows from the mounted archers. Visualize the weapons of war held high: antler clubs, stone axes, and flint knives. Every warrior intended to obliterate everything in his path.

The Mandan, for their part, charged as soon as they saw the Lakota. Imagine the fear and resignation of the men when they realized they faced a much larger force. Still, they closed at the run. The screams of horses and the bellows of combatants accompanied the collision of animals and men. No warrior would run away, that day.

Native warfare was absolute. The role of the warrior was to fight. The role of the enemy was to die. Dismounted, Lakota used clubs to smash skulls, axes to sever arms, knives to slit throats. Shrieks of the dying mingled with the triumphant shouts of the coup takers. The fighting continued until there was no one left to die.

Aftermath

All Mandan and Hidatsa braves were killed and scalped. The bodies of the Manda and Hidatsa were abandoned where they died, the defeated unworthy of burial. Nine dead Lakota were taken home for the mourning ceremony and burial above ground on scaffolds.

Chief Wa-Na-tah (Waneta)

Weeks after the battle, Wa-Na-Tah bragged that all twenty-eight scalps were suspended in Sioux camps. Rumors spread that two Mandan escaped from the slaughter, but those men, if they existed at all, were never seen again. (One Lakota brave, in love with a Mandan girl, fought alongside the Mandan. The Sioux did not scalp his corpse out of deference to their own, but they did not take his body home.)

By July 20, in an era where news travelled slowly, the Mandan war party was reported missing and given up for dead after sixty days absent. On September 13, news via a trader confirmed that the war party was lost with all dead. A ceremony was held. Mourners showed their grief by wailing and cutting themselves.

The loss of twenty-eight men was a disaster for the Mandan who were to suffer an even greater loss through repeated small pox epidemics. The last was the worst.

A year later, on June 18, 1837, the steamboat St. Peters approached Fort Clark. In addition to supplies, the sternwheeler brought the two-year-old son of Fort Clark’s superintendent, Francis Chardon. Chardon met the boat some 30 miles downstream and removed his son from the boat after hearing that people on the boat were infected with smallpox.

When the steamboat landed at Fort Clark, people came and went from the boat to the fort and the villages. Workers from the boat and the post unloaded goods and loaded bales of furs. All of the activity took place in less than 24 hours amid singing, dancing, and celebration.

There were approximately 1,600 Mandan living in two villages at that time. The disease killed 90% of the Mandan people including Chief Four Bears. Estimates of the number of survivors vary between 27 to 150 persons.

Chief Four Bears by George Catlin

The survivors banded together with the surviving Hidatsa in 1845 and moved upriver, where they established Like-a-Fishhook Village next to Fort Berthold in North Dakota. Today, the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, also known as the Three Affiliated Tribes, are located on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in central North Dakota near New Town.

The Battle of Hundred-in-the-Hands (Fetterman Fight) Part 3

Fetterman Fight: The Last Minutes

Summary of Parts 1 and 2

From 1864 to 1866, 3,500 miners, settlers and others traversed the Bozeman Trail that connected Montana gold rush territory to the Oregon Trail through Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho hunting grounds. The trespassing persisted despite warnings by the tribes to turn back. Native allies reacted with violence.

Raids and skirmishes by the Lakota continued until June 1866 when the U. S. Interior Department called on Lakota leaders, including Chief Red Cloud, to meet at Fort Laramie for a treaty that would ensure security of passage on the Bozeman Trail.

Incursions into Lakota territory continued during the negotiations. Enraged, Red Cloud accused the U.S. of bad faith, refused to sign the treaty, and developed plans to eject all intruders by force.

On December 21, 1866, Lakota forces and their allies faced Colonel Henry B. Carrington at Fort Phil Kearny (in northeast Wyoming near present-day Banner) in the opening round of what became known as Red Cloud’s War (1866 – 1868).

Struck by the foolish impulsiveness of soldiers, Crazy Horse devised a ruse to draw them out of the fort by dismounting from his horse and fleeing as if he were defenseless. Then, troops would be drawn into an ambush where nearly every well-known chief of the seven Lakota bands hid and waited with two thousand fighters.

On a cold and snow-covered December day, Crazy Horse charged into view of the fort with ten mounted Lakota and Cheyenne warriors and attacked the wood cutters. When Carrington fired artillery at them, the decoys ran away as if frightened. Per Crazy Horse’s plan, Captain Fetterman followed with infantry and Captain Grummond followed with mounted troops.

Grummond raced downhill after Crazy Horse’s decoys one mile north to Piney Creek and straight into an ambush. Shocked by the sudden appearance of hundreds of warriors, Fetterman’s command was splintered into three separate positions, each cut off, surrounded, outnumbered, and under a hail of arrows. Grummond died in a desperate attempt to rejoin Fetterman uphill on Lodge Trail Ridge. Only twelve of Grummond’s men under Captain Fred Brown made it.

See Parts 1 and 2 for greater detail.

Fight at Fetterman Rocks

Fetterman’s Rock Fight

With the springing of the trap, Cheyenne and Arapaho forces under Little Horse, a Cheyenne brave, pushed Fetterman’s troops to the only natural protection on the bare ridge. As arrows rained down, a dozen mounted survivors under Captain Brown joined Fetterman after scrambling up the hill from Grummond’s skirmish, bringing the total to forty-nine soldiers.

The Indians moved so close to the grouped troopers they killed them by pistol fire, club, and knife. Weapons fire at the soldiers was so intense that several Native horsemen were wounded by their own friendly fire. Warriors swept in and out of the troops ranks at will, until the braves finally moved in and ended the soldiers’ lives in hand-to-hand combat. Not a single soldier survived.

From ambush to the death of the last man, the fight had lasted forty minutes.

In retaliation for atrocities perpetrated upon Arapaho and Cheyenne families in the Sand Creek Massacre two years earlier, the dead soldiers were stripped and mutilated. Ears, noses, fingers, hands and other body parts were severed. Eyes were gouged out, brains bashed out and entrails torn from the bodies and placed on rocks. The Indians made sure that these enemy soldiers would remain helpless in the spirit world. One of the soldiers had brought his dog. As the pet ran howling toward Fort Phil Kearny, a warrior killed the animal with an arrow.

Forty thousand arrows had been discharged from both sides of the trap by as many as 2,000 warriors. In all, eighty-one soldiers died. Less than one hundred Native warriors were wounded and between thirteen and sixty died. Native forces did not spend a lot of time in the area because the relief force under Captain Ten Eyck had appeared. When taunts did not lure the soldiers to the battle site, the Indians returned to their encampment. Carrington’s relief party reinforced Ten Eyck in retrieving the dead soldiers.

Second Guessing

Analyst Richard J. Fox. Jr asserted that the destruction of the Fetterman infantry position was an example of tactical disintegration, the crowding and bunching of soldiers due to fear and stress. Support for this conclusion came from Congressional investigator John B. Sanborn’s report of July 1867 who described the bodies found at the Fetterman Rocks position as lying in a space thirty-five feet in diameter.

Fort Phil Kearny physician Dr. Hines suggests that Captain Fetterman held his men together in relatively good order at least for the first few minutes, but they were bunched too close together by the constraints of the narrow ridgeline they occupied. Eyewitness accounts like those of White Bull suggested that Fetterman’s actions were not rash. Soldiers did not flee the field in panic but fought bravely. In the end, tactics or individual actions didn’t matter, Army forces were outnumbered and overwhelmed.

The Aftermath

Captain Ten Eyck was able to bring back about half of the bodies of the fallen soldiers on the day of the battle. The next day, under dark clouds portending the blizzard that would isolate the fort for several weeks, Carrington and a small group of volunteers went to the field and brought back the remaining frozen corpses to prepare for burial.

Samuel M. Horton, chief surgeon at Fort Phil Kearny, examined the bodies. He concluded that no more than six soldiers died from gunshot wounds. All the rest were either killed by arrows or died from warclub or knife wounds during close combat. When Horton testified before the Sanborn Commission, he reported a bullet hole in Captain Brown’s left temple. He also reported that Captain Fetterman’s thorax had been cut crosswise with a knife and his throat cut to the cervical spine. In 1906, Lakota Chief American Horse told historian Eli S. Ricker that he ran his horse at full speed into Fetterman knocking him down, then finished him off with his knife.

The Army sought to diffuse blame for the debacle. Fingers pointed to Colonel Carrington who was accused of everything from cowardice to incompetence as the War Department sought to paint the fiasco as a problem of local, rather than national, command.

Carrington attributed the loss of life to Fetterman. General Phillip St. George Cooke, headquartered in Omaha, censured and relieved Carrington of his command five days after the battle. In turn, the head of the U.S. Army, General Ulysses S. Grant, held Cooke, territorial commander, responsible for the stunning defeat and removed him from his post.

The Army demanded revenge while Congress favored less draconian responses. Ordered to pacify the Natives, Major General Grenville Dodge asked General William Tecumseh Sherman for ten thousand troops. General Sherman, best known for his winter of 1864, scorched-earth March to the Sea during the Civil War, declined on the grounds he doubted the advisability of continued westward expansion, a radical departure from American decades-long policy. Contrarily, the historical record confirms that Americans were intent on moving westward by the millions and nothing would, or could, stop them.

President Andrew Johnson appointed high-powered special commissions to investigate and fix blame for the debacle. The Sanborn Commission’s findings were damning: the long litany of violence on the plains was traced in every instance to White hands, both military and civilian, and recommended military action against the Indians be terminated. A military commission attributed the continuing violence to provocative U. S. military deeds and found that Native Americans had due cause for their violent resistance to American expansion.

Indian attacks continued, and it became clear the Army was outnumbered and tactically outclassed. Under the federal leaderships’ political bickering and inaction, travel on the Bozeman Trail ceased and further attempts at peace talks failed. Hostilities persisted until the Army settled affairs the following year by signing the Treaty of Fort Laramie with Red Cloud in November of 1868.

Victory

The Battle of Hundred-in-the-Hands was a tactical masterpiece. Because of it, Red Cloud and his allies ultimately gained control of the western Powder River country (present day north-central Wyoming), including the Black Hills, demolished the forts, and permanently closed the Bozeman trail. The treaty specified what Red Cloud had sought: “no white person or persons shall be permitted to settle upon or occupy any portion of the Powder River country or without the consent of the Indians, first, to pass through it.”

Aftershocks

Americans paid a price for the land grab. Casualties during Red cloud’s war totaled two hundred. Native American deaths were estimated at less than sixty warriors.

The battle was not immune to the tendency to sensationalize horrific events. Newspaper stories of the day blamed Carrington for the Fetterman disaster. Carrington held Fetterman responsible. Early accounts, some written by wives of those killed, defended their loved ones with arguments blaming Carrington. Many contemporary historical accounts failed to interview Indian survivors and were thusly colored by ethnic bias. And finally, the conflict was overshadowed by the Army’s most famous blunder, the Battle of the Little Bighorn in June 1876. Today, the Fetterman Fight still remains relatively unknown to the public:

An inquiry absolved Carrington of blame, but the report was not made public. Colonel Carrington would spend the rest of his life attempting to repair his tarnished reputation as a soldier. He briefly returned to the West in 1908 to speak at the Fetterman massacre site memorial. Carrington married his second wife, Lt. Grummond’s widow Francis, in 1871. He died in Boston in October 1912.

There are no accounts of Crazy Horse’s role in the Fetterman Fight after triggering the ambush, but he led warriors in the Battle of the Rosebud (June1876) and the Battle of the Little Big Horn (June 1876) but was never wounded in combat. He surrendered at the Red Cloud Agency near Fort Robinson, Nebraska, on May 5, 1877. For the next four months, Crazy Horse resided in his village near the Red Cloud agency, but rumors of his desire to slip away and return to the old ways of life started to spread. In August 1877, officers at Camp Robinson received word that the Nez Perce had broken out of their reservation in Idaho. When asked by Lieutenant Clark to join the Army against the Nez Perce, Crazy Horse objected at first, saying he had promised to remain at peace, but finally agreed, saying that he would fight “till all the Nez Perce were killed.” His interpreter misconstrued his words as “go north and fight until not a white man is left.”

With trouble growing at the Red Cloud Agency, General George Crook ordered a council of the Lakota leadership. The meeting was canceled when Crook was incorrectly informed that Crazy Horse had said the previous evening that he intended to kill the general during the proceedings. Crook ordered Crazy Horse arrested.

Crazy Horse resisted when shown to the camp jail and was stabbed by a guard’s bayonet on September 5, 1877. He died in the company of his cousin, Touch the Clouds.

Red Cloud’s victory endured until 1876 when the U.S. started to take Native territories again, including the sacred Black Hills. Red Cloud continued fighting for his people, even after being forced onto the reservation. Outliving all the other major Lakota leaders of the Indian Wars, Red Cloud died on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1909 at the age of eighty-seven and was buried in the cemetery that bears his name.

Today

Sections of the Bozeman Trail are still visible, and many monuments have been constructed to identify its historical alignment and location. A reproduction of Fort Phil Kearney still exists, along with a gift and information shop.

A stone monument stands on the site of Fetterman’s rocks.

Monument at Fetterman’s Rocks

Crazy Horse’s image (there are no authenticated photographs of the man) is being memorialized in the world’s largest sculpture at 563 feet high and 641 feet long. Begun in 1948 the monument is not finished after seventy-two years. The memory of his bravery and the injustice it signifies still lingers on the reservation today.

The Fort Laramie Treaty formed the basis of the 1980 Supreme Court case (United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians, 448 U.S. 371) in which the court ruled that tribal lands covered under the treaty had been taken illegally by the U.S. government, and the tribe was owed compensation plus interest.  The Sioux have declined to accept the money, because acceptance would legally terminate Sioux demands for return of the Black Hills. The money remains in a Bureau of Indian Affairs account accruing compound interest. The Sioux’s award plus interest was equivalent to $1.48 billion in 2019.

Assault on Sioux lands continues. In 2016, several tribes, including the Standing Rock Sioux and Cheyenne River Sioux, challenged the Dakota Access pipeline claiming the project would damage their environment and cultural sites. The $3.8 billion pipeline, which opened in 2017, carries half a million barrels of crude oil a day from North Dakota’s Bakken shale basin 1,100 miles to Illinois. In July 2020, a federal judge ruled the Dakota Access pipeline must be shut down by August 5, saying federal officials failed to carry out a complete analysis of its environmental impacts. The closing of the pipeline is not certain and remains under litigation.

The Sioux are fighters and survivors. Danielle Ta’Sheena Finn, a spokeswoman for the Standing Rock Sioux, has said, “We will fight this pipeline to the end.”

Judging from their history, they will.

The Nez Perce War, Part 3: Native America’s Most Epic Run For Freedom

In 1876, after a series of battles suppressing Native resistance to incursions of its citizens, the U.S. government demanded the Nez Perce move to a much smaller reservation to make room for the new immigrants. Under pressure to move, the tribe split into two groups: one side accepted the relocation, the other, Chief Joseph’s band, refused to give up their fertile land in Idaho and Oregon. Bowing to the inevitable, they started on a journey that has become a classic example of persistence against overwhelming odds.

Chief Joseph and his band’s flight to freedom began The Nez Perce War of 1877. On June 15, Chief Joseph, Looking Glass (eventually), and others led men, women, children, and livestock on an epic trek to reach sanctuary in Canada. Confrontations with army troops along the way are detailed in Parts 1 and 2 previously published on this blog.

Into the Yellowstone

Colonel Sturgis

On the evening of August 20, the Nez Perce headed east into Yellowstone National Park near the present-day west entrance. General Oliver O. Howard’s command did not immediately pursue the Nez Perce into the park, electing to regroup in the vicinity of Henry’s Lake. While Howard rested, his superior, General William Tecumseh Sherman laid a trap for the Nez Perce by effectively surrounding the park. Lieutenant Gustavus Doan and about one hundred men plus Crow scouts guarded the north entrance of Yellowstone Park at Mammoth Hot Springs. Colonel Samuel D. Sturgis with 360 men guarded Clark’s fork on the east. Major Hart with 250 cavalry and one hundred Indian scouts staked out the Shoshone River exit also on the east. To the south, Colonel Wesley Merritt with 500 men was positioned on the Wind River. To the North at Fort Keogh in Montana, Colonel Nelson Miles waited in reserve. Over twelve hundred troops and several hundred Indian scouts awaited the Nez Perce band which never exceeded two hundred warriors.

Poker Joe, half White and fluent in English, guided the Nez Perce through Yellowstone. Against two thousand soldiers plus hundreds of Indian scouts, the Nez Perce fighting men numbered fewer than two hundred. Their collective leadership was drawn from each of the five tribal bands of the refugees. At this point, Chief Looking Glass was probably the most influential war leader. Although Chief Joseph is credited with being the overall leader of the Nez Perce, his role at this point was more focused on the management of the camp of women and children than fighting.

Looking Glass

Hostile Encounters

Eight or nine tourist parties totaling at least thirty-five persons occupied the park, plus several groups of prospectors were in the park when the Nez Perce entered Yellowstone. Nine tourists from Radersburg, Montana, were camped in the park on August 23. A second group of young men, the Helena party, camped near Yellowstone Falls. On the Yellowstone River, guide “Texas Jack” led a small party of English tourists. Two of these parties would experience hostile encounters with elements of the Nez Perce.

The Radersburg Party

In the late afternoon of August 23, a small scouting party led by Yellow Wolf captured prospector John Shively and forced him to act as a guide for the Nez Perce through Yellowstone. On the morning of August 24, Yellow Wolf’s scouting party rode into the Radersburg party camp and forced the group to accompany them to the main Nez Perce camp. Poker Joe convinced the Nez Perce chiefs to release the hostages on the condition they abandon all their supplies and horses to the Nez Perce. About 30 minutes after release, the party encountered another group of Nez Perce stragglers who demanded they return into custody of the chiefs. Shooting erupted: two were shot and others scattered into the forest except for three who were returned to the Nez Perce camp and were given the protection of Chief Joseph.

On August 25, late afternoon, the Natives crossed the Yellowstone near Mud Volcano at what has become known as Nez Perce Ford. That evening, the tribe released three hostages who then safely made their way north where they found protection from Lt. Doane’s cavalry. Two men remained in custody as forced guides. On August 30, Howard’s forces recovered the two guides alive, but in poor condition. Over the next couple of days, stragglers from the Radersburg party made their way out of the park into the safety of General Howard’s forces at Henrys Lake.

The Helena Party

The Helena party’s location was disclosed to Looking Glass. At dawn on August 26, the Nez Perce raided the camp, shot one tourist dead, then wounded and captured another. Uninjured members of the party fled into the forest. The captured tourist bribed his release with money and a silver watch and made his way north out of the park. On August 27, the main Nez Perce force moved farther east from the tourists and the army. By the end of the day, all but two tourists were accounted for. Two men went to find them. At Mammoth Hot Springs, the Indians chased them into the forest where they successfully evaded capture.

On the morning of August 31, the tribe attacked the Henderson Ranch, a homestead a mile north of the park. The owner and his employees abandoned the ranch for the safety of the river while the Nez Perce sacked and burned the buildings. Lt. Doane drove the warriors back into the park who then found and killed four men.

The Escape

Looking Glass led his column east and reached the Continental Divide on the evening of September 5. The next morning, men, women, children, dogs and horses headed northeast toward the Great Plains.

Sherman’s trap was set, but, Looking Glass was about to outfox both Howard and Sturgis.

The Trap

To prevent any intelligence of their location getting to the army during their difficult passage down from the summit of the Absaroka Mountains, the Natives hunted down and killed ten prospectors and hunters they encountered to ensure the the tribe’s secure passage.

Sturgis had planned for Nez Perce trickery and set up his base on the Plains from where he could view and move quickly toward either the Shoshone River or Clark’s Fork River. Still, Sturgis discounted Clark’s Fork as an escape route because of its deep, narrow gorge with 800 feet vertical walls, stating “no trail could possibly lead through it.”

Clark’s Fork River

On September 6, the tribe descended via that very same narrow defile, an unknown and most difficult route over the Absaroka Mountains reaching an elevation of nearly 10,000 feet. Scout Fisher followed them and later said it was “the roughest country I ever undertook to pass through. About every foot of it was obstructed with dead and fallen timber and huge blocks of granite.”

After Fisher and his Bannock scouts had a skirmish with the rear guard of the Nez Perce, they broke off the chase and turned back to report to General Howard. Howard then crossed the Yellowstone River by an easier route and reached the northeast corner of the park at Clark’s Fork on September 7. He then continued down the Clark’s Fork River expecting to trap the Nez Perce between his force and that of Sturgis waiting below.

On September 8, Looking Glass reached a point six miles from Sturgis’s force on top of a ridge and observed the soldiers far below. To hide the tribe’s 2,000 horses and 700 people while on the march, Looking Glass took them on a route going south toward the Shoshone River, then milled their horse herd in a big circle to confuse their trail. They then stole back north on a route concealed by heavy timber, and descended one thousand feet down a steep-sided slit barely wide enough to allow two horses side-by-side to the Clark’s Fork River.

Sturgis took the bait and led his soldiers away from the Clark’s Fork to the Shoshone River and the Nez Perce entered the Great Plains unopposed. Sturgis quickly realized his error and met up with Howard on September 11, but the two military forces were now two days and 50 miles behind the Natives.

“In a cleanly executed maneuver,” in the words of one military historian, “the Nez Perce had countered an extremely serious threat and won a brilliant, though temporary respite.”

In Part 4, three more conflicts and the effects of a 1,100 mile journey finally bring an end to the Nez Perce epic fight for freedom. Not surprisingly, one of America’s most arduous journeys spawned, at its end, one of the most moving speeches in American history.

The Battle of Hundred-in-the-Hands (Fetterman Fight) Part 2

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 American Indian Wars (1609 – 1924).

Here is the second installment of one such confrontation commonly known as the Fetterman Fight.

Summary of Part 1

(NOTE: In Part 1, I wrongly stated that the Fetterman Fight was the worst calamity the U.S. Army suffered at the hands of Native American warriors. As readers have pointed out, the Fetterman Fight was in fact the worst defeat of the U.S. Army west of the Mississippi up to that time. I apologize for the error.)

From 1864 to 1866, 3,500 miners, settlers and others traversed the Bozeman Trail (initially navigated by mountain man Jim Bridger) that connected Montana gold rush territory to the Oregon Trail through Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho hunting grounds. The trespassing persisted despite warnings by the tribes to turn back. Native allies reacted with violence.

Raids and skirmishes by the Lakota continued until June 1866 when the U. S. Interior Department called on Lakota leaders, including Chief Red Cloud, to meet at Fort Laramie for a treaty that would ensure security of passage on the Bozeman Trail.

Incursions into Lakota territory continued during the negotiations. Enraged, Red Cloud accused the U.S. of bad faith, refused to sign the treaty, and developed plans to eject all intruders by force.

See Part 1 for greater detail. And now…

Enter Crazy Horse

Crazy Horse

On December 21, 1866, Lakota forces and their allies faced Colonel Henry B. Carrington at Fort Phil Kearny (in northeast Wyoming near present-day Banner) in the opening round of what became known as Red Cloud’s War (1866 – 1868).

The fight was on, and the success of the upcoming battle depended on Crazy Horse.

Crazy Horse (Tasunke Witco) was born into the Oglala band of Lakota around 1840. By the time Crazy Horse was in his mid-teens he had become a full-fledged warrior. In time, he became the most renowned Oglala warrior and earned acclaim as a brilliant tactician.

Crazy Horse, of slight build and light brown hair, was known to be shy, modest, and generous. He was personally aloof, but in battle, his leadership, innovative tactics, and courage were without equal. Crazy Horse always rode into battle dressed as he had seen in a vision: a single hawk feather in his hair and a small brown stone behind his ear. A lightning symbol on his face and white hail spots painted on his limbs completed a battle uniform that provided spiritual power and protection.

Crazy Horse’s warrior spirit is best described by his cousin Black Elk, “When I was a man, my father told me Crazy Horse dreamed and went into the world where there is nothing but the spirits of all things. That is the real world that is behind this one, and everything we see here is something like a shadow from that world. He was on his horse in that world, and the horse and himself on it and the trees and the grass and the stones and everything were made of spirit, and nothing was hard, and everything seemed to float. His horse was standing still there, and yet it danced around like a horse made only of shadow, and that is how he got his name, which does not mean that his horse was crazy or wild, but in his vision it danced around in that queer way. It was this vision that gave him his great power, for when he went into a fight, he had only to think of that world to be in it again, so that he could go through anything and not be hurt. Until he was killed at the Soldiers’ Town on White River, he was wounded only twice, once by accident and both times by one of his own people when he was not expecting trouble and was not thinking; never by an enemy.”

The non-accidental wounding of Crazy Horse by his own people is worthy of an aside: In the fall of 1870, Crazy Horse invited the married Black Buffalo Woman to accompany him on a buffalo hunt. She was the wife of No Water, who had a reputation for drinking too much and, by Lakota custom, moving in with another man was equivalent to divorce.

No Water tracked down Crazy Horse at the hunting camp. When he found them in a teepee, he called Crazy Horse’s name from outside. When Crazy Horse answered, No Water aimed in. Touch the Clouds (Maȟpíya Íyapat’o), Crazy Horse’s cousin, knocked the pistol upward, deflecting the bullet to Crazy Horse’s upper jaw. Crazy Horse’s relatives chased No Water, but cooler heads convinced Crazy Horse and No Water that no more blood should be shed. As compensation, No Water paid Crazy Horse three horses. Because Crazy Horse was with a married woman, however, he was stripped of his title as Shirt Wearer (a small group of distinguished community leaders who made decisions about hunting grounds, campsites, and war) for the moral indiscretion.

The Setup

“These soldiers don’t know anything about fighting Indians.” Jim Bridger’s forewarning proved to be foretelling.

Struck by the foolish impulsiveness of soldiers, Crazy Horse devised a ruse to draw soldiers out of the fort by dismounting from his horse and fleeing as if he were defenseless. Then, troops would be drawn into an ambush where nearly every well-known chief of the seven Lakota bands waited.

On a cold and snow-covered December day, Crazy Horse, protected by his enchanted stone and warpaint, charged into view of the fort with ten mounted Lakota and Cheyenne warriors and attacked the wood cutters. When Carrington fired artillery at them, the decoys ran away as if frightened.

Carrington ordered a relief detachment, composed of forty-nine infantrymen, twenty-seven mounted troopers, three officers, and two civilians under Captain William J. Fetterman. Carrington was so concerned about Fetterman’s zeal for combat that he gave explicit, detailed orders, twice, that under no circumstance was Fetterman to cross Lodge Trail Ridge in pursuit of Indians.

Fetterman went northeast directly toward the southern end of Lodge Trail Ridge. Carrington wrote in his official report that Fetterman was “evidently moving wisely up the creek and along the southern slope on Lodge Trail Ridge, with good promise of cutting off the Indians.”

Trailing Fetterman, Lt. George W. Grummond led a small cavalry detail in support of the infantry. Carrington very publicly ordered Grummond to report to Fetterman, obey his orders, and not leave him. Carrington had good reason to be concerned about Grummond whose military record included a court-martial for violent drunkenness and a history of failing to follow orders.

Grummond and twenty-seven cavalrymen caught up to the infantry about a half-mile out. Fetterman was soon joined by the post quartermaster, Captain Fred Brown, and two armed civilian employees, bringing his force to eighty men. When Fetterman reached the crest of Lodge Trail Ridge, he stopped.

The decoys’ taunting continued. Big Nose, a Cheyenne brave, rode back and forth in front of the infantry and mounted troops, as they bunched on Lodge Trail Ridge. The soldiers fired, but Big Nose continued his taunt before riding down trail toward Piney (Peno) Creek. Grummond and the mounted troops pursued Big Nose, leaving the marching men behind.

Fire Thunder, a sixteen-year-old Lakota warrior reported later, “The decoys came running down the road between us, and the soldiers on horseback followed shooting.”

Fetterman had lost control of his command. What went through his mind as he stood at the crest of Lodge Trail Ridge watching Grummond race downhill after the decoys? Would he face professional embarrassment, or worse, by his lack of leadership? Should he disobey orders and salvage the situation by following, then killing ten Indians in the glory of battle? Did he, a Civil War veteran, consider the unthinkable: leave Grummond and his men to fend for themselves and risk accusations of cowardice? We will never know, but it is likely he marched beyond the ridge following his ethical duty to support the men on horseback.

Once Fetterman and the infantry were beyond the ridge, the Native decoys, now a mile north at Piney Creek, signaled the hidden forces by dividing into two parties, separating, riding a short distance in opposite directions, then turning back and crossing each other.

At just past noon, the door slammed shut.

Ambush

Lakota warrior White Bull (Tȟatȟáŋka Ská) saw the decoy signal and cried out, “We must start!” Twelve hundred Indians lining both sides of the trail leaped on their horses yelling war cries and followed a plan they had developed and practiced for weeks.

Back at the Fort

When the shooting started, Carrington heard the shots coming from Piney Creek, but could see nothing. When the firing increased, Carrington feared the worst. Carrington directed Captain Tenedor Ten Eyck to move immediately with some infantry, then began organizing his own relief detail.

The Fetterman Fight consisted of three concurrent but separate actions on a battlefield stretching one mile from Lodge Trail Ridge in the south to Piney Creek in the north.

The mass attack fragmented Grummond’s detachment at Piney Creek. Fighting started nearby and ended at large boulders, now called the Wheatley-Fisher Rocks. A second skirmish developed four hundred yards uphill where a group of Army riders rallied under Grummond. Simultaneously, the fight with Fetterman’s infantry, the third conflict, began one mile uphill near Lodge Trail Ridge. There, another group of large boulders, now engraved as Fetterman Rocks, sit where the infantry had gathered to defend themselves.

Fight at the Wheatley-Fisher Rocks (Piney Creek)

Shocked by the sudden appearance of hundreds of warriors, fifteen mounted men retreated to the sparse cover of the Wheatley-Fisher Rocks under a hail of arrows. In this group were the civilian employees of the fort, John Wheatley and John Fisher, armed with new breech loading, rifles.

Eats Meat, a Lakota brave, rode his horse through the soldiers at the rocks and was the first killed. Mounted braves circled the rocks in numbers so great that, despite the accurate shooting of the two civilians and veteran soldiers, the fight at Wheatley-Fisher Rocks did not last long. Ten soldiers and two civilians died.

Three survivors escaped uphill to join Grummond. The last trooper to die at the rocks may have been Adolph Metzger, an unarmed teenage bugler who used his instrument as a weapon until it was battered shapeless. As was the custom, the Natives honored Metzger by not mutilating his body. Instead, they protected him with a buffalo robe over his corpse as a tribute to his bravery.

The next day, a burial party discovered sixty-five pools of clotted blood, presumed Native, in the snow. Ten Indian ponies lay dead within a few hundred yards of the rocks. Congressional Investigator John B. Sanborn reported the next spring that fifty expended cartridges were next to one of the dead civilians who had been using 16-shot Henry repeating rifles.

In the second conflict, while the Natives were annihilating the men at the Wheatley-Fisher position, Lieutenant Grummond and his remaining mounted troops (his command had been split by the mass attack), including Captain Brown, took position on the slope four hundred yards above the Wheatley-Fisher position. Stationary at first, Grummond understood he could not save his soldiers at the rocks and the only chance of survival was to join Fetterman three-quarters of a mile up an icy slope.

Lieutenant George Grummond

Grummond Fight

Grummond led his survivors pulling their stumbling horses up the icy hill while firing at the Indians surrounding them. Some troopers scrambled without mounts; they had killed them earlier to provide cover from the unrelenting arrows and rifle fire. At first, the steepness of the hill and a layer of ice and snow offered hope of escape because the slippery footing slowed Native attempts to follow the unmounted troops. That sliver of advantage was lost when the warriors approached close enough to stab and slice with razor-edged knives, or break limps and bash skulls with war clubs. Five soldiers died. Grummond was killed after he decapitated at least one warrior with his saber.

Captain Fred H. Brown

Captain Brown and a dozen surviving mounted soldiers were finally able to escape and gallop uphill to reinforce Fetterman who, by then, was cut off, surrounded, outnumbered, and fighting for his life.

For more, see Part 3, coming soon…

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)

“Romero knew he was on his own.”

Here is the latest review I have received for Animal Parts from the US Review of Books:

Peter Romero, an officer with the Cochiti Pueblo Police Department, has been having a hard enough time as it is lately, what with a struggling marriage and local officials breathing down his neck. But his life is really thrown for a loop when he not only is tasked with killing a cougar who has attacked hikers, but also the cougar shows up in his bed still very much alive. The cat wants revenge for his murdered mate and cub, and he wants Romero’s help. Romero then finds himself embroiled in a thrilling mystery that involves everything from poaching, a black market for animal organs and parts, windigos, and even murder. With the help of the cougar as well as the spiritual world, Peter must find the key to solving the mystery. 

This book certainly hits the ground running, forcing readers to hold on as they go through this whirlwind mystery and thriller. This is a story that both captivates the audience and compels them to hold their breath with each turn of the page. It even comes complete with a twist ending. Though this story may be the third installment in the series, it still provides the juicy details that fans of the previous books are looking for without ignoring the desire of luring in a new audience. Readers will fall in love with not only the thrilling adventure the author has invited them into but also the character of Romero. He is a uniquely complex and competent character that readers will definitely be rooting for.

Buy at: https://www.amazon.com/Animal-Parts-Romero-Mystery-Mysteries-ebook/dp/B01D8WETEO/ref=sr_1_1?dchild=1&keywords=animal+parts+knop&qid=1593367613&s=books&sr=1-1

Anatomy of Disaster: The Villasur Massacre

World War Zero

Between 1689 and 1763, there were no less than four colonial wars (often called World War Zero) involving France, Britain, Spain, and their respective colonies. These conflicts were expressions of European competition over balance of power, expansionism, mercantilism, and Native American alliances.

In the summer of 1720, colonial New Mexico Governor Antonio Valverde y Cosío found himself entangled in one episode of these international conflicts: the early days of America’s longest (1622 – 1924) and deadliest war (40 million deaths), The Indian Wars.

The Set-Up

Governor Valverde had a problem. Rumors circulated in the Southwest that French troops planned to seize Santa Fe’s gold and silver mines. A recent expedition had reported the French were bribing Pawnee, Otoe, and Missourias with gifts, including firearms, to guarantee their loyalty. Quite often, colonists dreaded other European powers more than they feared their Native American neighbors, and these stories kept frontier Spaniards on edge, especially Valverde.

After relaying his concerns to the viceroy in Mexico City, Valverde appointed his own lieutenant governor, Pedro de Villasur, to lead a long-range scouting expedition eastward to seek out and put an end to French mischief. On June 16, 1720, a well-armed military excursion departed Santa Fe with both Valverde’s and Villasur’s expectations that this mission could be easily accomplished.

Villasur’s force was composed of forty-two regular soldiers from Santa Fe’s royal presidio and sixty Pueblo fighting men under their own war captain. Father Juan Minguez, Indian interpreter José Naranjo, and the French-speaking Juan L’Archiveque accompanied the force. Villasur also used the Pawnee Francisco Sistaca, a Spanish slave, as interpreter to local tribes until the man disappeared.

Villasur guided his men to Taos, crossed over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, then angled northeast to the Great Bend of the Arkansas River in today’s central Kansas. From there the Spanish cut northward to the Platte River and followed it downstream to the junction with the Loup River in eastern Nebraska where the Spaniards came upon large numbers of Pawnee and Otoe. Negotiations lasted for several days, with the Indians growing increasingly hostile.

Out-numbered, Villasur withdrew his men upriver to just south of modern-day Columbus, Nebraska, camping next to tall grass and trees on August 13. The horses were turned out to graze and sentinels posted for the night. Sixty Pueblo allies, perhaps distrustful of the lax security, encamped separately nearby.

The Battle

Pawnee and Otoe warriors attacked at dawn the next morning. The Spanish were asleep at this hour and it is possible the deserter Sistaca had given his brother Pawnee this critical intelligence.

Accompanied by heavy musket fire and punishing flights of arrows, the Natives charged into combat clad only in warpaint, headbands, moccasins, and short leggings. In a brief battle thirty-six Spaniards died. Villasur was killed in front of his tent. Chaplain Minguez fell while rushing to his aid. L’Archiveque, Naranjo, and ten Pueblo scouts also died that day.

Among the Spaniards, only one officer and a dozen soldiers escaped alive, along with fifty of the Pueblo allies. The escape to Santa Fe stretched roughly 600 miles and the sixty-three survivors nearly perished by the time they reached the edge of New Mexico. Friendly Jicarilla Apaches rescued and accompanied them to Santa Fe.

After Interviewing the survivors, Valverde was alarmed to hear that the Indians had been carrying a French flag during the battle. Further, some of the returning Spaniards claimed to have seen Frenchmen in uniform (37 are depicted in Segesser II. See Figure 1.) fighting alongside Pawnee and Otoe warriors.

The fate of the Villasur force had become one of the most grievous episodes in New Mexico’s colonial period. The slaughtered soldiers represented more than a third of the royal garrison, and Santa Fe went into mourning. Stricken, Governor Valverde, wrote in his report: “When I contemplate the fields with the spilt blood of those who were the most excellent soldiers in all this realm … my heart is broken.”

Aftershock

Subsequently, many Spaniards questioned Valverde’s decision to allow the inexperienced Villasur to lead such an important mission. Authorities in Mexico City charged Valverde with facilitating the murder of troops through the botched expedition.

After seven years of investigation, Valverde stood before a board of inquiry. The court fined Valverde, the richest man in New Mexico, two hundred pesos. A lenient judgement under the circumstances.

Nevertheless, the historic importance of the Villasur Expedition is undeniable. The defeat of the Spanish allowed France free reign in conducting trade with Native Americans in the region until the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Given this heritage, the influence of the expedition in the territorial and economic evolution of the United States is profound.

But the story does not end there.

War Pictures

Today, an extraordinary piece of art (named the Segesser after a previous owner) remains a visible connection to the event that rocked New Mexico long-ago. In 1988, supporters of the Santa Fe Palace of Governors and the state acquired the 17-foot-long 137 square-foot painting on bison hide under the slogan “Save Our Hides.”

Figure 1. Segesser I (Top) and II Panels

The artwork, painted by contemporary artists from survivors’ testimony, consists of two sections. Segesser I (at the top of Figure 1), depicts a fight between Spanish-allied Pueblo Indians and Plains Apache, that occurred sometime between 1693 and 1719. Segesser II (at the bottom of Figure 1), illustrates the Villasur Massacre. Below, the faded paintings have been reproduced for better viewing.

In Figure 2, uniformed soldiers fire at an enemy to the right. Mounted fighters are the Spanish and their Indian allies.

Figure 2. French Fighters

In Figure 3, Villasur lies mortally wounded behind his white tent (lower left). The blue-robed and wounded Chaplain Minguez (center) runs to deliver last rites before his own death. In the same frame, brightly painted and naked Plains Indians fight French soldiers wear European-style uniforms and tricorn hats.

Figure 3. Indian Fighters

Figure 4 shows the New Mexico force’s last stand. Spanish defenders, Soldado de Cuera – leather jacket soldiers – hold bull hide shields and wear period hats. Muskets of the day, Miquelet-lock flintlocks, were normally fired from the hip.

Figure 4. Spanish Fighters

Native Americans demonstrated, as they were to prove repeatedly, they were a military force to be reckoned with and a serious obstacle to Euro-American westward expansion.

The artwork is not only a rare example of the earliest known depictions of colonial life in the United States, they carry the very faces of men whose descendants live in New Mexico today. The Segesser hides are on display in the New Mexico History Museum, Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe.

For more information: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2w5t5OhSPyE or

http://nmhistorymuseum.org/hides/

The U.S. Army’s Worst Indian Catastrophe?

Custer’s Last Stand. The Worst Disaster?

A swirling mass of feathered, painted men and horses. The whistle of bullets and arrows. The coppery smell of blood and acrid odor of burned gun powder. The co-mingled screams of men and horses. The shrill wail of trumpets drowned by the ululating trill of warriors tasting victory. A last stand of men in blue, then the silence of a terrible peace on a hillside in June, 1876.

Today, when Americans read or hear about the Indian Wars, they are routinely exposed to a Hollywood version with familiar names like Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and George Armstrong Custer. All three fought at The Battle of the Little Bighorn where Custer and five of his cavalry companies lost their lives.

The battle, mythologized in our national memory, is correctly described as a calamity, but is Custer’s Last Stand the worst Army disaster inflicted by Native Americans?

Eighty-five years prior, on a day so cold, men loaded musket balls with their lips instead of frozen fingers, the new U.S. Army was handed its most decisive (and little known) defeat by Indians. Near present-day Fort Recovery, Ohio, an Indian confederacy humiliated the young Army at the Battle of the Wabash, commonly referred to as St. Clair’s Defeat. Of nearly 1,100 soldiers, militia, and camp followers, only 24 were unharmed – a casualty rate three times that of the Little Bighorn.[1]

For comparison, let’s review the two conflicts in reverse order:

The Little Bighorn, June 1876

The Set-up

After gold was discovered in South Dakota’s Black Hills in 1875, the U.S. Army ignored existing treaties and invaded the region. As a consequence, many Sioux and Cheyenne left their reservations to join Lakota leaders Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse in Montana. By late spring of 1876, more than 10,000 Native Americans had gathered in a camp along the Little Bighorn River in defiance of a War Department order to return. In mid-June, three columns of U.S. soldiers marched to enforce the order. The Sioux turned back the first column on 17 June at the Battle of the Rosebud. Brigadier General Alfred Terry then ordered Custer’s 7th Cavalry to scout ahead for enemy troops.

The Battle

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Edgar Samuel Paxson’s depiction of the Battle of Little Bighorn

On the evening of 24 June after an overnight march, Custer’s Crow and Arikara scouts arrived at an overlook above the Little Bighorn River. At sunrise, the scouts, reported a massive pony herd and signs of a big village 18 miles distant. Custer prepared for attack but did not order further reconnaissance, fearing he may have already been discovered.

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Brigadier General (Lieutenant Colonel) George Armstrong Custer

Despite incomplete intelligence on enemy size (Lakota, Dakota, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe may have numbered as many as 2,500 warriors) Custer divided his 12 companies of cavalry in preparation for an attack on the morning of 25 June. Three companies each were placed under the command of Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen. Five remained under Custer (one other company had previously been assigned to escort the pack train).

At mid-day, Reno attacked the village intent on capturing the women and children as hostage. Word spread quickly. Sitting Bull rallied warriors to protect the helpless. Crazy Horse set off with a large force to meet the Americans head on (accounts from this point vary).

Custer’s men, inexperienced and exhausted from the overnight march, were overwhelmed and retreated to a nearby hilltop. Troopers of the 7th Cavalry put up a dogged defense. A group of braves attacked the cavalrymen from the north in a surprise charge causing panic while the attackers counted coup with lances, coup sticks, and quirts. Nevertheless, soldiers defending the northern portion of Custer’s field inflicted most of the Indian casualties in a tenacious defense. Although some soldiers ran, they ultimately fought as long as they could.

Custer’s troops were annihilated within an hour of engagement. Indian warriors termed this segment of the fight a buffalo run and called it a last stand.

Lakota and Cheyenne forces then regrouped to attack Reno and Benteen hunkered on hills nearby. The fight continued until dark and for much of the next day. On 27 June, reinforcements under General Terry arrived and Native forces withdrew.

The Aftermath

Of 647 men in the 7th Cavalry, 16 officers, 242 troopers,18 men who fought with Reno and Benteen, and 10 Indian scouts were lost. The Custer family made up nearly one-third of the total officers killed: Custer, two of his brothers, his brother-in-law, and a nephew.

As so often happens, the military scrambled to find a scapegoat. Custer was faulted for dividing his command prior to battle (an accepted mode for attacking villages) and of attacking too early (a curious accusation given Custer’s promotions for daring during the Civil War). Major Reno and Captain Benteen were criticized for disobeying Custer’s orders and failing to help. Indian agents were reproached for under-reporting the number of warriors off the reservations.[2]

Left nearly destitute in the aftermath of her husband’s death, Libbie, Custer’s wife, became an outspoken defender of his legacy. Largely as a result of her books and lectures, Custer’s image as the gallant fallen hero amid the glory of Custer’s Last Stand has persevered in American cultural memory.

Battle of the Wabash, November 1791

The Set-up

The treaty ending the Revolutionary War recognized United States sovereignty of all land east of the Mississippi River and south of the Great Lakes. Indian leaders such as Little Turtle and Blue Jacket refused to recognize American claims to the area northwest of the Ohio River. As a consequence, during the mid and late 1780’s, American settlers suffered approximately 1,500 deaths by hostile Natives. Whites often retaliated, adding to the cycle of violence.

President George Washington ordered Major General St. Clair, Governor of the Northwest Territory, to crush Little Turtle’s Miami tribe. Preparations at Fort Washington (present-day Cincinnati, Ohio) were slowed, however, by logistics and supply problems. Additionally, new recruits were poorly paid, trained, disciplined, food supplies were substandard, and horses were short in number and of poor quality.

ArthurStClairOfficialPortrait-restored
Major General Arthur St. Clair (Library of Congress)

The expedition, consisting of regular and levy troops, set out in October 1791 with the objective of Kekionga, capital of the Miami tribe, near present-day Fort Wayne, Indiana. General St. Clair, sick with gout, had difficulty maintaining order. Indians shadowed his force. Snow and frigid temperatures slowed the march. This combination of morale-degrading conditions had devastating effect: desertion dwindled the force from two thousand to around 1,120 men and camp followers.

While St. Clair lost soldiers, Little Turtle’s Western Confederacy, consisting of Miami, Shawnee, Delaware, and Potawatomi, added numbers bringing the total to more than 1,500 warriors.[3] In a prelude to the War of 1812, most Indian nations sided with the British against the U.S. Accordingly, British military officers accompanied Little Turtle as advisors.

CAM240Plate21

The Battle

On the evening of 3 November, St. Clair’s force established a camp on a wooded hill near present-day Fort Recovery, Ohio, 58 miles northwest of Dayton. Warriors waited until dawn, then struck after the soldiers had stacked their weapons and gone to breakfast.

Advised by his British officers, Little Turtle directed his first attack at the militia, who fled across a stream without their weapons. The regulars immediately grabbed their own muskets and fired a volley into the Indians, forcing them back. Little Turtle flanked the regulars and closed on them. St. Clair’s artillery wheeled into position, but Indian sharpshooters dropped the gun crews.

Colonel William Darke ordered his battalion to fix bayonets and charge the main Indian position. Little Turtle’s forces retreated to the woods, then encircled Darke’s battalion, destroying it. Numerous bayonet charges met with similar results until the U.S. forces collapsed in disorder. St. Clair had three horses shot out from under him as he tried unsuccessfully to rally his men.

After three hours of fighting and faced with total annihilation, St. Clair attempted one last bayonet charge. As before, Little Turtle allowed the bayonets to pass through, but this time the soldiers ran for nearby Fort Jefferson. The Indians pursued, but broke off and returned to loot the camp of supplies and torture to death the abandoned wounded.

The main battle lasted three hours. In it, 632 military were killed and 264 wounded. Nearly all two hundred camp followers were slaughtered. While Little Turtle and Blue Jacket were the immediate victors, they would pay a future cost.

A congressional investigation found mismanagement by contractors and the Quartermaster, as well as a lack of discipline and experience in the militia. Congress eventually authorized the formation of a new army, The Legion of the United States. It would be better trained, better supplied, with a proven leader, Major General (Mad) Anthony Wayne. His first assignment: finish what St. Clair had failed to do.[4]

The Worst?

Both battles would have long-lasting impact on America’s future, politically, militarily, and for the Native American way of life.

For its part, Custer’s Last Stand turned out to be the last, large-scale Native resistance to American encroachment. The Sioux victory at the Little Bighorn serves as a brilliant end piece to 380 years of warfare but is often referred to as the Indians’ last stand.

At St Clair’s Defeat, Indians of the Old Northwest would eventually lose their traditional life-style as well, but this shining moment in Native American history yielded repercussions as far as Europe. St. Clair’s Defeat showed the world America was weak and not in control of its territory. England, France, and Spain coveted this rich and strategically important area. In a little over 20 years, the War of 1812 would follow.

While the Little Big Horn may be considered the end of the Native American era, St. Clair’s Defeat marked the beginning of the American era. The annihilation of St. Clair’s forces threatened the existence of the four-year-old U. S. government itself and created a turning point in policy by underscoring the necessity of a strong defense, an issue relevant to this day. Consequently, a re-energized American military sealed the ultimate fate of Native Americans as the United States developed into the predominate force in North America.

The 7th cavalry suffered a 52% casualty rate with 286 killed and 49 wounded at the Little Bighorn, but the casualty rate at St. Clair’s Defeat was substantially higher with 88% officers lost and 97% enlisted dead or wounded (most non-ambulatory wounded died) for a total of over 900 military and civilian casualties, more than any battle of the Revolutionary War or conflict up to the Civil War.[5] Approximately one-quarter of the entire U.S. Army had been wiped out.

Libbie’s campaign, Hollywood lore, and popular opinion aside, when viewed strictly from a military standpoint, St Clair’s Defeat, the forgotten battle, stands as Native Americans’ most ruinous victory over the U.S. Army.

[1] Anton Truer, The Indian Wars, (Washington D. C.: National Geographic Society, 2016) 94

[2] Wikipedia contributors, “Battle of the Little Bighorn,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Battle_of_the_Little_Bighorn&oldid=814226714(accessed December 11, 2017).

[3] Christine Keller et al, Archeology of The Battles of Fort Recovery, Mercer County, Ohio: Education And Protection (Muncie, Indiana: Ball State University, Dec 2011) 14

[4] Truer, 95

[5] John F. Winkler, Wabash 1791 St Clair’s Defeat, (Oxford, U.K.: Osprey Publishing, 2011) 5